Absolution (Bring Me My Crosier)

My CrosierI’m neither Catholic nor anti-Catholic, and my message here is not a particularly theological one. But you gotta admit, there’s something appealing about the idea of one faith, one authority, one source of rules - and a clear, solitary source of redemption. One place to go if you need a meal, a message, or social mores. Every ritual at every step - birth, marriage, death, and beyond – coordinated and structured for you. Enough room to be yourself, but not so very much room that one’s “self” could stray far enough to get into any real trouble.

I’m not suggesting there weren’t serious problems with the institution, or even the idea. There’s no need to begin nailing things to my metaphorical door. But the unfettered intellectual and spiritual liberty we so justly celebrate comes at some cost. Removing walls, and ceilings, and sometimes entire foundations, is certainly very freeing – but then, so is being launched into space without ship or tether.

Sometimes it’s nice to have a leash. Sometimes fences set us free.

Dostoyevsky wrote “The Grand Inquisitor” through the pen of one of his characters in The Brothers Karamazov. In it, Dostoyevsky wrestles with the inherent conflict between freedom and security in a surreal confrontation between a high Catholic official and a Jesus who comes back before anticipated. The message is that we don’t actually want as much freedom as we think we do. We want rules, customs, structures, even punishments – we crave the clarity a little oppression provides.

I would thus like to borrow something from Catholic tradition. Let’s talk absolution.

Confessional BoxThe traditional Catholic Church did something better than most when it came to confession. They formalized it and structured it so that the old was drained before the new began. The confessional allowed complete emptying of sins and the shortcomings. Just as significantly, the penitent were given acts of contrition to perform. Contrary to caricature, these were not the cleansing themselves, but symbols for the penitent to give them something tangible – some ‘buy in’ – in order to solidify their absolution. The forgiveness meant more and felt more real if the sinner could DO something to demonstrate their change of heart. The confessional, the assigned acts, the beads and even the collar – they’re scaffolds for the intangibles in play. They’re props in the most literal sense – holding up the parts we can’t see.

We need this.

It’s recently been rediscovered that smart people tend to underestimate their intelligence while the ignorant dramatically overestimate theirs. In the same vein, I see dedicated, gifted teachers wrapped in more self-imposed guilt and failure than the bozos think possible. There’s an unfortunate correlation, it seems, between passion and self-loathing.

You may remember the moment in Schindler’s List when our protagonist laments the ring he didn’t sell, the lives he didn’t save, the 'more' he didn’t do – when of course he did so very much.  I’m not equating a pretty swell 7th Grade English teacher with a man who risked everything to save a few souls from the Holocaust – that might be a bit of a stretch. I am suggesting, though, that it’s often those who do the most who feel the least accomplished; those who reach the farthest who are most painfully aware of falling short.

If you are that educator, in or around the classroom, carrying that sense of failure or inadequacy, and can’t quite shake it off – at least not easily, or for very long - you need to listen to me. I’m old and wise and have a blog. Come on - you think just anyone can do this?

Coffee ConfessionsConfess your shortcomings – real or perceived – and accept absolution.  This is not mockery of faith; it’s appropriation of a principle powerful enough to extend past the spiritual realm. Sit with someone you trust and say them out loud. If you can’t, email them to me. I won’t tell unless you become REALLY famous someday and have something to gain by it. I swear.

I take up my metaphorical crosier, and I absolve thee.

You are absolved of your inadequacies – real and perceived – during that first year of teaching. OK, part of the second year as well. And that bad month the third year. All of them. You are absolved of how often 1st hour isn’t getting quite the same education 3rd hour is, because by then you’ve worked out the bugs. That period after lunch some days when they’ve become unmanageable wildebeests? Absolved, absolved, absolved.

I absolve thee of those times you didn’t strike a good balance between school and home, and let your relationships drift or even suffer a bit because you were obsessed over grading, or prepping, or figuring something out. Those angry memes about teacher pay make it sound like everyone else is spending 15 hours a day laboring over Prezis and grading essays, but they’re not. Even if they were, you are absolved.

I absolve thee of those conversations in the lounge or hallway which turned a bit bitter towards co-workers, superiors, parents, or – and here we stop to cringe slightly – students. A little blowing off steam is cathartic, but you were frustrated, or worried, or defensive… and you became ‘that teacher’ for a moment. Cut that loose, it doesn’t help. You are absolved.

I absolve thee of the days you gave book work or filler you could barely justify because you just needed them to be quiet and busy for a little while so you could catch up on grading or other school-related paperwork. Let’s not make this a habit, but it happens – and you are absolved.

Whipped TeacherI absolve thee of that horrible video you didn’t really preview but that one teacher said was pretty good. It definitely has to go. You kinda suspected, but… you didn’t know. You are absolved.

I absolve thee of the kids you couldn’t reach, although you saw them slipping away and couldn’t figure out what to do. I understand your hostility towards peers who sounded cavalier towards your kids and insisted on “consequences” for their “choices” - which you knew weren’t choices at all but reactions, or defiance, or angry despair. I absolve you for not knowing what to do, or not doing it better, or not seeing it in time.

I absolve thee for the kids you didn’t reach, although now it seems so obvious what you did wrong – or what you couldn’t do quite right. The signs you should have seen, the things you should have tried, if you’d had more energy, or time, or if you were just a ‘better person.’ I absolve you of your failures – real or perceived – to do more or give more, although at times the consequences were extreme. It wasn’t mostly about you, of course – there’s such a cavernous gap between ‘being part of the problem’ and ‘not being the entire solution’ – but you feel them as one in the same. I understand. Let it go, or at least set it aside – there’s so much left to be done and we just can’t. You are therefore absolved.

I absolve thee of not being enough people, or having enough time, or being smarter, or more energetic, or more creative when you most wish it. I absolve you of not being that one teacher you wish you were more like, or – worse – not being that idealized version of yourself you keep thinking you should have become by now. I absolve you of any miscellaneous foibles or failures, real or perceived, and of eating twice a day and sleeping at night when there’s so much to do.

Your penance is the same regardless of the frequency or degree of your sins:

Rosary BeadsTake that hour before bed to have a family, or watch that show, or do those aerobics you keep meaning to do in the morning but just… can’t. See those friends, have that drink, and speak more positives than negatives about your job, your peers, and especially your kids.

Begin – where you are, who you are. If you’ve made it this far, you’re amazing and getting better. Your foibles and failures feel overwhelming, but they are now behind you. Go teach. Get better. Love your kids and your subject and your job as best you can, and stop carrying that which you cannot bear.

Learn from the past, sure - but let it go as often as necessary to get back to work. As I said, it's not that I mind you drowning in your own angst, but we simply can't spare the manpower. Those who’ve gone past are gone past. This season’s fields are ripe, and there are so few laborers, with so few tools. We need you here, giving whatever you have to give. Please.

You are absolved. But don't touch the crosier.

Related Post: Happy New Mirrors!

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