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Theology students develop a “muscle memory for justice”

It is a brisk fall morning and the sophomores in Michelle Gergen’s Theology class are on their feet. Ms. Gergen is asking them to assemble into groups. “Skirts versus pants,” she calls out. All the girls who prefer to wear pants huddle together in one side of the room, facing a smaller group of girls wearing skirts. Then another prompt: “Chocolate ice cream versus strawberry ice cream,” and the room subdivides in a new arrangement. “Early birds versus night owls,” and there is another flurry of movement. The final grouping is determined by the girls’ birthdays.
A subtle object lesson is being enacted here, even if it’s not being explicitly stated yet: groups are constantly forming and dissolving. Sometimes they come together by preference, others by circumstance, others form on points that are even more arbitrary. No value is being placed on any specific group in this classroom exercise, but students instantly grasp that people are included in some groups and excluded from others. All of this is a primer on a topic Ms. Gergen hopes to focus a lot on this year—helping students to build a “muscle memory for justice” by regularly challenging their internal assumptions to develop a broader perspective.

On this same day in her classroom, Ms. Gergen asks her students to look at an image and report what they see in that picture. Some see a rabbit first, others see a duck. The image is ambiguous and can be interpreted more than one way. There is no right or wrong answer because it can be either. Or both. 

Ms. Gergen quickly brings abstraction into reality, because in life, she says, “we encounter situations that are ambiguous,” and most of these situations have higher stakes than interpreting an optical illusion. She asks the class, “So how am I going to react and how am I going to behave when I'm in situations that can be read multiple ways?” 

In some respects, this “muscle memory” lesson couldn’t be more timely. Each year, Holy Child schools are asked to reflect on one of the seven goals that the Society of the Holy Child Jesus holds dear.This year focuses on Goal 5: “creating a learning climate based on trust and reverence for the dignity and uniqueness of each person.” Trust. Reverence. Dignity. Uniqueness. Catholics are called to engage with these principles of inclusion all as a matter of faith. “Economic Justice for All,” a landmark 1986 letter written by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, explores the same issues: "When we deal with each other, we should do so with a sense of awe that arises in the presence of something holy and sacred. For that is what human beings are. We are created in the image of God.” 

Although a sense of interpersonal awe is an inspiring idea, it can so easily be forgotten in daily life. Misunderstandings between people are common. We struggle to see issues from another person’s perspective and we bristle when people don’t immediately understand our good intentions. This is why Ms. Gergen approaches these topics with both personal passion and academic rigor. “Science teaches us how something happens,” she says. “Theology teaches us why it happens.” 

“There's a place for theology...because if we're going to be our best selves, we have to understand ourselves,” Ms. Gergen says. She believes these theological approaches can provide invaluable tools for students who are still discovering many parts of their own identities, and acquiring ways to respect other people’s identities too. “We want to give them a chance to create muscle memory,” she says, “Have a way to respond or examine...the connection with each other so that it continues that balance of stewardship with each other.”

Today’s class activities have been leading up to a final task—she wants the students to create their own “code.”

What is a code? And why would it affect a muscle memory for justice? Ms. Gergen explains, “We're talking about qualities that we want to embrace and what we hold dear, we want to look at how we will interact with our classmates, our friends, our world, and how we want to be known.” Identifying elements of a code is something the students are beginning today, but this will be revisited many times during the year, with the ultimate goal of creating a code for the Class of 2022.

In small groups, students come up with ideas for their shared code: One group suggests: “Give credit where credit is due.” Another group: “Don’t write down something you wouldn’t say aloud.” Another: “Assume good intent from those around us.” Ms. Gergen nods and encourages throughout. She praises the students for their thoughtfulness and insight.

All of these activities exude a sense of spontaneity, but there is a deep design element at work here, especially in the order in which Ms. Gergen introduces her subject material. “We want students to have a solid foundation of what they stand for,” she says, before they encounter much more prickly challenges, things that might feel “incongruent with what they believe they're trying to be.”  

The class code they‘re establishing together is meant to guide the deliberate behaviors and actions of students, but also gives them the tools to deal with unexpected events and challenges. In the course of this school year, Ms. Gergen’s class will address moments of deep discomfort, encountering issues like “implicit bias” and “micro-aggressions” that unintentionally cause others pain. Students are learning that, while you can’t always avoid injuring someone, with deliberate effort, you can address the trespasses with more humility, more self-awareness, and less defensiveness. And if this approach to justice is practiced often, and thoroughly, it does become like muscle memory. Something we fall back on as our default. 

In this time of intense polarization, these teenagers are learning a skill that many adults sorely lack: “allowing that we can disagree and still hold a conversation.” Ms. Gergen trusts that students will be able to apply these lessons in their daily life. “I want the girls to see the responsibility they have, even at their young age, that their actions have consequences.”

On the way out of class, Ms. Gergen asks each student to mention at least one thing they took away from today’s instruction. Several girls are considering ambiguity in new ways. One 10th grader says: “I kind of thought that everyone had a very similar set of values from when they were younger, but not everyone had the same values that I thought everyone would have.” A classmate agreed, remarking that in spite of these marked differences, “It was really powerful how all of us want a community of respect.”

In an effortless, pastoral gesture, Ms. Gergen ties it all together, “We might have different languages but we have the same heart.”
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 21 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.