The University of Notre Dame sponsors groups around the country called Advocates for Catholic Education. They are groups of individuals who are committed to Catholic education who gather for Mass, fellowship, and service to Catholic schools. There is a group in Boston and I have attended their Masses on occasion. Ironically I missed many of them this year because they fell on evenings I had a Trinity event!
This past Saturday the group had their final Mass for the year and while I could not attend they posted on Facebook a reflection offered by Caitlin Keaton, the outgoing principal of Saint Rose School in Chelsea, MA. She is moving to Maryland this summer to be the principal of a Catholic school there. Her reflection is a beautiful testimony to why we work in Catholic education. Enjoy.
"It feels like home to me" - remember that song? "It feels like I'm all the way back where I belong." That's how I feel about Catholic schools.
My first year of teaching was in a public school in rural NC. It was a great school with a great principal, great teachers, great parents, and great students. it seemed like the perfect place to start a career in teaching. That fall, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast, and I remember thinking, how do I talk to my 5th graders about something like this happening without mentioning God? They had so many questions, and although I didn't necessarily have answers, everything I wanted to say was either directly or indirectly tied to faith, and the hope that faith gives us, even in the face of tragedy- perhaps especially in the face of tragedy. I couldn't help but feel like something was missing. There was a big part of me that I couldn't bring into the classroom- at least not in an explicit way.
When I moved to Boston seven years ago and started teaching at St. Angela School in Mattapan, I felt such freedom. I felt like I could finally be real. My teaching felt real. When we read novels that addressed big themes like courage and cowardice and life and death and friendship, we didn't have to filter those conversations or pretend that faith doesn't enter into all of those big ideas. When bad things happened in the world around us, we could look at them through a spiritual lens and talk about what our faith teaches us.
Throughout the last seven years in various Catholic schools here in Boston, I have found myself growing in authenticity. Each day, I feel that I become a little bit more of my true self- the person God created me to be. And each day, I see this happening in others all around me, too. This is the great gift of Catholic schools - they give us all environments in which we can become more fully alive, more fully human, more fully ourselves.
I can be my whole self in a Catholic school. I can give my whole self in a catholic school. I can help others- both children and adults- to discover and be their unique, whole selves. I can talk about Jesus in conversations with children about discipline. I can talk about vocation with teachers. I can talk about the hope that our faith gives us in conversations with parents who are sharing their trials and tribulations with me. I can share the gospel and a relevant reflection on it every week when I write the weekly memo to my staff on Sunday and the weekly newsletter to parents on Thursday. I can pray with my school community every morning. I will never forget right before April vacation, our beloved secretary was going to be having surgery and she was very anxious about it. The pastor came over for community gathering that morning and invited her to sit up on the stage. The whole school extended its arms in a special blessing for her. She had the surgery over vacation week, and the results were beyond our wildest dreams. The surgery was to remove a malignant tumor on her lung. The surgeon was able to remove the entire tumor and confirm that the cancer had not spread. No further treatment was required- no chemo, no radiation, nothing! I have never been so happy to share good news with anyone as I was the Monday after vacation when I told everyone at community gathering how Mrs. Wright was doing. The children knew that they were a part of this little miracle, and it became for them a very big and very clear example of their prayers being answered!
We had a fundraiser at a local restaurant on Thursday night and a dad of a second grade student came up to me. In his beautiful broken English, and with tears in his eyes, he grabbed my hand and said, "Miss Keeton, I just want to thank you. Thank you for all your hard work. I don't have any family here. My mother died. My brother died. Everybody else is back in Brazil. But St. Rose...St. Rose has become our family. I'm a single dad so I work too much, but you and the teachers help me raise my son. You teach him everything he needs to know. You make him fix his mistakes. He has grown so much. Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed with everything, but I know I can do what I need to do because I am not alone. I have St. Rose School - my family. Thank you." Those simple words and the fact that he took the time to share them perfectly sum up why I choose to do this work everyday.
To return to the lyrics of the song I began with, "If you knew how I wanted someone to come along and change my life the way you've done...it feels like home to me." I will always be grateful to Catholic schools for changing my life and for feeling like home to me,and I will always be an advocate for Catholic schools because I can think of no greater work than to change lives and provide learning and growing environments that feel like home.