It was during my first day of work at St. Mary of the Assumption School that Father Tom Casey stopped by the cafeteria to say hello to the children. I had been introduced to Fr. Tom the week before on St. Augustine’s feast day. I must have met some 25 friars that day, and if there was something that struck me in meeting Fr. Tom, it was the overwhelming presence of grace that exuded from him. Fr. Tom seemed a man of few words and his humble demeanor made his story a mystery to me. Aside from another priest’s brief mention of Fr. Tom’s days in the minor leagues, all I had heard of this quiet guy was that he had a regular routine of distributing rosary rings to everyone he greeted. If I remember correctly, Fr. Tom’s visit to St. Mary’s that day seemed to coincide perfectly with Shaliah throwing Henry-Jermaine into a headlock and Jazlynn’s and Arturo’s strawberry and chocolate milks plummeting from their lunch trays to the floor, just as I was pleading with Mariah to please come out from under the table and put her shoes back on.
Fr. Tom approached the scene and asked me how I was doing. I threw on a smile and replied “Great!” but he immediately detected my distress. Fr. Tom took my hand, shook it firmly with both of his, looked me square in the eyes and told me, “One day at a time, Rebekah. One day at a time.” When he pulled his hands away I noticed he had given me a rosary ring. His small gesture went right to my heart and his words resonated in my head. Fr. Tom had given me all the encouragement I needed to make it through my first day at work. For the rest of that week, I gave what helping hand I could to the pre-K students and kept the other shoved in my pocket, all the while turning the small ring between my thumb and index finger.
One day at a time. With these words ringing in my mind I miraculously made it through September. October rolled around and before I knew it, I had assumed the positions of art teacher for grades K-7 and assistant coach to the eighth grade girl’s basketball team. These new, additional responsibilities came a little unexpectedly and at a time when I was still trying to find my footing in the Pre-K and the after school program. The thought of planning, prepping, and teaching my own art classes to about 200 kids was overwhelming enough–but coaching too. How was I supposed to assist a team in a sport that I quit during a third grade clinic because I could not, for the life of me, execute a simple layup and the idea of setting a pick confused the hell out of me? No, coaching seemed just downright ridiculous. However, I knew in committing to this year that there would be unexpected turns, so I willingly took on the challenges thrown my way.
Of course, I wanted everything to be perfect. Sure, I had a few roles to fill, very different roles, but the students were depending on me and I wanted to come through for them. I wasn’t sure how to do it, but I knew I could be a dependable source in the pre-K while a familiar face to both the children in the after school program and the family members who picked them up each day. I could be the laidback art teacher who came up with “cool” projects for the middle school students and “magical” crafts for the younger ones. In the meantime, I would let the eighth grade girls go on believing that I did know a thing or two about basketball. And if they just so happened to concoct a story that I had played ball in college, maybe even on a scholarship…so be it.
With the goal of filling each of my roles flawlessly on the forefront of my mind, there left little room for the words Fr. Tom had shared with me on my first day of work. One day at a time my growing concern in creating a calm classroom, one where students raised their hands and didn’t wrestle each other on the alphabet rug, began to take precedence over celebrating the big personalities each small pre-K child had to share. One week at a time I was torturing myself over planning the ultimate art classes, hopeful of thrilling the students, forgetting that they were already content just to be in art class. One basketball practice after another, my insecurity in the knowledge of the game was preventing me from forming relationships with the players. Besides, this group of seven 13-year-old girls, 2/3 of whom had never played basketball before, wasn’t looking for an assistant coach; they didn’t need me to demonstrate any moves. They needed me to be an example of a young woman confident in her own skin, regardless of my jump shot. I knew things had to change, starting with my mind-set.
I began to think of Fr. Tom. I recalled his state of grace, his simple suggestion to take things one day at a time. My goals began to shift from striving for near-perfection to tackling each day’s obstacles with more patience, calm, and compassion. Now my personal successes no longer hinge on the day I triumphantly lead pre-K from one end of the hallway to the other in a quiet, straight line. I stopped waiting for the basketball practice in which I set my sights upon each eighth grade girl finessing the perfect layup, or the Friday when every student leaves my art class proudly showing off their carefully crafted museum-worthy masterpieces. Instead of seeking perfection, I’m trusting that God will grant me the grace to make it through each day. My new goal may sound simple, but its achievement is much more fulfilling. And while this new approach has not made for fewer challenges or frustrations, it has given me greater strength in facing them; it has brought about a joyfulness that was otherwise lacking. As a result, my relationships with the students and faculty at St. Mary’s have become more meaningful and continue to grow.
I recently came across the rosary ring that was planted in my hands that first day at work. Although Fr. Tom has since left Lawrence for Villanova, his words have stayed with me. I was searching, aiming for perfection, trying to find my way. What I’ve found is that God is guiding me each day, giving me the grace to see me through–one day at a time.
Lawrence, MA 2008-2009