Special in God’s Eyes

This Labor Day weekend, my thoughts turn to all of the children and teachers who recently embraced the new school year. While I always welcomed summer vacation when my husband-the-principal and I-the-teacher regrouped as a family with our own kids, every August, I looked forward to the new school year as well. Of course, I also looked forward to Labor Day which granted all concerned a four-day school week! The other day, Mike shared a Facebook post with me from one of our former students. As I considered the amazing dad and husband he’s become, I offered a prayer for him and all of the great kids I’d met along the way. It was then that one of my own first day of school adventures came to mind. A favorite student wasn’t at all looking forward to the new school year or Labor Day…

On the first day each year, teachers flank school grounds long before the children arrive. Some of the children might have been unfamiliar with the environment while others might have needed a reminder that order would prevail. So it was that my fellow teachers and I stood ready to greet the new year’s students. Eventually, most of the children made their way into the building like an army of ants charging a picnic. Some approached with confidence. They were returning students who’d done well the prior year. They knew where to line up and what to expect. Their backpacks bulged with supplies in anticipation of whatever their new teachers might ask of them. Others arrived hand-in-hand with an adult companion. These grown-up escorts offered a bit of reassurance in an effort to prevent tears which would otherwise have flowed freely. For some who reluctantly inched toward school, tears flowed regardless of the company. The onset of the new year frightened them beyond their abilities to cope. These poor children always expected the worst.

The children I worried about most that first morning of the school year were those who lingered on the periphery of things. They feared crossing the threshold into the school and into the new year and they hid wherever they could. The year before, these children had attended school every day and worked hard at their assignments. They did their homework, but too often found it to be too hard. Without help, they too often failed the most important subjects. I vividly recalled their avoidance behaviors. One stood behind a tree. Another squatted low, hiding next to a dumpster. Still another perched himself high above the playground at the top of the slide. Gym-shoe clad feet betrayed the girl lurking behind a teacher’s van. The last one I eyed had started to walk home. He’d refused to endure failure once again.

Because I was a reading teacher, I didn’t have a class of my own to usher into the building. I was charged with gathering these elusive procrastinators. That year, after retrieving my young friends from their various hiding places, I bolted after the young man who was headed home. Jonah was a sixth grader who felt he’d had a rough year last time around. I knew him because Jonah had been one of my reading students. Jonah had made excellent progress in reading. His pre-test and post-test scores heralded the two-plus years’ growth he’d achieved. Jonah had moved from second to fourth grade reading level. Unfortunately, Jonah still performed two years below his new grade level. I shared the frustration which must have eaten away at him. His peers who were reading at grade level skated by with only six or eight months’ growth and that was enough for them. I understood why Jonah questioned his still being behind when his growth was greater than that of most of the other students.

With all of this in mind, I followed Jonah down the walk. Luckily, Jonah’s good nature impelled him to stop. Had he noticed that my heels made it impossible for me to chase him? His eyes told me that he almost welcomed my company. “Jonah,” I asked, “Where are you going? What will I do if you’re not in school today?” Jonah sniffed and tears followed. “I can’t do that stuff. I hate school. I’m stupid and I ain’t going in there!” Trying to keep my own tears in check, I reminded Jonah, “You learned two years’ worth of reading last year. If you do that again, you’ll be right where you’re supposed to be.” Jonah wiped his eyes and smiled just a bit. “That’s why I got that certificate, huh? My mom put it on her bedroom mirror.” I quickly asked, “She liked it?” Jonah smiled as I walked him to the door. “We both like it,” Jonah admitted. With that, Jonah skipped to his classroom, ready to try once again. With that, I prayed once again: “Thank you, Lord, for helping me to convince Jonah of just how special he is.” Jonah had given meaning to that day and to every day that I was privileged to work with him.

Today, at the close of Luke’s gospel (14:1, 7-14), Jesus says, “…when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” I admit that Jesus’ promise is above and beyond anything I can hope for today because Jonah repaid me a thousand-fold for simply doing my job that year. So it is that I celebrate Labor Day 2019 with a prayer for you and me…

Loving God, help us never to overlook the treasure to be found in those whom this world considers to be castaways. Like Jesus, help us to see that it is through our association with these favored ones that we witness your greatest work and that we best emulate your loving and welcoming heart.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Live In Peace

Beside restful waters God leads me;
God refreshes my soul…

From Psalm 23:2-3

The snow day last week elicited a memory from my long-ago classroom… When I taught, I prided myself in remaining calm in the face of misbehavior. My students’ apparently agreed that this was a good approach to our occasional classroom troubles as their subsequent compliance proved me right. Still, I admit to allowing my anger to get the best of me the morning I heard that a former student had died.

Though he had a good and kind heart, Lee had also been taken in by the allure of the streets more than once. This time, he drove a van that his friends had loaded with stolen bicycles from a nearby suburb. A police chase resulted in the accident which took Lee’s life. In the wake of this news, I heard one of Lee’s classmates bragging that he was in the van during that chase and that he flew out the door and ran away when the van tipped over on its side. Before he could finish his yarn, I called him over. “Who do you think you are?” I wailed. “Lee died last night and you were nowhere near that van. Don’t you dare try to make yourself look cool on the death of my friend!”

I didn’t realize the power of my words at the time. Suddenly, one could literally hear a pin drop in the once noisy hallway. While the target of my ire crept into his classroom with his eyes cast to the floor, others who knew Lee stopped to offer their condolences over the friend we had all lost. These kindnesses returned some semblance of peace to each of one of us.

Dear God, while Lee resides in your everlasting peace, bless those he left behind with a taste of the peace he’s found.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Bring Joy To The Moment

Give thanks to God, for God is good.
God’s mercy endures forever.

Daniel 3:89

The other day, I ran into a couple with whom my husband and I worked before we retired. It was a pleasure to see these two happily strolling along. They were very dedicated educators who’d done a great deal to help many students and colleagues along the way. I couldn’t help smiling as we shared memories from our workdays and current events regarding our families. When we parted, I told them that it was a real pleasure to have talked to them, for indeed it was. During this exchange, I renewed my conviction that their positive presence in our workplace was rooted in their genuinely joyful approach to life. After we parted, I considered the mark I’d left on our school district. Had I brought my students and colleagues a bit of the joy which my friends had?

I responded to myself with thoughts of my favorite eight graders from long ago. These particular students desperately needed an adult ear. Every day when they reported to my classroom, they attempted to share their woes for the entire period. I never believed that they were engaging in work avoidance. The truth is that they were struggling with many things which needed to be dealt with. One day, when we learned that their classmate had unexpectedly lost his dad, their world turned upside-down. That day, we spent the entire period discussing this devastating occurrence.

The following day, I reminded my students that I was a reading teacher and not a counselor. As a result, I offered to spend the first ten minutes of each period sharing when needed. We’d use the remaining thirty-five minutes to engage in reading. Amazingly, they so appreciated this gesture that they improved their reading skills and their attitudes far more than anyone expected. I smiled as I acknowledged that I’d shared a bit of joy with them.

Compassionate God, thank you for making us flexible beings who can always find a way to bring joy to the moment at hand.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Teach God’s Little Ones Well…

The child grew and became strong in spirit…
Luke 1:80

My husband enjoys numerous friends on Facebook many of whom are former students of ours. He was a school principal in the school district where I taught. As a result, we often interacted with the same students in spite of our assignments in different buildings. Occasionally, one of these kids dared to ask me about the difference in Mike’s and my demeanor. They noted that I seemed far more cheerful than he most of the time. I always laughed while explaining that my role as a reading teacher was far less taxing than my husband’s role as principal of 500 or more students. Though the kids never quite understood at the time, their Facebook interactions with their former principal indicate that, now that they are parents, they understand completely.

Several years ago, I was fascinated by the title of a book written about all of the things we learn in kindergarten. The author asserted that he’d learned everything he needed to know for the rest of his life during that first year of his education. Though I’d like to think that my husband and I added to our students’ wisdom long after kindergarten, I do understand what this author was getting at. It seems to me that we need to be ever-mindful of the lessons we offer the children in our midst. The things learned at home, at school and everywhere else when we’re young have lifelong ramifications. As adults, it’s up to us to ensure that our example offers our best to all of the children who grace our lives.

Loving God, help us to teach the children among us as you would.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Humble Living

A few weeks ago, a student from a nearby high school approached my pastor to ask if we might help her to collect supplies for a school on the West Side of Chicago. Father Greg was touched by the young woman’s willingness to take on this project and he agreed to allow her to seek our support. Though Mari’s heartwarming talk at each of the weekend Masses was certainly worth our attention, my ears perked up further as soon as I heard mention of St. Malachy’s. It was then that I knew precisely where our donations would go. I’m the product of a West Side of Chicago Catholic School. I attended Presentation School which was located a few miles from St. Malachy’s and I attended high school with several St. Malachy alums.

As Mari spoke, I couldn’t help mentally revisiting those years at Presentation. Mine was one of many blue-collar families who sacrificed whatever was necessary to provide a quality education to their children. At the time, our neighborhood wasn’t much different from that of St. Malachy’s today. Influences on the street compelled even non-Catholic parents to enroll their children in our parish school. When my dad passed away just after I was promoted to third grade, my mom went to work full-time. She did her best to provide the things we needed. This meant that we reused book bags and crayons, pencils and notebooks from the previous school year if they were still serviceable. We purchased only what was truly necessary. Our mandatory uniforms were often hand-me-downs as well. Persnickety rule-follower that I was, it bothered me to wear white blouses which were different from those sold by the uniform company. As far as our teachers were concerned, the blouse’s collar style didn’t matter. For my mom, price tags guided her selections in that regard. When I returned to Mari’s talk, I began to strategize my school supply purchases in an effort to get as much for my money as possible. After all, I knew firsthand the importance of new school supplies!

I admit that I chuckled to myself when Mari set up her collection bins after the services that day. Though she and her mom brought two good-sized plastic containers, there was no way they’d be large enough. By the time I left church, some of you had already returned with school supplies in hand. Every time I stopped in during the week, I noted that the assortment had grown exponentially. The second weekend proved even more amazing. When Mari saw all that you had given, she said that she had enough supplies for two schools!

I’m writing about Mari’s school supply project for two reasons. First, this adventure illustrates once again just how amazingly giving my parish family is. It seems that no matter what is requested, a contingent from of people responds in full force. Sometimes, some of us can respond. Sometimes, others of us can respond. Always, some among us step up to do what needs to be done. Always, this giving is humbly anonymous and overwhelmingly generous. It is also remarkably life-changing for all concerned. This is just the way it is here at my parish and I couldn’t be more grateful.

Secondly, today’s scripture passages describe this phenomenon to a T. In the first reading (Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29), Sirach reminded the people, “My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God…” Sirach hoped to remind God’s people that living humbly would lead them to true happiness. In his letter to the Hebrews, St. Paul reminded the people of their good fortune in following the loving ways of Jesus: “…you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God.” Luke’s gospel (14:1, 7-14) tells us that Jesus echoed all of this with, “…when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled… blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

You know, that mountain of school supplies Mari collected won’t bring about world peace or eliminate poverty. It won’t even guarantee one evening free of violence on the West Side. Still, that mountain of school supplies will empower a school full of children in ways we can only imagine. Perhaps another third grader who’s life has been turned upside-down will be forced to smile when she begins the new year with new pencils, new crayons and a new notebook. This is what humble living is all about: Making this world better one grateful soul at a time.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Teach Them Well

The child grew and became strong in spirit…
Luke 1:80

My husband recently shared a Facebook posting which he received from a former student of ours. My husband was this young man’s principal throughout middle school. As an elementary school remedial reading teacher, I never taught this particular student because he was extremely bright. Still, he and I interacted frequently due to our involvement in special projects and the close proximity of our classrooms. We talked almost every day.

I recall that I gave this young man as much attention as possible. His amazing academic ability sometimes put him at odds with his classmates. I hoped to encourage him to be himself and to do his best in spite of teasing and worse which his peers doled out mercilessly. In the end, he persisted. This brave young man is now a well-adjusted and productive adult.

Several years ago, I was fascinated by the title of a book written about all of the things we learn in kindergarten. The author was convinced that he learned everything he needed to know for the rest of his life that year. Though I believe we have the potential to learn something new every day of our lives, I also think that we need to be ever-mindful of those early lessons in getting along. The things we learn at home and at school when we are young have lifelong ramifications. As adults, it is up to us to ensure that our instruction enhances the development, the productivity and the ability to nurture others in the children who grace our lives.

Loving God, help us to teach the children among us as you would.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved