Thanks to my car having BlueTooth and my aversion to driving “alone”, I call my mother a lot. I would call her regardless, because she’s my mother and you keep in touch with people who have done awesome things for you like give you life and raise you right. But lately, I call her almost daily, usually on my drive home from work. We talk about anything and everything. Sometimes we talk about plans for future visits, since I recently moved back into a reasonable visiting radius, and other times we talk about what’s going on in our lives or the lives of our family.
Let me give you a little background about my mother. When I was a teenager, she worked in a religious goods store, now she’s a Business Manager at a local Catholic church. Growing up, my mother was my religious education teacher about every other year (the other years, she taught my brother’s class). I know all of her tricks, and when my brother and I were both done with religious education and she picked the years she liked best and started teaching them again, I continued to stay on as her assistant while I was still in the area.
My parents were always advocates of education extending beyond the classroom and living up to their responsibilities as our primary educators. We were a roadtrip family, making two cross-country moves by car during my childhood, and a large number of other trips to visit family every year. We rarely listened to the radio on these trips because my parents considered this prime family time and a great opportunity for education. My mother used to sit in the passenger seat and read to us from an educational book series by E.D. Hirsch, that is until I took over for her and read from the back seat, eventually replacing the grade-specific information of E.D. Hirsch with the fantasies of J.K. Rowling. During one of the two moves, my brother and I spent an extended time out of school (a month or so) and my mother stepped in with the things she could teach best: handwriting and language roots. My brother was in first grade, I was in fifth, so she worked on his print and my cursive, and we both studies Greek and Latin roots for the duration of our time out of school. I still attribute her with the fact that my cursive is neater than my print (especially since many of my peers don’t use cursive anymore at all, and most people younger than me don’t even know how to use it beyond signing their name) and with my SAT literature scores.
However, the point of telling you all of this about my mother is to admit up-front that she’s a “church lady” and that my parents were very active in their efforts to ensure that my brother and I got a well-rounded education, in regards to both our religious and secular knowledge. I want to point this all out so that you will understand where both she and I are coming from in the story I’m about to tell:
My mother currently teaches 4th grade religious education. She’s half way through their educational year, and this is when she usually plays Bible Jeopardy with her class. She’s done it at all grade levels, writing new questions every year to target her students in their wheelhouse. However, she lamented on the phone with me that she can’t play Bible Jeopardy this year. When I asked why, she said, “Because they don’t know anything.” She went on to describe a student struggling to finish the phrase “Adam and…” and the class being unable to tell her how many days it took God to create the world. She’s stopped her regular class plan to go back and start doing the basic Bible stories from the beginning, with the aid of some PowerPoint presentations she found. I’m sure she would have preferred to develop her own materials, but with the unforeseen change of course, she doesn’t have much choice.
Every week, she follows up on her class with an email to the parents, summarizing the class topic and suggesting conversations that could be had, or additional materials that could be used at home to build on the classroom work. She used to send this home as a piece of paper, but always felt like it didn’t make it to the parents. She gladly moved to email, sending these directly to the parents and not relying on the students to deliver them. But finds herself surprisingly disappointed and sure that no one ever reads them anyway.
When I called her, she was working on this week’s email. She was at wit’s end (a joke I’m making for my own enjoyment here that I will explain in a minute) and trying to think of a way to impress upon the parents how important at-home religious education is, while at the same time convinced none of the parents will read whatever she wrote even if she found exactly the right way to say it. She asked me if I remembered some of the things that introduced me to religion as a child. Of course I did! We talked about a few of my favorites:
Adventures in Odyssey
This is a radio program (along the lines of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, but with Christian themes) based around an ice cream shop called Whit’s End (see, there’s the joke from earlier) owned by a grandfatherly figure named John Avery Whittaker and the kids (and young adults) that passed through it. It frequently took time traveling trips back to Biblical times to live through famous Bible stories, and always ended with a moral. We got our first cassettes from Chick-fil-a (they used to include them in children’s meals) and were quickly hooked. My parents still have several of the large VHS-sized cases containing 6 cassettes apiece in their basement, and my brother and I used to clamor to listen to them in the car (and not only because it meant not having to listen to E.D. Hirsch).
The Donut Hole
Rob Evans is the Donut Man. The Donut Hole was a television program on Catholic television growing up. He would sing songs about Bible stories that were easy for kids to sing along with and understand. When my mom mentioned him, I immediately started singing, “Life without Jesus is like donut, like a donut, like a donut! Life without Jesus is like a donut, there’s a hole in the middle of your heart!” Every episode had a loose story arc with a moral, and frequently closed with what was called The Donut Repair Shop, where the antagonist in the plot apologized to the protagonist, or somehow made their actions up, and therefore received forgiveness, and everyone filled a donut’s hole with, well, a donut hole, like you can get at Dunkin Donuts! I was able to come up with three or four of the Bible songs from this show off the top of my head while talking to my mother, and spent the rest of the evening smiling and humming them to myself.
VBS! (Vacation Bible School)
Every summer, my parents enrolled my brother and I for 2 weeks of VBS. One was Catholic, usually run by local nuns, and the other was Protestant, run by the local Baptist church (my father is Baptist). Both used interactive experiences to help kids get the sense of Bible stories and Biblical times. I distinctly remember building a well with bricks I made myself from mud and straw (mud always means fun, but hard work) while in a Biblical costumes while an older kid, an assistant, shouted at us to hurry and finish up, so that we could understand the plight of the Jews in Egypt. I also remember a large number of songs, often with accompanying hand movements including His Banner Over Me Is Love and You Can’t Get To Heaven On Roller Skates.
Now, I may have technically been a little old for VeggieTales when I discovered this musical cartoon, but there is literally no better way to spend a bus trip with your church youth group then singing along with the silly songs of the VeggieTales! More often than I should probably admit, I find myself in the bathroom getting ready in the morning looking for my hairbrush and humming Larry the Cucumber’s Silly Song Oh, Where Is My Hairbrush? Having not seen much of these guys in a while, I was thrilled when I started working in youth ministry in Rapid City, SD and found them in the monthly “family” event designed to cater to children of all ages and their parents. We watched Rack, Shack and Benny, a simplified version of the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego passing through the flames with the protection of angels.
My mother sent her email (she sent me a copy afterwards) with a mixture of her sadness about what the children don’t know, a touch of admonishment to the parents for not continuing their religious exposure at home, some food for thought about the way children pick up the things they grow up with (e.g. they had been very helpful when she had issues with the PowerPoint presentations) and an overriding tone of hope that they will take this as an opportunity to change all of that. She included links to a few of the Donut Man’s songs on YouTube, and information about finding Adventures in Odyssey. I hope and pray that she’s wrong about parents not reading her emails, but continue to remind myself that God works in mysterious ways and that some of the best Catholics come to their faith later in life.
Did you have a favorite source for religious learning as a child? Or do you have one now for your children? Please share with us! They may make it back to my mother’s 4th grade class!