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Stretching toward a more meaningful life

Matt Gelchion | Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Sitting in Dillon Hall Chapel on a late April morning, we the 16th cohort of the Alliance for Catholic Education’s Service through Teaching program waited for Mass to begin, which would officially kick off the next two years of our lives. As we sat in silence, our attention turned toward the pitter-patter of sandals hitting the South Quad pavement outside the chapel walls, as three Notre Dame men jogged toward the pearly gates of South Dining Hall for breakfast. That is, until one of them stopped short, clearly in discomfort. “Ahhh,” he screamed, “I think I just pulled a butt muscle!”
We all just let out some nervous laughter at the time, but in retrospect I can think of few more fitting expressions than this exclamation to describe teaching in ACE.
The ACE Service through Teaching program is extremely challenging. I am confident that no ACEr would tell you otherwise. Being a full time teacher and a full time graduate student (as you earn a free master’s in education degree from Notre Dame) is simply not easy. I am just as confident, though, that most former ACE teachers would identify their time in the program as two of the most formative and rewarding years of their lives, a 24-month period in which they experienced incomparable personal and professional growth.
ACErs are thrust into leadership positions that few 22 to 23 year olds occupy. Leading the school’s Campus Ministry program, planning all of the school’s retreats, serving as the student council moderator, overseeing the Homecoming Dance and acting as one of two school chaperones on a 20-hour trip to Washington D.C. for the March for Life are not responsibilities typically entrusted to recent college graduates. Neither is assuming the position of head coach for a varsity sport. Yet, it’s a reality in ACE that schools need these important roles filled for the students.
As an athlete, I attended hundreds of practices. Like many other athletes, my questions about practice never extended much further than asking what time it started and ended. In ACE, though, I was now the person responsible for crafting the practice and devising ways to help players elevate their game. I was the one delivering the pre-game motivational speech and offering suggestions for mid-match adjustments to my players, who looked to me with the expectation that I had all the answers. I certainly didn’t have all of them, but, as a team, we made strides. In the first year, we won a handful of matches. In the second year, we won half. I certainly do not anticipate my enshrinement in the Tennis Hall of Fame, or any other one for that matter, in the near future, but it wasn’t too bad for a team that had not won a single match in the previous five years.
ACErs undoubtedly have many demands on their time, but one reason they are able to retain their sanity is the built-in support that comes from living in an intentional faith-based community. I cannot enumerate all the instances in which a housemate generously offered his or her care to another community member, but there are few notable ones that immediately come to my mind. There was the time my housemates took me out for a birthday dinner and then kept on driving to New Orleans (about two hours away) to pick up my girlfriend, whom they flew in to surprise me. There was the time our community threw a surprise “Live-abetes” party during National Diabetes Month for our housemate Brock, who has dealt with Type I diabetes since he was a child, inviting ACErs in nearby cities to come celebrate with us and eat sugarless treats. There was also the time a couple of housemates stayed up until 3 a.m. on a school night so that Drew, who was returning from a family member’s funeral, would not return to a dark and quiet house. The people with whom I shared this time of challenge and growth became and remain very dear friends, our bond permanently forged through this incredibly meaningful experience.
But above all else, it was the relationships with students that infused my time in ACE with purpose and truly changed my life. The great trust they gave me, inviting me into their lives, was humbling. I felt challenged and compelled to become better than who I was for them. Because of my students, I believe I am a better man today and a better husband to my wife, and when my wife and I (God-willing) start a family, I believe my students will make me a better father to our future children. I can never fully express my gratitude for this unanticipated transformation.
Much like that unnamed jogger, in ACE you will be stretched in ways still unimaginable.  You may experience some major strains and perhaps even a tear or two, but I strongly encourage you to take this opportunity; you will never be the same.

Matt Gelchion
Associate director
Program for K-12 Educational Access
Alliance for Catholic Education
Jan. 15