“Lover of literature”.
This is the description that springs to mind after only a few minutes of watching middle school teacher Deborah Miller as she interacts with her students.
Miller teaches language arts at St. Teresa Catholic School in Grants, New Mexico, and she holds the responsibility of serving up a curriculum of grammar, creative writing, and of course – loads and loads of classic literature.
So it should come as no surprise that three of her students were selected as the winners of an essay contest held for students of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Gallup. The 6th, 7th, and 8th grades of each middle school in the diocese were asked to read The Hunchback of Notre Dame and write a reaction essay to the novel. A winner was chosen from each grade, and the prize was lunch with Bishop Wall, followed by a personalized tour from the bishop of Sacred Heart Cathedral.
Jeanette Suter, superintendent of Catholic schools, kickstarted the essay contest as a way to unite the various diocesan schools in a fun competition.
“One of the things that struck me when I first became superintendent is how isolated our schools are from one another,” she said. “The immense geographic distances make collaboration difficult.” The principals of each school regularly come together for meetings, but Suter felt that wasn’t enough – she wanted the students of each school to feel united.
So she introduced her contest idea to the students in February, at a Mardi Gras celebration, after a Catholic Schools Mass at the Cathedral. Six different schools sent students, faculty, and volunteers to attend the Mass, which was followed by a Fat Tuesday-styled set of activities in the nearby family center. Suter says her choice of novel was inspired by this gathering.
Written by Victor Hugo in 1831, The Hunchback of Notre Dame follows Quasimodo, a disfigured man rejected by society, who lives as the bellringer at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Throughout the book, he struggles with his doomed love for a woman, the cruelty of his adopted father, and his treatment by a society that bases its judgment on outward appearance.
“There are elements of the festival at which Quasimodo makes his public debut that are very much a ‘Mardi Gras’ celebration,” Suter said, noting that many of the students would be familiar with the Disney film adaptation of the novel.
No strangers to 19th century literature, Miller and her students rose eagerly to the challenges of the contest. Her 8th grade class was still in the middle of tackling Moby Dick, a famous – some would say infamous – paperweight of a novel stuffed with themes of obsession and vengeance. Compared to this, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a slightly more digestible novel that all three of Miller’s grades could study.
After the essays from participating schools were sent in, three of Miller’s students were chosen as the winners: Matthew Nieto, 6th grade; Angelina Olguin, 7th grade; and Natalie Rychener, 8th grade. Each student realized the tragedy that stems from unfairly judging a person’s character by their outward appearance. For Miller, the high point of the contest was exploring the themes of the novel alongside her students.
“One of the great things about teaching and working with kids is having the ability to help them to see – and be exposed to – things that will help them develop empathy for one another,” she said. “How we treat the ‘least of these’ is part of who we are, and helping them develop their character and see these characters in a sympathetic way – that’s an awesome experience, to share that with them and experience that with them.”
Then came the prize: a day with Bishop Wall, who met Miller and the three students for lunch before giving them the cathedral tour. Their mealtime conversation soon turned to a discussion on books and art, when Rychener asked Bishop Wall’s opinion on Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to Harper Lee’s classic southern novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Bishop Wall was also pleasantly surprised about the 8th grade students’ choice of reading material.
“I’m going to have to tell all my Bishop friends that one of the 8th grade classes in my Diocese read Moby Dick!” he said.
Then came the tour of the cathedral; Suter says that this part of the contest winning was also inspired by the novel.
“Since much of the plot of the novel centers on the Cathedral of Notre Dame, I thought a tour of our own cathedral, given by the Bishop, would be a fitting activity to go with lunch. This not only tires back into the novel, but allowed for some catechetical training by our ‘top’ catechist, Bishop Wall.”
The tour started at the cathedra, the chair upon which the bishop sits, and an explanation for the students on his coat of arms. Much of the symbolism in the crest is a tribute to his parents, James and Joan. It contains three crosses: the cross of St. James, for his father and patron saint; the fleur de lis, a symbol of St. Joan of Arc and Joan, his mother; and the Franciscan cross, in honor of the religious order who were instrumental in his parents’ conversions.
Next came the stained glass windows. The cathedral in Gallup is filled with stained glass, and each one is bursting with color and detail.
“The windows don’t just pull light in, they tell stories, too,” Bishop Wall explained. “Stained glass windows are used for catechesis, to teach us. They present things in an artistic and sometimes simplistic manner, but it points to a certain reality.”
He points to a window depicting the Child Jesus with Mary and St. Joseph.
“If you look at Jesus, notice how he has three rays. That tells us about his divinity. One God, three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
Young Nieto notices that all the windows lining the top of the cathedral are circular, and depict various crests in great detail.
“Are those other peoples’ coat of arms?” he asks.
“They are, very good!” returns Bishop Wall, who notes that each crest is for an influential person – a pope or bishop involved in the history of the Diocese of Gallup.
At the last of the windows, the students are having trouble containing their excitement, because now they get to see the crypt of the cathedral. In this space, down a couple flights of stairs and directly underneath the main altar, lie the final resting places of Gallup’s three previous bishops. Bishop Wall leads the students in a prayer, and the tour concludes – the students must get back to Grants before the end of the school day.
Bishop Wall thanks them for making the trip, and tells them he was thrilled to be able to spend the afternoon with them.
“It’s better than what I’d normally be doing, which is probably paperwork!” he jokes.
With the essay contest a proven success, Suter plans to hold another one the following school year, and eventually evolve the contest into a series of academic events for all schools.
But for now, a love of literature has given Mrs. Miller and her students them an afternoon they won’t soon forget.