Today is the best day of the year. At least, it used to be.
Before I worked at the Greatest High School in the Universe, I worked at the Greatest Independent Catholic Grammar School in the Universe: St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe School in Phoenix, AZ. It’s closed now, a fact as depressing as the burning of the library of Alexandria. Even now, I can’t think about Kolbe without tearing up.
Our experience there–and that of everyone else I know who sent their children there or had the privilege of working there–was wonderful. It wasn’t perfect, and, if I’m pressed, I could probably think of a bunch of things that needed improvement, but in my memory, all the images have the golden glow of the magic hour. Those few (those happy few) years we had at Kolbe are the best memories we have of our children’s education. In fact, probably the greatest sorrow we have as parents right now is that our youngest two children will never have Mrs. Franko as their kindergarten teacher and will never experience the joy of Kolbe School that was our strength.
The one thing that epitomizes the Kolbe experience more than any other was the All Saints Day Celebration. It truly was the best day of the year. I loved it so much I wrote a song about it.
Kolbe children prepared for this day for the first nine weeks of the school year. Each kid in K-5 spent the first quarter learning about a particular saint while students in grades 6-8 worked together to produce a play about a saint. When the day finally came, all the giddy children, dressed as their chosen saints, gathered in the great hall and bore witness one-by-one to God’s goodness as manifested in the life of the saint they had chosen. The speeches were always delightful. The kindergarteners were cuter than muppet babies and frequently flubbed or improvised lines to hilarious effect. The tween girls regularly came dressed as “tarted up” versions of famous religious women (I’m pretty sure St. Catherine Laboure didn’t wear rouge and deep scarlet lipstick), and all the boys wanted to be St. Michael the Archangel or Padre Pio.
After the youngsters gave their speeches, the junior high kids would perform their play. Most of the time, the play was something I’d write to accommodate a cast of all boys (or all girls, depending on the year). We had no budget, little talent, but heaps of heart, so every year wound up being a minor theatre miracle.
After the presentations, the fun began–chocolate fountains, kettle corn, cake walks, egg tosses, you name it. The one thing we didn’t have this day was school. It was a for-real, good old fashioned Catholic feast day. And this is why Kolbe was so wonderful. At Kolbe, the All Saints Day Celebration wasn’t Catholic window dressing; it was Catholic culture. In many schools, Catholic identity is treated like sesame seeds sprinkled on a hamburger bun. It’s an afterthought. The “bun” is like any other bun you’d find at public school. At Kolbe, Catholic identity is like yeast sprinkled into the dough. Once it’s mixed in, it might seem to disappear, but that yeast leavens the dough and makes the bread qualitatively different from what’s available elsewhere. I think this is why parents loved Kolbe so much. We did not send our children there because of what it lacked (bullying, drugs, pop culture, whatever); we sent our kids there because of what it had: the joy of the Lord, the joy of the Catholic faith, people who were just as screwed up as anywhere else, but who loved God and wanted to live as part of His family.
I’m trying to write this too quickly, so I’m sure I’m leaving out something wonderful and not being as eloquent as I might, but I want to end with saying that the best thing about sending my kids to Kolbe is that they didn’t just learn about the saints. They befriended them. And, as a consequence, my wife and I befriended them, too. Before Kolbe, I had no idea who Josephine Bakhita, Pauline Jaricot, Pier Giorgio, or Gianna Molla were. I didn’t really know Bernandette, Jacinta, Kateri, or Jude, but because my kids made friends with them, they are now really and truly part of our family. For this, I am forever grateful.
Here is the song I wrote, “All Saints Day Celebration”:
It’s long and the sound quality is sketchy, but I don’t care. I really like it. It has some of my favorite lines I’ve ever written. I think it captures the spirit of the day. I wrote it for my good friend Mary Jo Scamperle, who was (and always will be!) the principal of Kolbe. The day of the celebration we learned that the charter school that took most of our graduates was going to open a lower school which had the potential to severely affect our enrollment. There was a good chance that year’s celebration would be the last. It wasn’t, but the end came pretty shortly afterward and for heartbreakingly worse reasons. No matter. The school lives on in our hearts and in our memories as an Edenic bright spot in hoc lacrimarum valle.
Hello! I’m not avoiding you, promise. Here is a peace offering: Surprise Endings.
I will resume regular posting on Monday, even if it means just approving all the spam comments from my wealthy Nigerian friends and hot Ukrainian women who “like what I have to say in my very well-written blog posts on this very important topic.”
I know it’s been a while–sorry about that. A lot has been going on since -19-. I had a class to finish up, jury duty to not get selected for, a poem to publish at thekindling.org, and a host of other things. Most of those things would make many mere mortals question the central tenet of my belief system (that God is good): all three of our cars, two and a half of our children, and one marriage-in-law have all broken down since last Thursday. And, as if that wasn’t enough, today my wife called me at work to let me know that, when I get home, I’ll have to dispose of the opossum-sized rat that met its demise in my living room some time last night. How’s this for pathetic: we literally have more dead rats than dollars.
Happily, I’m no mere mortal. I count it all joy. I have:
- excellent rat traps
- a living room in which rodents can expire
- a job which will pay me tomorrow
- health insurance
- spare children (one for each day of the week)
- poetry that wants out
- a wife who loves me (me!)
I’m sure it sounds like I complain a lot, but I’m not really complaining. Not really. I’m blessed and I know it.
I could have been on trial like the guy whose jury I’m not on. I could have lost steady writing gigs like Mark Shea and Simcha Fisher. I could have lost my children or not been able to have any like some of my friends. I could have been bad at wordplay like Alishia Hanson*. I could have been blind-sided by divorce like my brother-in-law, one of the finest men I know.
But I wasn’t and I didn’t, so I’m grateful.
*just checking to see if Alishia still reads this!
Block — The Kindling
A poem I wrote.
If you’re curious, I’m waiting till I get to -33- before I start naming my posts. Somehow I feel that will prove I’ve made it a habit.
Today is the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and I thought I’d share a stupid little story that makes me laugh when I remember it.
But first let’s get spiral to the point. (Help me out, people-what’s the opposite of “straight to the point”? Forte: it’s not “gay to the point”…)
The Church teaches that, because of her special role in salvation history, Jesus’ mother has been blessed with being the first Christian to experience the resurrection of the body that Christians believe everyone will experience at the end of time. The Church says that, at the end of her earthly life, God took the Virgin Mary, body and soul, up to heaven. I don’t know what her zip code is or exactly how that works, but that’s the Church’s teaching. Protestants may think that’s crazy, but the Bible says both Enoch and Elijah were taken up to be with God, so they can’t dismiss this idea as merely a Catholic invention.
One of the strongest arguments in favor of the universality and antiquity of this belief in the pre-Reformation Church is the interesting fact that there are no pilgrimage sites that even claim to be the tomb of the Virgin Mary. Think about it: even in the most corrupt times of the Church when charlatans were claiming to have such spurious relics as the head of John the Baptist as a child and the Virgin Mary’s breast milk, no one set up a roadside shrine in Ephesus or Jerusalem or anywhere trying to capitalize on the burial place of the most famous saint ever. This, along with the fact that Satanists never perform “Black” Presbyterian Worship Services, is one of my favorite arguments for the truth of Catholicism.
Anyway, “at the end of her earthly life” God brings Mary to Himself. Notice that the Church doesn’t say, “after her death.” This is because there are theological reasons for believing that Our Lady was exempt from the penalty of death to which all other members of our fallen race are subject. If, as the Church also teaches, God preserved (i.e. saved) Mary from the “stain” of Original Sin (i.e. its effects), this makes perfect sense. Now again Protestants might object to this idea because they believe it’s human nature to be sinful, but that’s not strictly true. Remember, before the Fall Adam and Eve were created sinless (“able to stand, but free to fall” as Milton puts it), so being human doesn’t require one to be sinful. All Christians acknowledge Jesus as the New Adam; some of us recognize Mary as the New Eve. As the new, perfectly obedient Eve who always says to her Lord, “Let it be done unto me according to your will,” it again makes sense that Our Lady would be free from the penalty of death.
Now, careful readers might object and point out that Jesus died and he was indisputably free from sin, so why wouldn’t Mary die as well? Well, that’s why the Church’s formula is as it is. “At the end of her early life” could mean when she died or when her life changed from being earthly to being heavenly. In the Eastern Church they speak of the Dormition (i.e. the going to sleep) of the Virgin Mary.
I’d also like to point out that Jesus didn’t have to die, he allowed himself to be killed. This is why we corrected the English translation of the Nicene Creed to say “He suffered death and was buried” instead of “He suffered, died, and was buried.” Suffer means “to allow.” From older English translations of the Bible you might recall Jesus saying, “Suffer the children to come into me.” He’s not telling the Disciples to inflict harm on children. He’s saying, “Let them come to me.” Interestingly, our word passion has the same root as passive. Thus, the “passion of Christ” doesn’t mean “the intense emotional ordeal of the Messiah” as so many people mistakenly think. It means “the agony and pain Jesus allowed Himself to be subject to even though He could have summoned a host of angels and wiped out the Romans in a heartbeat.”
So, enough spiraling. The stupid story:
The summer between my sophomore and junior years of college I spent a month or so living in community with some friends in Steubenville, Ohio. We had gone out to attend the summer conferences at Franciscan University with a group called Catholic Commission, which was like Campus Crusade for Christ, but Catholic. We lived in a house without a TV or a phone (it did have basement we referred to as “The Promised Land” that featured a solitary toilet out in the open with no privacy whatsoever), so instead of vegging out at night or chatting on the phone, we would pray the rosary.
Well, our house leader was a very conscientious man and he very much disliked the fact that, whenever we prayed the Glorious Mysteries, some of my housemates and I would get the giggles during the fourth decade.
“Why are you laughing?”
“No reason,” I chortle.
“Seriously, what gives?”
“Fine. It’s just this mystery is about the Assumption.”
“Well, what if Mary was just washing the dishes after dinner in her home in Ephesus and was about to serve the Beloved Disciple some dessert and she turns away from the sink to grab the baklava and when turns back, there’s Jesus and the rest of the Trinity staring at her. Jesus says, ‘Welcome to heaven, Ma! Ain’t it great?'”
“And, well, Mary’s upset.”
“Why is Mary upset?”
“Well, because she’s a good hostess and wanted to make sure John got his dessert.”
“So why does that make you guys giggle?”
“Because, what if she gets mad at Jesus for taking her up body and soul and his apology is where we got the name of the mystery? ‘Gee, Ma, well, um, I guess Dad, HS, and I just figured you’d like to join us…'”
So, God is good. We’d been wandering in the desert for five years or so and, as sometimes happens in our life, God decides to act in an unmistakable way and I get this phone call:
“Wanna be the Academic Dean at Saint Mary’s?”
“Um, yes please.”
“Don’t you want to know the details? Don’t you want to know how much you’ll be making?”
“I guess. . .”
“Lord, what are you doing? I hate green. I mean, I. HATE. Green. And Saint Mary’s? My nemesis? Is this really where you want me to go? I’ll do it, (of course I’ll do it), but please send me a friend. Amen.”
A couple of days later I’m at the Catholic Men’s Fellowship annual conference and I bump into to an acquaintance:
“Hi, Rob. I don’t know if you remember me, but I took your class on Catholic Education at Saint Thomas the Apostle’s Institute for Catholic Theology.”
“Sure, I remember you. You’re my friend Mike’s brother-in-law. You teach at a public school, right? How can help?”
“Well, I’m thinking about teaching at Veritas and I wanted to ask your advice.”
“You shouldn’t do that. You should teach at Saint Mary’s.”
“You should teach at Saint Mary’s.”
“I actually have an interview there tomorrow.”
“Really? Me too! What for? ”
“Wait. . .what? Me, too. . .for Dean of Academics.”
“Oh, ha! Mine is for Dean of Students.”
“Kevin, this is so funny. I was just praying about this and I told God I’d do it, but I told Him He had to send me a friend. You’re an answer to prayer–you have to take the job.”
“No, you don’t understand: you’re an answer to prayer.”
“I’ve been really struggling with this decision about whether to work for Veritas or not, so I asked my brother who’s a priest what I should do. He said, ‘Kevin, when I’m in a situation like this, I tell the Lord, “God, I’m stupid. Make it totally clear to me what I’m supposed to do.”‘ So, that’s what I prayed last night and then you just say that out of the blue. It’s a sign!”
It was a sign. And that’s how Saint Mary’s’ former-Dean-of-Students-now-Assistant-Principle and I answered each other’s prayers and both started working there.
More tomorrow. . .
In case you’re wondering, I’ve made an agreement with myself that, as far as these pasta are concerned, done is better than perfect. For example, I just now resisted the very strong urge to correct my auto-correct when it write pasta instead of post.
Wrote pasta instead of post. Sheesh.
(Don’t worry–this is all part of my master plan–I’m going to write my way out of what ails me and nobody’s gonna bring me down.)
So, anyway, where was I? Ah, yes: the Sinai.
Back in post -15- I made the outrageous claim that not having my contract renewed was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. I totally believe that without a ounce of irony. I believe it because that devastating experience taught me many, many invaluable lessons.
I learned how to walk by faith and not by sight, how to trust God for daily bread, how to pray like my life depended on it, how to listen, how to speak, how to have an exodus. I learned that God is always good, that pain is never permanent, that sometimes the darkness that envelopes us is the shadow of His wings and not the shadow of death.
Much of what I hope to write here at the Inkwell is stuff I learned in the Sinai. But, today I’ll skip to when our sojourn ended and we crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land.
(FYI, that pressure to be done and not perfect is starting to kick in, so this may be anti-climactic.)
Basically, we had left Egypt and its fleshpots (my old school) and been living on manna from IBM (thank you, Scott Whitfield) and quail from Kolbe school, the most wonderful K-8 school in the history of humanity (thank you Mary Jo and Paul Scamperle), when, in the midst of minding my own business, I got a phone call from Father Bolding.
“How would you like to be the Dean of Academics at Saint Mary’s High School?”
“Um, yes? ”
To be continued. . .
This is why I didn’t post anything yesterday. I was too busy trying to find a fitting way to honor my wife, without whom our family falls into ruin. Haagen-Dazs replied. I don’t know if it will come through, but the second paragraph was in a slightly different font. I think that was their attempt to personalize the response.
Thank you for your email regarding Häagen-Dazs®. We always enjoy hearing from our consumers with suggestions about ways to improve our products.
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Because we appreciate that you took the time to contact us, I have included a link at the end of this email for a printable savings coupon that I hope you will enjoy!Thank you again for taking the time to contact us.
Have a nice day!
The lady who got back to me forgot to attach the printable coupons. I’m waiting for another response.
As an unrepentant paronomasiac, I’m always looking for cleverer ways to say things than is strictly necessary. So, when my relationship with my first official girlfriend ended (over the phone and against my wishes), I told my friends that “she mutually decided to break up with me.” And when my second real girlfriend (now wife) and I actually realized the earning potential of my Religious Studies degree, I told our friends that we had become “involuntary Franciscans.” We quit talking about wanting to embrace Lady Poverty like Saint Francis, once “Lady” Poverty (that sphinx) embraced us.
I say all that so that when I tell you that the high school I used to work for also “mutually decided to break up with me” you’ll know what I mean. I loved that other high school very much–I still do–it is my alma mater and many of the best things that ever happened to me happened there. I will always be grateful for the good and holy men who inspired me to live my life for the greater glory of God and introduced me to some of my favorite authors and saints. Nevertheless, after having been employed there, I feel that the school I went to and the school I worked at were two very different places. (So much so that I used to joke that when I worked there the Virgin Mary appeared to me one afternoon and asked for a Catholic school to be built on that site.) But what do I know? Maybe the school I went to was exactly the same as the one I worked at and the only difference was which side of the faculty room door I was on. I certainly have a much different understanding of how schools are run now that I’ve served as an administrator at one.
I have no hard feelings toward this other institution, but it is most definitely not The Greatest High School in the Universe. That honor belongs to Saint Mary’s Catholic High School in Phoenix, Arizona. Incidentally, Saint Mary’s happens also to be the ancient rival of my alma mater, and, for most of my life, I considered it the most repugnant institution on the face of God’s red earth.
Now, I promised in my previous post that I would tell of my arranged marriage to Saint Mary’s, but that was a tease. I’ll tell all that tomorrow (after I obediently go to sleep). For tonight, I’ll conclude with this: the last great gift I received from my previous employer was them letting me go. Next to my wife and children (and pressure cooker–thanks, Paolo!) this was the greatest gift I’ve ever received. More tomorrow.