“How do you feel when you think about Jesus?” This question punched me straight in the face, veering neither right nor left as it exited the semi-French speaking mouth of a sassy young third grader. I was hit with a full-on tidal wave of paralyzing discomfort. “We’re in a public school,” I thought. “I shouldn’t have to deal with this in a public school.” Apparently I was wrong.
I’m fairly certain the main reason (quite possibly the only reason) I was hired at my current job at an elementary school was because of my mostly competent French-speaking abilities. There are two girls at my school who recently moved from francophone Africa, and beyond just saying good morning, there was no one at the school who could fully communicate with them. Enter stage right, this adequate lady with a college education and seven months of Niger experience firmly in hand. Ideally, I see them for 30 minutes every day to help them with vocabulary and grammar (two of my favorite things), but oftentimes we veer into other subject areas. Areas which make me feel… uncomfortable, to say the least.
In the parts of Africa I’ve visited, religion is definitely a major component of daily life. Even in a pays laique like Niger. I get it. In places torn by war and border disputes, and hit with floods and droughts and food shortages, religion holds things together. I respect that very much. What you believe is entirely dependent on the surroundings you grew up in. I suppose religion is just as relevant in my students’ former country as it was in mine. But now that we’re on my home turf, these girls catch me off guard with their non sequitur questions about god. I’m supposed to be safe here.
It’s always the younger of the two who hurls these ninja-stars of none-of-your-business at my unsuspecting head. It started with a simple, “Do you go to church?” Ah. Slight panic, but okay. I’ve fielded this one before. Thinking back, I may have lied and told her I go occasionally, just because I got used to lying about that. During my months overseas, it was easier to say you were a christian than to field the myriad questions that follow an honest response and resist Nigeriens’ attempts at bringing another person over to the team of the prophet. It just became a habit to pretend and leave it at that. The added bonus was that I could keep my Sunday mornings to myself for reading. It was fitting. Books are much closer to a religion than anything else in my life.
A few days later, the question escalated to “How do you feel when you think about Jesus?” In response to this, I stumbled for a few words, finally settling on “Jesus may have been a good man, but many people use his name to try to gain money and power over other people. I disagree with that.” After that response, I shoved the conversation as hard as I could back to the subject of questions in the present progressive tense.
I feel like I have a responsibility to be open and honest with the kids at my school. It seems to me that so few adults are ever open or honest with anyone under the age of twenty. I firmly remember being a child and wishing that adults would just stop patronizing me, so I try to treat children the way I wanted to be treated. Granted, I will tailor my discussions to be appropriate for their age group (there are undoubtedly some facets of life eight- and nine-year-olds should not yet be exposed to), but I still try to let them see as much of the big picture as they can at their age.
Other questions followed on other days. “Do you know about angels?” “Have you heard the message?” “Do you know the holy ghost?” Seeing that we were currently located safely within the walls of a public school, I responded to all of these with grammatical and vocabulary related questions. “What is the difference between fall and fail?” “What is the subject in this sentence?” “How do we conjugate for she/he/it?” But just this week I was the one who brought up the question of god again.
The girls were curious about what the pledge of allegiance meant, so I broke it down for them, pausing occasionally to expand upon why I think it should not be in public schools, and why I will not do it. Once again, I was trying to show all sides of the issue. Then we came to the worst offender of all, the words, “under god”. I tried to explain the importance of the separation of church and state, how it is one of the strongest founding ideals of the country, but they couldn’t seem to understand why having your country follow god could ever be a bad thing. As much as I explained it, I don’t think we ever came to a consensus.
I don’t fault them for their point of view. They’re both young, and new to the country at that. Any human life is primarily just the sum of its surroundings thus far. There’s still plenty for them to learn and discover. When I was young, I was very involved with religion as they are now. Before my family even started going to church, I had somehow gotten the idea of heaven and hell into my head, and, deciding that one seemed extremely preferable to the other, I prayed every night, trying to include every soul in the world, since it seemed unfair to me that anyone should have to suffer eternally for their mistakes. There was also some arrogance inherent in this. I wanted to be Atlas. I wanted to be the one to bear the load for everyone. But, as was commonly the case with many of my friends and acquaintances, I grew older, reason and logic took firm hold in the center of my mind, and subsequently, any shred of traditional religion was pushed out. Now my hopes for the afterlife are primarily composed of ideas from Italo Calvino’s book Cosmicomics, mixed together with the Bokononism as presented in Cat’s Cradle, and the idea of being unstuck in time, as discussed in Slaughterhouse 5. These are my hopes for what death might be like.
Of course all of this can’t quite be conveyed to a third-grader, but where can I find the balance between openness and saying things that might poke holes in the faith of these girls? Pointing out the logical fallacies I see in the Judeo-Christian history to children just seems… well, dickish is the only term that seems fitting. On the other hand, I don’t want to lie. And on a third, invisible hand (does it belong to a ghost? a robot? a ghost-robot?!), I don’t want to engage in inappropriate discussion in a government-run institution. I try to stay as honest as possible, but until these odd, unpredictable, unending questions stop, the answer will always be grammar. When I think about Jesus, I feel like discussing grammar.