In the spring of 2002, thinking it would be fun, I offered to take over a sixth grade C.C.D. class in the Bronx for another Jesuit who had an unexpected conflict. Maybe it was a case of bright-eyed suburban boy meets already world-wearied urban sixth graders. Or maybe it was simply the fact that they were sixth graders. But I soon found I had set for myself an impossible task. Despite my experience in youth ministry and education, I struggled to teach my 12 students something, anything, each week.
I arrived each week with some creative strategy to keep their attention. The Ten Commandments rap was perhaps my most successful. But when asked later to name the commandments, they could come up with only a few. Other approaches, which had worked well for me in other classrooms, were received unenthusiastically and often seemed to invite disruptive behavior.
Ironically, the thing I found the most boring seemed most effective - reading from the book. They seemed to think that to read something was to learn it, even if you cant answer any questions about it later. Reading also offered them a safe way to participate. Some would pretend not to be able to read well, trying to be funny or fearful of appearing too smart.
The greatest challenge was how they treated each other. Every week I gave some variation of the respect one another speech, often at high volume. Their language was more suited to The Sopranos than a sixth-grade classroom. I adopted a three-strikes rule in this regard, so as not to have to throw out half the class each week. One students variation on Honor your father and mother was so profane (Ill leave it to your imagination), I had no choice but to eject him from class and speak to his parents. This, to my embarrassment, required me to draw on the most colorful of the Spanish vocabulary Id learned in Mexico, to explain to his parents what he had said. Though for many their home life spoke just the opposite, still I insisted that if they learned nothing else, they should realize that to treat one another with such disrespect was simply wrong.
Demoralized by the experience, I began to believe that this was the only thing that they had learned and, gauging by their continued abusive behavior, they had not learned very well. When asked what they had learned at the end of the year, they could offer only obvious lessons like, Jesus died on the cross. My 15 weeks with them appeared a failure.
Since then I have rewritten that history over and over again in my mind, hoping to find the formula for success, what could have made a difference. But I have also realized that perhaps I was too hard on myself, and on them. How could they forget all my ranting and raving about respect? Even if unreceptive now, perhaps one day they will recall that their priest-to-be teacher thought it pretty important, even essential.
My reflections have helped me to see not only what went wrong, but what went right. One day, for instance, they were challenged by the notion that God loves us, whether we want God to or not. Cant God, some of them suggested, choose who to love and who not to? No, I insisted, God cannot not love any person; God loves everyone, unconditionally. To this came the astute and timely response of one student: Does that mean God loves Osama bin Laden? Yes, I said, as hard as it might be to imagine, and as evil as he might be, God loves him too. There were protests, but even my sixth graders could see the logic.
So they had learned something. They were challenged by the wonderful and confounding truth of Gods love. They were reassured that if God could love Osama bin Laden, God could love them too, no matter what; that Gods love is boundless, transcending race, religion and sin. God loved each of them, their cranky Jesuit teacher and, yes, Osama Bin Laden too. For kids growing up in the Bronx after Sept. 11, 2001, maybe this was the most important lesson of all.