Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Catholic teacher in a public school - 1988

On April 18, 1988, I was awarded the Outstanding Teacher Award for that year by Gonzaga University's Department of Education. A banquet was held there in my honor by the Gonzaga faculty and the award was presented by Father Peter Ely, SJ, then President of Gonzaga University.

I had been invited to share with them my "philosophy of education." I recently came upon the file of that speech and realized that the audience there of university faculty and a large contingent of friends, family members, and colleagues from Quillayute Valley School District in Forks were not the ones I really should have been addressing.

Over the years, many of my students have become teachers here in Forks and elsewhere. I have sometimes wished I could have shared with them the values on which I built my work each day at Forks High School. So I have decided to post it here on my blog to make it available, even though the event took place many years ago – a generation ago.

 So here it is:

April 18, 1988
Gonzaga University Faculty Club
Spokane, Washington

Faculty, family, friends, and colleagues: 
I want to begin tonight by telling you what I'm not going to talk about.  I'm not going to talk to you about what is happening on the cutting edge in education today.  You people know lots more about that than I do.  My son David, who is just completing his student teaching at Cal State Chico knows lots more about that than I do.  I know that is true when he calls me up and tells me about teaching cognitive webbing to his 9th grade health class – and I realize that I do know – kind of  -- what he is talking about.  (But not really.)  Something, I think, to do with clustering, brainstorming, right brain writing?  I read; I go to workshops; I know a little about these things – but I'm no expert.  I've been out in the woods for 13 years teaching English.  I haven't been in graduate school.

What I do want to talk about tonight is the period of reflection I have been forced into this year in response to the questions you asked me in the nomination and selection process.  When my principal, Jim Bennett, brought the forms into me one day last fall, he asked me to prepare a written response to your questions about my philosophy of education, the kinds of things I do in class which seem to work, how my students feel about my class, and so forth; and he asked me to have it ready before three o'clock that afternoon for the mail.

"Jim," I reminded him, "I teach school here.  I'm supposed to be doing some things with my students during the day here, right? 

His answer was typical:  "You can work it in." 

And so, of course, I did.

While my students were putting together some notes for a test on the journey of the Argonaut, I was searching around my room for some ideas I could use in putting together those answers.  Assignments on the chalkboard, the Shakespeare posters on the bulletin board, fire alarm directions over the door – these didn't seem to hold much promise.  Eve Datisman teaches Humanities one period a day in my classroom, and her corner bulletin board with it's Cogito ergo sum might do - - something about thinking.  My class slogan is posted in large cutout letters down the south side of the room: You should have a profound respect for one another!  (No student has ever identified the author as St. Paul, although I've challenged them to earn extra-credit points by locating the source.) My attention turned next to my desk, computer discs, and miscellaneous desktop junk.  Under the junk is a sheet of clear Plexiglas, and under the Plexiglas is a collection of quotations, cartoons, photos, memos, etc.  I cleared a little space and found a page from an old Inklings calendar:

            There are no "ordinary people.  You have never talked to a mere
mortal. Nations, culture, arts, civilization – these are mortal, and
their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.

            But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub,
and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. 
(From The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis)

That quotation became the beginning of an essay I wrote in response to your first questions.  I finished the task during my prep, my library period, and at odd moments during the day when students were working independently. 

When the letter with the interview questions arrived, I was overwhelmed.  There was no space on my calendar to just sit down and think about the questions, let alone formulate responses.  So I carried the letter in my pocket for a week or ten days, worried about it a good deal, and talked to colleagues and friends about it.  And I went back to my desktop to see if there might be anything else there that I could use. 

When asked in the interview about how I deal with my crowded calendar and the stress results, I did quote the Frank and Ernest cartoon, where one character (a patient) says to the other, who is a doctor, "Don't tell me not to burn the candle at both ends.  Tell me where to get more wax!"  And the Edna St. Vincent Millay poem next to it: 
My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night,
But, Ah, my foes, and,
Ah, my friends,
It gives a lovely light.

When I realized that I would be expected to speak here tonight, I wished I could bring my desktop with me for an outline – so I did.  I went to school late Friday night, cleaned off my desk, and transferred all those little clippings and pictures to a sheet of poster paper, rolled it up, and brought it with me.  This is what is on my desk:

There are pictures of family and students, some in my classroom, others at a recent retreat I worked on with my Confirmation class from St. Anne's.  There is a picture Joanne Penn gave me when she graduated.  I see a holy card given to me by my friend Judy Crabill on what seemed the worst day of my life about 15 or 16 years years ago at Dixon High School.  It is from John XXIII and reads: "It is well to be ground up by pain death so as to rise again."  It has stayed on my desk since the day she gave it to me.  There's a cartoon about the misuse of the apostrophe, a quotation by Francis de Sales, "Nothing is so strong as gentleness.  Nothing is so gentle as real strength."  These and many other poems, jokes, clippings and cards decorate my desk.

I find now that the process you have forced me into with your questions has been a valuable experience of reflection for me.  I have had to ask myself:  What am I doing?  Why?  How did I get here? 

So what I would like to share with you tonight is the journey that has led me here and the discoveries I have made along the way.

First of all, I need to share with you a little of my personal history.  I graduated from high school in 1955 at the age of 17.  I went to U.C. Davis for one short semester, then married at 18, began my family with twin daughters at 19, and added a son four years later. 

We were farmers at the wrong time.  Don had to leave farming and take a factory job, a job he detested and which lasted a long 10 years – truly a Jacob's labor of love for his family.  I did what I could with small children and no education.  I worked at our tiny branch library five hours a week for a while, was a stringer for a little weekly newspaper, then worked for my father in his automotive repair shop as a part-time secretary, bookkeeper, and parts-manager for a couple of years.  I wasn't very good at any of these jobs, and I didn't make very much money. 

One night, as I wrestled one more time with the seemingly unanswerable questions -- How are we ever going to get out from under financially?  What should I be doing to help Don get out of that miserable job? -- it came to me that perhaps I was supposed to have been a teacher. Now I had never wanted to be a teacher.  I did want to be a writer, and I had had some small success in free-lance writing, but I had no particular wish -- in fact it had never seriously occurred to me at all – to go back to college.  I just wanted answers to today's problems.  The idea of going back to school was a totally new one to me, but in my mind's eye I could see myself standing behind a desk, near a blackboard, doing what my favorite high school English teacher had done.  But the realization of that image seemed impossible.  We lived too far from the university to commute.  We had no money. And I had only one semester of college under my belt. 

The next day I shared with a friend this unexpected idea, and I learned from her that in California, in rural areas at that time, substitute teachers in elementary schools needed only two years of college.  And they earned what seemed to me then the princely sum of $30 a day.

So I proposed the idea to Don.  He didn't take me very seriously.  He looked up from his newspaper, signed, and said, "Honey, I don't tell you what to do," and went back to his paper.  So I took the placement exams, and started the next fall at a community college some 45 miles from home– intending to earn just those next three semesters' credits.  It took only about two weeks before I realized I'd never be able to stop at an A.A.  I would have to go the whole way for a "real" teacher's certificate.  I was a more academic person than I had remembered – and I was on fire for a real education.

Don lived to regret – and, I hope, later to celebrate – his "famous last words."

Along the way we had to leave our big old farmhouse in the country; my children were asked to give up their fairly normal middle-class farm-kid lives – 4-H, Pam's ancient and beloved horse, David's tree house in the back yard. 

The five of us and our two large farm-sized dogs moved into a shabby student apartment house known familiarly in Davis as The Green Uglies, and we began to live a semi-hippie, campus-centered alternative life style of poverty, disorder, and a certain amount of parental neglect. 

Along the way, the UC College of Agriculture discovered Don and recruited him into their teacher-training program, building upon the two-year agriculture program he'd had at UC Davis before returning to work on his father's farm, along with the practical experience he'd accumulated along the way.  By the time I was ready to begin my first year of teaching as an intern at Dixon High School, some 11 miles from UC Davis, Don was also there also doing practice teaching in the Voc-Ag Department, and Pam and Lynne were 9th graders in the same school.

I stayed at Dixon High for three years -- just long enough to earn tenure in a California school – before moving to Forks.  Those three years in Dixon were very important years for me.  I suffered through a very serious illness.  I began to learn my craft.  I saw modeled in Judy Crabill, who was head counselor, how one person could quietly influence a whole institution by living a truly authentic Christian life. 

People at Dixon High School were very kind to me, helping me to learn to teach, manage my classroom, and make it through the difficult period of my illness and recovery.  It was during my Dixon years that I became interested in Catholicism.  I had moved from fundamentalism to mainstream liberal Protestantism, then out of the church entirely in the years before returning to university, but my study of literature and history built upon my earlier independent studies in theology and ecclesiology, so that when I now read the papers from university years, I find that they are permeated by Christian thought and my mentality had become very sacramental.  My analysis of literature frequently expressed a Eucharistic view of life.  The personal suffering and reflection that was part of my illness and recovery, and the example of faith of my Presbyterian counselor-friend Judy were part of a spiritual odyssey which led me to Easter in 1974, when I was received in to the Catholic Church. 

In July of the same year, Don and I were both hired at Forks High School in the State of Washington.  So the years I have been a teacher are the same years that I have been a Catholic, and for the past 12 years in Forks, I have been dealing with the personal question: How do I live out my dual vocations as public school teacher and Catholic lay person.

The Forks years have been particularly rich years for me and for our whole family. The school and the community of St. Anne's are the two contexts in which we live.  The two intersect since many teachers at FHS are also members of the parish.  One at a time, all the members of my family made their own decisions to enter the Catholic Church.  My son and his wife are presently completing their student teaching in California, and are looking this spring for their first teaching jobs.  My daughter Lynne runs a day-care business in California and is involved in child-advocacy causes.  My other daughter Pamela worked as a substitute teacher and drama club advisor in the Forks school district for two years, has just completed her master's degree at Western State University, and is now looking for a position as a drama instructor on college level.  All are committed to the Catholic Church; all are committed to education.

The Document on the Role of the Laity from Vatican II has been an important source for me in formulating my answer to the question of how to live out my vocations as teacher and Catholic.

I have many roles within the community of St. Anne's Catholic Church: I am a lector, a
Eucharistic minister, a catechist of adults and young people, a coordinator of liturgy, and general fetcher and carrier.  We are a mission parish and have no resident priest, so I conduct a midweek communion service, occasionally take communion to the sick, and, with other parishioners, do the work of the parish.  However, as I understand the role of the laity, these are incidental roles; because we have a shortage of priests, sometimes lay people take roles that are more ordinarily those of the clergy – and that is fine; it is a privilege, and I am glad to be able to perform those functions.  But as I understand the document on the
Role of the Laity, my main role as a layperson is to take the gospel into the world, to somehow impact the secular world with gospel values.

In the Cursillo movement – and I always wear my Cursillo cross, partly because my colleague Eve Datisman told me that that was how I was known in the school and the community -- as the teacher who always wears a cross (often it is others who help us to define our vocations).  In the Cursillo movement, we see the Christian life as a balance between piety, study, and action, action being the implementation of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy – what we do to bring gospel values to bear upon the many environments in which we live as lay persons.  One of the clippings on my desk is a Cursillo examination of conscience, a self-check on how I am living my lay apostolate in my work.

A few years ago I attended a Vocational Agriculture teachers' conference with my husband.  One of his colleagues struck up a conversation with me in the elevator.  I was wearing my cross, as usual, and he asked me if I were a Christian.  I told him I was, and he began to tell me what frustration he felt as a Christian teacher in a public school – frustration that he had no way to "witness to his faith" there because of the many rules that support the doctrine of separation of church and state.  I listened to him until the elevator opened and he took his leave, but I didn't agree with him at all.  And I have thought many times about that conversation since.

I am a Christian teacher in a secular school.  I live with all the restrictions he does, but I don't feel at all that I am unable to live my vocation there.  I have tried to understand what he was saying.  I know that all Christians are called by virtue of their baptism, to proclaim the gospel.  I know also that I bear a public trust as a teacher in a public school, not to intrude upon or violate, the beliefs and values of my students and their families.  I have no right to proselytize my students.  So then, I must understand just what is the gospel I am to proclaim.  What language should I speak in proclaiming it? Are we talking about god-talk? truth-talk? or values-talk? or choices and consequences?  or possibilities? Are we talking about being head-hunters, gun-notchers, soul-catchers?  Or are we talking about being a presence of authenticity and integrity within the school community, a presence that speaks God's love?

Is the gospel that I am to proclaim a gospel that says, "get saved" and get your sins forgiven and follow me off to church?  If that is so, then I must either be frustrated like my colleague in the elevator or violate the public trust.

Or am I supposed to proclaim to my students, by my life, my behavior, and my words: You are very, very important!  And you must treat each other with great care and respect?  Is my life supposed to point to the possibility that life has deep meaning that can be found if one searches for it?  If this is my calling, there is no conflict.

It is here that I return to the C.S. Lewis quotation:  I must live in awareness that there are no "ordinary" people.  I do not talk with mere mortals, but with immortals.  And I must give them the honor and reverence that is due them as individuals created in the image and likeness of God, individuals who will live forever, immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.  What we do together, how we share the time that is ours, bears everlasting significance.  The student in the front corner desk today may make decisions years from now based upon what she sees in me today.  It is a terrible responsibility, and a wonderful opportunity.

It is here also that I return to the words written upon my south wall.  You should have a profound respect for one another. I need to call – by the example of my own life, by my behavior, as well as by my words – my students -- and my colleagues – to share this vision of how very important we are as persons in the mind of God.

What does all of this have to do with the teaching of English?  First of all, I have a great appreciation for the idea that the meaning of life is found in searching for truth.  My Grandfather Bingaman was something of a philosopher.  He had no formal education and no credentials, but he was a searcher for truth, and in all his life, his great joy was to talk with anyone who would listen and share with him the great questions of life:  what is truth?  what is the nature of the good?  We grandchildren were the sometimes unwilling sharers of his Socratic dialogues.  But I grew up with the idea that nothing was so important as the seeking for Truth.

Therefore, whether I share with my students in a linguistics unit that "Language is a systematized set of verbal symbols having meaning in a given cultural context," and we explore together the shape and nature of the system and the set in our own language and delight in the order we find there . . .

or  I share with them my favorite sentence in the English language which I learned from my anthropology professor who said it every day in class for a whole semester and who may well still be saying it:  "The pentadigital conformation of the extremities is a hallmark of the evolutionary processes," and we rejoice together in such a glorious way of saying that everything tends to have five fingers and toes, (or at least the rudiments thereof) . . .

or we parse the English sentence and examine the predictable and regular relationships of words, phrases, and clauses . . .

or I share with them that writing is a way of discovering the truth of who we are and what we think. . .

then we are celebrating together the discovery of Truth.

And in literature we can most clearly share the great questions about life and human nature.  We can ask and discover together the consequences of a malformed conscience in Huckleberry Finn, where Huck decides, "Well, then, I'll go to hell," rather than turn in the escaped slave, Jim.

We can examine the nature and importance of families in How Green Was My Valley and Grapes of Wrath.  We can learn about the process of maturation as Pip loses the right path and follows false values in Great Expectations, and Jem deals with disillusionment about the adult world in To Kill a Mockingbird. My students can have Atticus Finch for their role model of integrity and manhood.  They can learn from the Finch's feisty neighbor, Mrs. Dubose, about courage, and from Sydney Carton in Tale o Two Cities about self-sacrifice, from Ma Joad and Rosasharn about womanhood and motherhood, about the strength of women from Beth Morgan and Bron in How Green Was my Valley.

My students can find help in dealing with the power and danger of their own sexuality by listing to the minister, Mr. Gruffydd, in How Green Was My Valley, as he explains the facts of life to young Huw Morgan:

"Is that all, sir?" I [Huw] asked him, and worried, with no happiness.

"Is that all?" he said, and held up his hands.  "What more then?"

"Well, sir," I said, "I thought it was something more.  Something terrible."

"It is terrible, Huw," said Mr. Gruffydd, and in quiet, with his hand on my head.  "It is indeed terrible.  Think you.  To have the responsibility of a life within you.  Many lives.  Think of the miseries and afflictions that can come to those lives beyond the span of your own.  Think to have small children in your own likeness standing at your knee, and to know them as flesh of your flesh, blood of your blood, looking to you for guidance as you look to God the Father for yours.  Can that be anything but terrible, in majesty and in beauty beyond words?"

They can ask questions about the nature of man with the psalmist.  "What is man that thou are mindful of him," or with Shakespeare, "What a piece of work is man!  How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty," or with Ann Frank who writes, "I still believe people are really good at heart."  Or they can weep for Percival Wemys Madison in Lord of the Flies, who, although son of the vicar has learned no more powerful prayer than his own name and address, the incantation of which fails him in the ordeal of the island.

My students and I learn together from Bradbury the secret of distilling experience as Dandelion Wine, using the memory and the craft of writing to save what is of value of the past while living intensely in the present.

So no matter what the unit of study, we are on a quest for truth: in literature, in language, in writing, in our relationships with each other.

In the past I tended to see myself as having something of value to give to my students.  I was to be a force for change for them – and I needed to direct that force, that influence, with responsibility, care, and integrity.  And this is partially true.  But in the past few years, I find myself moving to a different focus.  They have something to give me, just as much as I have something to give them.  And I have to be open to receive that gift from them.

My favorite psalm for all my life is this one:

One thing have I asked of the Lord,
That will I seek after:
That I may dwell in the house of the Lord
All the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the Lord,
And to inquire in his temple.  (Ps. 27:4)

For me that temple cannot be the church or my time of quiet, personal prayer.  For me, it must be my classroom, the halls, and the faculty room of Forks High School.  It is there that I live.  It is there that I must find and behold the beauty of the Lord in his people.  It is there that I must inquire with my students after truth.  Forks High School, my students, my colleagues, these are my school for holiness.  This is the ground on which my salvation will be worked out.

When I go for spiritual direction to my pastor, Fr. Alan Marshall, the question is always, how and where does God speak to me, and what is he saying?  More and more the focus of my life is to be very, very attentive to each moment and to what is happening around me, to recognize the Real Presence of Christ in the people and situations of my everyday life.  If I am not attentive to Him there, I may miss Him.

When I was a child I was very envious of Moses.  He saw God in a burning bush, and heard God speak to him.  He took off his shoes in awe because he knew he stood upon holy ground.  I wanted to see and hear God, too.  I wanted to want to take off my shoes.  I envied Moses' encounter with God.

Now, more and more in my own life, I look around and see that all the bushes are burning.  As I enter my classroom, I enter with joy, filled with awe and wonder and reverence, knowing that I, too, am truly living on holy ground.  It has always been my custom to go into my classroom early in the morning before the first students arrive, to bless the room, and pray for God's presence to be there during the day.  (There have been those times when I wished I had a priest with me who could use some holy water and exorcise the place!)  Now, I expect some day to embarrass myself and confound my students by making genuflection when I come in for the beginning of first period, because I have come to see the face of Him whom I seek in the faces of my students.

Now reverence to students and colleagues is my intention, but, like everyone else, I am a sinner, so I fail, more often than not, to live up to this ideal.  And I do believe with St. Paul that teachers will be held more accountable.  I remember that Christ promised a millstone around the neck of those who offend his little ones.  I am aware that whatsoever I do to the least of his people – child and adult – I do to Him.  So I am aware of my failures and I grieve for them. 

There is a special list of sins that all teachers are prone to and I am no exception:  impatience, pride, self-seeking (using students to bolster my self-concept), stereotyping, rash judgment, detraction, gossip, condemnation – these are the common sins of teachers, and they are my sins.  But as I find my sinfulness in the context of the classroom and school community a frequent subject of my confessions, I also find that the sacramental celebration of penance renews my joy, deepens my vision.

When I was considering how I would answer the interview question about how I would like to be remembered, I shared the question with several other people.  Two friends -- one a woman who is not an educator, but who is a long-time prayer partner and spiritual companion, the other my pastor and spiritual director Fr. Alan – without consulting each other, each gave me the same answer, a line from a Monks of Weston Priory song:  "All I ask of you is forever to remember me as loving you."  I thought that was an interesting coincidence, and a meaningful one.  It is not an easy and sentimental love I would want to be remembered for, however, but a tough love that asks a lot and is willing to bear, believe, and hope everything.

I need to go back to my desk.  It is important for me to have remembered and to have shared with you what is there.  But it is also important that you realize that my desktop is always buried in junk.  No one ever sees it, not even me.  It's there; it's what I operate out of; it's the foundation of who I am and what I do; but I don't think about it much.  I just go on doing what I need to do every day.

On the right hand front cover, under the plastic case where I keep computer discs, is an old card, sent to me my friend Judy Crabill some 16 years ago on another particularly gritty and difficult day.  It says, "A friend hears the song in my heart and sings it to me when memory fails."  It has been on my desk, in every classroom I've lived in  -- California and Washington – for all these years.

I believe it is my vocation to share the song . . .
       and to hear it sung back to me
            --by my students,
            --by my colleagues and my friends.

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share, more explicitly with you tonight than I have ever done before, my song - -

And I ask of you,
      please keep singing it back to me.

Thank you.