MILWAUKIE — To help students understand Hinduism, La Salle Prep religious studies teacher Tom McLaughlin has them make M&M’s cookies. Each cookie illustrates the Hindu belief that individuals (the M&M’s) can be seen even when in unity (the cookie).

To help students understand the Buddhist belief that nothing is permanent, he has students create — then destroy — sand mandalas. And to help students understand the Christian belief that God is always present, he has them play hide-and-seek. When we seek God, we find God everywhere.

McLaughlin doesn’t assign the most difficult homework assignments. "No, that’s not how he teaches,” said senior John Cipolla, one of McLaughlin’s students. “He would rather have students go outside and listen to nature and relate it to religion.” McLaughlin’s faith, teaching style, care for students and commitment to Lasallian values have earned him the 2020 Lasallian Educator of the Year award from fellow faculty and staff. He will receive the award during the school’s Heroic Vow ceremony — postponed from this fall because of the pandemic — in 2021.

“Tom embodies a big brother to staff and students alike,” said Debbie Schuster, health and physical education teacher and department chair. “He is honest, real and a blessing to La Salle since he walked through that front door.”

Staffers praised McLaughlin for his dedication to justice. After earning an Equity Certificate through the Center for Equity and Inclusion, he teamed with several others at the school to lead a staff discussion about the topics.

“Tom does not just address the needs of our students,” said religious studies teacher and department chair Ryan Darmody. “He is committed to making our world better for all, especially any person or group pushed to the margins whether in the form of poverty, racial injustice, environmental injustice, or many other important issues confronting our world.”

‘We are seen’

McLaughlin — known as “Mr. Mac” around school — has earned the respect of students, too.

“He creates an environment where students feel loved, appreciated, and free to be themselves without judgments,” said junior Amanda Rivera. “He engages with us as people rather than students he’s teaching, and takes more effort to make sure we are seen.”

McLaughlin sees students everywhere because he makes a point to be where they are. He leads retreats, supporting teens as they take stock of their lives. He cheers for the football team while serving as its water boy and chaplain. He attends school plays, concerts and shows, always offering congratulations and a smile.

McLaughlin’s actions reflect his belief that “each of us has dignity simply because we exist,” he said. “Everyone deserves to be treated with respect. Each person is essentially lovable, beautiful and good because God who is love chose to create us.”

‘Pope Tom’

Born to an attorney and homemaker in Baltimore, McLaughlin moved at age 6 with his family to Seattle. Raised Catholic, he attended O’Dea High, an all-boys school run by the Irish Christian Brothers. Classmates nicknamed him “Pope Tom” for his writings as the school newspaper’s religion editor.

McLaughlin said he first heard a calling to teach while at the University of Notre Dame, which he attended on an ROTC scholarship. Renowned theology professor Father John S. Dunne led McLaughlin’s classes in lively discussions referencing poetry, Tolkien and other thinkers.

“I wanted to do what he was doing,” said McLaughlin. “It was the opportunity to explore and talk about what it means to be human to have a relationship with Earth and with God, and to hear gorgeous stories.”

The teaching and the stories had to wait until McLaughlin fulfilled his commitment to the U.S. military in exchange for his ROTC scholarship. But 14 months into his duty as an Air Force personnel officer, McLaughlin realized he couldn’t reconcile his beliefs with his work.

“Jesus would never point an M-15 at anyone,” he thought. Two years and three months after serving in the military, McLaughlin got an honorable discharge, then paid back his scholarship.

By then, McLaughlin’s path wasn’t as clear. Until then, he had succeeded in nearly every one of his pursuits — finishing near the top of his high school class, earning all-conference honors as a prep defensive lineman, and graduating with a degree in English from the University of Notre Dame. But McLaughlin realized he couldn’t step toward his future until he faced a nightmare in his past: A once-trusted priest abused McLaughlin when he was a boy.

From darkness to light

Over the next several years, McLaughlin talked to clergy, sought accountability from the church, and spent hours in therapy trying to answer the questions: Why? What next?

In the end, the only closure he got stemmed from seeing that the darkness of the trauma made him more committed to creating light.

“I wouldn’t be this alive if it wasn’t for the experience and having to grapple with it,” he said. “To some degree, I owe a debt of gratitude to this suffering.”

Eventually, after holding a series of retail and restaurant jobs, McLaughlin made his way back into the classroom. After earning a master’s degree in spiritual traditions and ethics from Marylhurst University, he landed a teaching position at Valley Catholic High in Beaverton, then at Portland Community College. In 2012, he arrived at La Salle, where he’s been teaching ever since.

Teaching, challenging

In June, Portland’s Urban Spirituality Center certified McLaughlin as a spiritual director. Yet in his classes, he challenges students to think for themselves. “It isn’t just me dispensing ideas,” he said. “I want the classroom to be a community where we are exploring meaningful, deep things.”

In addition to his hands-on lessons, he tries to show students the big picture. He stresses that, though education is important, scoring 100% on a test doesn’t always reflect what one has learned.

Above all, McLaughlin tries to teach from the heart, using his scholarship, pain and experience to help students find “their unique path to the light of love.” Sometimes, he’ll drop his doodle of a stick figure with a red heart and outstretched arms into one of his lessons, just to give the kids a reason to smile.

And at the start of every semester, he hands out a statement declaring his commitment to every one of his students.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he tells them. “We walk this path together.”

Daniels is on the communications staff at La Salle Catholic College Preparatory.