Nine Years on the God Squad

As Published in The Rye Record on June 9, 2014

One of my more unruly students, waiting for his First Holy Communion
One of my more unruly students, waiting for his First Holy Communion

I think it’s kind of funny that the same culture that thinks seven-year-old kids need a snack in the middle of a sporting event also expects those same kids to top off a six hour school day with 75 minutes of religious instruction. Imagine being in the second grade: word problems, spelling lists, alphabetical order, worksheets! You’re finally sprung at 3 p.m. and race like a pack of uncrated puppies onto the playground… only to be marched over to church to hear the likes of me talk about God. Some days I feel almost as sorry for them as I do for myself.

I’ve taught CCD for nine years. When I tell people that, I feel like a different sort of a person, like maybe a person with a more conservative manner of dress, a clean house and a less colorful vocabulary. People generally think I’m kidding, and they wait for the punch line like I’m going to make C-C-D stand for something wacky. CCD (FYI) stands for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, which I am sure of because I just Googled it. It’s a weekly religion class that Catholic kids have to go to if they don’t go to Catholic school.

This year I co-taught a class with my friend Emily. They gave us 15 children, 12 of whom are boys, presumably because she is a world-class athlete and I’m paying off a staggering karmic debt. I only know a few things about little boys, and one of them is that they cannot sit for very long. If at all. Asking little boys to sit and listen at 3:45 in the afternoon is like asking a coop full of chickens to perform Swan Lake. There are phrases that we repeat constantly: Please sit back down. Please get off the desk. We can talk about who’s lost the most teeth if there’s time at the end of class. (The rate of tooth loss at this age is alarming). Yes, that clock on the wall is actually moving.

I’m not at all prone to self-sacrifice, so I wouldn’t keep at it year after year if there wasn’t some sort of a payoff. I like teaching CCD in that same way you might like camping. It seems like a shiny, wholesome idea at first. You over-prepare and purchase a bunch of supplies that you don’t really know how to use. You slog your way up a mountain, trying to ignore the blister that is forming at the back of your wet sneaker. You want to give up, because really why in the world would you put yourself through such torture? In your darkest moments, you’re worried that someone’s going to get hurt. Teaching CCD is actually exactly like that. With 15 kids strapped to your back.

But then something happens, an unexpected view or a shooting star. Sometimes they’ll surprise me by connecting a complicated concept like forgiveness to their own lives. Or they’ll start to understand God as someone good, as a part of themselves and everything around them. I once had a student who noticed how the leaves come back on the trees to give us shade just in time for the hot summer. “God is thoughtful,” she said. I caught my breath at that unexpected view.

The first class I ever taught is now finishing the 10th grade. I ran into one of the girls from that class on Mothers Day, and I had to get on my tippy toes to say hello to her. I remember her six-year-old face, terrified, on the very first day. I remember when she got a new puppy and brought him into class to show me. When she’s 50, I’ll look at her and remember that face and that puppy.

This year’s merry band of maniacs just had their First Holy Communion. As the ceremony was starting, one of the boys gave me a hug before he’d had a chance to think better of it. Call it Stockholm Syndrome if you want, but I will remember that hug and every single tooth he lost this year when I see him dressed up again for the prom. The trek’s been totally worth it.

 

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