When I began working on my Master's degree I was already a woman in my forties, had three sons, and had been teaching middle school for a number of years. I brought a lot of experience to my younger colleagues (that became my mantra for the first semester) and did my best not to be intimidated by the youthful minds and bodies that surrounded me. The first assignment given was to write a mission statement for my classroom.
Every time I took pen to paper I could not shake what I knew to be true: that the Fruits of the Spirit were paramount in a successful classroom. So, while the other members of my group rallied around all the current pedagogical terms like "differentiated instruction" and "quantifiable outcomes," I labored over a paper that reflected my belief that a classroom filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control offers the best chance of success for students. This didn't mean watered-down expectations or getting credit for always having a smile; this meant kindly helping students persevere at a task that was difficult, being generous of time for mastery of a subject, being gentle in words when pointing out mistakes, being joyful over success and patient with shortcomings.
Moreover, these weren't traits needed solely from the teacher, they were traits also needed from peers. Yes, as politically incorrect as my paper was going go be, I knew that the qualities that we Catholics call "Fruits of the Spirit," were critical for each and every student to experience, to some degree, from me, the teacher, and from his or her peers.
This wasn't a revelation that came to me that particular year or during one specific "Aha" moment. As my own children approached and entered their teens and as my years in the middle school classroom began stacking up, I saw that my own understanding of what I was trying to impart to my children was consistently mirrored in the hundreds of families with which I had yearly conferences. And what was becoming increasingly clear was that while we all wanted our children to attend excellent colleges and had high hopes and expectations for our children's lives, we were getting a bit off track. I couldn't have had better statistics if I were the Gallup Poll.
Most of us were buying into the secular notion that it was a dog-eat-dog world and we were going to give our kids the benefit of that knowledge. We wanted to make sure that our own children had "the edge" over others. Test scores, grades, and accomplishments that could be listed on college applications began to replace our collective interest in the common good. Every single one of us would agree about the values of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all these were traits that we "oohed" and "aawed" over in sweet email stories that we circulated and yes, we were trying to instill these characteristics in our children and live them ourselves. However, when push comes to shove, we are hard pressed to have our own children be the first to back down from a competition, to let the other guy win, to acknowledge that God created a world where there were enough blessings for everyone, even if the blessings were different. That's the nature of the parent beast and one which we are all called to overcome. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
This past Friday, years after completing my Master's program, I collected tests from my English students. Unbeknownst to everyone at school, one young boy's father had just been admitted into Hospice. His dad was losing a battle to heart disease and this young student was doing his best to get through each day. Had I not been privy to this information, what might my attitude have been? Would I have been patient with his lack of interest in class? Would I have exhibited self-control over my words to him? Would my love towards him have helped him through this most difficult time in his life? Could I say the same for his peers? I turned out the lights of the classroom on Friday remembering that paper I wrote and felt grateful for the reminder that when we align ourselves with Christ, we are more able to display the Fruits of the Spirit, the fruits by which He will know us. Then, and only then, will the answer to all these questions be a resounding "Yes!"