Boys. Of a certain age, namely, 11 or 12 or 13. This seems to be the time of life in which, if you talk to a young man individually, you can discover sparks of humanity, but put a bunch of them in a group, and it's instant stupidity. I took the boy patrol this afternoon at religion class, sitting behind the group in the back row during the group session, and I spend most of that time imploring Jesus's mercy on fallen humanity and wishing we had a dedicated intercessor to be praying the rosary during our class for the softening of hearts and the opening of minds. These guys are almost impervious to reason, civility, and graciousness -- not because they're subhuman, though sometimes you wonder, but because they're boys, of a basically common type. When they band together, it's like they collectively lower each other's IQ. I was remembering, in The Name of the Rose, the Venerable Jorge's fulminations against laughter, because laughter can stem from mockery, and mockery is a way of making oneself impervious to outside influences, including truth.
I know this isn't true of every boy. My brothers weren't like this, and neither was Darwin, and there are a few guys in the class who don't follow the paradigm. I remember noticing this when I taught First Communion class, and coming home to tell Darwin, "I'll tell you why your teachers always liked you, even when you thought class was stupid -- because you didn't act stupid." A boy who can pay attention, be respectful, give the appearance of engagement: he steals a teacher's heart.
But the goal is to find a place in one's heart for every boy, regardless of age-induced idiocy, and so I was meditating today, as I sat behind the fellows: how do we reach these guys? They're basically Tom Sawyer in Sunday School, though perhaps without Tom's animal cunning. The comparison was particularly apropos as we were reading 1 Samuel 17 today, David and Goliath, and I wondered if any of the military glory of the account was striking the guys. Whether they know it or not, they're longing for an authority figure, a hero to worship, some imposing figure to put the fear of God into them and take them out of themselves. Are we providing that in the classroom? Not really; our educational pendulum has swung to the far side of that model, for good and for ill, allowing more leeway for more sensitive learners and for girls, but less for your standard-issue guy. Were we getting through to them with our music videos and our mixed-gender classes? I don't know. I'm realizing more and more these days that everything is the grace of God, that we plant the seed and God makes it grow in his time. Only the Holy Spirit changes hearts. All we can do is present truth, and try to facilitate an openness to the movement of the Spirit. How to facilitate that is a matter of prudential judgment. I hope and pray that we're doing our best for these little punks.
Of course, there's a certain level of savvy in dealing with the guys, too. I had to move over and sit right behind the main group of seven or eight instigators, who were talking amongst themselves, nudging and snickering. The fellow at the end looked aggrieved.
"Why'd you move over?" he demanded. "What'd we do?"
Did I answer, "Gentlemen, let's comport ourselves"? No, of course not. I said, "You're whispering like a bunch of little girls." Instant silence. The Holy Spirit always honors some tactics.
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