This teacher pushes students across cultures and boundaries

Jacqueline Jill-Rito

Jacqueline Jill-Rito
Italian teacher and professor

Lives in: Hicksville, Long Island

Sr. Camille: Where do you live and what school claims you as one of its teachers?

Jill-Rito: I live in Hicksville, Long Island, and I teach Italian at Bethpage High School. I am an adjunct professor of Italian at SUNY-Old Westbury and serve in a program of continuing education for Hicksville Public Schools and in the BOCES Summer Session for children.

How long have you served on its faculty?

This is my 19th year at Bethpage and it will be my seventh year on SUNY faculty.

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What are your students like?

I feel that most of my students are speculative and concerned about their particular surroundings, with increasing interest as they learn more about their place in and connection to their greater world and environment.

Your connection with Afghan youth and your concern for them is intriguing. How did this relationship develop?

For 16 years, I was adviser of an extracurricular activity for interested high school students who were inclined to reach beyond their own community to learn, understand and connect with others. In 2010 through an announcement by Pax Christi USA, a program of connecting with youth in Afghanistan had been featured.

Over the years, student demographics had been widening across cultural, religious, ethnic and socio-economic lines on Long Island. The Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers, young people very much like the students with whom I interact daily, search for and try to follow paths of non-violence in their world -- a place in which since their birth, they only have known war. Talking to others, asking questions, engaging in dialogue -- all these practices enhance listening, empathy and understanding. That which seemed so foreign to many of my students seemed to fade as they spoke to each other through translations from their organizer, Dr. 'Hakim' Wee-Teck Young from Singapore who has dedicated his life leading these youth in their quest for peace and non-violence through the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. Now called Global Days of Listening, anyone who is interested can connect through Skype or Livestream on the 21st of each month and speak to Dr. Hakim and the Afghan Peace Volunteers without media bias or spin to learn, connect and achieve understanding with others. The conversation has grown to include people from all parts of the globe and the results are inspiring for all involved.

Your use of Skype to help young people from different cultures get to appreciate one another is, of course, a great use of technology. That method, however, must have its challenges. Can you describe them?

While technology has a global reach, resources are not equitable worldwide. This means that there are challenges in connecting and sustaining conversation with countries whose resources are limited. Dropped calls and fading power sources, rudimentary equipment in certain areas of the world, time differences, logistics and scheduling as well as the sacrifice volunteers make to produce this monthly event are all nothing short of miraculous. Thanks to organizations like the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Voices for Creative Non-Violence, Veterans for Peace, and September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, this program has grown and developed now for six years of promoting goodwill and peaceful paths of action.

It seems to me that exposing teens in a less developed country to ours, which so often presents itself as affluent and dominant, has the potential of sowing seeds of resentment. What would you say to that concern?

Yes, this could be a potential problem, but this has not been the case in the years of my dealing with the Afghan Peace Volunteers. I am always astounded at the tutelage of Dr. Hakim and how ardently these youth seek non-violence and try to live the words of Gandhi and Dr. King. One needn't go to Afghanistan to find struggle. Anyone who has 'wanted' in any way has their own degree of struggle. Everyone in the world would like their basic needs met -- shelter, food, safety, relationships -- even peace!

Rather than trying to explain how these young men and women embrace their lives and try to enhance their own culture and place in life instead of wasting time and energy on resenting the lives of others, I can offer testimony of one young man's words during a Global Day of Listening which has remained with me to this day. His question to the American audience, and all those listening in the world on that day who had the ears and heart to hear was, 'What can we in Afghanistan do to help you stop hating us?'

That, Jacqui, is a powerful question. Is there a discernible exchange of cultural appreciation?

With worldwide technology, media, television, film, the world in many ways is smaller. While reruns of television programs are seen in syndication all over the world, perceptions of reality across cultures and boundaries are often misinterpreted. One of the only ways to offer an authentic exchange of cultural appreciation is to talk, connect, get to know others in real time without contrivance, bias, spin or agenda. After platforms like Global Days of Listening, many preconceived ideas start to level into human understanding and good-will. This is an especially important experience for young people in the formation of their perspective.

Did your interest in Afghan life have roots in your own upbringing?

The roots of my own upbringing began in an extended immigrant family. My immediate family included my maternal grandparents from northern Italy who offered another culture, another language, another lifestyle -- all of which led to an understanding that life could be enjoyed from many vantage points.

Where and with whom did you grow up?

I grew up in northwest Connecticut with my extended family -- father, mother, maternal grandparents and one sister. My Catholic high school years at boarding school in Massachusetts introduced me at 14 years of age to classmates and their stories from Haiti, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Dominican Republic and Boston in the 60s -- Dorchester, Roxbury, The North End. Once you start to live among others with an open mind and heart, you begin to understand much more from different perspectives and 'see yourself' in their reflection.

Can you name positive influences in your life?

Each person with whom we connect are influences in our lives as I reflect. My maternal grandmother was one of the most profound influences in my life in a very simple, elementary way. Her presence was constant and steadfast. Grandparents of yesteryear seemed to represent safety and caring when all else could have crumbled. Their mere presence was enough to make a child feel safe and secure, as I did growing up. That gift of presence reveals a quality that has seemed to have dissolved in today's world. One of the most inspiring celebrity figures whose humility, words and spirit in action inspires me today is Papa Francesco.

What effect would you hope to have on your students?

I would hope that my students would try to see others -- especially those who seem to be different -- with respect, empathy and if it warrants, compassion. We never know where or how we will be tomorrow, and we should treat others as we would wish to be treated. It's a great life-lesson to learn.

What have you learned from them and from their parents?

I have learned about hope and resilience from many of my students. From their parents, I have learned that life is a process of different perspectives requiring unity for the common good and that when people work together, the seemingly-impossible can be achieved.

What faith communities do they represent?

Christian (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant denominations), Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and more.

Are many living lives devoid of any religious formation?

I teach in a public school and rarely does their religious formation come into discussion or question. Many if not most of them express their spirituality through conscience, their developmental formation on a practical, ethical level rather than that of an exclusively religious nature. I do notice that when religious holidays are present, many of the students follow their own religious traditions, which leads me to believe that some formation does take place at home.

Given your education and your experiences, what do you think God is asking of you?

Simply to live each day with Spirit and with Love wherever he leads -- and listen well.

How, where and with whom do you pray?

I am a practicing Catholic and attend Mass weekly, receive Eucharist at St. Brigid's in Westbury Long Island. My first thoughts when I get up early to begin my day is to dedicate my 'mind, words, heart, body and soul' to the Lord this day. This action of faith was suggested to me by Fr. William McCarthy of My Father's House Retreat Center in Moodus, Conn. He became an important priest in my life, from my elementary school years at St. Francis School in Connecticut. That connection feels very reverent. During the day, I find myself saying a prayer or two...or being aware of someone's need and assuring them of a prayer in their name. On the first Sunday of every month, Pax Christi Long Island meets at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal parish in Wyandanch. Our members discuss issues of current interest and pray about many of them together.

Does any Biblical passage inspire you?

Matthew 28:20: " And lo, I am with you always. ..." This passage helps me to trust that the Lord is with us, even during times of trial, desperation and hopelessness. These words help me trust in His promise and my understanding of "always."

What else would you like us to know?

Living a life with meaning and purpose defines us. Peace is something every one desires, but we hear it mentioned seemingly only during eulogies and religious rituals. Peace needs to occupy a place of honor and value in our everyday lives, in our families, communities, schools and workplaces. Equal time and value for peace and its development in our lives will reclaim balance. Making conscious choices to teach, include and dedicate time to peaceful initiatives can be the first step in a real awakening. There are so many people, so many groups and initiatives working towards these goals. They are available to everyone -- seek and find. Just ask!

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemptionis available from Now You Know Media.]

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