Dordt College News

It's all about awe

May 22, 2012

Schaap leaves teaching but will keep up his prolific writing

Dr. James C. Schaap always expected to be a teacher, but it was basketball that was on his mind when he arrived at Dordt as a freshman.

“I hadn’t thought much further than that I’d coach basketball and teach something,” he says.

Today Schaap remembers the spot on the sidewalk north of the old administration building where it occurred to him that teaching English was what he wanted to do. He was enrolled in a class with a thoughtful junior with whom he frequently discussed Emerson’s writings.

“I was quite taken with Emerson and as a result of our conversations, I began to think ‘I could do this all the time if I taught English,’” he says.

Five weeks of student teaching—all that was required in 1970—made him realize he’d made the right choice.Dr. James C. Schaap

“I saw that I could get kids to listen,” he says.

Following graduation, he began teaching high school in southwestern Wisconsin and loved it. He taught English, coached basketball, and took on the newspaper and the play. He recalls dressing up as Jonathon Edwards and dividing his classroom between males and females as he delivered Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Shortly after he took a position in a large Arizona school, he was named teacher-of-the-year.

Helping students find ways to connect to literature is what made and still makes teaching exciting for Schaap.

“I am increasingly less interested in having students know about iambic pentameter than learn wisdom,” he says. “I want them to understand that studying literature is not just school work, it’s about life,” he says.

When the opportunity came to teach at Dordt after only a short time in Arizona, Schaap’s principal urged him to stay, but the prospect of having more time to do his own writing was the stronger pull.

He had also watched the head basketball coach, an African American, talk directly to two African American freshmen in a way that no white coach could.

“I wanted to be able to talk that way to the people of my tribe,” he says today.

That’s why he’s given 36 years of his life to teaching at Dordt College.

“I’m deeply and powerfully Kuyperian Reformed,” he says. He became committed to Dordt College. He also grew to love the prairie around it.

That context has given him material and an environment for his writing. Over the years he’s written 25 books, penned numerous essays and stories, delivered countless speeches, and more recently, posted daily blog reflections. His books range from novels to devotionals to commissioned works. Several have been published in German, Dutch, French, or Korean. His speeches range from homilies to keynotes. His blog entries range from cultural commentary to giving thanks.

For some of his years at Dordt, Schaap opted to reduce his teaching load to have more time to write. He was grateful for the time—and he was productive. But a writer needs to live to write. Teaching and the opportunities it offered helped him be a better writer.

“Hemingway said that writing needs to be a part time job—you can’t just sit and write,” Schaap says, agreeing.

Many of Schaap’s stories begin with an anecdote “that pleads to be embellished,” something he’s noticed or heard.

“I need two things to play with—the anecdote and something else about a person,” Schaap says about his writing process. From there he creatively weaves experiences and events into stories and essays—often long before anyone else in the time zone is stirring.

“I’m a strong believer in the fact that the mind continues to work during the night,” he says. Partly because he’s had to squeeze in time to write while teaching, he often thinks about an idea before he falls asleep and then gets up between 4:30 and 5:00 to write. It usually works. The words spill onto his computer screen as fast as he can type.

Schaap has also learned to take the time to sit and look. For the past seven years, Saturday dawns find him driving or tromping through the countryside, usually with his camera, capturing in his mind and in photographs God’s amazing creation.

“What I wish to leave with my students—more than anything else is awe,” said Schaap. “I want my students to be awed by the sure knowledge that only He is God and we are not.”

Schaap is retiring, but he’ll be working as hard as ever. He needs to keep writing—something his readers will be pleased to hear.


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