“The question that arises right now, more powerfully than any other, is, ‘What can conquer our fear?’…What kind of presence is capable of conquering the deep fear that grips us at the depths of our being?”
I read these words by Fr. Julian Carron, President of the Communion and Liberation movement, when the coronavirus was in the midst of ravaging the Italian region of Lombardy. Doubting that the virus would disrupt life in America as much as it would across the Atlantic, I didn’t realize how much his questions would resonate with my experience in the weeks to come.
My high school juniors, to whom I teach religion and philosophy, began asking me about what we would do if the coronavirus made its way into our area in New Jersey. I quickly dismissed their questions, telling them not to concern themselves with problems that had such a small probability. But as we received the announcement last week that our school would be ceasing in-school instruction and would turn to online classes indefinitely, I realized my nonchalant optimism would no longer be an adequate response.
My normally playful and at times goofy students began looking to me with a glint of confusion, even terror in their eyes. I could hear the vulnerability and neediness in their voices. Even the students who are usually dismissive of me began to expect some kind of answers or guidance.
“When are we going to come back? How long is this going to last?”
I lost count of how many times I repeated the phrase, “I don’t know.” I was faced with my limitation as an authority figure and my inability to gloss over the deep sense of uncertainty that began to overshadow us all.
What does it mean to be an authentic leader to young people, to be a true educator, in times of crisis? I felt myself swaying between different modes of response. I could play the sedated optimist and tell them everything would be fine soon enough. That this will pass and everything will be back to normal again. But to do so would be to lie to my students.
I could cast out the darkness with simplistic pietisms, saying to trust in God and pray that everything will be fine. And yet a simplistic, sentimental deity becomes more and more useless as the situation becomes more and more grim.
Perhaps the safest and most realistic option is to push the ideal of productivity, taking advantage of technological innovations to keep the workflow as normal as possible. I can strive to maintain my lesson plans without having to do away with too much of it in the hope of distracting the students from the radical disruptions from “life as usual.”
But my own fear, frustration, and uncertainty kept me from resorting to any of these superficial responses. Instead of clinging onto the surface of things, I began to peer beyond and wonder, “What does this all mean?” The series of questions that followed once we left school led me to begin to reflect more deeply on what it means to be an educator.
An email followed from my headmaster, a Benedictine monk, the next day reminding us that as members of a Christian community, our position in the midst of chaos and uncertainty is one neither of despair nor of invincibility, but of trust and curiosity. He reminded us of the Israelites walking through the Red Sea, being led forward through calamity. Our job is to “keep walking forward,” looking for ways we can learn from the change in our educational format and for opportunities to be innovative and inspire creativity. “Let’s allow ourselves to be surprised by how the Mystery can reveal new discoveries and opportunities in the throes of crisis.”
My headmaster’s attitude toward our new circumstances brought to mind the words spoken by Pope Francis to a group of Italian teachers back in 2014: “I love school because it is synonymous with openness to reality. At least it should be! Yet it does not always manage to be so, and so that means that the structure needs to be adapted a little.”
My first venture with online teaching the following Monday forced me to decide, will my attitude toward this be one of hardness or receptivity? Will I try to adhere to my usual plans as closely as possible, or will I go into this looking to discover something new about how to educate…with openness to what the Mystery has placed in front of me?
The Pope continued, “We do not have the right to be afraid of reality! School teaches us to understand reality. Going to school means opening one’s mind and heart to reality, in the wealth of its aspects, of its dimensions. And this is so very beautiful!”
But how can one find beauty in such difficult times? How can one find hope in a crisis? Instead of covering over these questions with mere optimism, industriousness, or despair, I decided to ask these questions whole-heartedly as I turned on my camera for my first lesson. I prayed to be able to learn something from the experience, and from my students.
As I began the lesson, I found myself surprised by how cooperative my students were, more so than usual. The timing of our lesson was about half that of the usual class period, so I found myself becoming more animated and theatrical as I bounced from question to question. As I started experimenting with different methods of conducting class discussions, students who rarely ever participated were suddenly attentive and enthusiastic. I was amazed by how such drab circumstances opened the door to new discoveries.
The pope explained: “Teachers are the first ones who must remain open to reality-with minds still open to learning! For if a teacher is not open to learning, he or she is not a good teacher and isn’t even interesting; young people understand that, they have a ‘nose’ for it, and they are attracted by professors whose thoughts are open, ‘unfinished’, who are seeking something ‘more’, and thus they infect students with this attitude. This is one of the reasons why I love school.”
Out of a desire to keep my thoughts “unfinished,” I reached out to several of my coworkers after the first day of online classes to exchange ideas. I was encouraged by their enthusiasm and openness to learning. Inspired by the headmaster’s exhortation to start looking for new ways to “create community” from a distance, one of the drama teachers proposed a conference call to do play readings with students just for fun. Another teacher invited a group of students to eat lunch with her over video conference just to check in with each other. Their creativity was contagious, and new ideas were soon percolating in my mind. The next day, I sent out emails to my students in philosophy club to start discussing Camus’ The Plague and to the students in our campus ministry to call in to do a novena using the Pope’s prayer to Mary for the end of coronavirus.
As I refer back to Fr. Carron’s letter, I am starting to see how much I need his questions and insights to guide me as I continue to ask what it means to be an educator to young people in the midst of a crisis:
“Young people need to see people whose lives, here and now, show the signs of God’s victory, of His true and contemporaneous presence, and therefore a new and different way of facing circumstances, one full of hope and an otherwise unimaginable joy that is channeled into an indomitable industriousness…What we need, therefore, more than any reassuring speeches or moral instructions, is to tap into the people who embody the experience of this victory, that there is a meaning in life proportionate to the challenges. Nothing could be simpler, because in times like this, when hysteria dominates, people like this are so uncommon that they stand out.”
The burden of being an authentic authority figure to these young people rests on my capacity to point them to a solid and lasting sense of meaning upon which they can stand even when their world is being violently shaken by uncertainty and fear. I know that I have no answer of my own to give them. All I have is the beauty that I see emerging within the companionship of my coworkers and the monastic community that guides us spiritually.
While all this beauty hardly eliminates the tragedy and extreme suffering brought on by this pandemic, I’m finding that my certainty of the Incarnation is deepening more and more. That Christ enters into the flesh is not a lofty theological idea, but a lived reality happening in front of my eyes. And in a paradoxical way, I’m grateful that this crisis is helping me to rediscover what it means to be an educator. I pray to keep Christ’s victorious presence in the center of my gaze as I continue learning from these circumstances.
Stephen G. Adubato teaches religion and philosophy to high school students in New Jersey and writes at Cracks in Postmodernity for the Patheos Catholic Channel.