BY: Fr. Robert DeLeon Csc

Matthew 22:34-40
“A lawyer asked, ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:36-37, 39) What does it mean to be called teacher? And how does one teach effectively? I would dare to say that the most effective teachers do their best work outside of the classroom. Reminiscing on my own high school years, the enduring lessons had little to do with subject matter. What mattered most was experiencing the caring interest of teachers.

To this day, it’s them I remember, not the subject matter. While preparing to be a teacher myself, a truth emerged that captures what I had experienced:
Good teachers love their subject matter. The best teachers love both their subject matter and their students. I wanted to be one of these.
When, in the early 1980s, having been a high school English teacher for 10 years, I switched roles, becoming once again a student, a gently eccentric British woman inviting me, through the study of sacred scripture, into her own personal life of faith. Dr. Josephine Massyngbaerde Ford, the very first female Notre Dame faculty member to receive tenure (1968), was a legendary figure even before I registered for her graduate theology course (Johannine Literature). While I knew that some in the higher elevations of academia thought her crazy while kinder colleagues thought unconventional about covered it, from the first day of class, when this small woman approached us twenty students with a lilting British accent and floor-length sweeping skirt, I knew I was going to like her.

Among us students, Dr. Ford had her favorites, and she was unabashed in her gentler treatment of them. Then there were those others, mostly cocky seminarians, who were not among her favorites, and they, too, quickly learned the score. Not to boast, but I made it to the list of favorites through my instantaneous bonding with Winston, her dog, an affectionate yellow Labrador.

Winston and I first met on a dark fall evening when the class gathered at Dr. Ford’s home for a shared reading of the Book of Revelation. Having emphasized in class the context in which this mysterious book was written, she thought the classroom too sterile a setting for a full appreciation of the text. So on an evening near Halloween we sat in a circle before her fireplace with hot tea and biscuits to read the entirety of St. John’s words to a persecuted infant church.

Early on, Winston wandered into the room and, after Dr. Ford provided a formal introduction, the dog settled right in front of me, he and I sharing bits of biscuit. Not long after this, I volunteered to chauffeur dog and mistress to the home of a classmate for another evening reading. Winston sat in the center of the back seat, head held high, tongue wagging in appreciation, stately as royalty.

As semester’s end neared, Dr. Ford informed us that there would be an oral exam. With one week of classes to go, she presented us with five questions that were major points of discussion during the semester. We were to prepare answers for all five questions, then, at the actual time of the exam, we would each discuss one topic of our own choosing, and she would choose another topic from among the four remaining. On the last day of class, she posted a listing of exam times, all to be held at her home at half-hour intervals. I prayed that Winston would be around to help me through.

On the appointed January morning, I drove to Dr. Ford’s home and walked the path to her front door, meeting the departing fellow student at the doorway. No words were passed as I saw what looked like tears ready to explode from her swollen eyes. Entering the living room with held breath, I saw only the blazing fireplace and Winston sitting at attention waiting for the next victim. Calling out loudly that I’d arrived, I sat on the floor with Winston and rubbed his belly as he licked my hand.

Then the miracle I’d prayed for! Her voice from the kitchen called out, “I have a cake in the oven that’s almost finished and I can’t leave it just yet, so tell Winston everything you know about Johannine Literature.” So I began to talk to the smiling dog about St. John. Winston already knew about the social context in which John wrote, and he’d heard a hundred times about the significance of light in John’s Gospel. But as long as I scratched and rubbed and tickled, he let me babble on, engaging him in scholarly monologue for thirty minutes, Dr. Ford hearing not a word of it. Finally, with the cake done, the oral exam over and Winston thoroughly satisfied, I went home, course completed with a final grade of A-minus.

What does it mean to be called teacher? And how does one teach effectively? Jesus the teacher addressed the Pharisees on the essence of the law, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-37, 39) So I believe it was with the gently eccentric Dr. Ford. While she loved the Sacred Scriptures, she acknowledged the most sacred earthly home of God to be in the persons of her students (and probably her dog) as she fed us with knowledge at her own fireplace, biscuits, tea and the affections of Winston inviting us, charming us, into a world that so captivated her.

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