By: Andrew Bondarev
This interview was recorded on a rainy afternoon after a grueling Monday school day for the sophomore religion teacher, Mr. Nilaj.
Andrew Bondarev: First, let’s talk about your personal experiences. In high school, what were some of the most important lessons that you learned, as an individual, Catholic, etc.?
Pjetër Nilaj: For me, what was really important was paying attention to the needs of my friends. I guess one of the gifts that God has given me is to be a very good listener. So, friends found a person who could listen to them while I was there. They could share their issues with me, we would talk, and create an environment where everyone could be themselves. Other things that were important to me were working hard in school and balancing, as I was a basketball player, and I was taking college classes in my junior and senior year along with taking high school classes and trying to have a normal social life. That balance was important, and making little sacrifices, so there was no time for messing around or wasting time because there were people that depended on me. If you have people that depend on you and you’re focused on their needs, that is very healthy and important because life isn’t about you. It’s about others.
AB: When you later transitioned into college, how did you cope with stress or obstacles at the time?
PN: It was important to surround myself with friends that had similar values. God sent me a group of friends from church that I really admire, and we weren’t just friends in church, we would hang out together, play basketball, we’d share our lives together. Just a cool group of friends who loved God, and none of us obviously were perfect. So, we would support each other, find moments to pray, went to retreats together, and served together. It is very important to serve and to give back. As a college student, what helped me to stay focused was to give my time to other youth, such as helping out as an assistant youth minister and eventually a youth minister. I volunteered to teach the Catholic faith to teens and little kids as well. There, I discovered my talent of teaching and I discovered how important each of us are to other people. Even if you are not trained as a teacher, there’s things that we can share – talents God gave us – instead of keeping them to ourselves.
AB: To Salesian students thinking about college, what advice would you give? What should they pursue and try to find within themselves on this journey?
PN: That’s a good question. Talk to somebody who really knows you very well, whether it’s a teacher you admire [connect to], a parent, people who you know love you and care for you. Ask them for their advice too. Especially if you’re not sure, like “what should I major in college?”, it’s pretty normal not to be sure. In fact, many people went to college not being sure, choosing a major they connect with, and they change it at some point. But it’s important that if you don’t know your talents yet, that you discover it through what other people tell you, especially people who know you well. Read your recommendation letters, take a look at what teachers, family, friends say about you if you’re not sure already. Also, get involved in student life, outside of class. College for me was super exciting and something to look forward to because I was involved in extracurricular activities. I started up a club and then a second club and I couldn’t be the president of it, but I had friends start it up and we all worked together, a Catholic club, another one that had to do with values, art, and music. Just being involved and just connecting with the right type of people, and staying away from things that you know are not going to make you the best version of yourself.
AB: Was the transition to Salesian tough compared to working in high schools in the past?
PN: No matter what kind of experience you have as a teacher, when you teach in a new school, you have to feel the environment out and adapt. At the last school I was in, discipline was very strict and emphasized. Here, it’s emphasized but not as much as the other school, which is not bad or good, but different. As a teacher I had to tone it down, I’m sure I seemed very scary and intimidating at first to a lot of students – which is a good thing – let me stop. But, it was good to a certain extent but then I realized, “OK, this is not the last school I worked in”, so I had to tone it down a bit. But I could continue being myself while adapting. Of course, what I love here at Salesian that some other schools I taught in didn’t have is having the priests, religious brothers here. The Salesians themselves present and it makes a big difference. Going to Mass with you guys in the morning, being able to pray together is just amazing. It helps us to connect, you don’t just see the teacher in the classroom but outside too.
AB: What opportunities do Salesian students have that you didn’t have in high school?
PN: That’s a very good question and I was thinking about this the other day, I’m jealous of you guys – in a holy way. I went to public school all my life, from kindergarten to college. Teaching in a Catholic school shows me how the Catholic school setting is a place where you can get a lot more support. Now, not to say that public school doesn’t have support, they do as well. But this support, when it’s founded in the faith and our love for God and love for each other, it’s a different type of support. We are very conscientious, and I see the teachers here being conscientious beginning from the top down, with Father John, being able to be with you guys, reading, caring, checking in, him knowing your names personally. It’s very beautiful to see that. If you are a student of Salesian, take advantage of all the support that you have. Even to talk about your problems outside of school with the right people, with guidance counselors that care, and I know some of you guys go to Confession even outside of confession hours, which is amazing. You won’t have that in other schools. Never allow yourself to go through things in life alone.
AB: Knowing all of the day-to-day experiences you’ve had with teaching teenagers, what is a problem that as a generation, we should try to address and solve?
PN: I would say that one of the biggest problems I have noticed with teenagers these days is the desire to be someone you’re not, which has always been a temptation for decades, to grow up too fast. But, now it is becoming worse because we are idolizing and trying to be people that we see on TV, social media, and we are never satisfied with who we are at this very moment. We are not satisfied with being the person that is growing, changing, making mistakes but learning from them. We want to be a celebrity or a star at 14 or 15, which is a great temptation but it’s impossible. We always have to remember that people who are considered great by society today have worked really hard, and they needed all these years of life experience. Another big problem is keeping things to yourself. A lot of teens have a hard time opening up to people, and rightly so, because some of their trust has been violated by people, including adults. So, you don’t know who to talk to, sometimes your parents are not as available as we’d like them to be. So, it’s important to share your struggles with the right people. First, share them with God through prayer, second, to share them with other people who are willing to listen. A lot of teens are going through things in life that no one knows about, and it can be averted or we can help you overcome it if you just share. Of course with this confidence that people actually care, it’s not like “oh, another problem…”, that’s not how especially God looks at our problems. He cares for each one of us.
AB: Excess social media seems to be correlated with a lot of these issues. What works for you in terms of avoiding distraction?
PN: What works for me is doing what I have to do at every single moment, and then if there is time, after I have done all I had to do, then I will take a “break”. You think of the late Kobe who passed away, may he Rest in Peace, one of his teachers or guidance counselors told him “don’t rest in the middle, rest at the end”. A lot of us start a homework assignment, five minutes later, and we say “oh this is so much work, let me just check social media”. If we do that all the time, we train ourselves to get satisfaction from breaks. That’s not how real life goes, we can’t have a job and tell your boss, “I need a break” in the middle of it, no, he expects you to work, to perform. The way to combat a lot of time spent on social media is to do what we have to do, if there is homework, let’s take care of that right away. If there’s stuff to do around the house, let’s take care of that right away. Sometimes, we use social media to hide from our responsibilities, a lot of times, our family life has been affected by the use of social media. Even our parents, family members, siblings might be on it and nobody’s talking to each other. The little time we do have with each other is really taken away by social media. But, social media doesn’t take it away, we are choosing, so we always like to blame social media, but who’s the user? We are. We have to be conscientious, and to choose to spend face-to-face time with people rather than FaceTime or social media time. This is my recommendation, I try to personally do it, but I’m not perfect at it. There’s nothing wrong with it, but you have to put a cap on it. It needs to be limited because there are people that need us.
AB: Finally, a skill that has been brought up in your classes has been prayer, particularly in silence, what are your tips on staying focused in prayer and trying to hear God’s voice in your life?
PN: For me, there was a group of missionaries that taught me very much about the importance of silent prayer. Their founder, Fernando Rielo, suggested that when we were in silent prayer, to focus on one particular thought or idea that would bring us closer to God. First, the recommendation would be to not pray alone, to pray with Scripture. Take a chapter of Scripture, read it in silence, and then meditate for 5-10 minutes and see what pops out to you. God is going to tell you something specifically that you and I need to hear, He’ll say something different to another person, but to us, He’s trying to draw a lesson for us. If a passage that stands out to you is about mercy, we can say in silence, instead of being distracted, “Jesus teach me to be merciful” and just to repeat that with more love and vigor. Slowly, but with love. That is one way of meditating in silence, and it is also important to let God speak. We can say many prayers but then does God get any time in? Do we allow Him to speak? Yeah, we’ll get distracted, but God knows that, the important thing is to show up. If we don’t show up, we’re telling God “I don’t believe that this time with you will have any effect”, which is not right because He said “ask and you shall receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be open”. He tells us to go into our inner room, shut the door, and pray to your Father in secret. The secret could be in silence, so we need to shut those thoughts that are worrying us, those desires that are all over the place. As they come up, offer them up to God, “Father, these are yours”, if they are negative, “I don’t want these, Father, you know that”, if they are positive, “Father, teach me how to be more like you”. Silence is important because we are sometimes afraid of listening to ourselves, and that’s why a lot of us have trouble changing things in our lives because we are afraid of facing what needs to be changed, or we don’t even want to identify them. Silence really helps us to do that, but not silence by ourselves, silence before God’s presence, who lives within us.