Saturday, December 20, 2014

Is there a doctor in the building?

Three years ago I (Terrill) decided to begin a doctoral program in linguistics. The topic of my project would be Ik grammar. Describing Ik grammar was something I was going to do anyway as part of my SIL/Wycliffe job, so I thought I could kill two birds with one stone and get a degree for my work.

That was three years ago. In the meantime, I worked on the grammar on and off as opportunity allowed. There were a few major interruptions such as a furlough, getting Janet & Lemu, and building a new house. But thanks to consistent favorable circumstances, Amber's wonderful help, and good ol' fashioned hard work, I was able to finish writing the grammar this past July.

Last Saturday night we dropped the girls off at our friend and SIL colleague Grace Halland's house. Grace also has two adopted Ugandan children, and they were already good friends with our kids. Because we couldn't get visas for Janet and Lemu to either the US or Europe, originally Amber was going to have to stay behind while I went to defend my dissertation in Holland by myself. But a few friends encouraged us to 'do what we have to do', and Grace kindly offered to keep the girls. God bless her! Needless to say, Amber and I were just a little bit excited about having a little jaunt to Europe without children...just like olden times!

But it was actually quite hard leaving the girls. We put them to bed at Grace's house, but when they heard the vehicle start up, they both started crying inconsolably. Grace got Amber on the phone with them, and she managed to calm them down. Then we headed back to where we were staying, managed to get about four hours of sleep, and were at the airport by 3:30 am. Our first short flight was to Nairobi, Kenya. We got to see the sun rise on the way:

Sunrise heading East toward Nairobi
 After a short layover in Nairobi, we were on our way again, this time in the direction of Amsterdam. The airplane on this second flight was brand spankin' new...even the fabric of the seats smelled clean! We normally fly to and from Africa at night, so being able to see outside the plane on a clear day was a real treat! We flew north along the Rift Valley and were able to even see the familiar mountains of Ikland, which was really cool:

Mt. Morungole in the distance, which hosts many Ik villages

From there we continued north over South Sudan, Sudan, and Egypt---over the great Sahara desert. Something that really struck me this time was how much of the Earth's surface is still completely uninhabited by human beings: vast stretches of harsh landscape where perhaps only hunters and herdsmen and warriors traverse. Getting this renewed global perspective from 37,000 feet helped me gain a new understanding of both the uniqueness and limitations of our little lives among the Ik.

Popcorn or cotton-ball clouds over the Sahara
After that came the beautiful, blue Mediterranean and then the mountains of southern and central Europe. Another thing that struck me this time was that even though so much of Africa is vast, remote, and relatively 'untouched', so is much of south and central Europe! For hours we flew over mountains, where immense stretches of land still lay comparatively unspoiled by human activity.

Snow-capped Alps behind a veil of slipstream
When we landed in Amsterdam, we were met by our friend Anne, a Ugandan/Rwandan who now lives in Holland, and Sara Petrollino, another Phd student in linguistics at Leiden University. We were going to stay at Anne's home, so she drove us back to Leiden where we got settled in and treated to a delicious supper with the whole family. Anne, her husband Isaac, and their children Abigail and Mark really have become dear friends; they blessed us in so many ways. We can't thank them enough:

Dinner with the Neutebooms
This was my third and Amber's second time to Leiden. Leiden is a much smaller and quieter town than Amsterdam. But it has many charming Dutch characteristics like canals, bicycles everywhere, old buildings that lean outward, nice restaurants, etc. Though we still love Leiden, I think we are getting past the 'honeymoon' stage of cross-cultural adjustment. One thing that kind of grated on us this time was how many people would barrel past you on bikes at break-neck speeds. Another thing---especially compared to Uganda---was that everyone always seemed to be in a big hurry, hustling and bustling around like bees in a beehive. But one thing we did appreciate especially this time was how incredibly efficient and orderly everything is there. It must be a Germanic thing!

Amber and I spent a fair amount of time just walking around the city, taking in the sights and doing a little shopping here and there. Nighttime walking was fun with all the Christmas lights on:

Old World cobblestone streets

A main canal at night
Enjoying the winter-time, festive feel
If these ancient walls could talk...
If you know me and Amber, you know we love to eat. In fact it's one of our primary ways of being a tourist: We are food tourists! This time we sampled some authentic Dutch pannenkoeken, some Thai fast food, and some aMAZing Greek food:

A savory pancake at the Pannenkoekenhuis
Amber relishes a hot chocolate with REAL whipped cream
Cheap and HOT Thai food
A Greek feta gyro to DIE for
Of course besides doing some Christmas and grocery shopping and seeing friends, the main reason we went to Leiden was so I could defend my thesis and earn a doctorate degree. The time of waiting that had been counted in months and weeks was now down to days, hours, and minutes. In the US, doctoral defenses are longer and can theoretically lead to a 'pass' or 'fail' for the candidate. But in Europe, the defenses (called 'promotions') are more of a ritual, ceremony, and formality. It is not pass or fail per se. So at least I didn't need to worry about that. But at the same time, I didn't want to look like an idiot or make my supervisor ('promotor') look bad. I definitely felt the pressure building.

I managed to suppress the stress and nervousness pretty well up to the last day (Tuesday) by just not thinking about the event very much. But by Tuesday, the gravity of what I was about to go through began really weighing down on me. I didn't feel sweaty or shaky, nor was my heart beating fast. No, the stress I felt was deeper, almost beyond bodily sensation. Only I did have acid pouring into my stomach in large amounts. I tried to maintain composure by sticking to routines like a morning quiet time and my normal exercises. The hours slowly ticked by. I went out and rented my $90 tuxedo. I came back and crawled back into bed (Amber was out) because I felt weak and didn't know what else to do. Finally it was time.

The defense was held in the Academie Gebouw (Academic Building), a medieval church that was converted to serve as the first Protestant Dutch university when Spanish Catholic rule was thrown off. The setting was beautiful but imposing. In a room filled with paintings of dead men (former university presidents), I would defend my work:

Standing at the entrance to the Academie Gebouw
A cloud of scholarly witnesses
My lovely wife and I got dressed for the occasion and walked over to the Academic Building, accompanied by our Dutch SIL friend Patrick Rietveld who had kindly accepted my invitation to the defense. The long-awaited moment was at hand:

I was proud to be escorted by this beautiful woman!
Look closely: We don't dress up like this often!
Once we got to the building, my second 'paranymph', Sara Petrollino, escorted us into a waiting room. (In the Leiden tradition, each doctoral candidate is flanked by two 'paranymphs'. Their role is much like a best man or bridesmaid in a wedding. In ancient Greek culture, the paranymphs were angelic beings who escorted the bride to her wedding chamber. Rather bizarrely, the Leiden tradition is that the doctoral candidate is married to the University in the defense ceremony---Go figure. I'm not making this stuff up.) As we waited, Sara and Amber tried to assure me everything would go well. I didn't believe them. I could see my 'opposition committee' members arrive one by one in the hall and go into another room where they discussed the questions they were going to ask me.

Waiting nervously
After a few minutes, the Pedel came into the waiting room and instructed me in how things were going to go. I had to address the opposition members as hooggeleerde opponens 'highly-learned opponent' if they were professors and zeergeleerde opponens 'very learned opponent' if they were not. It was very important that I got this distinction if I needed anything else to worry about! Then we were ushered into the hall where we were seated with our backs to the audience and facing the front, across the desk where the committee would take their seats:

The academic 'altar of sacrifice'
Then came the opposition and sat down. The Rector Magnificus officially opened the proceedings, congratulating me on my hard work and handing the floor over to the first professor. One by one, six members asked me 1-2 questions each. I tried my best to answer them, but my brain felt like mush and my tongue like lead. It was a terrible sensation. To my own ears, my answers sounded like they belonged to a child. Amber assures me I did fine, so I'll choose to believe her! I gave a reasonably coherent answer to most of the questions, but one of them shut me up and down at the same time. One professor asked me what 'blind spots' my Christian faith might have created in my view of the Ik. I paused for a moment, stammered out a few disjointed (but honest) thoughts, and ended by saying "I don't know." I felt like a complete imbecile, but the professor thanked me sincerely for demonstrating intellectual honesty. So I guess if it comes to character versus intellect, I should be glad that my honest character was shown if nothing else! Time was in slow motion, but as I was halfway through a sentence, the Pedel came in quietly and then announced in a loud voice, "Hora est!". And that marked the end of the defense.

The opposition went out to deliberate on whether to grant me the degree. They came back in and announced that I had earned the doctorate! When the Rector said his was the privilege of being the first to call me 'Doctor', I couldn't help but smile a little. Then they handed me my diploma, and my supervisor closed with a 'eulogy' in which he said many kind things. I don't remember all of it, but one thing I do remember is that he said he was impressed with my love for the 'beauty of the word'. This made me feel good because I had really striven to make the Ik grammar simple, elegant, easy and delightful to short: beautiful. And I wanted to do that because I believe God values beauty and I wanted to highlight the beauty of the Ik language and confer upon it the dignity it deserves. I may not be the sharpest linguist tack in the drawer, but I do love languages and the people that speak them.

My two guardian angels

Receiving my diploma
And so that was that! After seven years of learning, three years of writing, and one hour of grueling interrogation, I was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy degree in linguistic science. Thank God! It was He who enabled me to do it and provided all the needed resources and opportunities. He used others, most especially my dear wife Amber, to push me along toward that goal. Amber and I earned this together.

I now have a Phd. So what? Stay tuned for another blog post soon in which I'll reflect on the significance of this for me, my family, and the Ik project. But from the beginning, I determined not to be defined by academic degrees. Just because I can write a grammar doesn't mean I can do anything else. Just because because I could add 'Phd' after my name doesn't mean I am wise or loving. Therefore, please remember that in answer to the question "Is there a doctor in the building?", when it comes to me, the answer is 'yes' only if it's someone's grammar that needs to be analyzed and described.


The Reeds said...

So many things to mention! What an exciting gift from God to fly over in the day time.. What a unique treat!!! And wow... that sounded stressful but congratulations! I saw pictures of the girls while you were away and it seemed like they fared well and you guys had an enjoyable time.


Larry said...

Dude, you've come a long way from throwing boxs for UPS in a north Florida college town. I remember with great fondness conversations over lunch regarding, what in the world you wanted to do with your life. This is one of my all time favorite posts. Thanks for taking us all along and walking us through the amazing experience. So glad Amber could share this experience with you... Excited Terrill to see what the next chapter holds. One thing for sure, it's one heck of a glorious story.

The Don Metzler Family said...

Terrill, Congratulations!!! Way to go. For some reason it just seems natural that another Schrock has Doctor attached to his name. :) We are proud of the accomplishment but even more proud of the humility that you display along with your God given gifts and talents. Blessings to you and Amber as you continue to serve the Ik. Looking forward to hearing about what this degree means and will help you accomplish.
Don & Phyllis

Richard and Sally Hoffman said...

Truly you have completed a journey from the first "Iyida" to the final "Hora est!" which over the past seven years must have seemed like thousands of miles, sometimes drinking draughts of delightful discovery as from the source of the Nile; at other times feeling dragged over droughty deserts of disappointment as wide as the Sahara; but at all times with your eyes faithfully fixed on your Great Shepherd, JESUS. CONGRATULATIONS and WELL DONE, Doctor Terrill and dearest Angel Amber☺️☺️.
Initially we were disappointed with the fiasco over the visas, but when we read here how the girls' enjoying their time with Grace's family has enabled JUST THE TWO OF YOU to enjoy a longed-for and intimate Christmas vacation in Europe, we realize that the LORD'S timing is really the BEST after all������.