Dan O’Connell: Learning How to Juggle

Being a Lasallian Volunteer is like learning how to juggle.

About a month ago on a Saturday morning, I groggily walked downstairs of our community in Pawtucket, RI to find several community members enjoying breakfast…and a show. I watched in awe as one of my seven fellow community members grabbed three shiny apples from our fruit basket and began to juggle. I was mesmerized by the fluidity, faith, and concentration that she employed to make the apples defy gravity, floating from hand to hand in perfectly organized chaos. I needed to learn how to juggle.

So I asked her, and the other community members (social workers, teachers, and outreach coordinators) in the kitchen, to teach me. They sprang into action and pointing to imaginary points in the air coached, “Alright Dan let’s start with two apples. Toss one at a time and hit these corners.” They encouraged, “Nice job. You aren’t as awkward as you look.” They joked when the apples hit the floor time and time again, bruising beyond recognition, “We weren’t going to eat those anyway.” They challenged, “Now add the third apple.” They joked again, “Ok maybe back to just two.”

Coach Dan with the girls from his Lady Saints team that made all-division for soccer.

Coach Dan with students from his Lady Saints team that made all-division for soccer.

At first try, being an LV, like juggling, feels impossible. A task so daunting that you don’t even know where to begin. How do I set up a gradebook? What does a gradebook even look like? How do I make “The Eastern Schism” cool to juniors in high school? How do I explain “demand elasticity” to my sports marketing class when I struggled with that topic just over one year ago in college? How do I encourage a slumping striker on our girls’ soccer team to pick her head up before attacking the net?

The answers to those questions are: you try a different approach… and you inevitably fail more times than you will succeed. You add that third apple to the mix only to immediately drop all of the apples in three different directions. Then, you ask for help from your community members, LVs in other communities, teachers at your service site, your parents, God. You ask how you can improve. How can I keep all three apples in the air?

Sometimes it takes a different perspective. “Dan why don’t you try to juggle with these dish towels? They’ll float more in the air and will give you more time to react.” When stumped with how I would introduce Emperor Constantine to my juniors in Church History, a community member’s fresh perspective came to the rescue, “So, Constantine was the first Roman leader to recognize Christianity, right?” “Essentially, yes.” I replied. “He was innovative and made something cool before anyone else did, right?” they probed. “Right,” I responded. “Well, explain to your students that he was the first ‘hipster’.” I took their advice, and my students were more engaged than ever. With a new perspective—dish towels and the first hipster—I’ve got this juggling thing down pat.

That is until I tried again with the apples and ended up making apple sauce on the kitchen floor. My Constantine lesson plan may have been a home run, but I struck out the very next day with Western Monasticism.

Dan O’Connell, 14-16, Saint Raphael Academy, Pawtucket, RI

Dan O’Connell, 14-16, Saint Raphael Academy, Pawtucket, RI

By the end of last year, as a first year volunteer, I thought that I had come to understand my vocation—impacting my students’ lives in an acutely positive way. Now as a second year still learning how to juggle teaching new classes, living with new community members, exploring new perspectives on my Faith, and apples – I have a different understanding of my role in my students’ lives.

Now I know that my vocation is to empower my students to impact their own communities, their own lives. I initiate only a fraction of the empowering and they take it from there.

Now I know how to operate a grade book on paper and online. Now I know that creating a lesson plan for the Eastern Schism based entirely in the language of DJ Khaled’s snapchats (#BlessUp) will hold the attention of 28 sixteen-year-olds for fifty minutes. Now I know that connecting demand elasticity to Pawtucket Red Sox ticket prices helps my budding sports marketers learn to think critically. Now I feel comfortable coaching that Lady Saint on the soccer field through any challenge.

And now I am no longer afraid to fail. I can juggle tennis balls for a minute at a time, and when they fall in three different directions they don’t roll as far away. I too am able to apply the same fluidity, concentration, and faith of my community member to my vocation as a Lasallian Volunteer. I’ll be juggling apples in no time.

Dan O’Connell is a 2nd year LV serving at Saint Raphael Academy in Pawtucket, Rhode Island and is a 2014 graduate of The Catholic University of America.

Sign Up for
Our Newsletter