Faith-Rooted Teaching in Lawrence, MA

From a recent sermon offered at St. Elizabeth's Sudbury. Hilary is a second-year Esperanza Teaching Fellow.

My name is Hilary Sugg and I am a second-year teacher at Esperanza Academy, a tuition-free Episcopal middle school for girls in Lawrence.  My position as a teacher is funded through the Diocese with a program called Life Together—an offshoot of the Together Now capital campaign.

Reverend Clark graciously offered to have me here at St. E’s this morning so I could share a bit of how I got to Esperanza Academy and why these two years of teaching have meant so much to me as a young Episcopalian in this diocese.

As a kid, I was sure that I would be a teacher. It’s all I knew, really, growing up with two educators as parents.

I was raised in nearby Westwood—a town similar to Sudbury in that it is removed from the realities of poverty faced in urban areas like Lawrence. Growing up in the Episcopal Church, it was ultimately my participation in outreach ministries that helped me realize the implications of my own privilege. I quickly came to understand that as a student in Westwood, my opportunities looked quite different from the opportunities of my peers in nearby neighborhoods like Mattapan or Dorchester. My idea of teaching shifted suddenly, from what was simply a career possibility to what I imagined to be a chance to work for social justice.

In the summer of 2008, before my senior year in high school, I applied to be a camp counselor at the Barbara C. Harris Camp in New Hampshire. My last week of camp was with 8 girls from Esperanza Academy who were entering into the 6th grade and were given the opportunity to come for a week of camp, paid for by their school. In between hours of arts and crafts and swimming in the lake, I had the privilege of hearing about Esperanza and got a glimpse of their reality growing up in Lawrence as immigrants from the Dominican Republic.

I encountered faith and hope in every one of the girls in my group and felt as if they had given me much more than what they had received in a free week at camp. With the hours spent together and personal stories shared, they had further influenced my motivation for teaching, inspiring me to find a community where I could have the greatest impact on my future students.

Frederick Buechner once said, “The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.” Now almost finished with my second year at Esperanza, I have come full circle and truly feel that I have found that place in teaching.

My daily interactions at Esperanza Academy challenge me to connect my faith with my responsibilities as a teacher. It is in such a unique and mission-focused environment that I am able to see how my Episcopalian identity has informed who I am as an educator and mentor to my students.

I see my faith as the foundation of my work and a place to return back to when I am discouraged by the challenges of any given day—and there are many. When I talk about the challenges of my job, although they do include coaching volleyball to unenthusiastic seventh graders and running parent conferences in Spanish, I usually refer to the challenges that my students face outside of school life.

On an overnight retreat last summer, I asked a homesick fifth grader, Tania, what her mother does to help her fall asleep at bedtime. From my perspective, it was the most obvious question to ask as I sat there trying to calm her down. She replied simply with, “I don’t know what you mean. My mom is never home when I go to bed. She works two jobs, one that’s an overnight shift.” It was in that moment that I realized my job wasn’t just about teaching Tania how to add and subtract fractions. My job was also to try to help fill in some of the gaps that are found in this girl’s challenging home life and in the struggling community of Lawrence.

This year, my 6th grade history class has given me a different kind of perspective on how my job can make a small yet profound impact on my students. History cannot be made relevant without discussing current events, and these past two years have given me a lot of material to work with. In discussing topics like Ferguson, police brutality, and even Obama’s executive action on immigration, students have connected their own experiences to our learning.

They have shared personal stories of injustice, separation from parents who were deported, or their families being pushed out of nearby all-white neighborhoods. In these discussions, I merely facilitate the conversation and watch how the girls articulate their own understandings of both ancient history and the current state of our country through the lens of Lawrence, Massachusetts.

As a white female with considerable privilege, I can find ways to relate to my students by pausing to look through this lens in order to make their learning more meaningful. I can’t offer them the solutions to such difficult challenges, but I can help them reach conclusions and articulate the hopes that will motivate them further as students and future citizens of Lawrence.

I know that my identity as a teacher will be forever changing and developing as I gain more experience. The first years of teaching are not easy, and working for a young institution with a tight budget offers its own difficulties. Despite this, I couldn’t see myself starting such a challenging career anywhere else. Few other places offer such a diverse array of experiences for its faculty and students: from engaging, relevant curriculum in the classroom to overnight camps and student-lead chapel services. Every day I feel grateful for the opportunity to teach and for the network of support that keeps our mission alive year after year.

So to all of you here at St. E’s, I offer my deepest thanks for welcoming me here this morning and believing in what we do at Esperanza Academy.

Thank you!