Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
As a sophomore in college, I spent a semester as an intern working in a parochial school in Jersey City. St. Bridget’s was located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, and a dedicated staff of Roman Catholic nuns and lay teachers worked for all too little pay and with all too few supplies to create a community of learning, and of love.
There was a very small staff room – to call it a “teachers’ lounge” would be wildly overstating its comforts. Back in those days, in addition to that new invention, a coffee maker named “Mr. Coffee,” there was the ubiquitous haze of blue smoke, as it was the one place in the building where teachers could smoke.
But one thing was missing. I thought that given the challenges and stresses the teachers faced each day, the staff room would have been a place where people would blow off steam, expressing their frustrations about this particular child or that particular class. We all know of “gallows humor,” jokes and comments that persons in high stress professions make to get through the most difficult moments. Yet never once did I hear a teacher in that room make fun of a child, or suggest that a class might be “acting like animals” today. Yes, jokes were made, but it was usually at the expense of the teacher telling the joke, rather than the students he or she served.
On my first day in that school, Sister Barbara, the principal, handed the interns a statement of the mission of the school. I don’t remember the exact words, but it emphasized treating each child with profound respect and love, and honoring his or her dignity as a child of God. Sister Barbara cheerfully, but in all seriousness, asked us as interns if we could agree with the statement. If so, we were welcome to work there. If not, she would do what she could to help us find another placement.
I came to realize that the commitment of the nuns in that school affected everyone, and their values permeated every place. Yes, that respect for each child was lived out in the classrooms, but also in the rooms where children never set foot.
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure…. think about these things.” In this time of our national life, I find myself thinking often of St. Paul’s words, and of my experience at St. Bridget’s. I think also of Sister Barbara and that dedicated staff. And I know that as citizens, and as leaders, we can do better.
Just like those children in Jersey City, our children are watching and listening. What are they learning about us, and our nation? Think about these things.