What My Students Have Taught Me as a Catholic Teacher | National Catholic Register

The teaching staff crowds into the narrow hallway, the morning light casting a glow on the faded yellow walls.

The history teacher, a stoic combat veteran with a singular devotion to St. Michael the Archangel, rests his cane on the signing table and his back against the wall, for reasons too serious to recall.

Sister Stella Maria of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady, Mother of the Church, monitors the CCTV and lets in familiar faces. She attributes her ability to see her sisters as “ordinary people” to her vocation late in life. She lived a long life before that, so few things surprise her.

Finally, Mother Mary Mark of the Sisters of Charity, a graduate of the Holy Family Academy in the 1960s, enters with a prayer card in her hand. She stands on a chair against the wall and makes the sign of the cross, her feet barely touching the floor. The staff bows their heads and listens as the maintenance workers approach the entrance and take off their peaked caps.

Mother Mary Mark recites the prayer as if it were a poem, the notes of her voice jumping in time with the meter.

Sister of Mercy Mary Jane, a Vietnamese math teacher, reads the morning announcement: The Marist Royals, the academy’s varsity basketball team, are the subject of an article in CT Insider.

Of course, it’s not because they’re a great basketball team — the Royals only have one standout player, a Rwandan prodigy named Chanelle ( CT Insider (the article gave her name as “Channel”), and they had just returned to the league after a four-year hiatus due to low sign-ups.

The article is about how generous the other team was with these “charity cases” to offer them a place in their game schedule. The academy is run by the Sisters of Mercy and most of the girls come from poor countries: Ethiopia, Rwanda, Haiti, etc. The article is about “charity.”

True scholars

“Aren’t you those famous girls I read about in CT Insider?” I joke as students enter my classroom for the first lesson of “Literature for high school graduates.”

“Oh, my days,” says a Belizian woman named Jas. “You’re high, Mr. Laffin.”

“That’s not it, Mr. Laffin,” says a girl from Botswana named Akyini. (“That’s not it” means “not cool” in Gen Z-an.)

“Don’t you think it’s even kind of cool that you were in the article?” I ask once they’re seated at their desks.

They glance at each other. The nicest girl in the class, Cora from Arizona, who is in the process of discerning a vocation to the Sisters of Charity, looks down to avoid being called. It is always clear that she has something interesting to say.

“What am I missing, Cora?”

“Well, Mr. Laffin, we just don’t like this article,” she says, looking around the class to see if her classmates want her to continue. “We don’t like being pitied.”

I am momentarily speechless. At first I am simply confused—after all, what do teenagers NO like being pitied? The sudden outpouring of pity was second only to an unexpected visit to Friendly’s, a local family restaurant chain known for its ice cream when I was a kid.

And yet the girls in my class—some of whom are more compassionate than anyone I’ve ever known—wouldn’t touch that crap.

As I wait for more explanation, I suddenly feel the best feeling a teacher can have: a sudden and joyful wave of admiration for my students. After 16 years of teaching, I can attest that there is nothing more wonderful.

These girls, it seems to me, in addition to being among the top students in the country—each of them will graduate with more grades than a thermometer, if their test scores and scholarships are any indication—these Marist Royals from Holy Family Academy in Baltic, Connecticut, have characterA true Christian character.

“If I had a daughter, I would send her here,” I say with a sudden burst of inspiration. “I would want her to be friends with all of you.”

They squirm, embarrassed. Jas calls me lame, but with a smile.

I can see the compliment on their faces, which is good because I mean it sincerely.

We begin the lesson of the day by reviewing a chapter from Graham Greene’s book Power and gloryWe talk about the Whiskey Priest and what Greene is trying to say about what it takes to become a saint.

Lasting lessons

The 2023-24 school year was my only one at the Academy of the Holy Family. The currents of fate that threw me into its halls pulled me back just as quickly.

But I will spend many years contemplating this good tree to understand how it bears fruit.

It’s only been a few months and here’s what I have:

  • The academy is run by nuns who devote every drop of blood in their hearts to the work that Christ has entrusted to them. The sisters are, of course, “just people,” as Sister Elizabeth Maria would say, but they are determined, bright, and eager to laugh with the girls. The school’s motto is “where friends become family”—and it’s true.
  • Students, sisters, and teachers pray together throughout the day: before classes, before meals, during mass, in the dormitories, and often spontaneously. The effect of lifting the heart of the community to the Light of God so often produces a weightlessness, a lightness of heart that is uniquely conducive to learning.
  • The building is old and the facilities are backward, but everything is beautiful. The grounds, set in the rolling hills of rural Connecticut, are incredibly beautiful, as is the chapel. This year, the school is celebrating its 150th anniversary, and there is a tangible connection to the past.
  • The lay faculty is highly competent and dedicated to shaping students’ souls as well as their minds. They are not dogmatic about any particular educational theory, but simply committed to meeting students where they are and helping students from all backgrounds and abilities succeed.
  • Almost every student takes part in many clubs, including the pro-life club, multicultural club, human rights club, etc. The drama club prepared an inspiring performance Phantom of the Opera last year. The choir will touch your heart during the mass.
  • Perhaps the greatest strength of this school is—wait for it—its diversity, which I believe can only be a strength if it is based on a unity greater than the sum of its parts: namely, Jesus Christ.

The academy is a true international school, although students from all over the United States attend. Every year, the young women celebrate “International Day,” where they dress in traditional costumes, perform elaborate dances, and cook ethnic meals. This day was probably the most “educational” day I have ever experienced at the school.

On International Day, Students wear their best outfits.

If you are a parent looking for a high school for your daughter that will shape her into a strong young Catholic woman of character and intelligence, please contact us (email protected).

I imagine that after this conversation you will feel the same way I did when I was cleaning my classroom a few months ago: blessed and full of hope.