Tuesday, June 10, 2014
What I Learned at AJC: a reflection on the last 4 years
Tomorrow is my final day at Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School. It is a bittersweet day. I was asked to write up my reflections of my four years there, and forced myself not to think about it till I sat down to write it out. This is what came out...
What I Have Learned at AJC
I have been in the doubly burdensome role of being a teacher and a preacher to the students and staff at Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School. Both come with their own hesitancies and intimidations. I will have no way of knowing how long any of my lessons will last with any of those who have heard me teach or preach, but I do know that the lessons that I learned will stay with me for a lifetime.
Probably the first lesson I learned during my first year was how to pray. I have been blessed in my life that even though times have been tight, my family has never been in the position of deep need or want. Even more, we have never been in position of being unsafe or in fear. My first year, I remember during prayer requests some of the kids thanked God for waking them up that morning. Having heard their stories of shootings and other situations around their homes, what had often been a cliche when I had heard it before became an honest and sincere prayer of thanks that the student had been given another day of life. This touched me in a profound and soul-altering way. I will never pray the same, and some of my white middle-class privileged assumptions have been pushed to the wayside. For that I will always be thankful.
You never hold back on love. Sometimes the most loving actions are to say, "No." Sometimes the most loving act is to hold people accountable. Being a strict, but fair, teacher of high standards gives a gift that too often these students have not had. Would it be easier to be the nice teacher that had an easy class? Of course. Would that help anybody in the short or longterm? No. And the kids would not respect my teaching or my preaching either one. Grace comes with grade book sometimes, and to love the kids the best that I can, I had to create a rigorous environment that drove them to be the best that they could be. My love came out in hard books, and clear, consistent, and hard work.
Lastly, I would have to say that the troublesome issue of race is still something this country and the Church need to continue to work. I had homeroom with the same group of students for three years, and in the third year of our time together my group of guys (from 6th through 8th grades) and I were able to laugh and joke about stereotypes and differences. They could ask me about being white, and I could learn from them about being African-American. They asked me about why white people all looked alike, and why we have funny names. But it took three years to build trust and the benefit of the doubt so that we could get to a point of honest and mutually-respectful dialogue. I learned how far we have come and how far we need to go when I was reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with my 7th grade boys and after about 50 pages one of the students asked who was on the front cover. The front cover showed Huck and Jim, an escaped slave. I responded to the question, "Huck and Jim." The student asked, "Huck is the black guy, so who is the white kid? Did they have white slaves?" I said, "No, our slavery was based on racism. The white kid is Huck, and the black man is Jim." But then to keep learning, I asked, "So what made you think that Huck was black?" The student said, "Because he says the N-word all the time. I have never heard a white person say the N-word." Wow. Our society has gotten better, obviously, but that things had been turned on their head to that extent, that this classic novel written to fight racism was now confusing because the white people that this student had had interactions with did not use that word. I learned a lot that day.
Prayer, love without limits but very clear boundaries, and continuing dialogues on race are all things that I will carry with me, both as a man and a priest. This time has shaped me, deepened my spirituality and my prayer life, and drawn me closer to God and my neighbor. "Who is my neighbor?" was asked of Christ. Anna Julia Cooper School could be a modern answer to that ancient question. We are all each others' neighbors.