A room packed with students in their final months of high school, laughing at the linguistic absurdity of Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, their confusion evolving into understanding. I love that moment – that challenge – of revealing the beauty of literature to a classroom full of teenagers. Some might not imagine a more sceptical audience; I can’t imagine a more necessary one.
For the past 17 years, I have taught public school English full-time in America (not to be confused with British fee-paying independent public schools). I am a bit of an anomaly; a writer and author who spends his days in the high school classroom. I am neither a visiting writer, nor a writer-in-residence. I am a classroom teacher. I teach five sections each year with a total of nearly 125 students. Some classes swell to 30 students, all of us tightly packed into a windowless room, making our way through postmodern literature. This job is often frantic, but always fascinating.
I am a teacher, and I am also a Catholic in a public space. American public education is often reduced to caricature, but in reality it is a great democratic experiment, and Catholic teachers – with an eye toward inclusion rather than proselytising – can be an essential element within the world of public schools.
While I strongly believe in Catholic schools (my wife attended them exclusively, as do our daughters), I have always taught in the public schools, and I think Catholic teachers should consider that path, rather than only working in the parochial system. If one believes – as I do – that Catholic intellectual culture has much to offer the secular world, public high schools are the best academic place to cultivate that culture. Higher education is an elite world; less than three-quarters of American high school graduates are enrolled in colleges or universities. After those students complete their general education studies, they narrow their focus into disciplines that lead toward careers – leaving little time for literary studies that might stir the soul.
My public school students read widely, and those readings often arise from the Catholic literary tradition – a tradition that is diverse as it is deep. Toni Morrison’s stories of suffering and joy in Beloved carry a sacramental power. Graham Greene’s criticism of naive democratic ideals in The Quiet American arise from a recognition of our fallible human selves. Thomas Pynchon’s satirical exegeses of contemporary society and Marshall McLuhan’s meditations on communication are stirred by a Catholic, and particularly Jesuit, sensibility.
A teacher’s syllabus must first arise from a synthesis of passion and expertise, and then be supplemented and extended by the needs of curriculum and community. My father’s education was a Jesuit one; a midcentury programme of rigour and theology and philosophy. He was drawn to the priesthood, but like me, ultimately decided against it – yet we have never lost the belief that the intellectual and emotional elements of Catholicism are intertwined. Catholicism teaches one how to believe, but it also can teach one how to think – and to think with nuance. To embrace, rather than mute, paradox.
Based on the nature of the courses that I teach, I am often the last English teacher for my students. My advanced students test out of core literature courses in college, and go on to study engineering and finance. My college prep students might take a required composition course, but few will study literature in college. Some begin working right out of high school. Others join the military. I am the last signpost of letters, a responsibility that I do not take lightly.
With me, students discuss philosophy and poetry, horror films and personal essays. Literature is essential to my classes, but I appreciate the designation of my department as Humanities. I imagine this to mean an education of the whole person: an understanding of the complexity and paradoxes of life, an awareness of the beauty and utility of language, and an opportunity to search for our purposes in this existence. In all of my classes I take an aspirational approach; I want to push them. I believe in them so that they will better believe in themselves.
I think that is a Catholic approach to education. Even in this public school space, I believe that each student is worth more than they might ever imagine, for that is a Catholic vision. It is of no importance to me, of course, whether or not my students are Catholic, or Christian, or agnostic, or otherwise. I am not there to teach catechism, but I am charged with helping them prepare for a world beyond high school.
In contrast, within the Catholic school world of my daughters, each day begins with prayer. Theology and biblical studies are a part of instruction. Even smaller details, like the presence of the Virgin Mary statues in each classroom, reveal an incarnational view of the world. In music class, they sing to God, and of God.
A robust Catholic educational system is important to American Catholic culture. In America, Catholic universities are formidable: Georgetown, Boston College, Notre Dame, Villanova, Fordham, among others. Some will quibble about the doctrinaire Catholic identities of those places, but the reality is that the synthesis of Catholic and secular interests is healthy. Socially and culturally, Catholics should work to affirm the value of our worldview.
This is not the same as seeking conversion. There is a time and a place to stir souls in that direction, but it is certainly not the classroom. A teacher’s role is one of power, especially in the high school classroom, where even the most astute students are, in more than one sense of the word, children. I am there to guide them, and to protect them; to offer them a safe place to grow intellectually, and then to enter the world with a healthy combination of confidence and humility.
We need Catholic teachers in public schools. We need them there because the world, whether we wish to admit it or not, is a secular one. I say this as a cradle Catholic, one for whom faith is the bedrock of my life, and the foundation of my intellectual interests. In our digital age, students are able to discover a fair amount about their teachers, even private ones like me. If and when they are to discover that I am Catholic, let it be more through my deeds than my words.
If I am truly to earn that title – if I am worthy of the faith in which I believe – then let them know me as a teacher who prays for them, and who prays that I do my best in our often brief time together in the classroom. They will go on into the world. Some will travel and work far; others will stay in our community. They will forget the books and poems we read.
But if I am doing this right – if I am living with a sense of Catholic charity – then they will not forget what it means to be treated with care, respect, and affirmation. That is what it means to be a Catholic teacher.
Nick Ripatrazone is a contributing editor of the Herald and has written for the Atlantic Monthly and Rolling Stone. His latest book, Wild Belief, is published by 1517 Media.
This article first appeared in the June issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.
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