Saturday, February 8, 2014


Morehouse Publishing has just launched a Facebook page designed exclusively for readers of my Lenten book, Pilgrim Road: A Benedictine Journey through Lent. Since the Facebook page was my suggestion, you folks have to help me by either going on Facebook yourself and "liking" and sharing the page or, if you are not on Facebook (I'm not), share this address with all of your friends who might be interested in having some company on the forty days' journey of lent this year. Ash Wednesday is March 5, 2014. Click here to visit the page.


I must preface this post with a caveat, especially after last week's story about Robert. Most of my students are well-adjusted (to the extent you can use that term of normal high school sophomores) and reasonably happy kids. This semester in particular I have a raft of bright, eager and energetic kids that make every day a joy for me as a teacher. 

And then there are the kids that are like that sheep in the parable that wanders off, causing the shepherd a lot of worry; and the ratio among my flock is a lot worse than 1 to 99. But these are the ones that attract my attention and from whom I learn the most, and so they are the ones I tend to mention in my blog posts.

Take "Gary," with whom I had a huge run-in this week. He chose to sit right in front of me in class. But he didn't focus very well on the teacher or on the task at hand, and was always turning around and making remarks to the students behind him. He's a bright enough guy, and after class early this week I told him that I was expecting him to be a leader in the class, not a distraction to his brothers. That usually gets a positive response.

Next day he showed up without his homework. When I confronted him about this he deliberately turned away, refusing to look me in the eye while I was asking him why he hadn't done the assignment. This was one of those "What would Jesus do?" moments. Well, I'm not sure what Jesus would have done, but he probably would not have yelled the way I did. So much for modelling Christlike patience for my students.

The small handful of kids that hadn't done the assignment came back after school as they were required to do. All except one. Want to guess who? Not to stretch out the narrative, Gary was surly when I asked him next morning why he hadn't come after school. He told me he'd had to go home "for something personal." He wouldn't say what. 

Then finally the pattern of signals started getting through my thick skull. This kid voluntarily sat right up front, literally under my nose, then proceeded to do all these things that demanded a response from me, including dangling the mysterious "something personal" in front of me like a worm on a hook. Whether
he was conscious of it or not he was practically screaming to me "Hello? Hello?Father Al, can you pay attention to me? Can you help me out?" So I told him to come back that afternoon.

At 3:15 it was just the two of us, and so I took the opportunity to ask a few questions. It turned out that he's a transfer student this year from a nearby Newark city high school. As soon as I heard that, everything became clear: He was simply behaving the way he'd learned to behave in a classroom - turning around and talking, disregarding teachers' requests and so on. This little piece of information completely changed my way of looking at him.

So as I erased the blackboard I started a monologue about what things are like at this school, especially why teachers get in his face (a new experience for him, evidently) about misbehavior and missing assignments. I told him that he's got to realize that his teachers care about him personally, and we want him to succeed. Then, still cleaning the blackboard so he didn't have to have eye contact with me I heard myself say "We care about you so much that we won't let you stay the way you are. That's why we seem to bug you and bother you."

Our conversation ended soon after that, with him giving me permission to keep prodding him into being a leader instead of acting like a little kid. We had struck a deal. He left, still without much real eye contact. But that will come.


After he left and I was packing up my things I started thinking about what I'd said to him: We care about you so much that we won't let you stay the way you are. That was a variation on a saying that a spiritual director had taught me years ago: "God loves us too much to leave us the way we are." As so often happens, when I was talking to Gary I was also talking to myself about my relationship to God.

I wanted Gary to know that I love him just the way he is, "personal problems" and all. I try hard to believe that God loves me exactly the way I am, no matter what. That's a fundamental truth about God.

But I also wanted Gary to know that even though I accepted him, I also wanted more for him and more from him as a student than what I was getting so far. This is exactly my situation with God: God loves me infinitely right now, "just as I am," as the hymn says, but He loves me so much that he wants more for me. He's not content with my being "nice" or "sincere" or "pretty good." He wants so much more for me and from me. And this is why the Lord is constantly stretching me, sending me challenges and opportunities to grow.  

So, you think my encounter with Gary was a coincidence? I don't. It was God taking me to school once again to teach me, or rather to get in my face and challenge me and stretch me and invite me to grow in patience and humility.

I'm not sure how well I did on this particular test with Gary, but I think I passed. 

And when Gary returns on Monday and sits in front of me I can't wait to ask if he's got the homework. If he doesn't have it, I'll have to get in his face. But at least maybe he'll look me in the eye when I do.

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