I would be lying if I told you I forget the bad students. A fair number have crawled under my skin—their arguments and attitudes have left my mind racing at night. I question their motives and worry about their futures. Yet, I also believe if at least one student isn’t giving me a run for the money then something is wrong. “The nature of the teen” is to challenge authority and push the limits. When true signs of adolescent behavior are remiss, I begin to wonder what’s in the Kool-Aid. To some degree, I want them to question what’s in it, even if it’s with an eye roll or after a deadline.
That being said, I remember and cherish the good students. I am sure parents thank God for that one son or daughter who gives them a whole lot less grief than the others. I’ve been teaching for 10 years now and can say with confidence how much I appreciate good kids. These students manifest and verify, LeBron James’ Nike campaign: “We are all witnesses.” Virtue speaks for itself. The impact that one person can make is not to be underestimated. Class discussions could have taken a different and dark direction without their input or positive presence.
The winter edition of Genesis, the alumni magazine of St. Ignatius College Prep includes an article I wrote about one such example. Tommy Kilgore, “TK” was enrolled in my yearlong course, Foundations of Ethics: Morality and Justice. One of my proudest moments was when he won prestigious Fox Award. This honors the student, "who has displayed mastery of subject matter, contributed to the growth of faith in their classmates, and has shown by their actions that the subject matter has gone beyond understanding to heart."
Tommy continually made connections between literature, American history, and our curriculum. I don’t know that he was overtly religious and yet, I cannot tell you how many world events I learned about through his petitionary prayer. Students lead prayer and ask for intentions. TK would pray “for the victims of the earthquake in Pakistan,” I would listen and think to myself, I didn’t know there was an earthquake in Pakistan. Or he would pray for the success of the penny wars—a student-driven fundraiser. It’s not often that a 17-year old male who was a member of the 1000 lb. club (bench, squat and deadlift) is calling to his peers to prayer in this way.
As the article, The Legacy of the J.B. Murphy Award, 3000 Miles From Home (page 37) affirms, at linebacker Tommy earned the SI football team’s highest award. The defensive line coach of the football team tells one of my favorite stories about Tommy. Coach Frechette, the very definition and visual representation of “alpha male” had to tell TK not to hit so hard in practice. He actually needed him to save that energy and strength for game day; beating up on your own teammates is problematic. This is a rare problem coaches have.
Tommy isn’t the only good student I remember, far from it. But his goodness extended so far that I know for a fact it neutralized some challenging interactions I had with one particularly “bad” student. No wonder we say certain folks are “salt of the earth.” Their goodness, more than likely, does the same.
And recognizing the goodness in all people is a characteristic of being Catholic. Thomas Groome writes Catholicism insists that the human person is essentially good, ever more graced than sinful. Oh indeed, we are capable of dreadful sin and destruction, but this is not what first defines us. God has implanted a "natural law" within our hearts that enables people to know and choose what is good, a capacity enhanced by Jesus' dying and rising for us. And though we always need God's help, grace empowers us and we are responsible to live for the kingdom, to do God's will "on earth as it is in heaven."
The positive understanding of the person affirms “that all people reflect the image and likeness of God is also the basis of Catholic teachings on the dignity of every person.” Believe you me, there are some students that challenge me to see and believe this but with enough time and grace, I have found their goodness is eventually revealed. It may take the help of the great ones like Tommy Kilgore or a lot of petitionary prayers, but as scripture says, “seek and ye shall find.”
Thank you, TK and countless others who over the year have made the classroom sacred space, holy ground for every one of us—the good, the bad and the ugly…and Catholic.
Brett Cde Baca, Gabe Manzanares & Tommy Kilgore (thanks to Darren Cde Baca)
We Are All Witnesses
Coach Frechette: School Lineback (thanks to Naj)
One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic