When someone is feeling blue, disappointed or needs a boost, we may offer some encouraging words like, “Hang in there,” or “I’ve got your back.” Across cultures, I’ve come across similar expressions: “Ánimo!” (Spanish), “Courage!” (French), “Coragem!” (Portuguese) and “Forza!” (Italian). It’s a shared human condition—we can be the one who is disheartened by something or someone and we can be the one ready to lend our words and presence.
When Saint Paul writes eloquently about the gifts each of us have by virtue of God’s grace and love, it seems to me that encouragement is embedded in each of them. It’s as though he has a school in mind when he urges those who have “the gift of administration to administer, the gift of teaching to teach, the gift of counseling to counsel . . . if you are a leader, lead with enthusiasm . . . .” (Romans 12.7-8).
While reading the Mel Brooks’s memoir, All About Me!, I reminisced with him about some of the movies he made and some of the classic scenes. In “Blazing Saddles,” Sheriff Bart is riding out of town and into the proverbial sunset when he’s asked by The Waco Kid, “Where you headed cowboy?” Bart replies, “Nowhere special.” The Kid says, “Nowhere special . . . I’ve always wanted to go there.” At which point he mounts his horse and rides alongside the sheriff toward nowhere special. This leads me to suggest there is a surprising connection between Mel Brooks, Saint Paul and Lasallian education: how encouraging, affirming and sustaining it is when someone takes an interest in us, even to point that they will ride along with us as we move toward a future we haven’t yet figured out!
If this is true for us, it is all the more so for the young person. Each of them is lucky enough to figure out the present let alone the future and their role in it. To have an administrator, a teacher, a counselor, a leader who is willing to “ride along with them” is a gift beyond measure. Saint La Salle, in the first mediation for the time of retreat, goes to the heart of what our gifts are for: ‘encourage those entrusted to your care, guide them with attention and vigilance.’
These two words, attention and vigilance, carry more import for the educator than bringing quality supervision to the playground or the prom. De La Salle’s semantic field always includes and focuses on the interior life of young people. Being attentive and vigilant requires knowing the interior and responding to that inner reality.
A disciple was very distraught and pounded insistently on the door of his teacher’s house at midnight. The teacher opened the door. The house was darkened, but the teacher held a candle in his hand. The disciple blurted out that he was filled with anxiety and had to see the teacher at once. The teacher opened wide the door. The disciple entered and the teacher closed the door.
Then the teacher blew out the candle.*
Blow out the candle? It seems counterintuitive for the teacher to do this. Now they are both in the dark. Isn’t that why the disciple goes to the teacher, to be enlightened? But, maybe that’s the most encouraging response we can offer—to share the darkness of their situation, without words of wisdom, lacking the right answer. In sum, to respond to the young person’s inner reality by being present, by walking with, by accompanying. We trust they will eventually “see the light.”
It strikes me that is precisely what Jesus does when he joins two disciples on the road to Emmaus who have lost heart. Jesus has been crucified and they simply cannot make sense out of or accept the story of the empty tomb. They’re in the dark, figuratively and literally. They tell Jesus, who they still can’t see, “Stay with us, for evening approaches, and the day is almost over.” He does stay with them; eventually, aided by his presence and company, they not only see him, they see their way forward.
It’s the same for us as for our students. Sometimes it’s our turn to have days that feel like a gathering darkness, a loss of light and love. And sometimes it’s our turn to be the teacher who answers the door and blows out the candle.
By Brother Timothy Coldwell, FSC
*From The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea, Liturgical Press, 2017.