It is the strangest gift I have ever been given, and I have no idea when or under what circumstances I will ever wear one. The shirts that priests often wear have these white plastic tabs shoved between two gaps in the collar. I wear one nearly every day, but not quite like these…
As I look down at the box of tabs—decorated with glitter and bedazzled—I can only laugh. The bizarre sense of humor captures something fundamental about being a Jesuit that I too often forget—I belong to these people in a radical way. My life is theirs.
Before I was a Jesuit, in my first year of teaching, I discovered multitasking. I could sit in my classroom during the lunch period, surrounding myself with quizzes and essays while I quickly consumed my lunch. It was the only way to survive.
As I sat at my desk surrounded by papers, I was surprised to see a little first-grade girl in her plaid jumper and her red eyes standing just inside the door to my classroom. First-graders, as a rule, were not allowed on the third floor where my classroom was located; that space was reserved for the middle school grades only. But this little one stood there with a tightly gripped fist rubbing her eyes, “Mr. B…” I only caught the first letter of my last name, and the rest mumbled off.
I recognized her from a week or so before when I had taken the recess duty of one of my colleagues. With the full-force and reckless abandon which only a child possesses, she had run across the playground and tripped, hard. I saw the whole thing and was quickly on the scene.
In the midst of her crying, I swooped her up into my arms and carried her off to the nurse’s office. I didn’t think I’d see her after that, but here she was standing just inside of my classroom door.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, and she walked up to me and handed me a Band-Aid and showed me a small cut on her finger. I nodded, taking and applying the bandage. She smiled, muttered something like thanks, and scampered away. I went back to grading.
Flash forward a few years, and I was sitting in my office at the university. A coworker’s head swung around the corner. She held onto the door frame, leaning in as if not committing to barging into the space. “Hey. Are you doing anything?”
“Nah, come on in,” I said.
She swung into the office, grabbing the chair often occupied by my students. “Well, listen, if you have a sec… My brother is having a rather rough time.” She wasn’t a stranger, but we weren’t particularly close friends, so the conversation was unexpected.
There I was with my legs extended, crossed, and propped upon a spare chair in the office. I had my laptop open to my thesis. There was a scattering of books across my desk, held open with academic articles which were heavily colored with neon sticky notes. I had a book in my lap, a blue pen in my right hand, a red pen behind my ear, and I was using a highlighter as a bookmark to an Oxford companion which had been masterfully balanced upon the shins of my crossed legs.
And yet, sitting in this intimate moment nearly entirely buried under books and papers, there I was with a colleague asking for my advice and prayers. Then, just as quickly as she had swooped into my office, she left.
I sat there for a moment, looking at the book balanced upon my shins, the one in my lap, the blue pen in my hand, and then the at the door to my office. The interruption was brief, but I had the strange sense that she left feeling better than when she arrived—though, I couldn’t for the life of me tell you why. I took a breath, nodding, and went back to reading and highlighting in my complicated color system.
I’ve just transitioned from one mission to another—I’m living in a new city, working at a new place, and even doing a different type of work. The move meant that my summer was filled with the packing, the practicalities, and the planning which inevitably accompany life’s transitions. It also means that those days were filled with goodbyes.
With the goodbyes, I’m left wondering if I’ve had an impact. I’m left wondering if it has been worth it. Maybe, I’ve taught my students how to research and write. Maybe, I’ve been supportive to my department and colleagues. Probably, I’ll never know.
I don’t often feel that I have the right words. I don’t know if I’ve done the right things to help. But, I have been there. If only buried under quizzes while I eat lunch, I’ve been there. If only applying Band-Aids to tiny fingers, I’ve been there. Even when I was neck-deep in research with books and highlighters and articles in hand, I was there with my door open.
As I look at glitter-decorated, comically gaudy collection of bedazzled clerical tabs, I smile. Maybe just being there, was enough. Maybe they knew that I belong to them, that I was theirs. And, that’s exactly the type of teacher and Jesuit that I want to be.