Thursday, January 14, 2010

To Teach Fourth-Graders the Fourth Commandment

Posted by Webster 
My religious ed class was more unruly than ever yesterday afternoon; every minute I had to shush and beg thirteen 9-10-year-olds to listen to one another. But there was one moment of silence near the end of the class that I will not forget soon. It had to do with the Fourth Commandment.

The topic was the Ten. Having introduced them last week, I thought I would throw down the gauntlet to the class: How many of the Ten Commandments can you guys remember? Who can give me just one of the Commandments? A girl raised her hand—

Don't kill anyone. Good, “You shall not kill.” Who else?

Don’t take anything from someone. Excellent, “You shall not steal.” How about another Commandment?

Don’t get divorced. . . .

I felt a preliminary tug at my heart from these words. They were offered sotto voce by a child whose parents may be separated. I acknowledged that this was a correct answer, although I rephrased it: “You shall not commit adultery.” We talked about this for a bit and what it meant.

K., a boy whose Attitude is as big as he is small, nailed the next one: Don’t take God’s name in vain, and C., another boy, clearly understood Respect your mother and father. We talked of “honoring” not only parents but priests, teachers, mentors, elders.

Then came another S. moment. S. is a pale, thin girl whom I have described before. I usually have to ask her questions three or four times, walking closer each time until, my ear virtually on her lips, I hear what she has to say, and it’s always on the money. I told the class that getting Five Commandments was stellar, that I didn’t expect them to remember any more, that I would be amazed if anyone could come up with Number Six—whereupon S.’s hand went up, haltingly, meekly, her gaze barely grazing my own. I asked my four questions, moved closer, and finally heard: Don’t believe in other gods. 

Which is, of course, the big Number One: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. . . . ” I congratulated S., and she shrugged, lapsing back into body language that usually seems to say, I have nothing to say and even if I did, so what?

I had Six of Ten, and that was enough. I congratulated the class and began building the list backward from Number Ten, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods,” and Number Nine, “Ditto your neighbor’s wife.” We discussed the meaning of covet and that other odd term, bear false witness, in Number Eight. Stealing, adultery, and killing were a quick Seven, Six, and Five. We came then to Number Four, “Honor your Father and Mother.”

I said, as delicately as I knew how, that this could be a tough Commandment for some people to follow, that not every parent is perfect, that I have a friend who had a mean parent, that there may even be some of us in this room whose parents do things we can’t understand. Not all Catholic parents are like Frank, I would think later yesterday, when I read his latest post. But God wants us to honor our parents anyway. A boy looked at me wide-eyed and asked, Even parents who aren’t nice? Even them. The room was silent for the first time. Every pair of eyes was looking at me.

Honestly, I know nothing about the personal lives of virtually any of my students, and I really don’t want to know. It’s not my business. I have met almost none of their parents, and the ones I have met are nice enough, and I am sure there are many happy family times for the children in my class. But I know what the statistics say: that half of all marriages in our country are in enough trouble to end sooner or later. I know that Catholics are not exempt from such statistics, no matter what the Church teaches. Logic tells me that six, seven, eight or even more of the children in my class will have genuine difficulty putting the Fourth Commandment into practice. I felt helpless in the face of this, but went on gamely to talk about the first three Commandments, including the one no one had mentioned: “Observe the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” I urged them to ask their parents to take them to Mass.

I told Katie about the class at dinner. She made several good points, and this was one of them: Whether or not there are any troubled families involved here, the fact is, the parents of these children are all sending them to religious ed class. Perhaps, Katie said, in some cases, they are sending them to religious ed because they know they are inadequate as parents (as Katie and I know we are sometimes inadequate), and yet these parents still want what’s right for their children. Even though they themselves probably see their own contradictions, they send their children to your class, Webster, in the hopes that the children will bring something good home with them, something that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

I was very touched by this observation from my wife, who is in many ways a better Catholic than I am.