Understand What You Do

It’s graduation season. Throughout May and June, men and women, selected as speakers for their accomplishments and wisdom, will stand before a sea of faces, dropping knowledge and providing encouragement.

Most of their words will be forgotten within a few hours. I know my speaker said something about doing good at all possible opportunities, and beating Purdue in every possible sport. The rest of it?

Image via giphy

But just about all of them will riff on how “commencement” means “beginning”, even though it feels like we are celebrating an ending.


The world doesn’t need another blog post about how teaching isn’t just another job. It’s been done to death.

But the job does require a certain level of commitment. To the point where, if you’re not all in, go sell insurance.

I saw two guys commit to a life of service Saturday. Meaning, like, for decades. Til death do us part, “I-will-humble-myself-by-laying-face-down-on-the-floor”-level of commitment.

Prostration
Fr. Nate and Fr. Greg prostrate themselves during the Litany of the Saints at their Ordination Mass, May 20, 2017 at the Holy Angels Cathedral in Gary. Photo via Diocese of Gary.

The priesthood. It’s probably the last job or institution left on earth that, from Day One, you know you are in for life. Even a good portion of married folks stand at the altar on their wedding day thinking, “If this guy’s a dud, I’m out.” “She gets fat, it’s over.”

These guys had spent seven years in preparation for this day. If they haven’t backed out by now, they’re not gonna. And their commencement speaker? A bishop of the Catholic Church.

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Donald Hying, Bishop of the Diocese of Gary, IN. Photo via Deena Pidrak.

I think they will remember his words forever. Because I’m still thinking about them. When they received their marching orders, I couldn’t help but ponder how these ancient lines in the Rite of Ordination might frame what I do:

“Understand what you do. Imitate what you celebrate. And conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.”

(And I get it if you’re not down with the theological aspects here. In Catholic teaching, the priest is “alter Christus” – another Christ. Called to give their lives, if not literally then figuratively for their flock). At this moment of the Mass they are handed the paten and the chalice which will hold the Body and Blood of Christ. These tools are central to what they will do every day of the rest of their lives.

It is a life of service. What they do, what they celebrate, is for the eternal good of their flock. They are shepherds. And counselors. And teachers. It is the work of a lifetime: long hours, loneliness, doubts about effectiveness, everything that gives a career weight.

Now, I’m not out there saving souls, but we can draw a rough parallel to what we do as teachers. Especially those of us who believe we are helping our students form the skills they will need to navigate the world of the mid-21st century.

Dad Timeline
My dad, receiving his 25-Year watch at Inland Steel. He was 44 years old then. Our world, and our kids’ world, is a little bit different.

As one school year comes to an end, I immediately (informally, if not on paper) begin planning for August and beyond. Thinking about what worked, and what didn’t. How I lifted up my students, and how I crushed their spirit. The #lessonfails, and the moments that made me want to retire on the spot because it was never going to get any better than right then. And how to fix those ratios next year.

I’ll never forget my first-ever class, Algebra 1A, looking out at 41 faces (in a class with 39 desks), Cimarron-Memorial High School, Las Vegas, NV. This is a great time to remind myself what I signed up for.

“Understand what you do…”

The Now Of A Human Life

Tempus Fugit. Memento Mori. It’s the fraternal motto of the Knights of Columbus, but it’s probably good advice for all of us.

“Time flies. Remember death.”

I was at a fundraising gala this weekend celebrating the 50th anniversary of Opportunity Enterprises, an organization in my area that serves individuals with disabilities, providing job opportunities, housing, and life skills.

The 600 or so of us in attendance viewed the trailer at the gala. We all chuckled nervously as April, one of OE’s clients, reminded us that “50 is, like, old.”, since 50 was approximately the average age of the couples seated at my table. But we got the joke.


Image via Catholic News World

I just finished reading “Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977” by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. You may know him as Pope Emeritus Benedict, who famously resigned the papacy in 2013, the first pope to do so in nearly 600 years. He is at once a man of profound holiness and powerful intellect; a prodigious writer and a humble servant. The memoir closes with his consecration as bishop of Munich, a moment which would eventually lead to him being called away from his beloved Germany, to Rome, where he has lived out the remainder of his days.

The Now of a Human Life

“The present is not a specific date, but The Now of a human life.”

That’s how I feel about teaching. Attempting to fill in the Now. For Father Benedict, that meant leaving behind his life of study and diving fully into a life of service: “a person who does not act and live for himself but for Him and therefore for all.”

That’s what they call it in teaching, right? “Service Time?”

And like every one of us, my time to serve is limited. I could teach a full 30 years (16 more) or retire in 11 years under the Rule of 85. Or one more day.

Assuming any of us ever really get to retire.

But there’s work to do. A review for Monday, a quiz Tuesday. Brushing up on some topics I haven’t taught in a while for later in the school year. Moving into our new STEM wing, the first fruits of a $140 million dollar referendum passed in our city. Planning for next year. Building relationships.

I won’t get it all done this year. I won’t get it all done in 50 more years. But as The German Shepherd wrote: “This Now can be very long or very short.”

And: I can’t write the story yet. Just the next chapter. Starting in the morning.

As St. Bonaventure said:  “To lead a good life a man should always imagine himself at the hour of death.”

Tempus Fugit. Memento Mori.