When my son Alex started 4th grade I experienced a tremendous delight. My joy was that his teacher was one of my all time favorite teachers – Mr. Closz. He taught me Language Arts in 7th grade. I have always held this man in a state of awe and respect because he was a great teacher and his influence on me was significant.
And you know what he said when we went to Meet, Greet and Find Your Seat at the School? He told me that he had kept my paper on how I spent the summer for years and years but that somehow it had gotten lost when he moved to elementary school. One day he believes he will open a box or a file and it will be there along with a precious one or two others that he chose not to throw away. And I wonder at the fact that my teacher would have saved something I wrote.
And I also admit that my sharing such news is a bit of bragging on my part. A little bit like the parents Martin Marty wrote about in Christian Century who took out an ad in their local paper. With names changed it read: Congratulations Margaret Standford on being valedictorian of Murphyville High School. From: Your Parents, Drs. John and Thelma Standford, and sister Mary-Ellen. What is Margaret going to be? Answer: Double-majoring to be a doctor. Margaret’s graduation gifts include:
- New 3 level condo overlooking Lake Watertown in Harper
- New Lexus RX300, sapphire, navigation, loaded.
- Hawaiian party deluxe-catered and decorated.
- Trip to Rhodes, Greece, this summer for 1 month with full wardrobe.
- Surprise gift.
Up to date achievements don’t include scholarships and school awards which will be given first week of June.
- Valedictorian of class – A+ average throughout high school
- Top 20 academic students Southwestern Digital League
- Top 50 academic students Sioux County
- MENSA (top 2% of intelligence in the world
- Daughters of the American Revolution Good Citizen award and pin – 3rd place over several countries
- Murphyville science fair blue ribbon – 1st place fair pin x3
- National Honor Society, all four years
- Student council secretary
- All A award honor roll
- CSU valedictorian scholarship
- Tri county honors band award, etc. etc. etc.
Marty notes that there is nothing he could invent that would portray so well the self-centeredness of our culture. Interesting that this ad would make no mention of the teachers and others who had a hand in guiding Margaret on her way. No mention of anyone like Mr. Closz.
Thank you Mr. Closz
So I would like to do a little bit of balancing the scales of the universe by publicly thanking Mr. Closz. I loved his Language Arts class. It was everything education should be. In class we were taught about structure and composition. On our own we were given assignments in which we could creatively use these devises to tell whatever story we could imagine or whatever experience we longed to share. For those of us who were on a journey, hungry for knowledge, hungry for challenge and growth, this was the place to be.
Those were the classes I always preferred – language arts, philosophy, psychology, and social science. Those that required interpretation and analysis. Those that made me think and imagine and explore new ideas and new realms. But to tell you the truth, I also found those classes a lot of work. So I liked to balance them out with a few of what I call “fact” classes.
Classes with yes or no answers that didn’t require the same kind of intense thought. Classes with sets of facts to memorize – like chemistry and algebra and biology. Easier in a way because the answers were always completely right or completely wrong. No room for interpretation. No challenge to revise my understanding or opinions. Just some work at memorization. And the ability to give my teacher back the same answers she or he had given me. I bet not one single paper that I completed in any of those classes was ever kept by any of my teachers.
That would have been rather silly, wouldn’t it? They already knew everything that was there. There were no fresh insights to be gained – unexplored corners to be revealed. The facts were there and nothing but the facts. Lock step conformity. And darn it, that’s also been an important part of my education. I use that information to balance my checkbook, to tend to my kid’s cuts and scrapes, to cook my family’s meals. Good solid practical knowledge that comes into play again and again.
And therein lies the paradox. Is the school to be applauded for teaching practical life skills or to be criticized for teaching blind conformity to rigid rules and structures? What does it mean that we are taught not to color outside the lines and not to make the sky red and the grass blue? How much damage has been done when an unthinking teacher crushes the spirit of a wonderfully creative young mind?
And yet I sent my children to school for there is no other place where they could be exposed to so many different fields of study and learn so much about the realities of our world.
Outside the Lines
It seems to me that at its best, our education system gives us the parameters, the boundaries in which we can safely engage in creative exploration. In the open space, we work under the careful tutelage of a caring teacher whose own eyes and mind expand in wonder and delight, as they perceive our image of red skies and blue grass.
At the same time, teachers and fellow students hold us accountable for learning the basic principles and ideals. Crayons are for coloring not for sticking up our nose. We must color on our own paper not our classmate’s and not on the floor. At it’s best it expands its parameters in the light of newly discovered truth – pain can be substituted for crayons. Even as some parameters are held in firm place. We cannot choose to break all of the crayons and throw the papers in the garbage. In the process of school we become equipped with a basic set of rules and the knowledge that we need to survive in a very practical way in this world.
But at its worse, the education system forgets why it is there in the first place – to nurture creative minds that in return have the ability to teach. At it’s worst it becomes the very parameters it has drawn so that anything outside the box is impossible. We can’t experiment with chalk. We can’t fold our paper into an airplane. We can’t leave the paper blank and admire its shear simplicity. We can’t do any of those things because whatever is outside of the parameters, outside of the box is wrong. It cannot be explored, it cannot be tested, and it cannot be trusted.
And in its most realistic form the school is both. There are teachers who welcome the excitement and challenge of free thinkers. And there are teachers who will not allow us to color outside the lines or to paint our grass blue. These teachers, like the system they work for, can become so confident of their own knowledge and so dependent on the safety of the parameters they have built that they cease to be able to engage us in learning. The exercise of teacher and student becomes one of entropy trapped in restrictions.
So I have a few questions…
Who had a teacher that wouldn’t let you color outside the metaphorical lines?
Who had a teacher that was willing to pretty much let you color the picture your way?
Which did you prefer?
Whom do you remember?
We meet the same teachers on our spiritual journey, our spiritual quest for truth and knowledge. The church can provide parameters in which it believes it is safe for us to explore all matters spiritual. Or it can become those parameters and try to bar us from ever venturing forth into new and untested domains.
The church can become a place where we are empowered to move with creativity and originality into fresh insights and into a deeper of faith. Or it can become as meaningless as a formula we learned once in high school and never again applied to any of the big questions of our life.
Sadly, the mainstream church hasn’t made a lot of progress expanding its parameters. And because it has refused to embrace other faith traditions within itself, people have felt the sting of failing grades when they have sought to explore realities outside the lines. It is because of this reality that some Christian churches call themselves “progressive.” They find joy in the surprises as they we seek a God not bounded by a single culture nor a single religious tradition.
We who would seek to find the kernels of truth that exist throughout all of creation often find ourselves isolated and alone. Because we have stepped outside the parameters, they disappear, and we find we have no safe place to ask our questions and explore other truths. We find ourselves in the words of one student, “Not Christian enough for Church and not non-Christian enough for anything else.” And in this spiritual vacuum we can become susceptible to the world’s teachings and the world’s values because the church has failed us by refusing to expand its parameters enough to embrace a spiritual quest that allows for other expressions of God. So how do we proceed to navigate our way through such terrain?
Jesus I think offers us some very practical advice for our journey. He tells us that it matters whose glory our teachers seek. Do they seek God’s glory or their own? As students we also must ask whether we are seeking God’s glory or our own. And the litmus test is the message of Jesus himself. Who does our learning glorify? And how does it affect relationship? Does what we learn lead to reconciliation? Does it extend its hand to the marginalized? Does it care for the least of these? Does it shoulder another’s burden? Does it teach us to love one another – even as we love our self?
Our spirituality, our own unique relationship with the divine, lies within each one of us. No religion, no denomination, no church can dictate what that relationship will be or how it will change over time. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you.” But spirituality that is purely a personal pursuit risks glorifying oneself. Risks replacing the basic principles of Jesus with the values he clearly rejected. It risks replacing community with individuality, selflessness with greed, reconciliation with competition and spirituality with spiritual materialism. A genuine spiritual quest should never end with the values of the world and it should never end with us. Instead, we should find ourselves moving closer toward those aspects of God we find the hardest to emulate: compassion, mercy, justice, and love.
This is what it means to be more than a student, and to take up the mantle of a disciple. We are called forth not only to listen and to learn, but to take upon ourselves the very values of the one who leads us. And in doing so to hold each other accountable to living by values worthy of emulation. To be a disciple is to share what we have found, to deepen our understanding, and then to use it in the service of others rather than in the service of our self.
In marveling at the kind of ego involved in the ad placed by Margaret’s parents, Marty suggested we lift a toast to
- The helpful teachers at Margaret’s high school
- The coaches who had something to do with her winning
- The second-place winners in every event in which she triumphed
- Those who consoled the losers
- Those who noticed that slower learners also have their place in the human economy
- Those who exemplify virtues such as humility
· Those who parents cannot afford the Lexus and the condo, or even an advertisement thanking God for their children’s gifts
All of us are students in this life. And all of us are teachers. As we venture forth on our own spiritual quest for knowledge and truth the question begs an answer. Whose glory do we seek?
This article originally appeared in the April 18, 2014 issue of catapult magazine (www.catapultmagazine.com).