Great Men Exist That There May Be Greater Men
“Yet, within the limits of human education and agency, we may say, great men exist that there may be greater men.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “Uses of Great Men”
Adjacent to the south apartment in Harris House is an attached screened-in porch, where my wife and I spent most of our first four years as dorm parents: reading, drinking coffee, watching our first daughter crash her walker into the deck furniture. A shaded respite from the frenetic energy inside the dorm.
In the mornings, before my pre-dawn jogs, I would sit on the porch swing and tie my shoes, lean back, and listen to the cacophonous quiet. At times, crickets. A buzzing lamppost, perpetual. A few early birds. And one voice –– rich, out-of-tune most mornings, but deep and visceral. The voice belonged to Akila Parks, a member of our kitchen staff whose 1980s Honda Accord slid smoothly into its parking space behind the dining hall every morning by 5 a.m. As he prepared the community’s breakfast, he sang, old gospels mostly, as loud as he could. He whipped eggs, organized biscuit trays, fried bacon, and bellowed “Amazing Grace” and occasionally reached the high notes of “I Can Only Imagine.” Akila’s voice became part of my morning routine. A concert, it felt, just for me.
At the time, he was working two jobs. He left Christ School at 3 p.m., just after lunch had been cleared and the dining hall cleaned. From there he started another shift at a part-time job. When he got home around 10 p.m., he ate, talked to his older children, cared for his ailing father, and then slept for about four hours. Akila must have been exhausted; still he was there every morning singing his songs into the vacuous darkness. Songs of praise.
When I teach Transcendentalism in American Literature, I teach Akila. No one I’ve ever known has embodied the philosophy more. The Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau taught us that to fully understand the nature of the world, of God, of us, we must transcend our “dull realities” and see the bigger picture. Instead, we focus on our dull realities. The drudgery of work –– emails, meetings, accounts payable, etc., etc., etc. –– bears more weight than the joy of work, and so the bottom line becomes more important than people, the future more significant than the present, ingratitude more prevalent than thankfulness.
Akila didn’t choose that path.
“Every day given is a day blessed,” he reminded us constantly, his cheerful smile luring us away from his bloodshot eyes, his calloused hands patting us on our backs. If you didn’t know he worked there –– “Cookin’ and praisin’ the Lord” –– you would swear he was there just to greet you. There was something undeniably different about him. Never a surly attitude. Never a complaint. Never darkness, always light. He used his job as a way to bless those around him. And now, with his departure, we are quick to say, as Hamlet said of his father, “I shall not look upon his like again.” When men of immense spirit leave us, we feel the shock. Yet, if we said anything about Akila, I think we’d say he was awake. Being around him forced us to ask the same of ourselves: “Are we awake?” I am hopeful because that question lingers, and though we feel his absence, we remember that many great men and women have passed through our halls and that their legacies, like Akila’s, are enshrined not by words, but by emulation.