Today was my first day tutoring at the neighborhood parochial school located just down the block from my house. Ascension School–a ministry of the Church of the Ascension–is a wonderful asset to the northside, serving as both reflector and change agent in the neighborhood. Founded by working class Irish Catholics, the parish has for more than one hundred years welcomed the “least of these.” The student body–served by a very capable principal, Ms. Dorwatha Woods, and a dedicated faculty– is wildly diverse (96% students of color, 36% English Language Learners, 82% free-or-reduced lunch, and a whopping 47% non-Roman Catholic.) Students who wish to learn are welcomed at Ascension regardless of religious tradition, cultural make up, or financial ability.
I’ve signed up to help out in various ways, mostly by tutoring in a few classrooms a week. When I introduced myself to the sixth-graders (Mr. Maynus being too difficult to pronounce, we settled on Mr. M), one hand in the first row immediately shot up.
“Mr. M,” he asked, staring intently at my chest. “Who’s that on your necklace?”
Considering the large crucifix hanging on the wall just above my head, I assumed that he was asking about the medal of Frances de Sales and Jane de Chantal hanging from my crucifix. Remembering a conversation I had with my friend and former Vis intern Anna, I responded, “Those are my teachers. One is named St. Francis and the other is named St. Jane. ”
He looked at me quizzically and another scholar asked, “What do you mean your teachers?”
What indeed did I mean? Sixth-grade social studies was hardly the place to launch into a lecture on the communion of the saints. I contemplated for a moment telling them about the historic St. Frances de Sales, a 17th century bishop in Geneva, and his best friend, St. Jane de Chantal, mother, widow, and foundress. But that didn’t seem prudent either.
Instead, I asked them about how important Mr. S– (their classroom teacher) was in their lives. Does he give you good advice? I asked. And does he help you when you have problems? They nodded solemnly (a bit too solemnly for sixth graders, but then again this is a parochial school.) I then told them that St. Francis and St. Jane did those things for me. Whenever I was in trouble, I turned to them for advice.
Of course, the question which came next was “What kind of advice?!” Having thought of this, I offered, “My favorite advice from St. Francis is this: Be who you are and be that perfectly well.” Judging by the blank stares and arched eyebrows, I don’t think they quite understood. While I was tempted (oh so very tempted!) to “translate” Francis into modern parlance ( #ubu, as my friend Mike Newman osfs suggested), I moved on.
Working with these young scholars is an immense privilege. While I’m a very proud product of a public school education, I’m finding a new freedom working with children in a faith-based setting. While not all (or even most) of my student-friends know what in the heck I’m talking about, I’m finding it absolutely liberating being able to talk about St. Francis or St. Jane. These young scholars may never again encounter Francis or Jane–and they may never darken the door of a church after school-but at least for this moment, I’m able to share a true and unfiltered piece of myself. I’m not at all proselytizing, but I’m absolutely evangelizing–letting other people know that Jesus truly loves them just as they are.
While it is certainly possible to share that truth in a public school context, I’m finding that my calling is much more whole in a religious context. I am a person whose interest and industry is religion. I have other interests (baking and Harry Potter come instantly to mind), but my primary joy is in religion. I feel most whole when I can wear my crucifix on the outside of my sweater instead of tucked inside or into the pocket. Religion is such an integral part of my identity that it’s hard not to discuss it. My friends and family know this (perhaps all-too-well, some of them.) Discovering and empowering one’s vocation is absolutely exciting. It’s like finding an long forgotten $20 in your coat pocket from last winter–or even like wearing your favorite sweater straight out of the dryer. It’s the simple things, I’m finding, which bring the most whole delight in life.
Delighted on the northside,