How to Make the Grade
The end of Labor Day weekend sends the signal that it's time to blow a farewell kiss to summer vacations and report back for regular duty, especially for those of us whose lives revolve around the school year. Going back can be bumpy. I admit I'm having a hard time with it this year, and I know I'm not alone.
Why is that? I got to play, rest, and catch up on errands over the summer. My job is stimulating and fulfilling. Why should I be reluctant to start another year? I keep coming up with one answer: I will miss being simply myself. As a teacher I'm constantly evaluated: by my students, their parents, my administrators, and the board of education. And what they're evaluating isn't really me but my performance. I do my job and they decide if I'm any good at it. I evaluate myself, too, by assessing every day whether the students are learning what they should in my classroom. So I have to ask myself constantly how well I'm doing and what kind of image I'm projecting, both for my students' sakes and my own. I'm onstage all the time.
We all need to do our best at work and be careful of our reputations, but those worries get wearying sometimes and don't always get to the core of what Pope John Paul II would call our human dignity, which is ours from the moment we're conceived and doesn't have to be earned. In July and August, when I spend time with my family, read a book, or do work around the house that there just isn't time for during the school year, I don't have to worry about being evaluated. The people I'm with — even if the only person I'm with is myself — don't ask if I'm doing enough for them or working hard enough or fast enough. They know me and value me as myself, not as the sum of my accomplishments.
On a trip to Krakow this summer, I visited St. Faustina's former convent in Lagiewniki. We got there just before 3 p.m. and entered the chapel where the sisters and pilgrims were beginning to pray the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy. Some of the sisters recited the chaplet with their arms outstretched, as St. Faustina had occasionally done as a penance. To the left of the altar were the Divine Mercy Image and the tomb containing St. Faustina's remains. Now and again a pilgrim would approach the spot and kneel to pray before the image and venerate the saint's relics.
Clearly, everyone here was in awe of the great work this saint had done. And yet, I couldn't help wondering what these sisters and we pilgrims would have thought of St. Faustina if we had known her. Some people in her time had called Faustina "a hysteric and an eccentric" (Diary of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, 270). She was even accused of laziness in following the rule of the order. If the nuns praying the chaplet today had been members of the congregation at the same time as St. Faustina, would they have recognized her holiness or shaken their heads at her strange ways? Which would I have done if I had known her?
Thankfully, St. Faustina never would have worried about what any of us thought. She was utterly focused on being united with Jesus and fulfilling His will, and she knew her worth wasn't based on the world's report card. Christ Himself told her, "My daughter, your heart is My heaven" (Diary, 238). I can't imagine a more powerful affirmation of a person's value, and St. Faustina heard it because she decided that God's evaluation of her was the only one that really mattered.
What if we were too focused on loving God and doing His will to worry about whether other people thought we'd earned our keep, and what if we practiced St. Faustina's habit during prayer of listening to what God had to say about us? Maybe we could hold onto that summer feeling of being good enough based on who we are and not what we get done. And maybe without all that performance anxiety taking up our energy and our thoughts, we'd be able to concentrate better on the needs of the people we serve — customers, clients, patients, students, children — and actually improve how well me meet them.
We can't always be with the people who love us, but in every moment God is as close to us as we let Him, and His love is never based on how much we have gotten done, how well, or how fast. Our challenge is to believe in that love and offer it to others. If we can strive to see ourselves and each other as God sees us — as selves and not scorecards — then we have continued the mission of an often misunderstood nun who spent too much time praying for the world to try to earn its praise.
Marian Tascio is a writer and English teacher who lives in Yonkers, N.Y.