Presuppositions on the nature of human existence is the subject matter Wednesday afternoon in the Rev. Steve Emanuel’s theology class at Daniel J. Gross Catholic High School.
A few sophomores in the back of the class exhale a muffled groan that Emanuel pretends not to hear as he launches into a discussion of man as a social animal who uses contextual pointers to make sense of his life, the lives of others and the world surrounding him.
Emanuel draws the students in, talking relationally about communication using references from popular culture: what “tweet” means today versus what it meant 30 years ago and how important context is in using words like “sick,” “bad” or “phat.”
Then, one of the groaners gets hit with a question — Emanuel teaches in the Socratic method, a further way of engaging his students — and the priest everyone at Gross knows as “Father Steve” wants to know if the student can tell him whence come the word “vicarious.”
The kid comes through, in her own inimitable way. Father Steve moves on.
He reminds the class that what they’re really talking about, what they are really learning and witnessing lessons on, whether directly or vicariously, when they talk about human existence, or even the larger pursuit of theology, is the difficult, lifelong process of — he says with this still intact relational simplicity that nevertheless borders on the profound — “finding what is you.”
The statement is apt for Emanuel, who will be honored Thursday as the 2013 Archdiocese of Omaha’s Educator of the Year.
Entering his ninth year at Gross and 22nd overall as an educator in Catholic schools, Emanuel said his mission in the classroom is to invite discovery down as many roads as possible and, in so doing, show that most of those roads lead back to a common source.
“You teach what you know about yourself,” he said. “What we do here is to try to find out a little more about who we are and how we live in relationship with God and one another. For a sophomore or even a junior or a senior, that can be a tough proposition but they see that I have questions, too. They know that I’ll never ask you to do something I’m not willing to do myself and that goes for the tough questions, too. That gets them engaged.
“Anything you do in life, if you’re excited about it, they’ll be excited about it. Or at the very least, they can bear it for 40 minutes.”
To get students thinking about those questions, Emanuel eschews increasingly ubiquitous classroom technology in favor of a more traditional, tangible approach.
He uses a bulb-lighted overhead projector, a set of old retractable-scroll maps abide in one corner of the classroom. And to ensure students are getting the full measure of the experience, he largely forbids the use of laptops or smartphones for any purpose.
A pair of full-length mirrors stand in the back of the classroom as silent sentinels to ensure nobody gets around the rules.
“I’m the Luddite of the building,” Emanuel said, gesturing at the overhead projector. “This is the technology we use in here. This is Mr. Overhead. At the beginning of the year, we all have a good time saying, ‘Hello, Mr. Overhead.’ The kids know this is the expectation coming in and most kids go with it. At the same time, I’m not naive. I know this is the world we inhabit. But when we’re in here, I want them to have to facilitate a different creative part of their brains.”
Employing Socratic method — a teaching style in which the instructor puts questions to students in hopes of having the pupils arrive at their own hard-won truths and understandings — also hearkens back to an earlier time and Emanuel’s insistence his students think for themselves.
It’s an approach that works in the other roles he plays at Gross. In addition to teaching, Emanuel either coaches or has coached basketball, baseball and football, heads up the school’s campus ministries and is also the school’s chaplain.
He can also be found in the pulpit at St. Columbkille in Papillion.
Although he didn’t have a class with Emanuel, Ryan Crnkovich, a 2009 Gross graduate now in his second year studying law at Creighton University, said he still considers Father Steve one of the most influential educators he’s encountered.
“He doesn’t just talk the talk,” said Crnkovich, who was on Emanuel-coached teams in football and baseball. “He’s one of those people we talk about who truly lead by example. He doesn’t stand aloof and he certainly doesn’t take a holier-than-thou attitude. If it’s the classroom or the baseball field, you don’t just hear someone talking about how God wants you to lead your life and how you should be a good Catholic, you get to see a man who lives it. That’s very rare.”
Perhaps also rare is Emanuel’s priestly bearing.
His summer job entails groundskeeping duties around the school for which he wears a pair of bib overalls, an echo of his days working as a farmhand around his hometown of North Bend, Neb. His creative facial hair is how most recognize him when he’s not wearing the clerical collar. And he’s as comfortable spouting rap lyrics as he is the Gospel.
In class Wednesday, Emanuel referenced a recent overly exposed tabloid moment for a pop star as evidence that sometimes living life internally and not spouting it all over the social networks is a blessing.
“I’ll make the cultural references and still see some kids going: ‘Oh! You’re not supposed to know about that!’” Emanuel said.
The earthiness is genuine, though, and appreciated.
Crnkovich recalled the first football practice of his freshman year, which also happened to be Father Steve’s first football practice at Gross. In T-shirt and shorts, a sweaty, wild-eyed Emanuel pumped up the squad with a fiery pep talk.
“He just starts yelling at us in this gruff manner,” Crnkovich said. “Nothing mean, just football-coachy. And he gets done and one of us says, ‘Isn’t that the new priest?’ And someone else says: ‘No, no priest talks like that.’ But that’s Father Steve and especially at Gross, where there’s still that South Omaha mentality that you want someone like that — with a little edge to them, a little reality — in charge, it resonates.”
However the lessons get across, the fit Emanuel has found at Gross is one people hope stays for a long time.
Dorothy Ostrowski, Gross’ president and also a longtime teacher at the school, said as priest, teacher, chaplain, coach, Emanuel makes himself a blessing to Gross at every opportunity.
“Father Steve is an absolute gift and blessing to our community,” said Ostrowski, who, along with the Gross administration, nominated Emanuel for the award and said they hope he remains at the school.
Emanuel also hopes he can continue to have a lasting impression at Gross, the longest posting he’s had in that 22-year career.
Where other priests feel a calling to the pulpit or other forms of service, Emanuel said he’s never really wanted to do anything other than teach and coach and serve as a guide and influence for young people. The award from the Archdiocese, he said, is some validation of that mission, but moreso is the feeling he gets in just being in the classroom.
“I’ve been very blessed in being able to teach here,” he said. “The award is humbling and probably more of a testament to the students I’ve had than to anything I’ve done. Things haven’t changed that much in 30 years, since when I was in high school. Kids still want to fit in. They still worry about who’s going to ask them to homecoming. The challenges are still there. The deepest human desire is to belong. What I hope I’m able to impart is that they can take charge of their futures, I can challenge them in other ways, to see the good that’s in them and out there.
“The beauty of being able to teach here is that it’s really easy to tell kids you love them and you won’t get in trouble for that. It’s also really easy to get mad at them. But you feed on the good and show them how they can absorb the good and show them how God loves them and redeems them and that’s the biggest lesson I can give.”