By Andrew Seeley, Ph.D.
We teachers dream of reaching our students, of sharing our passion for what we have learned with eager, intelligent, receptive students. Alas! how rarely most of us seem to succeed. So I was deeply moved when, in a recent college application, a student spoke in glowing terms of how her teacher’s passion for ancient history and literature had made her fall in love with Homer, Plato and Augustine. The teacher is Janice Martinez, principal of Holy Child Catholic School in Albuquerque, and I reached out to her to find out how she came to have such an impact on this young woman.
Passion is certainly one of the answers. Janice’s passion for history, for faith, and for education came pouring out in the half-hour interview, as my pen struggled to keep pace with the insights she shared. Her passion for history began with a deeply personal question: Why had her Italian grandfather, who opposed the Fascist leadership in Italy, ended up dying in a German concentration camp in Austria? Her studies in European history (M.A., University of New Mexico) raised more questions than answers, as her courses immersed her in Marxist and postmodern theory. Her thesis on the post-war diaries of World War I veterans was interesting but gave her little insight.
Upon finishing her master’s degree, she began teaching in Catholic schools, before leaving to teach homeschoolers using the classical curriculum offered by Kolbe Academy. It didn’t directly help her with her quest, but she did get an entirely new perspective on history. “I always knew that something was wrong with my history education. It was either the ‘data, data, data’ demands of the von Ranke-inspired objective approach, or the radical subjectivity of Marxist-feminism. In either case, history began with Marx.”
Herodotus, Thucydides and other Greek authors gave her a new perspective on history. “The Greeks saw that the human being is beautiful, but limited. In reading authors like this directly, I saw for myself what I later read in von Balthasar and Pieper – the Greeks saw creation as a gift that descended to them from on high. Light and glory are descending gifts. Metaphors of light and glory descending from the heavens abound in Homer (as they do in Dostoevsky). They had a strong fatalistic sense that history is simply cyclical, but Augustine helped me to imagine those cycles as part of an overall forward movement to a beautiful goal.”
Studies in theology at Catholic Distance University and in the University of Dallas’ Master of Classical Education program deepened her appreciation of the classics, and helped her to get some insight into the senseless destruction of the concentration camps. “The Enlightenment led men to deny human limitations in the hope of taking over nature. This brought about the crisis of Marxism, which held that not only can we achieve a social utopia, but we must, because there is nothing else for us. We are born to produce, not to receive. This is so wrong – the pattern is in the soul before it is in the state.”
Her insights have added fuel to her passion for teaching. “This beautiful viewpoint has been so hard for me to reach. I am 52, and Nietzsche has just been in the water all my life. I want to help kids open their imaginations to beauty before it’s too late.” In 2016 she accepted the leadership position at Holy Child Elementary. “It’s too late to start the classics in high school. Opening the imagination at that point is so hard. The battle has been lost. A classical elementary education makes for freshmen who are ready to be inspired by authors like Herodotus and Sophocles.” Janice’s vision of education is founded on beauty. “We have worked hard to make our school beautiful by including art masterpieces on the walls. In this way, beauty will prepare our young to hope for and desire the vision of the Beauty that will make them blessed.”
Students at Holy Child learn Ignatian practices of meditation and practice the meditative reading of Scripture and the Fathers known as Lectio Divina. “Memorization alone does not capture the young. Even faithful schools are losing kids. The heart must be formed as well as the head; the head should be used to form the imagination and influence the heart.” She likes the way the St. Jerome Educational Plan used by Holy Child leads her students through history, from the pagans through Christian times into the modern era. “Our kids all have a timeline that they add to during their entire time with us. At the very center is the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus. They know He is at the center of history, and that their own history is connected to him. This gives them a living and personal sense of hope for the future. Lectio Divina fosters this by teaching them to ask of their readings, “What is God saying to me through them? What is He saying to me through what is happening today? Indeed, the very center of our physical building is filled with art that depicts the Annunciation and the Paschal Mystery so that students can visually take in the truth that Jesus Christ is the center of history.”
She loves the history series published by the Catholic Textbook Project. “It is a mistake to hide the mistakes of the Church from our young. They will learn about them sooner or later. The CTP series shows them that every era has its saints as well as its sinners, and gives them confidence that Providence is over all.” Janice found healing for herself in visiting Ebensee, the Austrian town in which her grandfather died. Hardly anything is left of the concentration camp, but a gate still stands with an inscription from Dante’s Inferno, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” “The archivist told me that the Christian prisoners found strength in memorizing Dante’s Comedy. It gave me comfort to learn that priests who could have escaped deliberately stayed to minister to prisoners like my grandfather.”
Janice began our conversation by thanking me for giving her a gift of hope during a time of great trial. Thanks were really due to Tolkien, for supplying the quotation that ended one of my talks:
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach… Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.