Praying with popsicle sticks

Lyon College Chaplain Maggie Alsup shares her ritual before each fall semester.

Photo by sheri silver on Unsplash

I sit in my office with the AC down, a podcast blasting and surrounded by file folders. This means one thing: the start of the academic year is quickly approaching. It is crunch time, and I find myself in the rhythm of preparation.

I am excited and nervous, the certain mix of emotions that will result in stress dreams from now until the day that freshmen move into their new dormitories. As I await their arrival, I prepare my coursework. I have a tradition when it comes to this, one that started my first semester of teaching. I was worried that students would not want to speak in class. So, I thought back to my elementary school days when my teacher would have our names written on popsicle sticks. When we were quiet or not answering questions, she would pull a popsicle stick with a name on it, and that student was asked to add their voice to the class discussion.

I thought that this method was a good one. While I teach college students rather than elementary children, we all occasionally need a little encouragement to share our thoughts. The popsicle-stick-method went well that first semester. I didn’t really use them, but at the end of the semester, I felt I couldn’t just throw them out. I kept those popsicle sticks with names, and each semester I have added more and more to them. They are a collection for me. And each year I take the time to add a new list of names to popsicle sticks.

As I write their names, I think about what type of student they will be. Will they have a crisis of faith? Will they enjoy lectures? Will they have a life-altering first semester in college? With each name, I say a prayer for what will be and add them to their collection jar. This collection holds the hopes, the joys and the not-yet of this coming semester. It is a nice reminder for me to slow down, put aside my worries and anxieties and think about these new students and their needs or concerns.

As I prepare the popsicle sticks this year, I decide to add the names of new faculty and staff colleagues – not to call on in class but so I can say a prayer over them. I know that all systems of education have gone through major changes and shifts these last two years and higher education is no different. We’ve had a lot of retirements and changes in staffing structures, and we could all use a blessing.

As I pray and prepare for this coming year, I am ever mindful of my popsicle sticks — of the hope, the joys, the challenge, the struggles that are yet to come. And I ask for God’s guidance and support for all that we will face. This task has become a ritual for me and one that I am grateful for, for it gets me out of my mind of anxiety and into thinking about and praying for those who will be new to our community.