Back To School: A Lesson in Grace?

This time tomorrow morning my two big kids will have completed their first day of school (William has a staggered start for kindergarten and starts Tuesday). I’m not doing the happy dance yet, but Joseph’s backpack is packed and both his and Shelby’s uniforms have been set out (yes, the go to public school and wear uniforms). Everyone is relaxing for the moment. William is the last to take a bath and is finishing up.

I am pleased with my children’s classroom assignments this year. I was last year too. I hadn’t known Joseph’s teacher before but meeting her just one time, I know they’ll be a great match. William desperately wanted the teacher his big brother had last year and got her. Shelby is still with the same teacher and two assistants and it looks as though our wish may come true for the teacher she goes to resource classes with. 

But as I scrolled through my personal facebook feed, many parents had different stories to tell. A few were upset that a teacher they’d had a not great experience with before was assigned to their child. But far more were suffering major anxiety because their child had a “new teacher.” That’s in quotes because the teacher was not necessarily in his or her first year of teaching but new to the school in general. For the most part, these are parents who love their school and have had mostly great experiences. But getting a new teacher wasn’t part of the agenda. 

For some people, change is feared. As the parent of a child with autism, I can tell you I know that all too well. There are no guarantees with my child. Or her brothers for that matter. But change is often a chance for God to break our hearts and rebuild them. It is always an opportunity to turn to Him and surrender in our weakness.

As I was sharing with a parent of our experience with a new teacher that turned out very positively, I began to realize where I’d seen this before.

Each spring the Bishop in the Diocese announces parish re-assignments. And thus begins the wailing and gnashing of teeth.”But I just got used to this guy!” “Wait, the new guy is from Africa?! Will I be able to understand him?” “I heard that so-and-so and Father X’s last parish said he’s going to introduce guitars at mass and allow female altar servers!” And while occasionally someone’s worst fears are realized, more often than not, life goes on. Sometimes we even find out we kind of like this new guy. Or we find that another parish we’d never thought to try is actually the place we should have been.

And we saw this on a literally global scale in 2013 when Pope Francis was elected. I remember how the blogosphere exploded with “Oh no! A Jesuit!” And how many converts who came into the church under Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had extreme anxiety about what this all meant and how would we go on? And most of us said at least, “Who is this Cardinal from Argentina who takes the bus?” And while some people are still up in arms, most people have realized that gay marriage is not happening nor are womyn priests. TLM has not been suppressed.

It happens when changes are made in the Church, so of course we freak out when our child’s teacher is someone we don’t know. The Gospel today talks about how Jesus established Peter as head of the Church when Peter acknowledged that He was the Christ, the one true God. After Peter’s martyrdom, the leaders in the Church elected Linus and so on until we had a conclave that elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio Pope in 2013.And like Simon, son of Jonah, was given the name Peter, so Jorge took the name Francis, just as Joseph took the name Benedict and Karol took the name John Paul before him. Our Godfather-priest pointed this out in his homily last night. Every institution has it’s hierarchy. Even a classroom with its teacher. And over 2000 years of us Catholics doing this doesn’t make us freak out less, we freak out more. So, when a teacher leaves and a principal and hiring committee choose someone to take his or her place, we question it. Of course we do. Do we get anxious over it? Oh you betcha we do!

But what we need to see in these circumstances that are very much beyond our control is that they are opportunities to grow in grace. They are chances for us to trust that God’s plan is bigger than what we see and so we should cling to Him in trust. Just as the Pope is elected by the College of Cardinals under the divine guidance of the Holy Spirit, so a group of qualified individuals interview each candidate not only to see how many credentials they have but how well they will work with faculty and the student make-up of the school. And if a teacher has a different personality or style in the classroom, it doesn’t make it worse. They still may have many valuable lessons to teach both from the books and aside from them. We’ve seen recently how a difference in charism between a current Pope and his predecessor can energize people in different ways. It can ignite faith in some and even for those who at first were confused or upset find themselves rejuvenated.

After the election of Pope Francis, I listened to Vatican radio as Cardinals Turkson, Tagle and Gracias all advised the faithful to exercise caution not to compare charisms between Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict. I found myself giving similar advice about a new teacher. Style, technique and even focus may be different but we should avoid comparing Mrs Smith to Mrs Jones. Mrs Smith may still have wonderful things to contribute although her delivery is different. 

Being open to God’s will and receiving His grace means we need realize His hand is in the changes we go through in life. That they are not to be feared but give us a chance to trust and obey Him and His will. And as we begin this new school year, it is important for parents to remember this no matter whether we put our children in public school, private school, parochial, or homeschool. If the teacher is a well-loved veteran or a newbie, we have that chance. May God allow all of us to seek His will and surrender to it. 

And may God bless you, your children and their teachers this school year.