The Ascension ProjectThe Ascension Project

My Year with the Sisters

Throughout the majority of my career, I have tried to leverage resources on behalf of urban boys. Their perils have been well-documented and their suffering, albeit far too quiet, has left us with wounds that will take generations to heal and with some scars that will be forever indelible- marks against us.

My current tenure as Executive Director (ED) of Boys Hope Girls Hope of New York (BHGHNY) has required that I broaden my perspective. Left bearing the weight of raising the families whose boys fail to reach an appropriate expression of manhood and who then go on the create new legacies of dysfunction, are extended communities of women who despite their circumstances, draw hope from reservoirs deep in maternal care and nurturing. The chance to wade into these waters has helped to complete my understanding of just how troubling we should find this paradigm.

It is important to note, that while it is often advantageous to teach boys and girls in gender specific communities, allowing either to fall behind, regardless of the approach, represents a crushing blow not only to the members of that gender but also to the other, as they grow into adulthood. Although I have always worked with boys, in my role as ED of BHGHNY, I am responsible for maintaining a partnership with an all-girls school in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, run by the Sisters of Mercy-a Catholic order founded over 175 years ago and a sisterhood dedicated to serving the poor. At first I knew nothing at all about the Sisters of Mercy. Now, nearly a year later I know a bit more.

My exposure to the Sisterhood began when I had the occasion to have lunch with several of the girls who were enrolled in BHGHNY’s urban boarding school program. Our exchanges were all simple enough and revolved around their classes, their extra-curricular pursuits, their plans for the weekend and the other often silly things that accompany lunch-room chatter. They were a delightful bunch and while the circumstances that led them to our program suggested that they had already faced more adversity than one their age should have, they were surprisingly happy and free in their efforts to gain my attention.

 I seldom answer my cell-phone and prefer to return calls when it is convenient to do so. On the day that I was having lunch with some of our girls, my cell- phone rang. The day before, my daughter had called to let me know that my two year old grandson was not feeling well. I saw that it was my daughter calling again and I worried that my grandson was still not feeling better. I excused myself and answered the phone. What the girls heard were simple responses: “how are you sweetie…how’s my little guy doing…thanks for letting me know…love you…okay me too see you over the weekend”. This was not much to go on; however, immediately after ending the call, one of the girls said, “that was your daughter”. I confirmed her observation and then proceeded to surface a picture of my grandson to let them know that my daughter, who was a terrific new mom, was calling to tell me that he was feeling better. They all seemed to be very touched by this. I didn’t give this much thought until later.

Knowing what I knew about the girls that I had had lunch with earlier, it dawned on me that not a single one of them had a father in their lives—not a single one of them would ever have a man refer to them as I had my daughter. Fathers and their daughters forge the strongest of bonds and given my own relationship with my daughter, I could not imagine what this absence might actually mean to these girls. The failure of boys and the destruction of men weigh heavy on not only on boys but on the lives of the girls and women who are the sentinels of their own family history. They are left to create their own social ethos with little help.

Out of this simple exchange with the girls at lunch, I came to realize that my preoccupation with boys had actually limited my perspective and did not allow me to see many of the existing parallels between the state of urban boys and their families. These conditions do intersect and the long-standing failure of urban boys is now rooted in a much broader malaise—its impact perhaps felt much more keenly by the community of women who are disappeared in neighborhoods in New York with names like Flatbush, Mott Hall and Hunts Point. The same is happening in countless other cities in the U.S. and all over the world.

I recognized long ago that the difference that I have been able to make in the lives of the children and families with whom I have worked, has been limited in its scope. I am simply not equipped to think in terms of systems. I have remained too close to the stories that I have been told and of those that I have become a part of. I do, though, believe that “eye-level” accounts can provide insights and inspire others to act which may ultimately come to effect change in the broader sense.

Several weeks after my lunch with the girls, I sat down with the school’s leadership. I recounted the story just told and explained to them that there was much for me to learn and that I had an idea as to how I might facilitate some of this learning. I proposed teaching an “honors” level senior English class which I had tentatively titled, “The Nature of Language-The Language of Nature”. My proposed course outline called for an initial focus on such authors as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Loren Easley, and Robert Frost along with a very general review of traditional Haiku poetry. I also asked that I be allowed to take the students on a number of day-long hikes on some of the more notable trails north of New York City.

It remains my belief that very few urban high-school age students ever have the opportunity to be “in” nature and while some do frequent city parks, they seldom have the chance to witness in more intimate ways the subtleties and moments of absolute grandeur that compel a migratory bird to flight, a bear to hibernate, a lake to freeze or a butterfly to emerge transformed and transcended. Secular and religious writing is filled with such images and although we have effectively divorced ourselves from the earth’s natural movements and boundaries and crowded our lives with the noisy distractions of the 21st century, an afternoon in the forest, a hike along a quiet beach or a contemplative moment on a mountain-top can reveal something of ourselves that we might not have otherwise seen, expected or experienced.

The Co-Principals of the school responded with genuine enthusiasm and accepted my proposal. They felt that it would be best to keep the class small and to identify only those girls who had the capacity to handle the suggested reading list. I had the better part of the summer to prepare and immediately began to work on a course outline. I completed a number of hikes to determine the degree of difficulty associated with each and planned how best to engage the girls in an environment that none of them had ever experienced. What I was to eventually experience could not have been scripted, predicted or imagined.

As the school year approached, I began to experience some anxiety. I had not been in the classroom for over twenty-five years and my last such post was at an “elite” New England all boys boarding school where I taught Spanish and Latin American history. While I did enjoy some success as a teacher earlier in my career, it now seemed so long ago and the fact that I would be facing a classroom filled with girls contributed to my heightened sense of uncertainty…and terror!

The first day of classes arrived and so too did my nervousness. I rode the number 2 train deep into Brooklyn and exited onto Newkirk Avenue-the second to last stop. The school is located in Flatbush, Brooklyn and a community that is primarily West Indian. I was sharing a classroom with the school librarian and a former Dean of Students. “Ms. Mayo” as she is affectionately known, could not have been more helpful and I suspect sensed at least some of my apprehension. My students arrived with resolute purpose and made it clear that they were seniors-the school’s current class of leaders and veteran scholars. Their excitement and enthusiasm was palpable and actually helped to relieve some of my fears. Students and teachers alike begin every year with expectations-expectations that have been shaped by the past and tempered by what we each hope will be.

During our initial weeks together, we read excerpts from Loren Eiseley’s autobiography, “All The Strange Hours-The Excavation of a Life”. As one of the twentieth century’s most prolific naturalists and scientists, Mr. Eiseley’s work reveals a world that very few of us ever get to consider and his connection with nature, along with his ability to evoke images that transcend time, provides his readers with a looking-glass into the past-a past that defines the present and propels us into the future. His prose is unlike anything else written and his embrace of the natural world causes readers to pause and think deeply. This is complicated stuff for a seasoned reader and for a senior class of high-school aged girls, it would be challenging. I would have to work carefully.

This material was supplemented with a general introduction to Haiku and a brief survey of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. We also read essays from Ralph Waldo Emerson and from Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau’s essay on “Civil Disobedience” became a central focus. The students were completing five to six pages of writing weekly which seemed reasonable enough to me. The students; however, expressed otherwise. I continued to push them and as my expectations became routine, we settled into a comfortable pace. Additionally, they were reading on average some fifty pages between each class.

In many ways, their commentary during class and their writing reflect a degree of isolation that I have come to expect among urban youth. Their insights were limited by their circumstances and surroundings and while this would occasionally make it difficult for them to think in the abstract, they began to make more meaningful connections between themselves and the natural world. Much of their initial writing was rudimentary. There were breakthroughs and milestones throughout the first quarter. Some students began to demonstrate heightened levels of creativity and some were beginning to find their voices-voices that expressed outrage with injustice and hope that it would be different for them. One girl provided one sentence that helped to shape an entire week’s discussion when she stated, “I have heard it was once said that words can help to shape your world, therefore, I will speak my future into existence”. This simple declaration was so stunning in its clarity and presentation and so absolute in its conviction that she was asked repeatedly to read the phrase. I went on to share this moment with several of my colleagues and the reactions were all the same-astonishment and joy. During a subsequent class this same girl responded to a recording of John Coltrane’s seminal work, “A Love Supreme” by suggesting that it was a calling to prayer and an invitation to return to Africa and to a reunion of “place and soul”. While I consider myself quite knowledgeable when it comes to Coltrane and particularly the years when he was recording for the Impulse label, I am not so sure that I could have described ever so succinctly his music and message.

With only thirteen girls in the class, it was easy to engage each of them and while most of them applied themselves fully to the reading and writing assignments given each week, one of my students was falling significantly behind the others. By mid-October, the class had completed six essays and the aforementioned student had yet to hand-in a single assignment. When I asked her what was wrong, she simply lowered her head unable to provide me with a reason. Her sadness and despair was palpable. I discussed her with several of her other teachers and they were having the same experience. She was seeing the school’s psychologist and art therapist who stated that her progress was slow and that she had little to offer as to why she was struggling so much. Prior to her senior year, she had consistently been on the honor-role and had distinguished herself as an insightful and hard-working student.

Another week passed and the day before we were to embark on a trip to an area state park, I spoke with her again to see if she might be more forthcoming. I suggested that it might be best that she stay behind and work on her over-due assignments and when suggesting this, I could see that she was truly disappointed. It was a Wednesday and I decided to let her join us with the provision that she complete all of her work by the following Monday. She agreed and I relented.

The next morning, we departed for Sterling Forest about an hours drive north of Brooklyn. The girls were truly excited and while some of them did express a degree of apprehension, a day off from regular classes seemed to be enough to calm their fears. My wife, a gifted and veteran educator in her own right, drove the second van and immediately engaged the girls in all manner of discussion. We arrived to the park without incident and proceeded to give the girls a general orientation about hiking and being in the woods. For most of them, it was the first adventure of this kind they had ever taken and they really were eager to start. Our plans called for a four hour trek along a fairly forgiving trail with some climbing and a section of the trail that would require them to wade through a knee-high flood-bank.

It was a brilliant fall day and the October light reflected all of the colors that the surrounding oaks and maples were now draped in. We saw deer, frogs, geese, duck, salamanders and toads. We stopped for lunch with many of them perched on fallen trees at the edge of one of the small lakes that we were circling. Some took their shoes off and submerged their feet in the lake’s water. They saw small minnows and some larger carp. They hadn’t been allowed to bring their phones or other electronic devices and although this was initially met with some objection, the forest provided a new and different soundtrack for them to consider. Throughout our hike, I encouraged them to listen and to think about some of the readings that we had completed earlier in the term. All in all, we were having a delightful day.

At some point during our hike, I found myself walking with the young lady who had fallen so far behind with her assignments and asked her in the gentlest way possible what was preventing her from completing her work in a more timely manner. She stopped and looked at me carefully and then asked, “How much do you want to know?” At that moment, I really was not so sure what I wanted to know; however, I had opened the door and she was fully prepared to walk through. I am convinced that the forest and its accompany soundtrack made her feel safe and secure enough to tell me things she had previously been reluctant to divulge. While much of what she confided in me I had heard from other young people in the past, it was yet another reminder that the children we often serve are forced to contend with dynamics that can be utterly destructive and debilitating-dynamics which are beyond their control and visited upon them with relentless and mindless viciousness.

She went on to tell me that a year ago her mother had allowed a man to move in with them and that from almost the very beginning of this arrangement, he physically abused her family almost daily and that it had taken her mother nearly nine months to remove him. With the help of some of her neighbors and from social services, the man had been forced to leave three weeks earlier.

During that nine month period, she often needed to leave school early or miss school altogether so that she could protect her two younger siblings and so that her mother could go to work. At sixteen, she was expected to be the principle caregiver for her family-an expectation that most would consider to be a hardship and in certain cases resulting in behavior that is sometimes illegal, and almost always dangerous and cyclical in its ability to trap children in trajectories of despair and hopelessness. I listened quietly to what this young lady had to say. She was articulate, very mindful of what she was reporting and determined to make sure that this did not prevent her from going to college. Eventually, two or three of the other girls joined us and our conversation ended. Our return trip back to Brooklyn was as uneventful as our departure had been. In fact, the girls, exhausted from their trek, slept the entire way. When we did return, they departed in small groups-some taking the bus while others took the train. I would not see them again until the following week.

When I arrived to school the Monday after, my mailbox contained half of the assignments which the girl had owed me and while it was not everything we had agreed to, it was at least a start. Class focused on the previous week’s walk in the forest and the girls each made specific reference to their experiences and how these related to the readings. Many of their observations reflected a very deep appreciation for their new found place in the “natural” world and they all commented on the beauty that they had been surrounded by. Some had even written short Haikus and eagerly shared these with the class. I considered this to be a very good beginning and suggested that we schedule a second trip before that weather turned. This was met with great enthusiasm.

Later that day, I had returned to my office and started to read one of the essays that I had collected earlier in the day. I read the first page and then paused to read it again. It was an amazingly well-structured and well-argued paper responding to Thoreau’s essay on “Civil Disobedience”. I was struck by its passion and eloquence. In fact, it was the best paper that I had received to date. The following day, I met with this student to express just how moving I had found her work to be. She in turn was beaming and declared that she was so relieved that I could appreciate what she was trying to say and that her embrace of Thoreau had been life-changing. She now believed that she could take control of her life. At that very moment, and knowing full-well that she still owed me several other papers, I simply told her to forget about the rest of her back assignments and that we would start fresh without any penalties. I could see the relief in her face. The weight of all those missing assignments had been lifted and although some would suggest that I was compromising the rigor and integrity of my class and that this would not be fair to the other students, I somehow felt it was the right thing to do. I cannot say why I felt this way and I can certainly understand why others might question this decision.

Three days later, I asked to meet with the schools two co-principals to tell them what had happened. They listened quietly and at one point I sensed that they were somewhat amused by my anxiety to resolve in my own mind that I had not somehow made a terrible mistake- one that would ultimately backfire and lead this student to believe that she was somehow special and did not have to do what the other students were expected to do. I had been struggling with this dilemma from the very moment I had made the decision and I was now regretting admitting my folly.

After I had finished speaking, one of the principals kindly suggested that what I had done was not so serious at all. Actually, she went on to state that I had apparently learned a very important lesson. Having served the poor for so long, the Sisters of Mercy have developed certain time-honored traditions and beliefs that continue to guide their efforts and that without really understanding much about this history, I managed to discover an axiom that remains at the center of much of their teaching philosophy. I learned that compassion always trumps rigor and does so in all instances and in all regards and is the most powerful and unifying force between student and teacher.

As the fall semester continued to unfold, we took a second trip to another state park north of the city where the students were challenged with a much more difficult trail. Once again my wife was able to drive the second van and as an avid hiker herself, she was able to guide and encourage the girls throughout a two hour climb to a park ranger’s station and fire-tower. Most of the girls struggled mightily and their lack of physical conditioning and poor diet revealed other concerns that so many of our urban youth face. Given their environments and the lack of fresh produce and quality foods, most of these girls eat foods that are high in fat and sugar and they rarely if ever eat fresh grains and vegetables. Many of them are already candidates for hyper-tension, high-blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. Somehow, being “in” nature allows us to see ourselves more clearly and for who we really are. Allowing and encouraging the girls to think in this manner became a central feature of all our hikes and their own sense of self-awareness always seemed heightened as a result.

Understanding that our work with young people has a specific context that can shape and shift our intended and unintended goals and objectives, I have always tried to share my experiences with others. I don’t always see as full a picture as seen by a close friend who happens to be a journalist and someone who is keenly interested in urban education. In recounting some of my stories and particularly those associated with our forays into nature, my friend found it quite interesting that I had decided to bring my wife along. In fact, she stated that it was a brilliant strategy and one that she commended me for. As suggested earlier, my wife is a gifted educator in her own right and while she certainly established strong bonds with several of my students, securing her participation was simply a practical consideration-I needed a second driver.

What I have now learned has more to do with the overt and pernicious objectification of the girls who I was teaching. My friend explained to me that by taking my wife along, the girls would feel safer with me and would see me in an entirely different light. I had never considered this; however, much of their earlier behavior now makes more sense to me. During our hikes, my wife and I would meet up periodically and walk together. As we have for nearly 35 years, we would hold hands. The girls reacted to this simple gesture with genuine good humor and with a very real appreciation for what this seemed to symbolize to them. They were curious about our relationship and impressed by its longevity. As they became more comfortable with us, their questions became more and more personal. Their inquiries were clearly shaped by very different familial experiences and what my wife and I generally take for granted, they have very seldom if ever have witnessed.

In planning for the winter term, I considered a number of books and finally settled on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “100 Years of Solitude”. My, wife who has her PhD in Latin American Literature warned me that it might be a stretch and a difficult text for the class to comprehend. She was right. While it is arguably one of the most important works of the 20th century, its landmark use of magical realism requires a more complete knowledge of the historical, cultural and sociological implications that have shaped Latin America and its relationship with western colonial powers. Furthermore, having never taught the novel, I was at a clear disadvantage.

I decided to focus my efforts on the story itself and the use of magical realism as a vehicle to shape the ordinary into the extraordinary. Marquez’s 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech was invaluable. Although quite brief, his commentary helped my students gain at least a rudimentary understanding of Latin America’s unique and often misunderstood position among the world’s nations. Additionally, a survey and review of some of Pablo Neruda’s more noteworthy poetry provided further insights into the soul of this region. In particular, his work titled “The United Fruit Company”, made the notion of oppression and exploitation through narrowly defined political and economic alliances that much more plausible.

As I have often said, urban school children in NYC may live in what many would argue is the cultural and economic center of the universe; however, they truly do live lives that are painfully isolated and insulated. Opening their eyes to a broader universe and to some of the social and political conditions that have been fomented over the course of centuries, can be a daunting exercise.   It is, though, a responsibility that I have always taken very seriously. Without this context, urban school children are unable to project themselves forward.

As the term unfolded and as my students progressed in their reading of “100 Hundred Years of Solitude”, they became more confident, curious and controlled in their assessment and analysis of the text. As we neared the conclusion of the novel, I assigned a paper that was to count for 75% of their final grade. With three weeks to complete the assignment and with several class periods spent reviewing expectations and probable outcomes, my students embraced this opportunity as a chance to forge very personal declarations of identity and purpose. To better understand the scope of the assignment, it is best to review the question(s) that was posed:

THE MAGIC OF ME…HOW I CAME TO BE THE PERSON I AM TODAY

background, its place of geographic origin, its political alliance and level of education, its language, cultural ties and heritage all share features and events that are common to all. In “100 Years of Solitude”, Gabriel Garcia Marquez presents the exploits and follies of the Buendia family. These are woven into the fabric of a town (Macondo) and then juxtaposed within the framework of a rapidly changing and expanding world. To illustrate further how some of the events detailed in Marquez’s novel impacted the Buendia family, its neighbors, countrymen and an encroaching world beyond its borders, Marquez’s use of “magical realism” lends the ordinary a measure of the fantastic and the seemingly simple an air of complexity.

During class, we have agreed that each of our families harbors many of the same features-features that define us as individuals, as members of a community and a broader global human expression that both divides us and unites us. We have agreed that our families have secrets and that among the members of our families there are heroes, villains and care-givers. We have also agreed that our families have suffered hardships and moments of victory and inspiration. Additionally, we believe that all families have their own mythologies and folklore and a specific lexicon to tell these stories. What Marquez has tried to do in “100 Years of Solitude”, is tell the story of one family, which in many ways is the story of all families.

If you were to examine your own family in this manner and if you were to illustrate through the use of magical realism its history and your place in it, what images would surface? To a certain degree, we are all products of our immediate surroundings and have been impacted and influenced by others. The events that happen around us-some that we have no control over and others that are beyond our ability to manipulate determine who we are and who we will become. In a 5 to 7 page narrative and essay, tell your story as it relates to your family and incorporate some of the common threads that we have agreed we all use to create our own personal identities. As seniors in high school, you each have specific characteristics, values, beliefs and aspirations. These were not formulated in a vacuum but rather are the result of familial trajectories rooted in history-trajectories now being shaped by your own present and a future that has yet to be fully realized.

The use of magical realism can enhance your efforts and bring greater meaning to the events of your lives that you believe have been most significant. Use your imagination. When possible, talk with immediate and extended family members. Collect photographs and personal stories. If there is a specific moment or experience that you feel would be better expressed by a drawing, song or poem, take such license. This project will count for 75% of your third quarter grade.

In terms of the assignment, the proposed project represented a genuine challenge for my students and while the results would be mixed, for some, simply getting started became a source of great pain and suffering. Of the thirteen girls in my class, not one of them had an actively engaged biological father in their lives. Others had been immersed in complicated measures of dysfunction and despair. Examining the root causes for some of this proved to be very frightening. Some of my students were simply too embarrassed to expose themselves in this manner. “I never met my father.” I have been in foster care my entire life and have had four different families.” “My mother is the only member of her family living in the United States.” “I hate my family because my family hates Blacks and we are Black.” These and other comments suggested that I may not have considered the full weight of what I was asking my students to do. During one class, two of my students became very emotional-shaking with fear and sobbing uncontrollably. The expressions of solidarity and comfort that followed from some of the other girls in the class helped to alleviate the apprehension and anxiety that had surfaced. Without their help, I am not sure if I would have been able to regain control.

Afterwards, I met individually with each of the girls who had exhibited such high levels of frustration.  Their stories were, in fact, quite painful. Abandonment, disappointment, abuse, drug addiction, divorce, hunger, poverty and shame all combined to make the assignment far more complicated than I had initially considered. It was; however, through the use of magical realism that I was able to convince these girls that the proposed exercise could be a source of liberation and a chance for them to reinvent themselves on terms that were more hopeful, favorable and promising. They agreed to give it a try.

Although I continued to have second thoughts about “100 Years of Solitude” as the right text to have chosen, all of my doubts were addressed once I collected the final essays and began to read what were for some, extraordinary expressions of courage, discovery, affirmation and resolve. Their stories originated in Haiti, Barbados, Trinidad, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Guyana and St. Lucia. They spoke of broken dreams and broken bottles-of hypodermic-needles and the slow shifting nod of a heroin addict locked in a trance riding the 5 train deep into Brooklyn. They evoked the fantastic with characters who could control nature, darken the sun and illuminate the night. They spoke of grandparents, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters- of queens and knights, of dragons and gold. Great landowners, explorers, merchants and musicians populated their stories. They were for at least a brief moment, proud of who they were and eager to strike out into the world with new-found confidence. I was truly humbled by the experience and quietly satisfied that my efforts seemed to have yielded far more than I had expected or ever considered.

With the arrival of spring, my thoughts again turned to nature and its power of renewal, rebirth and wonder. Knowing that the year would quickly come to an end as I had only fifteen classes left, I wanted to use my time wisely and close the circle that I had been trying to draw my students into. Again, to the degree that these young ladies had been removed from nature and never trained to appreciate its nuances or incorporate into its landscape, it proved difficult at times to convince them to listen-to listen to nature itself and to those who write about it, find spiritual comfort in it and achieve clarity through it. Of course, I wanted to take them on one last hike; however, my knees were giving me quite a bit of trouble and this did not appear to be a likely option.

To further illustrate nature’s power and how we benefit from developing a more intimate relationship with our natural surroundings, I visited the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian and was directed to an archive that contained original native text, along with a catalog of additional references. I compiled a short bibliography and began to introduce the material during our remaining classes. The girls found the readings to be very accessible. Most of it focused on identity and the dysfunction that can be created when one is separated from the context that parents and grandparents were born into. In our own sociological drive to evolve a world that relies so heavily on the virtual, we are losing certain qualities that will be impossible to recover. Self-reliance, in its most basic form is no longer considered an attribute. We do not walk in nature and while we still use our eyes to see, the prism we look through draws us further and further away from the elements-from the rocks and minerals that supported our birth, from the trees and seasons- from our own DNA.

In discussing this, the young ladies who began the year with a genuine measure of suspicion given my course outline, began to express feelings and opinions that indicated that they were truly considering what Loren Eiseley had dedicated his life to and they began to embrace Thoreau as the genius he was and as someone whose philosophy was still relevant-particularly if these students are to one day take control of their lives.

We made two final field trips-one to the aforementioned museum for a short film festival and another to Manhattan’s Westside elevated Highline Park. The themes remained the same throughout and their observations were becoming more sophisticated and personal as a result. As a final writing project, I tried to frame a series of questions that would close the circle that I had been leading them around and tried to solicit a response that would help them declare just who they were. I asked the following:

“We began the year by reading a selection of essays and poems by noted naturalist Loren Eiseley and by Henry David Thoreau. We then examined the origins and elements of traditional Haiku poetry and its connections to nature. Throughout this period of our studies, the class addressed several questions that were rooted in our efforts to make meaningful connections to the “natural” world around us and to then find ways to better understand who we are, why we are and where we are. Later, the class read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s landmark novel, “100 Years of Solitude” and examined the use of magical realism as a means to lend the ordinary in our lives a measure of the extraordinary.

In just a very few days from now, you will receive your high-school diploma and graduate to the next stage in your life. Milestones of this nature help to define us and propel us forward-as individuals and as members of our families, churches, local and regional communities, our nation and the world. Who are you today? Why do you think you are? If you were to turn your attention to the natural world, could you answer these questions? What do the changes of season’s reveal about you? Where you are often suggests something about who you are. The stars and heavens above point to directions and places that we cannot possibly imagine-to places that we are somehow connected to but never truly understand. Clearly, you have not been “in” nature to the extent that others have and to some degree, stand at a decided disadvantage from those who have had closer and more intimate experiences “in” nature. Do you agree with this premise? Explain. Can you find elements in nature in literature that can help you become more connected to the natural world, or must you be “in” nature to experience its true power, grace and magnificence? Haiku, in its most simple expression suggests that we “are” nature. Remember the question raised by a contemporary of Confucius…”Am I a man dreaming of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming myself to be a man?”

So, the assignment here is to locate your true “self”-as a fully participatory member of the natural world and to use the concepts and materials that we have studies throughout the course of the current school year to make this declaration. The length of this assignment has no boundaries. A master Haiku poet could reduce this to three lines and capture a moment in time that would, in fact, be timeless. A play-write might take three acts and a documentary film-maker three minutes. Write freely, speak forcefully and search for that which is most fundamental in responding to the questions posed.”

My students took the assignment quite seriously and while seniors just days away from graduation can generally be preoccupied with other considerations, the subject matter was a favorite topic of discussion—their very own place in the world. As things would have it, a very dear friend and former colleague of mine had scheduled a visit to the City. She had worked as an independent school administrator and educator for nearly twenty years and decided to pursue her divinity degree at Yale. Her own emerging ministry is focused on urban girls of color and her prior efforts in this area have yielded important insights that have strengthened further her ability to engage girls in the discussions that matter most to them. She joined me during our last class of the year-a double period when the students were scheduled to read excerpts from their final papers.

The girls surely did not disappoint. Their candid observations and willingness to explore the themes that had shaped our studies for the entire year revealed much about what they had learned and much about how they were going to utilize some of the concepts we had explored in ways that would result in a more complete alignment to the natural world. Throughout their presentations, though, there were hints and sometimes hard and cold facts that suggested that some had been tormented by low-expectations, by families in chaos and crisis and by levels of fear that were void of innocence. As seventeen and eighteen year olds, they had already witnessed things that most of us would find horrifying. In so many ways and throughout the entire school year, we tried to push beyond the pale that they often seemed to arrive with-an effort that had mixed results and an effort that suggested to me that many of these girls needed to face straight-up some of the demons that they had been haunted by.

Towards the end of class my colleague made a number of comments in response to the readings that the students had just presented. She was complimentary, sensitive, thoughtful and engaging. She was quite forceful in reminding them to be in the moment-active participants in their own lives. The students seemed to be drawn to her and just as class was ending she stated one last thing, “ladies it was very nice to be with you today but I worry that some of you are already very tired”. Before we could explore this further, the bell rang signaling the end of class and the end of the course. A few of the girls lingered. My colleague and I then walked to the train station and along the way I asked her what she had meant when she stated that she was worried that some of the girls were “tired”.

She noted that it was a look she has seen before and one that she has become all too familiar with-girls who should be weaving their own dream-catchers fatigued from lives that have already been too hard to cope with and accept. I knew exactly what she was talking about having seen the same look on the faces of the many different boys with whom I have worked during my career. The impact on girls; however, is much different and the weight they carry is more palpable in terms of its significance on community and culture

I have, in fact, learned many lessons during this past year—lessons that have tempered and re-shaped my understanding of urban youth-of those already mired in the quicksand of state-sponsored genocide and those who have yet to arrive. These are hard words for sure. I am grateful to my students-brilliant, brave and generous young women and to the leadership at Catherine McAuley High School-also brilliant, brave and generous. Having worked almost my entire life with urban boys, I am still more comfortable in this arena. However, my “year with the sisters” clearly suggests to me that the failure of our boys and young men leaves in its wake untold suffering and shame-the dimensions of which I never fully understood until now.

Brad Zervas
About Brad Zervas