Monday, March 31, 2008

Night School

I have been teaching Charlie's Sunday School class at church this past month. We have a potential 27 two-and-a-half-year-olds that could show up on any given Sunday. We usually have about 19 or so in the class. One of my helpers brings in an extra folding table and we have to take chairs from the classroom down the hall. The tiny, windowless room is wild with toddlers.

I have some experience with teaching. My first teaching job ever was teaching high school English in night school in downtown Chicago. Most of the students were there because prison or having a baby had gotten in the way of their high school career. I had one student who was a grandmother at the age of 26, just four years older than me at the time. I was hired to take the place of another teacher, so I inherited his curriculum. He was teaching them Beloved by Toni Morrison. (!) I had struggled to comprehend this book in my college Women's Lit classes. I couldn't believe I was going to have to try to teach it to people who could barely put a sentence together. I had a very full classroom then too--I will never forget standing in front of them, wearing my best adult costume, trying my hardest to connect. I must've smiled a lot. One time a student asked me, apropos of nothing, mid-lecture, "Ms. Hailey, why are you always smiling?" Was it because I was nervous? I think I might be a nervous smiler. But I think it might have been because I was happy. What a strange place to find yourself feeling happy. It felt a little like being in one of those dreams where you find out that you are the star of the play and you haven't been to any of the rehearsals...and opening night is in about five minutes...and it's Shakespeare. But somehow, instead of totally humiliating myself, I was enjoying myself. It turned out I had something to say to them about Beloved and I enjoyed hearing their thoughts on the book as well. They wrote poems about growing up in their crazy neighborhoods and going to parties in the projects. They tried to get me to go to the movies with them. I taught them how to diagram sentences. We used to play a game that I invented where they had to identify the part of speech of each word in a sentence. It's a really fun game, I promise.

In Charlie's class I am probably doing a lot of smiling too. I get nervous, just like I did before when I was teaching night school. I know it's silly to be nervous in front of two-year-olds, but I am just silly that way. Much like my night school students, Charlie and his classmates wear their emotions on their sleeves. Some of them will enter the room crying, their mother or father reluctantly handing them off to me like a bundle of raw humanity. Here, they're saying, take this incredibly sad, scared little person and teach them about God. I get nervous that I'll forget the plot of whatever Bible story I'm supposed to be talking about. Did they eat fish before or after Jesus showed up? Which side of the boat were the apostles supposed to cast their nets again? Mostly I feel nervous because I feel even less qualified to teach about the Bible than I did about Beloved. I worry that these two-year-olds will see that I am not a perfect Christian or a perfect anything for that matter. I have more doubts than I'd care to admit. My version of prayer all too often ends up sounding more like I am dictating a letter to God. Dear God, no, strike that, Dear Heavenly Father, no, God, is better I think... we'll stick with "God." I feel like I am learning right along with my young students. I am reading some of these stories for what I know is not the first time, but it feels like the first time they are really registering in a lot of ways. I'm basically in the church equivalent of night school. I'm not sure how I ended up being such a slow learner in this area, but here I am. I was raised going to Sunday School my whole life, but for some reason it didn't really take for a long time. I think some people are more porous than others and they just soak up religion and God and all that stuff the first time it is presented to them. This is a weird analogy, but here it is anyway. When I give Emma and Charlie a bath and I wash their hair, I can pour one pitcher of water over Charlie's head and his whole head is wet instantly. Something about his hair just grabs on to the water and soaks it up. With Emma I have to keep pouring it on over and over again. It's like her hair has some sort of waterproof coating on it that just repels wetness. I think I'm like Emma's hair in that way. The pitcher has been poured over my head a million times and it's finally sinking in.

When I was teaching night school I would take the el home to my apartment after class was over. I can remember walking the few blocks from my stop to my building and more often than not there was snow on the ground. I would see my footsteps in the snow and look back at the trail they were leaving behind and think to myself, I make a difference, my life has meaning. Each footstep seemed to take me closer to the person I wanted to become. There have been a lot of footsteps leading me to where I am now, and I think I'm getting closer with each one.


gwen said...

That is a beautiful story, Elizabeth -- and that hair analogy is wonderful too. You need to get that in your book-length writing some day. :)

Anonymous said...

Wow! I love it.

mdm said...

I only have one question: How in the world are you ever going to top this one?

I know you will. I just don't know how you will. Yet.

May I be so intrusive as to suggest that you forget that novel goal and just "write a book"?

I'm offering at no charge what I believe would be the perfect approach and title, with some credit to Elaine Konigsburg (Jennifer, Hecate, MacBeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth):

Me, Elizabeth.