Wednesday of the Twenty-Ninth Week in Ordinary Time
By BENEDICT AUGUSTINE
“Much will be required of the person entrusted with much,
and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”
Teaching an AP English class, I have the opportunity to work with the school’s most talented and motivated students each year. Because my class focuses mainly on writing, which reflects one’s thinking, I also have the unique perspective of seeing these students’ thoughts. Whether an essay prompt concerns the relationship between certainty and doubt or the morality behind offering incentives for charity, a unique pattern of reasoning and values will always filter through their essays. Some students work through the prompt like a math problem, speedily moving through a logical sequence without much analysis or nuance. Others let their imaginations roam through the many mental associations they have made on the subject, and spiral their way through an essay until their thoughts converge on a focused claim. Unfortunately, the rest of the students usually have little to say on the subject: they have no opinion, no curiosity, and no background.
For the rest of the year, I usually work on improving these types since almost no student comes into the class as a ready-made writer. I try to show the logicians how to elaborate their points, ease their transitions, and consider a deeper way of thinking about the subject in general. For the dreamers, I have to give them various grammatical and compositional structures to hold their ideas in place and give them coherence. For the raw majority, I simply have to break their mental silence with constant practice and flood their empty caves of thought with every piece of relevant content I can find. For any problem with writing (and there are many), I have a handout and prepared lecture; for any gap in general knowledge, I have an essay and list of writers for further reading; for any flippant dismissal of writing, I have powerful arguments and a loud voice to refute them.
By God’s grace, many students make significant improvements in their writing and, more importantly, in their thinking. They enter the class as children sheltered from any real thought about anything outside themselves, yet leave the class as young adults prepared to engage the ideas around them. They can think through their decisions because they realize that thought involves more than a knee-jerk impulse or hunch. They can talk with adults because they can now adapt their thinking to others and ask relevant questions to develop a conversation. Finally, these students can now take a certain amount of joy in thinking and expression now that they have a certain measure of competence.
In the past, this achievement alone would content me. As a teacher, I had succeeded in all the meaningful ways. My students have earned their AP credit, learned the necessary skills, and can now follow their dreams. Although I still feel this way to some extent, I have now started worrying about less academic matters. They have fine minds and great potential, but what does this mean if they have nothing in their hearts?
I normally have to keep this concern to myself because public schools and most parents think teachers should remain morally neutral—or empty, depending on how one looks at it—and treat their students as products rolling down an assembly line. After I affix the proper equipment and input the proper sequences at my station, the students move on to a destination that I never really have the chance to see. I have made the students a little more human, albeit in a rather mechanical way, but what for? Where do they go? I always hope that they will go on to find God, find their neighbor, and love them both; yet I know, based on my conversations with them, that they go on to find the World, find themselves, and love nothing. They do not see their education as a gift, something that liberates their mind and frees their heart; they rather see it as a set of marketable skills in an already glutted marketplace. Instead of rising above the grind of working and consuming, they become further entrenched in it, competing for petty honors and empty pleasures. I helped along in their journey, but they were going the wrong way all along.
In my own quiet way, I try to help my students find a Catholic alternative, sometimes mentioning a feast day (today is Sts. Celine and Viator, by the way), discussing Catholic history, referencing a rhetorical strategy that I heard in a priest’s homily, or offering a Catholic perspective on issues that sometime arise. I pray in the “moment of silence” and cross myself at the conclusion of that tiny oasis of silence and reflection. I embrace my job despite its many crosses and its modest compensation, and try to communicate the hidden joys that come from learning and helping others. I could add that what I teach and what I do helps brings me closer to God, but I might lose my job if I say that. A few students notice this, but most of them already have their courses fixed on the star of apparent success. Even though they are not even old enough to vote, they still have enough wisdom to somehow pity me in my idealism.
Pitied or not, I choose to rest in my idealism confident in my Savior’s words. As I read, as I write, as I teach, I “draw joyfully from the springs of salvation.” His words are truth and endure forever, and I must follow them as well as I can. Jesus expects this of me and every other disciple. He also expects these bright young people to bring God into the world and make life better for all His creatures. Jesus expects them to use their talents and gifts to care for those in need, not enter the rat race and pretend that death does not exist. Obviously, their minds need instruction; perhaps less obviously, their hearts need Jesus. If we truly loved our young people, as Jesus loves them, we would teach them how to love before anything else.