A new school year and a refreshed legacy

Like many students and teachers around the country, I recently started a new school year. As this new year began to feel imminent, I looked back on my experience of teaching, so far.

I hesitate to admit that I haven’t always loved teaching. Sure, when I started this important ministry eight years ago, I loved it. I was full of passion and energy and idealism. I was going to change the world, one willing student at a time.

Somewhere along the way, however, I felt my passion for the ministry wane. I fell into a bit of a rut and lost interest in striving for meaningful growth, for myself or my students. I recycled lesson plans and techniques, lacking the energy and motivation to try to find better practices in order to meet the students’ needs. I was questioning whether or not to leave the classroom and…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.] 

The new view from my teacher desk in my classroom. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
The new view from my teacher desk in my classroom. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

adventures in the Spirit, part 4

Living by the Spirit that is Truth is not comfortable.  We can feel crammed into corners, we have to give up control, we have to trust others.  Sometimes we are exhausted but still have to keep pushing ourselves.  Our bodies can hurt, but we still have to carry heavy loads and keep moving onward.  When we’re dedicated to God’s Truth-seeking missions, however, it’s all worth it.

The service trip that my students took to Iowa during Holy Week ended on Good Friday.  The meaning of the day hummed in the background of our spirited movement.

Day Five: Crossing Over

Friday.

We have to say goodbye and head down the road.  First, some of the people who helped us have an incredible experience come to say goodbye and see us off.

Just like it was for Jesus on his way to the cross, our journey back to Chicago is full of surprise stops.  Before we get too far away from Gunder, we get to see one more farm.

Farmer Amanda raises chickens, ducks and turkeys and sells the eggs and meat.  We are surprised to learn that some of the eggs we ate earlier in the week were actually duck eggs. And, we enjoy learning how it works to farm poultry and playing with the animals.  Plus, she had a sheep on her farm, so it was fun to get to meet him too!   To me, it seemed like the perfect farm to visit to kick-off Easter weekend.

We say more goodbyes and thank you’s and we continue on down the road.  After a while, we arrive at the Field of Dreams near Dyersville for a visit and a little baseball.

Some of the students are part of our school’s top-rated baseball team, so it was a special thrill for them to see the site.

In the car we pray the stations of the cross together.  We had intended to stop and pray them but we would have arrived in Chicago too late.  That’s one of things about seeking the Truth and following Jesus as we cross over boundaries: we must remain flexible and willing to make-do with the time and resources provided.  The good news is that we can still experience God’s mystery everywhere we go!

We stop again in Dubuque and near Rockford to eat and take a break before we finally arrive back at the school around 6 p.m. It’s Good Friday.  Like Jesus was when he went to the cross, we’re weary, tired and overwhelmed. We have experienced and learned a lot in a brief amount of time.  We have tried to learn the Truth and relate over boundaries. Our reunions with our families are joyous, but our new service-trip family says goodbye to each other with new appreciation and awareness.

After Easter weekend and spring break are over and school is back in session, the students gather in my classroom for a final meeting.  I show them this movie:

And, I ask them what they learned about the Truth during the trip.  I hear:

People are good and people are people no matter where they are and what they do. 

I love Iowa and I want to go back.

Even though people are different than us, they really care about us.

I also ask the students how the experience changed them and helped them grow.  I hear:

I learned service is fun and it’s really nice to help people.

I learned how to communicate better with my family and other people, and the importance of good communication.

I learned to be more grateful for what I have. 

I learned to keep an open mind about people and places that are different than what I know.

Indeed, when we enter into adventures with the Spirit we learn the importance of opening our minds.  With open minds the Spirit shows us Truth, we get to cross boundaries and relate to people who are different then us, and we become changed.

Along the way, we cooperate with God without even realizing it and experience the reign of God come.  Just by us being who we are, the Spirit of Truth does great work.  We are blessed and renewed and the world and Church radiate with fire of God’s glory and goodness. You don’t have to take my word for it:

“The renewal of the Church is … achieved through the witness offered by the lives of believers: by their very existence in the world, Christians are called to radiate the word of truth that the Lord Jesus has left us.”Pope Benedict XVI, Porta Fidei

Indeed we are called and indeed we have responded.  By the grace of God, through great adventures in the Spirit, awesome things happen.  Amen, Amen, Alleluia and Thanks be God!

“What if it’s too hard?!”

My students are brilliant.  They endure so much and remain hopeful and faithful.  Prayers of gratitude pour out of them easier than on-time assignments.  Every day I hear praise that God gave them another day.  It’s amazing to me.  But, it shouldn’t be. They’re teenagers and they know they have a life of greatness ahead of them.

In this part of the world there is abundant chaos, confusion and distraction from what is true and right.  Gang warfare, poverty and drug addictions are thick.  We know people who are in jail and people who have been shot.  I shudder at the violence, racism and sexism I have been exposed to around this city.  It seems to me that the common culture tries to convince the youth of today that consumerism, sex, drugs, violence and selfish living are the meaning of life.  The teens are beginning to believe lies:  success is about fame and money and freedom means you aren’t locked up.  It’s an awful, tough world indeed.

Yet, the young come.  No matter that they’re required because they’re in a Catholic school, they still come and are very good.  My students arrive in religion class and argue about whose turn it is to lead prayer because many of them want to do it.  They love to meditate together and have no problem being silent and peaceful.  They listen and work hard.  They ask me tough questions.  Their silliness and playfulness helps me laugh and lighten up.  Their reverence is deep: a hush falls over us as we gaze into the sacred, living words in the Bible.  They want to believe and understand.

In my classroom I preach a lot. I preach that God is good and God is with us.  My students seem to be convinced that they have dignity and they are children of God.  The struggles begin when I start to talk about action.  I preach a lot about how we are called to treat all people in a way that honors their dignity, so they also know they are children of God.  Because we are Christian, I say, we must be different. We must act differently. We must live and love differently.  We really can’t fit into the popular ways of the world, because the world’s ways don’t fit with God’s ways.  We need to act like we believe that Love is the most powerful force in the world.

This week I’ve been teaching about forgiveness. I explained that because we are children of God, we are supposed to forgive like our loving Parent does.  I said that when we wonder how to forgive we can look at Jesus on the cross and see that it takes great sacrifice. I asked them that if we believe it, then what are we supposed to do?  In a world where pride, grudges and even violent retribution is as normal as nonsense, how can we act like children of God?

"cluttered stations" Art by Julia Walsh, FSPA

We read God Has A Dream by Desmond Tutu last semester and we remember that it’s up to us to help God’s dreams come true. Tutu has a lot to say of smart things to say about forgiveness:

I keep challenging my students (and therefore, myself!) Their exam essay question asked “what attitudes and actions could you take to help create a society that values forgiveness more than retribution?”

One student raised his hand and said “Sister, what am I supposed to say if I really don’t think it’s possible?”  I said that just this one time, I’ll give a hint about what he could write about.  The first step might be to try to have faith.

Faith isn’t easy in this messy world.  I understand that the world is not sending the same message of God’s goodness and might plus there’s a lot of evidence pointing to other ideas.  I understand that Jesus is asking a lot of his followers.  So, when I preach about the real, un-cozy and uncomfortable challenges of living the Gospel the reactions I hear make a lot sense:

“What if I don’t agree with the Ways of Jesus?”

“How am I supposed to believe this?”

“How can I possibly do this?!”

“Sister, what if it’s just too hard?!”

In my witty way, I tell them that they can take it up with Jesus. I gesture at the cross and tell them that I blame God that it’s so tough.  We can complain but we don’t need to give up.  Jesus made it simple, but not easy, so let’s take it up with him.  “Sit down with Jesus,”  I say, “and have a little chat.  Ask him for some help and grace and understanding.  Let him know how you really feel about it all.  If you really want to believe and be a follower I’m pretty sure God will help you.  You might be surprised.”

I sure hope I am right. I hope they’ll be surprised by the graces God gives and how they’ll be able to do great things with God’s help.   I hope that as my students mature they’ll discover that Jesus’ Way is the best there is.  I hope that it can be the only Way we’ll know.