Since I'm writing this blog post about him, John Bosco obviously did NOT become a poor peasant or a negligent priest. He founded two religious orders--the Salesian Society of St. Francis de Sales and the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians--both dedicated to the "care of young boys and girls." Plus, it only took him 46 years to be elevated to the status of sainthood. Considering the fact that some people wait hundreds of years for that distinction, John Bosco's canonization was like a hundred yard dash.
I really like the advice of John Bosco's mother. Basically, it boils down to this: if you can't do something right, don't do it at all. Of course, it probably sounded a lot prettier in Italian. I agree with her. I hate doing any task in a half-ass manner. If I'm involved with any project, if my name is going to be associated with it, I want it to be done well.
I could stop writing there. After all, John Bosco is the patron saint of editors, so I'm sure he would appreciate the brevity and concision. There is wisdom in what I have already written for young and old alike. But, of course, I'm not going to leave it there. It's too easy. Too pat.
So, let me tell you a little story about my years in a PhD program at a prominent Michigan university. I was taking a graduate-level fiction workshop. I already had a Master's degree in fiction writing, so I felt pretty confident about my abilities. I submitted a story to be workshopped. On the night my piece was to be critiqued, the professor did what she normally did: sat back, scratched her snaky mane of black curls, and said, "So what do you guys think?" It wasn't an actual invitation for anyone in the class to speak. This was our opportunity to wait for her to pronounce judgement, like Nero in the Colosseum. After a minute of uncomfortable silence and shuffling papers, she opened her pinched mouth and said something along the lines of, "This story belongs in a high school class, not my graduate level fiction master seminar." I'm sure what she said was more tactful than that, but the result was the same. She had drawn first blood. What ensued was an hour-long feeding frenzy. When graduate student writers sense weakness, they turn on each other like teenage boys at a dodge ball game. They do this either to deflect attention from their own inadequacies, or to draw attention to their ability to agree with the professor's opinion the most. At the end of my hour of glory, I felt raw, exposed, eviscerated. When the class took a break, I packed up my books and left.
I didn't retire to the fields of Turin to tend sheep, but I wasn't able to write fiction again for almost three years. To this day, when I show off a story I've written, I have the impulse to immediately apologize for it. A few months ago, when I was cleaning out a desk drawer, I found a copy of my infamous story from that painful night. I have to admit, it wasn't the best thing I've ever written, but it wasn't that bad, either.
What I learned from that experience is that, as a teacher, I have the power to build up or completely crush my student's confidence and self-esteem. I try to keep in mind the hurt I felt that night when I now enter the classroom as an instructor. I don't want to inflict the same trauma on any of the boys and girls in my charge. John Bosco would appreciate that, I think.