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Bag of Squirrels


Written by: Bro. Brian Poulin


June 5, 2021 – Memorial of St. Boniface, Bishop and Martyr



We inhabit a point in time at which many of us can imagine the COVID-19 pandemic receding into memory. Of course, there are ways in which it will always remain with us: the premature loss of loved ones, altered norms and habits, challenges to both physical and mental health, and economic setbacks for many. Yet, in some ways, we are indeed beginning to move on.


Mount St. Michael Academy in the Bronx is among the many Catholic schools that suspended its overnight retreat programs throughout the year. As vaccination rates increase and infection prevalence decreases however, students have once more had the opportunity to participate in year-level retreats, albeit on campus and during normal instructional hours. Most of the programming has been outside, students have been masked while in close quarters, and hand sanitizer has been on standby for use as necessary. I have been blessed with the opportunity to assist the campus minister in facilitating these experiences. Most of these voluntary retreats have had few participants: a mere handful of seniors, up to a dozen or so sophomores. Then, all of a sudden, we get nearly 40 squirrely freshmen.




Normally, this would feel like a great number for a retreat. Large enough to have plenty of energy and demonstrate clear student interest, small enough for a single experienced adult to supervise alone for short durations. This time felt large however.


All of a sudden, there were too many students for me to learn everybody’s name (though I did my best). And they were freshman. Not shy, beginning-of-the-year, playing it safe freshmen, but rather end-of-the-year, sick of school, and rambunctious freshmen. These were freshmen who were suddenly experiencing the most social stimulation they’d had in more than a year, many of whom had not experienced the normal socialization and structures that would have helped them mature and grow in discipline over nearly two semesters at Mount. They were freshmen who still seemed like they belonged in the junior high.


God’s grace was with us. None of the adults raised our voices throughout the day, though we were at times provoked. We had many occasions to gently correct but never resorted to punishment. Our founder, St. Marcellin Champagnat, famously said that, “to educate children you must first love them, and love them all equally.” I’ve always found this a high ideal to aspire to, but more difficult than I would care to admit in practice—some kids are just difficult! On this day, it worked however. Some students were occasionally oppositional, undoubtedly accustomed to butting heads with their teachers. Yet we adults were able to redirect, diffuse, and re-engage them at other times in other ways. Even the students with the hardest edges gradually became friendly and open to correction once they saw that we weren’t interested in fighting or blaming them. In short, I was very happy with myself, even as I counted my blessings that I wasn’t trying to put this particular crew to bed during ‘lights out’ at our retreat facility.


As pleased with myself as I was though, I couldn’t help but recognize that if I were teaching some of these characters in a normal school year, sleep-deprived, and with a curriculum to get through, I would have had much greater difficulty similarly avoiding conflict. I don’t know whether or not I have truly become more patient over the past year or so—for that you would have to ask the brothers I live with—but I do know where my patience has tended to give out in the past. Perhaps the grace of yesterday lay in recognizing with greater clarity the difficult context these students were coming from, and taking responsibility for my own reactions in a way that is sometimes easier said than done. These boys on their way to becoming young men aren’t at fault for the adversity that has shaped them. They bring themselves as they are. My job is simply to model Christ’s love for them in a brotherly way—to love them regardless of how good they may or may not be, while encouraging them to become better as necessary.


It’s such a blessing to celebrate days where that seems to work.



This week’s “ear candy” is a classic and raucous bit of rock and roll history that illustrates the chaotic energies that can emerge from a troubled upbringing—perhaps not entirely irrelevant to the experience of the young people we encounter these days. What would it be like to consistently lead with empathy when engaging our youth? The “brain food” is a short article about the social challenges presented to young people by the pandemic and some thoughts on addressing them.


Ear Candy: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by The Rolling Stones

Brain Food: “Socialization and School: Kids Are Missing Out on More than Academics” by Exchange Family Center


Come back on the first Saturday of next month for a new post!


Previous Posts:


May 1 – Brothers 

Apr 3 – Plan B

Mar 6 – Times 40

Feb 6 – Testimony 

Jan 2 – Unconditional 


Dec 5 – Gestation

Nov 7 – Where Hope Lives

Oct 3 – Enough 

Sep 5 – Assembly Required

Aug 1 – Stumped 

July 4 – Bitter and Sweet

June 6 – Fire

May 30 – Brother’s Keeper

May 23 – Remote

May 16 – Getting By

Apr. 25 – Thank God It’s Saturday

Apr. 18 – Joseph’s Fiat

Apr. 11 – Bells & Sirens

Apr. 4 – Adaptation

Mar. 28 – Guest Column

Mar. 21 – Moving Forward

Mar. 14 – Reality Check

Mar. 7 – Soar 

Feb. 29 – Hiking Lessons

Feb. 22 – Love in the Desert

Feb. 15 – Beautiful Life

Feb. 8 – Bad Science

Feb. 1 – All Shall Be Well

Jan. 25 – Let Somebody Love You

Jan. 18 – Extraordinary Time

Jan. 11 – L’Chaim!

Jan. 4 – Decisive


Dec. 28 – Can’t Alone

Dec. 21 – Unexpected Gifts 

Dec. 14 – No Room

Dec. 7 – End of the World

Nov. 30 – Elective Unpleasantness

Nov. 23 – Always Greater

Nov. 16 – Coloring Book

Nov. 9 – Justice and Mercy

Nov. 2 – Together in Loneliness

Oct. 26 – Gently

Oct. 19 – Flow

Oct. 12 – In This Place

Oct. 5 – Why Understanding

Sep. 28 – Stone to Flesh

Sep. 21 – Let God

Sep. 14 – Passion

Sep. 7 – Hermanos

Aug. 31 – 525,600

Aug. 24 – Pathway

Aug. 17 – Crazy Together

Aug. 10 – To Bridge

Aug. 3 – Stripes

July 27 – Ghost Town

July 20 – Adrift

July 13 – Borders without Borders

July 6 – Little Bit at a Time

June 29 – Holy Dissent

June 22 – Old Kentucky Home

June 15 – Steamer Trunk

June 8 – Squad

June 1 – Legacy

May 25 – Live like You’re Loved

May 18 – Purity of Heart

May 11 – Builders and Creator

May 4 – Value Proposition

Apr. 27 – Vital Signs

Apr. 20 – Let It Be Real

Apr. 13 – Meet Self

Apr. 6 – Let Go of the Best

Mar. 30 – Thirst

Mar. 23 – Back Home

Mar. 16 – Say Goodbye

Mar. 9 – Garden and Desert

Mar. 2 – In Transit

Feb. 23 – Wealth

Feb. 16 – In Place

Feb. 9 – Each and All

Feb. 2 – Not Disneyland

Jan. 26 – Pilgrim People

Jan. 19 – Waking Dream

Jan. 12 – Called and Sent

Jan. 5 – Divine Encounter


Dec. 29 -- Resolution

Dec. 22 – Room for Love?

Dec. 15 – Humbug!

Dec. 8 – Let It Begin with Me

Dec. 1 – Driven by Love

Nov. 24 – What Manner of King

Nov. 17 – Stranger

Nov. 10 – I Need Help to Be Holy

Nov. 3 – Fully Alive

Oct. 27 – Behind the Curtain

Oct. 20 – Questions. Answers?

Oct. 13 – Stumble & Fall

Oct. 6 – Young World

Sep. 29 – Defend Us in Battle

Sep. 22 – The Taste of Water

Sep. 15 – God’s Plan

Sep. 8 – Life Finds a Way