Monday, November 7, 2011

My Teaching Hat

This is not my teaching hat.  I just like to wear it.
Generally speaking, priests like to teach.  To some extent it is pent up aggression from eight long years spent in the classroom preparing for ordination desiring to revenge itself upon the unwary that prompts our taste for the lecture hall.  More importantly, however, I think it comes from a genuine desire to spread the gospel.  For diocesan priests at least, teaching happens most frequently at the pulpit, and the occasional RCIA or adult formation class.  Seldom, however, do we have the opportunity to gather a class before us in the classroom.  Even more seldom are we provided the opportunity to attempt to feed the eager young adolescent mind (tongue in cheek).  So, it is a blessing and a privilege of mine, this year, to have the opportunity to teach two classes with a group of home-school students who gather for collective learning opportunity once each week.

I have been charged with the task of trying to present a coherent and thoughtful assessment of the Church's history over the course of twenty-two weeks.  This means that I have to cover roughly one hundred years every sixty minutes.  This has proved a challenge.  Likewise, because I do not grade the students and cannot really dole out any real consequences for failing to assimilate the material, I find myself a bit at wit's end at times trying to figure out how to engage a handful of obviously uninterested and unimpressed teenaged boys.  I console myself with the knowledge that one day they will lose a great deal of money on Jeopardy because they do not remember the name of the early heresy that claimed that Christ was less than completely divine.  Alas . . . 

Church history was my primary area of study while pursuing my MA in Theology, and I approach this opportunity to present the Church's history with gusto, but I find that I, as a teacher, am far more engaged with my second class.  Along with one of the mothers, I am teaching a literature course.  To date we have read The Hobbit, and in the coming weeks, we will take up To Kill a Mockingbird.  Most of my literature students are of late middle school or early high school age.  As a result, they are just now at the point of beginning higher level thought.  They are able to think deeply and begin asking important questions.  They are able to begin exploring the contours of their own beliefs and convictions (or perhaps, rather, they are beginning to develop their own convictions).  Perhaps the most interesting part, however, as their interior turmoil manifests itself exteriorly as they struggle to find the words to explain what they think.  And, generally speaking, what they think can be tremendously insightful and enlightening.

I had not really begun to articulate the struggle these kids were experiencing until a few weeks ago when I arrived in class, and wrote the following questions on the marker board:
1) What is a hero?  How do we recognize one?
2) Is our destiny predetermined, and shaped by forces entirely outside of ourselves, or do we have the capacity to change and determine it for ourselves?
I then assigned the following project.  Prepare a 3.5 to 4.5 minute speech in which you answer the one of these questions.  Be sure to employ examples from The Hobbit to defend your position.

Quite honestly, I wasn't sure what to expect from this assignment, and my co-teacher was a bit incredulous.  Having raised several children, she knew that this was going to be very hard for them.  Nevertheless, I had already given the assignment, so we agreed to cross our fingers and hope for the best.

To put it simply, I was overwhelmed at the quality of the speeches and the arguments each of the students made.  While none delivered Winston Churchill quality orations, each of them had obviously thought seriously about the questions and had made the effort necessary to develop a thorough and coherent argument.  These were very good speeches considering the fact that this was the first public speaking assignment most of them had ever had.  I was thrilled.

So now, I am champing at the bit to get into the next novel.  The text is hard for a middle-schooler, and the themes are very mature.  These young men and women, however, have convinced me that they will handle them with grace.  I am already excited to hear their responses to the question, "Why did Harper Lee choose the title, "To Kill a Mockingbird"?  


Friday, November 4, 2011

That Has Made All the Difference?

The Road Not Taken 

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,       
And sorry I could not travel both      
And be one traveler, long I stood      
And looked down one as far as I could        
To where it bent in the undergrowth;        

Then took the other, as just as fair,    
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;       
Though as for that the passing there  
Had worn them really about the same,                  

And both that morning equally lay    
In leaves no step had trodden black. 
Oh, I kept the first for another day!  
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,       
I doubted if I should ever come back.                   

I shall be telling this with a sigh        
Somewhere ages and ages hence:      
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—       
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

- Robert Frost

I grow rather weary, at times, of people approaching Robert Frost's poetry as though it were all happy verse with glad imagery.  Perhaps it is the ease with which it is read and the sort of warmth that some of his images evoke within us that allow us to overlook the irony to be found in a poem such as the one plagiarized above.  The fact of the matter is that no one really knows what might have come to pass has the narrator traveled the other path.  He has no idea whatsoever how life might have been different had he chosen other than did.  Maybe he would have become rich and famous after have discovered a new variety of truffle.  Perhaps he would have been eaten by bears.  Perhaps he would have found that a giant sequoia had fallen across the path and he had to go back and take the other path anyway.  He might have spontaneously combusted.  And that really is the point.  We don't know.  We haven't any sense at all what might change if we were to choose differently than we do.  This poem is not one of happy reminiscence.  This poem, to my mind, is an expression of bitterness and resignation.  It is a "sour grapes" poem.  The narrator, unable to know what might have been, can console himself only by assuming that what he abandoned was worth abandoning.  And the reader is left to wonder, "How do you know?"

To read the poem in this manner, I think, is a much more realistic assessment of the human condition.  Bound by time and space, we are forced to make decisions.  We haven't the liberty of having all experiences or of following all paths.  When we make an affirmative decision for one thing, we are necessarily deciding against another.  That's the way life is.  This is part of what it means to be a grown-up.  It does us no good to sit around and speculate as to how life may have been otherwise.  This, in part, must be what drives men to midlife crises.  They regret the decisions they have made and try to reverse them in their later years.  It is absurd, because in the end, I don't have what might have been.  I have here, and I have now, and I have a God who loves me, and in his providence, can make all possibilities work for the good.  This, not a leafy road of happy nostalgia, makes all the difference.