Morning light puddles on the moss-covered stones of the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. My breath, after my run, slows and my knees find the kneeler, recently wet with dew. I imitate Saint Bernadette and gaze up at Our Lady. From her perch among the stones, she seems to look right at me, expectantly.
This morning, I speak with her about the mixed feelings of an ACE summer. I speak of the joy at returning after the first year of teaching, seeing friends who are scattered in communities across the country during the year. I speak of the genuine, nerdy excitement for classes where I have context for the educational theory we discuss, and the passion I experience while chatting about diverse books with a professor over lunch. I speak of community building in basketball and shared meals.
But there’s also a frenzied pace and all-consuming atmosphere of busy-ness. I need to be productive. I need to work. I need to meet with so-and-so. I need to be still.
The Grotto is a place where I can be still. I can process in pieces my time in ACE. I tell Mary what is on my heart and ask her to hear my prayer, to bring it to the heart of her Son, Jesus.
I also light a candle. Well, several actually. At the end of my first year of teaching in ACE, I had planned a service day where my sixth graders made sandwiches for our neighbors at the local homeless shelter. Two of my students were fooling around, throwing plastic knives with jelly at each other, and refusing to be helpful in actually preparing the lunches. I remember wearily trying to redirect them, my own fingers sticky from the peanut butter and jelly. These were two students who I had constantly tried to reach and to support during the year. And in our last week of school, for our Catholic Social Teaching service project, I felt like I had failed them.
“Really?” I thought. “This is how we’re going to end the year?”
This is what I held in my mind as I found myself at the feet of Our Lady just a few days later. The image of those students throwing knives on our second-to-last day kept replaying as I watched the candle flames flicker against the cavernous stone arc of the Grotto. My students’ names repeated in my head like a mantra, like a plea.
On that kneeler, in the hush of the early morning or the fading-sun evening, I prayed to Mary, almost urgently, for her assistance. “Please,” I prayed. “See my hope for these students. Thank you for the privilege of being their teacher. Grant me the strength, patience, and wisdom to be the teacher they need me to be.”
Back at my school site after ACE summer, I again felt a mix of emotions, just as I had when I gazed up at Mary in the Grotto. On that first day, I had my students set goals for the year in my classes and also had them write what they were excited about.
One of those students who had been “too cool for school” on service day held up his dry erase board for me to read: “This will be the best year in Language Arts because Miss Mangano is our teacher.” I looked at him and smiled. Humbled, I realized that God had heard my prayer through Mary.
Then, in our last week of my second year, we had service day again. This time, we served lunch at the food pantry to local neighbors. The other student who had been goofing off the previous year jumped right in, put his latex gloves on, and generously served lunch to our guests. I was amazed—not just by this beautiful spirit, but by the transformation he’d had the past year.
To me, he seemed like a new person. He had shown up each day, determined to work and try his best, whereas the year before he refused to participate or complete assignments. To avoid feeling vulnerable or incapable, he would give up easily and opt out of challenging tasks. It seemed that, in his mind, he couldn’t really fail if he never tried in the first place. But now, one year later, he held his head high as he ladled beans onto a stranger’s plate.
As I looked at this soon-to-be-eighth-grader, I thought, “Lord, you heard my prayer. Thank you for being with him. Thank you for the blessing of watching him grow into the person you are calling him to be.”
In that church basement food pantry, the smell of the streets sweating just inches from the stairs, I glanced at the wall behind my students. In a faded frame, Our Lady of Guadalupe looked on and suddenly, it felt like I was back at the Grotto. Mary looked at me expectantly, but my only prayer this time was one of immense joy and gratitude. “Please,” I prayed. “See my hope for these students. Thank you for the privilege of being their teacher.”
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