Friday, August 18, 2017

Teaching Peter

As the beginning of the school year gets underway, principals, students, teachers and parents are undoubtedly filled with the simultaneous and conflicting emotions of hope and dread, excitement and anxiety. The life of the new year wrestles with the pending death of summer vacation.

And, much like sports teams beginning their respective seasons undefeated, every school year begins afresh - ripe with the hope that this year will be the year. The year that every student succeeds, the year that my son reads at grade level, the year that my daughter makes lasting friends, the year that I stay out of trouble, get an A, make the team, earn highest honors, and become Student Council President.

For some, this newness will last well into the fall or even winter. No tardies. No missing homework assignments. No demerits or detentions or strikes or whatever punitive behavioral mark your school uses. No loss of patience. No less than stellar lessons. No "wing it" Wednesdays. No "I'm closing the door of my open door policy" Februarys.

For some it may even extend into the spring and all the way into the summer of 2018! These success stories, though, most often result with very little effort. These are the students who are successful in spite of their academic situations. Naturally intelligent and driven, these are the students that would succeed even if they were to teach themselves! These are the teachers whose favorite color is sunshine and who don't drink coffee - not because they don't like the taste but because "they don't need it"! These are the parents that seem to be able to work full time, run their own business, support a successful mommy-blog, volunteer at every event, coach sports that even their children don't play and always dress as if they just posed for GQ. These are the administrators - at Catholic schools at least - whose seats, budgets, endowments, test scores, student organizations and seemingly every other aspect of the school is full. They are early to every administrators' meeting and don't have to run back to their building upon the meetings' conclusion.

Seldom do these year-long success stories result from intense and sustained effort or after the inevitable failures, mix-ups, missteps and mistakes that usually spiral into habits of these negative outcomes. A winning streak is hard to maintain because it's fragile. A losing streak, though, is sticky because it's hopelessness it is so contagious and addictive. After a while, the mud doesn't seem so dirty or unpleasant. Wallowing is easier and somehow less painful than the effort involved in getting back up, brushing off the grime and trying again - especially because you may just end up falling back down.

As I reflect on the beginning of this school year (my first outside of a K-12 school in 16 years) and all of its promise of hope and fear of failure, I am struck by the example of Peter throughout the New Testament. In Peter we have the epitome of mess-ups. He continually finds himself putting his foot in his mouth, misinterpreting a sign or teaching, sinking into the water, and even worse: lying. In Peter, though, we also have the epitome of transformation. He was able to break through and overcome the stickiness of the losing streak and experience a remarkable turnaround. Simon to Peter. Betrayer to worthy of trust. Follower to leader. Ordinary to miracle-maker.

As I think of the Peters that we will encounter within our schools - the students who will make mistakes, the parents who will drop the ball, the teachers who will want to pitch tents to capitalize on the Transfiguration, the administrators who will act more like a sheep than a shepherd - I wonder what made the difference for him? I wonder how he was able to break out of the losing streak that had him pitted as a by-name-betrayer in the Creed. I wonder how, at the end of his time with his Teacher, he was able to stand successfully on the footsteps of the Church he helped to establish.

My response is simple: prayer and love.

Undoubtedly, Peter must have been the subject of at least one of Jesus's conversations with His Father. It brings me great comfort to imagine Jesus praying for one of His closest friends - praying and interceding on Peter's behalf. Jesus stated there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends - Jesus died for friends and foes alike - He most certainly would have prayed for His friends, too.

Jesus never stopped loving Peter. He never missed a chance to forgive him. He capitalized on the bright spots, reinforcing to Peter a job well done. Jesus continued to teach Peter, with love and about love, even after Peter's greatest fall. Jesus showed Peter his potential and then helped him reach it.

God is in the business of refurbishing broken things and making them new. He is versed at turning death into life, making last place feel like first, forging the greatest comeback of all time.

Educators must be in a similar business - taking broken things and making them new. Turning the death of ignorance into the life of knowledge. Changing the students who struggle the most into the greatest champions within our schools.

As we encounter Peter in our schools this year, let us approach him with the same love that Jesus approaches all of us - unconditional, intense, unwavering, relentless. Let us see the Peter in our midst with the same eyes that Jesus sees all of us - full of potential, made for greatness, built for holiness, destined for sainthood.

Let us pray for our Peters. Let us offer them 2nd, and 3rd and 49th chances. Let us offer to them the same transformational love that Jesus offers to us all.

Prayer + love = transformation. 

St. Peter, on the cusp of this new school year, pray for us - especially those of us most like you.