The Tripartite Nature of the Teacher: Discerning Merlin, Courageous Mentes, Humble Vergil

Literature offers chances to learn how to face real life as heroes have, and our students have every opportunity to go on a heroic journey of a lifetime too, if only we teachers learn about them.

When the basketball team makes late-night trips home from away-games, students are bound to be bleary-eyed and slack-shouldered during silent reading. We make time for reflection and quiet available to students so they have a moment of leisure in their day. When I looked up to check-in with them today, an image rushed upon and hit me—so many Telemachoi awaiting the adventures of their lives. They will face toil and encounter peace, bear trials and relish joys. The weariness and difficulties as well as the joyful moments of life are only now beginning to give them pause and leave them wondering. Then, other heroes and their teachers came to mind: Merlin with Arthur, Vergil and Dante. Literature offers chances to learn how to face real life as heroes have, and our students have every opportunity to go on a heroic journey of a lifetime too, if only we teachers learn about them. Having come to know them, we must take courage and call them to join the quest. After this, they journey along with us as we guide them through the depths and urge them toward the heights. May we teachers learn from other masters and may we too be as discerning as Merlin, as courageous as Mentes, and as humble as Vergil.

To begin, we need the wisdom and discernment of Merlin to see the beauty, glory, and potential of those we work with. The early story of Arthur and his adoption by Sir Ector bears testimony to Merlin’s wisdom and insight into the well-being of Arthur and the future of the kingdom. Much rests on this assessment of the good within Arthur and preserving him for potential greatness. By his various arts, Merlin knew what was to come for the kingdom and how best to prepare Arthur for that day. We teachers have the same task before us that Merlin acted upon: bearing in mind the future well-being of our students as well as the good of our communities while we apprehend the glorious people who sit before us on a daily basis.

And as C. S. Lewis discussed in the The Weight of Glory, those around us are immortals and are imbued with immense glory. Often, we take for granted how incredible and amazing we each are, “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.” Yes, we may find it difficult to guide, inspire, and challenge those in our classrooms who may be slacking in their dedication or insipid in their enthusiasm. Yet, teachers have the opportunity each day to reckon with the beauty and glory before us, if only we had the eyes to see. Communities need people who have been respected, dignified, and honored from an early age, since our students can then treat others as they have seen and received. We all hope that our example resonated and built up the kingdom. The monotony of the everyday can cloud the insights we may gain in an effort to call onward and upward. Yet, like Merlin, teachers need to see and know the beauty, dignity, glory, and honor of each student in the here and now so that all action carries itself onward to the envisioned, imagined future.

This yet-to-be future for our young ones reminds us to call out and beckon our students to join us on a quest. School mirrors real life: expectations, relationships, discipline, goals, hopes, and trials. Our schools have every opportunity to form our students for life by living well now and preparing for the future. So too, Athena urges Telemachus to take on life as it is and to participate in a journey. The students who walk the halls and fill the rooms of our schools need to be reminded that this quest awaits them in whatever strain or shape that may present itself. Some, like Telemachus, may be called to find a parent or family, some will sacrifice for the good of the community, some may indeed prepare for battles of flesh and blood, while others will encounter powers less discernible than physical enemies. Yet the call remains the same, “You must not cling to your boyhood any longer—it’s time you were a man.”2 The command to choose between the depths or the shallows of life takes courage and determination. In order to make the call more meaningful and influential, teachers must have gained knowledge of who their students are and discerned the best time to make this evocation.

In a recent conversation with a freshman boy, I called him to mind his surroundings, notice how he reacts to events that may frustrate or bother him, and urged him to join the journey to manhood: a journey of being a person for others and knowing when to act with mercy even though, in his mind and from his perspective, a teacher only said something to slight him. My conversation with him followed several other, longer meetings and small, quick encounters that led me to know that this moment was my time to call him to greater heights. These conversations were possible because of my own experiences during the last couple of years in college. I had a good friend and mentor who called me to greatness rather than allowing life to pass me by without participating in it and blaming things on others or my circumstances. He helped me become a man when I really needed it and I am grateful that I had him in my life. Now, I want my students to have those conversations earlier in their lives than when I had. We teachers have opportunities to call upon students to grow and to remain accountable with them. We can never journey through life alone.

The third part of the teacher offers the most difficult challenges: guiding students through the thick and the thin. One of our greatest needs as people is to see ourselves as God sees us, with a humble spirit and a recognition of our poverty before Him. This requires us to peer into the muck and mire of our lives as Dante first did with his guide, Vergil, in the Inferno. Where have we become short-sighted? How have we failed? What area of growth requires the most attention at this time? Before discernment happens, we must attend to our situations and understand where we have struggled, hurt others, and need to ask for mercy and forgiveness. This kind of one-on-one, vulnerable assessment takes a lot of time and sincerity with students. It does not happen overnight or even within a few months. My interactions with my freshman students have not reached the level of authenticity that developed in my relationships with the seniors that I teach. While this observation is obvious, we often fail to remember that patience and perseverance works wonders for us—at least I find that I need that reminder.

One young man, whom I have taught for a few years and mentor, has developed a closer relationship with me. At times, conflict has arisen between us, but we continue to work things out and we have found a number of shared interests. Overtime, through good, authentic conversations with him, we both have come to realize ways that he can improve because of our commitment to grow together, to work with one another. We have spoken about the struggles he faces and with what areas I have struggled throughout my experience. When we talk about his family, his friends, girls, his spiritual life, and his hopes and dreams for the future, our past interactions and conversations have built a solid basis for continuing forward and understanding where he is on his journey. I have come to know him and he me, we have challenged each other to grow, and I try my best to learn from him and he from me based on what we have experienced or struggled at or succeeded in doing.

Teachers have the opportunity, and even the obligation, to empathize and understand our students along with the circumstances governing their lives. And our witness of owning up to our flaws and need for conversion will inspire them to repent and grow. This happens over time and with sincere attention and effort on both the part of the teacher and student to be vulnerable, trusting, and willing to communicate. But teachers know that we are never enough and we are always preparing them for what lies ahead, the people and opportunities that will help them grow and go beyond our experience and our capabilities.

Like Vergil, we know our time will end and we look with joy on those we have seen and recognized, called and challenged, and guided and come to understand. Vergil stood before Beatrice with humility and goodwill. His time came to an end with Dante while Dante reached greater heights. We know that our students will encounter others who will see them with better vision and recognize their good and struggles, will push them, encourage them, and challenge them. Those future guides, like Beatrice and St Bernard, will help our students to new heights, while we revel in the reminiscence of our shared experiences. We prepare them so that one day they may meet God face-to-face.

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