Thursday, August 27, 2009

Stealth smarts

I wrote this in May of last year when I was helping with catechism. Found it just now while cleaning out my drafts archive, so here you go:

In fifth-grade catechism yesterday we had Mass for the all the classes. Those are my favorite catechism days. Though I can't prepare myself for Holy Communion prayerfully when I have to make sure my twenty kids are behaving, it does save me from teaching. Plus I enjoy the sermons the priest gives to the kids; they're instructive and inspiring. (I'm sure there are parishes in L.A. where the adults never hear sermons as solid as the children get at SPC.)

My class was squeezed into two pews and I was next to a kid I'll call Michael. Michael's one of the rambunctious students. He's not malicious but he disturbs the class a lot and constantly needs to be hushed. He rarely seems to know what I'm talking about in class; certainly he never volunteers to answer any questions (in this he's no different from most of the students), and when called upon he usually responds with an embarrassed grin and silence. I had him pegged as a little troublemaker destined for an inauspicious school career. He did, however, refrain from squirming at this Mass when he found himself seated next to Teacher.

Father kicked off the homily by noting that it was the feast day of St. Athanasius, who suffered a great deal to uphold the orthodox Christian faith. "Do you kids know anyone else who suffered for teaching the faith?" he asked us. "Paul?" murmured Michael at once. How about that, I thought-- he knows something.

"The disciples said, 'Lord, we don't know where you're going, so how can we know the way?'" said Father later on. "And what did Jesus reply?" "'I am the way,'" Michael whispered to me, and I about fell out of the pew-- the kid really knows something! He must have practically memorized that passage.

"St. Athanasius was at a council where they wrote the Creed we say every Sunday," Father went on, and Michael whispered "The Nicene Creed?"

And it was like that for the rest of the sermon-- whenever Father asked a question, Michael would either whisper the right answer to me or at least give it a good guess. He was into it; each question was a challenge he wanted to meet.

It wasn't till I thought about it later that I felt a little sad. I'm sure Michael will do fine; he probably has good parents teaching him at home. He clearly enjoys learning things and knowing things and sharing his knowledge, and he's smart. But I would never have known that if I hadn't happened to sit next to him at Mass. I taught him for a year and thought he was a dumb bunny almost that whole time. Now, I'm an inexperienced catechist with no claim to be good with kids. But Michael wanted to look dumb in class. He preferred to be seen misbehaving than getting an answer right.

I went to some very good public schools where most of the kids were Asian and we all tried to outdo each other in academics. How blessed we were to have such positive peer pressure. I wish I were a heck of a lot more experienced and knew how to change the culture of my own classroom, to make my kids want to look smart instead of rebellious.

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