Sam was a kid in my seventh grade English class and one of several Jewish students enrolled at this private Catholic school in Los Angeles. In fact, more than half the kids in the school were of different faiths than the one professed by the Marianist founders. Even though I did not teach religion, I considered integrating the point of view of different faiths into our study of literature to be a positive part of my classroom praxis. Sam had distinguished himself as an excellent student who excelled at writing and always had insightful, if very serious comments to offer during class discussion. His work was consistently far above middle school level. Although he listened attentively during class when those of other religions discussed their faith views, he never commented directly based on his Jewish experience.
One work of literature we covered that year was Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night (Hill and Wang, 2006), about the author’s experience as a twelve-year old boy in a concentration camp during the Second World War. Wiesel’s mother and siblings were shuttled off to one camp only to disappear while he and his father were imprisoned in another. Eventually, his father dies of starvation and injuries but Elie survives. There are many harrowing scenes in the book, including one where several people are being hanged, one of them a young boy about Wiesel’s age. Because the child weighed less, the noose around his neck did not cut of the air supply as quickly as the heavier adults; therefore, the boy struggled against the noose for several minutes in an agonizing death. Many of the Jews forced to watch this atrocity cried out in horror. “Where is God?” a voice wails. “Where is God?” The profound destruction of human life and the violence inflicted on those who survived strongly affected my students. Many shared their stories of discrimination and otherness, but Sam remained silent.
One day, his mother came to see me. She was a striking woman with blond hair and deep blue eyes like her son. The resemblance was clear. She told me that Sam had been attending classes on Saturdays for several years that would lead to his bar mitzvah when he turned thirteen. He seemed to love these classes paid for by his grandparents who wanted to pass on their traditions and faith to Sam. As a single parent, she could not afford the classes or to keep him at the private Catholic school without the support of his grandparents. I asked her why she enrolled him in my school when she could have taken him to a Jewish institution and only pay one tuition. She replied that while Catholic schools were the best for secular subjects, Jewish schools offered the best religious education. With Sam’s placement at both, he had the best of both worlds. However, now there was a problem. Sam recently told her that he was an atheist and that he would no longer attend Saturday school nor would he be making his bar mitzvah. This caused tension at home and his grandparents were bitterly disappointed, blaming the mother and the Catholic school for turning their grandson away from his faith. There was something more, she told me. Since he finished reading Night, he had been staying up most evenings reading everything he could find on Nazis and the persecution of Jews during the war. He cleaned out the school library and was rapidly making his way through the public branch. Recently, he told her he was trying to find a copy of Hitler’s book Mein Kampf, but the librarian at the branch told him he was too young to read it. The mother begged me to talk to Sam and try to find out what was happening. When she tried to talk to him, he shut down.
In my praxis as a teacher at that school, my ministry if you will, I was not teaching religion or theology. However, I firmly believed that my role was to bridge the divisions between faiths as encouraged by the documents of the Second Vatican Council. My role as teacher and facilitator in the classroom, even though the subject was English, was to meet the students where they lived in terms of their reality and connection to faith. Even if a student was atheist, there is moral and ethical common ground that could be tilled for a fertile discussion of the comparisons and contrasts among religions and moral human behavior in the world. To this day I consider my students to be in my praxis and ministry with me, and I would never do anything as a teacher to alienate someone or make him or her feel stupid or discouraged. I must foster discussion and be very careful to open the floor to other opinions and points of view while also insisting that thinking and reasoning be conducted at a high level and with deep regard for the views of others. It was a challenge to do this, and I am sure at some point, students might have felt like “the other,” but I also addressed the idea of otherness, saying that we are unique human beings with our own opinions and insights, our own lived experiences, and therefore, we think differently in our lives and beliefs. Sam would prove to be a challenge to my praxis.
Before I could call him in for a conference, the situation broke open into hostility. I had the students write a paper that answered the question, who is the most discriminated and oppressed group in American society today? The papers came in covering the usual and often clichéd answers: African-Americans, Latinos, gays, those with disabilities, et cetera. Then I came to Sam’s paper. In a structured, well-developed essay with no flaws in grammar or syntax, he argued that neo-Nazis were the most discriminated group in America. When they march, people throw rocks at them and attack them, he wrote. When a candidate who has sympathies with them tries to run for office, he is drummed out of the race. They were only trying to exercise their rights and proclaim their positions and for that they were scorned and attacked. Sam went on to conclude that America was a sham, a model of hypocrisy for ignoring this group’s civil rights and freedom of expression. If blacks could protest for civil rights, and Latinos could advocate for better immigration policies, why couldn’t neo-Nazis state their case in public and not face a violent response?
Years later, when reading about the anthropological model of contextual theology as outlined by Stephen B. Bevans in his book, Models of Contextual Theology: Faith and Cultures (Orbis Books, 1992), I realized that my dilemma with Sam, and indeed my teaching practice throughout my career, followed this model. Bevans says “the primary concern of the anthropological model is the establishment or preservation of cultural identity by a person of Christian faith.” He goes on to say “that Christianity is about the human person and her or his fulfillment.” This fulfillment also applies to those of other faiths. As a Catholic school teacher, I was following the model of Christ-teacher, and therefore, it was not for me to say a faith is valid or invalid. This model “centers on the value and goodness of anthropos, the human person,” says Bevans. It also utilizes the science of anthropology to study and understand human cultures, especially those different from our own. Bevans makes it clear that of special concern is “authentic cultural identity…it is culture that shapes the way Christianity is articulated.”
The anthropological model takes the example of Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28. In the passage, Jesus is confronted with this gentile woman crying out for relief from the oppression of a demon. The apostles tell Jesus to send her away, and Jesus replies that he was sent only for the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman persists, begging Jesus for mercy, the mercy he might show dogs who eat from their master’s table. This catches Jesus’ attention. “O woman, great is your faith!” he exclaims. “Be it done for you as you desire.” He heals the woman and she goes on her way. This passage is paralleled in the Gospel of Mark as well as in “Justin Martyr’s idea that other religions (and cultures) contain ‘seeds of the word,’” according to Bevans. The model offers insight into situations like mine with Sam in that I had to speak to him within the structure of his Jewish culture and his life experiences. Therefore, I had to confront his feelings and find out what was going on in his head and in his life. He needed a one-on-one discussion where we could both be physically present in the moment and try to work out what he was feeling and thinking. Something was clearly bothering this kid, and the time seemed right to try to discover the source of his recent statements both to his mother and in the essay he wrote for my class.
Before we got a chance to conference, however, I needed to take some definitive action. I failed him on the paper, marked an “F” at the top of the page, and wrote in large letters, “See me.” By giving him the “F” I hoped to rattle his cage a bit and get his attention. I also wanted to signify that even though I appreciated his Jewish culture and his feelings about events and experiences within that culture, his thesis in the paper was unacceptable. I returned the papers to the students and watched Sam surreptitiously for his reaction. He stared at his paper dispassionately although his face was flushed. A few days later, on a crisp fall afternoon, Sam appeared at my door. He took the seat next to my desk and pulled his paper from his backpack. He asked why I wanted to see him and why he got an “F.”
I started with the good I saw in the paper. I told him it was a well-structured and developed essay free from spelling, grammatical and other mechanical errors. In fact, the writing was well above grade level and far and away the best written paper in the class. However, I told him, I am appalled at your thesis.
“You failed me because you disagreed with me?” he asked. I told him that he perverted the assignment. He was supposed to write about a group facing discrimination in America. “I did,” he replied.
“No,” I replied, “you wrote about a group that advocates violence, one that perpetrated a genocide, one that would beat, maim and kill both of us simply because we are different and have different beliefs.”
“So the constitutional right to free speech only applies to certain groups?”
“The right to free speech only applies to those who are not advocating for the right to discriminate, beat, cripple and kill others!” I found my teacher calm draining away. “Sam, I am shocked that you, an observant Jew, would argue for the rights of Nazis given the history we have been studying in the book.” This seemed to get under his skin and I saw his cool reserve begin to crack.
“This has nothing to do with the book or my religion. Besides, I’m not religious. I am white.”
This threw me for a second. “Young man, you may not be religious, but you are Jewish because being Jewish is a race and a religion. Furthermore, if you were to meet one of these outspoken Nazis on the street, he would not care if you were an atheist. He would only see you as a Jew and therefore, something to be exterminated.”
“I have every right to be an atheist,” he said, lowering his eyes. We seemed to be having two separate arguments.
“Yes, you have every right to be an atheist. But your rights end when you decide to murder anyone who believes in God.”
“People who believe in God are weak,” he replied. “It’s an excuse for everything. God is supposed to protect people who believe and he doesn’t. It’s all rules and commandments and what does it get you? If there is no God you have to stand up for yourself. You can’t use God as an excuse.”
This was not what I wanted to accomplish as the teacher in the situation. I told him I would think about his paper, and I wanted him to do the same. For now he had an “F” but I told him to meet me after school later in the week to discuss how we would fix the situation. When he asked what I meant, I said I might ask him to write another essay or revise the one that failed. He looked down at his feet and I thought I caught him shake his head in defiance.
There were several ideas running around my brain that week. One, I refused to believe that Sam, a bright child, did not see the flaw in his own reasoning. In other class discussions about works of literature, he had expressed opinions that advocated for equality, justice and liberation for the characters in the stories and novels. He was the student who pointed out the way Mark Twain both conformed to and broke apart the stereotypes of the black slave in the character of Jim in Huckleberry Finn. He was the one who was most disturbed by George’s killing of Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Lennie was too innocent to survive in the world or to control his own strength and this led to his downfall. But, Sam argued, this did not give George the right to kill him. This led us to a discussion of the death penalty. Sam argued that many innocent people have been put to death, and that even if one innocent person is killed, the program should be scrapped for life in prison. But in this essay, something was wrong. There was some confluence of experiences here that made this kid take such a negative point of view and confuse the issue of free speech with his questioning of his faith.
I also felt significant tension within myself. A teacher should never tell students what to think. The job is to inspire, cajole, and push students into thinking for themselves. Plutarch said that “A mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be ignited.” Sam demonstrated plenty of fire, but he was going off in a direction I did not anticipate. Was it my job to force him to think a certain way? Was there some path to rectify what I knew to be just and moral with Sam’s thinking regarding civil rights for those who would act with evil, malice, and murderous intent?
There was tension as well in my grading of the paper. He wrote a flawless essay that happened to take up an immoral argument. I had asked students to write from their own thinking, experiences, and observations. I wanted to challenge them to take a position and write something of meaning that we could discuss and deliberate. To the last person, they took the safest subjects. Sam was the only one who challenged my ideas about what was meaningful and worthy of discussion. Regardless of the moral questions of his thesis, he did try to write something challenging. I sensed the paper was part of a larger process the kid was going through trying to navigate around his own culture, family beliefs, and faith. I wanted to help him with the process without hindering his thinking or dictating what he should believe. Even though we were in a Catholic school, his Jewish faith, or lack thereof, was sacred. His right to believe what he wanted was sacred. Besides, Sam was smart enough to reject any platitudes or easy answers I would give him. He obviously did not want to be talked at, but was actually searching for a path in the tangled undergrowth of his life. Here he was in seventh grade and looking for the light in an often evil and duplicitous world. As his teacher, I should help him. Yet, in our first discussion of the paper, I failed to inspire thinking. He seemed more intransigent than ever when he left my classroom.
Sam and I progressed through the week avoiding each other. In class, he kept his eyes lowered, almost as if he was dejected and defeated, but occasionally, he would glance up and I could see the fire in his face. I could perceive it as nothing less than anger. When I called on him, he would not answer. His leg would bounce uncontrollably under the desk. Meanwhile, I thought about his paper and how to break through this tension. It now felt as if I was the focus of his anger. I thought about calling in his mother for a conference, but somehow this felt like I’d be betraying Sam. This was between us, teacher and student, and we were the only ones who could resolve the issue. His mother had already admitted defeat when she came to see me. She really had no idea how to reach her son. He had walled her out when he rejected his faith and refused to go to Saturday school to study.
I remembered years before I had a distinguished teacher of Jewish studies come in to talk to my eighth graders at another school regarding the Chaim Potok novel, The Chosen (Fawcett, 1987). In that book, two boys, one an orthodox Jew and the other, a Hasidic Jew, become friends. Hasids believe that all other forms of Judaism are apikorsim, a term meaning anyone who is educated in the faith and commandments yet does not observe some or all of them. Such a person is not a Jew, the Hasidic thinking goes. It is an especially insulting term when used by Hasids against other Jews. Danny, the Hasidic Jew in the novel, believes Reuven, the orthodox boy, to be apikorsim. However, through the course of the book they become close friends, brothers almost, and in the end, Danny is the one who renounces his destiny as the next rabbi for his Hasidic congregation to go off to Columbia University to study psychology. Reuven, the apikorsim, becomes a rabbi. I remember when the teacher came to speak, he told my students that the discussion in the novel about the post-WWII founding of Israel and the Jewish state and the opposition of Hasids to the Zionists split the Jewish faith in many ways. Hasids believed that only God could send the Messiah and bring about the promised land for the Jews. No rule of state or United Nations could do that, only God. This is why Danny’s father rejects the founding of Israel, something Reuven’s father nearly gives his life fighting to bring about. He told my students that this conflict in the book was a direct result of the concentration camps. Many Jews, as illustrated in the Wiesel book, lost their faith. “Where is God? Where is God?” so many cried out in the midst of the horror. In the face of such overwhelming evil and destruction, indeed where was God? These were his chosen people, yet many believed God abandoned them in their hour of need. The most ardent Zionists felt that they could no longer wait for the Messiah to come to have a Jewish homeland.
Could this be something Sam was feeling after reading Night? And what about his plowing through the library shelves looking up everything he could find on the war? I knew there were psychological principles in action here. I knew that sometimes the victim identifies with the oppressor, swearing loyalty and obedience in an effort to stave off more pain and suffering. There was something there, possibly inherent in Sam’s culture. I thought of the Jewish prisoners who were given trustee status in the camps. They doled out work assignments, ratted out their fellow prisoners, and colluded with the Nazis in an effort to save themselves. Could Sam’s writing be something similar?
By the end of the week I still had not decided what to do. I was up late into the evening working on my lesson plans and formulating a quiz on hate and hate speech when I stumbled upon a quote from critic Cyril Connolly: “Hate is the consequence of fear; we fear something before we hate it; a child who fears noises becomes a man who hates noise.” It was not a lightbulb that went off in my brain, but a complete fireworks show. I knew what was wrong with Sam.
The next day, I sat in my classroom steeling myself for what was to come. Whatever happened, I could not lose my temper or show emotion. In a sense, I had to purge myself of ego, a complete kenosis. If Sam could push my buttons, I would lose the teaching moment that I wished to exploit. I had to let God speak through me and surrender to the spirit. Hopefully, revelation would come. I could not be emotional or preachy because Sam was smart enough to see through that.
When three o’clock rolled around, he knocked on my door and took his seat next to my desk. In front of me I had his graded paper, the “F” plain to see at the top of the page. I asked him if he had thought about our discussion, and of course, he said no. “What do you think I should do?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he replied, “you’re the teacher.”
I swallowed my anger and did not shift my gaze. He stared back at me with his blue eyes, but his neck was already flushed with red. “If you were present at a Nazis march,” I started, “would you join them?”
“I can’t because I am Jewish.” I asked him what he thought would happen if he attended the march and they knew he was Jewish. “I guess they would attack me.”
“So now we are moving from people having the right to free speech, as you argue for, to people who would resort to violence if they knew you simply believed differently. Doesn’t that violence overrule their right to free speech?”
“Malcolm X advocated violence to give blacks civil rights…”
“He’s dead, shot by three of his own followers,” I replied. “And by the way, when is his holiday?”
“Well, Nazis did their violence during the war…”
“You’re afraid,” I said, cutting him off. He physically shifted back in his chair. “You’re afraid and you think that by allying yourself with people who hate you, who want you dead, you will somehow escape their anger and violence.” He started shaking his head in defiance. “Sam, you can deny what you believe, you can proclaim your sympathy, you can argue for their rights, but at the end of the day, the Nazis will still slit your throat because you are a Jew. A skinhead doesn’t care that you are an atheist Jew, that you are a nonbeliever, that you believe the Torah to be nonsense. You’re a Jew and he’s a Nazis and that means someone is going to get beaten or killed. It all depends on who is better in a fight or who runs the country. That is why Nazis should lose the right to free speech or to be elected into government. Luckily, you live in a world where you are safe. You have a home, a parent and grandparents who love you, and you can pursue an education and a good life. You don’t have to watch your mother suffer and starve to death. You don’t have to smell human flesh being burned. You don’t have to see people lined up and shot. You have a future. Those people with their swastikas marching through the streets want to take that away from you. They advocate violence and murder, and you have, whether you like it or not, a moral charge to stand up to that, no matter if you are Jewish, Catholic, or yes, atheist. Doing the right thing doesn’t depend on religion.”
Sam stared at me with defiance still. When I finally did break my gaze, I saw that he was clutching and unclutching his hands in his lap. His face was raging red, but his eyes remained ice cold.
“Here’s what I want you to do,” I said, taking up his paper. “I want you to rewrite this paper. I want you to write a dialogue between you and an S.S. officer. Just the two of you, in a locked room. I want you to write what you would say to one another in that room. No violence. Just words.”
“You mean like a play?” I nodded my head. “I can’t do that.” I asked him why. “I’d never be in a room with someone like that?” I told him it was pretend. Just an imaginative exercise. “I don’t pretend,” he said, and looked down at his hands in his lap.
“I don’t know what else to do, Sam. That’s the offer. You write me what you’d say to the Nazis in the room, or you take the graded paper as is.”
“I won’t write it.” I stared at him for a long time while he continued looking down. We were at an impasse. There was nothing else to do. I dismissed him and he left the room without looking back.
In the end, all we can do as teachers is our best. Our students represent our ministry, our congregation. We cannot control their actions or reactions, we cannot tell them what to think or what to feel. We can only seize the teachable moments and try to maximize the learning possibilities and hope that the student has a revelation, a discovery, an epiphany about himself and his place in the world. When that happens, it is magic; when it doesn’t, we feel as if we have failed. And, there are many more days where we fail than succeed. Sometimes I wonder if I have taught my students anything.
I do know that the classroom is a crucible, a place where tension should flourish. We must revel in the tension because it is in challenging our beliefs and our perceptions that we come to understand ourselves and the world. Nothing true is ever compromised by questioning. But life goes on, even and especially in the midst of failure. Students see me years later and remember something I said in class that meant a lot to their lives, indeed pushed them in a direction that eventually helped them find their place in the world. Inevitably, it is something I do not remember saying, or said off the cuff. They remember books we read, even when I thought they were not paying attention. The bottom line is that it all counts—every second, every minute, every hour, every lesson, every well told story. Through dialogue and discussion, through moral and ethical modeling, students learn and grow. The thing is, so does the teacher.
However, this does not necessarily happen in front of us. In fact, it rarely does. Most often, our students leave us, graduate into the world, only to wake one morning in their lives and say, “Oh, that’s what he meant.” Or maybe, they never remember the source, but the lesson somehow bleeds through into their lives. I’ve taught people who went on to be lawyers, doctors, teachers, police officers, and decent, hardworking citizens who are now teaching their own children. I’ve also taught one student who shot and killed four of his friends over dinner because he felt they were disrespecting him. That boy, although slow to learn lessons, would give someone the shirt off of his back if he could. He was a sweet hulk of a teenager who cared about people. What happened? He was in the class with all the others who turned out okay.
The lesson of Bevans’ anthropology model is that we must take our students where they are and try to open the door. We must shed some light on what is right and true in life. That is our ministry. We educate, heal and liberate. That’s on a good day, and there are few of those, but we keep trying. We never know whom we touch, or what our lessons might mean somewhere far away down the line. We can only do the best we can right here, right now.
Sam and I had no further run-ins. He participated in class and did his work. His grades dipped from straight “As” to mostly “Bs” and “Cs.” I was surprised one afternoon shortly before graduation when his mother appeared at my door. I welcomed her and she sat in the chair next to my desk. “I just wanted you to know,” she said. “Sam won’t be coming back for eighth grade. His grandfather found a military boarding school in Texas that he wants to send him to. He is often defiant at home, and frankly, it scares us a little.”
I started to tell her she was doing the wrong thing, but I turned it into a question. Did she think this was the right thing for Sam? Her voice quivered when she said she did not want him to go, but his grandfather was insistent. He had been in the military and it shaped him up. Maybe some discipline would do the same for Sam. “His refusal to study or have his bar mitzvah crushed his grandfather,” she said.
“Sometimes we must question our faith before we can come back stronger.”
“What if he never comes back?” she asked.
“Every life has its own path to follow.”
“Did you ever question your faith, Mr. Martin?” Her face had the light of hope for a brief moment. I felt something click over, some divine spark, a revelation.
“Yes, many times.”
“Did you come back?”
“I found my way. But I still question.”
She said goodbye and gave me a hug before leaving me in the classroom swathed in late afternoon shadow. For a long time after she’d gone, I sat in the gloom wondering if I did the right thing.