Perhaps it’s my 25 years as a teacher, but for me Dec. 31 rarely prompts much soul searching or melancholy musing on the passage of time. No, for me time’s movement becomes especially vivid and poignant in June. The school year ends and a teacher is left in a state of almost bipolar ambivalence. At one level, she feels like an exhausted marathon runner, gasping and grateful as she reaches the finish line.
I teach seniors and, trust me, the road from April 1 (when the last of the college acceptance letters arrive) to their graduation often seems interminable. One tries desperately to be a grown-up and not take their senior slump personally, realizing that most of them have truly worked hard and are also exhausted. But on a particularly trying spring day, as the ennui seems palpably to choke the classroom (and sometimes, you will be shocked to know, that apathy rises to the level of smug resistance!), I could easily resonate with another senior teacher who announced between clenched teeth at the faculty lunch table, I just want to get to commencement without standing in front of a judge!
Blessedly, with luck and without incident, the big day finally comes. For the umpteenth time you watch them cross the stage and receive their diplomas, and instead of their ennui, all you can remember is their giftedness, their energy, their vulnerability. All you can remember is how much fun they were. All you can do is anxiously wonder, with T. H. White’s Merlin, Did I teach him everything? And then you realize that you had four yearsjust four yearsand now they are gone.
A few hours after just such an experience, I found myself on the patio of a young alumnus’s home, celebrating his graduation from college. That, too, hit my mid-life time is passing nerve, and I again was awash in déjà vu. Didn’t this young man just graduate from high school? The last four years had gone by in a blur; and here he was, filled out in body, mind and spirit, about to engage the real world. But touchingly, even in the midst of his own celebration, he looked at me and a Jesuit friend and said: How do you do it year after year? How do you welcome us every four years and then watch us go?
I thought about that question for days afterward. My short answer was something about the nature of a vocation that, over time, I have realized to be absolutely true. You know if you are in the right profession when you can bear the inevitable suffering of your job and still have the energy to continue. Every work that allows for creativity demands risk, and risk allows for the possibility of failuresometimes failure that causes great pain. Beyond failure, most work involves Judith Viorst’s necessary losses, because life, and therefore work, is so often cyclical. As the sage of Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is a time to plant and a time to harvest, a time to be born and a time to die. Happily, children learn, children grow, young people graduate. It is a joyful thing, a good thing, a sign of success. But it can hurt.
So how do we do it? How do we remain resilient enough to accept the loss, accept the grief it entails and welcome the next class? Why is it that September arrives and the energy, the excitement, bubbles up again? Like most experiences of grace, this mystery of rejuvenation is dense; but I realized this year that beyond a sort of grace of office, my ability to move through the melancholy of early June and, by August, look with eagerness on another September flows from the great gift of community.
It is the adults who surround me as the last strains of the commencement recessional fade that make the good-byes possible year after year. It is the colleagues who gather as Labor Day approaches to rewrite syllabi, arrange classrooms and swap summer stories that make each September an inestimable gift. Schools are created for students, but they endure and they flourish because of teachers. Or rather, a school flourishes because it is a community of teachers. Community is one of those 70’s words that has been hammered to death; but, like love, its misuse still leaves us with no satisfying substitute.
I am reminded of something I heard the late Henri Nouwen say at a L’Arche gathering years ago: Community is created when we care for the vulnerable. I am struck by the absolute truth of thisnothing bonds adults together like their common commitment to people who need them. To create community one must have a common passion, a common love. One must be in a communal relationship, committed to service. Community is created when we know we have been made responsible, answerable for some group of souls entrusted to us. Teachers in a school know this. It is the e-mail message from a colleague asking if you too have noticed that Harry seems depressed. It is the proud glance shared between two faculty members when the cherub with the stutter bravely gets up as a lector at Mass. It is the communal hand-wringing of a faculty when a boy seems inexorably bent on destructive behavior.
Lawrence S. Cunningham, in The Catholic Experience, describes the phenomenon well: Communities are born and nurtured by those who find a common sense of purpose which is recognized and celebrated. Communities are the natural product of deep convictions which overarch the individual impulses of this or that person. When conviction is felt and expressed, community is born.
Why is this? I think it is because a common love helps us accept our differences, recognize our unique gifts and forgive each other’s foibles. When I am focused on something transcendent, something beyond me (my ego, my needs, my opinion), then I can let you be youand accept what I will never change.
Anyone who has lived and worked with a group of people for a significant period of time will recognize this miracle. Let me be frank. After sitting in faculty meetings with a teacher for over 20 years, you know pretty well what she values, what annoys her and what drum she is likely to beatincessantly! Here she goes againabout the dress code (for or against), classes missed for sporting events, eliminating homeroom. Pick a school issue and you can fill in the blank. And, surprise, surprise, by May it is not only the slumping seniors that can cause me to grind my teeth!
But if, by the grace of God, one is able to relate to colleagues with a reasonable amount of charity and keep the avenues of communication open, one often discovers a truly humbling truth: the students need us all, and the school would be greatly impoverished if all the adults were just like me.
I knowit sounds so ragingly obvious. And yes, it is an admission of terrible arrogance. But over the last 25 years, as I have watched my estimation of my colleagues enlarge, even to the point of awe, I have had to swallow the humiliating pill that my occasional annoyance with a particular faculty member is usually petty and can cause me to miss the miracles going on around me. Because when I really look, I see a group of talented, committed people, blessed with the usual array of human foibles, who care profoundly about the boys committed to our careand who, on commencement day, can be justifiably proud.
I have been at Georgetown Prep 25 years, and I would guess that about 20 percent of my colleagues arrived with me in 1975 or soon after. The average tenure of a faculty member is 16 years. We have baptized one another’s children, buried one another’s parents, celebrated one another’s retirement. We have been there for milestone after milestone in our own lives and in the life of the school. We have welcomed young faculty members, mentored them through the agonies of first year teaching and watched some of them move on to other schools or even other professions. We have ordained alumni, married them, educated their children, buried their spouses. Life has washed over us and through us.
We are not the educational equivalent of Mayberry. There is no magical kingdom here, no paradise lost or found. We are an ordinary school with all the usual crankiness and imperfection that adds the necessary struggle to everyday life. But I realized this year that I am rooted in this school and in these people. And rootedness is what makes sacrifice and, therefore, fruitfulness possible.
To put it more concretely, I am able to move through June’s losses, feel the real pain of it and then open my heart to the next class of boys in September because I do not do it alone. I do it with people who know me well and have the generosity to accept and support mewarts and all. I do it with people who share a common commitment and a genuine passion. I do it with people whose focus is always outwards, always scanning the scene for the next adolescent need.
And yes, this is trueeven amid June’s communal exhaustion. During final exams, I was sitting in the Prep’s dining room after most of the boys had left, finishing my lunch. Tom Roach, S.J., our president, leaned over to me, motioning to a student with his back to us, and said, Julie, who is that boy at the end of the tabledo you know his name? Where has he been hiding? I said, Gee, Tom, I have no clueI rarely know the underclassmen unless they are in the plays. (Besides teaching, I have been known to smear pancake make-up on novice thespians!) Tom then turned to Bob Barry, a veteran teacher who reviews admissions folders and has an incredible memory for faces and names. Sure enough, Bob stands up, gets a better look at this freshman (who remains blissfully oblivious to all this adult scrutiny) and announces, That’s Tom McDevitt.
It was a small moment in a school day but one that brought me to tears when I remembered it later. When Father Roach asked that question, he was just days away from his departure, leaving Georgetown Prep after 15 years, to serve as a consultant to Jesuit schools in Poland and Lithuania. But in those 15 years, Father Roach has always known the name of every boy in the school. And the habit was so engrained and his scanning of the boy horizon so constant, that his concern for them continued unabated. That is what real love looks like in the ordinary, the day-to-day life of a teacher: Who is that boy? Where has he been hiding?
Henri Nouwen was rightcommunity is created when we care for the vulnerable. And it is community that roots us in a love that regenerates itself as the poignancy of June gives way to the exuberance of September. How do we do it year after year? We do it together.