Note: The following essay is adapted from comments made to the Thomas Aquinas College Board of Governors at its May 11, 2012, meeting.
I am so delighted to have this opportunity to extend my thanks to you. I am delighted, too, that I have the opportunity to do so in the form of a story. I love a good story, and I may be partial, but I think this is a very good story, indeed.
The short version of the story is this: Thomas Aquinas College turned my life on its head.
Before coming to the College, I was a Protestant in her early 30s with a good job, great friends, and a wonderful church. Life was quite good, but I had the nagging sense that something was missing. I decided that I needed to pursue seriously my lifelong interest in teaching. Yet the idea of studying education itself did not appeal to me in the least. I wanted to find a school that believed in absolute truth, a place where I could study serious things, valuable in themselves, without the distractions arising from the moral and intellectual confusion common on secular campuses or the identity crisis now afflicting so many Christian institutions.
Somehow I believed that someone would hire me as a teacher if I just knew enough material worth teaching. Many people told me that I could never find work as a teacher without following the usual course. I brazenly ignored them and decided to study Aristotle and St. Thomas.
When I applied for admission to the College, I wrote an essay about the role of education in evangelization. I had hoped for a future in education specifically that I might make use of the scholar’s desire for knowledge to lead him to Jesus Christ, Truth itself. Little did I know that my tutors here would be evangelizing me.
I have seen over the years that our faculty is composed of extraordinarily patient men and women who understand that the truth has a compelling power all its own. To paraphrase the great 19th century Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon: The truth is a lion. You don’t have to defend it; you just have to let it out of its cage.
In my freshman theology class, to cite one example, Mr. DeLuca never imposed a Catholic viewpoint on our discussions of Scripture. On the contrary, he simply encouraged a thoughtful consideration of the text. The students he was leading in that class included a Mormon, a Presbyterian, and an atheist. We had really good discussions. And Mr. DeLuca always dignified our disparate suggestions about the meaning of the text with his own thoughtful consideration. I had been learning Scripture since early childhood, so I was very surprised to discover that new questions about passages I thought I knew well were beginning to form in my mind; but I managed to continue, my mind mostly undisturbed by these questions for quite some time.
And here I’ll depart briefly from the written text to tell you a story — since we’re meeting in the library today — about a work-study position I had that contributed to this process that was beginning, I think, before I even came to the College. I was assigned to work in the library, and the assistant librarian asked me to go into the autobiography section and painstakingly remove one volume at a time and inspect them closely to decide where they should be placed in the library. (Everything had to be moved out of autobiography to correspond to Dewey.)
Of course, in our autobiography section we had many lives of the saints. I knew nothing about the saints. I was completely ignorant of all of them. So this, for me, was a crash course in the lives of our elder brothers and sisters. It was there that I met John Vianney. I can remember during my sophomore year having a particularly difficult class — I believe it was philosophy — and feeling so strongly after that class that it would be a great consolation and help to be able to pray to John Vianney, but my Protestant convictions would not allow it.
My consciousness of the impending storm did not come until the second semester of my sophomore year. It was as if I had woken up one morning to find that all of these bits of data that I had been collecting about the Church, outside of class as well as in, had silently formed a great mountain of evidence that I would have to address. I saw that I already knew too much, and I was terrified. The process I then entered was long and painful. Friends and family were understandably dismayed. Yet I look back on it now as a time of joy.
The Lord was pouring out graces in abundance. I wish I could share with you every one of the wonderful details. But in the interest of time, we’ll skip to my junior year, April 24, 2011, when I was received into the Church during the Easter Vigil. Our own Fr. Paul Raftery conferred the Sacrament of Confirmation, signing me Mary Magdalene. The joy of the occasion was so powerful that even my Protestant family members rejoiced.
With that matter settled, I was able to turn my attention more thoughtfully to the matter of my vocation as a teacher. One of the questions I entertained during my Thomas Aquinas College career was whether our discussion method could be adapted to younger ages. Imagine my surprise when I learned that it was already being done, and it was being done, moreover, by people who shared my philosophy of teacher preparation.
Thanks to fairly recent charter-school legislation, a modified form of a great books education has been brought to thousands of Arizona students in public schools. I learned that the organization responsible for this astonishing feat would be interviewing potential teachers here at the College. I was soon invited to fly to Arizona to give some teaching demonstrations at a couple of the charter schools in this consortium.
My first actual classroom experience was a revelation. Connecting with that group of ninth graders was one of the great joys of my life. I would never have imagined that my first time in the classroom would feel as natural as breathing. It caused me to appreciate my education in a whole new way. For I realized during that class that my tutors here had taught me not just how to learn; they had taught me how to teach.
The hardest part turned out to be choosing which grade level to teach. After lengthy prayer and deliberation, I decided to accept an offer to teach fifth grade at Archway Classical Academy in North Phoenix.
As I think about what all these years here at Thomas Aquinas College have meant to me, I am humbled and deeply grateful for the work you have done to make it possible for me and for my friends. It is work of eternal significance. May God guide you as you shepherd our school. Thank you.