Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1)
Because my parents believed strongly that their children should have opportunities that were never available to them when they were young, they allowed me to go to a tiny boarding school in the middle of New York City when I was ten years old. It may be the most generous gift - among many generous gifts - that my parents ever gave me.
All of the boys in the little middle school I attended in mid-town Manhattan began French classes during the first week of school in Fifth Grade. This was 1977. The method of instruction was auditory, using a series of slides to provide visual cues to help us understand the words that our teacher spoke. The Internet has helped me to remember that the materials were published as “Voix et Images de France.” I have no idea if the method was cutting-edge or already out of date at the time, nor what its pedagogical virtues may or may not be in this day and age. But it left an impression on me, and I was able to test out of my language requirement by the time I got to college.
Lessons began with an kind of cartoon image of a man who could have been a French Ward Cleaver. “Voila Monsieur Thibault.” Next his wife, “Voilà Madame Thibault.”
As the weeks progressed, so did the sophistication of our sentences. Because of the effortless and natural rhythm of the sentence, we boys were tickled pink, I remember, by the phrase, “Voilà les fenêtres de son appartement.” Some day I shall be in an emergency in a Fench-speaking country, and the only thing I’ll be able to do is point out the windows of the apartment of a fictional couple in Paris.
Our French teacher’s name was Mr. Flashman, but everyone called him “Flash.” I haven’t the faintest idea what his heritage is, but he has what I think of as a Gallic nose - prominent, with a broad sort of bump or bend midway along the bridge of the nose. And his voice sounded then, as it still does, very much as though it resonates all through that substantial nose.
Flash read (and still does read) the New York Times with a thoroughness and devotion unmatched by anyone I have ever known. He is an aesthete if ever there was one. I probably first heard the names Baryshnikov, Maria Callas, and Tommy Tune from him. He loved the theater, and on Saturday mornings he would go stand on line at the TKTS booth in Duffy Square to get tickets for boys who had signed up that morning to go see the 1:00 matinee. I remember The Wiz, and Sweeney Todd, and Evita, Amadeus, Children of a Lesser God, and more.
Flash was a runner in those days, and we would see him leaving the school in his running shorts and shoes to jog in Central Park, setting a good example for as, as we headed out with other teachers to play soccer, or softball, or capture the flag on the rocks and fields of the park, or to go sledding in the winter snow.
Like every other teacher at the school - whom we called “masters” - Flash ate his meals with us. Every master had his own table, and we boys rotated around to different teachers’ tables on a weekly basis. Manners were an important part of school life, and they were emphasized (not to say enforced) in the Dining Room at all times. Table conversation included everyone, and it was always lively at Flash’s table, as I recall.
Flash could be something of a disciplinarian, and we boys learned that we’d be happier if we stayed on the right side of the rules, where Flash was concerned. But he could also laugh at a child’s joke, or encourage you to try harder than you thought you cared to bother.
Because we were children growing up in New York City, we walked around the city in a double line of boys, each boy walking beside his partner - whether we were going to church or to the park. Flash’s signature move, when we crossed Sixth Avenue at 55th or 54th Streets, was to place himself in the middle of the street between the line of cars (behind him) as the double-line of boys filed past him, with his arms outstretched, simultaneously urging us on, and just daring any driver behind him to try to threaten our safety. No driver in his right mind would have done so.
I reminisce like this because of the injunction we heard in the Epistle of St. James, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
It’s joy for me to tell you about my middle school French teacher, who remains a friend to this day, and whom I visit regularly when I am in Southern California, where he retired. I could write a profile of every one of my middle school teachers, and of many of my prep school teachers in the years that followed. And of a few of my college professors, including the English professor who had our entire class to dinner at his home so we could taste his version of Boeuf en Daube from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse - a book I can barely recall, although I remember the stew vividly, and the wine we drank with it. And, of course my seminary professors - one of whom you know came to be the Curate here with me before leaving us to become a bishop!
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters...
Jesus, of course, was a teacher. They called him, “Rabbi.”
And here with us today we have teachers from St. James School - that leafy triangle of learning and love on Clearfield Street that began eight years ago because of the bold faith of this parish.
If not many should be come teachers, it remains a fact that some should, indeed, become teachers. No teacher worth the title is ever really only an instructor in his or her subject. But in some places teachers are there for their students not only in the classroom, but also at the table, on the field, in the pews, by the stage door, and when you’re sick, or frightened, or confused, or in trouble, as well as when you want to jump for joy!
The teachers and staff of St. James school are just such teachers, fully deserving of the title. Together they have built a school community that is caring, supporting, strengthening, and loving. Children learn there. And they learn because of a dedicated, and very gifted corps of teachers for whom it is my great pleasure to stand here and thank God.
We say that at St. James School we are concerned about the whole child - and although this sounds like a statement of policy, it more accurately describes the attitude and commitment of the teachers and staff, who begin every day ready to care for the whole child; every child; body, mind and soul. Which is why our teachers are not only in the classroom with our students; they are also at the dining table, in church, visiting at home, helping after school, on the basketball court, in the school nurse’s office, applying to high schools, and now visiting colleges, as the first class that ever graduated from St. James begins that exciting process.
And I have no doubt that some day in the future - maybe not in a church, but who knows? - St. James alumni will stand before groups of people, for one reason or another, recounting the life lessons they learned from their teachers at St. James School, just as I delight to tell you about Flash.
I discovered, when I went to try to learn to speak some Spanish at the age of 49, that the effort knocked right out of my head nearly every French word or phrase I had ever learned. Except, of course, Voilà les fenêtres de son appartement.
But the older I get, the more I realize that it was never really Flash’s first responsibility to teach me or any of us to speak French. It was his first responsibility to teach me and all of the boys to be good: to be kind, respectful, and honest. These lessons were only strengthened because our school was part and parcel of a community of faith - a church, in which the praise of God’s Name prompts the love and care of God’s children, in a virtuous cycle that, God willing, will go on to repeat it self for many generations. Another way of putting it is to say that our teacher’s first job was to teach us the Gospel, although I am sure this would have come as a surprise to several of my old teachers, but not to Flash. But the Gospel requires context - Jesus called it “good soil.” And the teachers in a Christian school are the tillers of soil and the waterers, pruners, and protectors of plants; who convey every day, and often without words, the faith, strength, forgiveness, and hope of the transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ.
St. James School is, part and parcel, a community of faith. It has been shaped by the Gospel of love. Its teachers and staff are indeed the tillers of soil, and waterers, pruners, and protectors of plants. They bear witness, every day, to the faith, strength, forgiveness, and hope that are at the heart of the Christian life, and that are meant to transform all of our lives.
In a day and age in America where so many people have no idea who Jesus is, or what he teaches, or why any right-minded person would link his or her life to the Name of Jesus, St. James School bears testimony every day to the Gospel of transformation that has its effect on everyone there, be they teacher, student, staff, volunteer, donor, or Sunday worshiper. Because the truth of the Gospel is that Jesus takes the broken lives of every single one of us, and restores us to the beauty for which we were made. That’s just who Jesus is.
Having been given the extraordinary gift, not only of parents who cared about me enough to let me go away to school at an early age, but also the gift of a school community that nurtured me, taught me, fed me, and shaped me in faith, I give thanks that St. James School is taking up that same work.
I hear the precaution in the Epistle that not many should be teachers, because of the weight of responsibility given to them, and because of the risk to those entrusted to their care if they fall short of that responsibility. But I thank God that if not many should be teachers, some, indeed, should be: like all of you who teach and work at St. James School. You should be teachers, and thank God you are!
And I thank God, thanks to Flash, and to many others of my teachers, that when the day comes, and I am called to stand before my Lord, and I am required to answer to him, if he should ask me, as he asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” I will be able to answer in more than one language. I may well answer in French, and if I do, it will probably sound like this: Voilà les fenêtres de son appartement.
And Jesus will know exactly what I mean, which is to say that I will mean, “I know who you are, my Lord; you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Thanks be to God.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
16 September 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia