Good things are going on in Palm Desert. And have been for a while.
I kind of grew up in this desert.
Came out here straight from college to teach at a new high school called Xavier College Preparatory. It was my first full-time job. I was tasked to teach psychology, coach basketball and golf, and be the utility man/administrative assistant, which included everything from substitution duties to keeping track of student textbooks.
It was like jumping into a circus being thrown four flaming sticks and being asked to juggle — when you don’t know how to juggle.
It was overwhelming, but I had the best support a young teacher could have. There was someone asking you about your feelings, someone else helping you with your sub spreadsheet. Someone else making you laugh. Everyone working with mission-driven intensity. Someone always had your back. It was a fellowship.
So I kind of grew up in Palm Desert.
Whenever I go back to Palm Desert, I’m reminded of something weird. The streets are huge, like six lanes wide. And the speed limit is 65 mph. But there’s no left turns except for a green arrow. And the lights take forever.
Palm Desert has a population of 50, 000. The median age is 53.
During two weeks of the Coachella Music Festival, however, the demographics suddenly change. The population about doubles. The streets are packed and you feel like you’re living in some sort of hipster alternative reality.
My favorite coffee shop in Palm Desert is Starbucks.
I remember one of my first conversations with a student at the high school, I asked him what he does for fun.
He said he goes to the river.
I said, oh, there’s a river around here? Which one?
He said, no, I go to the River. It’s the mall here.
The mountains here are spectacular. They just surround you. There’s clouds always flowing over San Jacinto Peak.
In the winter the mountains sometimes get snowcapped. So it can be 70 degrees on the ground, you’re walking around in shorts and short sleeves looking up at snowcapped mountains.
San Jacinto Peak is in Palm Springs, which is right next door to Palm Desert. It’s home of the world’s largest aerial tram. You climb 6,000 feet in twelve minutes. It’s like 30 degrees cooler up there. Pine trees instead of palm trees.
When you hike one of these mountains and look across the valley below, you will see pockets of green — and not just the golf courses. There are natural springs with flowing water and vegetation and wildlife.
Xavier is a Jesuit high school.
Jesuits are always doing self-reflection. Examining themselves and their circumstances. Searching for God’s call. Wondering about purpose. As soon as they get a hint of purpose, they spring into action. Action followed by reflection; reflection leading to action.
Jesuits have attempted to systematize the search for meaning. The “retreats” are built into the curriculum, offered as part of the educational experience. They are religious, but also accessible to the non-religious. They create spaces for self-reflection and community-building. They encourage the discovery of meaning, which is usually found in one’s heart. Brought to life by the imagination.
I went through the retreat programs first as a student of Jesuit education, and then again as a teacher in Jesuit education. Both helped lay down a framework for processing new life events and making life decisions.
For this I am grateful.
Good things are still happening at Xavier. I just visited their campus and attended a day of their “Summit on Human Dignity.”
The Summit is a week of concentration on a single topic. Looking at the topic from different angles, an examination of purpose and dignity. There are school-wide presentations in addition to student-led workshops or breakout sessions.
This week the topic was digital technology. In what ways does technology dignify the human person? In what ways does it not? How can we utilize technology in order to bring out the best of humanity?
The workshop I attended was called “Media and Politics.” After an informative and engaging lecture on the history of the subject, the students switched gears, led an activity followed by discussion on the topic of Trump’s Tweets. What I heard was the most fair and civil discussion you could imagine on the subject — the consensus being that, although Twitter is an effective and useful means of presidential communication, the way Trump uses it is often immature.
Besides the presentations and workshops, the teachers are asked to weave the theme of the Summit into their curriculum.
As you would expect at a Jesuit school, the week ends with a day of prayer and reflection on what was discussed throughout the week. A culminating Mass.
To the casual observer, Palm Desert doesn’t seem like much. As a matter of fact, you can drive past it on the way to Los Angeles from Arizona and not really know it’s there.
But there’s a sense of freshness in the atmosphere.
Geographically close enough to know about the big city, yet far enough away not to be tarnished by the Los Angeles smog.
Whenever I leave Palm Desert, and reflect on my time there, I’m left with a feeling of gratitude and hope.
There’s a lot of good happening in the desert.