Friday, December 7, 2012

Saint Nicholas - Sinterklaas

There is a very fine tradition from my youth that I rather miss. It is the tradition in Holland of celebrating the feast day of St. Nicholas on December 6th. The early memories from anyone who grew in that part of the world are as fondly recalled during this time as are your own memories from Christmas times past.

St. Nicholas was a Greek Bishop in Myra (present day Turkey) in the 4th century who gained a wide reputation for kindness and charity, especially in regard to children. There are a host of wonderful legends and stories around his life, many of which have been retold over the centuries simply for the pleasure of relating something about the goodness of human nature.

Here is the one that I like best. Saint Nicholas (or “Sinterklaas” in Dutch, which eventually became “Santa Claus” when brought over to the U.S. by the early immigrants) learned that a poor man had three daughters. But because they were poor, they had no dowry and therefore would not be able to find a good husband. He found out that one of the daughters was hoping to get married to a fine young man but despaired of ever gaining a dowry. Therefore, St. Nicholas had one of his servants go to the poor man’s house at night, place a bag of gold in front of the door, knock on the door, and run away to hide to make sure that they received the gold. (Hence a Dutch tradition of going to relatives and friends homes around this time, placing a parcel on their front step, ringing the door bell, and running away to watch them from a hidden location.)

When the second daughter was about to be married, he again found out and sent another servant with a bag of gold. But this time, they were watching the door because they had anticipated that this might happen and wanted to thank you the secret donor. So instead the servant saw a partially open window in the house, pushed aside the curtain and threw the bag into the room before fleeing. (Hence a Dutch tradition that for several days prior to December 6th, a family with young children may be at dinner and suddenly toward the end of dinner, a hand reaches into the room from a previously closed window and throws candies and small hard cookies all over the room, but to the delight and screams of the semi-frightened children.)

Finally, the third daughter was to get married, and the poor man’s family watched the door and the windows for several nights. This time, the servant saw what was going on from some distance away, climbed up to the roof of a neighboring house, and made his way to the chimney where he dropped the bag of gold down the chimney. The daughter happened to be drying her socks inside the fireplace, where a very small fire was burning. The gold bag fell and dropped right into one the socks, where she found it the next morning.

The tradition from these stories, of course, is the giving of gifts on the saint’s feast day, and subsequently on Christmas Day from Santa Claus. But there is one other interesting tradition that comes from the fact that St. Nicholas is also the patron of pawn shops. From the Middle Ages forward, the symbol above every pawn shop has been three golden balls, symbolizing the three bags of gold that St. Nicholas had provided for the three daughters. Merry Christmas.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Ends and Beginnings

The ends of things very often become the beginnings of other things. Here we are at the end of the school year, and I’m sure that you, like myself, have found the time zipping by with little sense of decency for the seriousness with which we had approached it. The traditional analogy of “time is like a river” seems more and more apt, as often we are carried along with little volition, and all we can really do is admire the scenery in passing.

But there is one thing that seems to remain, to stay with us on that river, and it is the grit of relationships, those bonds of all-too-human personal encounter that both irritate us and give real traction in life. Somehow, despite all the rest, a real relationship or friendship endures, even grows. Its epitome is expressed by William Shakespeare in Sonnet 116: “Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks within his bending sickle’s compass come. Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom.”

This may seem a bit overblown for a simple reflection at the end of a school year. Yet little do we realize the experience of others. It wouldn’t be very wrong to say that for many students, big changes lie ahead around the bend. What to parents or administrators or staff members with years of experience might simply seem to be another holiday break before school resumes, to others is the end of one world and the beginning of a whole new world of experience, whether it be Grade 1, Grade 6 (PSLE!), Grade 7, Grade 11 (IB!) or NS.

The good thing is that most of us look forward more than we look backward. We seek new things ahead, and these carry greater weight than those things that we’ve left behind. We still appreciate Woody in his toy box, and we may even carry him with us to college, but he’s now a passenger on a brand new ride. The great wonder of humanity is the fact that we can wonder at all. When imagination is ignited by reason, magic happens.

At some point in one’s life, the whole thing sort of reverses. What was old once now seems new, and those new-fangled things are just newer versions of old notions. We return to things in the past that had never received much attention from us and discover previously unknown realities because they were previously, quite literally, unseen. Eyes are opened, and what had been there all along, what was available all along, becomes graced with new meaning and suddenly carries real substance. (The bible is chock full of those stories.) Life begins anew.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

         (T.S. Eliot - Little Gidding V)

Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving and the PSLE

There is an interesting contrast happening today (Thursday). Back in the U.S., they are celebrating Thanksgiving. It is the busiest time of the year for airports, highways, and transportation systems. Everyone is trying to get home to their families, because this is a time to celebrate the fact that we have a family, that we are part of a family, and that “family” is an important thing. It was Robert Frost, the American poet, who said: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Home is the one last refuge from unrealistic expectations.

As all of you will know, in Singapore it is also the day when the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Exam) results are made known. Young Grade 6 students far and near will find out how well they did in this all-important examination. Can they now go to the high school of their choice, or will they instead go to a school with some lesser perceived value? The PSLE, from what I’ve come to understand since my arrival a short time ago, is something that is much more likely to bring anxiety than to relieve it, much more likely to cause stress than to dissipate it. It is a marker for what is expected, both now and into the future. There is no refuge from expectations when it comes to this unique and inescapable academic rite of passage.

Since I have not experienced the PSLE (I don’t want to, thank you) and since I’ve not been a parent of a student who has experienced it, I cannot fully perceive the potent power of the PSLE. What I have heard, however, are the views of older Singaporeans who say: “Oh, yes. We had that exam. But our parents just told us to study. They did not stress over it, and we did not stress very much either. We just took it.” Apparently at that time, this exam was pretty much like any other exam: probably difficult, but okay if you studied what you were told to study. And most students had a pretty good notion of how they were going to do on it anyway, because they knew themselves better than their parents.

There seems to be a lot written about today’s phenomenon of PSLE frenzy, some of it self-propagating. The government seems to be trying to tone down the volume a bit, which is a good thing. Others say that parents will now just have to find other ways of determining the best schools for their children. That is also a good thing, because perhaps they will stop for a minute and really think about what is going on. Young people are not little adults, miniature versions of themselves. They need to be good young people before they can be good adults. Expecting them to be adults (“Act like an adult!”) or to have adult expectations of themselves (“If you fail this, you will not be able amount to anything!”) is as unrealistic as it is sad. Expectations should be an invitation, and perhaps even a stretch goal. But they should draw out, not push in. Let kids be kids. The rest of life will be here soon enough.

Let’s stretch our expectations of ourselves. Let home be home. Let home feel like home. Let home be the place where you know they will take you in, PSLE results and all. Meanwhile, pass the turkey.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Pick Up a Book

Either in the evening or the early morning, I like picking up a book or an article that is worth reading and spend 15 minutes exercising my mind and tweaking my soul. It’s not a lot of time, but it can add up. The key is to find something that allows you to read the uniquely insightful or the quietly unpredictable. The idea is to drip-irrigate the soul.

Several writers fall into that category for me. Annie Dillard and Thomas Merton are clear candidates. You simply cannot read anything they’ve written and not walk away with a curious and peculiar interior twinge that sits in a corner of your mind and begins to seep into your consciousness at odd moments throughout the day. The poet Billy Collins is another writer who drops in unannounced and ferrets around one’s mind with humour, insight, and poetry.

Currently, the interesting writer for me is Ronald Rolheiser, a very popular Catholic author and theologian who is in great demand as a guest speaker at conferences and the like. The reason is because he is accessible, insightful, and spot-on with his remarks. He forces you to think by drawing you into a reflective stance. He writes, for example, that we “…for every kind of reason, good and bad, are distracting ourselves into spiritual oblivion. It is not that we have anything against God, depth, and spirit, we would like these, it just that we are habitually too preoccupied to have any of these show up on our radar screens. We are more busy than bad, more distracted than nonspiritual, and more interested in the movie theater, the sports stadium, and the shopping mall and the fantasy life they produce in us than we are in church. Pathological busyness, distraction, and restlessness are major blocks today within our spiritual lives.” (The Holy Longing, Pgs. 32-33)

If this is the likely situation for many of us, one can only imagine what it may be for our children. The expression “You are what you eat” is as true of our souls as it is of our bodies. For example, there are terrific things available through technology that enhance our lives and enable greater leisure activities. But by itself, technology does not lead to better things. Through them, however, better things may be pursued. There are choices involved.

The use of technology itself is a choice, perhaps subject to degrees of attachment, and we should occasionally remind ourselves of the “choiceness” involved. Some years ago, a college student who had become concerned about his dependence on technology decided that each Sunday would be a “screen-free” Sunday. No television, movies, computer, phone, or whatever might have a screen. You can imagine the result, both on the first day and after several months of practice. I don’t know if I could begin to do the same thing very easily, but I’m interested in trying, because retreats of any kind are retreats of some kind, and this little personal retreat from technology sounds as if it may be worthwhile.

Picking up a book and exercising one’s mind is one thing, but actually doing something that tweaks one’s soul is much more difficult; rewarding perhaps, but certainly beyond the zone of comfort that, for many, leads to Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation.” And there’s so much more to life than that.

Start with regular sips from a good book or article and see where it leads.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Between Skepticism and Hope

Today, as I am writing this newsletter, the American election is being held, and I haven’t got a clue as to who may win. By the time you read it, the hubbub will have died down, the winners will have had a great victory party and the losers will have made a speech about unity in the country. And then life moves on.

It is rather amazing that we (I’m speaking as an American now) spend so much money and so much effort on something which seems to be so much larger than anything else on our horizon. Surely we should have gained a better sense of perspective by now. Why is it that “hope springs eternal” in so many situations in our lives? Everyone gets very excited about the new possibilities brought to life by a new candidate, only to find out later that the expectations outreached the realities. One election is hardly over before the next is being planned, and the whole cycle repeats itself.

It’s a human characteristic to live somewhere between skepticism and hope, whether the focus is on elections, or on human relationships, or on theology. We expect the best, and if the best does not happen, we just have to wait a bit longer. One saint who supported this notion was Julian of Norwich, who lived 600 years ago and heard in a vision from God: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” She was either blind to reality or profoundly touched by reality. I vote for the latter.

Elections are opportunities to exercise our capacity for hope, a time to take a step in a direction that we know to be good, even if we find out later that we didn’t get as far as we had thought. That’s the nature of hope, real hope, a faith-backed hope. It is the kind of hope that a loving parent has for his/her child, no matter the circumstances. It is hope that sustains one’s vision of life, that shapes one’s faith in life.

Such hope may also be brought to bear on our relationship with God. In fact, it must be if that relationship is to be real. The faith that God hopes in us as much as we hope in God is what gives faith vitality. Believing that God places trust in us is as much a motivation to do good as is the awareness that we have hope in God. Think of a parent urging a small child to walk across the grass. That’s hope in action on the part of both parties, one teetering on the edge of catastrophe and the other participating with anxious, but encouraging, concern. Both have their arms out, just beyond reach, and each draws on the other as their source of hope, a relationship of love. Then walking can happen.

I heard Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., once say in a lecture: “You know, ongoing progress is not a biblical concept.” Real life is never predictable and often difficult, from biblical times to the present. But just because life is not perfect doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work towards improving it. We move from hope to hope, teetering along and trusting in the loving relationships that sustain us, especially those relationships that we may not fully know about.

So perhaps voting is not such a bad thing after all, because hope is always a good thing before all.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Rules for Becoming a Saint

This week we celebrated “All Saints Day” in the calendar of the Catholic Church. It’s a special day that in many English-speaking countries was called “All Hallows” day. And the evening before, of course, was called All Hallows Eve. Hence, Halloween emerged. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that ghost and goblins, werewolves and witches, all emerged from a church-wide appreciation of those men and women who have stood out as examples of how we could be if we take God’s presence in our lives seriously. Because the scary, mythic, and mysterious are much more fascinating parts of our stories, even as these attention-grabbing images carry with them notions of security, truth, and transparency. Just because we like scary and strange things doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate the good. It’s just that we usually don’t see the good, the true, or the beautiful unless it’s against a background of the not so good, true, or beautiful.

There is a quotation from Rabindranath Tagore that I used to have in my classroom which relates to this power of contrast: “The dark takes form in the heart of the white and reveals it.” About halfway through the school year, one of the bright, under-performing students would be staring at it, oblivious to whatever was going in class, and suddenly say: “I get it.” Once he did get it, I would invite him to apply the saying to his performance in class, which would be met by a new quizzical look.
Time for chapter two.

Most might think that saints are those who have reached unrealistic heights of glory and achievement, spending most of their nights on their knees and most of their days in contemplative ecstasy. As a matter of fact, there are saints across the whole spectrum of human endeavor, from contemplatives to daily workers, from the learned to the simple, from those with special talents to those with little or no talent. Yet each saint has his/her own unique combination of prayer and activity, a life of faith and a life of action. Perhaps the arena where the “saint” piece is able to mature and emerge is that place where each person distinctly expresses and lives out the essential truths of the Gospel, doing so in an exceptional, yet ordinary, way. A saint does ordinary things in an extraordinary way.

All of the things that you hear in popular mythology today – Do you own thing. Express yourself. Be all that you can be. Live who you are. – are most acutely found in the saints, because these women and men tap into sources of the soul that remain dormant in most people. The oft-expressed hopes of many become a deeply lived reality for saints, without the prodding of songs, posters, and popular expressions. While we flitter about on the surface of daily experience, others have quietly discovered depths of mystery within themselves, often at some cost, that reveal a “white” that they had hardly ever known. Is it any wonder that many older people become more engaged in their spiritual lives as they mature?

I now think that saints are to be admired primarily for their courage, their long-suffering conviction that pursuing the elusive “more” has greater value and importance than pursuing the obvious “more.” What guidelines do we have about what this “more” might look like? You could do worse than look at the Gospel reading that is used for the Mass of the Feast of All Saints (Matthew 5: 1-12). There is nothing better in the New Testament for laying down the “rules” for becoming a saint.

Friday, October 26, 2012

International Days of Peace

This week, the SJI International High School is participating the 6th annual Lasallian International Days of Peace, an effort sponsored by Lasallian Youth around the world. The week was kicked off by a school assembly with talks, songs, and prayers on the topic of world peace. The short talk that I gave is below.

Everyone seems to want peace, but very few people are actually willing to do the hard work that it requires. Why is that? Peace doesn’t come automatically, although we seem to desire it naturally. You would think that if so many people want it, then it would be pretty easy to do. But the problem is that what we usually want is our own version of peace, our own definition of what peace would look like.

If there is going to be real peace somewhere, it only really happens because you have to give something up. You have to give up the idea that only you are right. You have to give up that only you know what’s best. You have to give up the idea that you’re the only person worth listening to. And all of that is not an easy thing to do.

This is as true of you and your friends as it is of nations at war. People get all hot and bothered about something to the point that they’ve spent so much time on a particular interpretation of things that they can’t back out of it. It’s just too hard. What is needed a good strong dose of the truth. That’s why it usually takes somebody who is not directly involved in a situation – a common friend, an arbitrator, a judge, the United Nations – who can point out the facts or realities of the situation in such a way that both parties come to see that there is another way of looking at things, and perhaps things aren’t as bad as they seemed. Maybe peace is possible. In other words, it requires a change in thinking, a change in perspective, along with a change in action. Once a path to peace is agreed to, then the real possibility of peace exists.

I’ve always been impressed with a story that I heard about two kids who had to split a candy bar between them. One of them had a knife with which to cut the candy bar in half. But now they had to decide who was the one who was to do the cutting. So one of them said: “You cut, I choose.” This meant that one person would cut the candy bar in half and the other person would be the first to choose the piece that he or she would take. I thought that that was a brilliant solution, because the person who was doing the cutting would be very careful to do it fairly, otherwise he or she would end up with the smaller piece. And in the end, both kids were happy with the outcome. “You cut, I choose.”

Wouldn’t it be great if nations could do something like that? Most of time, however, I don’t think they’ve figured out yet what the candy bar is, let along how to split it up.

World peace is not something easy to achieve, as the evidence shows. I certainly don’t have the magic answer to it all. But there are others who have given hints about it, who have an insight about peace that strikes us as worth thinking about. For example, Mahatma Gandhi said, “As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world – that is the myth of the atomic age – as in being able to remake ourselves.” In other words, real change in the world depends on real change in ourselves. World peace depends on individual peace, on peace in our hearts, on peace on the school grounds, on peace in our families.

The other wise saying about peace comes from Mother Teresa, who said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” This means that the connections between people need to be recognized, and sometimes they have to be reminded of those connections in order to make peace. It goes right back to the first thing that I said about peace, that it’s hard to do because you have to give up the idea that your view of things is the only one. Once you see – once you really see – that there are two people around that candy bar, and that both have a legitimate interest in the results, then a peaceful solution is often nearby.

So the next time you’re in a situation that could use a peaceful resolution, think about the larger picture, and not only about your own little world. It will help you, and it may perhaps help world peace. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Vocation of the Teacher

Here are some six-word “essays” that describe teachers:

            “I remember her fifty years later.”
            “Teachers hold the ladders students climb.”
            “Destroy chains. Shape wings. Inspire flight.”
            “I struggled; she never gave up.”
            “All thirty students raised their hand.”
            “Selflessly dedicated to someone else’s success.”
            “Point out the stars. Provide rockets.”
            “Watch them soar, then demand more.”
            “They doubted, you believed, I succeeded.”

The vocation of a teacher is a precious thing. Many of us take it for granted, and few of us take the time to see its grace in our lives. At SJI International, we’re surrounded by the power and effect of great teachers every day. We’re surrounded by those who bring knowledge to life, set fire to curiosity, and guide inquiry into ever deeper dimensions. Add in wide experience, enthusiasm for learning, a sense of humor, and a real appreciation and love for a wide range of young students - or simply put, a love of kids - and what emerges is someone for whom giving is a habit and mystery is a friend, someone who carries the responsibility lightly but exercises it seriously, someone who knows how to hone the edges of young minds, keep them on their toes, and fill their hungry souls.

Thomas Aquinas called teaching the most generous of all cooperative arts. Like other cooperative arts such as farming, teaching works with what is already there, working with the given soil of individual personalities, backgrounds, learning styles, challenges, gifts, and talents - those who sit staring in front of you at the beginning of each lesson. It’s an art because teaching requires much that cannot be found in books. The best lesson plans are never followed by the best teachers, because lesson plans only set the jazz melody, not the performance. And teaching most generous because it is almost all gift. No one other than students really see it, and most of them forget the details of teachers but remember the power of their effect. A few may return years later to express their gratitude, but that’s about as frequent as children thanking their parents for their upbringing. It’s not really expected either, because it was never done for the thanks it might bring. Teaching, like good parenting, comes from a generous, loving heart that pursues the good of those who have, in God’s Providence, been confided to our care.

I would suggest that the greatest model one might follow as a teacher is that of Jesus. He walked alongside his followers, leading them by familiar roads to unfamiliar places through what he did and said, and in that order. He knew the power and the responsibility of words, their connection to what he did. He spoke to them in a language that others understood, but he also spoke with “authority” - an integrity and wisdom that engages the listener fully. He gave them new ways of thinking and of seeing things, new ways of responding to situations around them, new ways of being in the world. And what He finally gave them, of course, was himself, fully and totally, profoundly and uniquely.

It is that gift of Jesus Christ, that gift of Himself, which we live anew and celebrate at each Mass. It is that same gift of self in our teachers that we celebrated for and among our teachers on Friday morning, October 5th. They are a blessing to be acknowledged.

St. John Baptist de La Salle, our inspiration and Founder, and the Catholic Church’s Patron Saint of All Teachers, in a section of writings about the many miracles that Jesus performed, says this, “You too can perform miracles by touching the hearts of those confided to your care.” If that perspective and invitation is taken seriously, we should realize that the vocation of the teacher is one that continues to be boundless. Wonderful things yet lie ahead.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Politeness Then and Now

St. John Baptist de La Salle wrote a very interesting book called “The Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility.” Written over a period of eight years and published in 1703, the book enjoyed wide popularity, going through 45 editions and 120 printings during the next 200 years. There are quotations from it that still crop up now and again. Some years ago, I was ferretting through a barrel of books outside of a store in Concord, CA, when I spied an interesting cookbook about soups, and in flipping through it stumbled upon a quotation from De La Salle that came from this original book on politeness, where there is a whole section devoted to eating soup.

This was a book written for the classroom, as a reading text for those who had learnt enough to be able to read something simple and basic, out loud and together. The reasoning was that the kids might as well read something profitable.

The “audience” consisted of ten to twelve-year-old inner city boys, who were more familiar with street smarts than book smarts. So you might well imagine the topics covered.  There’s a section on “The Nose and the Manner of Blowing Your Nose and Sneezing” that contains pertinent advice such as “It is not refined to keep your handkerchief in your hand or to offer it to someone else, even if it is very clean. However, if someone asks for it and insists, you may hand it to him.” And that’s one of the milder pieces of advice.

The topics also include how to have a conversation, how to act when you join or leave a group, and the six situations in which one should take off one’s hat. There is no doubt that the book was put together based on real observations and real situations by teachers. Reading it, one could well see that students might be quite intrigued with the offered advice. In fact, one historian has said that the parents of students often improved their behavior because of the politeness lessons brought home by their sons.

Politeness and decorum remain as worthy a topic in the 21st century as it was in the 17th. Today the specific areas of concern deal with technology (mobile phones, internet usage, gaming, social networks, etc.) and its possible consequences (social myopia or lack of interaction skills, instant expectations of self and others, insensitivity to feelings or perspectives, and the like). At a later time, it will be worth exploring these a bit more deeply. For now, it’s sufficient to remind ourselves that the true knowledge of virtues, civility, and politeness requires the engagement of virtues, civility, and politeness. The doing leads to the being.

One of the best guidelines has ever been the same: “Do unto others what you would have them done unto you.” There’s a reason they call it the Golden Rule.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Teaching and Trust

One of the things that is sometimes forgotten in the general mix of school life is the fact that education is largely a matter of partnership and trust. A school is a bevy of relationships, conversations, personalities, and backgrounds. Nothing happens in isolation. There is a dynamic of interaction on a school campus that is different from any other environment. Sometimes it works well, and sometimes it does not.

One of the factors that influences that dynamic is this business of trust. Students trust that teachers know their material. Teachers trust that students wish to learn. Parents trust that the school is set up in such a way that facilitates real growth and development, both in terms of academics and in terms of personal character. Besides these, there are many other areas in a school where there is direct or indirect trust factor (library, maintenance, security, technology, canteen, coaching, etc.).

But trust does not happen automatically. Attention much be paid. At certain times and places, one much be intentional about recognizing it, about fostering it, and about enhancing it. Like any relationship between persons, things may not be taken for granted. Serious consequences ensue.

In a place such as SJI-International, thousands of relationships buzz around like so many bees, and trust is established, strengthened, questioned, broken, regained, and revived time and again. They are all part of what it means to be a school, a place where learning takes place on many levels, both intimate and remote. If you have heard of the expression “The fog of war” to describe the untamed complexity of the battlefield, you may also appreciate some version of that reality which exists in a untamed complexity of an active school setting. Everything cannot be known or predicted. What we can do is pay attention to the important pieces and do all we can to ensure that they are done well.

St. John Baptist de La Salle was known for two frequent expressions. One of them was “God be blessed.” He said this whenever something significant happened, even if it was challenging or difficult. His trust in God was paramount and constant. The other expression was a question that showed up in many of his letters: “Does the school run well?” Here I believe he was confirming his trust in those who operated the schools, the Brothers at that time, and the fact that they needed to pay attention to the essentials that make for a good school. It’s a good combination.

I hope and trust that we continue to do the same.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Diversity and Celebration

Celebrations are to be encouraged. When people get together for a special occasion, they are paying attention to something that is true all of the time but that deserves special attention at some specific time. Birthdays come to mind, of course, or anniversaries or memorials for loved ones. And there are the national holidays or school holidays or religious holidays. Each one celebrates a reality that has a past, a present, and a future. A celebration’s past consists of fond recollections, memories and love. “Remember when…?” Its present rests on appreciation, or thankfulness and even joy. “How amazing that …” And the future piece of a celebration is largely one of hope, of anticipation and confidence.  “I sure hope that …” Together, these three aspects give real life to a celebration.

This all comes to mind because of the fact that SJI International celebrated Racial Harmony Day this week. At their assembly, there was a prayer led by representatives of different faiths, followed by a “fashion show” of different costumes or dress from the various cultures represented in the school. Both students and staff participated by donning their unique outfits and parading down the middle of the Assembly Hall – on a proper runway – as their culturally distinctive clothing was described with appropriate detail and historical background.

Diversity is something that is both a blessing and an ongoing invitation to grow in understanding the “other” in our lives. The challenge is always one between unity and diversity, between those things that draw us together and those things that draw us apart. The advice by Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., is insightful: “It takes time; time and patience to listen to one another. It also requires reflection, the effort to understand each other. … Diversity need not make us mutually incomprehensible.”

The “other” can be looked at as either a rival or relative, someone who is against us or someone who is, finally and basically, one with us. The choice usually occurs at a pre-rational level, and the mind finds all sorts of ways to justify it. The fine thing, however, is that we indeed can change our perspective, either positively or negatively, and we do this through intentional practice which turns into habit which turns into conviction.

Abraham Lincoln is purported to have said: “People are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” This can also apply to our experience of diversity and racial harmony. Our appreciation of racial harmony will deepen as our attitudes and actions towards the “other” in our lives are shaped by intentional humility, openness, and a wide-souled dive into the mystery of the thing. Celebrations are one of the privileged opportunities for doing so.

And if you’re ever curious about how something like this should work, watch a diverse group of elementary school 4-year-olds playing together. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

Friday, August 24, 2012

Bamboo School - Thailand

This coming Friday, August 31st, will see a rather unique event at SJI International. The school community is coming together to celebrate and support a wonderful Lasallian outreach in Thailand, a place through which education is provided to truly needy students of all ages who live at or near the border with Myanmar.

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to visit this “Bamboo School” in Sangklaburi for a few days. Located a very long bus ride away from Bangkok, the school at that time had one Brother working there, Brother Victor Gil, a long-time Spanish missionary, fluent in Thai and with a PhD in Chemistry, who began the adventure some 20 years ago “on the side” when he encountered the great need for education at Three Pagodas Pass. His small efforts grew in providential small steps, and today three Brothers oversee several educational outreach programs, including the original Bamboo School.

The things that impressed me when I visited were 1) the eagerness for education on the part of the many poor refugees and day-wage workers, both for themselves and for their children, 2) the perseverance of the students in pursuing education despite limited supplies and Spartan conditions, and 3) the real and genuine dedication of the teachers. Whether in the open, bamboo-built classrooms or at the night school in the covered area next-door at the rubber processing plant, students and teachers alike were clearly happy to find that the needs of some matched the gifts of others.
On the sign in front of the school is the motto “No Child Left Behind.” While this was a popular educational rallying cry in the U.S. during the presidency of George W. Bush, the truth of the statement really comes to life here at the Bamboo School. By whatever means, children come to discover the power of education.  One of my more memorable images is that of a little girl, carrying a shoulder bag (probably her prized possession) with the logo Beverly Hills Polo Club, who spontaneously gave me the Victory sign. She didn’t realize how true that gesture was.

At the August 31st fundraising event at SJII, with Thai food prepared by a former royal chef, and dancing and music by Thai dancers flown in (as a donation) for the occasion, and with many very impressive auction items available, everyone will be able to celebrate and support the generous work of education at the Bamboo School. It’s also a rare opportunity to directly help Brothers and others who carry on this kind of work, and who do so in solidarity with us at SJI International. Those who participate that evening will give real and genuine substance to what the term “International” in our name is all about.

For those who would like to see more photographs, go to this link. For those who would like to buy tickets to this Thai evening or donate something, please contact the school office.

You won’t be disappointed and are certain to be inspired and well-fed..

Friday, July 27, 2012

A Certain Kind of Community

It has now been just about two months since I arrived at SJI International, “fresh from the boat” as they say, and eager to encounter the new environment and community here in Singapore. In that respect, my initial experience has not been very different from that of many of the young people who come to the Elementary School or the High School for the first time. We are both fascinated by all of the new experiences that we encounter (What is that red sauce? Did I understand that person? I wonder if they expect me to do something now? What do all those acronyms mean?) and we are comforted by the fact that people are the same the world over. Plus, thankfully, Lasallian schools carry common characteristics that are as welcome as they are familiar.

One of the primary characteristics of a Lasallian school revolves around a certain kind of community. People come together for all kinds of purposes and causes. Many times, community is formed because it will enable individuals to accomplish something that they really want for themselves or for their interests. There is nothing wrong with that. The difference in a Lasallian community is that the purpose is focused on others, on the growth and improvement of others, on the future of others, on the spiritual life of others. The reason that teachers and administrators come together in a school is to accomplish something that will touch the hearts and minds of each student.

All great teachers and all genuine teachers (which makes them great) have taken on that vocation because of who they are and how they see themselves as people of integrity, people who are honest with themselves. Many of them could have been quite successful in other industries, and perhaps they were in other industries. But there was a generous spirit, an intellectual curiosity, and a hunger for personal encounter that drew them to the sometimes messy vocation of the classroom. It is there that they have found out who they really were, and it is there that they bring out the best in those confided to their care.

I am very happy to be here with the Brothers in Singapore and to be able to be part of the educational community at SJI International. I am looking forward to many fine opportunities to further appreciate Lasallian education as it is lived in a culture that is different from my own. 

I’m on a rather steep learning curve, but that keeps things fresh and exciting. Just like class.

Friday, February 10, 2012

What Makes a Good School?

One question that St. John Baptist de La Salle would often ask in his letters to the Brothers was, "Does the school run well?" There was no specific definition of what that meant. He assumed that the recipient would understand the meaning of "run well." The Brothers had over the years developed a resource called The Conduct of Schools that specified everything in the school, from the schedule to the exact curriculum to the placement of wall art. A Starbucks or McDonald's franchise manual couldn't be as detailed.

But the question, I think, had to do with more than simply how well that Conduct of Schools was being applied. When we ask someone, "Are you well?" or "How are you?", there's more going on than meets the ear. Certainly, we are interested in the practical details of the person's life. But also, and perhaps more critically, we are making a cautious venture into the person's deeper levels of life. One can simply respond with "Fine!" and leave it at that. Or one can respond with humor, as Kathryn Hepburn is reported to have done - "Fine, if you don't ask for details." Or one could cautiously ask in return, "Do you really want to know?" and thereby begin a very different kind of conversation. (Many people don't particularly want to go there, by the way, unfortunately.) Finally, there are those who really will tell you how they are, and then it's either "excuse and run" or "full speed ahead."

Perhaps De La Salle had this in mind, giving permission to the Brothers to whom he was writing to be perfectly candid in their responses, letting De La Salle know both the joys and the challenges of their vocation. At the same time, he was genuinely interested in making sure that all Lasallian schools ran well. And that meant more than simply doing a fine job of academics. Reading his meditations makes it very clear that education must be more than academic excellence.

Some might think that there's little that's more important than good academics in a school. After all, isn't that why schools exist in the first place? Well, yes and no. De La Salle and Lasallian educators would say that academics are vital but never sufficient. A school is much more than a bunch of people gathered in one place in order to learn academically. It is a community of learning, a group of individuals who together advance in ways not yet fully realized or fully appreciated. Why else do we form such close bonds and carry so many fond memories with us for years afterwards; conversations, discoveries, relationships, clubs, sporting events, outings, explorations, and all the rest. Seeds of wisdom, of knowledge, of relationships, of spiritual life, and of true vitality were planted, many of which would need years of cultivation before they came to blossom. Saint Thomas Aquinas calls teaching the most charitable co-operative art, because teachers hardly ever see the results of their efforts. And the final results that teachers truly appreciate are much more than those that come from academics alone.

One of my favorite quotations about teachers and teaching comes from Abraham Joshua Herschel:

"Everything depends on the person who stands in the front of the classroom. The teacher is not an automatic fountain from which intellectual beverages may be obtained. He [She] is either a witness of a stranger. To guide the pupil into the promised land, he [she] must have been there himself [herself]. When asking: Do I stand for what I teach? Do I believe what I say? he [she] must be able to answer in the affirmative. ... What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but textpeople. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read; the text that they will never forget."

Wise words. Is it any wonder, then, that De La Salle spent such time and effort on cultivating the souls of the Brothers, those who followed him into teaching the young? Teachers are the ones who carry the school forward, who bring the "mission" to the classroom, and who are the direct instrument of God's grace in the lives of their students. They carry the seeds of Lasallian education.

So I think that when De La Salle asked the question "Does the school run well?," he was really asking about the people, about the community, and about the inner vitality of the school's life, not about its academics alone. His was a much more broad understanding of "school," one that essentially focused on the people within it.

Are we a witness or a stranger to those we teach? Does our inner school run well? (How are you?) De La Salle's provides a bit of fine advice for fostering the inner school life of all:

"Never speak except in a kindly manner. When you fear to fail in this, remain silent."