Do they even hear me? Do they even see me? Am I making a difference?
Am I just another piece of furniture in the monotony of their ‘school life’?
The only thing more mysterious than what’s going on inside a high schooler’s mind is deciphering their attempts to communicate it. The same student can claim me as their favorite teacher in one instant while completely ignoring me in the next.
My insecurities as a high school teacher are only compounded by the fact that I can’t read my students, no matter how hard I try – How am I doing? gets me nowhere.
The fall semester always ends with a bang out here in Lakota country. Amid the end-of-semester glee, falling snow and freezing temperatures, a giant swath of schools from the Dakotas to Nebraska get together for the Lakota Nation Invitational, LNI, hallowed be its name. LNI is not just one tournament but many- though basketball is at its center, the competition is fierce and brilliant in wrestling, business plans, Lakota language, cheerleading, a poetry slam, a traditional dance pow-wow and more. For many, it’s the highlight of the year – a five-day, winter wonderland showcase of talent, culture and community. I’ve been lucky enough to be the Red Cloud boys basketball team’s official driver two years and counting. And this year was particularly delightful.
Day one. Arrive. Easy first-round win. Warm the bus. Dinner. The boys running up and down the hotel hallway, thrilled. (And just being high school boys.)
Day two. Big victory in the second round – I go out to warm up the bus. Once all the boys are seated and counted, the coach gives me the directions: “Taco Bell on East North.” I pull out of the parking lot to the unexpected soundtrack of-
HOOOOOOLY, BLESSED LORD
PRAAAAAAISE AND THAAAAANKS TO YOUUUU!”
The players sing at the top of their lungs. The coaches can’t help but laugh, but I know they’re looking at me.
The last time I heard the “Cȟékiya yo…” was last week at our all-school Lakota-Catholic Mass – I was the cantor, and not a very good one at that.
At Red Cloud, we use Mass parts that were written to mirror traditional Lakota prayer songs for the sweatlodge ceremony. “Cȟékiya yo” roughly means “Pray to him,” and it is a way for our mostly non-Catholic student body to be able to more easily pray along with the Mass. Alongside the traditional drum group playing at the beginning and end, the ritual burning of sage, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in Lakota, these adaptations are invitations to see Catholicism and Lakota spirituality not as enemies but as partners in dialogue and prayer.
But even with 225 students in the church at the Mass, the 15 boys on that smelly bus easily eclipsed last week’s singing with force, vigor and exuberance rarely heard outside of the locker room. Bravo.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure how to respond -but I didn’t have to: one of the students stood up and announced in his best choir director voice: “Very good. Then, do that two more times. Now, the last time:
HOOOOOOLY, BLESSED LORD
PRAAAAAAISE AND THAAAAANKS, A- A- MEEEEN.”
Uproarious applause. Bravo. They repeated the refrain three times and then finished with the “Amen.” Beautiful. Just like I had it printed in the worship aides.
Tentative silence on the bus, all looking up at me: I’m not sure how to respond.
“They’re mocking me, aren’t they?” I could’ve asked any one of the coaches. They would have shrugged their shoulders and smiled with that knowing smile. But I didn’t need to ask.
The students do hear me. They do see me. What looks like mockery is high school for We hear you. We see you. And maybe even Thank you.
So I laugh and shake my head, feigning the simple amusement of an unphased veteran teacher…
But I wonder if they see through my ruse. I wonder if they saw in the bus’ rear view mirror when I wiped my eyes clear of a few tears, a mix of many emotions. Embarrassment, maybe. Hilarity, certainly. Gratitude, especially, deep gratitude. I know you’ll never sing like that at Mass, but that’s okay – we’ll work on that another day. This is enough. Thank you.
The cover photo was originally posted through the author’s Instagram profile – @ggundlachsj – follow him if you like!