Vacation Bible School
Back in 2000, I was talked into teaching Religious Education classes (or PSR) to 5th grade public school children one night a week for about an hour. The primary focus of the 5th grade curriculum was the Sacraments. When approached, I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to do it, but a co-worker talked me into trying it out to see if I was a good fit. I wasn’t the best teacher, but I did my best to try to make things fun — not many kids are overly enthusiastic about spending an hour in religious education after having already spent an entire day at school.
I sometimes had difficulty keeping 12-20 energetic 10 year olds on point, so I was grateful to have a parent assistant to help me out most weeks. We used the classrooms at the local Catholic school, but we constantly had to remind the students that they were not allowed to mess around with items in the room belonging to the daytime Catholic school students and teachers. Nevertheless, that first year, one of my students broke the chalkboard pointer which belonged to the daytime teacher. He was goofing around with it when he wasn’t supposed to. If I remember correctly, this was on a night when my parent assistant (to whom the role of the primary classroom disciplinarian fell) was unable to attend – so I was acting solo. This incident was just one example that made it was pretty clear I was not cut out for a career in elementary education.
The second year, I had a different parent assistant, and her attention was primarily occupied with trying to keep one particular student focused and on track. I am not sure what type of condition Giorgio had, but his speech was very difficult to understand (he sometimes seemed to have a language of his own). He did not read, and he had some other special needs issues which made it extremely challenging for him to stay focused — even with a full time attendant. He was sometimes prone to disruptions and outbursts. They were never violent or angry, but when he got an idea into his head that wasn’t related to class, it was quite difficult to bring him back to the task at hand. One night, he was bound and determined that we were going to watch the Cleveland Indians game on the classroom TV and would not take no for an answer!
All the other kids in the class (including a female cousin who often helped to translate when Giorgio spoke or had a question) were quite familiar with him and his behavior. They accepted his condition and treated him like a normal kid. I never witnessed any mocking or mean spirited comments and Giorgio was never made fun of in my class. I attribute that more to the kids’ own well behavior than to anything I ever said or did. The thing is = I never HAD to say anything to any of the other kids about how they should treat Giorgio.
In my third (and final) year of teaching the Sacraments to fifth graders, I had no parent assistant in the classroom. I did my best and I think I made an impression on a few of the kids, but I knew I was not the best person for that job. I was involved in several other parish ministries and I was spreading my time a bit too thin. So when I saw that I needed to cut back on my over-extended efforts, I knew that religious education was the one I had to drop. This was approximately the same time that I met my wife — through one of those other parish ministries.
Several years ago, we signed our daughter up for Vacation Bible School. I think she was maybe 5 or 6. Somehow in the process, my wife ended up staying for a few nights to help as a parent volunteer. She didn’t sign up in advance to do that and she had no duties in organizing or running any part of the program, she just answered the call when one of the program’s directors needed a few parents to help. (I chose not to commit myself, although I was asked also).
Earlier this spring, the person who had been running the bible school program for several years had some other summertime commitments (involving her certification for another unrelated religious education program) which made running VBS at the same time just too much on her plate all at once. Although she committed herself to assisting with VBS (she still took a lead role in the planning and promotion, but just wasn’t the program director in name), another church friend of ours was asked and accepted the responsibility to run things. Her husband and my wife work together at the same company and we are all social friends of sorts — so she asked my wife if we would like to help with a couple of the presentation themes. Knowing my love for being involved, our history of being drawn together through adult parish retreat ministry, and my past efforts with religious education, my wife agreed to help and said she would ask me also. She was not directly aware of my reasons for stepping down from teaching 13 years ago since we were not yet dating at the time. My wife had already committed herself, but I was not tremendously enthusiastic about the prospect. Rather than come right out and say that, I more or less kept silent as the “think it over and get back to me with a decision” time passed by.
So as the time to commit drew closer and I remained wishy-washy — not really wanting to do it, but not wanting to disappoint and say “NO” either — somehow, I’m still not exactly sure how, a “YES” response was transmitted from me to my wife and passed along up the channels. I was quite relieved to later find out that my wife and I could work together as a team rather than be split up each at different stations with different responsibilities.
As the planning meetings were scheduled, they conflicted with my wife’s other volunteer commitments at our daughter’s dance studio, so I was tasked to attend those meetings on behalf of us both. I was encouraged by the experience, knowledge, and enthusiasm of the other people involved, but I was still not overly enthusiastic about the time commitment with it being a few hours each evening for a full week (which I knew would also be a very busy work week for me). The actual site setup was spread out over two different Saturdays. The first day involved some room preparation, and it turned out that our room was one already in use during the regular school year for a religious education program, with many items belonging to that instructor remaining in the room over the summer months. With a few minor exceptions, the items in the room were largely unavailable for us to use, but could not be removed from the room and stored elsewhere. So we had to cover them up and keep them hidden from view and away from the curious fingers belonging to the kids in our VBS program. I immediately had déjà vu visions of that broken chalkboard pointer from 16 years ago!
Our second Saturday setup (just this past weekend and the day before we began the program) involved additional room and prop setup and several hours of theming other hallway areas. On Sunday morning we discovered that most of the hallway theming work, done by several children volunteers, had fallen down overnight and was not easily repairable.
Our particular VBS station dealt with Bible stories and scriptural themes which helped to illustrate the over-riding theme for each night. The kids were split up into several groups and would rotate among the different rooms, so we ended up presenting our material four times each night to four different groups. Because each night had a different “living the Bible” experience, we had to make wholesale prop and theming changes at the end of each night in preparation for the next day’s lesson. Upon seeing what did and did not work with the kids during the first session Sunday evening, and upon additional review of the rest of the program guide, my wife and I realized that we had a lot of additional prop and theming work to do in our room over the next several days. So Sunday night at 11:30 p.m. — when I would normally be bedding down for the night (especially knowing that I had to be in court bright and early Monday morning), instead I found myself walking around our local WalMart with a cartful of necessary items we had overlooked the first time around.
In re-creating some of the bible stories or images, we have a pre-written script to follow, with some ad-libbing thrown in for variety. My role has generally been that of the helper while my wife presents the main content. My job that first night was to pretend that the lights in our room weren’t working. I had to lead the kids to believe that I was trying to track down the problem while my wife continued on with the lesson. I would then return to the room at key points with different artificial lighting solutions (first little battery operated flicker candles, then mini flashlights, etc.) So MOST of my time was spent outside of the room with very little interaction with the kids — just listening from the hallway for my audible cues to enter the room with my lighting options.
This left my wife with 90-95% of the overall interaction with the kids in our Sunday sessions. I was hardly even seen or heard, but after one of the groups finished their shift in our room, a girl of about ten years with Down Syndrome came over to me (not to my wife who shared with them for over 20 minutes, but to me, who shared three lines with them and “fixed” the lights). She grab/hugged me around the waist and said “Thank you,” before following her group out into the hallway moving on to a different station.
Although I wasn’t as enthusiastic about the program as I could have been before we started, she reminded me what the time, effort, and late night spending money at Walmart was really for. This may turn out to be our only commitment to Vacation Bible School, I don’t know, but it was in reflecting on that ‘thank-you’ hug and telling my wife about it hours later at home (she had not seen it herself and did not get a similar hug of her own) that I realized I was where I was supposed to be. I am posting these observations just before our fifth and final night of VBS. Each day has had its challenges and its rewards, which I suppose is just a microcosm of everyday life.
To bring this full circle, about a year or so ago, I was sitting in Applebee’s with my family having dinner. At some point while we were eating, I noticed a young man and someone I assumed to be his father sitting at the bar, chatting and eating some sandwiches. I thought I recognized him, but I wasn’t 100% sure until we made eye contact. I didn’t see any recognition in his face when our eyes met, but there was no doubt in my mind at that moment that it was Giorgio all grown up. He had to be in his mid-twenties by now. I had not seen him since he was in my classroom, but I had sometimes wondered over the years how he was doing and what paths his life had taken. I guess I still don’t know the full answers to those questions, but I do know that he is alive and well — and enjoying some good food at Applebee’s!