If you have an issue, as I do, with being pressed down by the prevalence of pain in the world, and the hopelessness of it, then you know about the shadow over our schools. Teachers have been laid off and budgets slashed. Free and reduced lunches have been gutted, test scores are in the can, along with the morale, which is barely there. And that’s nothing to say of the guns. The fear. Of the kids turned into killers. The uncertainty of the security system. Of invasions from strangers out of sickness or political radicalism or the faceless force we’ve simply called Evil.
It is scary and difficult and too much for me to dwell over. Ironically, this is also where I work.
In the Christian culture that raised me, I was often told that the plight of our schools was the effect of secularism. I have heard the evangelical leaders talk of how violence came in when prayer was taken out, along with the Bible, and creationism studies. And that’s because, they say, God left. His hand of protection, lifted. His attention, turned elsewhere. He’s gone, because He will not go where he is not wanted. He’s gone, and it’s all our fault.
I admit, I’ve resonated with their feelings, that God isn’t here. Not the causes of it, which are despicably political. But sometimes, I just look at the lives of these kids and it just feels so aimless and random, devoid of a great purpose tying it altogether. Like they’re really on their own. And we are on our own. And you can’t help but wonder where the Great Redeemer is when it keeps collapsing over and over like this. I always do.
But then in a in a fourth grade classroom, he showed up, and the moment lit me with hope.
I’ve long known, and been deeply proud of, our school’s commitment to combat bullying. Covering the hallway walls are posters, made by staff and students, with messages like, “let’s keep this a Bully-Free-Zone” along with others calling for kindness and unity and the Golden Rule. Rainbows and corner suns and stick figures shaking hands.
Over the past few years, there has been a change rippling across the playground culture of our country. We know that shame is trauma and it lasts forever. I’ve met adult men and women who can still hear the hoots and taunts, the hits and humiliation, the way it took only one slur to their still small hearts to leave them limping well into their thirties.
And knowing what I know from those stories and the animal wild that is school, I wondered how well our students were receiving these messages. Whether they had any effect at all.
In a fourth grade classroom, the teacher dives into the topic of bullying. She opens up the conversation to the class and arms nearly leap out their sockets. Excited. Unashamed. Passionate.
“I was bullied and it was hard and I had to talk to my mom and my teacher and we figured out how to make it stop. And things have gotten so much better!”
“I don’t know why kids are so mean. When I see someone hurting someone else, I always say something.”
“My little brother paints his nails sometimes and he gets picked on for it.”
“Heck- I do that sometimes! Who cares!”
I sat in the classroom because I am an aide to a boy with special needs. We sit together everyday at lunch and whenever we do this, I remember so clearly when I was his age. I remember seeing the special ed kids sitting lonely, being snickered about in the atmosphere that is the cafeteria.
But when him and I sit down, I am nearly edged off the end of the bench. I watch. I see kids that speak to my kid gently, without belittling him- which is so very rare- especially for fourth graders. They understand that he sometimes needs to be explained to a little more slowly, with more general words, a straighter tone, but they never talk to him like he’s a baby. They don’t coddle him like he’s a pet.
They want to be his friend because he’s funny and he’s nice and above all else, human.
This is a generation with an emotional maturity beyond their years. It comes so natural to them, as if it is all the way down in the bars of their DNA: Seek kindness, be an advocate, give a blessing to the world.
And if you stay with them long enough, listen to them, you can hear God shuffling his way through. You know he never left. You know he’s been here all along.
God doesn’t go where he’s wanted,
he goes where he’s needed.
Jesus said: Let the children come to me, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. And so it makes sense that I am recovering my faith in the locales of the little ones. In hearts that beat a little softer than my own. In cafeterias where no one worries who they’ll eat with. Where bullying is a kind of weakness. Where kindness is a sort of success. And it looks dramatically different than the school of my youth or the world of adults, it is unlike anything I’ve seen before.
It is the deepest truth of all:
We belong to each other.
And I am faint with hope.