In a freshman composition class today, my students were analyzing John Taylor Gatto’s essay, “Against School”. Gatto, a former New York City public school teacher and writer, opens the essay by contemplating the problem of boredom, “I taught for thirty years in some of the worst schools in Manhattan, and in some of the best, and during that time I became an expert in boredom.” Gatto goes one to explain that the students blame their boredom on the teachers. The teachers, who are every bit as bored as the students, blame the students for the problem.
And so it goes. Boredom – that terrible sucker of energy and ambition in our school and work, and, if we’re being honest, for many church-goers.
Gatto attributes his grandfather with curtailing his early trend toward boredom. When young Gatto once whined about being bored to his grandfather, the older man would hear none of it. “He told me that I was never to use that term in his presence again, that if I was bored it was my fault and no one else’s. The obligation to amuse and instruct myself was entirely my own, and people who didn’t know that were childish people, to be avoided if possible.”
I often have my first-year students read Gatto’s essay. To me, it reveals a shameful truth, only “childish people” grow bored.
This is a terrifying realization for a young person to make. I naively expect that after reading Gatto, my students will spring from their desks and dedicate themselves to all the good and creative impulses in the universe.
“What, me, boring?” I imagine them reflecting, “Never!”
And yet in my class today, there were no students bolting to the door, jazzed-up to take on the world. They all sat passively staring at me with bovine eyes when I asked them, “So what do you think about Gatto’s remarks about boredom?” It was all I could do to not burst into laughter. “The irony!” I wanted to shout. “Don’t you get it?! This is hilarious. You see, he says students are bored because they’re boring, and here you are, being – -”
One young lady tentatively raised her hand. “I think things were different back then. When his grandfather was young, they didn’t have anything to keep them busy, so he had to do something.”
The poor shmuck. He lived so long ago that he didn’t have modern technology to entertain him.
Her classmates murmured in agreement. We discussed the evolution of technology and the passive manner of entertainment we “enjoy” on a constant basis.
It was clear, listening to my students today, that the message of Gatto’s grandfather is nothing more than a whisper from long ago when things were different. Today, the students have an unashamed expectation to be entertained and engaged by entities outside of themselves.
As a Catholic teaching in secular institutions, I did not bring issues of the Church into my classroom, but I did contemplate the attitude of my students in light of the current moment in the Church.
Nearly all of the Catholics I grew up with have fallen away from the Church. A few go to Sunday Mass and send their children to CCD, but their children complain that CCD is boring. Mass is boring. The homilies are boring. Some of the parents I know have given up the battle and have stopped bringing their children to Mass on Sundays because, the truth is, they’re bored, too.
But isn’t Gatto’s grandfather correct? He certainly has a valid point for us to consider. Sure, priests have a responsibility to craft strong homilies. Music directors could challenge us with some Gregorian chant. An infusion of a little Latin might help create an unexpected edge that might wake up a few parishioners.
But what about the responsibility of each parishioner?
If we are bored, is it our “own fault”?
A number of years ago, I was at Mass on the Sunday after Easter. Our pastor, a beloved, gruff priest said something to the effect of, “Today is also now called Mercy Sunday. I am told I need to talk to you about it. A Polish nun received a message about Mercy. So now you know. If you’d like to learn more, go read the diary of St. Faustina.”
I was instantly intrigued. Why wouldn’t he explain it in detail? What was in that diary? I had to find out, so I bought a copy and read it. The book changed my life. The message of Divine Mercy opened my eyes. I became a more engaged Catholic. I became, one might argue, less bored simply because a priest had thrown down a gauntlet.
I don’t know that this method of engaging parishioners will work for everyone. Many might still want to be entertained when they come to Mass. Realizing our personal responsibility to not be boring individuals may be the remedy we have been avoiding, though.
If only we could stop being “childish people” and transform ourselves into the engaging individuals that Gatto’s grandfather would be proud of, we might once again become vibrant, engaged Catholics.