Teachers come in many shapes, sizes and forms.
Bishop Jeffrey R. Haines, having gone through seminary, spending decades as a priest and becoming a priest, has had many great teachers throughout his life.
Perhaps none was greater, however, than a fifth-grade boy named Chris.
Bishop Haines shared the story of how Chris taught him about Christian forgiveness during his homily at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School’s Catholic Schools Week all-school Mass on Friday, Feb. 2, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.
The 635-student, all-girls school on Milwaukee’s northwest side also celebrated its great teachers after the Mass, honoring 18 staff members who had reached milestone anniversaries ranging from five years up to 30 years.
DSHA also honored its Marian Scholars program during the Mass. The Marian Scholars program at DSHA is a student-centered, inclusive education program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Students in that program were lectors, read the petitions and brought up the gifts during the Mass.
When Haines was a fifth-grade student at Holy Apostles School in New Berlin in 1969, his teacher called him to her desk and gave him a special project: he was asked to be a mentor and chaperone to the new student in the school who was moving in from out of state.
Flattered, Haines asked the teacher if it was because of his personality, intellect or charm. She informed him that wasn’t the case. It was because he was the shortest boy in the class and Chris was even smaller than he was.
“I didn’t want him to feel out of place,” the teacher told Haines. “Well, it wasn’t the nicest compliment I ever heard but I thought if my diminutive size would make Chris feel more comfortable, well, that’s a good thing.”
Giving his new classmate the lay of the land on Chris’ first day, Haines noted they had forged a connection. At recess, Haines pointed out a group of three seventh-graders who were standing away from everyone else by the fence.
“I told him, ‘Chris, you better stay away from those guys; those are seventh-graders. You can see, they are big and they are strong and, I might add, they are mean,’” Haines said.
Haines warned his new classmate that he should avoid them at all costs — even eschewing eye contact.
Eventually, the three boys approached Haines and his new friend, figuring out that he was the new kid.
“I quickly advised him,” Haines said. “I said, ‘Chris, stop looking at them and turn around. Come by me and I will take you to a group of our classmates and there we’ll be safe, because those mean guys won’t take on the whole class. Come on, let’s get going.’”
Chris ignored Haines, and turned to him and said, “I think you’re wrong. They can’t be that mean. I’ll just be friendly to them.”
He started walking toward them.
“That’s suicide,” Haines said.
Soon, they were mocking Chris, towering over him, and roughing him up and throwing him in a trash can. The three ran off, cackling with glee.
The next day, Haines reiterated his message to Chris: stay away from the seventh graders.
Chris didn’t listen. Haines also noticed Chris was carrying his leftover lunch in a paper bag. That is getting stolen for sure, Haines thought.
This time the three boys approached Chris. Again, Haines warned him to stop looking at them and walk in the other direction, but he refused again, saying he wasn’t going to be afraid of them and didn’t want to have to avoid them.
Haines didn’t see any teachers who could intervene in what was certain to be a rough scene.
This time, Haines spotted a peculiar scene — the three boys were laughing with Chris instead of at him. After they talked, Chris waved to them and said he’d see them tomorrow.
“I asked Chris what happened there,” Haines recalled from his conversation with his new friend. “’I for sure thought you were gonna get punched and pummeled, but you’re standing here smiling. What happened?’ He looked at me and said, ‘I knew those guys really wanted to take a look at my lunch, so I beat them to the point. I had three brownies in there, I pulled them out of the bag and said, hey guys, you don’t have to steal my lunch. If you’re hungry, just tell me. I’ll give them to you.’”
Haines asked if they had threated him at all.
Chris replied, “No. I beat them to the point on that, too. I just said to them, ‘As for that misunderstanding yesterday at the garbage can, don’t worry about it. I forgive you.’ And they all smiled.”
Bishop Haines told the DSHA students that when he reflects on that story, he realizes how special Chris was.
“Here, I was the one who was supposed to teach him about our Catholic school, what it means to go to a Catholic school, a school that teaches the Christian faith,” Bishop Haines said. “But, actually, it was Chris who taught me how to be a better Christian.”