My life has a distinct pattern. A red thread of continuity runs through it connecting all of its disparate aspects into a cohesive whole. There is an irony to the fact that I just attended my fiftieth high school reunion over the past weekend and today I will return to the building where I laughed and learned so long ago so that I might help a new generation of students to understand the intricacies of mathematics. My own school no longer exists, at least not in the form that it had when I was there. A unique set of circumstances forced it to close, leaving the brick and mortar structure that had housed my own hopes and dreams as nothing but an empty shell haunted by the spirit of those of us who had walked the halls before. It was rescued from destruction by the Jesuits and in particular by Father T.J. Martinez who saw opportunity in the abandoned rooms. Under his guidance a new educational mecca rose from the ashes. Today Cristo Rey Jesuit Preparatory High School stands where Mt. Carmel once lived. It is a school designed to provide minorities and economically challenged students with the academic rigors that once defined my own education.
When I am in the school the past and present merge in my mind. I am able to recall what happened in each of the rooms and to remember my own journey as a student. I find that the young men and women with whom I work are not different at all from me and my classmates even though five decades separate us. They may do their work on computers and carry calculators and smart phones but the essence of what they want to accomplish in life is exactly the same as the desires that we had. They are on an exploratory adventure as they attempt to make sense of the world around them both rationally and emotionally. They are inevitably quite earnest when they ply me with questions both related to mathematics and to my own journey when I was a student in that same place. They desperately want to make something of themselves but often fall short of being as responsible as they need to be. They are young and not yet willing to believe that they are not in a race against time. They don’t yet realize that they will have many opportunities to right themselves and begin again.
I have the perspective of age. I am able to look back and see that without a doubt we humans are a resilient bunch. We fall down and get back up over and over again. We learn as much from our failures as from our successes, sometimes even more. We generally grow wiser and tougher with each passing year. We may not get exactly what we want but as the old saw goes we tend to get what we need. I attempt to convey such thoughts to the teenagers with whom I work. They usually trust me but often become so discouraged that they want to give up the fight. I have to convince them that each of us encounter those moments when we are so weary that we no longer want to try but those are the exact times when we most need to find the strength and determination that is dwelling inside our very souls. It’s has been quite gratifying to watch so many of my charges ultimately succeed. I have been in their shoes. I have known fear. I have literally wanted to run away from challenges. I have felt alone. Always there was someone who quietly took my hand and walked with me, giving me the courage that I needed.
When I was only five years old my parents enrolled me in first grade at a Catholic school. My mother had just given birth to my youngest brother and one of my uncles was dying. The family was in a state of chaos and my elders believed that I would be happier being away from the maelstrom. Nobody consulted me. It just happened and I was not happy at all. I had never once been away from my mom, not even for a few hours. I had not been properly prepared for what was to come and I was terrified. My mother purchased a new lunch box and book bag for me and made some dresses that I might wear. One day without warning she awoke me early and sent me off with my father who quite unceremoniously took me to my classroom. I was in a fog of extreme fear but I refused to cry. When we all went outside for the ceremonial flag raising I thought that it was surely time to go home but, of course, it was only the beginning of the day.
I remember little after that. When I opened my lunchbox it had been invaded by ants which I merely picked away because I was too embarrassed to talk with my teacher. Fortunately my Aunt Polly had decided to come check on me. When I saw her she was like a visage from heaven and I have loved her forever for caring so much for me. She reported the insect invasion to the powers that be and I never again had to fight the tiny creatures for my food. Still I felt so shy and insecure but I was lucky to have a gentle and gifted teacher who saw my pain and helped me to adjust. I would forever model my own teaching style after her kindness and intuition.
There was a girl named Virginia who befriended me. I don’t know if she felt the same about me but I always considered her to be my very best friend at school. She was wise and considerate and instructed me in the ways of doing things properly. Again and again she seemed to come to my rescue and I loved her so. I always believed that she saved me from total despair. I remembered her even when I was an aging woman moving rapidly toward my seventieth year on the planet. I often wondered what had happened to her and hoped with all my heart that she was doing well. Little did I know that I had been near her when I was in high school but somehow never realized that she was the same girl who had been so sweet to me. It was only this past weekend when I was able to put all of the puzzle pieces together and learn that the Virginia that I had so admired in my high school class was the same person as “my Virginia” from first grade.
Ironically Virginia had a career in education just as I had. The parallels in our lives are actually quite remarkable much as they are with generation after generation of humans. We move about doing our best and sometimes influence one another in ways of which we are often unaware. Hopefully it is our kindness that people remember when they think of us, for the alternative is so tragic. We experience so many emotions and in turn cause others to react to our deeds and our remarks. The circle of life is real and it goes round and round just as the earth as it travels around the sun.
I enjoy working with young people, especially teenagers because they are really at the beginning of their time as adults. They are in a state of metamorphosis that will ultimately be beautiful as long as they have concerned people who truly care about them as my teachers and aunts and classmates always did. Those unexpected showers of love help us to bloom.
I have lately been helping to edit college application essays. In them I see hopefulness for the future. I am able to travel back in time and empathize with the young people who so desperately want to make a difference in their own lives and those of the people around them. I find great joy and optimism in reading their innermost thoughts and understanding that they are me and I am them. Just as we witness the sunrise each morning, our youth are ready to carry the responsibilities that lie before them. Knowing that this is certain comforts me everyday. It binds my story with the future.