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Blooming in the Whirlwind: Guided by Mercy & Teaching

“I believe in you. I won’t give up on you.” This is the message that permeates everywhere at my service site in Brooklyn. Serving as a returning Mercy Volunteer, I’ve found myself from Philly in 2019 to NYC in 2023, from healthcare and food access to education and teaching. While I’ve always known I’m a lifelong learner, my venture into the education sector as an educator, rather than as a student, has been new. From classroom management to disciplinary tasks, the learning curve as I take on a role as a main teacher has been a steep one. But at the heart, it is this core understanding that my students need to hear, through my actions and behaviors, not just my words that I truly, deeply believe in their potential, worthiness, and dreams. And that, no matter what they’re going through or how they show up, I am not giving up on them. None of us are.

It can be easy to overlook this guiding principle when you’re in the throes of working at a high school. Whether it’s due to the fact that most of my students spent 1-2 years online during middle school due to the pandemic, the big city versus my Midwestern hometown, or just regular teenage angst, my transition from working with first graders back in Nebraska to freshmen in high school here in New York, hasn’t been easy. Although, humorously enough, the actual discipline issues are very much of the same nature: “Hands to ourselves, let’s speak kindly to one another, let’s focus on our own behavior,” etc. It is the deep immersion into a new field that allows me to both make critical assessments and hunt for the treasures that are extant in this field. 

The Cristo Rey system is unique. Students attend classes four days a week, spending their fifth day working a full-time shift at a Corporate Work Study partnering business in the city. It allows them to build their academic knowledge, as well as establish work experience and even enjoy a little bit of career exploration. They could be working in a school, business office, government office, nonprofit, or more! It’s actually a parallel experience to myself as a volunteer here placed at CRB. This helps me connect to my students even more, especially as I invite them to journal and focus on self exploration and personal development in my classroom. This dual learning system is what brought me to Cristo Rey. While many Cristo Rey schools struggle to maintain their numbers, facilities, and staffing, they also have some of the most passionate and caring teachers and staff. They are collaboratively doing their best to ensure that students coming from families with a low-income background are able to afford a high quality Catholic education, as well as build up job experience while completing their high school requirements. 

I myself am the product of a negotiated-tuition Mercy High School in Omaha, Nebraska. I pride myself on having worked hard, and truly shifting from a Mercy girl into a Woman of Mercy, through a beautiful, albeit hard fought, transformation. And that personal journey continues to evolve. Having a chance to give back, especially to a Cristo Rey school that is connected to my Mercy roots, is an absolute gift. Spending the past month teaching a mini-unit on the Corporal Works of Mercy has truly given me a chance to dig deeper into my own values and allows me to be more selective and intentional about how to exercise those values in my daily life. So it’s true, the teacher learns while the student does! 

In the words of Gwendolyn Brooks, and spotted daily at my second metro station on the very long commute to work along with mosaics of what I personally consider ‘comfortable cups of tea,’ is this: “Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.” That, indeed, I plan to do.

Amber Johnson: New York, New York

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