Ten-Year-Olds and the Catechesis of Hope
I stood at the front of our classroom on a Monday morning, watching the young sun race through the eastern windows to play on the faces of thirty ten-year-olds scrambling to turn in their homework and find their seats. I clasped my hands behind my back and a grin tugged at my lips as, one by one, they noticed the non-verbal signal that it was time for class to begin. Ten seconds later, as a hush descended on the room, I asked, “So who saw a sunset this weekend?”
The calm was shattered by the sound of at least a dozen half-restrained eager grunts of all shapes and sizes—some were like giggles, others like snorts—and at least twelve hands shot up into the air, straining as if it were possible to haul the very heavens right down into Room Two Hundred. Needless to say, there was no more hiding my grin…
The realization that children tend to imitate and adopt the loves of their elders is not new to me, but the last two months of running my own classroom has significantly reinforced that truth. Never would I have dreamed that they would wish to regale me with their own sunset stories, or that a comment about the wordsmithing of W. B. Yeats would produce a handwritten Yeats quote on my desk last Wednesday. Nor can I describe my shock when one of my more creative students, upon learning of my obsession with sailing ships, would craft a model of a caravel to accompany our Age of Exploration unit. I was just as speechless when one of my kiddos from last year slipped me a hand-written copy of Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break” because “I know you love poetry by old English guys.” Such stories are becoming commonplace as the school year continues to fly by, yet each new verse of the song inevitably leaves me scratching my head and sniffling at the dust in the room.
I want to say that this mimetic phenomenon demands more than a passive response from those of us who are about the business of forming children, whether in the classroom, on the sports field, and certainly in the local church and in the home. I would even argue that one who spends any time at all around children is a teacher by default, if not by choice. The very lives we model—our habits, our words, and our affections—are themselves a catechism for the soul of a child, and this is true regardless of the intentionality of our modeling. To put it another way, children will buy what we’re selling, even if we don’t think we’re selling anything.
This is a terrifying reality, a simultaneously sobering and joyous responsibility. If my loves can hold such terrific sway in the formation of a child’s affections, and if my desire is that they would come to love goodness with a fierceness that transcends the temptations of evil, then I must be about the business of fiercely loving goodness myself. And honest self-examination would conclude that my own love for goodness is a work in progress, at best.
Yet here is the humbling irony of all of this: the conviction that my own affections are in need of continual reordering often comes from my students themselves. Our roles reverse, and suddenly they become my teachers and I become their awestruck student. Many of them seem to love the mere act of living with an intensity that would shame my own zest for life on many a Monday morning. Though dozens of them have already felt the lash of Adam’s curse in ways that no child should ever experience, they still seem to remember many of the deepest truths about the world that I have forgotten amidst the clamor on the surface. They come to their lives as I imagine the little children came to Christ—willing, open, and trusting—bearing with them a thirst for discovery, a love of play, and an infectious thrill for laughter; often laughter for its own sake, which is certainly the best kind. In short, their hopeful hearts are a catechism for my own.
I pray for grace to do what little I can to help preserve their child-likeness, even as I pray for grace to grow younger myself. Each day we quote our classroom mantra: Truth sharpens our minds. Goodness strengthens our hearts. Beauty gives us hope. I ache for the day when they will all know where the beauty and the laughter and the hope comes from; the day when, in the words of Hopkins, they will see “Christ play in ten-thousand places” and know that He is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty Himself.
Stephen Williams was raised in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and received a B.A. in Government from Patrick Henry College in 2012. Stephen lives in Phoenix, Arizona, teaching fifth-graders and pursuing his lifelong dream of living in the American West. In his spare time, you’ll likely find him reading, chasing the sunset with his camera in tow, or enjoying the beautiful game of baseball.
Move to Montana and help me start a classical school!
Stephen, this is beautiful truth. I love knowing you are a teacher and have fond memories of you as a student. You have read James K. A. Smith, I believe? I love his book You Are What You Love.
You have such a captivating way with words. Thank you for this heart lesson today and for inspiring me again and again to seek literature; savor beauty, and find goodness in all things.