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A Land of a Thousand Pumpkins

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Sometimes I'm tempted to negotiate with God like Abraham did: "How about if there's 25 of your people left in town, Lord—are you going to burn it down? How about 20? What might you do if there were, say, only 15?"

I'm a professor, and life at small colleges in these days of economic shrinkage is more than slightly precarious. Year after year, we've got to restock the chairs with sufficient warm bodies to pay the bills because students are our stock in trade. That we are a bona-fide institution of higher learning (break into the alma mater here) doesn't mean we're not a business. Here, as anywhere, there is a bottom line.

So we do what one can to get the students here, and when times get tough—as they are now—we ratchet up the marketing and try our best to do even more. The hot button these days is "scholarshipped extracurriculars," students who may be attracted to Sweet Valley College in great part because they want to play lacrosse or get on stage or write for the newspaper. We're in Iowa, not Maui, and there are cornfields all around. But the theory goes like this: if we pay them enough for a role in musical theater, they'll at least give us a look and maybe even enroll. Let's get to work.

At a committee huddle last fall, we may have drawn out the next play, but it didn't make for a pleasant confab. If we don't get 400 freshmen, we're told, there will have to be changes, a mandate that translates into staff reductions. It means good friends heading out of town leaving behind just as much work and fewer of us. Without warm bodies, we'll have to reduce spending by whacking a few positions and hiring adjuncts. It's all a matter of dollars and cents, and it's not rocket science.

So I came away from the meeting depressed. I slumped in a chair, saying to myself, "How about 390 freshmen? Can we sidestep the slashing with, say, 385?"

After school the next day, my wife and I went to Pumpkinland, on orders from my six-year-old grandson, who was lamenting loudly and enviously that he still hadn't been there yet, even though his big sister had. The truth is, I can take or leave Pumpkinland, but for him there's something about a thousand pumpkins, a corn maze, and a petting zoo, all of it a much-treasured kid's cocktail of joy. Not long ago, he made it clear that he really had to get there and get there soon. "Pumpkinland is my favorite place in the whole world," he said. We smiled and made a promise.

So we took him one day—his grandma and I—because the sun was shining. We hauled him out there to the cats and the rabbits and puppies and sheep and what not, the land of a thousand pumpkins. After all, orange is his favorite color. He even begs his grandma for extra carrots to take home after Sunday dinner.

When the pressures get tough—and when aren't they?—we all need our Pumpkinlands, a place to go to pet a cat, to play a game, to watch a sunset, to reconnoiter. We all need a place to go to remember that our lives and our destinies are so much bigger, even, than our business, an eternity of a thousand pumpkins.

Questions for personal reflection, online discussion, or small groups:

• What pressures are you facing at work or at home or in your community?
• Do you have a place of refuge (a Pumpkinland) where you can rest?
• For more about serving God in education, read our interview with Parker Palmer about professional integrity and courage.

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