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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A stab at teaching

My eyes have been opened. Last night I volunteered as a substitute teacher for an eighth-grade PSR class. For the non-Catholics that’s Sunday school on Monday night.

It’s a long, involved story, but I had volunteered to teach middle school PSR at the end of last year and never received a call from the church about doing it. So I just assumed that either A) my services were not required; or B) my services were not wanted. (Though I admit I was little put off by not even getting so much as a “no thanks” call.)

Anyway, my church engaged in a parish-wide census this summer to find out more about its members. There was a space on the back for comments about the church’s strengths and weaknesses and in a fit of exasperation I launched into a tirade (in bullet-list form because I like to be concise) about the weaknesses of the parish and why we pulled our kids from the day school (since nearly two years later no one ever bothered to call and ask us).

If the church was a business and it was losing its customers (parishioners), don’t you think it should at least find out why? But I digress.

I got a call from the parish development director who was compiling the census information asking if I would come in to discuss my comments. She promised to keep them confidential, but I assured her that I would not have bothered to share my thoughts had I known they were to remain confidential.

One of the biggest problems at our church, and I suspect at others, is the deep divide between day school parishioners and PSR parishioners. Having been on both sides of that chasm, I see it as a huge problem for the Catholic Church. And I’m not sure it’s solvable without tremendous effort. There may simply have to be a separate but equal doctrine. The day school parishioners run the show. Step aside PSR folks, we’re more committed to this institution than you because we send our children here.

We talked of many things and I told her I’m not one to complain without offering to help improve things. And so we talked of a number of ways that could happen and I even offered to facilitate. Long story short: my ideas were not going to fly. Thanks, but we hope people notice the small changes.

Fine. Move on. But then the director of PSR and our pastor show up at the Bay Middle School seventh-grade football game. It was a much-appreciated gesture given how busy the pastor is and Danny and I made sure Ryan wrote him a thank you. We spoke about many ways to improve PSR. I only had one year’s experience but I can tell you that it’s painful. Home schooling my kids in their faith is a viable option.

Got a call last week asking if I’d sub for an eighth-grade teacher who had a business trip. No problem, happy to do so. He brought materials over the weekend and I prepped for last night’s class. The topics? Freedom, responsibility, free will and conscience.

I doubt they picked up any of these concepts. These kids were incredibly disrespectful. They never shut up. The boys were all over the place, snapping pens and pencils from the day school kids desks, kicking chairs out from under each other, requesting frequent bathroom and drink breaks (all of which were denied by the evil sub), shaking up bottles of pop (what parent sends their kid to an evening class on a caffeine jolt?) and throwing their religion books at each other. It was chaos and mayhem.

I find it hard to believe that they are much better for the regular teacher. I’m a tough gal and not one to take nonsense from these kids, but I couldn’t control them. It was demoralizing to say the least. I asked them what would make PSR more tolerable. The answer? Snacks, going outside and games. These are eighth-graders to be confirmed in the spring. Confirmation is a rite of passage into adulthood, the last sacrament before marriage and the supposed affirmation of the Catholic faith. And they want to play on the playground and eat Jolly Ranchers.

Clearly, the format for PSR doesn’t work for middle schools. To their credit, these guys have sat in school all day, some have gone to practices after school or started their homework, some may or may not have had time for dinner and now they’re being asked to sit in more desks and read from a book called, “Morality,” and talk about being good.

That doesn’t, however, excuse their disrespectful attitude toward their fellow students and me. Afterward I recommended to the PSR director that she send a letter home to middle school parents informing them of the problems with disrespect in the classroom. Maybe a “come to Jesus” meeting with those parents and kids is in order. These are behaviors best addressed at home. And they need to be addressed. Because the people who teach PSR are volunteers who they don’t have to be there. While they may be called to share their faith with young people they effectively serve as nothing more than babysitters for an hour and 15 minutes. It's a joke, and worse, a disgrace.

Early teens are completely self-involved. It’s all about them. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that they must also be selfish. They need to be exposed to life outside the bubble.

Maybe the format needs to be changed. I’d like to see the faces of these young people when they are serving a homeless old lady wearing everything she owns and smelling of urine down at St. Augustine’s. Maybe they need to meet in a chapel and sit on the floor and stretch out and be encouraged to talk frankly with the priest. Maybe they need to see the people at St. Malachi’s who receive the lunches they make. Maybe they need to pour coffee for those who seek refuge from a life on the streets at the West Side Catholic Center. Maybe they need to read books to the elderly in Bay Village. Maybe they need to clean up Huntington Beach. Maybe they need to see there’s more to the world.

Why don’t young people latch on to their faith? I heard a few things from them that I wish we could have discussed more had they behaved:

1) We learn the same things year after year.
(Yes, but it bears repeating.)
2) This is all common sense.
(Not always, particularly as you become adults.)
3) The Bible doesn’t make sense. It needs to be written in modern English.
(Agreed. Anyone want to take that on? Doesn’t the priest help you understand how scripture relates to you today?)
4) Why do we have to be here?
(That’s a conversation between you and your parents.)
5) Who made God?
(He just is. It’s faith, you don’t know but you believe.)
6) If I’m a sinner all my life and I confess my sins on my deathbed I’ll still go to heaven? Why should I care about being good then?
(Because the person most hurt by your sinful behavior is you.)
7) We’re tired of sitting here and reading this book.
(That’s painfully obvious.)
8) It’s all so confusing.
(Yes, it is and will continue to be.)


Greta Garbo said...

Sounds like an interesting and eye opening experience--and maybe a story for you? Early in my "career", I both subbed and taught school, and it's one of those things I think everyone should experienced because a) it really is soo sooo hard and largely underappreciated, and b) it's hugely eye opening.

I remember PSR (which we called CCD). My husband says he took his first puff of cigarette there. As far as sacraments go, I have the biggest problem with confirmation. I just don't think the average--and even some of the "above average"--eighth graders are ready to take on an adult declaration of faith and membership in the Church. Most people I know have their largest questioning of faith in their college years, not in middle school (if they have it at all). I think an 8th grade confirmation is one of those outdated things, left over from when people reproduced at 13 and died at 40. I don't think we'll see the Catholic Church change anytime soon on this, and other, things, though.

...something I think about from time to time with a small child.


Wendy Hoke said...

Thanks for the comment. I agree that 14-year-olds are utterly incapable of comprehending this adult declaration and believe it to be yet another example of the Catholic Church's archaism. There's an element of George W. Bush to the institution of the American Roman Catholic Church...this is how it's done and we'll continue to do it this way come hell or high water.

It's mind-boggling, but the only way I know how to improve my outlook on church (and I make a distinction between my disgruntlement with the church vs. faith) is to put my faith it practice.


Jim Kukral said...

Why don’t young people latch on to their faith?

The entire concept of trying to educate a grade schooler on the concept of religion is in my opinion a waste of time. No matter how you do it, it's going to come off as preaching. Don't kids hear enough nagging from their parents? Now they need to be told that if they swear they're going to hell, AND they're going to get grounded? Wow, that's a load to haul.

The whole concept of PSR seems silly to me, and I'm a catholic school boy. I always viewed it as the "bad" kids from the non-catholic school across the street had to attend called CCD. A joke.

Personal faith and parental values is the answer. You learn morality from example, not from a book.

I learned more from watching a movie called Dogma than I ever learned in all the time I was in Catholic school.

Wendy Hoke said...

"You learn morality from example, not from a book."

I couldn't agree more, Jim. And I think my 13-year-old and 11-year-old would agree if it meant they could skip PSR. Honestly, I'm very tempted after what I saw (and read in their books).

Jim Kukral said...

Is PSR mandatory? How does that all work?

Wendy Hoke said...

Well, I'm not sure if mandatory is the right word. If you want your kid to be prepared for the sacraments (First Communion, etc.) then it's a good way to go. But even those preparations are done largely at home. I've heard of more parents who are home schooling their kids on this stuff. And I'm pretty close to doing that myself.