Taking It With Me: Mercy's Grace at Work in the Public Schools

After a 24-year teaching career in Catholic education, 20 of those years with the Sisters of Mercy at Mercy High School in Baltimore, I took a big risk and leapt to the public schools. I had always wanted to round out my career with a stint in public education. My move back to my family home in southern Maryland returned me to the cradle of the Catholic faith in the United States, but only one Catholic high school remained in the whole tricounty region, at some distance from my home. The time seemed right to take that leap, and leap I did.

The transition was difficult. I accepted the first job I was offered, teaching sixth grade language arts in a bustling, 1,300-student suburban middle school, which put me on the job after most of the orientation sessions for teachers were finished and only two days before classes began. My student load was 190, and four of my six classes had well over 30 students. I entertained my Mercy friends with stories about little kids hanging upside down under their desks and bigger kids with stubble offering me $20 bills to let them use the bathroom pass just one more time. I ended each day of the first two months vowing to quit and never go back. Often I cried. Each morning before school, I read the Psalms. I felt like an outcast in the land of Babylon.


Four years later, I am now in another county at a 1,700-student high school in a rural community very different from the setting of my previous job. Much has been written about essential differences between Catholic and public education, but I was unprepared for the depth of management problems I would face in both institutions. I had always thought that a good teacher could handle anything, and eventually I found my footing; but I had a new respect for my public school colleagues, many of whom prided themselves on their fine-tuned coping skills.

The daily challenges facing a teacher in a public school make the job one of the most stressful in modern America. Teachers must be resourceful, flexible multitaskers, able to finesse the gap between educational theory and the reality of their crowded classrooms. Among public school teachers, there is a sense of being battle-scarred and battle-hardened. Faculty lounges are filled with teeth-gritting warriors, fully aware of the ironies imbedded in the grand expectations of their employers.

A vice principal, not himself a Catholic, once told me privately that Catholic school teachers came to a new assignment in the public schools with a different attitude, one that they soon lost in the inevitable process of toughening up. It was an unfortunate change, he said. What is this attitude that Catholic school teachers have that makes them different? It comes from the way the teacher looks at a child. Students, even the impossible ones, are seen by most Catholic school teachers as children of God. They acknowledge God as present in the classroom, no matter what subject is taught, and recognize an ethic of care that addresses the whole person.

The other benefit at work in Catholic schools is sponsorship. Parish schools have the advantage of a community within a community, a faith community that acts as an extended family. Institutional sponsorship also pulls an educational community together with shared goals and traditions, making the task of the teacher in the classroom fundamentally easier. And while Catholic schools are committed to working with all children, even the most difficult, it is true that those students who do not ultimately fulfill their roles within the partnership operate under the threat of being denied a place within the school family.

This last option is seldom available to increasingly outraged public sector administrators. The true glory of the public school systemand it is one that we often forget in our zeal to point fingers at the cracks in its overflowing damis its mission to provide education as a basic, human right. Our public schools refuse no one, allow federally mandated chance after chance and welcome every child with proof of district residency, no matter how little room there may be at the inn. The significance of that mandate is lost on those who do not face it in the flesh every day. It also needs to be said that, problems aside, the majority of public school students are responsible citizens within a huge national soup that features every possible human variation. For each story of lowdown behavior, there is its contrasting tale of goodness. Children do learn tolerance in such a setting, even under difficult conditions.

Institutional Grace

The Sisters of Mercy were founded by Catherine McAuley to honor God through service to the sick and the ignorant. Catherine’s intelligence, her political and business savvy, her wit and her sense of hospitality combined to reach a broad audience. Her letters reveal a deep sense of compassion and a special love for the poor and women.

At Mercy High School in Baltimore there were no voices raised except in excitement and delight. The inevitable problems that developed with students were handled with discretion and concern. Respect for each person within the community of persons was obvious, even to outsiders.

As I settle in as a public school teacher, I feel more influenced by Mercy and less and less a part of the public school culture that surrounds me. The term counterculture comes to mind, because I feel I am a visitor in an alien world. The things I learned as a teacher at Mercy High School have kept me grounded, preventing me from looking at my students as the enemy or from conceptualizing the job in military terms.

The potential for discouragement is powerful in public schools. The everydayness of the job and the stultifying bureaucracy can lead teachers to think they are not making a difference. On a personal level, teachers feel they have little influence on the young people they confront and the aberrant behaviors that are everyday occurrences. Bullying is epidemic. Racial, ethnic, gender and sexual slurs are so commonplace that many teachers ignore them. They might as well say nothing and save themselves the frustration and aggravation, because nothing goes in.

Everything Goes In

Sister Marie Foley, who pioneered the human development model at Mercy High School in Baltimore, has a mantra that actively works against this sense of powerlessness. Everything goes in, she says. When I complained to her that I had failed with a student, she would dismiss my frustration by insisting that this young woman might not have been ready to hear the words that were at rest in her heart, but the words were there, waiting for the right time to move into the light.

Everything goes in presupposes a playing field far different from the hierarchical piling of behaviors that ends with the referral to the office. The teacher must establish a world in the classroom in which respect for others is the ruling ethic. Good teachers know that you have to teach this. You have to teach it with every class, every year, sometimes over and over again throughout the year. Students will challenge any attempt to bring them under control. They will fight against a teacher who demands courtesy in the classroom, even though they like it once it happens. It is one of the paradoxes of education.

Some teachers establish control through the use of verbal intimidation. Verbal intimidation by a teacher is as bad as bullying behavior by students. Teachers who scream or threaten or belittle in order to take control of a chaotic classroom show how little they respect individual students.

Some of my colleagues in the public schools regularly call students thugs or delinquents. These terms further dehumanize the young people we teach, even if the titles happen to be true. When we say thug, it takes us off the hook. We spare ourselves the necessity of teaching a person, and we elicit the sympathy of the school community at large in advance of our failure with that child or that class.

Both of the public school systems in which I have taught established character education programs that place great importance on key terms such as honesty, courtesy and respect. I wish character programs would begin with an analysis of the language of the adults who stand in front of classes each day and reveal thought through speech. Most teachers are careful about their language when addressing ethnic minorities, but why not use care and precision when speaking to and about everyone?

Saving the Lost

What do we owe the thugs and bullies of the world? If evil is in the world, it manifests itself through the behaviors of individuals who move around us every day. In one of the public schools in which I taught, teachers arrived one morning to find a Canadian goose hanged from the bandstand. Another time, the massive skylights over the three-story central atrium were covered with racial slurs. In another school sixth grade girls were caught performing oral sex on boys in the bathroom for small change. One of my colleagues reported that ninth graders in the back of her classroom were comparing notes about their parole officers. Last year, I had a hard time keeping a group of boys from openly simulating sex with their desks, as if a girl were a piece of furniture.

What do we owe these students? Is intimidation the only way to bring them under temporary control while their teachers serve the sentence of their presence in the classroom for a season? Do we owe these young people the kind of respect that acknowledges them as children of God? Do we give them permission to engage in cruelty by the very act of a teacher’s making a choice not to speak against an objectionable act, no matter how small? Do we model bullying behaviors ourselves in the classrooms and hallways?


What do I miss most about Mercy High School? It has to be Sister Helen Doherty’s luminous prayer services. I looked forward to those times of quiet in the school day when the Mercy community would come together for shared silence and prayer. I remember the beautiful songs we sang (usually Irish) and the prayers that were carefully worded so that no one felt left out. A Jewish friend taught with me at Mercy for a stretch of years, and she loved those prayer services too.

I have tried to bring moments of peace and reflection into my classroom in the public school in acceptable ways. I have introduced the power nap, five minutes or so when the lights go off and all in the classroom put heads on desks. Sometimes I plan a power nap; sometimes my classes let me know they need one. I also do short snippets of tai chi exercises, slow-moving stretches with deep breathing, accompanied by a peaceful reflection at the end. Most students settle down and seem more attentive after a short rest or a slow-motion exercise.

The public schools are all action, and mostly competitive action at that. The current educational gurus mandate a warm-up as soon as students hit the room, a three-to-five-minute focused activity that takes its language cue from sports. The idea is to distract students with busyness. Keep them moving; that means less time for trouble. Most public high schools have abandoned the study period in favor of yet another class. Students rush into and out of the building each day, from and to buses with their engines running. They are given not quite enough time, so that they will, once again, avoid the inclination for trouble that comes with any idleness. My power naps and tai chi moments are slow-downs, my own subversive attempt to build quiet and reflection into a student’s day.

And, in truth, these few minutes at the start of a class are windows of prayer for me. They help me get my bearings as to what I am really about in that classroom. It is an important downshift, a big picture moment. I look at the bowed heads of my students, some of whom scare me, and I see them at rest, or I watch them flail through what is supposed to be an intense, quiet movement and smile with them as they laugh at themselves. If nothing else, the tension and fatigue in the room shift. I often feel my students actually listen to the little reflection at the end of the session. The room is quiet. I am quiet.

Sister Barbara Wheeley makes sure I get the order’s publications and the province’s yearly address booklet. The kindness, which is really hospitality, of these women in welcoming me from afar to the Mercy table fills me with grace, and I thank them.

Grace also comes to me through the hundreds of wonderful students who respond positively in the public school classroom. It comes through the many acts of compassionate response practiced quietly by students all over the school and by teachers who help one another through difficult times. It comes from the drug-addicted sophomore who, even though he landed in the alternative school for unspeakable acts, managed to greet me civilly in the hallway on four occasions in May and passed his final exam with a C. It comes from another sophomore whom I dared to prove to me that he could read, and he did.

It comes from two groups of sixth graders who wanted so badly to read the Harry Potter book their friends were talking about that they gave up lunch every other day for two months so they could listen to me read it to them, every other chapter at a time, struggling through the off-day chapters on their own or with parents at home.

It comes to me most mornings these days, when I wake up excited at the prospect of heading off to another day in the public schools.

It comes to me each time I meet a former student who reminds me about something I said 10 years earlier that I do not even remember. You were right, they say. We live in a world full of hope and promise.

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