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Last wishes and little stars

The new year began with a funeral, which sounds sad but ended up being so uplifting. Mary Jane had been Olivia’s violin teacher, first in elementary school and later privately. Last summer, the day before Mary Jane was scheduled to have brain surgery for the cancer that was taking her bit by bit, she insisted on giving Olivia a lesson at her home. A week after the surgery, she called to schedule yet another lesson. At first I tried to insist that we hold off, but then I realized that this was exactly where Mary Jane wanted to be, with one of her students, doing what she loved to do.

When Mary Jane died last week, the school district sent out an email inviting her former students to come to St. Thomas the Apostle Church the day of the funeral and play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” 10 minutes before the Mass was to begin. We emailed back immediately, saying that Olivia would be honored to play as long as there were other children there with her.

I loved the fact that one of Mary Jane’s last wishes was to have her students play one of the first songs she ever taught them. Not Beethoven or Bach, but a childhood favorite, probably the simplest song they would ever learn, ensuring that even her youngest students could participate.

The morning of the funeral we arrived 30 minutes early, as requested, only to walk into a sea of orchestra students, hundreds of children ranging in age from middle school through college. I was crying before I even helped Olivia take off her coat. What a testament to the power of a great teacher. We left Olivia with her current instructor to tune up and found our place in a pew.

A few minutes later, the children filed in — more than 50 cello players, at least 100 violins and I don’t know how many violas and basses. They filled the side chapel and stood ringing the entire main church. Then Mary Jane’s sister read the letter she left for her students. More tears. “When you can play Twinkle,” Mary Jane wrote, “you know you’ve made progress.”

The children lifted their bows, played the few short lines of the simple song, and then they filed right back out, but the beauty of what we had witnessed lingered long after the last note had ended.

Any teacher who has ever doubted the power he or she has to shape young lives and our world needs to remember this story. Those children didn’t come out to a funeral to play a few lines on their last day of winter break simply because Mary Jane had been a great teacher but because she had been a great person. She loved her students, really loved them. And she loved teaching them, and that clearly came through to those kids who wanted to be there to pay tribute to her.

Now whenever I hear “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” I’ll think of Mary Jane and of her reminder to her students — and to all of us — that sometimes mastering the simplest thing is a sign that we are making great progress.

Rest in peace, Mary Jane. You will be missed.

Manic Monday: September is in full swing

First full week of school. Not sure how the big kids are going to continue carrying backpacks filled to overflowing with notebooks of every shape and size. Back when I was a kid, you had one binder with dividers for each subject. Now they need big binders for every single subject.

Olivia needed eight dividers for her French notebook alone. Noah needed seven in his science notebook. What, exactly, are they going to be dividing into so many sections? Stay tuned…We’ll probably need the name of a good chiropractor within a month or so.

So here’s what’s happening on this Manic Monday…

Soundtrack: Still listening to religious music, a remnant of my retreat drive. I had used my eight hours of driving (total) to extend my retreat, so I listened to religious music and a Henri Nouwen talk on the “Spirituality of Waiting” on the way out and more religious music on the way back. Nothing else. I’m still in that mindset, so the van radio is set to a Christian station, believe it or not.

Bookshelf: Still working my way through The Genesee Diary by Henri Nouwen, which has taken on such special meaning since my retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee and my meeting with Brother Christian, who is mentioned in this book.

Just took The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis out of the library. I’ve never read this classic. Not sure when I’m going to find time to fit it in, but I’m going to give it a shot.

Viewfinder:

Noah’s first day of high school/Lab School. That easel has been our first-day photo spot since he was in preschool. It’s a little worse for wear, thanks to Chiara, but we’re keeping the tradition as long as we can (much to Noah’s chagrin).

Olivia’s first day of middle school. Lots of firsts around here this year.

Chiara’s first day of first grade.

Every morning Fred the Cat comes into the kitchen and hops up to this window to see what’s going on outside. He prefers when the window is open. He thinks he’s a person.

Appointment Book: Another crazy week ahead. Chiara starts ballet/tap/jazz dance class; Olivia starts hip hop. Noah goes on a three-day “retreat” with Lab School. Open houses, doctor and dentist appointments, dessert nights and more. Somehow, in the midst of all that, I’m going to try to maintain at least a little daily silence for prayer and spiritual reading. And sanity.

Thought for the day:

“There is no time with God. A thousand years, a single day: it is all one.” 2Peter 3:8

The upside of being a geek

My son, my oldest child, will graduate from our parish school in a few weeks and head to the public high school. The very large and intimidating (but excellent) public high school. And I have to admit, the thought makes my stomach do little flips. Not good flips.

I won’t go so far as to say that I’m having flashbacks, but the thought of my baby standing in the Ground Zero of teenage cruelty known as the cafeteria — or even worse, phys ed class — is almost more than I can bear. I was not among the “cool” kids in high school. I was anything but, wearing so many uncool labels it was hard to keep track: twirler, folk group singer, honor society member, CYO president. Add to that the fact that I never went to a party at the bleachers and spent most of my free time at my parish church and, well, you probably get the picture. Last one picked for the team. Any team, from field hockey to square dancing.

So when I saw this story in the New York Times today, I ripped it out and left it on the kitchen table for my son and my tween daughter to read. Alexandra Robbins, 34, author of “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth,” is a former “power dork” who has made a career out of helping teenagers realize that being unpopular in high school is often a good indicator that you’ll go far later on. Her book chronicles the lives of high school archetypes — the Loner, the New Girl, the Nerd and the Band Geek.

From the story in the Times:

Their stories beautifully demonstrate things we know intrinsically: being popular is not always the same as being liked, that high school is more rigid and conformist than the military, and that the people who are excluded and bullied for their offbeat passions and refusal to conform are often the ones who are embraced and lauded for those very qualities in college and beyond — what Ms. Robbins has dubbed Quirk Theory.

As anyone who’s seen movies like “Heathers” knows, the social agonies of high school are nothing new. But the Internet has magnified those feelings of alienation for the oddballs. Partly it’s the relentless exposure to celebrity culture, to images of perfection and roaring success with little discernible talent. (Hello, Kardashians.) But it goes beyond issues of appearance.

“Facebook is now the online cafeteria,” Ms. Robbins says. “It’s this public space, largely unsupervised, and it mirrors the cafeteria dynamic where you walk in and have to find a place to belong. At school, you have to pick a table. Well, on Facebook you not only have to pick a table, you have to pick who’s at your table and who’s not. And then kids feel they have to be publicists for themselves, maintaining their photos and status. It’s exhausting.”

Also exhausting is the care and feeding of popularity, which Ms. Robbins has discovered is not so much about being liked (some popular teenagers are liked, many are not) as about being known. “Popularity is a combination of visibility, influence and recognizability,” she says. “If you’re someone who engages in studying or practicing violin, these are not activities that put you in front of the student body. So these kids aren’t in the popular crowd, but it doesn’t say anything other than the fact that their talents are not visible.”

In other words, the president of the chess club may have more real friends than the cheerleader, but still be considered unpopular.

As a former geek (and perhaps a current geek who just doesn’t realize it), I can attest to Ms. Robbins’ theories. The very things that made me “odd” in high school made me “interesting” in college. My willingness to walk to the beat of a different drummer served me well once I was out of the popularity-is-everything world of high school. I attribute a lot of that not only to my family but to my involvement in CYO, which was — at least where I lived — the very best version of youth ministry, a powerful combination of service, spirituality and social events. We sang in nursing homes and planned liturgies, but we also went to dances and hung out together at church when many of our classmates were getting into trouble.

It’s one of the reasons I’ve been pushing my son to get involved in our own parish youth ministry. In fact, the two of us are heading to Indianapolis in November — along with about 25,000 other teenagers — for the annual National Catholic Youth Conference. I want him to see that he is not alone in his thinking, his values, his beliefs, even if he finds himself alone now and then in the cafeteria at school.

And as Ms. Robbins points out in the Times story, knowing who you are and being willing to break from the crowd is critical:

Ms. Robbins has many deeply comforting words for these teenagers; and one story speaks in particular to those who’ve been right there with the high school outcasts. It’s about an experiment performed by the late-19th-century French naturalist Jean-Henri Fabre on caterpillars that were hard-wired to follow each other in a long head-to-tail line.

“Fabre set them up in such a way that they were following each other around the rim of a flowerpot — with their favorite food only inches away,” Ms. Robbins says. “For seven days they followed each other around until they died of starvation and exhaustion. They couldn’t see how a simple deviation from the path would get them to the food they needed right away.”

Geeks are many things, Ms. Robbins suggests. But one thing they aren’t are caterpillars.

To read the full Times story, click HERE.