They Ended Up Teaching Me About Life, and Faith

A couple weeks ago David Brooks wrote an astonishingly un-self-aware column in which he dismissed those who wrote college essays entitled “I Went to Panama to Teach the Natives About Math but They Ended Up Teaching Me About Life.”  At the risk of drawing Mr. Brooks’ contempt, this is one such blog post.

My story begins two years ago, during a winter that was sadly short on snow but heavy on politics.  I was a new volunteer with Youth Enrichment Services, an organization that, among other things, takes low-income kids out of Boston and teaches them to ski in the  mountains around New England.  The season begins each year with a weekend in which professionals teach volunteers how to become a ski instructors.

As it happened, my training weekend coincided with the final days of the New Hampshire primary, and the Ron Paul campaign was staying at our hotel.  When I went down for breakfast Saturday morning, I noticed his son Rand Paul sitting all by himself.  I have never been accused of being shy, so I approached the Kentucky senator and asked if I could join him.  I’m certain he wanted to tell me to get lost, but his father’s name was on the ballot just a few days later, and so he graciously agreed.

I’ve told that story a few times since, and most recently last weekend while on the bus with another group of kids from Cristo Rey Boston High School.  Sitting next to me was the fulltime AmeriCorps volunteer at the school who organized the trip.  While getting suited up in the lodge, it occurred to me that the state from which she originally hailed had some very prominent citizens with the same last name.  I listed a couple of them, and asked if she was related.

Low and behold, the girl I was regaling with my story about breakfast with a United States Senator was the daughter of one.  She had eaten at the White House with the president of the United States, so my sharing some stale French toast sticks with a junior senator in the lobby of a Hampton Inn didn’t impress her much.  I felt a bit sheepish, but had I not made the connection on my own I’m sure she never would have told me.

Her co-worker in the seat behind us was apparently laughing at me while I told the story, but he didn’t know that her father serves in the Senate until recently either.  Having lived in Washington D.C. for four years I know the propensity of many there to drop names, so not only did I get a healthy serving of humble pie, I saw her model the virtue of humility beautifully.

When we got back at the end of the day, this same co-worker (also a volunteer, but with the Urban Catholic Teacher Corps) announced to the kids that he was going to Mass at a parish up the street, and invited them all to join him.  Not only did he give the time and address, however, he really talked up the Mass.  I was planning on going to my home parish and hoping to get there in time to catch the Gospel, but after listening to him I was sold.  As I was soon to find out, he wasn’t lying when he said how good it would be.

The priest was phenomenal, if long-winded. The music was great, and the pews were full of college students and young adults who were reading—and even singing!—along.  It was a great experience, and I think I may have found what I recently said I was looking for in a faith community.   My big takeaway from the affair, however, was the witness of this teacher on the bus and the way he evangelized his students.  I was the only one who took him up on the offer, but every one of those kids saw a young, attractive, fun guy who was letting his candle shine brightly and spreading the joy of the Gospel.

I got up that morning expecting to teach a group of city kids how to ski.  To use Brooks’ cliché title, I ended up learning far more.  I joked with the students that I was the greatest ski instructor they ever had.  As I am the only ski instructor they’ve ever had, it was technically true.  By the end of the day, however, it was clear to me that whatever I may have done for these kids pales in comparison to what these teachers do for them every day, even on Sundays when they are not in school.