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The Teachers We Don't Deserve

On a high school teacher's legacy.

If it’s a sign of our fallenness that we get the politicians we deserve, it’s surely a sign of grace that we get the teachers we don’t. As we near the fourth anniversary of his death, I find myself grateful for the grace that I received in having as my teacher John L. Connelly.

Frank Oakley, the former president of Williams College, once told me that I was part of a “great apostolic succession” of Regis High School graduates who had gone to Williams. If we follow the metaphor, Mr. Connelly is Saint Peter. Although Oakley’s formulation is likely unique, I know that there are college professors around the county who encountered somewhat precocious young men from the New York area and wondered why they read Plato or studied economics or knew copious amounts about the history of the Society of Jesus or the Habsburg Empire. These students could be a tad insufferable once they start talking about their high school, but there is no doubt of their intense devotion to and gratitude for Mr. Connelly, who (and they would never have told their professors this) was the best teacher they ever had.

Søren Kierkegaard says somewhere that Christianity can’t be taught, it can only be witnessed. And Joseph Ratzinger has said that the proof of Christianity is found in the art it produces at the lives of the saints it animates. Thanks to them, I’m always looking for the holy ones in our midst. Holiness, after all, is “simply” a matter of recognizing moments of grace amid fallenness, of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, of making the scarcely possible look easy, of living life in a way that makes it just a touch easier to be courageous and temperate and wise and just. At least, the holy ones make it look simple.

It takes a particular charism (bordering, perhaps, on alchemy) to take a classroom full of overambitious high school boys and ever so slowly lead them through the intricacies of economics, geography, and medieval history; or European history; or classical political thought. When I remember that Mr. Connelly did this for fifty-two years at Regis High School and then a few more years at the Regina Pacis Academy, the only word I can use to describe this is holy.

None of us will ever know as much as Mr. Connelly forgot. And we all have forgotten most of what we learned in his classes. But what we will never forget is the deep empowerment that came with learning what we learned in the way we learned it. It wasn’t just that in junior and senior year of high school we read books that we’d read again in college. Nor was the empowerment a result of taking the A.P. European history test and doing well on it even though we weren’t “officially” in an A.P. class. Instead, this empowerment came because we realized how convinced Mr. Connelly was that learning the things he taught us was part of a life well lived. Puzzling over equilibrium price or the Defenestration of Prague or Aquinas on natural law helped you encounter the world more fully, more enjoyably, and, yes, more reverently. He taught us that you cannot be Catholic unless your interests are catholic. He lived that way, and we took notice. Now I can’t say I fully realized this when I was sixteen or seventeen, but looking back, all of that was central to the person I’ve become.

Only so much goes on in the classroom, even with the best teacher. And Mr. Connelly taught us as much outside class hours as within them. I remember fondly a reading group he agreed to lead when a few friends and I proposed it to him. We would get together one morning a week to discuss Catholic stuff. It was in those meetings that I discovered Waugh’s biography of Campion, Gilson’s Thomism, Eliot’s poetry, and John Paul II’s encyclicals. More important than any of those discoveries, though, was the friendships that developed because of those discussions—friendships with each other and friendships with Mr. Connelly. It’s no accident he attended so many of our weddings, that the party celebrating his retirement from Regis brought so many of us together to celebrate him, and that his wake and funeral Mass brought even more of us together from around the country to mourn him, to console each other, and to pray.

Once, when asked to sum up his philosophy of life, Mr. Connelly recalled a slur the Republican presidential candidate James Blair used to tar Grover Cleveland and the Democratic party in 1884. A vote for Cleveland, Blair announced, was a vote for “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” Mr Connelly characterized the rum as the enjoyment of life, Romanism as the Church, and rebellion as the courage to stand up for what is right even when—especially when—it’s not popular. Because of what he taught us and the example he gave, I know I’m not the only one whose life is more joyful, more reverent, and (I hope) more courageous.

Each morning, I pray for him. I ask him to pray for me. And I can’t help wondering: how do you thank someone who helped give you yourself?