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One School’s Crucial Winter Routines

Even as the Christmas holidays were winding down, Dom Fanelli was already planning new celebrations for St. Mark the Evangelist, the Catholic school he leads. Why? As he puts it bluntly, “January, February and March can stink.”

That can be true even in a “normal” year.

Like many school leaders with a strong commitment to school culture, he knows that providing students and teachers opportunities for joy through winter months can be a crucial support for learning, sanity and community well into the spring—this year even more than most. As with many practices in Catholic schools, though, even when what we do resembles what can happen in any school, why we do it differs dramatically—and makes all the difference.

Here’s a quick preview of just some of the occasions Dom has planned for his school in just eight weeks this winter:

  • Catholic Schools Week: Plans for this five-day extravaganza at St. Mark’s—which at Catholic elementary schools can rival homecoming week at most high schools for the number of different theme days and celebrations—include Wacky Tacky Day, Color Wars (each class shows out in one color), Twin Day, Pajama Day, and Athletic Day.

    Just another Wacky Tacky Tuesday at St. Mark’s, January, 2020.
  • Mardi Gras: “We get everyone beads, I go and get king cake and sometimes cup cakes and we play Mardi Gras music,” Dom says. “The fun before a serious Catholic holiday—like Mardi Gras before Ash Wednesday—is important. We have to have things to look forward to!”
  • Black History Month: This is huge at St. Mark and begins with a student-driven opening ceremony. They read excerpts from Langston Hughes poems and from their own work, and the school proclaims the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” together. Students work on projects throughout the month and then there’s a closing ceremony.

    Chaz in second grade, sharing his Black History Month project in 2020.
  • March 3rd is the Feast day of St. Katharine Drexel, who founded the school. Last year’s observances included a full high school marching band, and Dom is busy scheming for a COVID-safe way to top that.
The St. Mark community gathering on St. Katherine Drexel’s feast day for a concert provided by the Mother Theodore Guerin HS band.
  • St. Mark Week: “Basically a second Catholic schools week,” Dom calls it, “because March is so long. We get to the spirit days that didn’t make the cut for Catholic Schools week.”

These little doses of merriment aren’t about frivolously pursuing happiness or distraction from hardships, or shouldn’t be; quick hits of amusement are fleeting and can be counterproductive as a result. The pursuit of joy is easier to sustain and deeper in its impact when it occurs through the lens of faith.

As Pope Francis writes in The Joy of the Gospel —his first significant publication as pope—Jesus is constantly telling the disciples, “Rejoice!” The pontiff quotes the Old Testament wisdom of Sirach, who urges, “Do not deprive yourself of the day’s enjoyment.”

Practice makes everyday joys easier to see. Dom mentions that he and his brother routinely pick random Catholic feast days to celebrate: “Hey today is St. Joseph’s day—let’s have steak! Why else call it a feast day if you’re not going to feast?” And at school, the quick affirmations that are woven into instruction and community time are crucial, as is clear on every Instagram Live morning meeting, when Dom takes particular time to greet by name students and families learning from home, and to take a quick moment of joy in their presence.

One of the teachers at St. Mark even earned a nickname from Mr. Fanelli because of her sustained habit of mining positivity. When you walk into the classroom of first grade teacher Nicole Aboly-Brown—”Goia,” as Mr. Fanelli calls her—students might be singing a song to help them memorize parts of speech, or Mrs. Brown might be dancing because she is so excited about a student’s answer. This isn’t giddiness at the expense of learning; it is joy in the service of it. Mr. Fanelli adds, “you don’t have to be in her presence long to recognize that Mrs. Brown’s joy is more than skin deep; it comes from a deep well of love.”

Joy is not a one person job, though. When you enter into the building you will be met with a smile and a joke from Ms. Starks, who has been at the school for 31 years. You might run into Mr. J—Lavance Johnson—during physical education, where you will find students laughing and responding to one of the nicknames that he has coined and that students love to be called. You might see Mr. Farmer dancing on his way to class through the early arrival students in the gym.

St. Mark’s Whole-School Pot Luck, Thanksgiving, 2019.

We have each won a cosmic lottery: we are loved by the Creator of the entire universe without having to earn it first. So we rejoice in little ways because life is a gift, and we rejoice in others because every life is a gift. These realities are true every day, and the discipline of finding joy in them even in the midst of difficult days is one way of uncovering God’s love in our midst.

Pope Francis cautions that the purest joy isn’t something we can manufacture on our own but a gift, a consolation from God. And we can’t always experience this consolation. As the pope says, “It’s hard to go to a sick person who is suffering greatly and say: ‘Come on! Come on! Tomorrow you will have joy!’ No, you cannot say this! We have to help them feel what Jesus made us feel.” When light seems impossible, we turn to faith: “I know, Lord, that this sorrow will turn to joy.” And we can then be on the lookout for the joys that will eventually emerge.

In Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, written in the middle of the Great Depression, the character Emily asks, “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?” The stage manager answers her, “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.” It is part of our quest for sainthood for all students to help them realize life each day, to cultivate an awareness of the gift it is. That’s why, even as Catholic schools like ours pursue academic rigor and productive discipline, we must also cultivate an awareness of how much there is to celebrate—even now; especially now.