Good teachers are specialists in opening small packages
Jonathan Kozol is Americas most passionate writer on the subject of public education and urban youth. In 1964, amidst the civil rights campaigns that swept the nation, he became a fourth grade teacher in the Boston Public Schools and soon moved into the South End, an impoverished section of the city. At that time, he was the sole white person on the street. He remained in the neighborhood for 18 years, moving only in the 1980s after gentrification made it impossible for the families of the children that he had known to live there.
Over the years he has visited public schools and afterschools that serve low-income children in a number of communities -- for a time in Cleveland, then in San Antonio and East St. Louis and Chicago, but, beginning around 1993, primarily in New York City in a South Bronx neighborhood known as Mott Haven. It remains the poorest section of what has long been the poorest congressional district in the nation. Experiences such as these were the basis for Kozols well-known works - Death at an Early Age, Rachel and Her Children, Savage Inequalities, Amazing Grace. The books document the towering disparities in educational experience that face urban minority youth in comparison to wealthier, typically suburban populations. They represent a challenge to the American conscience, and helped inspire a wave of lawsuits and reform movements in a number of states aimed at equalizing educational opportunity.
Kozol, 63 and Jewish, found in his encounters with children -- usually 7 to 9 years old, overwhelmingly Christian -- that their meditations on religion entangled his mind. Their probings into questions about faith and ethics have grown interwoven with his own. Their ideas change from year to year, Kozol says, as they learn more about the world, and he changed, too, by knowing them.
What follows is an excerpt from Kozols new book, Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope (Crown Publishers). It is based on conversations with the children of Mott Haven, most of which took place in an Episcopalian afterschool called St. Anns. The book is not specifically about educational equality. In the depth and tenderness with which he presents the religious imaginations of these beautiful children, however, Kozol implicitly makes a simple point: Should we not want for these children what we want for our own?
Children do not die as easily as some of us believed, Kozol writes. No matter what we do to cheat and injure them, they light their little lights and stand there at these awful walls that we have built and tell us that the beautiful illumination of their souls is not so readily eclipsed as we may think.
By JONATHAN KOZOL
Birds in the morning, Thomas Merton writes, ask God if it is time yet to begin the day. He speaks of the first chirps of the waking birds at dawn outside the windows of his hermitage. They begin to speak, he says, not with a fluent song but with an awakening question that is their state at dawn. They ask God if it is time for them to be. God, says Merton, answers, yes. Then, one by one, they wake up to be birds.
Tabitha Brown is 6 years old in the first grade at P.S. 30 in Mott Haven. Her teacher says that she is a dreamer. She sits there sometimes in her class in vague ambiguous delight as if her thoughts are in a sweeter land than ours.
She nearly dies of shyness when I come into her class and sit down at the table next to her. But after Ive been sitting with her for a while she gets up and brings a small container to the table and unclasps the top to show me that it holds two mealworms and a beetle, all of which have names. This ones Ashley. This ones Mary-Kate. And this one, she says, pointing to the beetle, is a boy and hes named Michael.
Her reading skills are just beginning to emerge, although it isnt clear how well she understands the words she reads. When I ask her questions she gives dreamy answers. I look at her and think of sleepy cats on windowsills complaining slightly if you try to interrupt their dreams. In a foolish mood one day I asked her if she had a tabby cat in her genetic line. She actually smiled when I said this and did not reject the notion out of hand. Maybe! she said, then seemed to find this funny and went off into a little gale of laughter that just rippled on the surface of her smile.
Sweetheart? her teacher says.
Tabitha looks up. The teacher bends over her chair and looks into her eyes, then opens her textbook to the proper page and centers it before her on the desk. Tabitha sits up erect and tries to concentrate.
The teacher is gentle with her. Its still morning in New York, and very early morning in this childs life. Good teachers dont approach a child of this age with overzealousness or with destructive conscientiousness. Theyre not drillmasters in the military or floor managers in a production system. They are specialists in opening small packages. They give the string a tug but do it carefully. They dont yet know whats in the box. They dont know if its breakable.
Sweetheart? the teacher says again.
Hello? says Tabitha.
Hello! the teacher says right back to her.
Eleven oclock. The children line up at the door. Tabithas the last in line. One of the other children puts her arm around her shoulder as they wait to leave the room. The teacher watches her, then looks at me and smiles, and shakes her head.
Where are they going now? I ask.
Recess! she says. Then lunch.
It may be nearly lunchtime in the world but, for this pleasant little girl, it seems as though its only a few minutes after dawn. Her mind is yawning still. Soon enough shell brush the cobwebs from her eyes and take a clear look at the world of vowel sounds and subtrahends and partial products, and some bigger things that lie ahead, like state exams, but not just now.
The children file with their teacher to the stairwell. She asks one of the boys to hold the door, and then she starts to lead them down the stairs. Tabitha looks around and waves goodbye to me.
I follow after them.
Jonathan? says Elio one afternoon at St. Anns Church.
Yes? I say.
Last night I was looking out the window of my bedroom
He says it in a prefatory way, but then he stops; and so I have to ask him what he saw.
I saw the moon!
I try to think of something I can say about the moon.
Guess what? he says again.
What? I ask.
I saw that he was happy!
How could you tell?
I could see he has a happy mouth, he says, as if he truly thinks about the moon the way you could think about a human being.
He asks me dozens of questions that begin in the same way: by asking me to guess something that hes about to say. Im sure he knows that grown-ups cannot read his mind and have no way to guess what hes about to say. Its more like a game, or even something like a storytellers setup, to create anticipation so that when he finally decides to tell me what hes first asked me to guess I will be properly impressed.
Guess what? he asks the next day when I come into the afterschool.
What? I say.
I saw a bumblebee last night.
Where did you see it?
In my house.
What did you do?
My uncle killed him with a shoe.
A moment after that, he asks me if I know the way to draw a picture of a shoe. I find a piece of paper and sit down and try to draw a shoe.
Is your dog still sick? he asks me while Im working on my picture of a shoe.
I tell him shes not really sick. She just has to rest her leg a few more days.
Yes? I say.
When shes all better, can you bring her here to visit?
Maybe, I say carefully, because hes asked me this before.
He looks dissatisfied by this.
How big is your dog?
Almost as big as you.
I take out my wallet and pull out a picture of my dog, a 4-year-old retriever, lying upside down in my backyard, her four paws in the air. He studies the picture, running his finger along her stomach and her tail.
Yes? I say.
Can you show me how to draw a picture of a dog?
While Im drawing a picture of a dog, he asks, Do you know how many ways there are to draw a picture of the sun?
No, I say. How many?
How do you know?
My teacher told me.
At my request, he draws two pictures of the sun: one of them a circle in the middle of the page with lines that radiate out in all directions, and one of them a curving line drawn in the corner of the page with four lines spreading out in four directions.
I ask him if theres any other way to draw the sun.
I dont think so, he replies. A moment later, hes forgotten this and asks if I can make a figure that looks like an animal from a pipe cleaner.
Most of the things that seem to hold his fascination dont remain the same for very long. Ideas pass in and out of his attention like the fireflies he chases in the garden of the church on summer nights. Tomorrow afternoon, when he comes racing through the doorway of the afterschool and throws his backpack on the floor and heads directly for the kitchen to report to Miss Katrice on what he did, or didnt do, that he was supposed to do in school, he probably will not be thinking about bumblebees or of the happiness or sadness of the moon.
Elios mother comes for him a little before 6 oclock and often stays a while to chat with Mother Martha or Katrice. Her husband is, she tells me, upstate -- which is shorthand among many people in Mott Haven for the prison system. Elio rides six hours with her sometimes on the bus to visit him on Saturdays or Sundays.
She told me earlier this year that Elio was diagnosed with a heart murmur. Hes spoken of this, too, but when I asked him what it means, he said he didnt know. Theres something wrong around my heart, he said, and rubbed his fingers in a circle on his chest but didnt look concerned. He has, as I have said, a round and friendly face, and, while he isnt fat, his arms and cheeks are chubby. Some of the mothers in the neighborhood refer to him as Pork Chop, which the Spanish-speaking women say in Spanish, where it has a softer sound -- Chuleta -- than in English.
I asked him once how frequently he prays.
He answered, Every time I eat.
Every time? I asked.
He looked careful, as if there might be a trap for him in this, and he began to make exceptions.
Not when I eat cookies
Not at school
Not when I eat potato chips
He does this frequently, first making an impressive statement and then nibbling around its edges until it has been diminished just enough so that its not exactly fibbing.
Every so often, when were by ourselves, he asks me questions about God that take me by surprise because he asks them in apparent confidence that I will know the answers. I know how to draw a picture of a dog and I know things about the moon and I can multiply and I can drive a car and buy a ticket on a plane and get from Boston to New York and back again and not get lost and I can sometimes help to make sure that he gets a toy he wants. So I suppose its natural for him to think that I would also know the answers to his questions on religion.
He asks these questions to Katrice as well.
Yesterday afternoon, she says, he asked me if I think that God is powerful. When she told him he should ask this to the priest, he went upstairs and questioned Mother Martha.
Mother Martha told him that the Lord works miracles if we believe in Him with all our hearts, she says. Later he came down into the kitchen and he said, If God makes miracles, how come he never helps me to pick up my toys?
So help me, Jonathan, she says, one hand against her breast, I had to laugh.
As simple as some of these questions seem, however, Elio, like many of the children here, has complicated thoughts about the relative degree of power that God exercises in his life. He also seems to see some mutuality in their relationship. He doesnt seem to doubt that God has power to affect his life, but he believes that he has power too, because his own behavior, as he seems to be convinced, can help determine whether God feels good or bad. God is pleased -- Hes happy! -- when a child does what he is supposed to do. But when a child misbehaves, as he expressed it to me once, God cries.
How do you know God cries? I asked.
I can hear God crying, he replied.
You can hear him?
Yes, he said. If I do something bad
What do you do?
I go to the priest.
Who is the priest?
Mother Martha, he replied.
What do you say?
Can you please give me bless?
What does she do?
She blesses me, he said.
How does she bless you?
He looked puzzled by this question and he answered first, I cant remember.
After a while, he said, I remember.
So I asked, What does she do?
She goes upstairs.
Why does she go upstairs?
To get the bowl, he said.
What bowl? I asked.
A shining bowl.
I asked him if he knows whats in the bowl.
Whole-fly water, he said carefully.
What does that mean?
Special water, he replied.
What makes it special?
I dont know.
What does she do with it?
She sprinkles it, he said.
Ive asked him to describe this ritual with whole-fly water several times. Each time he describes it somewhat differently.
I asked him once, How does she sprinkle it?
With a big spoon, he replied.
Later that day, he changed the story slightly. No, he said, With a big stick.
Another time, I asked him where the special water comes from and he said he didnt know, but then he guessed, From underneath the church?
A day later, I asked him the same question and he said he thought there was a special faucet somewhere in the church.
The actual origins of the special water -- where it comes from, how it gets into the church, and how it ends up in the pastors bowl -- are somewhat clouded in his understanding, as they are in mine as well. But his belief in blessings and his faith that there is something special in the whole-fly water seem not to be cloudy in the least.
If Mother Martha blessed me Id be talkin nice to people and I wouldnt fight no more, he told me once when hed been chastised by Katrice for fighting in the afterschool and was consigned again to temporary isolation on the milk box in the corner of the kitchen.
He brooded about the situation, leaning on one elbow in what seemed the deepest thought, perplexed, I guess, about the reason why he misbehaves.
Something is making me bad, he said at last. Make it go away.
His puzzlement and brooding seem to be assuaged by the idea of being sprinkled with the special water in the pastors silver bowl.
Ive asked other children if they know what makes the water holy. None of them has ever given me an answer to this question that was not light-hearted or outrightly funny. Ive never dared to ask this question to the priest. Ive more or less assumed the water must be given sacramental meaning through the recitation of a prayer; but whether this is done here at the church or somewhere else, and who exactly is allowed to do it, I dont know.
The big stick Elio alluded to, which Ive now seen as it was being used, is called an aspergillum and is maybe seven inches long. The pastor dips it into the silver bowl and lifts it high above the childrens heads, then shakes it many times in all directions. The ritual has less solemnity than I expected. The younger children, in particular on hot days in the summer, seem to find the sprinkling of water on their heads a mostly physical delight. They chatter like sparrows gathered near a spray of water from a fountain in a park. Elios tears -- his sorrow, anger, even his contrition -- seem to be forgotten. He glows with pleasure as the water trickles down his face. His eyes look radiant.
What does holy water mean to children?
Priests and ministers I ask give different answers, some of which are narrowly liturgical but most of which are more informal and impressionistic, sometimes even rather down-to-earth. Their answers often undermine my expectation that Im in the presence of the metaphysical.
I try to ask these kinds of questions carefully because I do not want to give offense to strict believers. Most of the ministers and priests I talk with, happily, dont seem to be offended easily. Most of them are more relaxed than I about these matters. Perhaps because they know Im Jewish, they are being purposely informal, so as not to make me feel excluded from a Christian mystery. They seem to understand, however, why I am fascinated by these questions, and I think they also understand the hesitation that I sometimes feel in asking for an explanation.
I once asked Elio if he could tell me what the holy water means to him. He simply said, Its fun! Maybe thats the whole of it; but I dont really think it is. I think my question seemed too personal and that his answer was intended to prevent me from pursuing it too far.
I asked Mother Martha once what it was like to wash the childrens feet on Holy Thursday before Easter, which is done at St. Anns, as in many Christian churches. Her answer was the same as Elios. Fun! she replied, no more than that, no reference to the feet of the apostles.
I asked her whether pastors are intended to feel humbled by the ritual of washing peoples feet, because she doesnt wash only the childrens feet, but those of grown-ups, strangers from the street, for instance, too.
No, she said. It doesnt have that meaning and its not like that at all.
What is the purpose of it, then? I asked.
It prepares our hearts for Easter, she said simply, and she said again, Besides its fun! and she would give me no more information.
I know that it annoys her when I ask too many of these questions, which I seem to do with a remarkable consistency, and sometimes thoughtlessly, Im sure, on days when shes preoccupied with worries of which I am unaware. She gets impatient with me and is forced to cut me off abruptly.
Its easy to forget how seldom she has time for speculations of the kind with which Im able to indulge myself. Katrice once told me that she hasnt had a holiday in seven years. Only when shes with the children does she seem to let herself relax. Even on those days when shes surrounded by the unexpected crises that come up repeatedly -- a teenager arrested, a family in the neighborhood evicted from their home, a parishioner in Lincoln Hospital about to enter surgery, a homeless man she first met in the subway many years ago who is about to die -- the playfulness of children such as Elio elicits playfulness in her as well. In this way I start to understand the meaning of a priest in Massachusetts who had told me he believes that children minister to grown-ups quite as much as grown-ups minister to children. Holy water blesses children who receive it. But the faces of the children also bless the one who gives it. So the healing that the blessing brings goes back and forth
Its easy to believe that when you see the look on Mother Marthas face as shes surrounded by the children. Of all the things I have to do here at the church, she told me once when she was carrying the silver bowl of holy water down the stairs into the afterschool, this is the part I love the most.
There was so much youthfulness then in her voice. The weariness and tension that are often in her eyes seem to have disappeared. The kids came running when they saw her on the stairs. Katrice was watching from the side as Mother Martha raised the silver staff. The voices of the children filled the room the moment she began to shake the water, almost wildly, in the air.
Mother Martha! Mother Martha!
Bless me, Mother!
Me too, Mother!
You forgot me, Mother!
Bless me, Mother!
Lucia says her grandmother was sick last night. She doesnt tell me what was wrong but says she fell down in the bathroom and her sister had to help her to get up and brought her orange juice; so I assume she may be diabetic.
When I ask her who lives with her, she says her mother, sister and grandmother. She says her father doesnt live with them and that her mothers father died of gunshots at the front door of her mothers house when he was 32 years old. When I ask her what she loves most in the world, she says, I love my heart.
She manages to get some reference to her heart, or to Gods heart, or just to hearts in general, into a lot of conversations.
How powerful is God? I ask.
Hes powerful to make hearts, she replies.
I asked her once to list the things she thought most beautiful in life. She jumped right into this by saying, Hearts! When she drew pictures of herself, her pets or people that she knew, she generally drew them with unusually big hearts.
God needs to make hearts, she told me firmly one day when I questioned her about this. It had an almost brazenly didactic sound.
Stephanie, who is older than Lucia, also speaks of Gods heart, and her own heart. When she described her mother the first time we talked, she said, She works very hard. She does the best she can. She tries to pay the rent. Shes a single mother. She gave us her heart.
I asked her once what she believed would make the world a better place.
What would make the world better is Gods heart, she answered. I know Gods heart is already in the world. But I would like it if He would push the heart more into it. Not halfway. Push it more!
Religious writers often speak of faith with the same muscularity of language. Struggling for selflessness is seen as a demanding occupation. God is asked to help believers in their effort to reject the pettiness of selfish feelings. Sometimes ministers and priests use images of grappling or wrestling with ones emotions or ones fear of losing faith, and they enlist God as an ally in a form of inner combat that sounds like a physical encounter.
Stephanies image is a little less internalized. Gods heart sounds like a gigantic pump that needs to be positioned slightly better in the world in order to assure a better circulation of good feelings.
Many children speak of their relationship to God in relatively passive, acquiescent ways. Stephanie sounds more demanding. Push it more! she says. It sounds like what a high school coach might say in exhortation of an athlete: not an argument with God, but certainly a friendly effort to encourage Him to do a better job.
Stephanie is a thoughtful girl with dark eyes and dark hair. She dresses soberly, in black or brown. Some afternoons, there are dark circles underneath her eyes. Her voice is utterly sincere. Her life is hard. Her mothers life is hard. Her father, like Lucias father, is not present in her home. To push the heart beyond the pettiness of hate or envy or resentment is, in some ways, a diurnal job for both of them, as for too many children who grow up here in these buildings where some of the rooftops can afford a clear view of the prison colony to which so many of their older brothers and their fathers have already been consigned. Asking God to help a little more with this does not sound disrespectful.
Stephanies almost 11 now. Lucias only 8. When Lucia speaks about Gods heart and draws her many cheerful pictures in which hearts are prominent, it isnt always clear to what degree her sentiments are still inhabiting the world of grade-school valentines. She wanders back and forth between the saccharine and the sincerely moving. But Stephanie is tenacious in rejecting oversweetness. She lives with far too many serious concerns to get relief out of banality.
I asked her once, What makes you cry?
I cry when I miss my father, she replied, or if my mother would pass away.
Her brother, Matthew, says that when he grows up he would like to serve in the Marines or the Army. Stephanie is two years younger than her brother but reacts to this as if she were his mother. I want you to stay right here, she says. I dont want you to die.
She has reason to be scared that people dear to her may die. Some of my family members passed away, she says. My grandmothers nephew, his mother, and his sister
Matthew explains that first the daughter and the mother died of AIDS and then the son -- his cousin -- died from being shot here on the street.
When people pray, says Stephanie, they dont only talk to God. They also talk to whoever is dead in their family.
I ask if thats the meaning that it has for her to pray.
Yes, she says. I talk to people in my family and the angels.
I once asked her what she thought the angels looked like.
To me, she said, they have the faces of the people that I love.
Stephanie and Matthew are two of the nicest and most honorable children I have ever known. Their religious convictions dont seem superficial. The imagery they use may be suggested by the words they hear from grown-ups or the liturgies they hear in church; but they transmute these images and make them into something of their own. Gods presence in the world is a familiar, somewhat dulling notion, often heard in church. Gods heart at work pumping love into the world sounds more ambitious and, to me at least, its more consoling.
I wish I could believe in God the way children do; but there are many days when other kinds of pumps -- the pump of ideology, the pump of avarice, the pump of injured dignity -- appear to have a more relentless power than the heart of God. I guess the truth is that the vividness of Stephanies beliefs -- especially her nice idea of coaching God to do a better job -- seems beautiful to me and yet I cant help saying to myself, Its just a metaphor.
The effect her language has on me is not, I am afraid, authentically religious in the way most priests or ministers would use that word; it has to do with a desire to believe, more than belief itself. And yet the images the children use have a compelling hold that is much more, for me, than simply grown-up fascination with the various particulars of juvenile belief. Their words entangle my imagination. They encircle me somehow. When I reply to them I find Im asking questions that might almost presuppose that I believe the things we talk about are real.
Teachers and clinicians comment on this now and then. They ask me if the questions I ask children in this kind of interchange are calculated in some way that will elicit their beliefs by seeming to participate in their imaginary world -- or, as one physician put it, by appearing to walk right into their fantasies.
I would be glad if I deserved some credit for such careful planning, but I dont think this is true. It would be closer to the truth to say that when a boy like Elio or a girl like Stephanie is in a thoughtful mood and chooses to reveal a hidden place within the secret world of their imagination or belief, it feels to me as if Ive just been handed a gold-plated invitation to come in and visit someplace where Ive never been before. Once I look into that room, I want to enter.
I cannot receive the bread and wine when it is offered at the altar railing of St. Anns. The state of mind in which it is received remains unknown to me and holds an element of mystery for my imagination. But there are many other mysteries to be discovered in the classrooms and the garden of an old stone church in the South Bronx, and one of the most perfect ones is when a child, for no reason you can think of, feels the impulse to unlock a secret from her soul. Sometimes it happens when were sitting at a table in the afterschool, sometimes when were walking in the garden of the church, sometimes in a whispered message through the heated tunnel of the childs hands placed right beside my ear.
It doesnt happen often when were in a crowded room with other kids around. It almost never happens when a number of adults are present, or when I have just arrived here from a crowded place -- a lecture hall, for instance, were I may have spoken in Manhattan, or a workshop with the teachers in a public school -- and bring the sense of busy occupation with me to St. Anns. The children sense the difference right away. They recognize the crispness of a public mood that comes out of a different world and may not seem to welcome private revelations.
This is true as well in visiting the homes of people in the neighborhood. Ive come here with a friend, or several friends, perhaps at night after weve stopped somewhere for dinner, and it frequently has altered almost everything. Its not so much that people who have known me for a time talk differently when there are other people with us in the room; its more the case that I am different in some way of which Im not aware but which is evident to someone who already knows me well. Its as if, without needing to say it, weve agreed that this will be a different, less important, kind of evening and that we will save the things that matter for the next time I am here when there will be only the two of us.
A nun I know whos worked for years with families in poor neighborhoods speaks of a certain mood of unexamined receptivity, which does not mean, she says, merely the willingness to listen carefully or patiently. It has to do with quieting your state of mind as you prepare to listen. It means not pressing on too fast to get to something that you think you need to get to as the purpose or objective of the conversation, which is what a journalist must usually do. There is a difference between getting and receiving.
The distinction comes to mind when Ive been visiting in public schools. Im not usually aware of being in a public state of mind, or a more acquisitive or less receptive state of mind, when Im at school, but possibly I am. I do know that the way the St. Anns children talk with me in class is generally very different from the way they speak with me in quiet situations.
When I visit in their class, the children often seem tremendously excited -- its a big surprise for children to see someone they already know from outside school right there beside their teacher in the classroom. Theyre always friendly and they answer me politely; but their answers, at least during class discussions, lack the pungent authenticity theyd have if we were in a far less public situation. They seem more like generic answers, like set pieces, or performances, that are the products of my unintended choreography.
Even children who, in other situations, have expressed the most engagingly eccentric points of view can start to churn out rather dull pronouncements and high-minded observations about love and goodness, faith in God and inter-racial understanding when I question them in front of the full class at school: unoriginal but honorable sentiments expressed in styles that are not uniquely theirs, as if they feel somehow that this is what I am soliciting.
It may seem obvious that school is not the same as church and that a child in a group is likely to sound different from the way she does when shes alone or only with close friends; but I think the role and state of mind of the adult are factors, too. The children are in a different state of mind when theyre at school; but I am different also and, even if I do not realize this, the children seem to sense it every time.
Theres something about silence and not being in a hurry and not being in an overly convivial or overly determinative state of mind, or one thats loaded with too much intentionality, and something also about being unaccompanied, that seems to give a message about receptivity. I also think that children need some reason to believe that what they say will not be heard too clinically, or journalistically, or put to use too rapidly, and that the gift they give us will be taken into hands that will not seize too fast upon their confidence, or grasp too firmly, or attempt to push an idea to completion when it needs to be left open, incomplete, and tentative a while.
The greatest fear I have in talking with a boy or girl as sensitive as Elio or Stephanie is of an unintended intellectual invasiveness, of entering not just the room to which I was invited, but the next room too, and feeling suddenly that I have stepped into a place where I do not belong and maybe dont deserve to be. I think of the image of a place or room because so many of the dreams and longings and religious thoughts the children share with me have so much structural completeness! They seem like houses, dwelling-places, or small rooms within a complicated building. The space within them always feels mysterious.
I think of a 10-year-old I met in 1993 who knew my beagle had just died and reassured me that Id have the right to visit her on weekends when (or if!) I went to heaven and who also told me that you dont need money to buy what you need after you die, because in heaven you can pay for things you need with smiles.
Faith, says the author of the letter to Hebrews, is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. A friend of mine in the newspaper world who views religion skeptically, and seems embarrassed when I speak of the beliefs of children in a way that sounds too credulous to him, does what he can to credit me with a degree of rationality. Its nice the way you play along with them, he says -- Im sure, not meaning to be condescending. Its probably good for kids like them that they believe these things because there may be little else they can believe in.
It doesnt seem that way to me at all. When children speak of things not seen but which they are convinced they see, I want to see them too. Theologians use a Latinate, and rather fancy, term, prevenient grace, to speak of unfamiliar moments such as these. A flash of Easter is the simpler and less imposing way that one religious writer speaks about these moments. I think of them like tiny objects of great value that youd never find in any store or any library or any university.
I would not want to suggest by this in any way at all, even the most indirect, that all these little kids, as they spin out their wishes, hopes, and prayers, are actually minor theologians in disguise. The tendency to seize upon a childs tender words and lift them to the level of prophetic truth is a familiar risk for those of us who like to be with children and enjoy their conversation. Some children do create their own diminutive theologies; but they are children and not child theologians, and it adds no halo to the head of a real child to suggest there is something magisterial in all of this. I simply think the gifts of faith and fantasy they bring to us are often beautiful and wise in their simplicity. To me, these are the bread and wine; and I am always thankful to receive them.
For weeks, Ive promised Pineapple Id visit her at home. Finally, one Saturday in May when I am in the neighborhood, I have a chance to keep my promise.
Her hospitable sweetness is surprisingly mature. Her mother is out; shes at a neighbors birthday party with her sisters. Her aunt is resting in one of the other rooms. She leads me to a sofa in the living room and pats the cushion where she seems to think Ill be most comfortable.
Jonathan, she says when I seem hesitant to sit, please make yourself at home.
As soon as I sit down, she asks if I would like something to drink. When I say yes, she goes first to a liquor cabinet and, opening the door to show me an unopened bottle of Courvoisier and several miniatures of Scotch, she asks what I would like. When I say Id rather have something that is not alcoholic, she goes to the kitchen, where she chooses a tall glass that has a Big Bird decal on the side, fills the glass with greenish-yellow Kool-Aid, finds a napkin and a coaster, and then brings it out and sets it down on the table next to me.
Are you going to sit down with me? I ask.
She sits cross-legged on the floor in front of me. Her arms folded, her stomach sticking out, her multitudinous white barrettes arranged with artistry throughout her braided hair, she nods at me as I lift the glass, as if shes absolutely satisfied with this arrangement; but she recognizes that I feel a little shy and so she tells me for a second time, Please make yourself at home.
I havent had Kool-Aid in 50 years. It tastes delicious. I drink it, almost all, in one long gulp. Shes 8 years old. We talk of this and that. She later brings me to one of the other rooms so I can see her bedroom, where there are two bunk beds in which she and her two sisters sleep. The mattresses are covered with thick quilts. On one of the beds, which she tells me is hers, a family of animals is tucked beneath the quilt and linen where its folded over.
Before I leave she asks if I would like another glass of Kool-Aid.
Yes, I say.
She brings me into the kitchen this time, where there are more animals with friendly faces stuck by magnets to the white refrigerator door. When I leave, she comes out to the landing in the hallway and looks down as I look up at every landing, waving to me with one of her hands.
I had asthma earlier this afternoon and had been worried about climbing the five flights to Pineapples apartment. But once I arrived, I forgot that I was feeling bad, and by the time I leave, the pressure in my chest is gone completely. Heading down the stairs to the front door, I want to cheer out loud and tell the good news to the people on the sidewalk: Guess what? Im all better! I can breathe!
A man sitting beside me in a Pentecostal service at a storefront on Brook Avenue once said to me, Youre not from the neighborhood. When I said no, he shook my hand and said I should feel welcome. If you were lookin to get you some church, you came to the right place.
That phrase -- get you some church -- stayed in my mind, because it sounded like good food you were being offered and could count on if you really wanted to be filled. I thought of those words again as I was leaving Pineapples apartment. Do not be conformed to this world, said Paul in his epistle to the little band of Christians who had taken domicile in Rome, but be transformed. Much of the way I see the world has been transformed by knowing children like Pineapple.
National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2000