August 28, 2009

Be Our Guest / Sr. Susan Marie Lindstrom, O.S.B.

Unwrapping ‘packages’ is one of a teacher’s greatest privileges each year

“You teach high school? I’m sorry. That must be really difficult.”

“I don’t know how you deal with teens all day. Mine drive me crazy.”

“Teenagers? All they care about is clothing, texting and listening to iPods. You couldn’t pay me enough to teach them.”

These are just a few of the comments that I heard this summer as I made new acquaintances who asked what I do for a living.

Rather than responding defensively, I attempted to share my love for high school-aged youth, the joy that comes from watching them mature, the pride that swells within me when they learn a new concept, act unselfishly or overcome personal obstacles.

True, there are challenges to face, hormones to control and broken hearts to heal, but that is part of the adolescent journey toward adulthood.

Teaching high school is a gift. It is a privilege to open the “packages” that sit before me each year: some eager to learn, some putting in their time, some anxious to socialize with friends, and still others finding in the routine and normalcy of school a respite from difficult home situations.

Some packages are more beautifully wrapped than others, some more easily opened, but each contains a treasure if I am patient enough to discover it or coax it forth.

Far too often, teenagers are victims of stereotypes. The guy dressed in black, with eyebrows and nose pierced, hair long and stringy, is a Goth, an alternate, someone on the fringe, obviously an outcast. Actually, he finds black quieting, is a Student Council officer, and an integral part of the speech and debate team.

The shy girl who sits by herself at lunch, sporting Coke-bottle thick glasses and reading anime novels is a loser. Actually, she comes from a family of 10 and, as the eldest, has to tend to the younger siblings.

Lunchtime is her one space in the day for herself. She reads anime novels because she is a brilliant artist and wants to become an illustrator.

The boys who are huddled in the corner of the cafeteria, pointing at classmates and laughing boisterously, are inconsiderate jerks who taunt their peers. Actually, they are the emcees for the pep rally and are eagerly writing their script, trying to include all the fall athletes in their comments. They foster a wonderful sense of spirit as they lead us in cheers, songs and intramural activities.

The valedictorian obviously must spend all of her time studying to stay number one in her class. Actually, she devotes most of her time to working at a local children’s hospital, and has taken several mission trips to Central and South America during her spring breaks and summer vacations.

These are a few of the many packages that I have been honored to unwrap in the past. Hopefully, my instruction will give this year’s students the skills and knowledge to interact positively and productively with the world around them.

Truly, teenagers can be exasperating and can seem permanently attached to their cell phones and computers.

On the flip side, however, teenagers can be generous and delightful, attached to causes and programs that help improve life for those around them.

I am happy to be a teacher and proud of the teenagers that I teach. I am fortunate to be able to celebrate their talents, abilities, personal growth, and successes within and beyond the classroom.

(Benedictine Sister Susan Marie Lindstrom teaches senior religion at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis. She is chairperson of the school’s religion department and co-sponsor of the senior class. She also coordinates the junior girls’ retreat program.)

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