Lessons From A Grade School

Last spring I graduated from 21st grade. It’s not a calculation I would make on my own, were it not for 2nd graders asking me what grade I was in. I would not be in dialogue with 2nd graders, were I not sent during my seminary studies to volunteer at a bilingual grade school in southwest D.C.

This week’s celebration of Catholic Schools Week has prompted me to step back and reflect on my time in this often chaotic, always instructive realm which I never thought I’d return to. I remember my first day last year, sitting on a children-sized art table while the kids sat on the carpet for story time. I was just listening, soaking it in, when a strong existential moment washed over me: “I’m a Dominican brother, wearing strange robes, in a 2nd grade classroom, everyone is speaking Spanish, we’re in downtown Washington D.C…. I couldn’t have predicted that any one part of this story would occur in my life. What has happened to me?” It was a good moment, not a scary one. It reminded me I was still a student, and I have kept my eyes open on every day that has followed.

At times I have felt a bit like Wittgenstein. At the age of 30 (my own age), he published his magnum opus in philosophy and then promptly disappeared to teach elementary school in the Austrian countryside. Having despaired of all things intellectual, he threw himself into all things poor and simple as a sort of refuge of meaning, from giving away his familial financial inheritance to siblings to even “sleeping in the school kitchen and eating cocoa and oatmeal for dinner out of a pot he never cleaned.” His head full of theoretical knowledge, he went back to the roots of society in search of the basic knowledge he had lost in growing up. And there is an enormous difference between passing through grade school and returning to it as an adult.

Months back, our 2nd graders were reciting the Nicene Creed for the first time, in slow and careful Spanish, line by line: “Creo en un solo Dios, Padre todopoderoso….” I thought for a few moments of the few centuries of controversy over this formula, of those bitter bishop battles we call councils, always convening somewhere in western Turkey and always abounding with venom and eloquence, with politics and the Holy Spirit! How simple it all has turned out to be in time. What gentle fruit is born of violent growth. What was once a war of words is now a simple and delightful formula, passed on to innocent children at 10 a.m. just 2 miles north of the White House. “On the lips of children and of babes you have found praise to foil your enemy” (Ps 8:3).

These past two years, as much as I have sought to teach, I have been taught. Students teach you by how they learn, how they speak, what they notice, what gets their attention, etc. I’d like to first share a big lesson, then some minor ones. Altogether, they are just a few of the many lessons I have learned since returning to grade school.

Beginning school is beginning to live in society. Even the seating arrangement shows this. Children are placed in rows or desk clusters, placed side-by-side with other children from other families they would never associate with, told to share crayons and glue and help each other on math problems. Already across the small space of a desk they furrow their brows, asking why that strange person behaves that way, or they lean over excitedly to say how pretty someone’s earrings are or how much they like their dragon drawings.

Likewise, a whole set of helping hands guide a student through a single day. On the first day of school, this is often a traumatic transfer. This year’s start to classes for us was humid with steady rain, and soon the tears of many children mixed with the general moisture of the day, the dawning realization that mom wasn’t coming back for hours and these other grownups were in charge of us now. They may be holding my hand and singing happy songs in my face like clowns, but they’re not my mom…. Yet separation soon smooths into a routine, and the transfer soon goes unquestioned. Each day, mom or dad or both first help children with a whole set of verbs: waking, dressing, brushing, braiding, packing, driving, hugging, leaving. Then it is the teachers who are more than teachers, for on school grounds they are also lawyers and referees and police officers and doctors and sometimes substitute parents.

I once entered the sacristy before school Mass to vest as a deacon, when behold, right at my feet lay a 7-year-old boy on the carpet, flat on his back, eyes closed in a quiet agony, with a 25-year-old girl bending over him, keeping him calm, until his mom arrived to bring him home. He had the flu, and she happened to be his teacher, and that’s just what teachers do in these situations.

Alternatively, we should also consider how much students affect society, not some future day when they grow up and get jobs, but now as students. Parents certainly set the tone of parenting, but children also form their own cultures, which they bring home and ask their family to deal with! That’s not a reason for universal homeschooling (which is itself a fine option), but simply to say that children form cultures at their own level regardless of the context in which they live. Another curiosity is how much a school calendar affects all of society, including dads at work. Business slows down some in the summer and most vacations or long weekends happen then, not simply due to the heat but also because the kids are home. I’ve seen Manhattan turn sleepy in a single weekend, once the public school calendar reaches its end. Parents may work remotely or have extra time off, but school says when to take it. This doesn’t happen in Bogotá, because the school breaks fall in winter. It’s only to say that school schedules have a wider ripple effect than adding some home and school meetings to mom’s calendar.

And now for further thoughts.

Words matter. I didn’t see this when I was a 1st grader, but since my return to 1st grade, it’s the most obvious and marvelous fact. To learn is simply to learn new words. That’s basically the entire educational process itself. Every subject, from science to history to religion, with perhaps math as the lone exception, is based on new vocabulary and how these words connect with other ones we already know, then what they mean together. You can’t explain the story of Gabriel appearing to Mary when the whole class cuts you off in unison, saying, “What’s appear?” Then 40 minutes have gone by, and you’ve covered up to 4 definitions of the word, only to walk away wondering why you never realized the term was so complex in the first place.

Rules matter. My nephew sat in a classroom for the first time this fall, and when later that evening in the kitchen his dad (my brother) asked him how his day went, his first words were: “You can’t talk if you don’t raise your hand.” To enter a school is submerge oneself in a world of rules. Smaller children don’t question this in the beginning, and the rules are almighty. Though rebellion may creep in, it remains that law is a teacher from our earliest age, shaping us from then until even now. And of course there are consequences. Rewards for good behavior may be false currency to purchase candy from the teacher’s closet or even a Pizza Hut gift certificate for good readers. Punishments are, as usual, some form of isolation – a difficult human experience regardless of age. Our school enforces behavior by color charts, which students then show to their parents at home, connecting the behavior to both school and family. Law reaches into every level of society, and behavior at any level affects the whole. School reminds us how true this is.

Questions matter. Kids are full of questions, real ones, sometimes the very deepest stuff, and some questions never go away. I’ve heard the same recurring questions from 2nd, 5th, and 8th graders: “Who made God?” In these questions they don’t need a quick answer, but need to keep asking that question. Other questions can be settled quickly. When one 2nd grader asked if the place where Jesus lived is still in the world, to which I said yes, the whole class rushed to the map to have me point out Israel. It was a loud and conclusive moment, the general phrase about the crowd being: “There it is!” Question solved. Many others to come. Not just in school, but all of life. In our 5th grade, every week we have Question Day, where many thoughts over the course of the week have all been jotted down on neon sticky notes, and I try to sort through the stack and answer as many as I can, as quickly as I can, sometimes getting caught in very deep and real matters. The best atmosphere in the classroom should be the same atmosphere in the home, when children are provoked by life and ask about it and are listened to and taken seriously. A child never asks an unserious question. Sometimes they do as part of a joke, which is always obvious. Normally if they bother to ask, they’re serious. If we don’t take them seriously, they stop asking. If we don’t have an answer for them, they get us searching for one.

Creativity Matters. It’s said that teachers learn their subjects fully only by the act of teaching it. Being a student involves a lot of information intake, but without any sort of creative expression to concretize what has been received, it may not remain. The most basic way we do so is by speaking. Reciting creeds or multiplication tables helps us remember them. Even with simple observations this applies. Kids notice every detail, so my first few days in the classroom were full of many interrogations I had never faced in my life: “How many beads are on your rosary?” I had to count. 169. “How are you toes so big?” Because I’m a grown up. I now realize wearing sandals to story time is a perpetual risk for distraction. And then the classic: “You’re tall.” You needed to say that, in order to process that, didn’t you? But besides words, there is also writing. Besides writing, there is also art, as another way to express our learning so as to absorb it. Everyone draws and colors the parables of Jesus after we read them. Whether or not the resulting images are discernable in the least, it’s the process that matters. A nice side effect, as well, is that schools become store houses for art supplies, so whenever I’m in a bind to make Christmas or birthday cards, a quick trip to school solves every need.

Boys and girls are different. Yes, they both are intelligent in all subjects. Yes, they are taught the same manners. Yes, they both cheer when someone brings pizza or cupcakes into the classroom. Yes, they are both equally primal on the playground, where once the doors have opened, shouting and the sound of running feet can be heard from more than a city block away. But only boys wrestle. Only girls find the need to discuss each other’s clothing. Whatever the crossover between the two, boys and girls have a different kind of speaking, a different kind of shyness, a different way of joking, even a different preference for animals. I’ve discovered some crossover with big cats, funnily enough, which appeal to both sides. Yet most often there is a division between bunnies and kittens on one side, sharks and eagles on the other. There will always be shared qualities between the two, as there will always be the difference that remains.

Putting yourself in another person shoes is actually hard. It turns out that subjectivity is a pretty heavy thing for us. It’s hard to escape. Not only in the lessons about being nice to one another and imagining how they feel. It’s a deeper pull than an emotional state. In my recent attempt to retell the Prodigal Son to 3-year-olds, I removed the word prodigal and just named it “The Two Sons,” to which the whole class inquired, “What’s a son?” Great … now we’re getting somewhere. I found out they only knew the words mom, dad, brother, and sister. Because that’s their perspective looking out on the world. Try to get them to put themselves in their parents’ shoes, and you might have to wait a few years. My nephew recently corrected my sister, when she told him, “Did you know your dad is my brother?” “No he’s not, he’s my dad!” There is only one way of seeing the world, and it’s mine! So we think. When we grow up, we only grow out of that somewhat. We still have our blinders, and it should humble us and make us trust others.

Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. Eighth graders, like all big fish in a small pond, can be ready to leap out. Their behavior can give of signs of fatigue or rebellion, but they’re still kids, and they’re still part of the family. Familiarity sometimes breeds familiarity, in fact! A clear moment of this is their system of being “Mass buddies” with the three-year olds in Pre-K. They sit in the pews together, and the older ones respond to this responsibility with a mix of, well, responsibility, but also a laissez faire smile when the little ones act up, as if to say, “What am I supposed to do about this? I’m just an eighth grader.” Everything has a time limit, and every student eventually moves on, but a real sense of family develops when the years add up. Some of my best friends in life are from kindergarten.

The ordinary is extraordinary. Everyone notices quietly when Jim walks into the corporate office with a new haircut, but kids will stand on metaphorical rooftops and proclaim it to the world, “Look, he got a haircut!” Then they’ll all want to take a closer inspection and give you their opinion, long litanies of, “You look really (adjective) now.” They remind us that nothing in life is really ordinary. “A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door” (G.K. Chesterton). And he’s right, that around 7 years we begin to gravitate towards the more extraordinary. Many times have I been approached by 2nd graders, a sense of urgency in their eyes, wanting to tell me about bad guys on the news, or a scary dream they had, or a tragic way in which a teenager died. One girl recently and spontaneously announced to me, “Do you want to know all the animals I don’t like? Snakes, spiders, worms, rats, some lizards….” This was unsolicited, but it was on her mind, because she’s seven. She and the rest of the world that has already turned seven (that includes adults) could learn again from the wonder of a three-year-old, we who are daily tied to the latest shock and scandal that visits our world. It’s worth our attention, but so are the basic things right in front of us.

Hope is the defining characteristic of being human. Yes, I was asked by a 5th grader the very sincere question, “Why did God create boredom?” And yes, frustration is real and sometimes from the start. A 1st grader turned to me on the 1st day of school this year, saying with an infinite degree of honesty, “I don’t like school.” I laughed inside and thought, you’ve got a heck of a long way to go. No advice from this guy…, And yes, problems arise with behavior, with families, with teachers, even with friendships when they shift over the years, and that can be awkward and even hurtful. Still, children all hope things will be better. So does everyone involved in educating them. That’s what everyone is working for.

A strange scene unfolded this past December, which has left me thinking. A few chaperones took a group of students caroling to a soup kitchen. We sang our songs, received our applause, then made our exit by passing through the crowd of 200 smiling, bundled, ragged, some drunk, some not, homeless people. Precious though they be in God’s eyes, we weren’t stopping for individual conversations, and the kids were protectively whisked away back to school. We want to teach them compassion and service, but we don’t want them to end up like what they saw. I’ve talked to those men on the other side, and many of them hope too, that life may turn around for them. We humans are hopelessly hopeful, that somehow and some way, life will get better, that it will all be ok. Even when it isn’t, we’re convinced it should be.

Children come into this world with that deep-down dream, and the joy that makes them bounce around the playground is something purposeful on the part of God, who perhaps left them that way on purpose, despite the fall of Adam, to remind us of his own joy about life. I asked a mom recently where her two kids get all their energy, and she laughed and said she had no idea. She has even cut all sugar from their diet completely, but they’re still up at 6 a.m. even on weekends, ready for a full day of activity. Maybe that energy is an image of God, who himself is up early and up always, working in all things, in each teacher and each student, so that as one family we are always learning, always growing, hopefully to be more like Him.

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Fr. Timothy Danaher is a priest at St. Patrick's Church in Philadelphia. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he studied Theology and American Literature. He entered the Order of Preachers in 2011, and has worked primarily in hospital and Hispanic ministries.

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