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An Episcopal, co-educational 100% boarding school in Middletown, Delaware for grades 9 – 12

On Mentors and Timelessness
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Classics Department Chair Phil Walsh

Classics Department Chair Phil Walsh gave this talk on Wednesday, March 20. 

For Dave DeSalvo, my mentor at St. Andrew’s; and for the late John Higgins, math teacher at St.  Andrew’s from 1980 to 2012, and Rev. DeSalvo’s mentor once upon a time 

From time to time, folks ask me what my favorite Latin word is. Some of them may know a little Latin, so they expect me to say semper or fortasse or celeriter. All are fabulous adverbs, and in fact my favorite word is also an adverb, but it is underappreciated when compared with semper (always), fortasse (perhaps), and celeriter (quickly). My favorite is one of Latin’s little words – just three letters long – but it’s one of the most powerful and profound words I know. My favorite Latin word is iam – spelled I-A-M. 

I’ve studied ancient languages for a long time, and I have yet to encounter a word that’s so small yet so mighty, so meaningful, so multitudinous. Iam, you see, has a superpower; it’s a word that can transcend time. What I mean by this is that used with a present tense verb, iam means “now, at this very time” (I am talking now). With a past tense verb, iam means “already, a while ago” (I was already talking). With a future tense verb, iam means “then” (after I stand, I will then talk). These are the rules of Latin grammar, and iam – unlike any other little word that  I know – defies human constructions of time and exists in a lofty, ethereal timelessness. Henri Matisse channels the power of iam in The Red Studio (1911), which you will find on the back of tonight’s bulletin. The painting is an experiment in color, perspective, and dimensionality, but it is also a meditation on the creative process. If you look carefully, in a room full of canvases, sculptures, and furniture, Matisse places in the middle of things a grandfather clock with no hands.  

To create art, then, is to escape time, and as a humanist, I’m always thinking about past and present, impermanence and eternity, memory and self-knowledge. This year I’ve been teaching a lot of books that explore these themes: in English 4, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In Latin, my juniors and seniors are reading Vergil’s Aeneid, and we’ve recently emerged from the labyrinthine  Underworld, where all notions of past, present, and future collapse. In my history class on  ancient Athens, we’ve been considering the project of history as Thucydides writes a narrative not “to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.”1 And, of course, all of us have given time to this chapel space, where, for nearly one hundred years, the rituals of worship and wonder, of service and spirit, of πίστις καὶ ἐπιστήμη (faith and learning), have begun, ended, and then begun again. 

However, the initial logic of this talk took shape on Thursday, October 19th, 2023, the Thursday before Parents Weekend, when I left my home of eight years, St. Andrew’s, to travel back home to Providence, Rhode Island, where I lived for six years. The occasion was a retirement celebration for Professor Arnold Weinstein, who taught comparative literature at  Brown University for fifty-four academic years.2 Arnold is one of my great mentors. I served as his teaching assistant for six semesters, and I watched him lecture to hundreds of undergraduate students, inspiring them to read and appreciate some of the most challenging and fascinating texts in world literature. A brilliant and eloquent communicator, Arnold had the rare gift of engaging the familiar in new ways while making the unfamiliar accessible and exciting. He was also a exemplary teacher. Every week, he would meet with us, his teaching assistants, and in these dialogic sessions, we pressed him to elaborate on his ideas, while he solicited our views. Arnold modeled interdisciplinary thinking, showed us the significance of synthesis, and encouraged us to be unafraid of improvisation. This last point, it seems to me, is an essential component of great teaching, and I am grateful to Arnold for having the chance to develop it in his classes.

So it was my pleasure to drive to Providence on Thursday afternoon, spend Friday at Brown, attend Arnold’s celebration, and then drive back to Delaware in the middle of the night in order to make my first conference at 8:30 on Saturday morning. It was a dizzying, emotional odyssey, and one that has stuck with me ever since. On Friday morning I arrived at Brown to have breakfast with one of my buddies from graduate school, Derek. After we parted ways, I was walking up the street when, to my surprise, someone shouted, “Dr. Walsh!” I spied Gavin Green ’22, one of my former Latin students, who rushed over to say hello. We had a joyful conversation: he told me about Division I rowing and life as a college sophomore. I then went to have lunch with Will Vogel ’22, and we talked about politics, history, artificial intelligence, Sigmund Freud, and Greek tragedy.

By that point the word on the street was that I was on College Hill, and the direct messages started arriving. I met up with Albert Sung ’23, and I listened as he explained linear algebra to me and needing to work really hard to keep up with talented peers. I reminded Albert that he himself is an incredibly hard-working, talented young person, and I encouraged  him to trust his instincts and the learning process. William Yu ’22 was next. We connected and walked up Thayer St., where we bumped into Zach Atalay ’23. Then Andrew Park ’21 messaged to say hello, but by that point I needed to get dinner with Derek and some other old friends.

Long story short, I was visiting Brown to celebrate my dear mentor. I was joined by several peers, a few of whom I hadn’t seen in many years. We spent quality time with Arnold and chatted with other professors and staff. I was gratified to see so many of my former St. Andrew’s students, who were very eager to greet me. However, in the days following, I was struck by waves of sweet-bitter nostalgia and twinges of sadness. I kept thinking about a philosophical fragment attested to Herakleitos: “The river which we stepped into is not the river  in which we stand.”3 Brown, my beloved home, is the same, and yet it is not. Arnold and my old friends are the same people, but they are not. Those St. Andrew’s alumni march on, but they too are different from when they sat in the very pews you’re sitting in right now. I myself am the same person who graduated from Brown in 2008, and I’m not. But instead of wallowing in existential indeterminacy, I’m filled with great joy and optimism because these folks are a part  of me; and I, of them. When I was young professor, I used to joke that whenever I was in a classroom, Arnold’s voice was always in my head. I still use that line from time to time, and as I’ve gotten older, my intention is less to elicit a laugh and more to tell a story of a wise mentor to  whom I am forever fused.

That, I think, is the magnitude of mentorship. One of the insights I gained during my trip to Brown was how dynamic and lasting the relationship between a mentor and mentee is. Mentors teach, advise, coach, and minister; mentees watch, listen, reflect, and learn. At some point the mentee is ready to strike out into the world, or the mentor moves on. Perhaps they are no longer physically proximate, but a timeless bond is established. Arnold, in his most recent book, describes this idea as a “living chain”: for him, that chain includes a high school English teacher, a professor at Princeton, his students, and even the books that he teaches.I’m a part of that chain and so are many folks in this space like Rev. DeSalvo, whose loving spirit always brings me peace and purpose. That chain also includes my students – past, present, and future – who understand the transformative power of words and ideas.

This chain of teaching and learning ensures that Arnold’s voice will continue. It also  ensures that my voice will carry forward, rippling through and echoing back in the years to  come as my students, friends, and colleagues go out into the world and make the change they want to see. They are a part of me; and I, of them, and at this point I should reveal that iam has another superpower – this one hidden in plain sight. Yes, iam is iam (now, already, then), but iam is also “I am”: the English first person singular, a muscular declaration of presence, a miraculous exclamation of existence, a defiant vow of being. “I am,” of course, is inextricably linked to what is past and what is to come: “I was” and “I will be.” In life and in literature, we become “I am” not through an intense focus on ourselves, but through our relationships with others: the communities that we create, the mentors that we seek out, the families that we cherish, and the real and fictional worlds that we explore. In other words, we become “I am” by acknowledging and exalting the influence of others. I am not the center the universe. I am not, as Macbeth once soliloquized, a “poor player, / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more.”I am because of those in my life who were, who are, and who will be. 

I want to close this talk tonight by asking for your full presence, your complete nowness. This aspect of iam is the most challenging for me, and, I imagine, for most of you. It’s so easy for our minds to be distracted: to go back to last week, last month, last year; or to flash forward to tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. We can achieve presence, however, by working  together. If we think hard for the next two minutes, the hands of the grandfather clock will disappear, and we will be iam . . .

On August 31st, 2019, the Saturday before the opening of school, Rev. DeSalvo sent me a quick email of good luck. I’ve modified it slightly to suit this occasion, but the message is intact:

So here it is, the first Wednesday night chapel of the spring. I can feel the blood coursing in your veins, the anticipation, the joy. I can feel the hesitation, the anxiety, the second guessing about the spring ahead and how well-prepared (or not) you are for the challenges you are about to face. My mentor, the late John Higgins, used to write me little  notes at this time of year . . . He would write, “Remember, St. Andrew's is a high school.” He was not putting the school down, but was doing what he could to raise me up, to build my confidence . . . [that] I would be fine. It was a word he used a lot, and not lightly: “fine.”

So as we move into the spring, let us remember that St. Andrew’s is a high school. Ninth graders, you are ready to stretch yourselves as learners, athletes, artists, and ambassadors of the school. We wish you hard things because we believe in your courage, integrity, and excellence. Tenth graders, we eagerly anticipate hearing your chapel talks. Leven us with your signature wisdom, dignity, and ideas. Eleventh graders, this is the time to become who you already are: motivated, serious, and compassionate servant-leaders. You will soon be the keepers of the castle. Twelfth graders, we’ve seen your love of St. Andrew’s in the classroom, in the dining  hall, on dorm, and on the playing fields. You’ve cultivated the old flame of ethos, and you’ve earned our admiration. We are nearing the end of the race. Continue to work, compete, create,  and inspire . . . This spring is going to be awesome. All of you will be fine . . . Thank you.


1Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War 1.22 (translated by Richard Crawley): “In fine, I have written my  work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.” 

2https://www.browndailyherald.com/article/2023/10/elegant-suave-sophisticated-professor-arnold-weinstein retires-after-54-years-at-brown

3Herakleitos, 7 Greeks, trans. Guy Davenport. New York: New Directions, 1995, 169.

4Arnold Weinstein, The Lives of Literature: Reading, Teaching, Knowing. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2022, 315-6.

5Shakespeare, Macbeth V.5 (text here).

 

Photo credit: Avi Gold

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