Diary of a pre-certified teacher, Vol. V: Cancer

Augustine Brehon Contributor
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On Dec. 7, 2008, I was in a hospital in Washington, D.C., wondering how long I had to live. The day before I had admitted myself to the emergency room with abdominal pain that I thought was a pulled muscles. Tests had revealed that I had cancer.

Or at least that’s what they thought. They were not giving me any definitive answers until they got more tests results. So after they took out a piece of tissue from my hip for a biopsy, they sent me back up to my room. Where I waited.

I was relieved. I had felt tired for many months, and now I knew what was causing it. I no longer had to worry about negative tests for depression and chronic fatigue syndrome and hemochromatosis. It was cancer. I just didn’t know what kind or how bad. They suspected lymphoma.

I had just begun a career as a teacher. I had been subbing at Catholic schools while working toward my certification; in fact, I was called to sub by three different schools on the day I landed in the hospital. And part of the reason I wanted to be a teacher was so that I could teach the things they didn’t teach any more. I wanted to teach about the things that reveal the spiritual reality of this world—and that prepare you for death. I wanted to teach about God, about love, about rock ‘n’ roll.

In the last 50 years, we have, as the conservatives like to put it, removed God from the classroom. Liberals have argued, rightly, that teachers should not be preachers. But what our Christophobia has done has been to convince people that there is nothing about religion that has anything to do with knowledge or wisdom. We refuse to acknowledge that religion can in any way offer truths about what it means to be a human being. The only thing that can cause more instant hysteria than a gun in school is a Bible.

In “Foundations of Education,” a course I am now taking toward my certification, we are learning about the history of education in the United States. It comes with heavy doses of white guilt. We routinely get PowerPoint presentations about the mistreatment of minority groups. I’m not necessarily against that; it’s important to absorb the painful reality of America’s treatment of minorities, especially blacks. But during a presentation of the history of black education and the Civil Rights movement, I was saddened but not surprised that something had been left out—the very spiritual force that drove Martin Luther King Jr. to fight for justice. I’m not about to have a come to Jesus moment here. It’s just worth noting that in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” one of the philosophers King quotes is St. Thomas Aquinas. King argued the case for the natural law. These days is dismissed as right-wing religious fascism, but to King, it was the cornerstone of the Civil Rights movement. To Aquinas and to King, the natural law is the law of the conscience, which tells us that certain laws are unjust even if they are legal. It is how King changed history, and why there is a pro-life movement. In his letters, King noted that, citing Aquinas, there are just and unjust laws, and man’s conscience can command him to disobey unjust laws.

In my “Foundations of Education” class we learn such King quotes as “injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” But we take them out of context or avoid the greater truths that they point towards. In that quote, King was talking about the common creed, history and geography that binds Americans together: “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states,” he wrote. “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can be considered an outsider in its bounds.” King wasn’t talking about going around the world spreading the gospel of Planned Parenthood and the do-gooder left. He was talking about healing the American family.

Liberals have managed to evacuate not only the public square but the public schools of any religion—including religiously-based arguments that may be true, or if not true can excite students with their moral repercussions. It’s expected to teach kids the biology of sex, but not about love. They are shown that American history is one long, slow march of progress from the slave holding Founding Fathers through the Civil War and women’s rights and the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam, but not what these events may teach us about human nature. They don’t teach what it is to live with honor, whether man has a soul, and what it means to live a good life before our lives are over. It is obeisance to liberal dogma, an obeisance that masquerades as enlightenment. It has completely ruled out of bounds the possibility that there is any form of religious or spiritual knowledge that may make someone a better, wiser human being.

It’s no wonder that students graduate unable to engage in moral argument when they have spent their schooling years learning to avoid the larger questions about life—and why kids surrender themselves to rock and roll, an art form that still offers, excitement, poetry, and engagement with grand themes. The modern education culture is unwilling and incapable of engaging in religious debate or even in religious speculation. This is even true in religious schools. I had gone to Catholic schools most of my life, but they were schools run by liberals, and thus suffered from much of the Christophobia that now marinates the western world. Although I had some great teachers, it wasn’t until 1990, when I came across a book called “The Culture of Narcissism” by Christopher Lasch, that my education began. As I noted in the first installment of this diary, Lasch was a critic of Horace Mann, the 19th century reformer and father of American public education. Lasch died of cancer in 1994, and one of the essays he left behind is “The Soul of Man Under Secularism.” In it, Lasch challenged the modern view of religion as an excuse for moral complacency, noting than many saints and mystics throughout history have known black existential despair. What made them different was the knowledge they gained from their pain. Lasch: “Unable to conceive of a God who does not regard human happiness as the be-all and end-all of creation, they cannot accept the central paradox of religious faith: that the secret of happiness lies in renouncing the right to be happy.”

That sentence should be part of the curriculum in every school in America, if not all of the world. It is not sentiment, but a form of knowledge as important as the periodic table or the dates of World War II. It certainly gave me comfort during that long night in December 2008 when I lay in a hospital bed awaiting my fate. It would turn out that I did have cancer, but it was a non-aggressive form of lymphoma that could be treated. But I didn’t know that yet. As my friends and family got hysterical and doctors gave me morphine and took tests, I felt calm. That is, until I turned on the television. It was the Peanuts Christmas special. Linus was giving his speech about the true meaning of Christmas. Behold, to you a savior is born. Peace on Earth, goodwill towards men. That’s the real meaning, Charlie Brown.

I felt myself start to weep. I wasn’t sad or scared or angry. I just knew I had heard something that was true. Sadly, our schoolchildren are no longer allowed to hear about it, or any other religious truth, even if only to argue the other side.

Augustine Brehon is a name assumed to protect the author, who is currently receiving his education certification near Washington, D.C.