As a religious educator I’ve heard many different responses to my teaching, but I was not prepared for Pierre’s comment after a presentation on the nativity stories. “Mrs. O,” he said, “I did not understand a word you said.” Attentive and respectful, Pierre was not criticizing me. He was teaching me.
When I thought about this encounter later, I realized, “Of course this 9-year-old did not understand my 53-year-old-married-mother-of-three insight, no matter how profound I thought it was.” In that one sentence Pierre helped me understand that in working with children I needed to listen more and speak less. He challenged me to use age-appropriate religious language. Most of all he called me to be respectful and patient with the slow and steady work of God, who is calling and forming children and adults individually and together.
As I reflect on that moment, 16 years later, I am grateful for how it introduced me to a new way of looking at the religious life and work of children. Because of that encounter I have come to believe that children are important not for who they may become but for who they are. I have come to recognize that children can make God known to us in ways we cannot imagine.
Since then many children have challenged me to look at my life differently, with more imagination and joy. Because each child is unique, children have taught me to welcome those who are different from me and to savor experiences that I might not otherwise have chosen. Each time I look into the face of a child I am reminded that I, too, am a child of God, called to journey together with others. To help adults learn these truths is the work of children. It is their vocation, their call from God.
Thinking about the vocation of children changed everything for me. More than 26 years after I began my career as a religious educator I was introduced to a new and beautiful way to help children develop and strengthen their relationship with God, a relationship that already existed. But I had to learn a new the way to speak to children. I asked questions. Here are some of their answers:
One day Mrs. O came into our classroom. She wanted to talk about vocation. I never heard that word before. She explained it was something God was calling us to do. She said, “calling” is another name for “vocation.” If we want to do God’s work, she said, we need to know our talents and how to use them. Then she asked us to think about what our talents are. She said they could be anything we love to do! Even if we didn’t do it perfectly. I thought of one pretty quickly because I think my best talent is reading. I use it when I help the class understand things. But, I don’t think I have discovered what my best talent is yet. She said that’s okay, too, because we might have many and they might change when we get older. She really got me thinking.
One day, I took apart my mom’s blender. She wasn’t very happy. I helped her put it together. Then, I took apart a clock and put those parts in the blender. Once I did this, I wanted to take apart things and make them better. I even took my dad’s clock and turned it into a car that works and still says the time None of the kids I know can do this but they like watching me work. I’m very curious. I like to try new things. I’m unique. I have big dreams.
I get sick a lot. I miss days at school. I miss doing things with my friends. Sometimes this makes me sad or angry. Sometimes I think it’s ok—it’s just who I am. I still think and play and spend time with friends. Just in a different way. Some of my friends say I’m brave. They say they couldn’t do what I do. They say I inspire them. I just try to keep being me. (the best me I can be).
My mom and dad volunteer at a homeless shelter. Some Saturday mornings they get up at 4:00 a.m., pack the food they bought into the trunk of our car and drive to St. John’s church. Even when I was really young, in first and second grade, I wanted to go with them. When I turned nine they let me join them for the first time. There was a lot for me to do. I filled fruit bowls, toasted bread and served food. The people were friendly and happy we were there. I saw my dad talking to one of the men. My dad is 6 foot 4 but the man was even taller. I watched them talk for a long time. When the dishes were washed, the chairs and table put away and the bathrooms cleaned (I didn’t have to help with that) we headed to our car. I was walking behind my dad when I saw he didn’t have any shoes! When I asked him why, he said, “Someone needed them and I have more at home.” I knew who that someone was. I still go to the shelter and I always come home with my shoes. But someday, when someone needs them, I know what I’ll do. My dad showed me.