After a number of years out of the classroom, I am teaching once again this year. I am very excited to be the instructor for the theology class, “Norbertine History and Spirituality,” an elective for 11th and 12th grade students. It was a course I proposed to be added to the curriculum within my first year as Head of School in 2010-11. I saw the need for Archmere to offer students an opportunity to learn about the foundational beliefs of the school, as well as the history of the Norbertine Community that founded the Academy in 1932.
Over the years the course has been taught by Dr. Michael Burdziak and most recently by Father John Zagarella, O.Praem. With Father Zagarella’s appointment as Prior of Daylesford Abbey, his responsibilities at the Abbey increased substantially, making it difficult for him to continue to teach at Archmere. Last spring, it was confirmed that I would teach the course, making for me an exciting summer of assembling the content and lesson plans from a wide variety of resources that I have acquired over the last thirteen years. I have had the privilege of meeting Norbertine priests and associates from more than twenty European abbeys traveling with a group of Archmere “pilgrims” on Norbertine Heritage Pilgrimages sponsored by Archmere. I have taken from these experiences - in addition to hundreds of photos - inspirational stories of the communities, many of whom were founded during the time of Saint Norbert in the 12th century and have survived political upheavals, wars, and other hardships.
In the class, we learn about the life of Saint Norbert and the evolution of the Norbertine community; however, I ask that students keep one foot in history and one foot in the present, as we discuss themes that seem to be unchanging in the human condition: wealth and poverty, church and state, war and peace, and other forces in our society that have been with us through the centuries. I want to ensure that an exploration of Saint Norbert’s life and times and the history of the Norbertine Order “matters” to the students taking the class. Their interpretations, responses, and thoughts contribute to the course dialog, hopefully making the themes relevant and deepening their own faith journeys and spirituality.
In a most recent class discussion about Norbert’s ability to be an effective peacemaker, we discussed “forgiveness,” and its critical role in peacemaking. All the students were engaged in discussing how they have felt in situations where they have forgiven someone or someone has forgiven them. We talked about how forgiveness is not forgetting necessarily, but it does allow for the person who forgives to move on rather than be stuck in a cycle of anger or resentment. Some may walk away from a disagreement and say, “It doesn’t matter, because I won’t ever have to speak to that person again.” However, it does matter, because without forgiveness, there is no peace for ourselves or for the one who offended us, and no place for love to grow - love of God and love of neighbor.
I arranged the readings and assignments to follow a pattern within each scheduling cycle to help the students manage their full schedule of classes, along with extracurricular activities, sports, and homework. With the daily itinerary of a typical Archmere student in mind, I chose as one of my summer reading books, Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic - and What We Can Do About It, by Jennifer Breheny Wallace
. Wallace is an award-winning journalist, who began her career at 60 Minutes. She continues to write for the Wall Street Journal
and Washington Post
, and lives in New York City with her husband and three teenage children. Her book is comprised of a series of selected interviews from a national survey of 6,000 teenagers and their parents who are in the top 25% of household incomes in the U.S. The study, while focused on “privileged adolescents and their families,” acknowledges that children living in poverty and in low income households have additional
challenges to navigate in their teen years. Quoting a 2018 report by health policy experts at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the top environmental issues having a negative impact on teenagers are “poverty, trauma, discrimination, and excessive pressure to excel.” (p.6) The report stated, “family and/or school environment characterized by extreme pressure to succeed or to outdo everyone else - often, but not exclusively, occurring especially in affluent communities - can affect youth in significantly deleterious ways, including causing high levels of stress and anxiety or alcohol and drug use and dependence.” (p.7)
Throughout the book, Wallace shares her journey in re-thinking her own parenting methods, becoming introspective and open, adopting a growth mindset that allows her to make subtle changes in the ways she interacts with her own children. In the end, she concludes that the most important element in supporting adolescents is “mattering.” Teenagers need to know that they matter - what they think and say, how they feel and what they experience. They want to know that they are valued and loved for the persons that they are, not for what they accomplish. All of this requires those around them to be present and actively listening to them.
As I read the book, it was affirmational to know how important it is to be authentic, present, and listening so that teenagers might feel comfortable enough and valued enough to share their thoughts and be heard. As they build up their own sense of value and self-esteem, they become happy with themselves. Not only that, but they will, in turn, spread that happiness to others by emulating the same authenticity and active listening that they have experienced themselves. Wallace states, “Happiness and well-being . . . are the byproducts of living a life where we feel valued and add value to others.” (p.226)
In thinking about our recent classroom discussion around the topics of forgiveness and peacemaking, I see firsthand from our students how the mutual respect they show for one another helps to build in them confidence and a feeling of being valued. In turn, they share that experience with others.
I remember having conversations with my own children when they were teenagers. Sometimes, I was not the best listener. I recall wanting to immediately “fix” things and provide my children with a solution, rather than discuss a situation and empower them to find a solution. Similarly, sometimes I wanted to take up our children’s causes and intervene, but I often thought through the potential conversations I would have on their behalf, recognizing that my interference would not provide an effective nor permanent solution.
Mattering . . . it seems so obvious and fundamental, but perhaps that is why it is so powerful. After reading about the life of Saint Norbert, it seems that one of his greatest gifts was taking the time to be present and listen to others. In doing so, he came to know and appreciate them as individuals, and then, he was able to offer them guidance and help. I never quite thought about the gifts and talents Saint Norbert would have had to be noted as a peacemaker, until we discussed this aspect of his life in class. I really do enjoy learning with the students!
Blessings for an enjoyable year,
Michael A. Marinelli, Ed.D. ‘76
Head of School