Rockbridge Academy Blog
Mr. Northup Points to God's Providence
One year ago, Mr. Northup retired from teaching at Rockbridge Academy after being diagnosed with brain cancer. Mr. Northup greatly impacted my life so when I was given the opportunity to write about his life, I took it. This article is dedicated to Mr. Northup and his family for their 17 years of love and support of Rockbridge Academy.
I know many of us are wondering how he is handling the cancer, but more so why he, of all people, got cancer. Mr. Northup was one of the greatest Bible teachers I (and all of Rockbridge) could have asked for. He displayed his faith in every word and deed, and his love for his students and the subjects he taught was unmatched so, why did Mr. Northup get cancer? This question can be restated in this infamous question: why do bad things happen to good people?
That was my main question for Mr. Northup, and he answered it. Before I reveal exactly what he said, make sure to actively look for the providence of God in Mr. Northup’s life throughout the rest of this article.
Mr. Northup was born in Rhode Island and moved to California a year later. At eight years old in California, he dreamed of becoming a real-life Tarzan but he had two problems preventing him from becoming the rope-swinging monkey-man. For starters, he lived in California, and one cannot be Tarzan when climbable objects are limited to a “cactus and a palm tree in the backyard.” This problem was solved when he moved back to Rhode Island the same year where trees grew as commonly as the California cacti. His other problem was more serious: he needed a Jane, but where to find the perfect girl? He did not need to look far; across the street lived the future Mrs. Northup, Merry Dupre. Mr. Northup said that from a young age he knew he was going to marry her. If she made a great Jane, which she did, then she would make a great wife. Obviously, he convinced the girl across the street that he was worth keeping around as they have been married for 27 years and have had five children.
Mr. Northup’s youth in Rhode Island involved street fights and big older brothers. Our teacher was small for his age but hotheaded. He was known for roughhousing and the kids on his street beat him up multiple times. However, they stopped picking on him after Merry’s brother began looking out for him. Her brother was big and strong with a statement 70s hairstyle, a mohawk.
While Mr. Northup had his fair share of fighting, he also spent a good amount of time in church. He was brought to church as a child, but only began searching for God in his teenage years. He told me that, “Everyone at church had a testimony but I didn’t.” Mr. Northup decided to change that by becoming a rebel until he had a good story to tell.
Mrs. Northup said this time was short lived once they had their first child, Samuel, when he was 17 and a daughter, Nadia, at 18. With two children and little stability, Mr. Northup decided to start bringing the family to church, but he made a mistake and joined, as he called it, a “cult” instead. The church that the Northup family joined preached that one’s salvation depended upon their daily missionary work. One had to share the gospel every day to a random stranger to secure their own salvation. Mr. Northup realized that this teaching did not match his understanding of the Bible from his youth. The dissonance between his understanding of the Bible from childhood and what this church was preaching lit his heart afire for God and truth.
Mr. Northup was hungry and curious to know God’s word, so he sought out the youth pastor from the church he grew up in and began a mentoring relationship with him. To make ends meet he worked as a mechanic until he pursued seminary at age 20. He brazenly decided to attend Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. At first, the college rejected him but that did not stop our teacher. He caught a flight from Rhode Island to Chicago to meet the admissions board face to face. He told them, “I am going to come, but how do I do this?” Seeing the passion of this young teacher changed the hearts of the board. Mr. Northup’s grades were not great, and he was behind in the necessary schooling, but his heart was ready to tackle any obstacle presented to him. The college offered him a deal: he would take night classes until he was ready for full admission into regular daytime classes. Eventually, Mr. Northup worked his way up to those daytime classes and even earned a full ride. During this time, he moved his family out to Chicago and received free housing from a nearby church in exchange for his cleaning services. His living costs were low, so he only had to provide food for his family. Thankfully, the window washing business was booming and he received a job cleaning windows for around $100 an hour.
Here, Mr. and Mrs. Northup had their third child, Josiah. After finishing college with a wife and three kids, he moved back to Rhode Island, desiring to impact children’s lives. He first thought about working at summer camps, but a week or two was too short to create a lasting impact. He then considered becoming a pastor, which he did for three years, but he still wasn’t achieving his goal of teaching children. He decided to change careers once more and become a teacher.
The first and only school Mr. Northup taught at was Rockbridge Academy. When deciding where to teach, Mr. Northup and his wife asked the question, “Who do we want our kids to be?” They came upon this one, strange way of teaching called classical Christian Education. They fell in love with the idea of teaching children with a focus on the liberal arts but centered around Christ. Mr. Northup told me concerning classical Christian Education, “This is the way Christians ought to be training their kids.” The Northups found a classical Christian school called Rockbridge Academy which they thought embodied the classical Christian spirit and teaching they desired for their kids. Mr. Northup applied to work here and hit it off with the school board, landing the job for a Bible teacher. He served at Rockbridge for a total of 17 years and during this time, had two more children, Luke and Emma. I asked him which Bible class he enjoyed teaching the most and he answered, “Christ in the Old Testament . . . We get to explore the question ‘where specifically is Christ?’”
Sadly, as we all know, Mr. Northup has left Rockbridge and pursued treatment for his cancer. He said that in these hard times, his wife, Merry Northup, has been his continuous rock and constant companion, a true helper. He is also very grateful for the time he can now spend with his immediate family and his three grandsons. God’s providence, which has shown itself time and time again, is clearly woven throughout Mr. Northup’s life. God has provided in countless ways from protection in his youth to free housing in college and ultimately a job at Rockbridge Academy. To end this story, I want to provide you with Mr. Northup’s answer to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” He said, “This sounds cheap, but I don't think that people are good; I think that God alone is good and He's gracious. I don't expect that I should get things because I'm good or because I'm not. He is. That's one part. The rest is grace. He's been gracious to me with everything from my family to provision. I don't expect that I should be taken care of. Everything is grace. I am grateful for the provision of my family. I can't do anything more than simply be grateful. I don't know if that's the right way to think about it, but that's what I think.”
Hannah Bates is currently in 11th grade and a member of the Rockbridge Review (student-run school newspaper) editorial team.
Why Do WE Read Hard Books?
In a previous article, I argued that we should not really have a problem reading hard books. That, “it is hard” is not a fit excuse to avoid it; in fact, the very labor, by strengthening the mind, makes us more fit to read, absorb, and love harder and even greater books, most especially the Word of God.
I wanted to address one other word in the question, though: the word “we.”
Why do we read hard books?
Again, I, too, struggled with Milton, failing three times to get beyond book 2 of the epic. Yet, as I said before, I was largely responsible for pushing to re-introduce Paradise Lost into the freshman curriculum, and that losing the chance to read and re-read that book with Rockbridge students was the great regret of an otherwise wonderful load-lightening which preserved my sanity.
What I did not do was discuss how my attitude changed.
It has to do with “we”.
In the summer of 2008, I was blessed to be in my third year at St. John’s College. Each summer, we would choose a preceptorial—a set of readings and discussions that dove deeper into a particular work than the other courses had time to. Paradise Lost was one of the preceptorial options, and my intention was to avoid it, but my colleague Brad Finkbeiner persuaded me to take it with him.
Eight weeks later, I was hooked. What happened?
The classical methodology happened. We would read one book at a time, independently; our only requirement was that we come back to class equipped with a question we had about the text. (That part was not hard; I had lots of those.) Class began by presenting those questions, the best of which became apparent by how well they drove us into discussing the text, flipping back and forth from one page of the poem to another, comparing lines, trying to understand how a nuance, here, shaped the bigger picture. These were not debates—though sometimes if someone was demonstrably wrong a brief debate might flare up—so much as explorations: explorations of something that was great and good and, yes, hard.
Part of my mistake in reading Paradise Lost the first time was simply that I did not have the intellectual equipment to read it alone: I needed a guide, and I needed companions. Our tutor, Mr. May, was a true guide: more than a referee, much, much less than a lecturer. He fostered discussion that focused on Truth of the text and which demanded that we read more and more closely, discuss more and more carefully, listen to the other students around the table with a more gracious but still critical ear.
The “we” of dialectic happened.
It is that revolving pattern–the lone reader puzzling out the text at midnight (rocking my infant son to sleep), then coming together around a table at which we all sat puzzling about Milton—that pattern is the one that made the hard book not less hard, but less heavy.
Many hands make light work. In this case, many eyes made the work light—what had been dark, I could begin to see...
♦ the beautiful intricacies of Milton’s poetics, poetics that weighed each syllable and how it carried his point…
♦ the goodness of characters like the angel Abdiel, adamant, the lone rebel against a rebellious Satan, “Among the faithless, faithful only hee;/ Among innumerable false, unmoved…”
♦ the Truth as Milton—broken, blind, outcast—could see it: that an infinite God of infinite goodness must overwhelm the evil that seems, in the moment, to overwhelm us…
And that has been the delightful pattern of the last four years: four additional passes through Milton with Mrs. Ward and with these students, some of whom have brains that bend to literature with natural ease, some of whom struggle—but we grow and grow strong. The most powerful insights are not solely or even primarily from the so-called “A” students: they have come, consistently, from those students willing to lean in, to try to figure out what Milton means, what his words mean—not just passively sit and hope I will tell them. They are those with the courage to engage, to test something in conversation, and forgive others when we say dumb things… as I often have. And will let me cull out their mistakes, too, because it is the Truth we are after.
We need each other, more than ever. We need the student in the classroom, the teacher puzzling through this, because we want to know the truth, to live out the goodness, to revel in the beauty.
We need each other as we walk through God’s Word, a Word of more genius than any other—and of more difficulty…. And of more worth. We need the body to help us understand this Word, and then to live it—but not alone.
Ultimately, we need Him: the Father, the Son, and the Spirit to, as Milton says,
“…What in me is dark/
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
and justify the ways of God to men.”
We need Him in order to take a simple Gospel woven throughout a hard book and share it with a dying, desperate world.
And that is why we—together—read hard books.
Why Do We Read Hard Books?
Paradise Lost. The first three times that I attempted to read this book on my own, I failed, never making it out of book 2. I was a literature teacher with several years of experience and at the beginning of my happy career at Rockbridge on my third failed attempt.
It’s a hard book. It’s a hard book, and Milton’s classical allusions, Latinate constructions, and theological asides were completely overwhelming to me, so I quit. I remember waiting at Annapolis Honda for my Civic’s oil change, trying to make sense of the thing. I finally abandoned the poem and comforted myself by asserting that “the Emperor has no clothes”: nothing that was this hard to slog through could be worth it.
It is largely my fault that Paradise Lost is in our present 9th grade curriculum; I made my case to Ralph Janikowski and Mike McKenna in 2010, worked to maneuver Pilgrim’s Progress into the 8th grade curriculum to make room for Milton, and then, in the fall of 2011… My class load was reduced, I stopped teaching freshman literature, and I did not have the chance to teach the book for the next seven years. My deepest regret about that? Not having a chance to read Milton’s epic with Rockbridge students again.
Because it was a hard book, and it was worth it.
So let me address the question above: Why do we read hard books?
I freely acknowledge that, for their age and relative maturity, Paradise Lost is the hardest book in our curriculum for the students tasked with reading it… and then writing about it. I also acknowledge that, as I defend it, I am doing so from a place of sympathy: I know that it is hard, since I abandoned it several times myself.
Allow me first to challenge the assumption behind the question: “hard” is not the problem.
One of my favorite lines from A Tale of Two Cities describes Charles Darnay’s condition in London. The child of French aristocrats, he abandons their life and the wealth that came with it, moves to London under an assumed name, and is now making his way as a tutor. Dickens writes, “He had expected labour, and he had found it, and did it, and made the best of it. In this, his prosperity consisted.” As anyone who has read the book would know, the life of Darnay – with its labor, with its lower middle class trappings – is infinitely more rich than that of the aristocrats he left behind, at their ease but succumbing to their “leprosy of unreality.”
He chose a harder life not because it was hard, but because it was good.
And Paradise Lost, I will consistently argue, is good. Hard, but good.
In fact, looked at the right way, “hard” is just another way of acknowledging that the task involves cost: time, effort, the restructuring of the mind to grasp what is going on.
Thus, calling something “hard” is not so strongly negative as it first appears. In fact, looked at the right way, “hard” is just another way of acknowledging that the task involves cost: time, effort, the restructuring of the mind to grasp what is going on.
(An aside: what is the greatest benefit of math for any student? That it restructures the mind to think in a more organized, balanced, direct fashion. The constant query of, “When are we ever going to use this in real life?” thus entirely misses the point. In a very particular way, it does not matter if you ever use the quadratic equation again in your life; what you have gained is an ever-deepening ability to think clearly and appreciate something beautiful.)
Video games, which take us where we want to go anyway, are easy, and they alter the mind just as surely as potato chips alter my waistline. Healthy alteration of the mind is hard – as is the alteration of a pot-belly into abs of steel. The better abs, though, are not just useful for attracting a mate; they are actually a by-product of something that is just better for living: a healthy, fit body.
And struggling through math or Milton – leaning into the labor of it – can help to bring about that which is even more useful: a healthy, fit mind.
But people with abs of steel can be insufferably vain: this is true (I say this as a distinctly pot-bellied man). Is the goal of reading a hard book being able to look good because of my heightened mental acuity, just in time for next fall’s academic season? Of course not; the goal is to be able to get at the Truth, the goodness, the beauty that these works contain.
Greater minds than mine have defended the hard books of our curriculum for the goodness, beauty, and Truth found in them. I will add nothing to that here. I will confess that sometimes the complaint that “these books are too hard” arises because these books confront us with our own feebleness in the presence of something great (I write this as a confession of my own sins), and we have developed a society that tears down that which is great. Instead, we should see that, like a good, hard practice under the hot, August sun, the hard book prepares us for that which is even greater, for understanding and thinking more deeply, for going “further up and further in”.
Because the Bible, too, is a hard book, and we abandon the reading of it at our peril.
Instead, we should see that, like a good, hard practice under the hot, August sun, the hard book prepares us for that which is even greater, for understanding and thinking more deeply, for going “further up and further in”.