Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Confessions of a Confirmation Catechist: MrsDarwin Agonistes

There are little gifts that God gives you, touches of humility that remind you that only his grace suffices. One of these, for me, is being the sole adult in charge of ~40 eighth-graders at Confirmation class. If I had six, or ten, or fifteen students, I might deceive myself that the level of engagement or any spiritual growth in my class was due to my words or the sheer force of my personality. But with such a large group, in the infelicitous setting of the school cafeteria (in which even a not insignificant carrying voice can be eaten by the space), the only effective operator is going to be the Holy Spirit. This, for a teacher, is a veritable Litany of Humility, because it sure would be nice to feel like I, myself, was engaging the class and enlightening the mind.

The other side of that coin is being content to put the off days on the Holy Spirit as well, but I haven’t hit that point either.

With Confirmation being only two months out, I planned to talk about the gifts and the fruits of the Holy Spirit. I found a tree graphic that I could hand out, on which the kids could write the gifts at the roots and the fruits in the branches. I I flipped through Matthew and wrote down a large selection of passages that we could examine to see how Jesus embodied the gifts of the Spirit, counting on having students look them up themselves. I wrote up a note to send home for next week’s service project. I borrowed my kids’ joke books for a halftime dad joke competition.

I did this and I did that, and I started my class and realized, partway in, that it was going to be one of those days.

Maybe not on the student end. It was a class ‘most like any other class, in which MrsDarwin talks a lot and busts that one guy who thinks he’s funny and tells someone to put away his phone and asks the girls to please direct their attention up here. But I could tell I was floundering. I didn’t have a whiteboard I was counting on. There was only one crate of twelve Bibles for the entire class. I could not get many people to allow that their confirmation saint had used the gifts of the Spirit. I gauged the mood and decided to pass on Biblical examples. One thing the kids seem to enjoy less than talking in class is looking up anything in the Bible.

“Do you even know anyone, here, now, in this town, that has any of the gifts of the Spirit?”

Hands stayed resolutely down.

“Good thing you’re being Confirmed!” I said. “Clearly, your high school is going to need people who have these gifts.” 

We moved on to my ace up my sleeve, the dad joke competition. You’ve seen the YouTube videos. Two people face off, armed with a list of groan-inducing jokes (all clean — that’s part of the dad joke ethos). The first one to crack up loses. It’s good clean fun.

I could only field about ten volunteers. Everybody else was content to spectate. We had some skillful straight faces, but the kids weren’t reading their jokes loudly enough to reach the back row. The activity I’d counted on for a good fifteen minutes of cheerful engagement was running out of steam, and even pulling up a couple of guys from the peanut gallery wasn’t doing it. In retrospect, I figure that I should have just made everyone take a turn, but I know that some kids feel very sensitive about being in the spotlight, and I do try to respect that.

We discussed next week’s service project: a toilet paper drive for the local free store. We’ll wrap individual rolls in plastic bags so that the free store can distribute them conveniently. 

“Imagine,” I said, “not even being able to afford toilet paper.”

No, that was the wrong thing for a group of 13-year-olds to imagine. 

With half an hour left, I was actively watching the clock. I was able to buy some time by answering questions about service hours and forms and turning in envelopes — procedural matters that have nothing to do with the core of the sacrament of Confirmation.

“Look, guys,” I said, “my kids don’t go to school.” Heads raised at this. (I heard a muttered, “We know”.) “That means,” I forged on, “that I don’t like busy work. So if we can fill the next fifteen minutes, I’ll dismiss you early.” Bargaining with students is admitting weakness, but a feeling of desperation was settling upon me. “So I’m going to ask you about a service project you’ve done, and I want you to tell me what gift of the spirit you drew on, and what fruit you saw from it.”

There are about five people in my class able to speak loudly enough to fill the space, so I ended up going from table to table, sitting with each group of 5-8 kids. It had the potential to be a fruitful small group, with one minor problem. Small group discussion is best facilitated with a chaperone for each group, keeping the conversation alive and on track. As I talked with each group, I could feel the rest of the room slipping away. Kids were getting up, pulling out phones, goofing around, throwing paper airplanes — that really happens! It’s not just in the movies! Just as I felt I was making some progress with one group, I’d need to put my foot down in another part of the room or send someone off to sit away from friends.

We made it through to 5:00, and most of the kids even listened when I asked them to push in their chairs and take their papers home. As I say, a normal class — nothing bad or unusual. But I was drained and unhappy and ended up at home stress-eating chips and salsa and drinking a gin and tonic to clear the lump growing in my throat. It’s too early in the year to have a crack-up. But Holy Spirit, send me a sign that any of this is taking root.

Later in the evening, I saw this meditation from Brandon Watson:
At His Baptism, the Father acknowledges His Beloved Son, in whom He is well pleased. At the Transfiguration, the Father also acknowledges His Son. But on the Cross no acknowledgement comes, and the Son cries out in the anguish of it.
That’s exactly it. Even more so than the acknowledgment of the students, we long for acknowledgment from God, some sign that he is well pleased. How easy everything would be if at every moment we had the consolation of knowing that our work was prospering, or had prospered, or was going to prosper! It is, of course, a mercy to not be literally crucified at the instant of crying out for acknowledgment, and some comfort to remember that the Holy Spirit works as he wills, not as I will, but there’s no satisfaction of victory, of a job well done.

It’s an act of faith to start in again preparing for next week, this time with more crowd control built in. Eight more classes until we get a needed infusion of grace.


Brandon said...

Reading this, it occurs to me that it gives additional significance to the Saying, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." In a sense, in that dark night or difficulty, that's the only thing that works: finish the task at hand, and still in faith trust God.

Unknown said...

No real comment. Only that I relate, commisserate, have fallen. And get back up again. Confirmation class, sigh.