ACE 17 Student Commencement Address
Given in the Monogram Room, Edmund P. Joyce Center
University of Notre Dame
July 13, 2012
On behalf of the graduating class of ACE 17, I want to thank all of you for being here tonight. Thank you to the ACE M.Ed faculty, pastoral staff, and all who make ACE what it is for their for their guidance and wisdom these past two years. Thank you also to all of the friends and family members who have travelled to be with us this weekend, and for their support and encouragement over the course of our ACE experience.
And on a personal note, I want to thank my fellow ACErs — my fellow masters, my allies in Catholic education, my dear friends, my brothers and sisters for giving me — a lowly Spartan — the opportunity to speak for a few minutes tonight on their behalf and to represent Our Lady's University in this capacity. I say with all sincerity that this is the honor of my life.
I'm a little bit intimidated to be up here right now. Fr. Scully and Doc are tough acts to follow and to "piggy-back" off them, and even attempt to "unpack" their remarks is a high task indeed. Many of you are perhaps expecting me to briefly and succinctly encapsulate the ACE experience. Grandma Rita in the back perhaps might be wondering what it's like to be an ACE teacher, or perhaps Cousin Herschell wants to know about the academic rigors of the M.Ed, and Aunt Esther might just want some more clarification on why her sweet niece or nephew was sent to Plaquemine, Louisiana in the first place, or even where or what a Plaquemine is.
My attempts to do this have, quite frankly, terrified me for the past few weeks, and I've come to the conclusion that —alas! — it can't be done. For those who have completed ACE, no explanation is necessary and for those who have not, no amount of explanation will suffice. The story of ACE as a whole is too big for one man to explain. It is, alas, not my story to tell.
But this burden nevertheless left me afraid. Afraid, much like the apostles were in the reading we just heard. Scripture says a strong wind was blowing, and the apostles of Christ were frightened. And when Christ appears, walking on water, what does he say but, "Do not be afraid"?
"Do not be afraid" — says the unsinkable man.
At first, this reading did nothing to allay my fears. If I'm afraid to sink, why should I listen to Jesus, as he is buoying on top of the sea?
But when the apostles stop being afraid, when they recognize what is happening — their Lord defying the laws of nature and physics — they let him into the boat...and they are amazed. They forget their fear, and they just live in awe of what they just saw.
I think, as ACErs, we can all relate to being afraid at one point or another. And maybe, when we strip away the pomp and circumstance of this weekend, we might get afraid again. Speaking for myself, I have been afraid numerous times as an ACEr but, upon reflection, I realized that this fear quickly melted and become something very different.
The first time I was ever afraid in ACE was, of course, Day One at Most Pure Heart of Mary. After going through my classroom procedures, I was left with a class full of students, and a 55 minutes lesson plan that was completed in about 35 minutes. I was absolutely terrified. So of course I had the students ask me anything they wanted to kill the time.
One student raised his hand and asked "Midda Faw, is you a real teacher?"
I said, "Yes."
And that was the first lie I ever told my students.
Another student, sensing my fear, asked a follow up: "So where'd you teach before this?"
"Mishawaka, Indiana," I said. Not a lie.
But one student, the most curious and thoughtful of them all, said — "MISH-A-WAKA, Indiana?! So you be like, teaching in tee-pees?!"
This kid, bless his heart, either thought I was teaching in India, or teaching Natrive American Indians, or something I really don't understand. He was a little confused but I applauded his critical thinking skills. And in an instant, my fear disappeared, and I became amazed.
From that day forward, my students called me by the affectionate "Midda Faw" — which I love — and more or less believed that I was a real, qualified, teacher. Which I gradually became.
The only other time I can really remember being that scared was in my second year, when I was a basketball coach for the 5th and 6th grade boys basketball team. I — and a look at me the past two years at ACEstore would tell you this — suck at basketball. To use people-first language, I am a person that does life sucking at basketball. So to coach young kids in this game, even with a highly qualified fellow ACE teacher and all-around baller, Alec, still terrified me.
Now the coaching position for the team had been very transient in the past and a few years back a man — a very well meaning man, but nevertheless a man with just a bit of a dyslexic tendency, was in charge. He took it upon himself to brand all the new equipment himself and label it.
Our school and team mascot was the lions. So imagine our surprise when we saw that the balls, bags, and other assorted equipment we inherited all said "LOINS" on them.
This is funny, but exacerbated by the fact that the name of our school was "Most Pure Heart of Mary." So, our equipment would have you believe that we were the "Most Pure Heart of Mary Loins." Or just, "Heart of Mary Loins." The first thing I was afraid of was that our uniforms would bear this dreadful typo, but, thankfully they did not.
The second thing I was terrified of — and I think any coach out there would agree — was losing our first game. I was OK if we lost a game, or a few games, but I just didn't want to lose the first game. Parents can be very unforgiving.
I was pretty much worthless on the bench and Alec did most of the sideline coaching. But as soon as the game started, my fear once again disappeared. These students, whose other areas of their lives were by most accounts very messy — messy home lives, messy school lives, messy social lives — became stars on the court. And I had nothing to do with it. When they played well, they really shined. And I was amazed.
To briefly go back to the Scripture reading, many of us might recall that there's a slightly different version in Matthew's gospel. The apostles are still in the boat, the wind's still blowing, and Jesus is still walking on the sea. They're still, obviously, terrified. But one guy, Peter, has the audacity to try out the very amazing thing that Jesus is doing. He ain't afraid. So he steps out, onto the sea, and it works. Peter walks on water too.
For a moment.
He looks around, notices the storm and, like a brick, begins to sink. He calls out to Christ, who offers him his hand, and catches him. Like Peter, I too have tried to walk on water, thinking I could do it, only to sink promptly thereafter.
For example: Once, I was in our upstairs hallway and my housemate Kelly was walking toward me. She mentioned she would be late for dinner, because she recently started coaching volleyball. I, like a good community member, wanted to support he and share my excitement for her, so I started to mime a little invisible volleyball in the hallway. I jumped up, attempting to smack an invisible ball (and get this, I actually yelled "ACE!" as I did it) and punched right through the glass covering the light bulb. My hand and wrists were sliced, and I howled all the way down to the kitchen, where we eat, to tend myself.
While Kelly cleaned up the blood, Colleen, my other housemate, hearing me cry out, came to the rescue, calmed me down, and tended my wound. What I did not know, was Colleen is extremely squeamish around blood. So while I sat happily being aided by two nurses, Colleen was doing everything she could not to vomit. When she was done, Colleen offered me her hand, her help, when I started sinking, and for that, I am amazed.
No ACE talk would be complete without a reflection on all four — excuse me, three — pillars, so I have just one more story.
I was teaching the sacraments in religion this past year and we were talking about the Eucharist — that is, the sacrament that Catholics recognize as the real presence — body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus. I explained this to my students, and saw their faces kind of contort — first in confusion, then in understanding, then in shock. Many of my students, non-Catholic, didn't understand how people could really think this. And then Shauntai, in the back, asked a question I'll never forget:
"So, Midda Faw, if you think that Jesus is REALLY the bread, then why you not be amazed, like, ALL THE TIME?!"
And I didn't have an answer for her. Still don't.
And I think, maybe, that's why I was so afraid of this talk. Not just because I have to get up in front of 500 people. I taught middle school, I can handle 500 people. But because you all amaze me so much, and I don't want to disappoint.
My mother, when she finished the parent retreat last year and met so many of the ACE 17 class, couldn't stop gushing. "Oh Dan, they are like, the best group of people. They are just so smart, and so nice, and so attractive...!"
And I can't disagree with her. If you disagree with her, she's right there and she'll fight with you over it. These people, my classmates, who I get the honor to address, are the greatest group of people I have had the pleasure of knowing.
And I wondered for a long time why this was. What makes the ACE class so great? It's more than just being nice, or smart, or good-looking (which we all are). And at the risk of sounding like a Gather hymnal, I figured it out.
You all remind me of Christ. All the times when I have been amazed by this program and the experiences of it, I have seen Christ. I'm going to be super ACEy for a second and quote Gerard Manly Hopkins. He writes,
for Christ plays in ten thousand places
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his,
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
I admire, I respect, and I love ACE 17. Because they remind me of Jesus, they introduce and reintroduce me to Jesus, and they show me what he's all about.
When I get a hug from Andrea Krebs, it's like getting a hug from God. When James Cahill dances or when Nick Cuomo wobbles at the Backer, I feel Christ's joy. When Kyle Pounder laughs — I hear Christ laugh. When Mary Lefere and Patrick Kirkland smile, that's Christ's smile. I see the face of Christ in the Face of ACE — Tim Malecek, and in the faces of all of you. And when I listen to the sound of hoping, the singing of Stephen McNamara and Patrick Kincaid, I hear the very voice of Christ.
I see him in all of you, and in all of the good that we've done.
It's easy to be afraid, especially in times like this. We are moving to new places, and schools. We have new vocations, new spouses, new fiancees, new roommates, new careers.
But when I think back to all of you all, and how I have seen Christ in you and in all of the work and the pain and the struggle and the joy and the good, the real and lasting good that we've done — together: I am not afraid.
I am amazed.
And, like Shauntai's question, I really don't know why I wasn't amazed the whole time. I should have been. And now, looking at all of you, finishing this difficult and beautiful experience, I know I will continue to be amazed for a very long time.
Thank you again for selecting me for this honor, and for keeping me afloat these two years. I couldn't have done it without you, and I love you all very much. May Christ, through his Mother, Notre Dame, bless us for the rest of our lives.