Why I Left

So I made up my mind. . . that this had to be my last year there.

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by Anonymous

When I was about 10, my family went to a church picnic after mass one summer morning.  While there, the pastor came over to my three teenage brothers and I, and with great exuberance, asked, “Would you like to travel the world, meet amazing people, and serve God?” My older brothers, knowing where this was going, shuffled their feet, stared at their shoes and mumbled into their collars.  But I excitedly answered, “I want to do that!” To which this pastor responded, in a kind but disappointed voice, “I’m sorry, but you can’t do that.”

I think I’ve spent the majority of my life trying to prove this pastor wrong.  I studied hard, got theological degrees, and followed my vocation to teach high school theology and work in campus ministry.  I did this for many years, certain that this was God’s will for my life.  And I was good at it, even receiving the highest award in Catholic education given in the archdiocese in which I live.

However, in the last few years of my job, there was a change of leadership.  The lay person that hired me became a friend and mentor who I trusted implicitly.  Though he still held a leadership role in the school, a member of the religious order that “technically” ran the school (in basic ceremonial roles for the majority of my tenure) was given top billing.  This priest was familiar with my work, as he and I had been interacting for a few years.  But with his new leadership role, he took to micromanaging my job.

Bit by bit, he began to tear down my confidence: second guessing my choices, double checking my details, and generally causing me to go down the rabbit hole of self-doubt.  Like any good manipulator, his tactics worked.  I began to slip and make errors I had never made. I started to doubt my own abilities, never realizing why I was doing what I was doing. I was convinced that I was losing my touch and getting too old for my job.

It just took one moment to see everything with clarity; the moment he spoke to me in that demeaning way he spoke to our teenage students.  He reprimanded me for a comment I made among colleagues; a comment that I had made 3 months prior, at the end of the previous school year.  It was not a comment that I regret making, for I spoke a truth about our Church.  He then felt entitled to follow his reprimand with a personal attack that went right to the heart of everything I believe about myself.  In that moment, I was that 10 year old girl, being told that I couldn’t serve God.

So I made up my mind that day–at the very beginning of a new school year–that this had to be my last year there.  I knew I could never go to another school; I had too much love and devotion for my principal to do that.

In the #metoo movement, I have nothing dramatic to claim: just a few clerics thinking that they are inherently smarter, infinitely more worthy of authority, perhaps even more deserving of God’s grace and love than me.  In light of the most recent Church scandals, this is what terrifies me the most about the priesthood, and the future of the Church.  Until the church hierarchy can acknowledge that its seminaries helped to form this,  we’ll continue to perpetuate the formation of a group of people who see themselves as other, as better, and who treat women (not to mention anyone other than priests) as less-than.  Though I don’t know any women who have had dramatic experiences of sexual abuse by a priest, I know far too many who have been treated as utterly and completely inferior.  The damage done by the choices of a few priests who have done unspeakable actions has caused grave harm to the Church, but I wonder daily about the lesser harms, like those that happened to me and too many other women.
By the grace of God, a new ministerial job fell into my lap.  I left a job where I had been for the entirety of my adult life; a job that I had poured my heart and soul into as I felt that I was living out my vocation.  Even though I knew that the Lord had opened new doors for me, leaving was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.   I’m still working for the Church, but in a different role (and not for a school).  And I’m still trying to find, heal, and re-inspire that little girl who had always felt like God had a plan for her.

The author worked in Catholic high school for nearly two decades and is now engaged in a parish faith formation ministry. She would like to return to high school education someday.

Student Leadership

How do we make room for dissonance and dissent within a school . . .

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Student Leadership: Meaning What We Say

Anonymous

If you look at the mission statement of almost every Catholic school, you’ll see that somewhere the word leadership is mentioned. Most schools aim to inspire leadership among their students, or they say they do. This year I’ve been prompted time and again to reflect upon what we mean when we say we want our students to be leaders. It’s not enough to put it in the mission statement. It’s not enough to tell the students they are leaders. It’s not enough to teach them the skills that lend themselves to leadership. It’s not enough if we’re not willing to listen and respect them when they try to lead.

This year, more than other years I’ve taught, has been marked by a number of students with strong moral convictions hoping to make our school a better place. I love that about them. I have the privilege of working with our student government officers. They have been at the forefront of the attempts to make change at our school. However, many of their attempts to voice their opinions and make real change have been met with indifference and resistance from the administrative body at our school. From trying to start a support group for LGBTQ students, to participating in the student walkouts across the nation, to organizing a fundraiser for cancer research, the students were denied an opportunity to lead. I think it’s fair to say that students hear their fair share of the word “no” throughout their time in school and many times the reasons behind that “no” are solid. However, in a number of cases this year it wasn’t just that students were told no, it’s that they were denied any sort of real meaningful dialogue about issues that meant a lot to them.

“We say we care about community here, but we don’t. I’ve been awarded for my leadership skills and it’s a lie….They only want me to be a leader when my opinion matches theirs.” These were the remarks of a student just days away from graduating. It broke my heart to see her so disappointed and disillusioned when I’d watched her work so hard for causes she really believed in all year. She had been elected by her peers and had been given awards for her leadership by administration, but was not being treated like one. It made me think about the leadership awards and societies that we nominate students for. Are we nominating people who show true leadership amongst their peers, or people who are polite and follow the rules?

As an educator who comes to work for the students, but whose livelihood depends on the school, I’ve felt like I was between a rock and a hard place this year. What is a teacher’s role when there is a conflict between students and administration? When students come in sad and discouraged, how can I support them in a meaningful way? In a number of instances, students contemplated breaking a rule that was set in order to demonstrate how much a particular issue meant to them. It seems counterintuitive to encourage them to practice civil disobedience against the very people who employ me, but it feels disingenuous to tell them to let it go. I suppose some people might say that if it’s a private school, students don’t have to be there and could choose to leave if they are unhappy, however that could certainly not be called community.

How do we make room for dissonance and dissent within a school that promotes one unified student body?  How do I teach students to meet a response of “no” with respectful resolve to try again? In many ways this is an issue that extends beyond our schools and into society.  As an educator I feel called to listen and to help, but feel like my hands are tied by an administrative body that does not practice what it preaches. I’m not sure that I’ve found a way to navigate this issue yet, but it seems to me like we all need to get more serious about promoting leadership within our school communities or stop using the word if we aren’t prepared to support it.

The author teaches in a high school in Massachusetts.