Faith in Real Life — Public Education and Parenting

praying-handsIn my “real life,” I am the Director of Community Relations for Plainfield School District #202. Plainfield United Methodist Church invited me to deliver a sermon about public education and parenting, as part of its “Faith in Real Life” worship series. I was humbled and honored to accept. (P.S. — yes, I’ve seriously considered pastoral service and  may yet take that road, perhaps as part of retirement…)

FAITH IN REAL LIFE: PUBLIC EDUCATION AND PARENTING

Two older men are sitting on a park bench on a nice, warm, spring day. They are kvetching about all the problems in the world today – crime, drugs, promiscuity on television, violence, world peace, illness, politics.

Finally, one of the men says to the other, “But you know the biggest problem with the world today?”

“What’s that?” the other man says.

“It’s that prayer isn’t allowed in schools anymore!”

The second man pauses for a second, then says, “I have to disagree with you.”

“How’s that?” the first one replies.

“Well, I taught high school science for 35 years, and I have to tell you, I saw lots and lots of praying in school.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Yessir! Every time I announced a pop quiz, the kids fell on their knees to pray that the floor would open up!”

It’s an old joke, but it stands the test of time…partly because it’s true. You may not see kids literally dropping to a knee or even bowing their heads, but trust me, there’s plenty of praying going on in schools all the time!

I share that story for two important reasons:

  • First, as a duly anointed official of the Public Education Bureaucracy, to firmly and clearly debunk the myth that prayer isn’t allowed in public schools. It most certainly is, at least in Illinois.

In fact, a special law was written about 15 years ago, requiring students to say the Pledge of Allegiance and schools to allow a “moment for silent reflection” – which is political code for “prayer” – every single day.

So, don’t believe what you read on social media, and if you think that’s not happening in one of our District 202 schools, please let me know!

  • And second and much more important, to help make the point, even if a little tongue-in-cheek, that faith in a higher power has always been, is now, and will always be an important part of the public school system.

Why? Because our spiritual lives are a crucial part of our humanity – and despite how you might feel some days about your children when they’re laying heavily on your very last nerve, they are human beings!

That goes double for us as parents! Wait – as the dad of two very talented, bright, hard-working and beautiful daughters, both college graduates, one newly married and the other newly moved out, let me amend that – that goes quadruple for us as parents!

Let’s talk about our kids first…

District 202 has 28,000 of them in 30 schools, in every possible shape and size, color, race, creed and religion with 72 languages spoken or represented, and in every socioeconomic category. Their stories change day by day, and sometimes minute by minute. That is the blessing of public education – we take all comers!

Many adults, including myself, spend a lot of time pooh-poohing young people. “Oh, those kids today!” etc.

Well, I have news for you – “kids today” are pretty darned good. They are smart, thoughtful, creative and resilient. Because they have to be.

Kids — most especially our adolescents and teens — face challenges today that we could never have imagined much less addressed nearly as capably as they do.

Test Anxiety. Bad Grades. What Do I Do After High School? College? A job? The Military? Travel the world?

Let me just take a minute to say a word about college. And please keep in mind that this is coming from a guy who works for the public school system – college is NOT for everyone, nor should every student feel pressured to attend the WORLD’S GREATEST COLLEGE (insert your own alma mater here).

For forty years, we as a society and the Public Education Industry have turned College into its own Cottage Industry — the End-all, Be-all for every child, I think to our own detriment. This has created a tremendous amount of pressure for our young people to aspire to and succeed at something that many simply do not need or want – not to mention an untenable financial burden for many families.

Don’t get me wrong. College can be a wonderful thing – particularly liberal arts universities that teach you how to think and be a better human being. But so are vocational schools, and the military, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with simply joining the workforce and making a few dollars until you sort out whatever your tomorrow will look like.

Now, back to the program.

Kids today also face immense pressure from Bullying. Name Calling. Hunger. Drugs. Sex. Poverty. Family Problems. Politics. And the ever-popular Boyfriends and Girlfriends.

Now factor in social media, and you have a recipe for emotional and social disaster. So much information, so much stimulation, all bombarding our children constantly, at 10,000 miles per hour.

The result is that our social workers, counselors, nurses and teachers are seeing more childhood anxiety and depression than ever before. In fact, one of our high schools recently designated a room just for students (and sometimes even staff members) to simply take a few minutes, cool down and collect themselves.

This is not to say that kids are perfect – far from it! But it is to say that kids today are no worse, relative to their world, than we were, or our parents were.

Sure, they push boundaries, test limits, and do things that seem dumb and disrespectful to us as adults. But guess what? So did we!

Adolescents by nature live in the moment. They don’t have any true sense of consequence, and there’s a very good reason for it. Brain science in recent years has shown that the part of the brain that regulates long-term thinking doesn’t develop until we’re about 25 years old. That means that kids are hard wired to be goofy!!

Sixty thousand years of evolution and nothing has changed! I’ve even seen stories about cave drawings of cave parents slapping their foreheads as their cave kids tried chasing a saber-toothed tiger over the edge of a cliff! “Oh, your friends are doing it? Does that mean you’re going to do it too?”

No, kids haven’t changed. What’s changed is the world around our children, which has now equipped everyone six years old and older with tools that not only facilitate adolescent behavior, but encourage and sometimes even reward it! “Hey, do something stupid, and we’ll give you a reality television show!”

I often says that the Real World comes through our school doors every single day in all of its glory — diverse, frantic, exciting, frustrating — filled with countless opportunities to soar and succeed, and just as many chances to fall and fail.

And to hurt.

That Hurt is where we come in as parents.

No decent parent ever wants to see his or her child in pain.

But what can we do? I cannot begin to count the conversations I’ve had with parents who are frustrated with their own inability to help their student – their child, their baby – feel better, or understand why “this” or “that” happened, or didn’t happen.

And sometimes they take that frustration out on the schools – they get mad at their child’s teachers or the school district because, somehow, WE cannot make everything right in between Algebra, English, AP Physics, Band, football, cheerleading, choir, standardized testing, insufficient state funding, politics, afterschool jobs, Homecoming, graduation, promotion or the myriad other things that fill our students’ school days.

I get those calls all the time. Sometimes there’s yelling, sometimes even crying at the other end of the phone or the email.

And it’s OK! Keep calling! We understand. We get it. We live and work in the same world.

Very often, after doing my best to help parents understand the official “This Is What the Law Says” aspects of administering a very large, bureaucratic system, I will say, “Now, let me talk to you, Parent to Parent.”

Because we want our families to know that we’re in this together. Obviously, they’re your kids, but they are also our kids, at least for the six and a half to 10 hours each day that they’re in our schools.

And the first — and maybe best – thing we can try to do, is slow things down. You know that old saying about how you cannot fix a flat tire on a car that is still moving? Well, sometimes being a parent is similar – you cannot ease their child’s pain – or your own – in a world going 10,000 miles an hour, all the time.

You may not be able to fix the actual problems – I mean, let’s be honest: I forgot half of the Algebra that I learned in 8th grade 15 years before I had my first child. By the time she was doing 8th grade Algebra, I was lost. That’s why God invented teachers! But you can at least reduce the speed at which the problems are coming at you.

Not to go all “Science Nerd” on you, but remember your basic physics – Speed is a measure of the time it takes an object to travel a set distance through space, right?

So, the solution may be to deal with the only thing that is separate from, above, beyond time and distance and space.

And we call that thing, God.

I am standing here in a House of God – specifically, a Methodist House of God.

I was raised Catholic and I now practice as a Lutheran. My maternal grandmother was Methodist, so I spent a lot of time in the Methodist church as a child

I have worshipped and celebrated with Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians Unitarians, Greek Orthodox and non-denominational Christians. (It helps that I had a lot of girlfriends in high school!) Last weekend, I watched a beautiful Islamic worship service at a new Mosque in Bolingbrook.

I am a proud alum of Lewis University, a De Lasallian Catholic Christian Brothers school.

Studying the evolution of theology and the history of organized religion is one of my hobbies.

Yet I am not nearly wise or brave enough to try to define or limit God by my own belief and worship systems.

What I can tell you – and All that I can tell you – is that I am certain, to the core of my being, that there is a God.

And God – no matter what you call Him/Her or how you worship Him/Her – loves children.

And God requires us to love them, too, on His/Her behalf.

How you do that, of course, is up to you. But I suggest that it’s a whole lot easier when you’re standing on the firm ground of faith, with a firm understanding that “Truth” (capital T, “Truth”) is eternal. It is beyond any limitations we can impose – social, religious or political.

It is often said that God is found in the space between us as human beings. That certainly applies to us as parents with our children.

So, when school – or any part of life – gets to be too much for your kids (or for you, truth be told), STOP!

Take a deep breath.

Close your eyes. Open your heart. And listen for God’s voice in the silence.

Talk to your kids.

Be brave and strong enough to be their parent, not their friend – you can be their friend later. They don’t often say it, but study after study (and plain old common sense) confirms time and again, that our children need us and secretly want us to help them learn, show them where to step on life’s path and sometimes hold them accountable when they slip up.

By the way, a little bit of etymology for you this morning – the original meaning of the word “discipline” – as in, Disciple — is to teach – not to punish.

Guide them with the firm, but loving wisdom and authority that comes only from having cried a thousand more tears, taken a thousand more tests, survived at least a few more broken hearts and overcome a thousand more mundane challenges, day in and day out, than their young minds can ever conceive.

My friends, children learn what they live, and they live what they learn.

Pray with your children so that they get a sense of the largeness of the universe, and their smallness within in. Humility goes a long way in today’s world. Respect their intelligence. Encourage them to be people of good character, accepting of and loving everyone. Forgiving. Kind. Sympathetic AND Empathetic.

Teach your children that God does not solve all our problems, but God equips us to solve our problems. With strength. Courage. Conviction. Diligence. Perseverance. Collaboration. Creativity. Hard work. Confidence.

And yes, even the “F” Word — Faith.

Through Him, With Him and In Him.

Most of all, show them God in your world, so that they know that God has a place in their world.

And in that way, God will always be in school – and not just when the teacher announces a pop quiz!

February 26, 2017

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True Love

I am a proud member of the Write On Joliet writers group. (By the way, everyone who fancies him or herself a creative type should belong to a group like this for many reasons, but mostly for the commiseration between those likewise tortured…)

Each month, we challenge ourselves to write about a special theme, to try a new writing style, etc.

Appropriately for Valentines, the February assignment was to write something about “true love”. Here is mine.

True Love

Where to find true love

in a world that crowns

its hatred King?

Certainly not in

the links of bondage

keeping us chained

 to our shared

disgrace.

Not in the hissing

blue death clouds snaking

through the lungs of

six million

and more.

Or the furious

treads of war, grinding

generations

in the mud

of Time.

Not in the mother’s

stinging tears shed for

a child lost to

the gangster’s

wild aim.

Or in the rubble

of a proud spire, now

humbled by martyrs’

winged dreams of

Heaven.

Or in the bloody

hand still holding the

hammer that nailed

its Soul to

a tree.

Where to find True Love?

Nowhere — except in

the eyes of God,

Looking past the pain

its Creation has

wrought, agony

its lasting

scandal.

Tolerating man’s

atrocities, to

hold a mirror —

its own shame

be damned —

So that we might see

ourselves, repent for

sins eternal (and)

learn to love,

truly.

                                                                                                                                                    February 2017