The Start of Something Great

Dominican Volunteer Henry Moller serves as a teacher at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Atlanta Georgia .
For the 2017-2018 volunteer year, I am living in the Penn community in Atlanta, Ga and working at Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School. While there has been an adjustment period to living in community, especially as the only volunteer, I have felt welcomed from the beginning. Besides staying in touch with DVs across the country, sharing meals, prayers, stories, struggles, and humor with the community all help to keep life in perspective and provide support during challenging times. Our community is very focused on social justice issues, particularly immigration reform. I try live this out daily in my ministry work at Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit.

                Cristo Rey Jesuit is one of many Cristo Rey model schools across the country that is designed to serve students of limited financial means to gain access to a top tier, college prep, Catholic education rooted in developing the whole individual and preparing them for life and to break the cycle of economic uncertainty. The model of the school is unique in that students attend class 4 days a week from 7:30-4:00 and one day a week they are stationed at a corporate sponsor learning about how the professional world works, developing skills, and contributing to their placement site. In return these corporations assist with the tuition for these students, many of whom would be unable to afford a private education otherwise. The corporate partners range from small nonprofits, to law firms, to multinational corporations such as Coca Cola and Turner Sports. In fact, during the “Draft Day”, an over the top celebration held in the Hilton Ball room complete with streamers, balloons, music, cheerleaders, etc. students are placed with a corporation. This year, Ernie Johnson, one of the better known NBA broadcasters and an employee of Turner Sports, gave a speech and personally welcomed each Cristo Rey student that was placed with Turner Sports. One could not help but be filled with enthusiasm and joy as the students proceeded to the main stage to meet their sponsors, receive company “swag”, and celebrate the beginning of a fantastic opportunity. I found myself wishing I was a Cristo Rey student as their college resumes, aside from being academically successful, would reflect 4 years of professional experience.

I should mention that this was the first year Cristo Rey Jesuit inhabited their new building in the heart of Midtown, Atlanta. Donors and sponsors contributed upwards of $30 million to renovate a vacant building which had been donated (and valued at around $5 million) by a real estate developer. In fact, the last task of the final exams from the previous year was to turn in the exam and carry one’s desk to the moving van. It was truly a community effort and this sense of pride shows when one visits the school. The seniors this year will be the first group from Cristo Rey Atlanta to graduate in the Spring. Many are already receiving acceptance letters from colleges and scholarship offers. For many students they will be the first in their family to have a change to attend college and it is my goal, as well as every other Cristo Rey employee, from the President to the night security guard, to make sure these students have the tools to succeed when they attend college. The school is majority, minority in its makeup. It is roughly 65% Latino, 25% African American and 10% other. For a good portion of the Latino students, they are first generation Americans. During student teacher conferences students translated between the teachers and parents. In addition, almost all students at Cristo Rey come from families with limited economic means. The average family, which can range from 1 child to multiple children, earns around $30,000 annually. This means almost all families are forced to live in distant towns as real estate in Atlanta is very expensive. Almost all students take public transportation to school. Many of the students work secondary jobs after school or on weekends. Others are the primary care giver for younger siblings. Several of the students in my classes leave for school at 4 a.m., do not get home until 9 p.m., and must watch siblings until their parents get off work sometimes past midnight. They do all this and still manage to do homework and study. The sheer will power and dedication these students show leaves me in awe every day. It has created a burning passion inside me to fight for social justice so that these students, and their parents (some of whom may or may not be undocumented) can live in peace and simply pursue their honest goal of raising a family, contributing to society, and enriching our country’s culture. One take away from this year I will always hold on to is my desire to fight for the dignity, humanity, and equality of all people regardless of ethnicity, immigration status, socioeconomic status, or religious beliefs. 2 years ago, I would simply brush these issues aside as something that is not my problem. Now I realize not only is it a problem for me personally, but it is a moral responsibility to act and break through ignorance, regardless of any uncomfortableness or opposition.

So now that I’ve explained what Cristo Rey has done for me, what do I provide to Cristo Rey as a Dominican Volunteer? My background is in History and Secondary Education, so the natural fit would be to teach Social Studies, but I was told my first day that flexibility is a mandatory quality at Cristo Rey. After weeks of shuffling between classes I now teach sections of Human Geography, a section of Biology, a metacognition workshop, and 2 writing labs. I also advise seniors through the college application process and coach basketball. Needless to say, I have been extremely busy, and the work can be exhausting but I leave every day fulfilled with at least one positive mental note I carry home with me. I think the workload is manageable for me because of the structure and atmosphere at Cristo Rey. When I did my student teaching last year in a large suburban public school I had to follow a formulaic curriculum focusing on the end of year state test, and many of the students did not care to be there and there was little support from parents. There was also little that could be done in the way of discipline. In fact, I almost declined the Dominican Volunteers position because I was nearly convinced teaching just was not for me. Cristo Rey has rekindled my fire for connecting with students in their formative years and guiding them to be men and women for and with others as best I can. I am still not sure if classroom teaching is my vocation, but I can honestly say I go to work with a sense of possibility and optimism each day. Part of this is the freedom to teach in the style I have developed that is natural for me. While I hold my students to a high standard and cover necessary material to prepare them for college, it is not uncommon for me to start my class with a 10-minute meditation reflection, journal time, or other mindfulness activities. Some days I’ll play music with a positive message while we work on projects. Other days I will throw out a controversial, off topic question to spark debate and help develop critical thinking and public speaking skills. My best days at Cristo Rey so far were before Thanksgiving break when I had students answer a series of optional questions about their hopes, dreams, challenges, goals, inspirations, and gratitude. The trust the students showed in sharing truly personal, sometimes extremely painful and disturbing experiences made me feel like I had truly formed a bond with my students, and created a bond between fellow students. One reflection/poem a student who had experienced extreme hardships in life wrote brought many students to tears and moved me deeply. He had the courage to stand up and read the following:

 “I’m stronger because I have to be, I’m smarter because of my mistakes, I’m happier because of the sadness I’ve known, and now wiser because I have learned”

For a fourteen-year-old freshman, who learned English as a second language and still struggles at times with language, to have such profound thoughts and a perspective many full-grown adults never achieve inspires me to continue to work for my students every day. With his permission I have laminated the poem and it will be displayed in my office to serve as a reminder of how special these students are to me.

I have a lot of growing to do as a teacher and mentor of young adults. I am learning day by day, making mistakes, and trying to improve just a bit every day by embracing as many opportunities as I can. I have truly forced myself out of my comfort zone and it has paid great dividends in my professional, personal, and spiritual life. Before becoming a Dominican Volunteer, I was what one may consider a “Creaster” Catholic (Christmas and Easter). While my faith journey is far from complete I have at least embraced the challenge of putting in the work and dedicating time to really explore my spirituality. While I am not big on reading scripture or various theological writings, I have come to know God through my experiences with people and the good works I see being done daily. That is more than I could say a couple years ago.

I started this post off with the title “The Start of Something Great”. I believe that title applies both to myself and to Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. The school is still very young, and I am very new to the profession. Who knows what the future brings but I have a sense of peace and optimism that great things are in store for Cristo Rey, myself, and Dominican Volunteers USA.