When Life Gives You Lemons
By Sister Elizabeth Anne Allen, O.P., Ed.D.
Note: This is the third in a 5-part series on the Teacher as Vessel. For earlier reflections, click here.
It was the first year I taught seniors, about the second week of classes. A girl walked into my room holding a lemon. I thought that was a bit odd, but maybe she had a sore throat. Then five more came in, each holding a lemon. Were they trying to tell me something about my teaching? Summoning my courage, I asked, “Why the lemons?” It turned out to be, not a highly visible assessment of my history class, but an experiment for their psychology class.
Each student selected a lemon from a large sack of lemons and wrote her name on it. They carried their lemons around for a week, holding it when possible. Then on the appointed day of all the lemons were put in a bag. Without looking, each student was to reach in and find the lemon that had her name on it. Before the “Great Lemon Picking,” students were skeptical about the outcome; afterwards, they were amazed: 100% accuracy. One student said in a kind of awe-struck voice, “It’s true. Everything God makes is unique.”
Uniqueness is the second quality that Kurek attributes to the vessel: “Each vessel is unique and pours out its contents in a unique way.”  This quality would have been more evident in times when all such items were handmade. However, even in our time of standardization and mass production, it is clear that a particular type of vessel is designed with a specific purpose in mind. This distinction is also applicable to persons. Each person has various qualities, strengths, gifts, and liabilities; and, in the words of Pope Saint John Paul II, “each is unrepeatable, somebody thought of and chosen from eternity.”
As teachers, we generally excel in recognizing the uniqueness and gifts of our students and not just in the “differentiated instruction” sense, but in a “whole person” sense. We help them identify and develop their abilities. We challenge them to grow. We strengthen, support, and encourage.
It is a human tendency, however, to view “differences” as limitations, inadequacies, or deficiencies. This is especially the case when we are considering our own aptitudes, and teachers are not exempt from this. Like all human beings, we can compare (and contrast) ourselves with those around us. We might hesitate to ask for help or another person’s perspective when we need it, clinging to self-sufficiency. We can choose to compete.
We see this even in the lives of apostles. The mother of James and John wanted them to have the best seats in the kingdom. (See Matthew 20:21). Peter, on the seashore with the Risen Lord, having just professed his love for Jesus, received his mission to feed the Lord’s sheep. Peter’s response? He turned, saw John standing there and asked Jesus, “What about him?” (John 21: 20-21). You can almost hear Jesus sigh when Peter says this and He gave Peter a response that any teacher can understand: “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” Our Lord had to refocus Peter on his own gifts and his own mission.
It is not so much that God does not give us everything we need to do His will, to serve His children; but rather, that He made us for interdependence and for communion. He said as much to Catherine of Siena: “…I could well have supplied each of you with all your needs, both spiritual and material. But I wanted to make you dependent on one another so that each of you would be my minister, dispensing the graces and gifts you have received from me.”
He uses us to help provide for one another’s need. He made us for communion. If we are open, we can be vessels for one another.
 Kurek, Michael. The Sound of Beauty: A Classical Composers on Music in the Spiritual Life. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019. pp.123-4.
 Pope John Paul II Urbi et Orbi Message Christmas, 1978, retrieved February 23, 2021 from http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/messages/urbi/documents/hf_jp-ii_mes_19781225_urbi.html
 Catherine, of Siena, Saint, 1347-1380. The Dialogue in The Classics of Western Spirituality translated and introduction by Suzanne Noffke, O.P.New York: Paulist Press. 1980. p.38.
Sister Elizabeth Anne Allen, O.P., Ed.D. is director of the Center for Catholic Education at Aquinas College.