Saturday, February 7, 2015


The past couple of weeks we’ve had our students reflecting on the issues of racial stereotyping, sexual prejudice and other such issues. While some people tend to think of these problems first in terms of social psychology, political philosophy or sociology, Dr. King did us the favor of insisting that in fact the Gospel is the fundamental place to find guidelines for how we should act toward others.
Besides the obvious ethical message of the Sermon on the Mount and the parables, there are many other places in where we find some good insights. One such passage came up this past week.

The gospel passage at mass last Wednesday was Mark 6:1-6, which shows us Jesus in his home town of Nazareth being rejected by people who had known him ever since he was a child. How is it such great works are performed by his hands? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son? Don’t we know his sisters? So, obviously he can’t be anything special. We know all about him. The gospel tells us that “Jesus could work no miracle there, so much did their lack of faith distress him.”

This got me to thinking again (I believe I have reflected on this in a previous post) about the way we label people or imprison them in mental compartments from which we won’t let them escape. This is an occupational hazard for us teachers. A student gets an F on the first quiz and I catalogue him (even if subconsciously) in my mind as “an F student.” Then when he hands in a well-written assignment with lots of great ideas and no spelling errors I get suspicious and ask, “Wait a second? How could he have written this? I know him:he’s the one with the F’s.”

Or maybe it's something negative I overheard in the faculty lounge about a certain kid. That’s the only thing I know about him, that “he’s trouble.” So the first time there’s the slightest disturbance in his corner of the classroom my mind goes through a quick and easy process: “Isn’t this the kid who causes trouble? Let me jump all over him right now so he knows who’s boss.”

This ability to draw conclusions from very little evidence is a useful gift. As soon as my car starts to make a certain weird noise I remember that I heard somewhere that this particular make and model has problems with the brake linings, so I immediately conclude: “I know what that noise is - it’s the brake lining.” Maybe it isn’t the correct diagnosis, but it’s certainly a sensible place to begin trying to solve the problem.

The thing I can’t forget, though, is that if I’m wrong about the brake lining, well, no harm done; the brake lining is none the worse for my having blamed it incorrectly. But (Duh!) a teenage boy is not the same as a brake lining. He is the worse for the experience when I judge him on the basis of little or no evidence, or when I have him “pegged” and won’t let him convince me via contrary evidence that he’s not really that way.

Believe me, I know this kid! I know what he’s like. (This is a variation on "Isn’t this the carpenter? I’ve known him since he was a child! He can’t do miracles!") In the gospel this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Interestingly, in Mark’s version Jesus can’t work any wonders in Nazareth not “because of their lack of faith,” but because of what that lack of faith has done to Jesus: “He could work no miracle there, so much did their lack of faith distress him.” If such closed-minded prejudgment could distress and discourage the divine Son of God, imagine what it can do to a teenage boy!

I’d hate to think that this has could ever be said of any student of mine: “He couldn’t manage to do his best work in that class because he realized that Fr. Al didn’t believe he could do it.”

On a positive note, when I have a student whose bad reputation has preceded him I always try to send as many signals as possible to let him know that I believe him to be a competent person, lovable and capable of doing good things in my class. It’s not surprising that this approach is working like a charm with a certain student of mine right now, and he’s working hard to live up to my expectations.

This works in other areas of life, too. When I’m about to judge someone on the basis of flimsy evidence or prejudice (their hairdo, their dress, their mannerisms) I work at looking past that to the deeper reality of who that person really is. Had the townspeople of Nazareth been able to do that, Jesus could have worked miracles in their lives.


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