First Teachers

Anyone who has heard me give a presentation to parents knows that I love to quote the prayer over the parents that happens at the end of a baptism in the Catholic Church. It’s the part where the priest or deacon tells mom and dad that, in addition to having to buy diapers and formula, books and blankets, tuition and car seats, they are the “first teachers in the ways of faith.” Okay, to be fair, the rest of that isn’t actually in the prayer, but I swear it is implied.

First teachers. That’s heady stuff. There is an implication there that mom and dad have a clue as to what they are doing in their own faith lives. “You cannot give what you do not have,” the wise man says. So if mom and dad haven’t read the catechism or learned their prayers, they may want to spend that first year reading up on the Good Book so they are prepared.

I thought about that first teacher stuff the other night when I took the children to the track behind their school for movie night. The littlest really wanted to go and once she promised the eldest she would not sing along to every song in “The Greatest Showman” (which was the movie of choice), we had a deal. We picked up some chicken and some drinks, packed the folding chairs in the van, and set off. Mom was flying back from a trip and Friday night is movie night anyway, so this might prove to be fun.

It was a circus.

Actually, it was a circus happening around a movie about a guy that starts a circus. There was as much chaos in front of the screen as there was on the screen. Some kids chose to play basketball instead of watching the movie. Others chose to run around and scream on the playground. One little group of girls – all with light-up sneakers – decided to chase each other in and around those who were actually watching the movie. When one of them hit the inflatable screen for the third time, I thought my second youngest would lose it.

“What is wrong with these people?” he asked.

“Their parents,” came the response from the eldest child.

No one was in charge. No one had control of the situation. As my children sat there watching the film, I began to wonder why they were so irritated. It wasn’t because they wanted to run around, it was because this was billed as a movie night for families and since we’ve had movie nights for years, they knew how this should go: start the movie, pause it for snacks and bathroom breaks, and otherwise sit quietly and laugh, cry, or fall asleep. But running around, tripping on the tie downs for the screen, and generally shrieking about was never on the agenda for my kids.

It turns out the movie was a backdrop. An excuse to get families together. We went expecting one thing and what happened was something else. That’s not a bad thing, but the realization didn’t help ease my irritation.

At one point, I remembered, as I was trying to pass out Oreos to those kids sitting around us behaving themselves, what Ron Rolheiser says about those times when screaming and yelling of children irritates us. He calls the unabashed outpouring of noise and merriment “joy” and says that it can irritate us because this joy gets in the way of our own misery.

“Was that true?” I wondered as I sat there in the cool fall night? “Was I miserable in some way? Was this joy around me irritating me because there was something inside me that needed to change.”

“No,” I finally concluded.

These parents should be watching their kids.

Being a first teacher is hard.

-pjd

Summertime

The homeroom teacher for Ace Number One stopped me in the hall the other day after Maureen and I finished playground duty. He asked if it would be okay if he gave our eldest a copy of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. He has read it every summer since 1964 and thought she would enjoy it.

It was a lovely gesture and I am anxious to reread my own copy as she works her way through the book. If you have never read it, put it on your list.

There are two scenes I love. I’ll tell you about the second one another time but in the early part of the story, set in the summer of 1928 about 12-year-old Douglas and his brother, Tom, the two boys are talking in their room. Tom tells Douglas that he has discovered that old people were never children, which strikes Douglas as both obvious and brilliant. Tom also points out that this is tragic because they cannot really do anything to help old people.

The two are amazed at Tom’s discovery. Because we live in the moment this is partially true; because the children cannot conceive of anything beyond the moment, they see it as a fact.

For the boys, growing up seems not to depend on figuring things out completely as much as coming up with new ideas about things. In fact, there is no reason to believe that adults have figured many things out but rather simply reached a consensus. But for the boys, summer is magic: growth happens without apparent change.

Do you remember summer? Not vacations to the beach, not getting out of school, but summer. That feeling that you have absolutely nothing planned, no list of chores, nothing written down or implied…tomorrow?

I don’t either.

Still, I find peace in remembering Catholicism 101: you cannot quantify grace.

So those moments of nothing have been replaced with moments of superficial importance. The “everything I have to do today” steps on the neck of “what will I do tomorrow?” and strangles it.

And I sometimes forget to find grace in the to-do list, emails, and phone calls.

Today, right now, I will close my eyes and remember. I will pray for patience. I will pray for the nothingness that surrounds me and the violence of busyness that consumes me.

I will pray in hopes that us old people aren’t so helpless after all.

~pjd

Family Update

Child number two won second place in the science fair this week. Her project had something to do with whether girls were smarter than boys. The irony that a boy won first prize was not lost on her. Still, we are very proud.

Child number one did not place but did an excellent job on her project, “Can you survive a black hole?” The principal said that many of the judges found it fascinating and he wondered aloud if you could indeed survive a black hole. I told him I would let him know when teenage years were finished.

Child number three got a haircut that is too short for him. He complained that the stylist did not listen to his request. Good thing he’s a good-looking kid. He can pull it off. Dad…not so much.

Child number four was painting last week with child number three, when her sibling took the paint she was going to use. Rather than asking for the paint to be returned she whispered, “Sleep with one eye open, buddy, because I’m coming for you.” Too much Internet access for that child.

Maureen got home from a week away so our schedule of staying up late binge watching Monk on a school night will have to end. The kids said I was the best Dad ever every single night. The ice cream might have helped.

As we move towards Lent, we have been discussing what we could do as a family. Child number one suggested that we give up movie night but was horrified when I offered Stations of the Cross as an alternative. When another child suggested Taize prayer at our parish, all agreed, most of all the eldest. We also opted for more time in prayer each night and I have promised to get back on the exercise bike.

To cap out week, we went out to celebrate Dad’s birthday last night. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone six and a half years.

May your week be blessed and your Lent begin with humility and peace.

Children Will Watch

Ace Number One came home with an infraction the other day. It’s essentially a piece of paper that outlines what she did wrong and one of her parents have to sign it. By the time I got home, the infraction was signed and the letter of apology to the teacher to whom the disrespect was aimed was written and ready for delivery.

What did she do? Well, she repeated bad behavior. Walking her charges down the hall, the first-grade teacher told her students, “Be careful, children, the seventh graders have no respect for first graders.” Child number one took issue with this and, upon turning the corner, muttered to a friend, “It sounds like she doesn’t have a lot of respect for seventh graders.”

She would have gotten away with the remark had the first-grade teacher not been standing right behind her.

The infraction was well-deserved and the child was well rebuked. She knows better than to talk about another person like that. But, still, the whole event got me thinking. It reminded me of a conversation with my dad when I joked that no one listened to me at home. “Children don’t listen,” he said. “They watch.”

My children yell because I yell. They eat ice cream and chocolate and read books and love electronics because their mother and I enjoy all these things. They are short with each other and mean to each other and leave their clothes on the floor because, well, you get the idea.

But they also sing and share and pray because we do. They know I love the Rosary and have an affinity for Our Lady and they know that Maureen and I bless them each night not out of habit, but out of a commitment to love them and do our best to be their “first teachers in the ways of faith.” They know that the religious symbols in our home are not for show. They are silent homilies that give witness to all that our lives are rooted upon.

The teacher in the hall was inappropriate. So was the child in front of her. Children listen. Children watch.

Lord, give my children good witnesses. And let the witnessing begin with me.

~pjd