I remember when my 11th grade English teacher, Ms. Louise Hazebrouck, at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, New York gave an assignment to write about a hero of ours. She said that in our age, people question the existence of heroes. She asked us whether we had a hero.
My first hero as a teacher was Mrs. Vivien Ellis at Robert E. Bell Middle School in Chappaqua, New York. She was my 6th and 7th grade English and Social Studies teacher. She taught me how to write and how to outline. She taught me about the Cradle of Civilization. Most of all, she taught about the right way to do things. She was a demanding teacher.
My spiritual hero as a teacher is St. John Bosco. He lived in Turin, Italy during the 1800s and founded the Salesian Order. When he saw street urchins getting into trouble, he took action. He created a school and formed community parternships with local businesses so that the children might have apprenticeships and learn a trade. He wrote an influential book called “The Preventive System” outlining his concept as to how a group of people may work together in education. He faced opposition in the community and in the local Church. There are great movies about him.
But you do not have to be a canonized saint to be a heroic teacher. The Jesuit priest Father T.J. Martinez founded Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory School of Houston in 2009. He was also a graduate of The University of Texas School of Law. Cristo Rey Jesuit is part of a network of schools who have a model of study and work partnerships in the community. When I went to visit the school a few years ago, I attended a mass being given by Father Martinez where some of the students did a sacramental dance. I had never seen that before. Father Martinez created a great school spirit. The current president is Paul Posoli. He has a business background and one might suspect some military. He knows the name of every student as you see him walk through the school. He is working on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. He is completely prepared.
I also have learned about St. Benedict’s in Trenton, New Jersey. Inner-city Trenton has a high crime rate and a gang problem. In the middle of it all some Benedictine monks run a school for students who might otherwise face grave difficulties and the school is a smashing success. It was interesting to me to see that the students start the day in a group gathering just as do the students at the well-known Penn Charter School in Philadelphia. It is a simple mechanism to develop school spirit.
I also enjoyed another 1950 movie called “El Cura Lorenzo.” A parish priest bravely goes into a tough neighborhood in Buenos Aires and founds a school for wayward youth. He is credited with starting the San Lorenzo soccer team, one of the Big Five clubs in Argentina and the favorite of Pope Francis. He himself has not been named a saint but San Lorenzo is a big name in Argentine history as well as in the Catholic Church.
I remember representing some juveniles earlier in my career and being dismayed to see children in shackles. It is pretty clear to me that it is possible to choose a preventive approach and give children the love and the opportunity they need. Test scores are not the end-all and be-all in schools where children are fed their best meal at the school and have dysfunctional home lives. I remember a District Attorney telling me that she kept a close eye on the juvenile delinquents as she knew they would grow up to commit adult crimes.
The social justice principle of subsidiarity applies well to education. Communism or even democratic socialism is odious to American democracy because we value the innovative spirit of the individual. But a community must act as a group together with forethought to address local education issues that disguise larger ills.
Do you have a hero? Do you have an opinion? Send me a letter and I just may publish what you say.