Churches Can Make Powerful Contributions toward Academic Success

 

            This Institute and the assigned readings have demanded that each of us reengage with the child inside us.  As a result of this focus, I am most touched by the awareness of the impact that Sunday School and Church have had on my life’s choices.  Public school was as overpowering to me as my home life, but I loved Church – I belonged!  It was okay to be quiet and shy because some kindly person was always there to offer a hand; give a hug; send a smile; or simply say, “let me walk with you and show you the way.”  Even Rev. Reuman, a very proper and dignified man, could get down on his knees and look me straight in the eye when he asked, “And, how’s my girl today?”  He seemed ten feet tall when struggling to disentangle his long legs from his robe as he sat down on the steps to give us children, sitting on the floor, our “Children’s Sermon.”  Rev. Reuman made Christ come alive as he related acts of kindness from biblical times to our society, constantly reminding us that, “Through Christ, all things are possible;” therefore, I could always dream big dreams, work hard, and consequently believe that I could achieve them.

My first memory is sitting in church looking at the magnificent pipes to our wonderful organ and listening to the music that flowed from those pipes from someone’s fingers and feet into my heart and soul, dreaming of making that kind of music someday.  Once, Mr. Mask, the choir director, a bald, generally intimidating man, picked me up and let me sit at the organ.  This was the beginning of a dream: to be an organist.  Today, I am a church organist.

          In third grade my Sunday School teacher inspired my class to write to a pen pal by giving us names and addresses of other children from around the world.  She brought us postcards with the picture of our town and pictures of the State Capitol in Columbus, Ohio. She even brought us postcards with the Washington Monument that we could include in our letters.  She had maps of our state, our country, and maps of the countries where our pen pals lived.  My pen pal was Ella Lou Ritter, and she lived in Paarl, Cape Province, South Africa.  When Ella Lou’s postcards arrived in the mail, it felt as though I had been given the keys to the universe.  After all, I had a picture of where she lived – somewhere out there in never- never land.  For all I knew as a third grader, Dorothy could have visited her on the way to Oz.  I coveted those postcards.  They were my first inspiration to wanting to know more about my world beyond little old Ravenna, Ohio.  Those were the seeds to my later studying abroad and becoming a foreign student advisor.

          That same year, war broke out in another country and our church collected food to send to the victims.  This was my first exposure to the concept of war and the mysteries of the newspaper.  I cried when our Sunday School teacher said the people didn’t have food because the war had left them homeless.  This was probably the first time that I had realized that “my Ella Lou” might be hurt – or even be dead.  It could be Ella Lou who was going without food or sleeping in the streets because some mean soldiers were shooting her.  Our teacher read to us from the newspaper, and then she would ask us to take turns and reread what she had read.  Though we stumbled over the words and each other in order to be next, we were awakened to the fact that we lived in the United States of America where we could feel safe from the ravages of war.  Furthermore, people who we had come to see as “human,” like Ella Lou, were not safe. Beyond that, the facts apparently were not important.  What became important was that our hearts were being tapped to help others and we children felt very important to be the gophers for adults who were doing the work of boxing and loading the food.  They included us, called it our project, and gave us the glory of recognition.

          That same year, my beloved third grade teacher, Miss Walker, who became Mrs. Lerch, a most important fact to us third graders, asked us to write a paper on “What I want to be when I grow up.”   There was no confusion in my mind.  It was an absolute fact that I wanted to become a missionary English teacher.  I knew I would help poor people.  I knew I would teach people the joy of writing – at least to their pen pals.

The rewards of writing were increased when I learned of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale at the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City – which, to a third-grader seemed as far as Paarl, Cape Province, South Africa – except that people in New York City lived in high-rise apartments – some on Wall Street – some in the Bronx; while the people in Paarl, I thought lived in thatched hutches.  If you sent ten cents once a month, or a dollar a year, he would “personally” send you his booklets on the “Power of Positive Thinking” once a month.  For years I sent for those booklets.  They became my reason for living and trying.  I knew I could write to him because I knew how to write, and I knew I could earn the money because I knew how to earn money.  How?  By picking up potatoes.

I first started picking up potatoes when I was six.  At first it seemed fun.  All I had to do was drag a basket behind me, follow the rows of potatoes, pick up the potatoes, put them in the basket, and keep up the repetition, trying to pick up speed.  At first this was exciting and felt like the “Big Time.”  When you’re six and getting to work with the adult migrant workers, there’s a feeling of having made it.  We got paid at lunch and at the end of the day.  That first lunch was a thrill when I collected something like thirty cents.  But, that afternoon, when the sun was out, it was another story.  The only fun part of the afternoon was when this field mouse and I became friends.  He would tease me and run into my path; I would get sidetracked and try to catch him, always just missing him.  But, alas, I won and put him in my tee-shirt pocket.  After much flailing on his part, he bit me and escaped permanently.  I was so insulted that my friendly mouse that started out playing with me could end up biting me.

Bored, tired, and hot, I started feeling discouraged.  The day had started out with the lure of wealth – maybe even becoming a millionaire.  Thirty cents wasn’t going to do it.  Watching the others, I tried to see how they could work so fast and make so much money.  The bell of awareness went off.  All you had to do was hand in a card from a basket; it was the card that got you the dime – obviously, not the hard work.  Well, now, that was easy.  It certainly beat the arduous task of picking up the potatoes.  I began my first act of crime: going around picking cards off other worker’s baskets to hand in at the end of the day so I could become rich.  No one had explained that each worker was color-coded.  When my mix and match colors didn’t add up and other workers were minus cards, my foster father, who owned the farm, acted as judge and jury and turned part of me into the colors black and blue, and I was out of the fields!

On Christmas Eve, when I was in fifth grade, the sanctuary was filled with candles that glowed with holiday warmth and a huge Christmas tree with presents under it that we youngsters had been allowed to wrap.  They were for children who didn’t have as much as we did.  The wreaths and tree emitted that aroma of Ohio Balsam pine that said, “It’s Christmas.”  The organ was playing “Joy to the World,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and “Away In A Manager.”  That was the year that Rev. Reuman said, “Santa sent our church a very special Christmas present and she’s wrapped in blue velvet.”  I was so excited because I had just seen “Gone With The Wind,” and I knew she would have a dress just like Scarlet and Rhett Butler’s daughter, Bonnie Blue.  Bonnie’s daddy had bought it for her to match the “most beautiful blue eyes of any little girl in the world.”  Rev. Reuman asked this girl who had long blond hair cascading to her knees and wearing a beautiful pale blue velvet dress to come down front.  She looked just like Starlet’s daughter.  She was so shy that she kept her head bent downward and all of us had our breath taken away as we saw Nora Ullay from Germany, or maybe it was Russia, being introduced to our congregation. 

She was a refugee from a war-torn country and was going to be living with the Frances.  Rev. Reuman asked her to show how beautifully she curtseyed.  When she bowed so gracefully the whole congregation murmured in admiration and gave her a round of applause. Rev. Reuman talked in his sermon that night about how Jesus Christ, whose birthday we were celebrating, had also become a refugee.

During May of the following year, I felt such pride when Mrs. Reuman, the minister’s wife asked me to be her fill-in daughter for the mother-daughter banquet at our church.  I was old enough to understand that I was not accepted by my foster mother as a daughter, and Mrs. Reuman made me feel really “special.”  During her speech she even referred to me as “her special daughter for the evening.”  Those words have rung through my head, heart and soul during the discouraging times of feeling as though I didn’t count – but remembering that once I did count – at least to Mrs. Reuman.

The church gave me a sense of belonging, a zeal for learning, writing, giving, and caring.  It is churches like Rev. Reuman’s that instill these qualities while integrating, and making come alive, the academics of writing, reading, learning geography, allegiance to one’s country, empathy for others – in the context of always striving to be Christ-like.  Likewise, I believe that Habitat for Humanity does more for the poor people of this world than any other organization; and, though I’ve never become a missionary per se, I try to tithe to both the Faith Community Outreach Center for the homeless and Habitat for Humanity.  I do believe that my role as a teacher is synonymous to being a missionary.  Habitat does for homeowners what good teachers do for students – helps build a sense of responsibility, ownership, and pride in a finished product that the creator can keep. 

As Paulo Freire tells us in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” “The necrophilous person can relate to an object – a flower or a person – only if he possesses it; hence a threat to his possession is a threat to himself; if he loses possession he loses contact with the world…. He loves control, and in the act of controlling he kills life (Fromm 41).  Oppression – overwhelming control is nourished by love of death, not life.”  Freire continues, “Education as the exercise of domination stimulates the credulity of students, with the ideological intent (often not perceived by educators) of indoctrinating them to adapt to the world of oppression”  (64-65).  Further, as Lucy McCormick Calkins says in “The Art of Teaching Writing,” “Learning isn’t something we can do for (or to) our students.  Learning requires an act of initiative on their part.  We can only create conditions in which learning can happen.  Writing can help create those conditions by encouraging students to ask questions, to notice and wonder and connect and inquire” (484). 

And, finally, as David E. Wilson, author of  “Attempting Change” says: “the teaching of writing may be the most rewarding of all teaching assignments despite its demands on the teacher’s time.  Its greatest reward is in freeing the teacher to create a learning environment rather than obligating the teacher to present a prescribed set of skills to be mastered” (18).  David became a Writing Institute and English teacher missionary.  A missionary is a person who undertakes a mission, generally religious in nature, and, in my opinion, good teachers feel a sense of mission.  They know that students need to feel affirmed and valued.  Rev. and Mrs. Reuman did that for me as did many of my Sunday School teachers, and I try very hard to pass it on to my students.   Students need to feel supported and be given permission to be creative, be spontaneous, and have fun.  They need to know that research is exciting, that writing opens doors, and, ultimately, that writing provides equality – similar to the equality that Habitat For Humanity offers.  This writing institute has rekindled the flame in me to be a missionary English teacher.  Unfortunately, many students arrive at college feeling as though they are victims of war-torn classrooms, being gunned down by red editing and oppressed from the knowledge shoved down their throats.  They feel the same sense of directionless ness that homeless people feel because these students have lost all faith in themselves as writers and thinkers, just as homeless people have lost all faith in themselves as providers and workers.  As a teacher, it becomes my job to start repairing their spirits and build up their self-confidence to dare to do the writing and thinking that they know how to do.  There is no greater reward than when I have sincerely written “brilliant” on a student’s paper and have his eyes well up with tears as he meekly says that he’s never gotten higher than a “C” in any of his English classes and then watch him take off and live up to one little word.  Many students haven’t had a Rev. and Mrs. Reuman telling them how special they are, and their Sunday School teacher didn’t bring in newspapers, postcards, maps, pens, and pen pals to encourage them.  If we work at it, academic teachers, along with Sunday School teachers, can be the cornerstone to our student’s learning.  Churches can make a powerful contribution toward the academic success of our students.