My Peace Wall

I learned about Sister Norma Pimentel this week.

Sister Norma is the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and I listened to an interview in which she was responding to the horrific separation of migrant children from their parents at the U.S./Mexico border. The story has rightfully garnered a lot of attention this week as people of conscience are outraged at the trauma that is being afflicted on these young children.

In the midst of this carnage, Sister Norma continues her outreach, working tirelessly to welcome the stranger; a calling that she sees as integral to her faith. She is known as “A Bridge among walls”

I told my students about Sister Norma, and I placed her name on my classroom wall at St. Michael Catholic Secondary School where I teach Religious Studies. She joins more than a thousand other people of peace that I have honoured by telling their stories and placing their name on my classroom wall. This has been a daily routine in my classroom for almost a decade now.

This tradition started innocently enough. Several years ago, I had attended a Professional Development Day where Marc Keilberger was the keynote speaker. Responding to a question from a colleague, he suggested that one way to work for peace and social justice was to honour peacemakers. Shortly afterwards, I decided to do just that. Each day, I would tell my students about somebody somewhere promoting peace, social justice, inclusion and equity; trying to make the world a better place.

Nine years later, I am moving out of my classroom (due to some renovations going on at the school) and this week, I will put my final names on my peace wall.

This has been a fantastic learning experience for me; and hopefully, for my students as well. I like to thin

k that my wall offers a diverse array of peacemakers. Some people lost their lives for causes they believed in. My wall contains elders and toddlers. My wall includes Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus and probably a few atheists as well. The wall includes poets, musicians, artists, anti-racism activists, saints, refugees, teachers, children, garment workers, LGBTQI+ activists, politicians, environmentalists, athletes… people from all walks of life.

I’ve often been asked if it is difficult to find a new person to put on the wall each day. At first, I thought it would be; but as time went on I discovered that there were so many inspiring stories that just needed to be told. Sometimes, I looked for stories that connected with themes that we were discussing in class. Sometimes, there were stories that related to an important day on the calendar. One September 15th, I honoured the four little girls who were killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama in 1963. Sometimes, there were amazing things going on in our own school community – and it felt right to stop and recognize a student or a staff member.

I have learned a lot through this daily research ritual. One cool story comes to mind. In 2013, I remember discovering that Wilcox County High School in Georgia was hosting their first integrated prom thanks to the resilience and determination of two senior students – Mareshia Rucker and Brandon Davis – who, despite the resistance of teachers and parents – put the wheels in motion to put an end to the segregated proms that had been a tradition at the school for decades. Mareshia and Brandon spoke truth to power. I think that we need to teach our students to do just that in their own lives.

More importantly, I think this process has reminded me that people are essentially very, very good. I forget that sometimes when I watch the news. The amazing souls who work tirelessly for social change often get lost in the stories that focus on the very issues that they are trying to address. I hope that my students come away from this routine feeling a little more reassured about their own essential goodness – and the goodness of all people.

My students are good people. I try to tell them that each day. I do believe that we were created to do wonderful things. My Peace Wall has reminded me of this.

Tim O’Connor

St. Michael Catholic Secondary School

Stratford, ON