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By: Betsy Holcomb, Upper School Theology Teacher and Mercy in Action Director // MDS Musings Blog

Betsy Holcomb, center, with students

I spend a lot of time every summer break agonizing over what to read.  I look at lists, NPR’s Book Concierge, and I have multiple Amazon tabs open, trying to find a book that will grab and hold my attention.  Few books have caught my attention like Fr. Greg Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart.  His writing style, storytelling abilities, and humor caused me to savor each chapter, not wanting the book to end.

I love Fr. Greg Boyle’s ability to discover God in one of the hardest jobs I have ever heard of: rehabilitating gang members in Los Angeles.  His writings are inspired by his neighbors in Boyle Heights.  Assigned to this neighborhood as a Jesuit priest, Fr. Greg listened to his neighbors, and inspired by the Gospel, created a culture that has captured the attention of people from different walks of life.

What makes his company, Homeboy Industries, most compelling is its imitation of things that are often overlooked in the Gospel:  kinship and humor.  In order to experience both of these things, he practices radical compassion, which I hope most people associate with Jesus’ message and actions of salvation in the Gospel.

As I continue to teach and reflect on Fr. Greg Boyle’s theological vision, I believe his insights can transform the way teachers approach their vocation.  Compassion, kinship, and humor, if employed as Jesus models them in the Gospel, can dramatically transform classes, and even an entire school culture.

Compassion in the Classroom

I imagine that compassion has been a practice of excellent teachers for a long time.

“Here is what we seek: A compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”

This quote by Fr. Greg Boyle transforms my frustrations about students not paying attention in class, not studying for my tests like I want them to, and the typical teenage disruptions and distractions, from frustration to compassion.  I may not teach at a school with students who suffer from the challenges of extreme financial poverty, but they experience many other kinds of poverty.  The poverty of shame (about not being smart, athletic, or popular enough); perfectionism (that they will not be enough unless they get the perfect grade); and spiritual dryness or instability (as they discern what they believe and why).

Fr. Greg reminds me to stand in awe of the weight of the challenges that students bring with them every day to school. Students are people trying to do their best in the midst of chaos and, in comparison to that, the homework, class activities, and tests I assign become much smaller.

One of the best gifts I can give to my students (and that all people can give to one another) is to practice compassion.  I need to make a big poster for my classroom that says “Everyone is fighting a battle that we know nothing about.  Be kind.” I need students to be compassionate about my poverties, and in order to do that, I must practice compassion with them.  My students bring all kinds of burdens and fight all kinds of battles every day, and when we practice compassion with each other, we can find a freedom, happiness, and fulfillment knowing that we are accepted and loved by others instead of judged by them.

Compassion transforms the classroom because compassion grows exponentially.  It is one of the few things that when you give it away, you don’t lose it, but experience it more.  Compassion is contagious.  It can subvert attitudes of judgement and contribute to a culture in which people feel comfortable being themselves and making mistakes.

With all of the challenges that students (and faculty) face in everyday life, I want to provide my students with a place, even if for just 45 minutes a day, where they know someone knows and loves them.  And because compassion grows, students will practice compassion with one another.  We can all remind each other to stand in awe of each other instead of practicing criticism.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog post in which Mrs. Holcomb will discuss kinship and humor in the classroom.