“Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” This was the chant of students as they marched with joy out of St. Francis Catholic School today. After ten long months for the kids (and nearly eight whole days for me) school let out today for the summer and they could not have been happier. All week, the students simmered at a level of excitement that no one could contain; today at 11:30 it boiled over into pure chaos. It was wonderful to see (and even better that I got to go to my own home for lunch and didn’t have to be their parents picking them up!)
I have to say, It’s a shame that I didn’t get a chance to spend more time at the school before it ended. As odd as it sounds to me, I really enjoyed being there. I started to get to know the classrooms, the students, and the teachers, and really felt at home going to the school each day and playing with the kids at recess. Granted, this feeling may have been aided by the fact that it was so close to summer that the students were always excited and fun to be around. Or it was because I was treated like a rockstar everyday, which helps any situation. (It gets better than what I shared in my last post. Yearbooks came out this week.That’s right. I was literally signing autographs at recess to a hoard to students surrounding me. “Brother Casey! Sign my yearbook, sign my yearbook!” That was new for me.)
I think my favorite interaction with one of the students, though, came in the kindergarten classroom yesterday. I’m sitting there during their year-end party coloring with a girl when she all of the sudden looks at me and begins an interrogation: “Awe you mawied?” Now you have to understand that what I absolutely loved about talking to this girl is that she always came off as a bit crazy. Hilariously crazy. I mean… she’s in kindergarten.. what do you expect? Her hair was always going 100 different ways, her eyes could not possibly open any wider, and she always talked to everyone like she had just discovered the cure for cancer. With that image in your head, “AWE YOU MAWIED?!?!” might be more accurate. But it didn’t stop there. When I said no, that I was not married and that I had no kids, and explained to further interrogation why it was that I was single and childless, she looked me right in the eye and ordered, “GO FIND A WIFE!” Seriously, she was not messing around. This was not a request. When I explained, in fact, that I lived with two priests, I thought her eyes were going to pop right out of her eyes. “WHAAAAT?? YOU LIVE WITH PWIESTS?!” The whole interaction, her innocence, her matter-of-fact orders, and the shattering of her tiny worldview, had me laughing all day long. I told a parent about it, who responded with a similarly funny interaction: “When I met her, I said ‘hi ______.’ With squinted, skeptical eyes, she glared at me, ‘What do you mean by ‘hi’…?” I can’t help but laugh out loud picturing the situation as I type now.
The amazing this is that I could share a dozen stories like this, of things I will never forget and really touched me, after just a brief time with the students. I don’t know if it was simply that I had not been in an elementary school since I was a student myself, or the fact that I was given immediate trust by the students and enormous leeway by the teachers to jump in and out of their day, but I really did see my time there as a joyful, worthwhile ministry experience in a way I never expected. Part of it, I’m sure, was the overwhelming nostalgia I had as I walked into every classroom: “Oh… I remember when I was in 5th grade…” There’s just something so wonderful about being a kid, and seeing them with so much enthusiasm and problems that seemed so insignificant to me now, brought me back to a simpler time for sure. That’s not to diminish their experience as “childish” and thus insignificant, though. Quite the opposite, actually. Being able to remember back to my own elementary school days and seeing how truly formative certain experiences have been in who I became as a teenager and now an adult, I realized how important it is to give children quality, life-building experiences; to give them the attention and formation that they need is no easy task but is one that is worthy of the best and brightest people today. By no means do I ever want a full-time job in an elementary school, but I have to admit that I was so moved by these kids that I simply can’t imagine not having some involvement in elementary school ministry throughout my life as a friar. With that sort of joy all around, how can I not?