Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Value of a Catholic Education

I am no longer in Guaimaca, but I recently had to write this essay and thought I would share it, in case anyone were still out there to read it and wanted to see what some of my post-service thoughts are.

The development of students into responsible young adults and moral citizens is an essential characteristic of Catholic education because Catholic schools teach a set of morals and values based on faith.  Faith cannot necessarily be expressed in the public school system, therefore allowing Catholic schools to occupy an important niche in our educational system.  In my recent work at the Marie Poussepin Center in Guaimaca, Honduras, I saw and experienced the effectiveness of a Catholic education.  In fact, the school environment I taught in was not only beneficial for the students, but for me as well, where every project I started and every relationship I had with my students took on more meaning and worth as I grew closer to my faith.  
The Marie Poussepin Center (CMP) is an all-girls boarding school for girls from the poor villages around the rural town of Guaimaca.  Normally, these girls would have studied up to sixth grade in a one room schoolhouse in their villages, and then stopped studying so that they could work with their parents in the fields, take care of their families’ homes, or start their own family despite only just haven become teenagers.  The  Dominican Sisters of the Presentation started the CMP a decade ago as a place to teach young women manual skills and help them support themselves, and has since evolved into a school with grades 7-11, with a health clinic and organic farm also associated with the Sisters’ mission.
I began working at the CMP in January 2011 as a year of post-graduate service, and ended up renewing my service commitment for a second year because, despite the advances and improvements I was a part of that year, I felt that my calling was not over and that I still had more to accomplish.  In my first year, I mostly taught the senior class, with the academic subjects taught included Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Math, English, and Philosophy.  I also taught review classes, test prep for the University admissions exam, Physical Education, and workshops such as Poetry.  My classes were completely new to the girls because in years previous they had used a radio distance learning program, where they were supposed to listen to a CD, answer some questions in a booklet, and then ask questions of a tutor who would occasionally come into the class.  So, in addition to the initial language barrier, I was challenged every day to bring the girls out of their comfort zone and think for themselves, to answer and ask questions, to investigate, think and form arguments, and above all, to develop a sense of self-worth and confidence that is traditionally non-existent in young Honduran girls.
In the classroom, I accomplished much in my first year at the CMP, but when I look back at my most significant points of growth, I find myself reflecting on the school’s motto of Respect, Responsibility, Honesty.  These values are the core foundation to everything at the CMP, which in turn are founded in a strong Catholic faith.  Every day after the academic classes, we stayed at the school supervising and instructing after-school activities, until we walked the girls to and from mass at night.  Throughout the entire day, starting with the morning prayer and ending with evening mass, I found myself leading the girls in an integral formation of their character.  This work, when I reflect on it, would have been impossible if I was not fueled by and guided by the Holy Spirit, if I didn’t see Christ’s face in each of the faces of my students, laughing, crying, thinking, and growing.  
For example, one of my senior students had an incredibly hard time with her home life and her health, and had to fight hard each and every day to meet the demands placed on her by her family, by myself in the classroom, and perhaps most significantly, by herself to succeed and study in the University.  There were several moments throughout the year when I approached her to offer my help and guidance, but her problems were so immense that I did not know what to do to help.  However, I found guidance in prayer and in a commendation of our problems to Our Lord Jesus.  With His help, I was able to help guide her away from the darkness of depression and suicidal thoughts, into His light.  This student will always have a heavy cross to bear, but I know that today she continues to manage her problems trusting in the Lord, and is currently studying at the University--no small feat for a Honduran girl from a poor village who has been faced with so many obstacles.  Her plans for after graduating with a degree in Agricultural Engineering from the University include helping the Sisters with their farm, and then returning to her village to help her father and community with their work.
This story is just one example of many I have from my first year, but to me, it speaks directly to the value and importance of Catholic schooling.  Without the expression of our Lord’s love, this student and so many others would have been lost.  Without my trust in the Lord, I would not have been able to continue into my second year of service, which presented even more challenges each day.  In some ways the second year was easier, such as my improvements in Spanish, but in many ways, the second year was much more challenging.  
For instance, after a year in the CMP I knew most of the girls pretty well, and throughout the second year I began to develop stronger relationships with many of them, even those I did not teach in my academic classes.  The trust I developed with the girls led several of them to open up to me about their personal problems, much as my senior students had done the year before.  However, I found these problems even more difficult to deal with, because I was now facing situations I had never even remotely experienced.  Cases of abuse, of rape, of incest and beatings, of family members disappearing...the list could go on, but basically, I was surprised some of the girls even had the strength to get out of bed in the morning.
Again, being in a Catholic school was very important for the girls, as much as it was for me.  Without the community the girls and the Sisters had built around the faith and the values of Respect, Responsibility, and Honesty, we would have all felt lost and alone in the face of these issues.  But, as a teacher, I fell back on prayer and on the Holy Spirit’s guidance.  I opened myself to Him in moments of despair, and found the answer within me.  My gifts are that of a teacher; I am driven to help others and to serve.  Therefore, although I initially reacted to the stories of rape and abuse with shock, anger and frustration over my inability to protect my students or to seek justice, being open to the subtle whisper of God speaking within me compelled me to fulfill my purpose.  
As a teacher, friend and mentor to the girls, I realized that the best I could do for them was to teach, comfort, and counsel.  To that end, I began devising a curriculum for a Sexual Education course, based on the school’s values, to educate the girls and try to do my small part to prevent the violence, abuse, and uninformed decisions that had traditionally caused several girls to drop out of the CMP due to pregnancies.  I also continued my efforts to converse with and counsel the girls, always relying on our faith and the school’s values.  In Honduras I learned that my place in the world is not to cause huge movements or changes, it is to help a few find their way, so that they can in turn become respectful, responsible and honest citizens in their own families and communities, each one propagating God’s word and Jesus’ teaching, each one in turn spreading His love.
Catholic education is a unique opportunity to affect the world in a positive manner, to spread Jesus’ teachings and love in small ways.  It gives us the capacity to augment every decision we make with respect, responsibility and honesty, and to find the way, even when everything appears dark in our lives.  From my experiences teaching at the Marie Poussepin Center, I can personally testify to the value of a Catholic education, to the student, to the teacher, and to the community.