I have been remiss in my Rapp Ups lately, and a lot has happened in the few months since I last wrote to our community. Much of it has been worthy of celebration: a wonderful finish to winter sports and great start to the spring season; two schools who came to learn about our Community System, one from Wichita and another from Florida; an amazing junior retreat initiating the class of 2024 into their soon-to-be role as leaders of our school; and a beautiful senior Mass and awards ceremony honoring the graduating class of 2023.
There have been difficult moments as well, not the least of which was the passing of Gabriel Puchalla, SJA class of ’22. Gabriel was a quiet, strong, genuinely good young man who had joined the Marines after graduating last year before losing his life in March to a medical condition he didn’t know he had.
As I reflected back on the past few months, one of the things that seemed to tie all of these various events together is our second iteration of our Essential Questions initiative. Between several Wednesday morning professional development sessions with our staff in February to preparing all the logistics in March to actually getting our parents and students into the building for the conversations the last few weeks, the topic of Essential Questions has been on my mind and heart a lot lately.
For those who aren’t familiar, starting last year we gave each grade level one “essential question” that they would reflect on at the end of the school year in a short conversation with their parents and Mentor Teacher (as well as additional school staff members for seniors). There are several goals, including partnering more closely with parents as a school, providing opportunities for parents and their children to discuss big questions, and giving students an opportunity to reflect on their learning more cohesively and comprehensively. As with all things, we are evaluating how effectively we are meeting these goals; surveys last year were encouraging, and I have been gathering anecdotal feedback throughout this spring.
To be honest, we know there is room to grow; often students struggle to draw a direct line from their academic studies to their faith, and there is always a continuum of levels of preparation, comfort with the setting, and each individual’s perspective of the experience.
But one conversation I had recently poignantly captured the “why” behind Essential Questions. Throughout the services honoring the life and mourning the passing of Gabe Puchalla, I was fascinated to get insights into the various sides of his personality. I knew him as a kind but reticent young man who seemed most at home with his wrestling buddies. I had enough interactions during his time to develop a genuine affection for Gabe, but I would not say that I knew him deeply.
That changed during his visitation and funeral. Whether it was his Marine recruiter talking about how badly Gabriel wanted to get started with boot camp revealing a passion I had never personally seen, or his sister Grace sharing stories of their inside jokes and playfulness at home indicating a silly side I couldn’t have guessed, I felt like I was truly getting to know so much more of who this young man was through the eyes of those who knew him better or in different contexts.
After his funeral I was standing outside of the Church, somber and reflective, moved by everything from the priest’s homily to the wrestlers who were the gift bearers to the beautiful rituals and traditions that come with a military funeral. But what I was thinking about were those parts of Gabe I never got to see, and I said as much to my colleague, Joe McDonald, who was standing next to me.
His response surprised me. He said, “You know, I felt the same way for a while. I had him in House and saw him every day, but I never got past the quiet part until his Essential Question conversation last year.” I asked him if he was willing to share what happened.
He said, “I just got a chance to hear him. He spoke about how excited he was for the Marines, which I knew already, but I got to hear the ‘why’. He voiced a passion for higher things like honor and service and sacrifice that I had never really heard him talk about before, and I got to see how much depth there was beneath the surface. It was really beautiful.”
I think for all the ways we can (and will!) work to improve the Essential Questions, the opportunity it provides is, at the very least, an opportunity to encounter each of these young men and women each year, to at least try to provide a chance to hear about the deep things that stir inside them, to set aside at least one opportunity for them to think about the big picture and try to put words to those thoughts, even if it ends up being different than what we would have thought or hoped or guessed.
At its best, we get a chance like the one Dr. McDonald described, a moment to see into something real and good and noble inside our kids. And at its worst, it’s still a chance to see each other, to sit together, and to let our kids know we think they’re worth listening to and that they have something to say, even if they don’t yet believe that or know what they have to offer.
Thanks to all of those parents who have changed their schedules to make these conversations happen. For some, talking with their teens about these things is a regular occurrence; for others, it is a new adventure. Either way, know of our gratitude for your partnership in this initiative. Please lift each of our families, and especially the Puchalla family, to our Mother Mary as we walk into this month of May together.
Your brother in Christ,