Each and every year more and more of my students claim to be atheists. An atheist is a person who lacks belief in the existence of God. When I try and understand this trend I am forced to take an honest look at myself. Secretly, I desire for my ‘lost’ students to find God in the bosom of my classroom, but then I stumble over my own limited perspective, and realize I’m the one in need of transformation. The fact that I am a blue eyed, fair-skinned, height challenged anomaly in a sea of dark eyes, colorful skin tones, and moderate statures is more of a factor in my classroom than God. It is common for adolescents to question the existence of a divine presence, of course this puts me in a precarious position, because I was hired to teach them of God. So we start with an understanding of self, the validity of our foundational experiences, and we look closely at the things that make us uncomfortable. This takes courage and hard work.
Aside from developing a strong sense of humor, I try to create a renaissance in the classroom, galvanizing student interest with modern technology. I utilize twitter, smart phones (Samsung, the modern burning bush), and their personal devices to explore the concepts of faith, truth, and love. As you can imagine I experience a lot of eye rolling, sighs, and general malaise. I keep casting the net, waiting for the big haul, because it’s the heart I’m hoping to capture.
I am supposed to teach the things they’ll need to know to survive in the twenty-first century, including sacramental spirituality and Catholic Social Teaching, but now I include tweets by Pope Francis, and this has made all the difference. Pope Francis on October 1st tweeted, “God is not known through grand ideas and extensive study, but rather through the littleness of a humble and trusting heart.”
You want a humble heart? Teach high school. My classroom is a microcosm of greater society. Our student body is diversified religiously, economically, ethnically, and academically. I am not only witness to much of the structuralism they have experienced but also a perpetrator who has failed to respond to the calls of distress coming from her neighbor. If I want to lead my students into an experience of God I can not be ignorant of the things that have shaped their view of God.
Tim Wise says, “Here’s the reality. The image of a white Jesus has been used to justify enslavement, conquest, colonialism, the genocide of indigenous peoples. There are literally millions of human beings whose lives have been snuffed out by people who conquered under the banner of a white god.”
Not only is our history laced with moral corruption, but so are our faith traditions, and this is a daunting reality for anyone in search of the divine. I remind my students of the sinful nature of man. This is why God came to us in the first place, so that we could have life, and have it abundantly. [John 10:10] I teach of a faith that has survived the test of time and I strive to make God applicable to my twenty-first century students. How do I show up for the student who is late every morning because she has to catch two buses to get to school, the student who missed breakfast because she’s worried about her weight, the student whose parents are illegal immigrants, or the quiet one in the corner who hasn’t found her voice? I try to respond with the fruits of the spirit (love, patience, kindness, peace, goodness, faithfulness, joy, gentleness, and self-control) but these are not always alive and well in the bedlam of life.
Pope Francis also tweeted, “Dear young people, listen within: Christ is knocking at the door of your heart.” So I offer a little inspiration by inviting Amy Purdy into the classroom through the magic of YouTube, Shawn Achor who redefines the meaning of happiness, and Louie Schwartzberg who helps us towards a posture of gratitude. It’s the perfect lineup. Then I pull up the Beatles on iTunes, “Open the door, let him in…”
I try to establish a safe environment in the classroom without barring the doors, a membership that allows for diversity of both people, and perspectives. We set up private twitter accounts for each student so everyone has a voice. Pope Francis tweets, “We oppose hatred and destruction with goodness. We live in societies of different cultures and religions, but we are brothers and sisters.” The world needs concrete signs of solidarity, especially before the temptation of indifference, which seems to prevail in modern society. I’m still waiting for Pope Francis to send us a private tweet!
We explore the meaning of good and evil because it’s the same whether you believe in God or not. What is kindness? Compassion? When everything falls apart what is the one thing that gives you hope? I send them on an iPhone search across campus to capture images that feed their gratuitous thirst. They come back with snapshots of favorite teachers, decorated lockers, groups of friends, the senior bell, butterflies, the community garden, the chapel, a flower, the clouds in the sky, or a worm in the grass. We gather those images into a bountiful bouquet of the heart.
To know you are loved is of the utmost importance, even though I make liberal use the heart emoji, love requires action. Young people are very sensitive to judgement and rejection as we all are. Learning where you fit on a high school campus is like working a complicated puzzle. Most people don’t want to find themselves on the “margins” because there are fewer opportunities for meaningful connection. We lose our young people when we don’t thoughtfully engage, listen, and respect their opinions but especially when we don’t make membership available to everyone. Pope Francis tweets, “A merciful heart has the courage to embrace everyone.”
We spend time wrestling with those eternal questions. Why are we here and how are we to live in the world? The Pope recently tweeted, “Young people, Christ asks you to be wide awake and alert, to see the things in life that really matter.” The human experience is mysterious, but we have a shared humanity, and I think it’s high time we stretch the boundaries, so we can see where we overlap. Would we find out we have more in common then we thought? Indeed we do, our commonality is the net that truly captures, you just have to cast it to the other side.
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I write for two blogs, Living in the Gap and Across the Board, check out my latest posts when you have the time.