I’m the type of person who always has a plan—a plan for next weekend, a plan for water evacuation if we accidentally drive off a bridge, or five different escapes routes from any given room. This quirk of mine was often amusing for my housemates in ACE. We laughed a lot, but what can I say? I grew up in the suburbs of DC with an older brother. Being tough and resilient have always been important values where the metro traffic meets the cornfields, and tough was often synonymous with prepared.
I really thought I was tough before I joined ACE’s ranks. I had lost a dear friend before her time. I knew what it meant to work hard for two college degrees, to work a 9-5 job in the city grind, and I spent nearly two years with a computer screen as my primary source for professional development. I tried not to complain, to accept my small crosses with joy. According to the outside world, I was tough—I was both an independent and ambitious woman. I had plans for my career and life.
But something was there—this idea that I was capable of more, that I had gifts I wasn’t using. I had potential I needed to purify with fire. I began to see that strength has little to do with success, money, or power. It’s about the true purpose of one’s life.
And to my great joy, this beautiful opportunity to teach middle school language arts in Tampa, Florida, was the next step in finding my purpose. I found out I would be at St. Joseph School on the last day of my novena to its patron saint. It seemed providential, and I’m still sure it was.
I could tell you that ACE made me a better person, or that it shaped me as an educator, and both of those are deeply true. After my two years teaching with ACE, I have never felt more called to be a Catholic school teacher, and I am blessed to have that title today in my home archdiocese. But as I sit here, immersed once more in the nation’s capitol’s traffic, fall leaves starting to change, what has changed the most is my idea of strength and what it means to be tough.
Nothing has ever been more difficult than being a novice teacher to students that deserved a veteran teacher. Any notions of the words ‘planned’ or ‘tough’ took me months to recover, even working full throttle. It took humility and faith in God that I did not know I possessed. It took me nailing my own crosses to the crosses of fifty teenagers at a time, and walking with them…while we corrected sentences with different colored pens, acted out novels, or had meandering conversations in religion about Jesus of Nazareth and His life.
It took me allowing God to show me the suffering and joy of others, and re-shaping my ideas about how strength is shown. In the greatest difficulty I was able to have peace, because my strength had to come from my love. Not my ability, or intellect, or even my willingness to improve as a teacher. It all came from my love.
Now, when I think of “tough,” I think of my student with dyslexia who told me she would write novels one day, and the hours we spent correcting her work as she cried and kept trying, never giving up.
When I think of “tough,” I see the faces of my students’ parents at the Thanksgiving dinner they hosted for my family, pouring out support to a teacher they knew needed it.
When I think of “tough,” I see my ACE housemates up at all hours of the night making engaging lessons for their high-school students.
In a time when our world is in great need of effective teachers, ACE gave me the chance to let the difficulty of teaching strengthen and sustain me. It gave me a chance to succeed when I didn’t feel tough at all, and to realize this is how so many children feel in schools across America.
It’s tough to be the voice saying, “God loves you. Your life has meaning.” But I get to do that every day with fifth-graders, and the truth in those words gives me courage.