Sunday, May 21, 2017

One Way to Animate the Vision: Name the High & Low of the School Year

One of the reasons I love teaching is because there is a unique ebb and flow to the work. School years come to an end, sometimes faster than we could ever anticipate. How I love June, July and August! Just when the desire to not work grows strongest, a new school year, students, schedule and classes, supplies, opportunities and challenges await. The energy and excitement grows and by that first day of class I am ready. However, what most people don't know is that another feeling "creeps in on little cat feet." Like the fog, this sentiment can range from soft and subtle to a thick, heavy cloud affecting my vision. I look around and realize that the students I once knew as seniors have graduated. I know what this means when they leave us in June...but I see it, I live with it in the Fall. I am already aware that I will miss not only my former students, but some colleagues, too. Sigh. And so I find it quite fitting that the highs and the lows of the 2016-2017 are characterized by that audience.
The vision from St. Ignatius College Prep. Easy to see high and low.
As written about before, I think every teacher should participate in the high/low ritual close to graduation. This reflection can take place over a beer or in a much more formal context. For example, as  I was writing a required end of the year reflection for the principal, I was grateful to share that one of my highlights was an opportunity he encouraged. I had a chance to lead a faculty day of prayer at Xavier College Prep in Palm Dessert. A co-ed high school in the Jesuit tradition, Xavier is a community not all that different from St. Ignatius. To help XCP examine their own story in light of prayer, I shared stories from my own community. I reflected upon the ways which we Animate the Vision of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Founder of the Society of the Jesus, and asked them to do the same.

Ignatius' vision was "finding God in all things" and as a friend says, "in all things, find God." At times, I am sincere when I say it takes little to no effort to find God. However, during those dark days,  long weeks without the smallest break (literally and metaphorically) finding God is a stretch. And yet, if I have learned anything in my 15 plus years of teaching, this is exactly where I am called to find God. The paradox remains, the harder the task the greater His presence. I can't say this is always true. I don't wish challenges on anyone, but I also hate what I know unfolds....experiences, relationships, opportunities that are well, animated by God's grace and glory.

I hope in the sharing of two poignant examples—a tribute to people who will be leaving the SI community and deep impressions on my heart—you will come to realize your own highs and lows for the year. 

Mateo: Stomp on the Tierra
Two years ago, I had the opportunity to serve on a committee to hire the boys' varsity basketball coach. With four other faculty members, we were tasked with sorting through 105 applications and speaking via phone with about 30 of them. A basketball fan and avid supporter of our program, I was excited to participate and to give of my time and hope for this program's future. So was Matt.

Matt, our director of diversity and inclusion in a die-hard NBA fan. I once *stole* his basketball encyclopedia; he hasn't let me live that down. Matt has a strong personality and maybe, just maybe, I do too. Though we both wanted similar goods for the program, we communicated those desires differently and at times unapologetically. I remember after one meeting, a time during which Matt appropriately corrected me, I approached the head of the committee and said I wasn't sure I should stay. I was never that athlete who wanted to quit the team, but because of my interactions with Matt, I did. Truly, a new low for me.

The chair listened to me, encouraged me and asked me to be who I am. I did, but with real trepidation. I'm not sure I made eye contact with Matt for a week. Not all hiring committees are created equal. I have served on a few and some were smooth and easy, others were much more complex; I wasn't sure how this story would end, least of all with Matt, but I stuck it out. At the time, the vision was animated by animosity, intensity and debate. Some it it was interesting, a lot challenging. And as low as I felt at times, our vision was on something greater...for our school, our program and its future.

Time, hard work, listening, working toward a common goal changed everything. Matt and I, (as well as the other three committee members) heard the desire and passion of these applicants, we saw these people putting their dreams on the table and we had choices to make. I can't name the turning point....ok I can.....but in that process, I found in Matt a colleague that I already knew to be smart and but I also found a friend who supported me in ways I never could have anticipated. He trusted me and taught me a lot. We still laugh about some of the tough moments and relish some of the insanity. I'm one of hundreds of people who will miss him as he and his son leave for Southern California.  Getting to know a colleague in the work—the hard work like that—animated my vision like never before. 

I don't think Matt needs to read what has been written here; I have the sense it's something he already knows...but one thing I would like to share is that another high from this year emerged from another low. 

A low for many teachers at SI are the three weeks time during which you are on lunch duty. A colleague, lovingly refers to this time as "pet patrol." I don't enjoy standing for 40 minutes and wandering the cafeteria in between classes so I can tell students to throw away their trash. I hate seeing how much uneaten food and waste they leave behind. I don't want to be "that teacher" but that's the part of the job.  Animating the vision is tough to do...that is, until you let yourself do it.

Niko: The Boy Who Can (now) Dunk
Standing in the cafeteria, I noticed Matt walking through. I wanted to share something about Kareem Abdul Jabbar—his Presidential medal of Freedom? latest book? name on the list of those who have scored more than 30,000 points in the NBA?—to kill the time. As we were talking, a beloved student—an ardent sports fan and basketball player Niko, came over say "hello." 

Matt started to pontificate about the greatness of KAJ only to have Niko off-handedly dismiss him as no where close to the greatness of Michael Jordan. I'm not sure Niko had any idea that his words were fightin' ones. What unfolded for—no joke—the next 15 minutes was great debate about who is the greater player. I felt as though I were watching a tennis match: volley, cross court return, slice deep to the backhand only to run back up to the net for a small blooper that lands on the line of stats, facts, records, accolades of both men and the game we love. Both Matt and Niko were en fuego, teacher and student, young and old, two basketball junkies, one who dreams of dunking and the other who did so in his prime. That might have been the shortest lunch hour of the year. 

I had my three minutes of being Hannah Storm, those two got their fix and the smiles live on. You might think having a high like that for a school year is well, rather inconsequential. Maybe you expect a story of the proverbial light bulb going on or a student falling in love with Sports and Spirituality. I hold some of those moments close to me....but this moment reigns supreme because of the great affection I have for those involved.

Niko was enrolled in my fall Sports and Spirituality class which was and /or could have been a great class, except for the fact that it one student in there literally drained every possible resource out of me. A self-professed nihilist, he challenged me on matters I did not know could be challenged (e.g. the greatness of KAJ. Who does that?). His mockery of the subject matter was hurtful, but the way he brought others down in the process was even more. I can look myself in the mirror and take pride in the fact that I extended the respect that every student deserves, regardless of whether or not they give it to me. I prayed for him I do for all of my students. We teachers know we cannot possibly reach every student, no matter how hard we try, and so we ought to focus on all of those we do, like Niko. He speaks Sports and Spirituality with passion and verve. He made us laugh and he keeps me hopeful. When my vision was animated by dread and dismay, a student like Niko couldn't let that be. Sometimes the highs are just that much higher because of the lows.
This picture of the desert stands in the hallways, second floor at Xavier College Prep
Xavier College Prep's campus is surrounded by dessert, a striking contrast to St. Ignatius that overlooks the vast Pacific Ocean. Though the vision of a student or teacher at either school might seem different—one over a hot and arrid landscape and the other through the fog to the blue waters from the west—it's animated by the same Force...the same Being who made us in His image....the One who makes highs out of lows.  I love you, Lord.

I know on graduation day, as I think back on the 2016-2017, I will picture Matt and Niko, two highs that emerged from the lows. 
Matt, cheering for the Dubs while hating LeBron and Niko, the boy who can now finally dunk

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