Please join us in thanking the following organizations for supporting the 2016 Monroe Catholic High School graduation festivities:
Reflection by Nancy Hanson
Director of the Catholic Schools of Fairbanks
I want to talk a bit about God…faith…community….Joseph, his family….and us.
I begin with a story from my life.
The summer of 1968, freshman year at Lathrop complete…summer at Harding Lake. July 16, an idyllic day, spent with my friend Janet. We skied and swam. Each of our families would go to town that night for groceries and return the following evening…we anticipated summer fun ahead. That next day, just before dinner, my dad said—I have something to tell you… “Janet, her mother and brother were killed in a car accident on the way back to the lake.” Life stopped.
While my parents had us kids attend the Mormon Church, they were not comfortable with faith and were even more uncomfortable with a teenager’s grief. A church friend said something incomprehensible to me a day or two after Janet’s death. Her words, “Janet’s death was God’s will.” My tenuous hold on faith was severed. I looked at the friend and said, I’m done—I don’t need that God. In those days, people didn’t deal much with grief and sorrow. It—grief combined with anger-was packed up inside a person…not talked about, not dealt with, not expressed.
I had no idea I would end up teaching at Monroe eleven years later. I was honest when interviewed—I’m not Catholic, I’m not certain I believe in God. I will listen to and honor the faith of the school. Perhaps it was that honesty that led to me being hired. I, who had quit God and Church, stepped into a new world. Prayer at school, Mass, retreats with juniors and seniors, prayers before games. There were families and students who changed my life….through them and faculty members, I came to know a God of love…a God whose will was this: that we believe in and love a God of great love; that we love one another as Jesus modeled during his life—Jesus who cared for people on the fringes, those who were sick, hurting, frightened, mourning.
We ask why, why did Joseph die? We may never know. God did not will Joseph’s death. Joseph’s heart failed…and our hearts are broken. God’s will comes into play now. Love God. With God, Joseph is okay…and, he is with you, inside your heart, with his parents, with Michael and Christian.
Love one another: tend to one another in this uneven and rocky field of emotions—emotions that are different for each of you; expressed at times in anger (that’s okay and very real), expressed in uncertainty, tears, in bleak darkness, in needing to be with others, needing to be alone.
Heart pain abounds amongst us—not just in the teens, but in the adult hearts, too. How do class and team-mates, faculty, parents and friends get through? By being community. By believing in God’s love…by knowing that we are the hands, feet, eyes, ears, heart of Jesus, of Christ for one another.
Today’s Mass is a gift. We come together, to process this incredibly sudden and pain-filled death…to begin the healing of our own hearts…as individuals, as community.
We take time to gather, from one another and from God, the courage and strength to be present to Jim, Kathleen, Michael and Christian.
Pain can envelope us and is often difficult-- scary to share. How do we talk to one another about our own sorrow? Teens to one another, teens with parents, parents and colleagues to one another? What do we say to Christian, to Joseph’s family? How do we navigate this? We recognize, first, that we are an incredible community…and the answers of what to do emerge; a hug, a hand held, a shoulder to lean on, a courageous look into the eyes of one another and the Balkos—perhaps saying—you are held in prayer, I’m here for you…to listen, to walk, to just be.
School just ended. How do we be present to Christian when school in not in session? How do colleagues remain present to Kathleen, and Nordale’s colleagues to Jim? How do we respect their need to grieve as family with our need to hold them?
We begin today by being together—strengthening ourselves for the funeral to come. The school and chapel will be open throughout the week. You can sit in the chapel or commons, talk with Ms. Krause
and the administrative team, this is your school—a place for you to be.
And, we even begin to think ahead…how do we walk alongside Christian who knew he’d be a senior with Joseph a sophomore? How do we accompany Joseph’s classmates as they try to understand the hole left behind by his death? How do Michael’s fellow alum stay in touch with him?
What I know about you is that you know God’s will—you know to love one another through this. I know the strength of our school community; we—you—will walk alongside the Balkos.
Yesterday Kathleen whose faith we encounter daily—a faith which is a glowing beacon said: “We’ve been blessed as family to have Joseph for 15 years and now he is with God.”
Joseph, so alive in their hearts and in yours…you will know and feel the presence of Joseph in the days, weeks and months ahead.
Kathleen also said, “ICC is our parish. Jim wants the funeral to be at school. Joseph loved the school.” You know that. Joseph loved the school; his dad and brother are alum, this is his mom’s school and Christian’s, and his—Joseph loves this school-family, his faith, you.
The will of God is that we be community for the Balkos…today, at the funeral, all summer, and as school commences in August. These halls, this chapel will be a different place for Kathleen and Christian, for each of us….and yet they will be the same—a vibrant refuge of faith and love.
We take time together to grieve, to hurt, to hold one another…and to prepare for our journey ahead—taking care of the Balkos. How? Write notes and mail them, it’s an odd and old concept—but notes or cards in the mailbox will mean a ton to Jim and Kathleen. Call or text Christian…drop by his house-- he may not accept your invitation to “play,” but he will know you are thinking about him and in time, he will join you; the same is true for Michael; hold them as family and as individuals in prayer. Believe in the power of prayer—as short and simple as: Please God, be with Christian, Michael, Jim, Kathleen.
The tradition and ritual of Mass give us time to realize that God is tending to us, not causing the painful times…but here with us…urging us to dare to love—to dare to take care of one another…and so we begin with one of Joseph and Christian’s favorite songs, “Lord, I lift your name on high”….please stand,—tears may flow as you sing, that’s okay.
Thank you, this is obviously a tremendous honor to address the Graduating Class of 2016 here at Monroe. While I am certainly excited about giving this speech today, what I am most excited about is that tonight I will finally get some sleep. I cannot tell you how many times I have laid in bed reciting this speech, turning it over in my mind, changing words, trying to get it right. Finally, I came to the conclusion, if I would have worked this hard in preparing for Grace Christian, maybe we would have scored more than two points in the entire 4th quarter! How do you score a total of 2 points in a quarter?
About five years ago I was asked to give the graduation speech in Chevak, a village in Western Alaska. As I often do when faced with a unique challenge, I asked Mrs. Hanson for some advice. I remember sitting down upstairs in Mrs. Hanson’s office as I have done a hundred times and she looked at me and said something I will never forget. She said, “Remember, nobody is coming to the graduation to hear you speak. Keep it short.” I thought that was great advice and I will try to adhere to that today. However, if you know me at all, you know that will be a challenge.
I want to start by telling you how envious I am of each of you.
I am envious, because today you will become lifelong members of the greatest community I have ever known – The Catholic Schools of Fairbanks Community. For the rest of your life, when you achieve some level of success, you will not only hear the applause from your classmates, but from the thousands of other members of this community who have come before you and will come after you, cheering as they celebrate and share in your triumph. And when you face tragedy – and you will face tragedy - you will never face it alone. You will feel the arms of every person in this great community wrap around you and lift you, giving you the necessary strength, courage and hope, to get up off the ground and put one foot in front of the other and move forward with your life.
Most kids graduate and spend their whole lives searching for something to belong to, something to be a part of, and if they are lucky, they will find a few people who care about them…However, not you. You will have that times a thousand. For the rest of your life, wherever you go, you will never have to search, because you will always be able to depend on this community, through the good times and the bad.
So when I tell you I am envious, believe me, I mean it with all my heart.
For the last eight years I have sat out in the crowd just as you are doing today and listened as someone in my shoes has come to this podium and given a great speech and dispensed with exceptional wisdom and advice. I have decided to take a different approach for two primary reasons. First, as the class of 2016 will tell you, I am not exceptionally wise and secondly as their parents will tell you, at their age, they already think they know everything and pretty much have all the answers, so advice would be wasted. So, instead of Wisdom and Advice, I have decided today to Challenge the class of 2016.
Your first challenge is for you to always seek out excellence. Wherever and whenever you find it, admire it and appreciate it for its beauty and for the extraordinary effort that went into creating it. Understand, excellence doesn’t just happen, it takes thousands of hours along with blood, sweat and most likely tears, to create. When you find it, study it and learn from it. Apply the efforts necessary to create such excellence, to your life, and in doing so, I am confident you will find a measure of success in your own careers. I have no doubt you will recognize excellence when you see it, because you have been witness to it each day in the lectures of Mr. Riggs, the smile and chocolate chip cookies of Mrs. Wallace, the determination and dedication of Mrs. Hanson. You have witnessed it in the teachers, administration and your classmates, everyday, here, within these schools.
Your second challenge is to be tough. In my 45 years of life I have been led to one absolute and unequivocal truth – life is not fair. If life were fair, let’s be honest, I would be much better looking. (Where’s my wife? Yep, there she is agreeing. It took 21 years but she’s finally agreeing with something I said). When things go wrong - and they will go wrong – do not whine, do not complain, do not be a sniveling clod of ailments, be tough. When something goes wrong that you have no control over, lean on your faith. When something goes wrong that you do control, when you make a mistake, when you fail, look into the mirror, accept responsibility for your failure, be accountable and find a solution. Improvise, Adapt, Overcome – Find a way. Understand, your lot in life, the house you live in, the car you drive, the spouse you marry and the success or failure of your children is in your hands, no one else. Do not blame others, do not make excuses and for goodness sake, never give up. I am confident each of you possesses the toughness necessary to not simply survive, but thrive, because toughness has been demanded of you in the classrooms, the fields, the court, the track, the trail, on the pitch, the diamond, wherever it is you have chosen to compete and represent these great schools.
Your third challenge is to be kind. This may sound simple, but I am going to make this challenge harder. I challenge you to be kind to those who are not necessarily kind to you. When you are faced with insolence, rudeness, arrogance and disrespect, and out right jerkiness, I challenge you to respond with a smile and a kind word. I once heard it said, “What reward, what joy, is there in only loving those who love you?” I cannot say it any better than that. I have no doubt you will move on with kindness in your heart, because kindness has been taught and expected of you every single day in the halls and classrooms of these great schools.
Your fourth challenge is to be a person of service. To go forth and wherever you should choose to settle down, call home and raise a family, make it a better place by giving of your time, your energy and your God given talents. Coach a team, read to a class or volunteer at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter. Find a way to get involved. And when the time comes to write a check, do so, willingly, but understand that while that money may be necessary and those receiving it may be very grateful, writing that check should never take the place of the giving of your time, your energy and talent. I have no doubt that each of you will move on and become tremendous soldiers of service, because service has become an expectation of you through your yearly RAMS Day, the service projects and countless service hours required of you here in these great schools.
Your final challenge is to be grateful, to understand the value of saying thank you. When the celebration of this day has died down, when the relatives have gone home and the house has been cleaned, to find who ever is responsible for your being afforded the best education our community has to offer, whether it is your mom and dad, grandma or grandpa, aunt or uncle, Mrs. Hanson, whoever it is and look them in the eye, wrap your arms around them, tell them you love them and say thank you. Thank them for the incredible sacrifice they have made so you could live, love, laugh, learn and pray, here in these great schools.
And then, go forth, Open to Growth, Committed to Doing Justice, Committed to Learning something new every day, committed to your faith and to loving those around you. Go forth as a Soldier of Service, with Kindness and Gratitude in your heart, and the necessary toughness to remain undeterred, in your life’s search for excellence.
Those will be the expectations demanded of each of you. A task most would find daunting, but a challenge you will find simple, because today you become Monroe Catholic High School Graduates and life long members of this extraordinary community – The Catholic Schools of Fairbanks. And that means, there is NOTHING you cannot do.
Yes, I am so envious of each of you.
To the Class of 2016, may God bless and protect each and every one of you on your life’s journey. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your special day. Congratulations.
Graduation. It would seem to be the culmination of everything we do at the Catholic Schools of Fairbanks. On Friday, twenty-four students will stand at Baccalaureate, sing praises, and be blessed before graduation. On Friday, twenty-four students will sit on stage and walk across it to receive in hand a piece of gilded paper that represents the hard work that they have done these past thirteen years – the end of one journey and the beginning of another.
Sitting on that stage, those students represent the profile of a Monroe Graduate at Graduation. At the end of this journey, they recognize the necessity of remaining open to growth, intellectually competent, religious, loving, and committed to doing justice, and that those traits are not a destination but a constantly sublated goal. Hopefully, as they sit in those pews, as they sit on that stage, listening to the speeches, they will look back and see that we have modeled those traits for them.
Watching the graduation speeches take shape, I know that, at the moment, the students are most profoundly touched by the love that the Catholic Schools of Fairbanks has shown them. That love we have for our students is why it would be a mistake to think of graduation as the culmination of what we do at Monroe. In the years to come, we will be there to answer questions on homework. We will be there to mentor them, or to give them a safe harbor to vent their frustrations. We will provide a location for marriages, and we will be there to help educate their children. Some of them may even take up the mantle of teaching themselves. Yes, in time, we may also host funerals. That is why I teach at Monroe – because our students never do leave our care, even as they become our colleagues.
With springtime and the end of the year, the students have a lot of energy, and cannot wait to be done, yet they are not done. Please help us encourage them to get late work turned in, and to study for finals. Remind them that school rules, including adhering to the dress code, are still in effect at the end of the year – I would hate for anyone to get into trouble at this late date. Students also need to start cleaning out their lockers.
Finally, I would like to give a shout out to all of the students who participated in the play, and to all of the people who donated time, effort, and money to make it happen. If you missed it, the performance was hilarious, with great moments from everyone involved.