Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Pope is Dope....

    I'm not Catholic and I'm never going to be Catholic. I've sung at Catholic weddings... in all honesty just so that I can go to the Catholic wedding receptions. I've been to a couple of masses and I always sat when I should have stood and vice-versa. Truth be told, I once counted it as my cardio for the day. Pathetic.
   I don't understand them, at all. I taught trumpet at a Catholic seminary in college and I was always a little spooked by how quiet the halls were, a little intimidated by the reverence paid to everything, a little freaked out by all of the statues and paintings and the whole "Dead Poet's Society" vibe. And I never really got the Pope thing. Oh, I understand the history and politics behind it, but in a day and age where royalty is granted to pop singers and moody movie stars, I guess I just kind of found it antiquated... Until today.
   There was no tweeting from the conclave. Social media had nothing to do with it. Neither did popular vote, polling or pontificating pundits. In fact, the Catholic church communicated using smoke signals... literally. There was no campaigning, no persuasion, no money changing hands and no empty promises. There was smoke, but it was not being blown to block out the truth; it was being blown to notify the world that there was a new pope.
   And he didn't step out to meet the people, meet the world after a fanfare. He wasn't garbed in gold or draped in finery. He spoke his first words, and that's truly when I started watching this man who seemed to be draped instead in humility. I knew that I was seeing something incredible when he asked for people to pray for him before he offered his first blessing. My breath caught in my throat... I was stunned... his smile was welcoming and genuine as he did something that people don't do anymore: admitted his weakness.
   Everything about him spoke of being a servant. I realized a very important thing watching him. There is an epic difference between being a servant and acting servile. This man is a servant in a world full of masters. Yet he seems to have more power than any of us, a man who could stand in front of the whole world and smile a lazy, gentle smile without a hint of egoism or self-involvement. I like him and I like what I perceive that he stands for, something that we don't talk about or teach our children about anymore: he is the epitome of humility.
   He is the embodiment of giving the benefit of the doubt, holding your tongue, using restraint. He is the portrait of being willing to sacrifice your wants and needs and desires for another person. He is not concerned with what he gets, how he looks, how people feel about him or how others perceive him. We don't value those things anymore. I know that we don't... because I teach our children and there are very few of them who know how to do any of those things; there are even fewer who do it.  I'm guilty of it... but I am going to try to stop.
   Because how many of us could greet a world that loves us before they know us without allowing our hearts and heads to swell a little bit? Had that been me standing on the balcony at Vatican City, I would have totally done a crowd surf. But he is a man who, when he became bishop of Argentina refused to live in the mansion, refused the limo drivers, rode the bus to work and found a small apartment. Who does that?
   I'll tell you who does that; someone who GETS it. Someone who understands that the actions of one affect the happiness of many. Someone who understands that talent is a gift not to the one who possesses it, but to the world. Someone who doesn't need an entourage to confirm their every menial decision because they would rather speak quietly to a heavenly father. Someone who doesn't need flames and pyrotechnics and legions of dancers to impress people but need only speak from their heart and jaws and pretensions drop. Pope Francis seems to be that kind of man. Listening to his voice is like listening to music; his eyes are kind and warm. He seems to be open and at the same time he is firm about his beliefs and feelings.
   But it all comes back to his humility, his humbleness. What a precious treasure he will be to his faith and to the world. If only we can ever, ever look past ourselves and see him...

Friday, March 1, 2013

It Should Have Always Been Like This...

     You can write them off if you want to... sometimes they make it incredibly easy. Teenagers of today pose an interesting challenge to those of us who are called upon to spend a good deal of time with them. We get to see, first hand, the handiwork of our generation: we have spoiled them, coddled them, made them feel that they are entitled... they are supremely easy to complain about.
     But then there was the incident at the beginning of February. I watched approximately 700 of these young people heartily and sincerely cheer on the athletic endeavors of two very special athletes... two Special Olympic athletes that attend Mexico High School. The students gathered in the gym, busted out signs praising the two athletes, cheered them on and the whole time I swallowed back these huge, painful tears.
     Today, as I hovered and hid backstage watching our students perform a play called The Jellybean Conspiracy, I couldn't hold back the tears... they came. The members of the readers theatre, along with some of our Special Education students performed the piece at district competition. The entire Student Council, probably 30 students, surprised them by showing up to support them. They all wore jellybean conspiracy t-shirts; they high-fived them and fist-pounded them all as they entered the backstage door to take the floor to compete.
    I snuck in after the students had taken their places on the stage and watched from the side as they read the raw, forceful, painful and touching truth: words hurt, some actions are never forgotten, the things we say to hurt others only show our ignorance. I listened to their reading, some slow and pained, some clear as a bell and I wept because I couldn't think of any way to explain to those kids what it meant that they would perform something like that. Most people my age grew up in a very different time.
   Back then, it wasn't about acceptance. It wasn't about understanding. There were very few people who understood or accepted, or even tried for that matter. I know because I witnessed it first hand. My brother was a different-colored jellybean... I remember my mother spending an entire summer worrying before he went to junior high, her strained sobs from the bedroom when she thought we were out of earshot. I knew what she was crying for; she was scared. And while my brother's junior high and high school years were not as bad as some, they were difficult. He was fortunate enough to have a handful of amazing young men and women who were jellybeans ahead of their time, so to speak.
   But for me, it was hard to hear all of that acceptance that came way too late for my brother, to be reminded that I needed to forgive.
   I went back to my classroom and floated through the next hour, thinking on the words I had heard as I hid behind that curtain. When my fourth hour class came in, they were chattering about how good the readers had done, how it had affected them. And so I started crying... and through my blubbering I explained it to them.
   "I want you guys to know how much it means to me that you are so accepting of those who are different. My brother is autistic and mentally retarded. He should have been able to be surrounded by people like you. It should have always been like this. And I want you to know how much I admire and appreciate each and everyone of you for treating them with the same dignity and respect that you would anyone else. And I hope you never have to be put in a position to understand how much it means to be able to say that to a group of people who have been on the planet a third of the years that you have."
   To the cast, the differently-abled but equally stellar cast of The Jellybean Conspiracy, thank you for reminding me that the most beautiful thing about people is their capacity for growth and change. Thank you for your voices, thank you for your dedication, thank you for finally giving me not only the permission, but the ability to move past anger and confusion and bitterness that has been wrapped around my heart like so much barbed wire. Thank you for letting me be a jellybean; thank you for letting me be a silent, changed player in your conspiracy of acceptance. You changed me today. I am in awe of you always.