I’ve been blessed enough to experience some wonderful events in my 24 years on this earth. I’ve been in love. I’ve seen Easter Mass at the Vatican. I’ve even won a little-league baseball championship. However, few things compare to the joy experienced celebrating a big holiday at my school, De La Salle Blackfeet School. I’m sure the sentiment is shared among my cohort members as well as anyone who has ever been a teacher. There is an excitement set forth by the students that gives the teachers two options: be a “grinch” (or whatever negative holiday word you want to use) or lean into the day and match, if not exceed, the excitement of the children. I am blessed enough to be at a school where each and every staff member falls in line with the latter. Last year’s Christmas celebration was an example not only of how much fun teaching can be but also a definitive moment in my choice to serve for a second year at DLSBS.
Every day we have morning assembly. Our 71 students sit in a semicircle as several of their peers and principal, Michael O’Brien, read the morning announcements. We start by saying a morning prayer lead by the students. Next is a request for Saint John Baptist de La Salle to “pray for us.” This is followed by a request for the students and faculty to “please stand” for the Pledge of Allegiance. Last December I remember entering a gym full of students, literally and figuratively, bouncing off the walls and not knowing what to expect. Not only was it the last day before a much needed break but also the Christmas play and pageant was hours away.
How necessary was this break? Well, I’ll tell you. I had never before felt as physically exhausted as I was in late December of 2018. I had just dislocated my knee and was going through a grueling rehab regiment that was an icy 45 minutes away from school. I was lost when it came to classroom management. I wasn’t sleeping particularly well, letting the troubles of the day carry over into my dreams. I really felt like I would be a “one and done.” One year in Browning and then I would go back to the life I had just come from living (“exactly the same as I had left it,” to quote my journal). One of my best friends frequently encouraged me with texts saying, “finish the year strong and come home.”
This day was different. December 21, 2018, has turned into a big day in my life. At the time, I was a co-homeroom teacher with Ruth Ficaro (even though she ran the show because I was a newbie and had no idea what I was doing). Ruth became a mentor and a dear friend. We sat on the bench facing the gym/assembly hall and drank coffee and smiled knowing the end of an exhausting stretch of school was coming to a close. We chatted with the kids about holiday plans and exchanged words of kindness about their achievements over the first few months of the school year.
That day, the coffee tasted a little bit better. The kids were a little bit less sassy. Attitudes were curbed and joy was in the air. Teachers shared donuts and treats with their homerooms and the kids looked with blissful wonder as Charlie Brown and the Grinch took up screen time on the projectors. I was at a 2/10 but I was as happy as I had been since I started at DLSBS. What was happening?
At lunch, I sat, pondering, in the cafeteria with happy screams of excitement bouncing off of the church basement walls. They say that life isn’t made up of watershed moments where everything clicks at once and life is for the better forever. I kind of agree with this but there is merit in thinking of the changing seasons of life as being better (or worse) than ones previously experienced. December 21, 2018, was the changing of a season from intimidated, out-of-his-comfort-zone rookie into someone who was simply comfortable and happy with where his feet were currently planted.
The Christmas play was an absolute hoot. My duties as assigned had me helping prep the actors and actresses for the show. The kids were wild backstage as the fear of a public performance meshed oh so well with middle school angst and impulsiveness. I was a little too loud while helping the kids to prepare for singing. Unused props fell over and giggles could be heard in the audience of wisemen and shepherds waiting for their time to shine. Fellow Lasallian Volunteer, Regina Bettag, and I simply smiled and laughed at the wonderful chaos that was unnoticed to all but us and a few children.
After the festivities, I returned to Florida for two weeks where I spent time with friends and family. I celebrated a dear friend’s wedding. I sat by the ocean napping and reading Tales of Old Florida. I rested and enjoyed myself but I also prepared. I had a fire in my belly to come back and attack the second semester with an “enthusiasm unknown to mankind” (Michigan football coach John Harbaugh). That fire was started on that December morning and grew into a passionate flame in my heart that led me to sign on for a second year at this wonderful school, with these kind, tireless co-workers, and these joyful students.
Perhaps the exact moment that things changed was at assembly that morning. After the request for the prayers of our Founder and the declaration to “please stand,” Ruth mistook the “please stand” for the common succession to “Pray for Us” (“Live Jesus in our hearts,”) and replied “Forever.” She then turned and looked at me with a combination of fear and bliss that I can’t fully describe but she knew exactly what was to come. Without missing a beat, a rather boisterous seventh grader exclaimed “please stand forever! Har-har-har-har-har!” Ruth and I battled giggles for the duration of the 15-minute assembly. It was going to be a good day. As I teach and learn, as I cry and smile, as I hustle and rest, the words “please stand forever” echo through my mind and that is exactly what I hope De La Salle Blackfeet School does. I hope it stands forever.
*Ruth Ficaro was an LV in 2015-2017 at De La Salle Blackfeet School and continues to serve there as the seventh-grade teacher.*
Zack Wojcik is a first-year Lasallian Volunteer serving at De La Salle Blackfeet School in Browning, Montana, where he serves as a social studies, math and health/wellness teacher. In 2018-2019, Zack was a fellow at the school with the American Indian Catholic School Network out of the University of Notre Dame. He is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University with a degree in political science and international affairs.