Friday, August 30, 2013

A Holy Place Called Study Hall

“Then God said (to Moses): 'Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.'"  Exodus 3:5 (NRSV)

“Earth's crammed with heaven, 
And every common bush afire with God, 
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.” 
― Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Ever since Moses encountered God in the “burning bush,” religious groups and spiritual pilgrims have been on quests to visit these sacred sites, hoping to have their own mystical experience with the Holy One.  Some do.  Others just come home with a tee-shirt.

A “sacred” place is defined as being “connected to God (or the gods) or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration.”

There are many such places around the world.  Some that come to my mind are:

Jerusalem may be one of the most sacred places in the whole world.  The city is home to three major religions:  Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Mecca and Medina are two of the most sacred places for all Muslims.

The city of Varanasi, located on the banks of the Ganges River.  Both the temple-filled city and the river are considered sacred to the Hindus.

Machu Pikchu or Machu Picchu, built by the Incas, located in Peru, is another place many people would call a sacred.

The Vatican, home to the Pope and center of Catholicism, might make some people’s list of sacred places to visit.

The poet, Mary Oliver would say an ocean beach, a stone in a river, a grassy meadow, a leaf on a tree in a forest, all are sacred places.   Many would agree with her.

What can I say that I have not said before?
So I’ll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story 
    and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends
Mary Oliver; What Can I Say; Swan

One place that I am most certain that has never ever made any list of holy places is Study Hall.   I must confess, as a Presbyterian minister working in this new role as Study Hall Supervisor there were many days I thought I had descended into Hell!  All forms of academic endeavors seem to have been absent from the minds of the students assembled.  There was a lot of Euchre and video games being played, food being consumed, highly caffeinated beverages being drank, Youtube videos being watched, music blaring from earphones, things being thrown, and swear words shouted, but no where was homework being done!

The most energy expended by the students was when the bell would ring!  This moment always brought a rush of students, pushing off from their tables, chairs falling over, food and half-completed homework assignments left indifferently behind, as they hurried, pushing and shoving out the door and down the hall to get to their next class on time.  A few stragglers, seeking to avoid the awaiting test, would beg me for a pass excusing them from their date with destiny.

Biblically speaking, I might suggest renaming Study Hall, “Sheol.”  Sheol being the Hebrew word to describe the ancient underworld; a place where God did not dwell.  Study Hall is a place where angels and teachers fear to tread, so who would blame God for avoiding it?  Not me!   Yet, here I was, a pastor, who was use to offering compassionate counsel, grace, mercy and forgiveness to my church members, being transformed into the Pharisee-like-Study Hall Teacher, laying down the “righteous law” as commanded by the administration handbook, writing referrals, condemning students to after school Detention!  I felt like Inspector Javert  (Cue the music for “Stars” from Les Miserables!)

Sister Joan Chittister writes:  “To be enlightened is to see behind all the forms life takes to the God who holds them in being. Enlightenment sees...beyond our parochialisms to the presence of God everywhere, in everyone, in the universe.” Source: New Designs

I love Sister Joan, but I have to say, there were many days it was hard to see God “everywhere, in everyone, in the universe,” especially in Study Hall!   Yet, beneath the surface of their teenage acne and angst, behind the goofiness and sometimes daily, emotional, teen drama, something sacred was bubbling up and trying to bloom within them.  For me, this was God trying to shine in and through them, even as God had done once before in a bush.  What most of the students wanted (besides someone else to do their homework) was to be appreciated, accepted, and loved for who they were and who they were becoming as human beings, even though they were not aware of it themselves.  Study Hall is to be a place of learning, and perhaps, this was the real taking place?

I use to joke that study hall was life and life was a study hall.  I believe there is truth in that statement.  Aren’t we all on a journey, a spiritual quest, seeking to discover who we are and who we are in the midst of the people around us; hoping each day to discover something new within us, by paying attention to the larger world around us?  If we do so, we might discover more fully the Sacred One in whom we all live, and move, and have our being?

Forrest Gump’s mamma once said:  “Life is like a box of chocolates.  You never no what you’re gonna get.”  Study Hall is like that.  You never know in a days time what you are gonna get when the students arrive.  What I understand now, after surviving 2 1/2 years as the Study Hall teacher, is that Study Hall and the students who inhabit it, are as much a sacred place as the ground on which Moses once stood. 

So I urge you to be like Moses and take off your shoes when you step into a study hall, or any other part of a school, because you are standing on holy ground and God is present.

On second thought, you need to put your shoes back on.  It is against school policy to go barefoot in school!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Hunger in Schools

"I was hungry and you gave me something to eat...”    Matthew 25:35

"Walter Cunningham was sitting there lying his head off. He didn't forget his lunch, he didn't have any. He had none today nor would he have any tomorrow or the next day.”
(To Kill A Mockingbird; Harper Lee, Chapter 2)

With the arrival of August, summer vacation from school is ending.  Each Monday seems to bring a whole new round of Facebook posts from parents, who like me, share pictures of their kids heading back to school.  I love looking at all the bright, smiling faces of these young scholars dressed in new outfits, backpacks slung across their shoulders, and lunch boxes held tightly in their hands, posing for that annual family photo.

Yet, there is another picture we all need to see as we send our nation’s children back to school.  However, this one you will probably not find posted on Facebook.  It is the face of Hunger.  It’s presence in our schools and in each classroom of every grade is growing at an alarming, some would say, epidemic rate, that is threatening our nation’s future!

According to No Kid Hungry: Share Our Strength website:

  • more than 48.8 million Americans—including 16.2 million children— live in households that lack the means to get enough nutritious food on a regular basis. As a result, they struggle with hunger at some time during the year.  That is 1 out of 5 kids in America.  
  • 22% of kids under the age of 18 (16 million) live in poverty.  
  • Nearly half of all people who use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps) are kids.
  • On an average day - 9.8 million students receive a free or reduced priced breakfast.
  • Another 10.6 million eligible kids go without such a meal.   

You do not need to tell teachers or lunchroom staff about the face of hunger in our schools.  They see it every day in their classrooms and in the school lunchroom.  They know hunger has a major impact on a student’s ability to learn as well as effecting classroom behavior.    I know from my own experience working in a school, many educators and lunchroom staff, quietly spend their own money to buy students food during the school day.  According to one report: “Fifty-three percent of teachers spend an average $26 of their own money each month providing snacks for their students.” (Ava Wallace, August 24, 2012 - 

Sadly, there is also a stigma attached to hunger in our schools.  Many students do not want to let their peers or even their teachers to know they are going without food.  In Harper Lee’s classic American novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout’s new teacher, Ms. Caroline, asks the students for a show of hands of those who go home for lunch and those who have brought their lunch.  Every student did so, save for one, Walter Cunningham.  When Ms. Caroline asks if he forgot his lunch, he hesitates.  She asks again.  A bit embarrassed, Walter answers: “Yeb’m.”  Ms. Caroline offers him money so he can buy some lunch, but he declines her offer.  Harper Lee writes:  "Walter Cunningham was sitting there lying his head off. He didn't forget his lunch, he didn't have any. He had none today nor would he have any tomorrow or the next day.”  The Cunningham’s were dirt poor and they were a proud.  They did not want to take a hand-out, even if it meant they went hungry.  There are still far too many “Walter Cunningham’s” in our schools.

As a pastor, I have been aware of hunger, or thought I was aware of it.  I have helped collect food for local food pantries.  I have served meals at soup kitchens.  I have shared money with people looking for a meal.  Yet, until I started working in a school, I had not come face-to-face with hunger on a daily basis.  Teachers, support staff, kitchen  crew, and school administrators know the face of Hunger.  A growing number of students know its face as well.  They see it each time they look in a mirror.  Tragically, there are a growing number of students each year who see the image of Hunger reflected back to them.

There many organizations, community groups, and individuals, who having seen the increasing need in our schools, are working to find a solution.  There are a few that I am aware of:

  • Breakfast in the Classroom initiative,; 
  • No Kid Hungry: Share Our Strength program,, 
  • First Presbyterian Church in Sydney, Ohio - Munch Bunch Backpack Weekend Food Program for school children,

(I would be interested in hearing about other programs in your schools and communities that are working to address the issue of hunger.)

So the next time you see the face of a student walking to school, or waiting at the bus stop, or studying in the public library, or playing on the play ground, or bagging your groceries, or passing you on the street, or in a picture posted on Facebook, I would invite you to look beyond the face - and see if you can see something more - the Face of Hunger.  And if you do, tell me if you can catch a glimpse of one more thing - the face of Christ.

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry...and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”  Matthew 25:44-45

Monday, August 5, 2013

My Name is...

“Call me Ishmael..."  Henry Melville, Moby Dick

To borrow Melville's famous opening lines:  “Call me M-Dubs.”  Adapting his opening lines a bit further, I would say:  “Some years ago - never mind how long precisely, (actually, it was in the spring of 2010) having little or no money in my bank account, and nothing of particular to interest me on the shores of Lake Waubesa in the Madison area, I thought I would set sail in the waters of public education, and become a Substitute Teacher.”

Okay, maybe my venture back into a high school was not as glamourous as Melville made it sound for his narrator and protagonist, Ishmael, when he went set sail with Captain Ahab aboard the ship, Pequod, but it certainly has been an adventure.

William Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet, said:  "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."   I was born, Scott Thomas Wheeler.  While my mom and a couple of college roommates called me "Scotty,” most people simply called me - Scott.  When my wife, Staci, and I married, we choose to hyphenate our last names.  We became the Marrese-Wheeler's.  As an ordained Presbyterian minister, people would call me “Reverend Marrese-Wheeler” or “Pastor Scott.”  The youth in the congregation I served in Monroe, Wisconsin started calling me “P Scott.”  I assumed this was a shortened version of "Pastor Scott".  They might say it had something to do with the frequency of the bathroom breaks we took on our trips to youth conferences.   However, on the first day of my work as a substitute teacher at McFarland High School, I received a new name, and one that I have been called ever since.  I was asked to sub for a teacher who like me, had a hyphenated last name.  Since I was not familiar to the students, I wrote my name - "Mr. Marrese-Wheeler" - on the board.  One student noted that like their teacher, I had a hyphenated name.  He then added that with the teacher’s permission, they called her "Ms. D-W" or more informally, "D-Dubs."  Continuing, he asked if the class might refer to me as “Mr. M-W” or "M-Dubs"?  That seemed a reasonable request, and a way to connect with the students, so I said, yes.  The name has stuck.

Names are important to all of us, be they our given name or an affectionate “nickname” we inherited.  Some of us are named after a beloved family member or friend.  Some of us have been named after a famous person.  Others of us have names that our parents loved for their own reasons.  Most of us would say we are comfortable living with our name or nickname, while a few might not and have made the decision to change their name.  What is your name?  What is the story behind it?

Whether serving as the pastor of a church or working as an educator in the McFarland Schools, I have found it important to know as many people’s names as possible.  Because my work at the school was in study hall and the lunchroom, I have had daily contact with most of the students.  I worked hard to get to know as many of their first names as possible, and last names if I was able.   It was easier to get to know some students names, especially when they were constantly calling attention to themselves with their behavior (good and bad).  The real trick was to get to know the name of the student who hid in a book, blended in at a table with their friends, or sat off to the side by their self.  Students, like all of us, appreciate it when you know their name.  I believe when you get to know a student’s name, you are reminded that they, like us, are a human being, a child of God, in whom dwells the divine spark that reflects the image of the Creator.  In getting to know their individual name, you are also reminded that they not just a statistic in a data report generated for the purpose judging a teacher or a school’s ability to educate.

There are many names of students I would like to tell you about in this blog post, however, there is one in particular I feel I need to do so, though she is not a student at McFarland High School.  Her name is Anna. (Not her real name).  She is a registered nurse, an educator and a professional church musician.  She was a high school classmate of mine.  I remember her being smart, funny, and attractive.  I also remember a name several of my friends and I like to call her, and it was not her first name nor was it an affectionate “nickname.”  It was a cruel name, one we used to make fun of her.  Each day during lunch, my friends and I would sit on the steps near the water fountain (Bubbler, for all you Wisconsinites).   Each day, Anna would walk by, we would tease her, calling her by our “special” name.  She hated it and reacted to it, yelling at us to stop.  We didn’t stop. We pushed things even further and had tee-shirts made that said:  “We Hate (Cruel Name Here)!”    We thought we were being so clever and “cool” wearing those shirts.  Little did I know the negative impact our name calling was having on her.

I am not sure who is the source of the words:  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!”   Whoever came up with that expression is wrong.  If you work in a school, you are aware of the pain caused by a text message or post on Facebook or a tweet on Twitter by teenagers.  As a pastor, I have preached sermons on the topic of labeling other people.  I have spent time with the youth in the churches I have served, talking with them about how the words we use can edifiy or demonlish another person.   I have helped co-advise the Gay-Straight Alliance,, a group whose purpose is to create a safe space in school for students to support each other, learn about homophobia, transphobia, and other oppressions, and fight discrimination, harassment, and violence in schools.   I felt I was being a good educator and pastor.  It seems I had one more lesson, and this one a painful one, to learn.

A few years ago, when I signed up for Facebook, I started sending “Friend” requests to my high school classmates.  I sent one to Anna.  She responded, wondering why I would want to be her “friend” after all the pain I had caused her in high school.  She told me about the lingering effects my “name-calling” had on her life.  How she had considered leaving our school because our cruelty.  At the end of her very pointed note, she asked me to consider how I would feel if I had a daughter who was treated the way my friends and I had treated her?

It would be too easy to beg her forgiveness saying, I was just a teenager who did not know how much power there is in a name, especially in a name used to tease a young high school girl.  Maybe I thought of my actions as just harmless teasing, but they were not.  They had caused Anna great pain.  So let me say publicly, what I have said to her privately.  Anna, I am sorry.  I know my words of apology can never be enough to make up for all the emotional even spiritual pain my part in the name-calling caused you.  No, I would not want anyone to treat my child or any child, the way I treated you.  I promised you I would tell this story, sharing it in a way that might help others realize the pain we can inflict on others by our words, especially the names we use to tease, taunt, trash-talk, put down, ridicule, or bully others.   These names can do great harm to another’s self-worth.  They can also help to destory the sense of the sacred in the person who we are ridiculing.   Our abuse of another’s name has one more consquence, it can demolish the Holy in us, making it difficult for others to see God in us, and even more so, for us to see the Divine Light within ourselves.

In Arthur Miller’s classic, The Crucible, a play about the Salem Witch Trials, the character, John Proctor, is wrestling with his conscience about signing his name to a confession that he is a “witch.”  If he does, his soul will be saved, but his good name and reputation will be destroyed.  He begs the church officials, crying out, “...How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!"

Her name is Anna.  My name is Scott or if you perfer, M-Dubs.  Your name is ________.   Our names are important to us.  We are known by those names.  By whatever name we are known by to our family, friends, classmates, or co-workers, there is one name we all are called, and that name is - Child of God.

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine."    (Isaiah 43:1 NRSV)