During the great Nor'easter of April 2007 (exactly three weeks ago!), there was a flurry of Public Safety announcements to the effect that "nonessential personnel" could stay home rather than face multi-hour commutes over flooded roads.
Naturally one wonders, "Am I essential or could they do without me?" That was never spelled out for faculty, and cynics could argue it either way, but at least indirectly one of the messages appeared to answer the question: "The academic schedule is operating as normal." Unlike students, who clearly need not be present for classes, faculty must be.
But who are the real "essential personnel"? In various ways, we all are — the place wouldn't be the same without us — but let me put in a special plug for a group that is often pretty much invisible and whose contributions are easily overlooked.
Think for a moment about the building services people who keep things running, often very early in the morning, probably for modest pay and zero recognition, if indeed they are even noticed as we go about our business. I think of Pearl Holloway, for example, who keeps the Computer Science Building shipshape. I'm an early person, and I often arrive at my office by 7:30 or 8 a.m. But I have never gotten there before Pearl has been around to empty the trash and generally straighten up the mess we left the day before. When I walk across campus at 6 a.m. to get a paper at the Wa, I often run into grounds crews, like Frank and Marco, who are already on the job, shoveling and sanding the sidewalks in the winter or repairing the ravages of the weather or cleaning up leaves and other debris so the campus is always neat. Indeed, there's a small army of essentials: wonderfully friendly and helpful people who labor in the background so we can have an easy and comfortable life here.
So what does this have to do with the Sons of Martha?
In 1922, Rudyard Kipling was commissioned to create a ceremony for graduating Canadian engineering students. This secret "Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer," which I went through in 1964, is held in early May. The only public manifestation is that Canadian engineers wear, on the little finger of the working hand, an Iron Ring symbolizing the engineering profession. Legend has it that the original iron rings were made from steel salvaged after the collapse of the Quebec Bridge in 1907, an engineering failure of such magnitude that it has not been forgotten to this day. Modern iron rings are stainless steel; mine, which predates that era, rusted for months until my finger came to an understanding with it. I often identify Canadian engineers by their rings, and I still have the one that my father received in 1931 and wore until his death.
In 1907, Kipling wrote a poem called "The Sons of Martha," which he used as part of the iron ring ceremony. His inspiration came from Luke 10:38-42. Jesus visited Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, at their home. Mary sat at the feet of Jesus to hear him speak; Martha, worried about providing for her eminent guest, complained to Jesus that Mary was not helping. Jesus chided her gently, and, in Kipling's poem, her descendants forever after are consigned to working in the background to help everyone else: the sons of Mary:
The Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part; But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest, Her Sons must wait upon Mary's Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest. It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock. It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock. It is their care that the wheels run truly; it is their care to embark and entrain, Tally, transport, and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by land and main.
Kipling's poem speaks mostly of heavy machines and those who operate mechanical systems (and of course he wrote before women engineers), but the spirit of the poem applies far beyond that. Translated into modern terms, most of us pay no attention to those who work long and hard behind the scenes with little recognition, let alone thanks. Think about them the next time that someone nearly invisible keeps the machinery working for you. Where would we be without today's sons and daughters of Martha?
They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and — the Lord He lays it on Martha's Sons! Brian Kernighan is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and is a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.