Joe DiSipio is a member of ACE 25 in Sacramento, where he taught fifth grade for the last two years at Saint John Vianney School in Rancho Cordova, California. When his time at SJV is complete, Joe will receive his M.Ed. and join the ACE Teaching Fellows Pastoral Team to help recruit and form future cohorts of ACE teachers.This piece was originally published in the SJV parish magazine, Built on the Rock.
Have you ever read a great book that so captures your imagination that you feel immersed in this story, in this world, that you don’t want to finish the book? It is a conflicted feeling; as you see the remaining pages dwindle, you are torn between wanting to know what comes next and never wanting to leave this place you’ve come to love. Maybe you never wanted to leave Middle Earth, Narnia, Hogwarts or countless other lands. But the story must come to an end.
I have that feeling now. I can see the pages of my Saint John Vianney story growing thinner by the day.
Two years ago, I received an invitation to join the SJV faculty as a member of ACE. As a senior in college, I had said yes to joining ACE, a two-year masters of education program that includes two years of service teaching in a Catholic school and living in community with other ACE teachers. I had said yes without knowing where I’d be teaching or living because I felt I had a call to this vocation of teaching. When I found out I would be moving to Sacramento to join the SJV faculty as a fifth-grade teacher, I was overjoyed at this new adventure across the country from my home in Philadelphia, but I never could have comprehended the capacity to capture my heart that a little school on Coloma Road would have.
I still remember turning into the Saint John Vianney parking lot for the first time, cruising past the enormous and beautiful cross carved into the hedge, admiring the church, and pulling around to see the school illuminated by the late afternoon burn of an August sun. That day I was welcomed by members of our faculty, and every day since I have been continuously reminded of that welcoming spirit as I have met countless parishioners, students and school parents. How could I have known then that these people would become like family to me?
It is hard for me to put into words how much SJV means to me. It sounds like a cliché, but this place truly has become my home and everyone at SJV has become my family. I laughed and cried many times with my amazing colleagues. We have shared our stories, our triumphs, our low points, and everything in between. As one colleague put it, I “kinda grew up here.” I believe that. I have grown as a teacher certainly, but more importantly, I feel as though SJV has formed me into a more complete person. I have relied on the kindness and patience of the parents of the students I have been lucky enough to teach as they have helped me grow. I am grateful for their hours of support at class parties, on field trips, or a Wednesday afternoon in carline. Most of all, I am grateful for the trust they put in me everyday, especially when I trekked up to Sly Park with both sets of fifth graders and triumphantly returned with all.
My greatest lesson learned at SJV though was not taught by any adult, but by the students. I knew I would love the students in my class when I decided to start teaching, but oh my, have the 36 students I have been blessed to learn from over these past two years taught me so much about what it means to love like Jesus did. I take great delight in thinking of the many small beauties that manifested this love in our fifth-grade classroom.
I laugh when I think of how for some reason we trapped a bee that flew in the classroom and then needed to figure out how to release it. Tears come to my eyes when I am reminded of a particular student who always seemed to knock over his desk. I shake my head thinking of how some of my students decided to call me Professor. I beam with pride when I think of the inspiring courage my young students have displayed in the face of obstacles that would make adults quiver with fear. The two moments I am moved by most are choking up and saying goodbye to my first class last May in our final class circle, and this year the meticulous research, planning, and care my fifth graders took to throw me a surprise party for my HALF BIRTHDAY in November. Maybe these wise fifth graders had a premonition we would not be together for my birthday in May, or maybe they just radically express love and care for all of the people in their lives. I think it is the latter.
This has been my SJV story. Just as we were getting to the good part, it felt as though the book had been ripped out of my hands— or at least flipped upside down by the recent COVID-19 outbreak. Yet our students have shown me that they are more faithful, more resilient, and more joyful than I could have ever imagined. They have helped me to realize that this is just the twist at the climax of the plot; it was always meant to come. The ending might not have been what was expected or planned for, but isn’t that exactly what we should come to expect as followers of Christ? I was reminded of this on Easter morning as I listened to a homily given by a priest friend of mine, Father Lou DelFra, C.S.C., who is ACE's director of pastoral life. Father Lou said, “Because what did Jesus do all his life over and over again? He loved to change the ending of stories. In fact, no one loved to change the endings of stories more.” He did so in the parable of the prodigal son. He did so when He said, “let anyone who is without sin, cast the first stone.” On Good Friday, He welcomes the good thief into paradise. And He did so on Easter morning, when He left vacant the tomb He was supposed to remain in. There’s more to come in His story; there always is.
Here we are, in the midst of distance learning and stay-at-home, and once again, the ending changes. It is hard not to shake this feeling of being robbed of these last months of school together, but as my friend and fellow ACE teacher recently reflected that this experience can teach us that “we are not owed anything – that the incredible delights of our lives, big and small, are blessings for which we are incredibly fortunate.” Those words and the lamentations of Joni Mitchell inspire me to take delight in these final pages, even as they continue to turn. We truly must appreciate the fleeting moments before us. Or maybe, as my friend says, our experience with “the outbreak of COVID-19 can teach us to lessen this gap in lived experience and appreciation of it.”
Even though at the conclusion of the school year, I will be moving back east, closer to home, SJV will continue to be a home I return to, a chapter I will always revisit and reread. New chapters are waiting to be written. I can’t help but think of how fortunate I have been to have lived this part of the story. I thank everyone who has played a part in my SJV story and made it so memorable and formative. Thank you for letting me be a small part of your SJV story.
Learn more about the ACE Teaching Fellows experience at ace.nd.edu/teach.