I Climbed Mountains

I Climbed Mountains

I love when I am able to find secular examples that point to spiritual realities.  When shown explicitly religious media, my students often give what they think are the correct answers based on their years of Catholic education.  Yet when it is something that seems a bit unrelated to the class, they tend to have a greater openness and willingness to interact with the material.

On the second class day of the new spring semester, I showed them a TEDx talk called “500 Miles, Two Best Friends, and One Wheelchair.”  (Feel free to take a minute…or 19…to go and watch this video.)  The image of strangers taking the time and effort to carry a man in a wheelchair up a mountain seemed to obviously gesture toward the Church on earth and the Church in Heaven.

“Through the power of community, I climbed mountains.”

At one point near the end, Justin says. “Through the power of community, I climbed mountains” and it resonated so much that I had to write it down.  So many conversations lately have pivoted around the need and desire for community and authentic friendship.  While some say community cannot be built, I disagree.  I believe community must be built.  While we cannot choose to magically connect with people, we must be intentional in how we use our time in order for community to be successful.

This community that Justin and Patrick found was possible because others were willing to be intentional with their time and energy.  The pilgrim duo they met in the cathedral in Burgos were willing to wait for them before climbing the mountain leading into O’Cebreiro.  Then other people heard the story and decided to wait, too, without ever meeting Justin or Patrick.  Community requires intentionality and it reminds us that in this pilgrimage of life we cannot walk alone.

A priest friend of mine often said, “You can be damned alone or saved with others.”  I think he was quoting someone but I was never certain of the source.  The idea is that Hell is isolation, but Heaven is necessarily communion.  Communion with God and with others.  The reality of this can be revealed in the many “saint pairs” that have arisen over history.  St. Francis and St. Clare.  St. Benedict and St. Scholastica.  St. Louis and St. Zelie.  St. Francis Xavier and St. Ignatius of Loyola.  The list could go on and on.  St. Teresa of Calcutta and St. John Paul II?  Saints live a foretaste of the heavenly communion through their authentic friendships with one another.  They “carry” each other up the mountain, using friendship to encourage the other to enter into deeper relationship with the Lord. Continue reading “I Climbed Mountains”

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For the Sake of the Joy

For the Sake of the Joy

Nearly every Tuesday, I have “contemplative time” for my classes.  Do they actually reach contemplation?  Probably not, but I like to provide intentional time for silence and prayer.  It is ten minutes where the only thing that is required of them is to be still.  In a world overflowing with noise, arguments, ideas, and busyness, I try to offer them a brief respite from the long list of things they must do.

To help direct their prayer, I display a Scripture passage, a quote from a saint, or an excerpt from a spiritual read for the students to use as a starting point.  A few weeks ago, near All Saints’ Day, I had them focus on Hebrews 12:1-2 for their time of prayer.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

I had fifty minutes that day to reflect on these verses.  Different portions stood out to me at various points in the day.  Yet by the afternoon, one phrase continued to stir my heart.  So much so that I wrote it out on a note card and affixed it to my desk organizer so I could continue to ponder it in the days to come.

For the sake of the joy… Continue reading “For the Sake of the Joy”

In the Wake of Scandal, Choose Sanctity

In the Wake of Scandal, Choose Sanctity

I mentally planned for the day.  I supplied myself with some resources, I opened pertinent tabs on my computer, and I waited for the moment.  Unanticipated, I felt a sick pit grow in my stomach and my heart ached a little at the prospect of what I was to do.

So I started with gauging their prior knowledge, as some teachers are apt to do.

“Have you heard about the sexual abuse scandal in Pennsylvania?”  Depending on the class and the age, a few or most heads would nod the affirmative.

“How about Archbishop McCarrick?  The papal nuncio Archbishop Vigano?”  Fewer heads nodded with each question, a few gesturing with their hands to show that it sounded vaguely familiar.

Then, to the best of my ability, I outlined for them situations that had been unfolding for the last several weeks.  I emphasized the lack of clarity and focused on what our bishop is asking from us as a response.  In a textbook we use for class, it says, “One of the few things in life that cannot possibly do harm in the end is the honest pursuit of the truth.”  And while that doesn’t mean that the truth won’t be painful to uncover, I encouraged them to pray for the truth to be revealed, regardless of the personal cost involved.

As I spoke to them, I felt a certainty in the Church settle into my heart and I felt like an older sister or a mother as I gently explained to them things that pained me.  While the circumstances are awful, the Church will endure and new saints will rise up to combat the evils of the present age.

Each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.

G.K. Chesterton

Most of the classes listened closely with sad eyes and asked a few questions to understand the situation more.  One class reacted with more anger and bitterness.  It wasn’t entirely unsurprising because it is a situation where anger is justified.  Yet for young people who are initially uncertain about the Church, the blatant hypocrisy of the scandal is too much to take in.  I saw the scandal through their eyes and I wanted to cry.  My small heart ached and I felt the weight of these sins in a manner that I hadn’t yet permitted myself.   Continue reading “In the Wake of Scandal, Choose Sanctity”

Year Seven, Week One, Day Three, Tired

Year Seven, Week One, Day Three, Tired

School has commenced!

In general, teaching can be a bit tiring.  However, the first week always feels more exhausting.  By the end of the day, I must fight to keep my eyes open and most days this week I’ve surrendered to a nap, at least for a little while.

The swirl of names and faces to remember can be fatigue inducing, but I am glad to be back.  I am most looking forward to knowing my students.  Getting to know them is nice, but having a relationship built is, in my opinion, better.

A couple of students from last year stopped by earlier in the week.  It was refreshing to see familiar faces, to know how to joke with them, and to know a bit about them already.  I enjoy seeing them in the hallway as they pass by, recalling random moments from last year as they walk into somebody else’s classroom.  Building relationships takes work and time and while I know it is always worth it, I enjoy basking in the beauty of already formed relationships.  (A while ago, I wrote about the beauty of “not-new” friends, and I think the mentality applies here, too.)

I am looking forward to seeing what these classes will become, how friendships will unfold, and how we will grow together as we experience things this year.  Will the class that worries me be the one that proves the most difficult?  Or will another surpass them in ridiculousness?  Will we share joys and tragedies together?  Will there be good and authentic classroom discussion?  Will they trust me and will I trust them?  Will we become saints together? Continue reading “Year Seven, Week One, Day Three, Tired”

Overjoyed

Overjoyed

It is human nature to have favorites.  As a teacher, the same holds true.  I often tell my students I’m not supposed to have favorite classes or students.  Several classes will guess that they are my favorite, but I can never tell them if they are correct or not.  Usually, there are multiple things I appreciate about each class as well as aspects I wish they would change.  Yet, as a human, I look forward to some classes more than others.  Gone are my first year teacher days of feeling ill at the thought of a particular class.  For a variety of reasons, some classes make me a little less excited to teach them.

A couple of weeks ago, I was facing this feeling of not looking forward to a particular class.  It wasn’t dread, but I was definitely not excited for them to fill my classroom with their boisterous selves.  On Tuesdays, I have “contemplative time” with my classes, ten minutes of silent prayer with a reflection or Scripture passage given as the means to enter into prayer.  I’m a little dense, so it took a while, but after a few classes, I recognized that this meditation was speaking to me about that less-than-ideal class.

My dear friend, I am overjoyed to see you.  I am with you speaking to you and listening to you.  Realize that I am truly present.  I am within your soul.  Close your ears and eyes to all distractions.  Retire within yourself, think my thoughts, and be with me alone.  

My Other Self: Conversations with Christ on Living Your Faith*, Clarence Enzler

The word overjoyed stood out to me after several readings.  Clarence Enzler wrote this book as though it is Jesus speaking directly to us, that we are Christ’s other self.  After considering the beauty of Jesus being overjoyed to see me, I began to desire that this was my response for that particular class.  When I come to the Lord with all my worries and failings, He is always pleased that I have entered into His presence.  I want this to be my attitude toward this class.  Each day, I want to be overjoyed that these particular students are coming into my classroom and sitting in my presence.  Recognizing Christ dwelling within them, I want to respond to them as Christ responds to me, even with my less-than-ideal heart. Continue reading “Overjoyed”

Teaching: To Pursue The Truth Together

Teaching: To Pursue The Truth Together

I’ve spent a great deal of the summer considering how this next school year will unfurl.  Each fall, I start with the hopes that this will be the best year ever.  And, in many ways, that has largely proven to be true.  The more I teach, the more confident I feel teaching.  The longer I am there and the more experiences I have, the more prepared I feel to handle future problems and situations.  Yet despite all of my preparations and extra reading I do during the summer, one thing is certain: I will never be perfectly prepared for every question they ask me.

Honestly, I think I am able to answer most of the questions that arise in the classroom.  If I have never considered the question or even heard the answer, I am surprised how often I am able to give an answer anyway.  I’m not lying to them or just trying to look smart.  I’ve come to realize that the longer one knows the Lord and studies His Church, the better one is able to think with the mind of the Church.  So even if that question has never been posed to me before, I can often give a pretty confident answer because I have come to know and understand the Church to a degree.

There is, however, a lingering concern that I will be unable to answer a question.  Or, worse yet, that my lack of knowledge will appear to mean that the Church has never considered that question or that her theology is found wanting.  Regarding those fears, I think back to the summer before my first year of teaching.  I was presenting these concerns to a trusted priest and he asked if I thought that a student could ask a question that the Church couldn’t answer or that would prove her wrong.  I told him that I was certain the Church had answers and that I trusted her to be true in all things she affirmed as true.  For him, that was the end of it.  So what if I didn’t know the answer?  I knew the Church had an answer and I was fairly confident I could find it if needed.

For the last five years, that is what I have sought to do.  To a generation that I struggle to understand, I have striven to present truths they struggle to find relevant or accurate.  I ask them to consider the truths of the Church and they echo Pilate by saying, “What is truth?”  They question if it matters to know the truth.  They ask if everything could be true.  And I try to use logic and personal examples to show them the beauty of knowing and pursuing the truth.   Continue reading “Teaching: To Pursue The Truth Together”

What They Remember

What They Remember

My sister asked her if she ever had me as a teacher.  She couldn’t remember what class I even taught her, but she knew that she had.  My pride was wounded a bit at the idea that the hours upon hours I spent teaching weren’t memorable.  The question wasn’t what was the favorite thing I taught her, simply what class did I teach.

What she did remember was that at the end of the semester, I wrote every senior a card.  It was the only year I ever did that.  Apparently, that spoke louder than the arguments for God’s existence, Church teachings, and problem of evil discussions.   Continue reading “What They Remember”

Choice

Choice

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)

Good for my Heart

My beloved 7th period class is good for my heart.  I was recently talking about them, and I felt my heart overflowing with a sense of gratitude.  Despite my fondness for them, I will never claim that they are perfect.  They are beautiful and they bring out my best side, which probably contributes to the warm reception I receive from them.

I have never had such a clear favorite.  This is one of the first things I will tell people before I gush about my class.  While I am far more comfortable with my classes then in years past, this is the one class where I can let my guard down.  I never feel like I’m defending myself or persuading them of something or fighting them to accept a truth.  We laugh together, have inside jokes, and learn together.  I’m not their best friend, but I am definitely one of their favorite teachers.

There is a freedom that comes with being loved.  I can give them more of who I am really am.  Each day, 7th period, I feel like I teach the best.  Sometimes we get off topic, there is chaos, too much energy–but always there is a familial atmosphere that fills the room.  I don’t myself subtly battling the class in defense of the one kid that says things people roll their eyes at or repeatedly asks questions already answered.  When I was sick this week, one girl said she missed me.  Although I’m not extremely close with each student, I feel an understanding with most of them and, if nothing else, the class as a whole.

I am not the only one to appreciate my blessings.  One of the freshman teachers made a remark to me about my beloved class.  Typically nobody else sees the class as a whole but all of the classes each period met in auditorium for preparation for confession this week.  I have never sang the praises of this class to this teacher, so I was overjoyed to hear him applaud my class.  He said it was though each good student was hand-selected for my 7th period class.  As he was saying this, I realized they were.  The good Lord knew that I would need this oasis, this haven from the storm during my school day.  I look forward to them and love the time we spend together.  Professionally, I need to remain fair toward my classes, but I often feel a desire to spoil them, to give in to all of their requests.  Today that teacher stopped by when they were coming into my classroom and declared that heaven came early today.  We smiled and he told them it was an inside joke.

This class is the only reason I am not running forward with utter joy to Christmas break.  Next semester I will have most of these students again, but they will be shuffled around and students from my other class will be mixed in.  I am hopeful that next semester will be wonderful as well, but I know that the beauty of this class will soon end, never to be achieved again.  Life will move on and they will simply be the cherished favorite class of the past, the ones I subconsciously measure each future class against, sighing when they inevitably fall short.

For now, they are my precious gift.  They are blessing to me from the Lord.  Yet it is only the difficulty of my first two years that makes me so deeply relish this class.  If I had them my first year, I would have expected all classes to be like this.  Now I know, battle-weary veteran that I am.  This, is not the norm.  This is, most assuredly, a gift from the Lord, hand-selected for the good of my heart.  Another beautiful display of the Lord knowing what I needed before I even thought to ask for it.

The Battle of the Droid

“Droid.”

The sound came from the midst of my students as I was in the middle of a discussion/lecture about abortion.  I was already giving far too little time to such an important topic, but I had miscalculated with the semester.  As I heard the sound I briefly thought of my nephew and how I had heard that sound come from his phone many times while he was at our house.  Now, though, it was in the middle of my class and school policy was that the phone was now confiscated for a week.  The first time this had happened in my class was on day two of teaching.  My students were looking at me and while part of me questioned if I had heard correctly, the looks on their faces reconfirmed my hearing.

“Alright.  Give me the phone.”

Then it happened.  I watched the students, one in particular, lean back in their seats, cross their arms, and give me that smile that aroused every stubborn fiber in my body.  Suddenly it was them against me.  They were unwilling to give up the phone and they wondered how I would get it from them.  It was an implicit challenge.  I’m not entirely certain what their perception of me is, but they didn’t think that I was as stubborn as I turned out to be.

“Come on.  Just give me the phone.”  I waited, letting the silence extend, showing them that I wasn’t just going to brush off this incident.  The students began to look at each other.

“OK.  If you don’t give me the phone, I’m just going to have to check your bags to see who else has their phones.”  They didn’t look very perturbed, but after a while longer they began to tell me that it wasn’t their phone, that they didn’t have a Droid, that their phone was off/in their locker.  As time continued, though, the individual with the offensive phone didn’t come forward.  I was remembering what I had overheard other students say about phones going off in other classes and how when they simply sat there and didn’t give it up, they left the classroom at the end of the period with the teacher simply saying that what they did was very rude.  Rude, perhaps, but that didn’t bother them too much when they all still had their phones at the end of the class.  I decided that I wouldn’t be one of them.

“You’re right–I’m not going to check your bags.  But if I don’t get the phone that went off, then you all have detentions.”  Their faces changed a little bit with that.  It wasn’t that I wanted to give them all detentions (they would be my first of my career) but I figured that would be enough of an incentive for the person to come forward.  Who would be willing to give the entire class a detention simply so they could keep their phone?  In my mind, it would be a few moments before I would have the phone in my hand and class could carry on as it should.  A couple of the girls were uncomfortable with the situation, as displayed by their red faces.  When a couple of the boys found out that these girls had never had detentions, they riled the class to take the detention.

“Guys, let’s take it!”  “Yeah, its just a study hall in the morning!”  “We can talk with Mr.— about bringing donuts tomorrow!”  Their excitement wasn’t what I expected or wanted.  I didn’t desire them to be miserable, but I was hoping the peer pressure would make the person step forward and surrender the phone.

That didn’t happen.  Instead, I waited for them to give me the phone.  When I pressed them more for the phone, one student got up and handed me his phone, telling me to just take it.  I knew it wasn’t his and although it was an act of valor, I was unwilling to allow that one person to avoid punishment simply because a classmate of his was sacrificial.  With the one phone stowed in my podium, I told them that I wasn’t going to waste any more class time over this but that if I didn’t have the phone by the end of class then they would all have detentions.  And then I continued with class.  I ended five minutes early, on accident, but I thought it would be a good time for them to think about it and then give me the phone.  Perhaps they thought I had issued a simple harmless threat, but I fully intended to give them what I said I would.  No, I didn’t want to give them a detention, but I wanted to be true to my word and I wanted them to know that I meant what I said and should be taken seriously.  When the bell rang, they all walked out and I never got the phone.  I was amazed that the person never came forward and that the class didn’t pressure them to do so.  While I didn’t want them to rat the person out, I was hoping that the disgruntled class would impel the person to honesty.

I didn’t think I was over-reacting.    After e-mailing the principal the list of people in the class, I waited for him to come and talk to me.  Somehow, I knew he wouldn’t like that I had given all twenty-four people a detention, but I thought I had sufficient reasons.  He came just before my third period class and asked if I could locate the area of the room the sound came from.  Over the next couple periods he called discreetly into his office a couple trustworthy people in the class to ascertain who let their phone go off.  By fifth period he came and told me who it was and their punishment.  What I didn’t altogether expect was that the rest of the class would no longer have detentions.  A student came and asked me at the end of the day if the detentions still stood and I told him that as far as I was concerned, they did.  I had said I needed the phone by the end of the class and since that hadn’t happened, I intended for the consequences to stand.  The next morning a had a couple visits from the administration explaining to me why they did what they did and how to handle a situation like this in the future.  I understood where they were coming from, but I still think my method was better.  I heard from several people that my students were complaining about the detention for the rest of the day.  By the time 8th period walked in on that same day, they were smirking and saying, “Droid” and laughing about the incident.  I wasn’t offended.  Now they knew I was serious and that I meant what I said.  Too many high school teachers of mine made empty threats that nobody listened to because they knew they would never follow through.  I was determined to not be one of them.

In an e-mail to a parent, I told them that one thing I desired the students to learn from this was that they are an individual belonging to a community and what they do as individuals does affect the rest of the community.  So perhaps it was one person’s phone that went off.  The rest of them were complicit in the act by not speaking up or encouraging the person to be honest.  Whether or not that explanation was sufficient, I don’t know.  But it makes sense to me.

And that, dear readers, is the story of how this young teacher gave twenty-four detentions in one class period and had them all overturned within twenty-four hours.

The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh.  Blessed be the name of the Lord!