At De Smet Jesuit High School (St. Louis, MO) the most inspiring challenge of working with teenage boys is that they are not made of notebook paper. They are not perfect repositories of knowledge. Everything I write, do, or say in class is not recorded for all eternity into their being. No matter how well or poorly I teach a lesson, asking them to recall its information quickly the next day is sometimes more like pulling teeth than opening a file on Word (which is, incidentally, a skill some of them seem to struggle with when I’m checking homework.)
They are not notebooks. They are made of flesh and bone. They have capacities for memory, to be sure, but they also have emotions and imaginations, hearts and spirits, bodies and souls. These attributes in my students inspire and challenge me; my job, after all, is to inspire and challenge them in turn, at each of those levels.
Sometimes, the first work in that is to convince them that challenge is worthy of their time. Too often, I have to remind my freshmen that calling their friends “dumb idiot”, even as a joke, isn’t how we treat each other; not often enough, I get my sophomores to open up and be honest about their hopes, and the people and events for which they are grateful. Every day, I come to know who they are (and who they can be) as people a little better; and, in those rare moments of God-given grace, they come to know those things a little better, too.
Any inspiration, any “breathing-in” of the life of humanity, is not under my control. I can only sit back and do the best I can to teach them what I think they ought to know, and God steps in whenever He wants, wherever He wants, however He wants. A few days ago, I was talking to a pair of my sophomores at the end of class, answering their questions about ASC and Jesuit schools and my experience of teaching. Physically, our roles were inverted: they stood on the raised platform behind my desk and I at the lower, classroom level. Despite (or perhaps because of) this reversal of classroom postures, something felt right about the whole experience. Solicited sharing about myself and my own uncertainty about the future made it possible, in some small way, for them to imagine their own future and assuage their fears for it.
That’s not a moment you can write into a lesson plan. At best, we can clear a place for it, and help the classroom be a welcoming space to invite those moments when God sends them. Even that is not always possible or even not what my students may need that day. But such moments won’t happen if I don’t constantly remind myself that my students are not “those”, as if they were mere banks of information, but “they”, as persons. Not “those”, but “they”. Not paper, but people.