Mr. Stephen Nicholson, SJ
A Reflection on Long Experiment
During his long experiment, Steve Nicholson taught at Fairfield Preparatory School in Fairfield, CT.
After being assigned to Fairfield Prep for my Long Experiment, it came as no surprise when friends, family, and Jesuits alike repeated the advice oft-given to new teachers: "Whatever you do, don't smile until Christmas." Lucky for me, my assignment didn’t begin until January and would only last until May, so keeping a straight face until Christmas was out of the question. It was just as well; I wouldn’t have lasted a day.
Well, maybe that’s not entirely accurate. My transition into the new assignment was actually quite challenging, and in the weeks leading up to my arrival, I was terrified. What did I know about teaching high school? Heck, I was still a novice, not having professed my first vows as a Jesuit; this felt something like being drafted into the pros right out of high school. Former Jesuit provincial Ed Kinerk, SJ, wrote of the experiments of the novitiate that they should provide an opportunity for the novice to rely more on the grace of God than on his own resources; in other words, that they should be a stretch. For me, that couldn’t have been truer of high school teaching and campus ministry. Crazy as it may sound, the thought of being at the front of a high school classroom made me more nervous than anything else I’d done to date, as a Jesuit or otherwise. I would have felt more comfortable returning to the jail where I’d once done ministry with inmates, or perhaps the palliative care facility where I’d assisted terminal cancer patients during their final days. Full immersion language school in Bolivia, development work in Zambia, or spending time with homeless folks in the US – for whatever reason, all of these seemed more comfortable options than teaching at a college prep school in Fairfield County, Connecticut. But, there I was. I had told my novice director that I thought I was ready for something challenging, and he took me seriously.
But that is where the smiles come into picture. I’ve long since come to believe in a God not of tests, but of opportunities. So, butterflies in my stomach, and chemistry notes in hand, I began the semester, wondering what opportunities God would present for me both to love the people I would meet, and, sometimes more difficult for me, to accept their love in return. As God would have it, opportunities to do both have been plentiful.
A steady routine of chemistry classes filled most of my days, and provided the foundation for the relationships with the students that would follow. Little though I knew about teaching, the boys were eager and curious, and I found that I genuinely enjoyed problem-solving with them, introducing new ideas, and broadening their intellectual horizons. And, I quickly discovered, I didn’t need to know everything after all. “I don’t know,” was an acceptable answer, especially when followed up by, “but I’ll find out for you,” or, better yet, “what do you think?”
Building upon these foundations laid in the classroom, perhaps the most meaningful part of my time at Fairfield has been the opportunity to participate in various retreats and service trips, of which there have been no shortage. Spiritual retreats for each grade level, service trips to nearby Bridgeport and faraway Guayaquil, Ecuador, events for both mothers and fathers and their sons, and opportunities for alumni of the school to continue in their spiritual journey happily punctuated the spring semester. Fairfield Prep offers something for everyone. It was such a privilege and consolation for me to participate in these varied experiences with different cross-sections of the school community, and I took away something from each one.
It has been these intensive experiences of community building, personal reflection, spiritual growth, and service with the students that have shown me what Jesuit secondary education really has to offer, and why Ignatius and his first companions made it a priority not long after the founding of the Society of Jesus. It has been these experiences, too, that have allowed me to get to know the students at Prep on a much deeper level than the chemistry classroom often allows, and to be moved and inspired by their goodness. In the face of the myriad challenges of adolescence, they remain joyful, hopeful, and resilient. And they look out for each other, never taking the phrase “Prep brotherhood” lightly in describing their school community. It’s been here, in the small group conversations, the walks taken to talk about the challenges of friendship and dating, or the chatter over meals that eventually transitions into a conversation about faith and vocation, that I have found God to be powerfully present this spring. And it is here that I have found that God will in fact work through me as a minister, but also ask me to let myself be ministered to in my own need.
What I have come to see is that Fairfield Prep is a true community, and one in which everyone has something to contribute. The boys bring their earnestness, their curiosity, and their zeal for life. The faculty, too, have been so inspiring to me, in the way that they commit themselves to the Ignatian vision of education, and to the Jesuit mission of the school. They give of themselves so freely and so generously, and have modeled for me what it can mean to live out a vocation of service in the world. Families and alums support the community through their involvement in the life of the school both academically and extracurricularly.
So what of my role? What is it, when all is said and done, that I have contributed to this community of faith, and this vibrant Jesuit apostolate? I guess I’ve come to see that it hasn’t been any one thing, and that my initial nerves were largely unfounded. I wasn’t asked to be the best high school chemistry teacher there ever was, or even the best campus minister. I think it’s safe to say, too, that I’m still learning what it means to be a Jesuit. But that’s just it – nervous as I was before I arrived that I wouldn’t do any of these things well enough, I came to find out that that wasn’t what this wonderful group of people expected of me, anyway. What they have asked me to do, in short, is to be myself. That means bringing whatever of the imperfect, work-in-progress that I am to this place, complete with my own questions, doubts, and insecurities, as well as my passions, gifts, and talents, and being here with other people doing the same thing, whatever their age, vocation, or status in life. And it is in this shared journey of faith that I have been so affirmed in the vocation that I was sent here to find out something more about, and that I have sensed the community confirming in me, even calling out of me. The words of our 32nd General Congregation come to mind: “What is it to be a Jesuit today? It is to know that one is a sinner, yet called to be a companion of Jesus as Ignatius was.”
That is what I have found to be true through all of the people, events, and experiences of this long experiment at Fairfield Prep. And that’s the reason that I just can’t help but smile.