The sighs and groans were heard throughout the room. It was a Thursday and so, like most Thursdays, we had a journal entry. It was clear to me that this was not their favorite thing to do. Then again, they are high schoolers, and so finding activities that they actually, visibly enjoy is a difficult task.
“I hear you,” I say as they begrudgingly pull out their notebooks.
“Five to six sentences?! Really? That is like a whole paragraph.”
“And you are seniors in high school. You should be able to write an entire paragraph.”
“I don’t want to do this. What if I just write two sentences?” one student asks.
“OK.” I decide not to fight them on this one.
“You mean, I can just write two?”
“You won’t receive full points. You can write two sentences or even no sentences. I’m not going to spend my time trying to get you do your work. It is your choice.”
In my profession of teaching, I have come to realize that I am very pro-choice.
My life as a high school teacher often involves reminding my students how many choices they actually have. They view their lives as having very few choices, always being told what to do and where to be. But, really, they have many, many choices. It is simply that some of them seem less open-ended. Many of their choices involve consequences that they really don’t want to face and so they think that means they don’t have a choice.
But the reality is that I can’t make them do anything. I can strongly persuade them or make consequences they don’t want to face, but I cannot force them to do anything.
When I talk to my students about free will, I will applaud them for using their free will in a positive way at different points. I thank them for choosing to be in class and sit in their seats. After I say this, they suddenly look like they never realized another option existed. Of course another option exists, I tell them.
“If you all got up right now and tried to leave the classroom, I couldn’t physically stop you all.” They shift in their seats as though preparing to launch from them.
“We won’t get in trouble if we leave?”
“Of course you will. But you have a choice. And I am thankful that you are choosing to stay in the classroom and be in your seats.”
They always look a bit deflated at that point. As though I offered them freedom and then took it away. Yet, in all reality, they are still just as free. They are choosing to stay in their seats. This is largely a result of the unhappy consequences that would face them should they choose otherwise, but that doesn’t make it not a decision anymore.
The same is true with me. Too often I view the things I do as not in the realm of my choice. I don’t often sit down with a stack of papers and think, “I choose to grade these papers.” During school, I find myself wanting to take a nap, but I choose to not take one. On one hand, that is because I need to be teaching and the consequences of not doing my job doesn’t seem worth the little snooze. Nevertheless, it is still a choice.
A couple weeks ago, I was having a conversation with someone about the morality of a specific action. Once again I was struck by the width and breadth of the Church’s teaching. People often view the Church as overly strict and filled with unnecessary rules. Yet I see a Church that is abundant in choices. So much is left up to each person to discern, with God’s grace. How many children should I have? Where should I live? What job should I have? What type of prayers should I pray? Where should I go on vacation? Which charity should I donate to? The Church provides guidance and structure (as Christ promised the Church would), but there are so many aspects that are left up to personal choice.
And God is a huge proponent of choice. He dearly wants us to choose to be with Him. But He does not force it. In the end, our choice determines where we spend eternity. Our choice is made up of the little details and decisions in our daily lives, not simply in our voicing that we would like to be with God forever. At times, choosing God may seem inconvenient or not what we would want to do in that moment. It may be particularly difficult to choose to follow Him. Yet despite all of these difficulties, it is still our choice.
This freedom of choice is why I have a classroom rule that if I catch someone copying another person’s paper with that person’s knowledge, both people get zeros. It isn’t a popular rule, but I want them to acknowledge that the choice to cheat happens on both ends. When it happened for the first time this semester a couple days ago, I had to remain firm in my decision. Yes, it is unfortunate for the person who did all of their own work, but they still made the decision to allow someone else to copy their work.
Life is filled with many choices. Some are between two morally neutral things: decaf or regular? fries or onion rings? carpet or hardwood flooring? Others are between a good and a bad action: punching or not punching the co-worker? stealing that top from the store or not stealing it? embezzling the money or not? And some choices seem like we loose no matter what: lie about the situation or accept responsibility and get in trouble? cheat on the homework assignment or get a late grade for not having it done? The beauty, however, is that God gives us the freedom to make our own decision. Naturally, they will have consequences, as all decisions do, but it is our choice to make them.
Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought. (St. John Paul II, Apostolic Journey to the USA Homily 10/08/1995)