The first year of teaching is notoriously horrible.
In fact, I came VERY close to leaving ACE around October and November of my first year. I had never worked so hard or felt so overwhelmed or under-qualified. I had never felt so lonely or inept in my life. I was far away from friends, family, security… sanity. I was mired in papers and students whom I cared about but did not know how to help.
I had pretty much made the decision to leave after my first semester of teaching. This just wasn’t for me. So many of my friends were getting married, meeting people, loving their jobs, living healthy, fulfilling lives… and here I was, in the middle of nowhere, far away from everything and everyone I loved, and not making one whit of difference no matter how hard I tried.
I remember sitting at my desk, exhausted, too tired to stand and walk around the room monitoring my students as they labored over their exam.
It was December. Christmas break was in sight. I wondered what I would do when I left Louisiana, or how I could begin to explain my decision to my principal or ACE housemates.
I had never really failed at anything before. I had never tried something, given it all I had, and watched as my efforts crumbled into humiliations, day after day.
I didn’t like failing.
I had never failed a subject in school, and here I was, feeling like a failure as a teacher.
I kind of knew what some of my students must feel like. You try and try and nothing ever seems to get better.
As I sat at my desk, chin on my hand, I began to look at each of my students*. There was Kelly with a frown on her face as she scribbled down the first few sentences of her essay. She had scared me to death when I first met her, because I knew she was exactly the sort of person who would have really intimidated me when I was in high school. She wasn’t afraid to speak her mind or let you know if she thought you were complete incompetent. And yet we had developed a mutual, if guarded, respect.
And then there was Jeffery, gazing off into space as he absent-mindedly chewed the end of his pen. He was always too “cool” to care about school, or most anything else for that matter. But we got along. He smiled sometimes when I forced him to write an answer down.
Then there was Peter, dark-eyed and kind of scary. The other teachers had warned me about him. But I had always given him things to do from day one. “Hey, Peter, could you please take this to the office for me?” “Peter, would you go and tell Mr. Benoit that…” “Peter, I’m going to trust you with this: please…” And I think he was so surprised I entrusted him with anything that he never acted up in my class. Not once.
I looked at smug Mike, the one who always annoyingly tried to compliment me. “Hey, Ms. Shea, I like that dress.” “Do your bell work, Mike.” “Hey, Ms. Shea, you look beautiful today.” “Irrelevant, Mike. Sit down.” “But Ms. Shea, I’m just trying’ to…” “I don’t care, Mike.” “Hey, Ms. Shea…” “I’m happy to see you too, Mike. Do your work.”
I smiled in spite of myself.
I kept looking around the room at all the faces bent down over my exam, the pens and pencils scratching, heads leaning heavily on hands that occasionally were waved vigorously to get the blood circulating again after so much writing.
And I realized something strange.
So many of my college friends were finding love in so many beautiful ways (okay, mostly via marriage and children), and yet I suddenly saw that I had found love too.
I loved my students.
I don’t know exactly when it happened, but that December I realized that somewhere along the way, it had.
God may not have given me the kind of love I was looking for or hoping for, but He had given me these kids.
And I knew I couldn’t leave.
I had to stay.
And that’s why I didn’t quit my first year of teaching.
Lewis said, when his wife died: “I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate if they do, and if they don’t.”
I’ve found that suffering of this magnitude often is best respected with silence — the silence of Mary watching her Son on the cross, perhaps even the mysterious silence of God the Father that drives all of us–His Son included–into anguish and loneliness and fear.
Some people conclude that this silence reveals absence. They ask “why” and of course receive no answer.
Others discover in the silence the gaze from Jesus on his cross.
C. S. Lewis describes grief better than most people–but only because, in this book, he was describing it from the inside:
“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth of falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?” (Lewis, A Grief Observed)
“Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.” (Ibid)
“It is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter.” (Ibid)
Also, I’m not going to apologize for being a “downer” in a (normally lighthearted) Quick Takes post. It is okay to be sad. And it is good to grieve for others. I don’t know whether it helps in any practical way, but it seems to me rather a matter of justice that we give up our own happiness sometimes to grieve for the pain of others, even those we do not know.
The Pope (as usual) has challenging things to say that we ought to listen to. (Yes I’m okay with ending some of my sentences with a preposition.)
He says (as others have said) that when we rely on other things or people besides God, we become pagans, because we turn these other things or people into idols.
But then he makes a really interesting point about being a pagan and how it affects our identity.
When we cease to trust in God, when we cease to call God “Father,” we begin to see ourselves differently too:
“Do I still have a name or have I begun to lose my name and … call myself ‘I’? I, me, with me, for me, only ‘I’? For me, for me . . . always that self-centeredness: ‘I.’”
Without God, or with God pushed to the periphery, we think of ourselves only as an “I”. And spite Martin Buber’s beautiful reflections on the “I-Thou” relationship, which Pope Benedict mentioned quite a lot in his writings, Pope Francis here suggests that all of this “I” and “me” is actually deceptive. We are thinking about ourselves all wrong.
Only in God do we receive our true name, which is not “I” or “me,” but “Son,” he said, according to Vatican Radio. But when we place our trust in others, our accomplishments, or even ourselves, we lose sight of our true worth as a child of God. (Catholic News Agency)
My true name is not among the names I (!) use all the time: I, me, my etc.
It is “Son” or “Daughter.”
We recognize our true identity with that name.
And this is beautiful:
“If one of us in life, having so much trust in man and in ourselves, we end up losing the name, losing this dignity, there is still a chance to say this word that is more than magic, it is more, it is strong: ‘Father.’”
“He always waits for us to open a door that we do not see and says to us: ‘Son.’”
I will be returning to Louisiana at the end of the year to see some of my former students graduate! They were sophomores during my first year in ACE, and now they’re all grown up.
I can’t tell you how excited I am to see them!
And MORE good news:
Although for a while there was some serious doubt that ACE teachers would be returning to the Diocese of Baton Rouge…….
Some miracle happened and so they are!
I am so happy that my former school and the other schools ACE serves in that diocese will continue to receive support from new teachers. We’re not perfect, and we don’t know everything, but ACE teachers bring a lot of love to the table.
Speaking of ACE…
The ACE Bus, on it’s national tour, came to Colorado last week and I was able to reconnect with some amazing people and meet former ACE teachers who live out here.
How do you “grade” a teenager’s thoughts about a poem? Especially a poem that he spent hours memorizing, delivered in front of his peers, annotated and marked up for tone and mood and all sorts of literary devices, and quite frankly knows better than I do.
I mean, really.
Ms. Shea, how many papers have you graded so far this morning?
Yes, two. And I have been grading for almost an hour.
It’s an agonizing process, as any English teacher (or perhaps History, Theology and Philosophy teacher too) knows all too well. Sometimes it’s agonizing because you find yourself spending far much more time reading and making comments than the student probably did in writing the essay. Sometimes it’s agonizing because the student is obviously muddling through dyslexia and dysgraphia and cognitive obstacles that create hopeless roadblocks between thought and paper.
Sometimes it’s agonizing because you flounder through a mountain of essays, and finally, mercifully, by some Herculean effort finish them…
…Knowing that in order to be a good teacher you have to make them try again. Which means another mountain of essays.
Sometimes it’s agonizing because your student is obviously very proud of her cliched and hackneyed ideas and innocently believes she has written something very profound.
“It shows that you should look for the deeper meaning behind the poem.”
“It” shows? Who is ‘it’? The poem itself? Don’t you really mean the author or the speaker? “Behind” the poem? What about “in” the poem? Why is the poem trying to stand in front of its own “deeper meaning”?
And what is “deeper meaning,” anyway?
Other times, grading papers agonizing because you realize that no matter HOW much time you spent teaching thesis statements and quote sandwiches and how to explain evidence, some kids just didn’t get it.
Like, at all.
Like, were you in class for the past two weeks?
Or the past year?
Have I taught you nothing????
–the two papers I just graded did not have any of these problems. They were quite good, in fact.
(Okay, I’m grading my honors class first this time.)
And yet the process was still rather agonizing. The amount of attention you really have to muster to think through someone else’s thoughts and then evaluate how she expresses them is rather staggering.
What do I write in the margins to help her? What do I write at the end to affirm her efforts and at the same time challenge her to strive for better?
Even if the student earns an A — there is work to be done. How do I push her further?
Or if the student — especially an honors student — does not earn an A (according to my meticulous rubric that makes something subjective and mysterious seem objective and mathematical)? Perhaps an A-? Or, heaven forbid, a B?
And yet the essay is truly well done and demonstrates remarkable improvement from the previous one? How do I let her know that?
How do I put a definitive letter grade on something (written small, at the very end) and make it clear that the grade itself isn’t really what the student should care about? That I appreciate his thinking and his time and his struggle, and that I am proud of him?
I love grading papers, and I hate grading papers. I love it when I feel like I am establishing a helpful relationship with my student, when I get to see how he is thinking and what he is doing to improve. I hate it when I realize it’s a one-sided relationship and the student probably isn’t going to read my comments anyway, or try to learn from them, but is going to flip to the very end, glance at the letter grade, groan and toss the whole business into the nearest recycling bin.
But learning how to write was one of the greatest gifts I was ever given by a teacher. My English teacher, my sophomore year of high school, hemorrhaged in red pen all over my first essay, and somehow transformed the way I look at writing, read writing, and attempt to write.
I want to do that for my students, too. Even if they don’t fall in love with writing, I want to help them learn how to think and express themselves articulately.
Because it’s language that separates us from pretty much everything else on this planet.
And yet it is language that helps us connect to everything else on the planet — to name it, like Adam in Genesis — to learn to know it, to come to love it.
If you think about it, Charlie Brown is always confronting the problem of Job.
He always suffers, and it is almost never his fault. Lucy and the football is probably the most obvious example.
At different points in our lives, however, all of us are Charlie Brown.
(And Lucy – but we may not be as willing to admit that.)
We all have bad things, sometimes really horrible things, happen to us — either through the agency of another person or through the inexplicable course of natural events.
And so we ask the question: “why?”
And usually, we are not referring to efficient causes here but to formal ones, to use Aristotle’s language.
But I’m not going to try to attempt to explain the problem of suffering here, though. It’s been attempted many times and by people far more learned and holy than me:
In order to perceive the true answer to the “why” of suffering, we must look to the revelation of divine love, the ultimate source of the meaning of everything that exists. Love is also the richest source of the meaning of suffering, which always remains a mystery: We are conscious of the insufficiency and inadequacy of our explanations. (Pope John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris 13)
If you want something like that, though, check out Lewis’ The Problem of Pain for an accessible treatment from a (laymen’s) philosophical perspective, or his A Grief Observed for a much more personal approach.
Or if these do not satisfy you, or if you are rather skeptical about reading Lewis, read “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov. Although, of course, it would be better for you to read the chapter in context (and therefore the whole book). Yet this chapter is very beautiful and very haunting. It does not really address the question in a “here’s the answer” kind of way, but it confronts the real question head-on, as Dostoevsky always does.
“No signs from heaven come to-day / To add to what the heart doth say.”
Dost Thou know that the ages will pass, and humanity will proclaim by the lips of their sages that there is no crime, and therefore no sin; there is only hunger? “Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!”
And we alone shall feed them in Thy name, declaring falsely that it is in Thy name. […] They will understand themselves, at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share between them! They will be convinced, too, that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious. Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever sinful and ignoble race of man? And if for the sake of the bread of Heaven thousands shall follow Thee, what is to become of the millions and tens of thousands of millions of creatures who will not have the strength to forego the earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly? (“The Grand Inquisitor” Chapter Five, The Brothers Karamozov)
Read here, I suppose, Liberation Theology. This was the sort of thing taught at my high school, and this is why I bothered to begin reading Church theology in the first place, to see what she actually had to say in response. Acts of charity seem cheap in comparison to “real” social change, in this view.
The problem the liberation theologians and Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor present, however, is very real. What’s the use of talking about heaven if you don’t address the hells present on earth? Or, put more simply, you must give people ordinary bread before you can offer them the bread of heaven.
Of course, this is what Jesus actually did. You see this especially clearly in the Gospel of John, where He multiplies the loaves and the fishes right before offering the Eucharistic Bread of Life discourse (John 7-6).
But therefore, the temptation to make Jesus some kind of political liberator is really quite understandable. The kingdom, in this interpretation, means bringing justice to the poor and oppressed (which is true, as far as it goes). But this interpretation also pushes the question of heaven aside, because it does not seem very relevant except as an “opiate of the people” or a rather shabby hope of future consolation. This liberation theology a la Guiterrez is yet another effort to explain the “problem of pain” or the question of Job..
But I would venture to say that this is the answer some people give who cannot quite bring themselves to encounter the mystery of Jesus’ own poverty and suffering. They would prefer to see in him some kind of political liberator, an overthrower of Roman or Pharisaical oppression. Such an image is easier to swallow than the Suffering Servant – the One who does not come to end or solve our suffering, but instead to suffer it with us.
The Inquisitor continues his cross-examination of Christ:
And behold, instead of giving a firm foundation for setting the conscience of man at rest for ever, Thou didst choose all that is exceptional, vague and enigmatic; Thou didst choose what was utterly beyond the strength of men, acting as though Thou didst not love them at all- Thou who didst come to give Thy life for them! Instead of taking possession of men’s freedom, Thou didst increase it, and burdened the spiritual kingdom of mankind with its sufferings for ever. Thou didst desire man’s free love, that he should follow Thee freely, enticed and taken captive by Thee. In place of the rigid ancient law, man must hereafter with free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide. But didst Thou not know that he would at last reject even Thy image and Thy truth, if he is weighed down with the fearful burden of free choice? They will cry aloud at last that the truth is not in Thee, for they could not have been left in greater confusion and suffering than Thou hast caused, laying upon them so many cares and unanswerable problems. (Ibid)
You see the problem?
Dostoevsky begins to push the question disturbingly far. Not only does Christ not give his people (especially the poor) bread, he also does not give them any explanation for His negligence. Rather, He chooses to leave things “exceptional, vague and enigmatic” — you cannot believe in Him without making some kind of radical, sacrificial choice or reason-bending submission. You must give yourself up.
“With a free heart [man must] decide for himself what is good and what is evil,” yet He has caused us an unbearable burden by “laying upon [us] so many cares and unanswerable problems” that most people, even those who outwardly profess to be Christians, cannot bring themselves to really embrace the offer fully.
Anyway, you should go read Dostoevsky’s chapter, and then go read the whole novel to see how Dostoevsky’s Christian character Alyosha deals with it.
Charlie Brown’s answer to suffering, of course, usually comes in the form of Linus — the resident Peanuts theologian. Yet he, too, is often mocked for his sometimes ridiculously “blind” faith. Witness The Great Pumpkin:
But in his most famous role, in the Christmas episode, Linus explains the mystery far better than usual. Charlie Brown, as usual, is upset. He is suffering. Nobody likes his Christmas tree, and everybody ridicules him for choosing it. Nobody understands the meaning of Christmas–and, as he discovers, he doesn’t quite get it, either.
And so Linus addresses Charlie Brown’s suffering by telling an old story:
Job, after hearing the conventional wisdom of his three friends, also hears another, perhaps more reasonable and plausible explanation of suffering, from Elihu (whose name means “He is my God”). From a theological perspective, Elihu’s answers are pretty darn good.
But they do not satisfy Job — just as they do not satisfy anyone who has really experienced suffering and loss. God seems so far away in our suffering. The strange thing is, for many people, intense suffering does not necessarily cause them to doubt God’s existence, but rather His goodness. Their pain cries out for justice and healing, things they know they cannot experience here. But God does not respond.
Many people think that the biggest obstacle to believing in God is human suffering. Yet, from an intellectual point of view, suffering, even the suffering of the innocent, isn’t really inconsistent with what we know about a loving God. When in the last century, people said things like “after the Holocaust, it is no longer possible to believe in God,” I think their pain and horror witness to the fact that the real problem is not intellectual, but personal.
I can see how, theoretically, the Uncaused Cause may allow unspeakable suffering to occur and still be “good” in some real way. Or that, because of human free will and the corruption of all creation by sin, suffering does (and perhaps must) occur.
What is much harder to see is this: how can my Father, this God of Jesus Christ, who (they say) loves me, stand back at a distance and watch me suffer like this, right now, in this moment? Or how can He just simply watch as thousands of people in the Philippines beg and pray for His help–and then not receive it?
You see, once you have some kind of relationship with God, the problem becomes not theoretical, but personal. Just as one can imagine that a family member may (in theory) seem betray you or ignore you, although perhaps for a good reason–but when it actually happens, you are mystified and ask yourself, “why?”
The only response that really helps at all, I believe, is that God did not exempt Himself from our suffering. He becomes one of us and embraces our pain. Jesus did not offer us a philosophy that explained everything in the universe. Rather He chose to experience everything we experience in this universe–even abandonment by God.
Eventually, of course, Charlie Brown and his friends need to stop talking and just play the rest of the game.
And we, too, after reflecting and questioning and doubting, must eventually go back to the business of living. Because when suffering actually occurs, it looks very different from the inside than from the safe theoretical “outside” of the Grand Inquisitor. Those who actually suffer real horror often know God better than we, in our comfortable armchairs, do– because they are on the cross with Jesus Christ.