Ms. Carroll’s first graders were coloring pictures of Harriet Tubman and Robert E. Lee. I was amazed at the details they included-Tubman’s red bandana and Lee on horseback carrying the confederate flag. Wandering around the clusters of desks, I noticed Daniel’s raised hand, summoning me to the other side of the room. He looked ready to burst.
Stumbling over metal chair legs and spilled crayons, I reached Daniel and the other six students in his cluster fully expecting to see blood, a maimed hand or a staple lodged in a fingernail. Instead, Daniel looked up at me and said, “Ms. E, did Jesus do anything wrong?”
Now this was a good one. I looked around to see the six children in Daniel’s cluster and the six children from the next were all watching me, waiting for my answer.
“Why do you ask?” I said, buying time.
“Because Michelangelo said he did and I know he’s wrong,” Daniel replied.
I looked down at Michelangelo, the seven-year-old Italian boy, named after one of the most famous Christian artists of all time and wondered why he had to start this discussion- today.
What could I say? Yes? No? It depends who you ask? Why don’t we just stick to the Civil War and forget about it?
“No,” I said. “Most people think he did not.” I stood up, gave him a quick smile—one that said please don’t ask me any more questions today, and told him to go back to work.
I’m still bothered by my answer, and yet I’m still not sure what I should have said. I wish I would have expanded on “Most people think he did not.” Really? Who doesn’t? And why? Did the kids need to learn that? Right then?
I was having enough trouble just getting them through the Civil War. Maybe I should have explained that different religions around the world believe different things, but Christians believe he did not. Maybe I should have put it back to him, “Well Daniel, what do you think?” Or asked Michelangelo why he thought that—or why he said it.
In all my graduate classes, no one taught us how much we could talk about religion in school. No one instructed us how to navigate the difficult questions that were sure to cause problems if answered incorrectly. Teachers, like parents, are expected to know how to respond to the tough questions, but the truth is—I have no idea. It is impossible to prepare for every possible controversial topic. It is impossible to anticipate which provocative question will inevitably be asked-just as the principal walks in the room. At least Daniel did it quietly.
I’m pretty certain had I allowed the conversation to continue, we would have had a lively and insightful discussion. I think these kids could have handled it, and maybe I shouldn’t have allowed my fear of saying the wrong thing to cause me to shut it down so quickly. I wonder how much learning is better if it is spontaneous, rather than planned. I wonder what Daniel and Michelangelo learned from this interaction. I wonder what their parents would have wanted me to say.
I don’t think anyone went home that day scarred or damaged from my lack of Christian finesse, but I know next time I will do it differently. I will ask more questions and listen to more answers. I will explain more and fear less. And I will pray for divine intervention.