Teaching them many things

Donna is a math teacher. She teaches at an inner city school with armed security guards in the halls and metal detectors at the entrances. Her parents worry about her and ask her why she doesn’t get a job in some nice, quiet suburban school. Donna understands their worry. She worries herself, sometimes. But something keeps her there. “These kids have no one else,” she explains, “they are like sheep without a shepherd.”

Dan teaches adult literacy at the county jail to inmates ranging in age from 18 to 54. Many of them have been here before and, while some will go on to jobs and a life outside these walls, many of them will be back. Most of his students have never known what it’s like to hold down a regular job. Listening to their stories, Dan learns that some of them, the ones lucky enough to have ever had a place to call home, grew up in dysfunctional families. The less fortunate, if you can call such the upbringing of their counterparts “fortunate,” grew up on the streets. Dan’s wife worries about him and asks him why he can’t get a job teaching at a nearby junior college. “These people have no one else,” he explains, and he continues “… to teach them many things …”

It’s true that Donna and Dan could probably make more money doing something else. And their families would certainly be relieved to have them in more traditional teaching situations. But while they mean well, their families just don’t understand. They don’t understand that, when Donna and Dan look into the eyes of their students, their “… heart[s are] moved with pity for them …” They don’t understand why, every September, Donna and Dan always come back — back to the inner city school, back to the county jail, back to their students. “Why must you be the one to teach them?” they ask. And, to tell the truth, there are days when Donna and Dan ask themselves the same question. But in their hearts they already know the answer. “They are like sheep without a shepherd … they have no one else …”

Van Benthem is a member of the Secular Franciscan Order and a longtime pastoral minister, retreat leader, spiritual director and published writer and poet.