Thursday, November 19, 2009

For the Sixteen Children in My Religious Ed Class

Right away, I knew this class would be different. It wasn't the post I wrote about it yesterday morning. It was that for the first time in eight weeks of after-school religious education, every child was present and accounted for; and the boys were all sitting in the front rows, the girls in the back.

You expect the boys and girls to segregate themselves in a class of fourth-graders. But you don't expect the boys to be sitting in front and raising their hands like mad men every time the teacher asks a question. OK, N. and T. seldom raise their hands, too busy talking about Pop Warner Football or something, and C. and K. do so only grudgingly. But every other boy was, like, "Me! Me! Me! Mr. Bull, let me answer that one!"

Is there something that needs saying here about men needing to witness to boys about their faith? I don't take credit for any of this. I don't even know how I got roped into teaching religious ed on Wednesday afternoons after school. But fact is, except for a seminarian who drives out from Boston every week to teach a class, I am the only male teacher out of a complement of maybe twelve.

I know, guys work at the office, can't be in school at 3:30 p.m., but so do many gals, and don't guys and gals knock off early to see their kids play soccer? And there are retired guys, aren't there? And guys in school (college, postgrad) who have, let's face it, cushy schedules, and spend more time staring at their navels in the coffee shop than staring at their books? And how about home office guys, like me, who can make their own schedules? We can be so critical and, let's be honest, so suspicious of priests who give their whole lives to evangelization and catechesis. Couldn't a few of us guys—guys blessed with loving wives, guys who go home to a good meal and a bed that isn't empty—give up an hour a week to teach young boys and girls about the Lord?

This was the day we talked about The Lord's Prayer. I had the prayer written out on the board, with blanks for all the key words. For example, Our ______________ who art in _____________. I challenged the children to fill in the blanks, out loud, one word at a time, but said the answer would be incomplete without an explanation of what the word means. So we ended discussing things like, Why do we call God Father instead of Mother, and, Where exactly is heaven? I knew that A., our cosmologist, would have an idea about heaven. When we discussed Creation in an earlier class, she had a lot to say about the Big Bang.

There were predictable moments: Of course, no one knew what hallowed means, or even that it has an -ed at the end. Hallow? Hollow? Halloween? Which of course is pretty close, in a way, since Halloween is All Hallows Eve, or the eve of All Saints Day, and hallowed means saintly, or holy. But of course that's the associative thinking of a college-educated adult male who had ten years in Sunday school, not the thought process of a contemporary fourth grader whose idea of the four Gospel writers may associate with the four Teletubbies.

There are always surprises, too. S. is a willowy waif of a girl with a voice like a faint breeze who sits in the corner farthest from me. I've learned not to be surprised by S. When she raises her hand, I know that I need to acknowledge her immediately, moving halfway across the classroom to catch what she has to say, in little more than a whisper, because it's usually on the mark. S. is the sort of child who can get lost in a class like this, and I'm determined to help find her. Yesterday (it was getting late in the prayer and the hour), no one could come up with any sort of definition of temptation. Finally, S.'s hand went up and I asked her to repeat her answer three times as I moved toward her and finally got close enough to hear her words: “Temptation is like when you're walking home from school and a man pulls over in a car and offers you candy and tells you to get into the car.” Exactly. S. was connecting the dots, recalling a movie about childhood safety all the grades had watched together a few weeks back.

Then there is M., a reverent boy with a mild speech impediment whom I've observed at Sunday Mass. (It's not clear how many of these kids go to Mass with any regularity, but M. does, I know.) When we arrived at, Give us this day our _________________, M. not only had "daily bread," but spoke of it as the Eucharist. I wanted to shout, Hallelujah!

I had given the class a homework assignment the week before, to find and bring in the shorter form of The Lord's Prayer that is reported by Luke. As usual, M., our Mass-goer and (I like to think) junior seminarian, did the homework, no one else.

After the bell rang, and the rest of the class had run off to the parking lot, I helped C. find a new copy of the class workbook. He had lost his and his mother told me he didn't want to come to school without it. C. is the boy who, during the first class, asked to get a drink of water eight times. I thought he was testing me. We negotiated it down to four times, I think. Now, he doesn't ask anymore, and I like to think he's getting something out of the class.

A final note. I had lunch with Father Barnes yesterday and, as he reads this blog, we ended talking about The Lord's Prayer. Last evening, he sent me a sort of meditation on the prayer from a book by Blessed Columba Marion. It's worth sharing, especially in connection with children, which we are too:

O Father,
Holy One who art in heaven,
we are your children, seeing that you
wish to be called our Father!

Hallowed, honored, glorified,
be your name.

May your perfections be praised and
exalted more and more on earth: may
we, by our works, manifest in ourselves
the splendor of your grace.

Widen, then, your reign; may it constantly
increase, this Kingdom--which is also
that of your Son, in that you have
constituted Him as its head.

May your Son be truly the King of our souls.
May we express this kingship in us by the
perfect accomplishment of your will;
may we seek constantly, like Him,
to adhere to you by carrying out
your good pleasure, your Eternal thought
concerning us, so that in all things
we may be like your Son Jesus,
and be, through Him,
children worthy
of your love!