A couple of years ago, a local parish school was in a tight spot. Their 7th and 8th grade language arts teacher had a broken foot and an injured back. “Would you consider subbing for about four, maybe five weeks,” the principal asked. I agreed to help out temporarily, but when health issues prohibited the teacher from returning, the principal said the position was mine if I wanted it.
Just weeks earlier, I had decided I liked being a stay-at-home mom and occasional freelance writer. Indeed, I was quite happy with my little life. A contemplative by nature, I spent my days reading and writing and well, contemplating. I did not want to return to the classroom after eight years’ hiatus from teaching, and I certainly didn’t want to take on middle school students in a K-8 setting (my previous experience was in secondary and tertiary instruction).
But by the time I realized the classroom teacher wasn’t coming back, I had become attached to the students. Somewhere along the way, they had become my students. I cared too much to subject them to another transition. So, I signed contract and finished the year at Immaculate Conception School.
Almost immediately, I noticed that many of the students routinely jotted the initials JMJ at the tops of their papers. I had read Story of a Soul. Although a new convert, I knew that St. Therese had written JMJ on every page of her diary as a physical reminder that she dedicated every page of her life to the Holy Family.
I thought it was awesome that my students were doing this small thing for God, too. Dedicate every little thing to Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Yes, even a page of notes on characterization and story maps could and should be given back as an offering of love.
What I found really offensive, though, was the occasional incident in which a student cheated, and my eyes always went to the JMJ at the top of the student’s page. The cheating seemed to stink like rotten meat when it was done on a page dedicated to Jesus, Mary and Joseph. What does JMJ mean to them anyway? Does it really make a difference in how they live their lives? Is the dedicatory heading so routine that it has become a mechanical scrawl at the top of the page, along with their name, the date, and the class title? Shouldn’t it affect how they live their lives? At the very least, shouldn’t it deter them from cheating on the very page that boasts the Holy Family’s initials?
Sometimes, I would talk to my students and ask them these questions. I never singled out the offender du Jour. I suspected they all could benefit from a moment of self-reflection. So, I occasionally brought it up for general reflection and made a few comments about the importance of matching our words (both written and spoken) with our actions.
What about me? As the year came to a close, I realized that I had offended Our Lord more than any one of those students who carelessly jotted JMJ at the top of the page and moments later let their eyes roam to a neighbor’s paper or slipped a cheat-sheet from their desks. I had told myself that this year was for them. I was here for them. I loved them so much that I wanted to stay with them for the year and save them from another transition. In truth, I routinely went home and complained to my husband about how much our lives had changed by my going back into teaching. I told God He could have this year, but next year - well, next year would be different. No more mornings that began at five. No more falling into bed by nine in the evening. No more stacks of essays to grade. No more cheating students. I wanted my life back.
With only a handful of weeks left in the school year, I paused for reflection - and I reflected on my life’s page. JMJ was clearly scrawled across the top of my life, but I was not living out my promise to the Holy Family. My life was not completely dedicated to God. I realized with great shame that my life was dedicated to me.
Give me the grace, Blessed Mother, to live my life for your Son and not for myself. JMJ - every minute of every day.
No kidding. No compromises. No self-deception.
It is so like God to use children to teach us an important spiritual lesson. Strange, isn’t it? And for seven months, I thought I was there to teach them.