It was a beautiful, sunny day as I walked my students back up from morning Mass. This was my first year of teaching, and the experience had been what I like to call “Baptism by Fire”. My class of twenty-eight was mostly boys, and these boys were typical third grade boys: energetic, mischievous, and noisy. Each day I had to brace myself for a new surprise and a new challenge.
Today, however, was different… I just felt it. The boys had behaved so well in church, and now I gave myself a mental pat on the back. My normally raucous group was marching in perfect formation behind me up the hill that led to the school’s front entrance. I hoped the principal, who was watching from inside the glass doorway, noticed this tremendous achievement. This trip from morning Mass was the straightest and quietest formation anyone had seen up to this point from my class the whole school year.
“Finally, all of my verbal reminders, warning glares, and practice drills have paid off,” I complimented myself for the umpteenth time. Before opening the front door of the school building to make our grand entrance, I couldn’t resist the urge and gave one final backwards glance of satisfaction. My mouth dropped several inches. “No wonder ‘Mrs. Principal’ is watching,” I muttered under my breath, my face several shades redder than usual. The perfect line no longer existed.
Staring at Something
In fact, no line existed. In my eagerness to get the students up to school so perfectly, I had somehow missed the fact that my students were no longer even behind me.
Instead, they were all in a large cluster off to the side, huddled over something on the sidewalk, and their astonishing silence was now a thing of the past. I quickly rushed over to them, inwardly threatening recess line-marching practice sessions. I got close, peered over their heads… and stopped short, puzzled.
The students had broken ranks to let a caterpillar walk across the path… a great, big, fuzzy caterpillar that was inching along the sidewalk. I hastily retracted my mental threats and quietly stepped back, gazing upon the scene. I no longer saw a jumbled line, heard the chatter, or even noticed the caterpillar that I had so carelessly missed before. What I now noticed were the faces of my students, transformed with delight as they watched the caterpillar’s movements. I saw something beautiful that day… the gift of wonder.
My students taught me a life-altering lesson that day that refashioned my approach as a teacher. Children get beauty in a way adults often overlook. While I still value the importance of order, I recognized something even more important: the need to appreciate wonder.
1. Singing and Chant
And so it began. I had seen the joy on my children’s faces that day and soon after began my quest to discover everything to inspire that same joy. My students learned hymns to sing together in church. The children loved it. I would stumble upon them at recess time, practicing their hymns, singing in a group.
Gregorian chant became background music for my students while they worked on their handwriting skills or some other independent assignment. Lo and behold! The silent work ethic I had exhausted myself trying to establish earlier in the year miraculously descended upon the classroom.
2. Listening in Silence
During a thunderstorm, we would stop class for several minutes, turn off the classroom lights, open the windows, and listen to the rain. I didn’t have to tell the students to be quiet. They knew.
3. Taking Nature Walks
We took nature walks and picked flowers. We examined the wings of beautiful butterflies and discovered that those fuzzy caterpillars enjoyed munching on leaves (although I had to draw the line and a few boundaries with the unearthing of a caterpillar camp inside one of my young boys’ desks).
That first year truly became one of wonder, and I fell in love with teaching.
4. Restoring Wonder
Our Lord admonishes in the Scriptures: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) The heart of a child is full of innocence, allowing him to truly recognize the beauty of the world around him.
The child’s natural response is one of wonder, as he contemplates the intricacies of the natural world, makes more discoveries, and develops his imagination. Allowing a child this experience, however, takes silence, time and patience.
5. Stop the Distractions
Ironically, we adults, who complain that our children grow too quickly, often hurry the child along, pushing him into an adult’s world too fast. We threaten the child’s experience of beauty, because we have often lost the ability to recognize it. Life becomes filled with so many distractions: gadgets, engagements, and activities. We often drag our children along our fast tracked adventure. We threaten to fill our children’s lives with the same noise, distractions, and impatience from which we constantly seek an escape.
We contribute to a dismal cycle of commotion which allows beauty no real chance of discovery and wonder little time to take root.
As adults, and especially as educators, we face a challenge to examine our own lives—for our own sake, and more so for the children whose formation has been entrusted to us. Teaching is a sacred task. As teachers, our greatest desire is to instill in our students’ hearts a love for God, a passion for learning and a zest for life.
According to an old adage, “You cannot give what you do not have.” We love to develop new and engaging lessons and activities for our students, but how often do we evaluate the state of our own interior and reprogram our own minds and hearts? What we have there will ultimately impact our students most deeply. We must detach ourselves long enough from the multiple distractions of the day even to recognize the sweet and simple joys that will lighten our everyday anxieties if we let them in.
Begin by taking a walk outdoors, free of all distractions. Open your eyes to the world and people in your own neighborhood. Smile as you pass by others. Joy spreads rapidly and so easily when given an opportunity. Embrace the challenge of transforming your heart through joy and beauty. This is but the beginning, the first seeds of wonder.
With patient cultivation, we can restore in our own hearts and pass on to our students a priceless gift, that of joy-filled wonder. In so doing, we direct ourselves and lead our children closer to the fulfillment of the hope of one day hearing Our Lord’s voice say, “Let that little one come unto me and enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
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