Stories of Hope: Human Dignity at School

As a John Paul II fellow for the Center for Family Life at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, I have loved helping in the public schools, teaching the Human Dignity Curriculum which explores themes of the inherent dignity of the every person, the importance of family and authentic friendship, and the nature of human freedom. However, more important than the content is the way it is presented.

As the Human Dignity Curriculum was gaining traction in Atchison, it began to be noticed on a wider stage. The United Nations welcomed Latisha Downing, then the principal at Central School, to a presentation for the 67th Session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women in New York. For this presentation, Latisha asked a few students to be a part of an interview. She related the story to us of one of the students that we had been working with, who I’ll call Caleb.

Caleb had been having behavioral problems at Central School. However, since the implementation of the Human Dignity Curriculum, he had shown marked improvement. Due to this change in behavior, Principal Downing selected him as one of the students to be interviewed. When Caleb was asked to be interviewed about the curriculum, he was ecstatic. The next day, this normally disheveled boy showed up to school in a clean and ironed shirt complete with a nicer pair of pants and his best pair of tennis shoes. Caleb was so excited to be interviewed he had asked his mother for a nice set of clothes. He came to school washed up and wearing his clean new clothes, all dressed up and eager to share his new hope with the world.

Caleb’s story is just one I want to share. It is beautiful to see lives transformed by a sense of purpose.

Permission and Freedom

“The medium is the message” and this is why I am so grateful to be a St. John Paul II Fellow. Since our beginning, the Fellows have been involved at Central School in Atchison, Kansas.

In our first year we simply spent time with the students. Rather than teaching any content, we taught by the witness of our lives that the students’ lives could be different. The next year we proposed the Human Dignity Curriculum to the school. The curriculum was developed by Anna Halpine and her team at World Youth Alliance in New York. Once it was approved, we began helping teach it. Even in our service as tutors, however, our role is very much the same.

We provide a witness to the students as well as engaging in the content they are learning with them. We participate with them in all the activities of the curriculum. The teachers have told me and other fellows that having us in the classroom helps the students pay attention and get excited about the content. Ideas are powerful; when they are taught as livable, they can transform people’s lives.

Johnny’s Win

Nothing can be more crushing to a young boy than losing a game at the last second. A flood of emotion comes, and it can be very hard to not react impulsively or negatively. Add in someone cheating and you get a recipe for disaster. Knowing this and experiencing many cases of quick negative reactions to failure in the students, I was surprised one day by the calm response of one of the students. I’ll call him Johnny.

We were playing an interactive quiz game over the content of the Human Dignity lesson for the day. Johnny was in the lead with the most correct answers, although just barely. Johnny’s face was beaming, and he was very proud of his lead. We had one question left and as every student paused to answer it, one child in the back cried out, “the answer is B!” Seconds later, everyone had answered B, including Johnny. Everyone, that is, except for the boy who had cried out the “correct” answer. The answer was not B, and the trick had worked. On the screen, Johnny had lost his first-place status, and the ultimate winner was the boy in the back who cheated his way to victory.

I looked to see how Johnny would respond, fearing a tantrum. Tantrums were frequent in the classroom by all the students.

I saw Johnny pause and close his eyes. Then he said calmly, “You only won because you cheated.” Then he took another deep breath and put away his tablet. He didn’t say anything remarkable; he didn’t do anything remarkable. Yet he stopped himself from saying and doing any number of things! His calm actions were truly remarkable. The ideas in the Human Dignity Curriculum gave this young boy the permission to make a good choice, the permission to not return evil for evil. In a class full of misbehaving kids, Johnny had made the choice to behave excellently. Surrounded by so many bad examples, Johnny had been given the freedom to act differently. This is precisely the sort of freedom that he can use to escape the cycle of bad influences he witnesses in other areas of his life.

Joy and support

Zach spent the whole first year in the Human Dignity Curriculum shy and elusive. He would respond in two words or fewer and hide in the anonymity of the class. Despite my efforts to connect with him, he was very good at staying to himself and avoiding others. I didn’t stop trying, however. Throughout the year, I went for an hour each week to their weekly P.E. class. The second-to-last week, by several coincidences, Zach was the only one in the class. As the teacher had us do our laps and stretches, Zach was characteristically quiet. Yet, when we began to play one-on-one basketball, Zach suddenly began opening up. I learned about his family life, his interests, his hopes and fears. Zach has had a tough life and has a very limited number of relationships that support him. Almost no one in his life has shown commitment to him. As someone near him in age, my weekly commitment to his class and to building a relationship with him allowed him to finally trust me and open himself up to a relationship of joy.

This is why I love the John Paul II Fellows, and the Human Dignity Curriculum. It’s in the unmeasurable impact with students like Caleb, Johnny, and Zach that the true success of our work with the Human Dignity Curriculum lies. It’s the power of truth, witness, and commitment in the context of a relationship that is at work.

The effect we are having doesn’t stop with these students, either.

Perhaps the most heartwarming part of Caleb’s story is that he told the principal that he hoped the video of his U.N. interview would be seen by his older brother. Caleb’s life had been changed, and he wanted to spread the message that changed him to his brother so that he too could be happier and make excellent choices. In a world of narrow possibilities, and few opportunities for success, Caleb had been given purpose and the ability to choose to live differently from the way his circumstances would suggest. We want that for everyone.

Benjamin Hoopes

Benjamin Hoopes is a theology major and John Paul II Fellow at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, his hometown. He has served as a tutor for public school students in Atchison and served the homeless through Christ in the City. He founded a Wi-Fi-free residence floor at Benedictine College.