Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Finding Christ in First-Year Teaching

By Kevin Cacabelos, PLACE Corps Volunteer serving in Los Angeles, CA

About a month and a half into my experience with PLACE Corps, a feeling of happiness engulfed  me. As I knelt and prayed, I looked up at the cross while the choir sang “One Bread, One Body.” I glanced at my students who were squirming, whispering to each other and waiting for the cue to finally sit down.

Suddenly, an uncontrollable smile abruptly ended my state of prayer. I looked at my class of fifth graders and I saw myself in them. The power of empathy transformed my service experience into a spiritual experience. At that precise moment, I knew, I belonged exactly where I was and I belonged with the people around me.

Partners in Los Angeles Catholic Education (PLACE Corps) is a teacher service corps based out of Loyola Marymount University. The program, built upon the pillars of Professional Development, Community and Spirituality aims to serve under-resourced Catholic schools of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. Throughout a two-year commitment, teachers also live in community, striving to experience and strengthen their own personal spirituality.

Kevin Cacabelos and his class of fifth-graders pose for a picture during their class Christmas party 
After attending Catholic school for the entirety of my life, I unconsciously entered PLACE Corps thinking I knew it all – I experienced it all. Instead, I quickly learned that first-year teaching would be the most difficult endeavor I have ever undertaken in my life. Yet, despite its challenges, teaching continues to reveal the numerous blessings in my life.

At times I struggled with the question, “Where is Christ in the midst of all of this adversity, stress, and inexperience?”

How can someone grow closer to God during an 8-hour work day with no breaks, followed by six hours of graduate-level course work? Where is God in the educational inequalities that exist in the community I serve in? Where is God in the student who constantly misbehaves and refuses to listen to authority?

That moment of unrestrained happiness, at our school’s weekly Friday Mass, provided me with a stark reminder. There was no reason for me to be looking for God. Simply put, God is right in front of me. He is everywhere.

I come home every single day to a community of nine other teachers who support me. Sometimes they have answers to my problems, but more often than not, they just listen and nod their heads. After a long day of work, that is more than enough to keep a person going.

Sometimes I fall into the trap of thinking I lack a connection with my students. I’m not from Los Angeles and I grew up in a comfortable middle-class household my entire life. But then, I remember my Catholic school education, my parents' sacrifices, and my own inability to stay still during Mass.

When I look at my students, I envision their great futures. Whenever I struggle reaching them, I remember what one of my former teachers told me when I began PLACE Corps, “Require excellence from your students. Be present to your students. And always remember that teaching is a journey."

Almost halfway through this journey, one special memory stands out to me. I have one student, let’s call him “Jack”, who gets on the nerves of his classmates and continually tests the patience of the faculty and staff of my school. Beneath his exterior behavior, though, is a kid who wants to fit in. He struggles socially, and desperately wants the attention and love of his peers. Despite his learning disabilities, he shows up to school every single day with an enthusiasm to learn.

Jack often gets nervous and resorts to giving up or misbehaving when he is put into uncomfortable situations. During our school’s annual Living Rosary prayer service, every student is asked to say a “Hail Mary” in front of the entire school. When explaining the procedure to my class, Jack came up to me in private and said, “Mr. C, I don’t want to do this, I can’t do this. Can you get someone else to go up for me?"

I wouldn’t let him bail out of this. For the next few days, I made it a point to practice the Hail Mary with Jack. Even then, he still expressed discomfort and resistance towards leading the entire school in prayer. When it finally came time for our class to say a decade of the rosary, Jack stood up and looked at me. He shook his head vigorously, put his hand in front of his face and said, “I don’t want to do this."

With a stern look on my face, I replied, “You’re doing it."

And when Jack’s turn was up, he effortlessly led the entire school in a “Hail Mary." When he finished the final line of the prayer, he looked up at me with a blank stare of shocking surprise. The other teachers mirrored Jack’s countenance.

After realizing what just happened, another smile overtook my face.

Jack returned to the pew and looked up at me and said, “Why are you so happy Mr. C?"

Words could not describe the pride and joy I felt for Jack at that moment.

I just smiled and chuckled. All of my struggles and all of Jack’s struggles simply did not matter at that moment. Christ was right in front of us – all it took was some encouragement and a little prayer.

To learn more about PLACE Corps, click here