Wednesday, September 22, 2010


I recently started working with Mount St. Mary’s College students on their writing. The experience has already proven to be gratifying. The work is important and necessary, and the students, faculty and staff of the college are incredibly welcoming and warm. There is, however, something that makes this experience even more powerful for me.

Yesterday, I started my day on campus attending the Mass of the Holy Spirit, an annual liturgy celebrating the start of another school year. The chapel on campus was filled to capacity, and most everyone wore the color red. There was a full choir with a band, as well as elaborate rituals throughout the ceremony incorporating various cultures and traditions. It was a lively service, nothing like Masses at my Catholic parish church. There was a palpable joy in the audience, and I felt a part of the community.

At some point in the service, I began thinking of my grandmother who attended the Mount in the 1930s. A long time ago, she wanted me to attend the college as a music student. But I had other plans. I knew she was disappointed. I attended alumnae events with her over the years, and she often told me stories about what the school meant to her. My grandmother was unique for her time; few women sought professional degrees in the early twentieth century, and I admired her for sticking it out to receive her dietetics degree.

My grandmother passed in 2003. She was such a strong presence in my life and the lives of others. She lived on her own for twenty-three years after the death of my grandfather, enduring the deaths of two of her children, and countless challenges to her faith. She remained a good Catholic to the end.

We had a running argument, my grandmother and I. She told me once that the greatest gift my parents gave me was my Catholic faith. I argued that life was the greatest gift a parent gives a child. It was a kind of “chicken or the egg” discussion. If my parents did not have faith in Christ, they would not have brought children into the world. Therefore, she reasoned, faith begat having children and predated the gift of life. I did not buy her reasoning. Life is a gift allowing one to believe in many things, and if one never has life, there is no faith or hope, or anything else. Without life, there is nothing.

So there I was in the Mount St. Mary’s College chapel, and suddenly, I felt my grandmother’s presence. I had the realization in that moment that she was joyfully present. The confluence of time and dimension met, and she knew that my life had arrived at a point to which it had been building for quite some time.

After Mass, I went on to The Learning Center to work with students on their writing. Although I have spent my career in the classroom, I have always enjoyed working with students individually rather than in a large group. Trying to work with a class of twenty to twenty-five writers forces me to resort to generalities and broad concepts. When I mark papers, the student considers my comments alone and rarely asks me what I mean. Lots of ink on the page from me, they think, means a lower grade. They take a “Well, that’s that” kind of attitude. When I work with a student individually, there is ample opportunity for clarification and discussion, for praise, for questioning. I see the student internalize what I say, revising and sharpening the piece as we go along.

In my work with Mount students, I was immediately moved by the truth of their writing. One wrote a personal essay about being driven out of her state college as a sophomore because of threats of violence and racism. She made me feel what she felt in the situation, returning to find the word, “nigger” carved on her dorm door one evening. When her innocent actions led to another student being arrested for drug possession with the intent to sell, she began to get death threats. She stuck it out to the end of the semester, and then transferred. To her, Mount St. Mary’s was an oasis of safety, a refuge from the trauma of her experience.

Other students I worked with were writing thank you letters to benefactors who donated scholarship funds to assist with tuition and expenses. Many of the letters contained moving stories of adversity and perseverance.

Here was a student who had to drop out of college to have a child. Now she was pursuing a degree in social work and raising her son alone.

Another was one of nine children, and had spent her life taking care of her brothers and sisters while her parents worked long hours.

Many students were the first ones in their families to go to college, or leave home to pursue their education. I was also surprised to find how many wanted to go into service professions, like nursing and social work. One young man planned to become an army medical technician and serve in combat zones. Another hoped to open health care centers in poor countries. All the students I worked with, every one, expressed the hope to one day sponsor another Mount student in the quest to get an education.

I realized why my grandmother would find joy in my new endeavor at the Mount. I was at a school she loved, an institution that made a huge difference in her life, and I was doing good work. She knew that at the heart of the matter, that is why I became a teacher. Given the right environment, one based on faith and values, I could help others and fulfill my purpose in life. My grandmother, child of the dust bowl and the Great Depression, a survivor, finally got her wish for me. I was at the Mount. I know that in her mind, I had come home. Now, I felt that way as well.

I finished up with my last student and walked to my car with the smell of the sea in the air. I was tired in a good way, the way one feels after a hard day of exhilarating and important work. I drove down the steep roads from the hilltop in Brentwood, already looking forward to next week and more students and their writing. The world is not perfect, but sometimes, if one is open to it, an uncommon grace pours into the soul to light the hours. My grandmother knew a lot about faith and grace and making it through difficult times. In this season of autumn, I had found faith and grace and truth, and I knew my grandmother would be happy.

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