I don’t normally invite God into my classroom. Not only do I strongly believe in separation of church and classroom, being in an interfaith relationship increases my awareness of the subtle ways in which majority Christian culture can entangle itself in my curricular choices. Diligently, I strive to present a balance of perspectives and traditions. Last week, however, a conversation took place amongst my students that let me see how they cannot always compartmentalize their religious beliefs as we adults tend to do. And, I experienced, for the first time, how God can be present in a respectful way in my classroom.
Last week was the second to last week of school. Teachers, you know what this means: assessments, report cards, taking down work off the walls, sending mementos home, finishing that one last project, end of the year parties, yearbooks, field day, and lots of mixed emotions. The other day, those emotions got the better of my students resulting in retaliatory behavior. One child did something mean so the other did it back. Eye for an eye, right?
The moment came today when we needed to have the sit-down conversation, the “come to Jesus” moment that I always dread with my students. Here’s how it went...
“Okay, friends, we need to talk. This is important. It’s almost the last week of school and that is making us feel lots of different things. We’re happy because we have learned a lot. We’re excited about a fun summer filled with vacations, camps, and just relaxing. We’re also nervous about next year and a little sad about missing our friends. All these feelings are making us act in different ways. These emotions look different for everyone, and that is okay. Some of us are getting very quiet and calm. Others are getting loud and out of control. I’ve noticed that some of you want lots of hugs and to talk about our memories. And some are getting grumpy. As long as we don’t hurt anyone, all of these are okay. I have a question for you. When someone is mean and you’re mean back, what do you have?”
“All mean things!” they shout.
“What happens when someone is mean and the other person is nice anyway?” I ask, hoping for a similar rousing response. Instead, there was a rumble of debate.
Then, I told them the story. I told them I helped the mean ladies on Shelby Avenue who didn’t say thank you. They were rapt, drawn in to the magic of a real life Grimm-style fairy tale set in the dark with evil lurking right around the corner. I told them, even though they were not nice, I still felt good inside. The End.
I was on a roll. “So, the next time someone is mean to you, what are you going to do?”
Then, a little girl from right beside me said, “That reminds me of what we are learning about at church!” Oh, no. This is the moment I always dread. Whenever we have civics lessons, I wait for this moment. Jesus at school – what do I do? Quick, change the subject! Usually, I would say, “how interesting that you made that connection” and then I would ramble on about how each religious tradition has its own version of the golden rule, but to each his or her own, yadda, yadda. This time, I didn’t go there. I let her speak.
“Well, this thing is a really hard thing to do, but we’re supposed to love our enemies even though they’re our enemies because we’re supposed to.”
In that moment, I felt like our class could love everyone in the whole world and that everyone in the whole world was lovable.
The children erupted into stories of their own: acts of kindness they witnessed, mostly of their parent’s actions and even some opportunities missed. They connected these stories to our service learning project. Just as our smallest acts of kindness, like collecting pennies for Habitat for Humanity, when combined with others’ makes a big difference for good, so can small acts of meanness lead to big bad things.
Their voices, the voices of children rang clear and true in my ears. In a circle of six-year-olds I heard God’s call to love one another and I couldn’t kick God out of the conversation. Each child, with all their differences, had a story to tell and a personal connection to my story. They seemed relieved to have a safe place to share their experiences of church and temple lessons learned. I don’t think this could have been contrived and I don’t know how I could ever replicate this conversation with another group of students, but it was a good reminder that I’m not in full control, I don’t always see the whole picture, and children make excellent teachers.