Senior theology project equips Class of 2023 with tools of spiritual expression

In the waning days of their senior year, all members of the Class of 2023 in Michelle Gergen’s Theology course were engaged in a communal act of creation. Magazines, scissors, paper, colored pencils, and glue were strewn across the desks. There was a low hum of conversation in the room, whispers about upcoming senior service projects and graduation rehearsals, combined with the constant sounds of ripping and cutting emanating from every corner of the space. Each student had a cardboard box the size of a navel orange, and they were in the process of decorating each of the six sides. Every box was different, but they all shared a colorful and dynamic feel. And Ms. Gergen moved from person to person, to give advice on the pieces of art that were coming to life.

This final assignment in Ms. Gergen’s “Women's Spirituality: A Journey of Faith” class was a project she had been mulling over for years. And this school year felt like it was her last chance because the members of the Class of 2023 were not the only people in this room readying for a transition. After 13 years of working at Mayfield Senior School, in multiple roles, Ms. Gergen was preparing for her own well-deserved retirement. Before students and their teacher stepped into the unknown, Ms. Gergen was eager to take on this exploration alongside her students, in hopes of giving them more tools of spiritual expression and discernment, beyond the gates of Bellefontaine. Ms. Gergen instructed the class, “Let's put ourselves in the mindset that we're preparing for this movement, where we are moving into something new.” She asked them, “What are you carrying with you?”

These cubes were meant to pull together several topics that Ms. Gergen had covered throughout this course—the interconnectedness of the human family and finding the spark of the divine in your own life—but this specific artistic form drew direct inspiration from Sr. Corita Kent. Sr. Corita was an artist and a teacher, whose spirituality and faith found expression in her work, and in the late 1960s, Corita created a series of a few dozen prints that she identified as “a set of heroes and sheroes,” addressing topics including labor and civil rights, political assassination and nuclear disarmament. Sr. Corita was famous for her work in the artform called the “serigraph,” colorful silkscreen prints, surrounded by meaningful pieces of text. Sr. Corita specifically highlighted figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Robert F. Kennedy and Cesar Chavez. Ms. Gergen describes Sr. Corita as “an artist whose spirituality found expression in the very thing that God gifted her—her art.” 

Ms. Gergen understood the last days of a student’s high school career was often be a critical time of reflection and ideation, and this project was intended to tap into that mindset. And inside a classroom with students of multiple faiths and on different parts of their religious journeys, Ms. Gergen focused the project much less on religion and much more on spirituality. She explained, “Rather than talking about this through the total lens of Christianity, or Catholicism, I've allowed each one of them to engage with their own faith and try to give them ways to examine what they have and how to take it with them.”

This “Corita Cube” project was meant to encompass every student’s spiritual journey, and every side of the box highlighted an individual aspect of that. The parts were: 1) Who I Am; 2) Images of the Divine; 3) Mentors, Saints and Role Models; 4) Mandala Finding Your Center/Values of Holy Child Education; 5) Legacy True Self/Shining Like the Sun; 6) Service Project Reflection.

Miranda Gallegos ‘23 called the project both “interesting” and “relaxing,” and added, “There's a lot more that goes into it than you would think.” Jenna Kim ‘23 discussed her project and process, explaining some parts of her cube and what they meant to her. “I tore some of the paper and then cut the rest of it because I feel nothing out there is ever perfect. It represents things just the way they are and that's beautiful in a sense,” she said. Jenna said that her artwork made space for the “things that are in your control and things that aren't” and how they eventually “mesh together in a way that kind of works out in the end.”

Many students had already finished their “Who I Am” panel before this class, which displayed a 3 x 3 photocopy of these students when they were young children that captured their spirit with words and design. Their “Images of the Divine” panels often included quotes, photos and song lyrics. Some of the students were still coloring in their “Mentors” panel, and in vibrant hues, these cubes beamed out the faces of Sr. Thea Bowman, Rachel Carson, Dolores Huerta, Sr. Helen Prejean and Hildegard von Bingen, among others. The fourth panel included geometric mandalas, side-by-side with certain Holy Child values that each student decided to focus on. Sophia Saldaña ‘23 had highlighted  “justice and joy.” Raizel Villaluna ’23 decided to emphasize “integrity and balance.”

As the class started to work on the fifth panel—meant to represent their “True Self”—Ms. Gergen asked them to actively reflect on two short pieces of text. The first was a quote from Thomas Merton, asking, “What if we realized that we all are walking around shining like the sun?” The second was a line from a Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, saying, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” Ms. Gergen came around the room with glittery, hexagonal mirrors, not much larger than a quarter and asked everyone to take one. On this “shining” panel, she wanted students to think about their purpose, their vocation and their calling. Ms. Gergen firmly believed that her students’ God-given gifts will be “the very thing that's going to call them to connection, to find the divine, to be connected to each other, and into the world.”

The sixth and final panel would be completed during their Senior Service Project, on the Senior Reflection Day, when the Class of 2023 would be back on campus. Each small group used the final panel to capture what they learned being of service to others. The words they added to their boxes included "humility," “resilience,” ‘patience” and “passion.”

Ms. Gergen knew that the complexity of the topics touched on in these lessons couldn’t be contained on a cardboard box, and her students’ awareness was bound to wander, as they experienced unexpected waves of anxiety, excitement and uncertainty. But Ms. Gergen had been teaching for so long, she also knew the powers of an enduring lesson. “They will return to it…because I return to it, myself. “ She said, and went on to explain, “I’ve reflected back on…how somebody taught me in high school and college, through the eyes of a 40-year old and thought ‘Oh! There was something in there.”

Soon enough, these students would become graduates, and Ms. Gergen anticipated their journeys would be full of both discoveries and disappointments. Perhaps this is why she continued to reiterate certain words and phrases, and why she undertook the creation of these intimate physical objects—to help in the formation of more vivid memories for them to access later. Near the end of the class, Ms. Gergen went to the center of the room and asked the class to pay attention to the colorful, narrow scarf she wore around her neck. She told them she had bought this while in Argentina, in an open fair market. Scarves like this were made by workers in weaving mills, but not made on the machines themselves. These were remnants, the loose threads, that were left on the floor of the factory. Creating and selling these scarves made of scraps that would have been thrown away gave women slight points of income, in an existence largely marked by its inequity. Still, the scarf was delicate, ethereal and somehow expressed every color of the rainbow. “It would have been a completely different scarf if the owner or if the manager had given them each a spool of thread…but they created something of beauty out of the small resources that they found.” 

In her effortless way, Ms. Gergen literally wore her object lesson, as a connection across time and space, between the women who made the scarf, the teacher wearing that scarf and the students who were witness to the scarf and its story. “Sometimes in our life, we are given certain things, and it's not what we want. It's not what we hope for,” Ms. Gergen said. “But I wear this so that…you can remember that there's always beauty that can be found.”

As Ms. Gergen and the Class of 2023 venture forth, those at Mayfield will always remember the joy and the insight they brought to our community, and the beauty they always helped us find.

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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 28 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.