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We can only grow through embracing our own fragility

  • January 16, 2014

There is a deep vulnerability at the heart of education. Sometimes it looks like this:

A mother sits across from me sobbing, her shoulders heaving up and down as she surrenders to the anguish that she carries for her child. I move out from behind the barrier of my desk and sit beside her, offering a tissue.

She had been berating me for not doing enough to protect her child. She said I couldn’t possibly be very good at my job. If I really cared I would do something to stop the bullying to which her daughter had been exposed.

Teenagers can be unkind. The adolescent brain, the neuroscientists assure us, is under construction. Instant communication in a text or Snapchat or BBM is combustible power. Combine elevated emotion with a portable communication device that delivers images, videos, 140 character texts at the speed of light and you get hurt feelings, bruised relationships, kids seeking shelter, parents wanting someone made an example of.

Sorting the aggressor from the victim, in these cases, can devolve into finger pointing, layers of rumour and innuendo, and large slabs of time spent mucking through the sludge of who said what to whom first.

By their nature and composition, schools are hothouses of vulnerability. We populate them with youth, inexperience, innocence. The root of the word education in English derives from the Latin words to lead out or to nurture forth. The passage from innocence to experience, from ignorance to knowledge, from information to transformation, is fraught with struggle.

Yet as Brene Brown says in her Ted Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” our children are hard-wired for struggle. We should receive this as good news, and especially in our Catholic schools as gospel.

There is an important relationship between resiliency and vulnerability much as there is tension between protecting the weak and embracing our own weaknesses. No one merits heaven, yet everyone is invited. The ability to respond with love and gratitude to the invitation requires a love of self — warts and all — that eludes many of us for most of our lives.

The very heart of the Christian experience is found in the manger and in the cross. God comes to us in the weakness of an infant born in a barn, of a redeemer tortured and executed on a cross. Why would we expect a lifetime of discipleship to be free from the naked powerlessness of Jesus at His birth and at His death?

In our ministry in Catholic schools, have we found sufficient ways to live this tension? Schools with their assessments and culture of consequence and reward are meritocracies; the Kingdom of God is not.

The Catholic school, like all schools, is a maze of intersecting vulnerabilities. The teacher at the front of a class is expected to manage the behaviour of two dozen teenagers while leading them to greater competency in literacy and numeracy. For many this feels more like the Alamo than the Good Shepherd.

The principal is expected to provide a safe and nurturing learning environment for all students and staff. Yet the school roils with thousands of interpersonal exchanges every hour, many of which bruise relationships between real persons in real time. Who meets or exceeds the provincial standard? Who teaches the plum courses? Who gets the promotion?

And at the heart of it all is the child: the one held precious by father and mother who in their shared weakness can never protect their sons and daughters from all peril. Yet they try.

As educators, we walk alongside them in loco parentis. This shared educative endeavour to nurture kids to wholeness is holy work. Our Christian experience teaches us that wisdom is never acquired without scars. We grow through unavoidable struggle, embracing the faith that suffering is redemptive because God loves each of us, fractured as we are.

Knowledge of this is not the cessation of all pain. Accepting this gospel to the depth of our bones does not make every moment brighter. Wounds still hurt.

A wise colleague once said to me, “Tears are the ointment of holy moments.” There is no education, no leading forth, no growth in spirit and truth without the embrace of our own fragility.

(Olson is a vice principal at Bishop Macdonell Catholic High School in Guelph, Ont., and the author of It Began with a Promise.)

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