The other day I separated my class of thirty sixth graders into small groups for reading and discussion. As I walked down the hallway monitoring clots of students sprawled out on the floor, I became distressed. Some of the groups were engaged, focused and delving into the task at hand; others were way off track. Two groups in particular were having real problems. When I took one student away from his group to ask what was going on and why he wasn’t participating, this is what he said:
“I have these voices in my head, whenever I start to work. They say, “You can’t do it! You can’t do it!” And, I know the other kids all make fun of me…”
A few minutes later I approached the other group spouting angry accusations. I interrupted their argument to mediate and soon realized there were five students pitted against one. I could sense the frustration from all sides and was quite sure no one was entirely innocent, but when I saw the one lone boy’s lower lip tremble my empathy, and agitation, soared.
At this point I wasn’t sure what I could or should do so I called all the students back into the classroom. By the time I had them hushed and settled, my emotions were duly keyed up and I was ready to finally teach.
“I’m going to tell you something that might be depressing, but here it is anyway: you won’t remember anything I teach you this year. What do you think I can remember from my grade six teacher? That’s right, nothing. NOTHING AT ALL.
“Do you think I honestly care whether you learn anything about summarizing stories or your discussion questions? The answer is No. I DON’T CARE. I really don’t care. One. Single. Bit.”
Part of me twinged when I said that line, wondering if I should have actually voiced it in front of my class, because it wasn’t entirely true; but I was mad and on a roll…
“Here is what really matters to me, that you become kind and gentle people…”
I went on to relate why I was giving the whole speech in the first place; I knew students were going to leave the school that day feeling badly about themselves and others. Then I did something that felt strange, after attending public school for my entire life. I prayed with the class.
Now I’m teaching at a Catholic school–so it wasn’t illegal–but it was transforming. Since I’m not Catholic I have a hard time keeping up with all the prayers, Hail Marys and figuring out when to cross myself. Half the time I forget about the many daily prayers in the first place. But not today.
I started off with a somewhat self-conscious “sign of the faith”, and then launched into a free-style plea for help, for myself and for my students. I wasn’t sure, when I started, what exactly I wanted to pray for, but the words “kind” and “gentle” surfaced again. When I finished, the class was quiet and the energy palpably changed in the room. Here is another way to put it: the Spirit of God filled the class.
If that sounds too weird for you, it’s okay; it felt extraordinary to me, too. And, I know that tomorrow kids will continue to fight, put each other down, and get hurt. I am not pretending it will be perfect from now on, or that anything I did was super-powerful. I’m only saying that when I, along with a room full of kids, asked for Help, I got it.