I wanted to be an artist.
My efforts to that end hadn’t produced much fruit, though, so I looked for a change. Being single, I suffered from loneliness and didn’t know whom or how or when to love. The answers, I thought, were scattered all over the world, so the job I took at a little Catholic elementary school teaching religion and history — while giving guitar lessons on the side — was intended to be a short stop on my way somewhere else.
I was a poorly-dressed but energetic teacher, and the teaching was fun. I like to talk about faith. I love telling stories. The school was small, and everyone seemed to love my irreverence — I wore Hawaiian shirts and sandals into the winter and played the music at school Masses like I was performing at a bar.
All things considered, I was doing a good job, and kids were learning. But still, I felt almost entirely without purpose, just filling days to get from one place in time to another. Mostly, I wanted a life and a wife and a purpose and a plan. But I didn’t know where to look. I had a lot of love to give, but couldn’t find anywhere to put it. That I was lucky enough to be in a community full of children looking up to me, eager to receive my best, eluded me.
Then I saw the movie “School of Rock,” in which Jack Black plays a teacher who starts a student rock band. I’d already begun making short movies with my younger students at the end of the school day during a nebulous period known as “enrichment.” I thought, “I can do a school of rock. I could do even more than that.” I don’t know that I was looking for the same rebirth that Black’s character experienced in the film — I just thought it would be fun.
So I started the Film and Rock ‘n Roll class that came to define the next few years of my life. It worked like this: Seventh and eighth grade students could apply to be included in the project, but they needed their parents and other teachers to sign on to the endeavor to ensure they were completing all other aspects of their school and home life.
If accepted, they’d be assigned a job — producer, director, art director, script supervisor, boom operator — and they’d need to be responsible to the project and its leadership. The producer, an eighth grader, was in charge of the whole thing. The director made all of the artistic decisions. The feature-length script was written by a team of writers.
I didn’t tell them what they could or couldn’t do. The casting director held auditions and assigned roles. A location manager scouted spots to film — we shot scenes at a hospital, a pizzeria, local high schools. It was legitimate. And I didn’t charge for it.
But that wasn’t enough. Any kids who played music were invited to join a band with me. We wrote and recorded entire albums to use as scoring and a soundtrack. It was an awesome undertaking. To complete it, I gave up my weekends and my nights after school. I didn’t have a family to go home to at the end of the day, so I just decided to give my love to those who were available to receive it: my students. And they ate it up.
We produced four feature length films. They all revolved around themes we discussed in religion class. There was a retelling of the call of Abram. A modern interpretation of the life of Paul. A commentary on preteen vices involving teacher zombies (yes, teacher zombies — the writers were boys that year). Parents were blown away by the passion the kids had for the whole thing. When we were ready to premiere the films, newspapers and magazines showed up to cover it.
It consumed me. And for the first time in a long time, I had this funny feeling — an idea and a sensation. I couldn’t deny it. I was happy, but not in the way in which I was most familiar. It wasn’t like eating pizza or seeing my favorite team win. The weight of my sadness and loneliness had dissipated. The need to run away and disconnect had evaporated into the ether.
I can’t say I was aware of the process that pulled me from complete self-absorption into a new direction, but it happened while I gave myself to this little community — while 12- and 13-year-olds made art with me, devoting themselves to something possible only with community and cooperation and commitment.
The Man once said His kingdom was like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds. When it takes root in your garden, it’s said to become the biggest of all plants. It’s a good story, but I think we mostly miss its real message.
In first-century Palestine, when the story would have been first told, farmers knew to pull out mustard plants by their roots if found growing in their gardens. It was a weed. It grew and grew and took over everything — the whole garden. So best to pull it at first sight.
That’s “The Kingdom of God” — an aggressive weed. We disregard that which is designed to bring about our best life and redemption — that which overshadows our nastiest blemishes and, hopefully (finally!), brings some actual peace. This uninvited kingdom sprouts within us unexpectedly, and when we find it, we cast it away long before it bears fruit. We don’t recognize it, probably many times, until it ultimately takes root while we’re not looking.
Isn’t that the quintessential story of transformation? How many good stories are really that story? All of them?
Without admitting it explicitly to myself, I gave myself to a community in response to my heaviest longings. I’d avoided that commitment in my past, afraid it would corner me and limit my options. But the opposite was true.
And the grace that flows forth from the decision to give oneself to community seems ongoing. I’ve not gotten to its end. Those 12- and 13-year-olds are young adults now. They come to spoil my children. They invite me to graduation dinners. They believe in offering me a loyalty that I once offered them.
It’s a sacred thing — like a covenant, like a good story in Scripture.