Going into a new environment is always stressful, especially when heading into summer school. The kids don’t want to be there. They would rather be goofing around outdoors or spending hours playing PokemonGo on their smart phones. They do not want to be looking at my face trying to teach them study skills. Study skills, I know, is not an actual subject which made the teaching all the more difficult. But I found myself at an underserved Catholic high school in my hometown teaching just that: mnemonics they’ll never use, Cornell outlining that’s too much work, and reading comprehension selections they despise. It has surely been an uphill climb.
One thing has allowed that climb to be a bit easier. The school was founded by the Brothers of the Christian Schools, or the Christian Brothers, vowed lay men who teach the poor. Since their founding several hundred years ago by St. John Baptist De La Salle, the patron saint of teachers, the Brothers have labored long and hard teach and teach the poor well. The way the brothers, and Lasallian colleagues make holy space allowed me the strength to get through my first weeks. I was taught to add a few words before and after the prayer.
“Let us remember that we are in the holy presence of God,” I intone before launching into the Sign of the Cross. Those simple words changed my philosophy of teaching. Each room, each space, every person in the room, students and teacher alike, were in God’s Holy Presence. And that presence is a salve. It heals up anger and division, calms the quick-beating heart, and shores up doubts about skill. God’s here, He’ll assist me. Never before had saying a prayer before something taken on so much meaning. It reminds us to make the prayer prayer. Normally, prayer to start, or an invocation, is largely perfunctory. “It’s a Catholic school, so we pray. That’s just what we do.” We may just say a few words or speed through an Our Father of Hail Mary. It has little meaning, given that the students are barely mouthing the words. Some have their eyes closed, mostly from a lack of sleep rather than their experiencing Beatific Vision, which the drool running down their cheek clarifies lest I be too hopeful. Those simple words orient me, the teacher, at least to the Holy, to the Good, to the True in a way I am not normally when I get stressed. When I am able to reflect my experience of God to my students, then maybe, just maybe mind-mapping won’t be so tedious.
Then at the end of prayer, another breathtaking moment of prayer: I intone: “Live Jesus in our hearts,” and the students respond, “Forever.” I’m again convinced this is for the teacher’s benefit. The students are tabernacles of flesh, containing within them a mystery: Jesus who lived, died, and rose that they might have life and have it abundantly lives within their hearts and he does so forever. I am here to communicate that abundance to them. Though I’m not teaching religion, my class is at least a place of communication of joy and Gospel love. My heart contains the mystery as well, freely given, richly undeserved. This levels the playing field, in a sense. I am not above my students. It is true, I am older and I know more than they. But I am in no way superior to them. The Jesus who lives in each of our hearts makes that very clear.
The garden of the heart is that space where our deepest truths are taught, learned, felt, and known. Sometimes, my heart is full of understanding. When student X has sat with a test in front of her for a half hour without raising her hand to inform me she doesn’t have a pen, my heart has less understanding. The words of prayer echo again. I’m in the holy presence of God, even in this unholiest of settings, and Jesus is living in my heart, and my student’s, and so I struggle to be patient. I try to teach so I can reveal the Secret Garden of Wisdom that lies within each of them, and me. So many teachers have cleared away weeds and thickets in my garden until that moment when the roots of beauty are able to firmly anchor themselves in fertile ground. When I respond with patience, more flowers are able to bloom. My desert of impatience will make way for a desert that is no longer parched, but glad and full of God.
A few simple words, calling to mind the presence of God and the life of Jesus in the heart of all, have changed the way I approach teaching. And maybe they can change how I live as a student, especially when professors seem harsh. And maybe they can change your life too.
Live Jesus in your heart—forever!