During services, we parishioners know the cue. At the Unitarian Universalist church that I attend, it is a song from our hymnal. It begins “As we leave this friendly place.” We stand when we sing it. Until this moment, the children have been up near the front of the sanctuary. They have been half listening to the minister or the Director of Religious education tell them a story. With the first bar of the familiar hymn the children, roughly ages five through twelve, exit the sanctuary and head downstairs. It is Sunday school time.
From downstairs, where I am preparing to greet them, I can sense their imminent arrival from the rumble of the floorboards above me. For this week, I am their Sunday school teacher. One thing is for sure: it will not be a dull class. On a typical Sunday, there are about a dozen children in my class, ranging from first through fifth grade. They cascade down the stairs and head straight for the back classroom where I and another teacher are waiting for them. On this day, I am their primary teacher. The backup teacher is there to help if needed, but also to ensure I do not molest any of them. Not that my church members are paranoid or anything, but we have to explicitly declare that we will not engage in any inappropriate behavior.Nor are we allowed to be alone without another responsible adult present.
For some reason, there are few things that I find more terrifying than grade school children. Therefore, I find it a bit ironic that I am here, busily setting up chairs, arranging tables and distributing art supplies. I taught Sunday school about five years ago to some Junior High school students. Since then I gave it a pass. Nevertheless, when the church was one teacher short last fall I decided it was time to get off my duff and volunteer.
Teaching the Junior High students was fun. Yes, like most their age they were overcommitted and scattershot about attending. However, we were able to go on some neat field trips, for we were learning about other faiths. Unitarian Universalists may be unique in that we have no creed. We feel part of our mission is to help each person find their own authentic faith. My junior high students got an eyeful and an earful that year. From being proselytized after services at a Mormon Church, to an incense-filled trip to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, to a two-hour plus service at a black Pentecostal church where the patrons were literally dancing in the aisles, they got some fascinating exposure to the world of divergent faiths.
For this new group though it was back to basics. Did they know about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? This teaching comes by default in most Christian churches. (Arguably Unitarian Universalists are not Christian, although their roots are in Christianity.) For the most part the stories of Moses, David and Goliath and Solomon are all new to them. There will be no boring lecture for these students. They need to keep their hands busy. They do get a reading. Then it is quickly time for arts and crafts. For a few weeks, we worked on a paper mural describing the story of Moses. A couple weeks later we were writing the Ten Commandments (somewhat sanitized — trying to explain adultery for a third grader is a bit much) on “stone” (cardboard) tablets.
What you do not know from week to week is whether you will impart any actual learning on these children. We do our best, but in many ways, it depends on serendipity. Sometimes the children are on the warpath. There are siblings in the class and sometimes their mission is to make life miserable for their sibling. Mostly what these children are are, well, children. Consequently that means they have short attention spans and all sorts of needs for attention. So it’s “She’s hitting me” and “Can I get a drink of water?” and “He’s not being fair” and “I don’t want to” and infinite variations in between. The only question is whether it will all cascade out into a toxic group dynamics situation.
That usually depends on the success of the first few minutes. Can the children be organized and stay focused? If so, then you are likely to have a good Sunday school experience. Otherwise, watch out. If nothing else teaching younger children has reinforced to me that I do not have a calling as an elementary school teacher. I do not know how teachers do it year after year after year for five days a week. The chaos is constant. If you are lucky, only a couple children will be misbehaving at a given moment. In the worst cases, it becomes a free for all. I am sure elementary school teachers get training in how to deal with it. I suspect though that they learn to cope. You teach in between the plentiful periods of chaos.
I too have learned a few things about elementary school children. One thing I have learned is that while children are not geniuses, all children are master emotional manipulators. It is instinctive with them. They know how to play off parents, how to anger a sibling in five words or less, how to devastate someone’s feelings, and how to work persistently to get what they want from someone. While they may not be able to persevere at their ABC’s, they are relentless when it comes to getting what they want. They will keep up the Chinese water torture technique as long as necessary until results are achieved.
I have one girl who goes into tears at the drop of a hat. Psychologists might call her “emotionally sensitive”. Maybe she is, maybe she is not. However, she certainly is good at pulling strings. She knows crying will get her some attention, be it good or bad. Other children are quiet and introspective. Others engage in annoying habits or simply head off in random directions at the slightest impulse. Others are itching for a fight. My job is to impart a little learning. Sometimes I succeed. It is hard to measure results.
While the adult in me finds these traits annoying, I am still attracted to their enormous energy. If an adult is a 100-watt light bulb, children on a bad day are going at 1000 watts. Most are incredibly curious. Yet they will flit from thing to thing as fits their feelings and the context of the moment. What I find neatest about these children is how incredibly alive they are. Life just radiates out of them. They are wholly engaged in this thing called living. Moreover, they are still self centered enough to think that we all exist to help or amuse them.
For me the most gratifying aspects of teaching them are not imparting some old Bible stories. They are those few moments when I can pierce through their defenses and tap into some positive aspect of them. The emotionally sensitive girl, for example, reacted quite well when at a quiet spot I would seek her out and tell her simply that I liked her. Her eyes brightened up.
Personal attention: that is what their world is about. They all want it, even the ones who appear withdrawn. What they really need though is someone who can understand and complement something unique about themselves. They like to hear it. They want to know they are not just another kid at a desk, but someone with unique gifts and talents. Their appetite for such attention is boundless.
This apparently is my real mission on those Sunday mornings when I teach. As they go through school, they will meet a myriad of adults. They need to hear from all of us, even though our acquaintance may be ephemeral, that they are both good and special. Despite my initial misgivings, I found that I get something from them too. For a while, I can put away some of my cares and concerns. For a while, I can bask in the pleasure they take in being so passionately, painfully and gloriously alive. Sometimes when I head to work the next morning, I succeed in carrying that energy forward into my adult world. Sometimes on Mondays after teaching, instead of shuffling off to work, I walk with a bit of a spring in my step, a smile on my face, and with a fresh reminder of a time when life was full of enormous possibilities.