Wednesday, September 15, 2004

My Summer at Rosedale By Elizabeth Cheffers

I am of an idealistic turn of mind; perhaps I might even rightly be classified as a helpless romantic. I won’t try and deny it. My friends and family don’t even mention the words “fairy tale” around me because they know I will go off on one of my speeches about how important good children’s literature is. My life’s ambition is to be an English teacher, and so when I heard about a program run by Opus Dei called Rosedale I signed up without a moment’s hesitation.

Rosedale is the name of an all girls educational program in the South Bronx which has as its main focus a summer academic achievement program for girls in fifth through eighth grade. For five weeks in the summer they accept eighty girls into the program and give them classes in reading, writing, math, drama, cultural geography and character. I was asked to teach the writing class, and was naturally thrilled. And although they explained exactly what our responsibilities were going to be before we arrived, I’ll admit I had no idea of what that actually meant.

I think it hit me when we were decorating our classrooms before the first day of classes. I was hanging up posters of the various parts of speech and humming to myself when I saw the teacher’s desk out of the corner of my eye all alone in front of the blackboard. “Wait a minute”, I thought. “That’s my desk!” I’m eighteen years old and have ten younger siblings, so I thought I understood what responsibility was before I signed up for Rosedale, but when I saw that desk I suddenly realized what a huge responsibility it was to teach these girls. Each of the teachers teaches six classes a day, takes the girls to daily mass, and is assigned seven girls to mentor weekly. That first day in the classroom and in the days that followed I realized that I was being asked for more than I could give.

Once I realized this, however, teaching became much simpler. I had been receiving formation through Opus Dei since I was in high school and I knew, at least in my mind, that God asks all of us to give more than we have so that we can realize that without Him we can do nothing. Saint Josemaria’s words in The Way “Don’t forget, silly child, that love has made you almighty” helped me to be able to look at Him and laugh when I stumbled in class and said the wrong thing or when I lost my temper with a particularly difficult girl. I lived those five weeks relying completely on the grace of God to keep me from giving up on myself. I came to understand in a very real way the meaning of Saint Josemaria’s well known phrase, “ the glorious freedom of the children of God”. To be a contemplative, I understood a little better, to be completely free in the midst of a hostile world, is as simple as being aware of yourself as a child in her father’s presence.

Of course I must admit that although I had moments when I came to understand better the grace of God I also had moments when I turned it down and fell apart. By the sixth class of the day all I wanted to do was collapse somewhere and throw the Easy Grammar book out the window. I felt discouraged and depressed when I came to know the girls better and some of the horrible circumstances they were living in. I felt that as an adult I had a responsibility to change something, to try to make it better, but I couldn’t. One of the girls I ate lunch with lived in the projects and one day mentioned that the night before she and her mother had stood outside their building for hours while the police tried to take away a sniper who was hiding inside, going from apartment to apartment. She took a bite of her sandwich and confided in me that it made her upset to see the needles and vomit in the elevator and lobby, but there wasn’t anywhere else to go. I almost thought I was going to be sick when I thought of all I take for granted.

Of course there were the good moments too. One day one of my younger girls shyly handed me a love poem she had written to me while I was correcting her paper. We took the girls on excursions every Friday, and I’ll never forget the smiles on some of their faces when they went swimming at a beach for the first time. The best advice that the veterans of the program gave to the teachers when we came was not to get too worried about educational philosophies and our curriculum, but to look at each girl individually and think and pray about what they needed from us. The best moments were when I would try to make a special effort to be gentle with a particularly shy or sad girl and she would give me a timid smile that would break your heart with the trust written there.

With such an intense workday all of the teachers needed to be able to go somewhere afterward and relax. We were all living in a center of Opus Dei in New Rochelle that was a true home to all of us. The women living there welcomed us into their home, fed us, cleaned up after us, made sure a snack was waiting for us when we got home and offered up their work for ours. This sense of family and belonging helped all of us to be happy even though we were all far away from home. They offered us the opportunity to receive the sacraments daily, to take classes to improve our teaching skills and most importantly they offered us the opportunity to live with Jesus, present in the chapel.

Perhaps the most memorable part of Rosedale was, at least for me, the friends I made there. The teachers all rely on each other for help, consolation and enthusiasm. We would give ourselves a pep talk in the van riding to school cheering, “Who’s in charge? We are! We are! Who knows more? We do! We do!” At night or on weekends we would go into New York City and see the sites ( the free ones). Playing tag in the pouring rain, drinking way too much iced coffee and sometimes just putting my head in my friends’ laps and wailing at the end of a long day are my most treasured memories.

In all, Rosedale was not just a traditional service project, “a good experience”. It taught me how much I have to learn and how much I have to give. It made me want to teach for the rest of my life. More than that though, the spirit of Opus Dei that sustains it inspired me to want to be a saint, no matter what I do. My favorite quote of Saint Josemaria’s sums it up exactly, “ Dream, and your dreams will fall short.”