Saturday, February 16, 2008


when i first decided to teach, i knew i wanted to teach high school (ages 14-18). with my personality, there wasn't any way that i could work with elementary (ages 5-11) or junior high (ages 12-13) kids.

i tried, though, to work with the little rugrats, but i just couldn't take it. perhaps i'm just not "motherly" enough, gooey enough, patient enough . . .

one tyke would walk in with a particularly dour face after forcibly being corralled back into the classroom after recess or lunch and so, trying to be the good teacher, i'd ask what was wrong.

shoulder shrug.

no, really, kid, what's the matter? are you, ok?

floor stare, another shoulder shrug, followed by "nuthin'" or "i dunno".

sweet jesu!

high school students, on the other hand, i hardly EVER have to prod for information. usually, they'll voluntarily spill their guts about every little detail about their lives. for the most part, it's great. sometimes i get too much information. and i always warn them not to tell me things that they don't want to get back to child protective services (i'm a mandatory reporter).

the great thing, barring the cases where i've had to report child abuse, is that my students and i have this ongoing communication. we talk about almost everything . . . not only academics (i LOVE discussing and explicating literature!), but also life, as a whole.

well, yesterday, one of my students, a senior, (we'll call him john) came into my class looking as though the universe itself was resting on his shoulders . . .

i was still eating my lunch . . . "hey! what's up, john? what's shakin'? whaddya know?"

peeking in the door, "umm, you mind if i sit in here and do some reading? it's really loud outside."

chewing on a tomato on rye sandwich, easy mayo, "sure, no problem. whatcha' reading?"

serious face, "'crime and punishment'."

swallowing said tomato on rye, "oh, some light reading."

still serious, looking down at book, "yeah, that's it, ms. b."

going in for another bite, "ouch! no laugh, john? no pity smirk, even?"

john, not even slightly amused. silence . . .

now, likewise serious, "you ok?"

hesitation, "yeah, i'm ok." long pause, "well, i just have a lot on my mind."

curious, "about what? dostoevsky?"

quietly, shyly, soberly, "well, i'm just thinking about life."

trying to break the obvious tension, "'just', eh, john? yeah, well, babe, dostoevsky will do that to ya."

unsmiling, "no, not him. not the book. i mean LIFE. like religion, god, spirituality."

nervous, a bit panicked, but not letting on, "oh. wow."

daunted look, "yeah, i know."

poker face. calmly, humorously, "wow. uh, ok. let me finish my peach and recharge my synapses, then we'll see what we can do."

not very convinced, "ok, ms. b."

bell rings. fifth period about to begin, news staff rips through the door, walking in like a herd of pamplona bulls.

"oh my god! ms. b., did you read that article on the saudi woman who might be executed for witchcraft? it's total insanity over there!"

"yes, i did read about her. why don't all of you put up everything that you want to talk about on the board and start hashing out the next issue. i'm going to get some water for a second."

i wink at john, nod towards the door. he gets up, follows me.

outside my classroom, "so, talk to me. what's up?"

"did my girlfriend last year ever talk to you about our problem?"

"she and i talked about a lot of things, john. anything in particular?"

"well, yeah."


"you know i'm an atheist, right?"

"i figured you had some questions . . ."

"it's just that jane (not her real name) is christian."

"uh huh . . ."

"and i feel confused about religion. i don't think there is a god. if jane and i get married and have kids, what will we teach them?

"you'll teach them what's right."

"yes, but what is correct and what is the best way?"

"what is correct is the best way. and actually, if we're being perfectly honest, there is no 'best way', i don't think."

confused, "what do you mean?"

unsure. a little perplexed myself, "if what is correct, john, is treating yourself, everyone around you, and the environment well . . . being honest, courageous, patient, merciful, forgiving . . . if all of that is correct, then it is also, very probably, the best way. one of them, at any rate. i don't think that they are mutually exclusive."

"jane thinks that organized religion is the best thing for kids. that they need structure so that someday, when we're not around, they may be guided by those principles, that church, or temple, or whatever. that though being all those things you say is correct, it is not the best way because it is a) unpopular to have no belief in a god and b) there is a great benefit to be had from having the fellowship of a church."

"that may be. i don't know."

"what do you think?"

"i think it's more unpopular to be cruel and be a part of an organized religion than to be good and not be a part of a religious institution."

smile . . .

"well, if you're asking me my opinion, then i think that everything i just said about caring for yourself and others and the world, honesty, courage, etc., that those things comprise a structure and a fellowship too. i was raised catholic. i'm not catholic anymore, though . . . my dad is dead and my mom is a world away. when i need moral guidance i look back at my mother's and my father's examples, which aren't necessarily about organized religion. i ask myself, were they honest? were they kind? were they generous? were they patient? were they forgiving? yes. ok, well, then there's my example. were they that way as a result of being christian? perhaps. you are those things without having had any religious influence from your parents. that's something to think about. i also get such guidance from reading . . . from christian texts, but also jewish, also buddhist, also scientific . . . you don't necessarily have to have organized religion in order to read about, understand, or even practice the teachings that stem from them. what's more, good fellowship doesn't solely flow from churches, synagogues, and temples. i find that good fellowship with good people can be had almost anywhere. you can surround yourself with good people, if you yourself are good and discerning."

breath, continuing, "furthermore, john, let's say you do give your children organized religion, there is no telling what they will do."

crying . . .

"john, darling, first, stop worrying. you can continue to meditate on this, but worrying is useless. as the dalai lama teaches, if there is a problem and it has a solution, then do not worry for it will be solved. if there is a problem and it has no solution, then do not worry, for there is nothing to do. secondly, if it were me, i would talk with jane and find out why she believes what she believes. is it just conformity or does she perceive some real, greater benefit from organized religion."

"what if she says that she just has faith in jesus and that that's why she wants our kids to be christian."

"faith can be beautiful, john! faith can be a gift. if she says that, john, then that may very well be a great and wonderful thing. listen, it's not like she's placing faith in some sort of religion or cult that believes in hurting others or that is contrary to your own beliefs in honesty, caring, generosity, and all that. she's not asking to raise your kids in some satanic cult, right?"


"ok, well, then if you both believe in everything we've talked about--caring about people and all the rest--then why should you begrudge her her desire to be a part of christianity? there is nothing to be lost from having faith in that and potentially, much, much, much to be gained. later on, when your kids get older, you can sit down and discuss your views together. that would be ok, no?"


"though, a warning, john . . . it won't be easy for the two of you. you will have to stay on top of communicating and compromising. will she resent you not going to church? will you resent her going to it? what will you say when the children inevitably ask why you don't attend services with them? there are many potential problems. you will have to consider them, work through them together, make compromises . . . the rose-colored glasses will definitely have to come off."

we both sigh.

"ms. b., do you think i'm going to go to hell?"

"gosh, no! i don't, john, i really don't. if there's such a thing, babe, you won't ever be in it."

more deep sighs.

"i don't know if any of this that i am telling you is right or not, john, they're all just my personal beliefs. and maybe they'll change, maybe they won't, but right now, i think that if i treat myself and others right, love them, care for them, am honest, am kind, am generous, and so on . . . then i don't think that any self-respecting god, if there is one, would shun me from paradise on this alone. and if so, it's no god i want to believe in anyway. but that's me. you have to think about this, talk with jane, and ultimately decide for yourself. go talk with her church's elders, go talk with other people, other religious leaders, your parents, other teachers . . . ask more questions, many more, read more, much more . . ."

bell rings . . .

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