Sunday, October 26, 2008

30-Step Program

Having 30 evening classes (about 50 minutes of teaching time) to cover the content of a 180-class textbook has been a productive challenge. The kids are burned out from a regular school day; they are here because they have to be; it's not like, y'know, real school; and if you warm the desk a minimum number of times, you pass.

Among the ways I've chosen to stuff eight great tomatoes in the itty bitty can is to use Bible stories, often acted out with the kids' help, to engage their imagination and attention. I'm sure everyone who teaches Christianity to kids does this. I learned oodles of Bible stories as a child myself. The thing is, I didn't learn how to connect them to one another thematically, and to see how they interrelate to create a Biblical Catholic worldview...which they do. In our class, with time being worth about $7/gallon, we can't learn a story without extracting lessons from it on the spot, but usually lack time to treat more than one or two points.

For example, in the Healing of the Paralytic there are these ideas the kids can grasp:

Intercession, both physical & spiritual;

The relationship between faith and works;

The relationship between spiritual and physical illness;

The power to forgive sin;

Jesus' way of asking questions instead of just handing out information;

Pride vs. humility.

All these ideas, once learned, will apply to to other lessons. However, the chapter of any given week may only need one of the above points, which works against spending, say, 15 minutes to develop a fuller sense of the story. The teacher's manual has both Bible and Catechism references for each chapter which are valuable, but mostly for a 180-day academic year. I'm thinking that there may be a way to teach the required content better over 30 classes by mining selected stories one at a time, and applying those lessons to the subject matter in the book.

At this point it's just an idea.

My Fabulous Wife

I was at Mass today, beside My Fabulous Wife, and after communion was reflecting on my many blessings, especially My Fabulous Wife, and how much more I love her now than I did 20 or so years ago when we wed.

Don't you just find cars endlessly interesting? Of course you do. (I am not digressing!) And what could be more fascinating than learning that the process of seating a new engine's compression rings may shed some light on marriage, which is even more interesting than cars? (any single men out there, I promise you this is true)

Let's examine this bit concerning the all-important break-in period for a new engine:

"The first few hundred miles of a new engine's life have a major impact on how strong that engine will be, and how long it will last. The main purpose of break-in is to seal the compression rings to the cylinder walls. We are talking about the physical mating of the engine's piston rings to their corresponding cylinder walls. That is, we want to wear the new components against one another until a compatible seal between the two is achieved. This process will ensure longevity."

See how easily this paragraph can be edited:

"The first few years of a new marriage have a major impact on how strong that marriage will be, and how long it will last. The main purpose of break-in is to seal the husband to the wife. We are talking about the physical & spiritual mating of the man and the woman. That is, we want to wear the new spouses against one another until a compatible seal between the two is achieved. This process will ensure longevity."

Notice the process of wearing against one another is not a bad or disagreeable thing- it's good and necessary. It's the process by which the two parts, at first being mutually unfamiliar, become 'compatible' and 'sealed.' They each rub the rough spots off of the other for a good and long-lasting fit. If break-in is done properly, there will be virtually no more wear on these parts for the life of the engine. Also note that this compatibility is not interchangeable with other piston rings and cylinder walls. It's unique to each pair of components.

And that's been a key to our happy marriage, I think: our rough spots (most were mine) were rubbed off pretty quickly. Rather, we let our rough spots get rubbed off pretty quickly. And the husband & wife having been compatibly sealed, our marriage burbles contentedly like a smallblock V8, with virtually no wear and tear.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Sticks & Stones

Yesterday we covered the week's material with about 5 minutes to spare. I never let class out more than 15 seconds early, and have little punchy lessons ready to fill in. One of the things we discuss later in the year are Sacraments, so they should understand that God can channel his grace through physical things which are not just symbols.

Tonight's quickie is based on part of 2 Kings 2:

[Elijah and Elisha] stood by the Jordan. Elijah took his mantle and folded it together and struck the waters, and they were divided here and there, so that the two of them crossed over on dry ground.

And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven.

And [Elisha] saw Elijah no more. He also took up the mantle of Elijah that fell from him and returned and stood by the bank of the Jordan.... He took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him and struck the waters and divided here and there; and Elisha crossed over.

I take off my jacket, roll it up, whack the floor, and first play Elijah crossing over with Elisha, then turn around and cross back over alone as Elisha.

The kids ponder these questions:

Elijah had God's favor....why didn't Elijah just pray for the river to part? Wouldn't God have listened?

Why did he hit the water with his cloak?

Elisha used the cloak to hit the water, too....was he being superstitious? Did he think the cloak was magical?

The class wasn't too sure about the right answers, which was fine; they were piqued, though, and the brains were spinning. Time to shift gears. I pull out my Moses stick, I make the kids tell me the story of the water from the rock. I hit the 'rock' (a desktop) and ask: why didn't Moses just pray for water?

Well, God told him to hit the rock.

Right. But why didn't God just make the water come out of the rock without having Moses hit it? No firm answer.....

OK, suppose Moses had just prayed quietly and God made the water flow, what would people have thought?

That it wasn't a miracle.....that's why he hit the rock! To show people, so they would know it didn't just happen!

Yes! Genius at work! Now suppose Moses decided the stick business was silly and only a symbol, and instead he just touched the rock with his hand, would that've worked?


Right....but why not? Time's running out, I give a quick answer: because God's grace worked through the stick. To see if they get it, I ask, if you have a baptism, and do all the prayers, but skip the water, are sins washed away?


Good answer, because the water is more than a symbol, and we've run 7 seconds past dismissal, so see you next week! Read chapter 9!

Salient points:

Something organized is held in reserve to fill in available time.

Props are helpful.

When the children have trouble with a line of questions, try another line that they can answer and draw conclusions from, which they can then apply to the first line. We didn't have time to come back to Elijah's cloak, but we can tidy that up in the near future.

They'll have to apply this knowledge later on to something else.

Both stories, briefly presented, can be added to & referred to for the rest of the year, e.g., Elisha & the Jordan will connect to the cleansing of Naaman (which in turn will connect to Baptism), Elijah going to heaven connects to the Transfiguration, hitting the water with the cloak connects to the parting of the Red Sea, striking the rock, etc.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Scabby People & that Grimfaced Nun

One night decades ago I was watching TV; that nun, Mother Teresa, was on the Tonight Show. I knew she'd won a Nobel prize, took care of scabby people all day, and looked grim as cancer. What could she possibly talk about that would be, if not entertaining, at least not unpleasant? Curious as to how this was going to work, I didn't zap immediately to another channel.

So she comes out, sits down: outfit from Big Lots, Quasimodo posture, Vietcong sandals. She is asked the usual stuff about her what, career, I suppose, and..... she is absolutely incredible. After a couple of minutes I think she may be the most serene, happy person I have ever seen. She smiles, her eyes twinkle, she's animated. And she says stuff, I can't believe she means it:

Jesus spoke to her on a train, said to go to Calcutta and take care of the poorest of the poor- and so she did!

And how does she keep on caring for these poor, dying unfortunates day after day, year after year? Well, she sees Jesus in each one of them, there you go! Why, Jesus himself said plain as day, "I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me." And, "as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." Yep, he said it alright, in Matthew 25. I can read.

She was saying this stuff just as plainly as I'd say, "I can't believe it's Tuesday." Lady, it can't be that simple, can you really think like this? Can anybody? Can you really see Jesus in the least of them? Your whole life is cleaning sores or whatever, how can you be so bright and happy? Why aren't you miserable? I sure would be.

And then Mother Teresa's visit was over, the happy little arthritic confounding mystery.

For a couple of years I percolated on these few minutes, browsed a Mother Teresa coffee-table book or two. The bluntness of her life was compelling: God says do x, she does x. No intellectualizing, vacillating, plea-bargaining, just action. And she was happy. I had a family, and other reasons (not all of the finest quality) for not doing The Mother Teresa Thing, but felt drawn to her simple motif of faith/action; or as James'd put it in his Epistle, faith/works. And Jesus' instructions in Matthew had bugged me way, way longer than M.T. (since 1981). I wasn't doing any of that stuff, and didn't plan to, either. But she took one of the most annoying things Jesus ever said and made a life out of it.

I envy people like St. Paul: Jesus knocks him off his horse, personally scolds him, blinds him....who wouldn't swap a heart of stone for one of flesh after that? I wasn't on the receiving end of such drama, nor had Jesus spoken to me on a train; but I'd been prodded enough over 15 years to take a baby step or two.

After a Mass, I told my pastor Fr. Day how impressed I was by Mother Teresa's way of living out Matt 25, and said, "The thing is, she steps out her front door every day, and sick people are right at her feet. I step out, all day long there's not a wretch in sight." Fr. Day smiled & said, "If you want to visit the sick I can help with that."

So I began to visit the sick, all thanks to Mother Teresa.

The Tonight Show gets some credit too.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

It's Casual

There are things in life that we see, or hear, and remember for no particular reason. The memories lie dormant, only to pop up years, or even decades later, and provide critical positive (or negative) life lessons.

I saw the movie, "The Landlord," (1970) when I was 13 or so. Beau Bridges plays Elgar Winthrop Julius Enders, an undirected man born into privilege. As IMDB says:

"At the age of twenty-nine, Elgar Enders "runs away" from home. This running away consists of buying a building in a black ghetto in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. Initially his intention is to evict the black tenants and convert it into a posh flat.....soon he has other thoughts on his mind. He's grown fond of the black tenants....."

Eventually Elgar fathers a child with one of his tenants. In the penultimate scene, after the mother gives birth, a disengaged Elgar visits her in the hospital, just to be polite: shirttail hanging out, hands in pockets. He asks her if she's going to keep the baby boy. She says no, she's putting the baby up for adoption. As Elgar's leaving, she adds that she hopes the boy is adopted by a white family, "so he can grow up casual... like his father."

The last scene shows Elgar returning to his building with his baby son, full of newfound purpose and responsibility.

I didn't think about this movie again until.... I was 29, too: going out, getting & spending, owning a bunch of cars, having fun. Then out of the blue one day that contemptuous line came back to me, and it served as a much-needed reminder that my 'adult' life should be something more than what I'd let it be thus far: casual.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Wednesday Sunday School

I teach 6th grade Religious Ed at my Catholic parish. This is my 5th year of doing so; each year it gets better. Before that, my wife & I team-taught RCIA and an adult class. We enjoyed that, we had some great people in the classes. She's a professor, and I taught at the college level for a couple of years as well, so the older the student, the better, as far as I was concerned.
Anyway, at one point there was a need for a 6th grade teacher, and I was made an offer I couldn't refuse. I really was not interested in dealing with kids...what do they care about the Council of Nicaea?

But God does work in mysterious ways. The kids are 11-12 years old, and I was wrong to think I'd have to dumb things down for them. As an age group, I've found them to be ready to learn, ready to think, ready to know more about God and Faith. They have an as-yet unjaded view of life, and a natural disposition to take God seriously. They grasp big ideas quickly, adjust to new information, and leap to conclusions in a single bound. Their brains are more nimble than an adult's brain. They like to be respected as people, not just as children. They will meet high expectations and enjoy doing it.

(I bet none of this is news to other teachers, but it sure was a revelation to me that first year.)

Teaching kids is different, though. One reason I started the blog is to keep a record of what works in the classroom. Our textbook is designed for a 180-day school year; we have 30 evening classes to cover the same material. What I plan to do is write little teaching vignettes as they happen so I don't forget them.

Here's the first vignette:

Last night we had to cover (among other things) the Holydays of Obligation:
January 1, the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God;
Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter, the solemnity of the Ascension;
August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary;
November 1, the solemnity of All Saints;
December 8, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception;
December 25, the solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Instead of dealing with them individually and in order, we did this:
First, All Saints: we recap St Paul's cloud of witnesses, the Communion of Saints, the images & statues of saints in church, the presence of the saints with us at Mass (they already knew these concepts from 2 weeks ago). The old way of saying All Hallows, and relating that to 'hallowed be thy name'. We have a few Spanish speakers, so we spent a minute on All Hallows' Eve, and El Dia del Muerte. We also call holydays feastdays, and I ask "Como se llama feast in Espanol?" then repeat quickly in English "How do you say feast in Spanish?" so the Anglophones don't feel left out. Someone will respond fiesta, and we observe that in English a fiesta is a party, which suggests how Catholics have traditionally understood holydays, not as burdens, but as days of celebration and eating!
Now, all the other holydays relate to Jesus directly, or to Jesus indirectly through Mary. These holydays are all presented as a group. We begin with Christmas, which of course they already know just fine. I have a 3 inch plastic fetus I got from Family Honor. I hold it on my stomach, I play Mary and here's baby Jesus growing in me, which through a line of questions leads the kids to the Immaculate Conception and the title 'Mother of God.' They learn the Greek word Theotokos; a student will tell us what Theos means (someone always knows...6th graders!?), and I add that tokos means bearer, or carrier. I waddle around with the fetus, playing Mary carrying God around inside her. We discuss how Mary is the mother of Jesus' divine and human nature, remind ourselves that this is a mystery.

We move to the Ascension by starting with Easter, and why it's a movable feast. I ask the kids how many days did it rain on Noah's ark, how long did Jesus fast in the desert, how long did Moses fast on Sinai, how many years did Israelites wander in the desert? A student will then point out Lent is forty days long, too. They see that forty is a special number indicating a time of preparation, and from there we then discuss the Ascension.

The Assumption follows from the Ascension. Through a line of questions they see the difference between ascending into heaven and being assumed into heaven. I ask them what a dormitory is and how to say sleep in Spanish (dormir). We discuss the Dormition, the 'falling asleep,' and note that Mary, who was Immaculately Conceived, remained sinless. The kids figure out Mary would not suffer a normal death because they already know that St. Paul says the wages of sin is ....death. They also remind themselves that Adam & Eve wouldn't have died before they sinned, either. I bring out a chicken bone, which is an imitation saint's relic (they've seen this 'relic' before), and the children work out that Mary's body isn't on Earth, because if it were, her relics would be venerated.
In some key ways this was a typical lesson:
No reading from the book or looking in the book during class.

I asked a lot of questions; each correct answer led to the next question, until a conclusion was reached.

I had props: the plastic fetus and the chicken bone.

The kids had to remember information learned earlier and apply it to new concepts.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Dirty Diapers and Opus Dei

About 20 years ago I was in the midst of changing one of my babies' worst diapers on what was already a stressful day. While feeling put upon, disgusted, and resentful, I happened to glance up from the mess and looked straight into my baby son's eyes; he looked right back at me, and had the happiest little face, so content was he to be cared for and loved. And I had an epiphany: at that moment, could I have been doing anything more important than cleaning poop off his butt? No.

And thus I learned that doing God's work can be unpleasant, unskilled, unappreciated, humbling..... and liberating.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Ode to Joy

I can remember only one occasion that I experienced what I understand to be joy. Not surprisingly, it involves my wife & children.

Fall is a beautiful season here in Greenville; moreso in my woodsy neighborhood. About 9 years ago I stepped out one morning to pick up the paper, stepped out into a perfect muted Fall morning: gently grey sky, leaves past their prime; cool, damp air. Now, I associate with Autumn, not just death in general, but my own death in particular. For decades I've had the expectation that I'll die in late Fall, the cusp of Winter, while reading a book in the bedroom, in a red sweater, with the window open enough to feel the cool air and hear the crows & bluejays complaining. No cancer or y'know, unpleasant stuff. And if I could plan it, the music would be "Beim Schlafengehen" by Richard Strauss.

So I'm out there to get the paper, and am struck that this is one of those dying days. Not a bad feeling: appreciative, reflective (...regrets? I've had a million, but then again, too many to mention...), self-absorbed.

Well. We live near an elementary school, and on this morning my then-8-year-old daughters swept past me on the way to school, turned out by my wife in brown tartan skirts & long hair, pulling their wheeled bookbags, and chatting, as sisters who love each other will do. And in that instant, between the anticipation of death and the sight, no a vision, of my perfect, beautiful daughters, happy & alive in the world that was created for them by the cooperative love of my wife, me, and God, I was jerked out of this world

Now joy is a word, an idea, I'd never been comfortable with: it seemed sappy, decontented, glib (I've got joy joy joy joy down in my heart....puh-leez), fake, even. I figured joy was just another way of saying extra happy. But what I experienced for a few seconds that morning was not just being super happy, but another kind of existence, just barely tethered to life as I'd known it thus far.

Let me remember it again: it was so real, more real than what, everyday reality. More than this, as a song says. It was like being knocked silly, being Tasered, I imagine, forgetting to think, a loss of self-awareness, a stupor, but thus being able to experience something way beyond my daily life. To be so stupefied in this world let me half-live in what I believe is the next one. For the few seconds or so it took my daughters to walk down the driveway, time didn't exist. I wasn't even aware of my own existence except as a conduit for an immense and limitless love. And this love-drowning was lifting me out of the world, to where I could love my daughters more. And I could see my wife in them, and loved her, too. I hovered in a perfect, total, continuum of love. For these seconds, I experienced a super-reality of merging with, being subsumed by, infinite love. So intense, like a wire carrying too much current. And lemme tell ya: I liked it.

You know how people will say, "Lord, take me now"? That was me: God, let's go, let life be like this all the time.

I'm reminded of when I was about 4 years old, I couldn't swim in water over my head, and of course fell into water that was....over my head. I was drowning, but didn't know it at the time. What I remember was seeing all the beautiful blue light, how calm, how timeless...then I was yanked out by my vigilant father, and threw up all over Aunt Alma's patio.

  But the girls reached the end of the driveway, and I was Back in the World...where I've been since then without interruption. Yet this glimpse of heaven was a great gift, and those few seconds of almost painful joy I owe to my wife and daughters; and to God, who gave them to me.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Smaller Manhattans

Last year I was thinking about what I might give up for Lent. Aside from the reduced food intake due to the Church's disciplines of fasting and abstention, our household usually responds to Lent by increased participation in church life rather than by giving things up. I should mention that during Lent about 12 years ago our household gave up TV, and we haven't gone back to TV-watching since, so looking at it Pharisaically, I guess we're doing Lent year 'round. Heh.
A couple of years ago I tried giving up coffee, that lasted for about a week....I was in a fog the whole time, it was affecting work.
So last year I was casting around for something else to forgo, and I really like having a Manhattan at night if I watch a Netflix movie with my wife. I was thinking out loud to her about it, and worried it'd be like trying to give up idea that was DOA. Finally, I said, "Y'know, maybe I could just have smaller Manhattans during Lent." It was an interesting idea...I didn't try it...but I like it as a blogtitle.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Since discovering Kaethe Kollwitz about 30 years ago I've always been struck by her portrayal of the profound, uncompromising, total, and absolutely unselfish love mothers can have for their children, and the basic dignity inherent in every human being, especially the humble and unsophisticated. Much of what I learned from her has directly shaped my relationships with my wife and children, i.e., I was prepared in some important ways for becoming a husband & father through exposure to her work.

If you aren't familiar with Kaethe Kollwitz, here's a bit on her from Wiki:

K├Ąthe Schmidt Kollwitz was a German painter, printmaker, and sculptor whose work offered an eloquent and often searing account of the human condition in the first half of the 20th century. Her empathy for the less fortunate embraced the victims of poverty, hunger, and war.

True wealth: a wife & children

Almost daily I marvel at how different life is as a husband and father compared to the autonomous life I lived before. Sometimes I experience little epiphanies about the meaning of life, and how that meaning is largely anchored now to other people, and through those other people, to God. I'm hoping this blog willl prompt me to record these epiphanies, instead of forgetting most of them.