Laughing at Demons: Why You Should Read The Screwtape Letters

On second page of The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis provides a framework for reading his work—

“The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”—Luther

“The devill . . the prowde spirite . . cannot endure to be mocked.”—Thomas More

C.S. Lewis takes a swipe, however, in his classic satire about an uncle demon instructing his young nephew in the ways of the diabolical. Each chapter is structured as a letter in the Screwtape’s own hand. As a senior demon, he has much advice for the younger novitiate.

Reading this novel is like chewing the best kind of cake. The texture and flavors are unexpected, satisfying, and, even better, you find out AFTER you’ve eaten it that it’s one of those really healthy kind of cakes that’s barely a cake at all, but full of fiber and those natural sugars that someone named Dawn told you about.

So you eat another slice.

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Announcement: if you’re opposed to learning, skip this book. I’m learning a lot about my own vices, the enemy’s role in using them, and suddenly I find myself highly on the defensive. Therefore, it’s much too practical for those opposed-to-learning types. Avoid at all costs.

I offer you a brief sample, Letter 10, which hit me, well, like a load of cinder blocks. That is, I identified with it grand ways, and I felt as if I were ogling myself with an awkwardly large magnifying glass. (Do not materialize that image of me in your mind.) (Before or after the cinder blocks, you say.)

In this letter, we are warned of the problems of “pretending;” in this case, the “patient” starts pretending in order to be accepted into a group of intellectual elites. If you, or anyone you know, is a Christian interacting with an intellectual community, you would do well to read this letter. Or, if you are not a part of an intellectual community, but you’ve ever felt tension between Who You Are and Who They Are, and you desperately wish to close that gap, and you find yourself no longer being true to yourself (or your Lord), you, too, ought also to read this letter.

Afterward, I’ve posted a few thoughts, and I welcome your questions.

MY DEAR WORMWOOD,

I was delighted to hear from Triptweeze that your patient has made some very desirable new acquaintances and that you seem to have used this event in a really promising manner. I gather that the middle-aged married couple who called at his office are just the sort of people we want him to know—rich, smart, superficially intellectual, and brightly sceptical about everything in the world. I gather they are even vaguely pacifist, not on moral grounds but from an ingrained habit of belittling anything that concerns the great mass of their fellow men and from a dash of purely fashionable and literary communism. This is excellent. And you seem to have made good use of all his social, sexual, and intellectual vanity. Tell me more. Did he commit himself deeply? I don’t mean in words. There is a subtle play of looks and tones and laughs by which a Mortal can imply that he is of the same party is those to whom he is speaking. That is the kind of betrayal you should specially encourage, because the man does not fully realise it himself; and by the time he does you will have made withdrawal difficult.

No doubt he must very soon realise that his own faith is in direct opposition to the assumptions on which all the conversation of his new friends is based. I don’t think that matters much provided that you can persuade him to postpone any open acknowledgment of the fact, and this, with the aid of shame, pride, modesty and vanity, will be easy to do. As long as the postponement lasts he will be in a false position. He will be silent when he ought to speak and laugh when he ought to be silent. He will assume, at first only by his manner, but presently by his words, all sorts of cynical and sceptical attitudes which are not really his. But if you play him well, they may become his. All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be. This is elementary. The real question is how to prepare for the Enemy’s counter attack.

The first thing is to delay as long as possible the moment at which he realises this new pleasure as a temptation. Since the Enemy’s servants have been preaching about “the World” as one of the great standard temptations for two thousand years, this might seem difficult to do. But fortunately they have said very little about it for the last few decades. In modern Christian writings, though I see much (indeed more than I like) about Mammon, I see few of the old warnings about Worldly Vanities, the Choice of Friends, and the Value of Time. All that, your patient would probably classify as “Puritanism”—and may I remark in passing that the value we have given to that word is one of the really solid triumphs of the last hundred years? By it we rescue annually thousands of humans from temperance, chastity, and sobriety of life.

Sooner or later, however, the real nature of his new friends must become clear to him, and then your tactics must depend on the patient’s intelligence. If he is a big enough fool you can get him to realise the character of the friends only while they are absent; their presence can be made to sweep away all criticism. If this succeeds, he can be induced to live, as I have known many humans live, for quite long periods, two parallel lives; he will not only appear to be, but actually be, a different man in each of the circles he frequents. Failing this, there is a subtler and more entertaining method. He can be made to take a positive pleasure in the perception that the two sides of his life are inconsistent. This is done by exploiting his vanity. He can be taught to enjoy kneeling beside the grocer on Sunday just because he remembers that the grocer could not possibly understand the urbane and mocking world which he inhabited on Saturday evening; and contrariwise, to enjoy the bawdy and blasphemy over the coffee with these admirable friends all the more because he is aware of a “deeper”, “spiritual” world within him which they cannot understand. You see the idea—the worldly friends touch him on one side and the grocer on the other, and he is the complete, balanced, complex man who sees round them all. Thus, while being permanently treacherous to at least two sets of people, he will feel, instead of shame, a continual undercurrent of self-satisfaction. Finally, if all else fails, you can persuade him, in defiance of conscience, to continue the new acquaintance on the ground that he is, in some unspecified way, doing these people “good” by the mere fact of drinking their cocktails and laughing at their jokes, and that to cease to do so would be “priggish”, “intolerant”, and (of course) “Puritanical”.

Meanwhile you will of course take the obvious precaution of seeing that this new development induces him to spend more than he can afford and to neglect his work and his mother. Her jealousy, and alarm, and his increasing evasiveness or rudeness, will be invaluable for the aggravation of the domestic tension,

Your affectionate uncle
SCREWTAPE

My Meager Thoughts

1. Anyone who has grown up in an insular conservative community and suddenly finds themselves “outside” knows what is that “subtle play of looks and tones and laughs by which a Mortal can imply that he is of the same party is those to whom he is speaking.” We are try-hards.

2. “All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be.” This is chilling.

3. The pleasure of belonging can be a temptation—wow, Lewis, you’re really on fire.

4. Embracing the paradox of the two worlds… I’ve done this. You’ve done this. You’re really smart, so contemporary, and you’re very glad that you can so easily dance between both worlds. Strange, isn’t it, that C. S. Lewis just condemns it? Pretending is not an option. He really does poke fun at your little urbane dreamworld.

But C. S. Lewis is talking about a young Christian, maybe or maybe not on a university campus, who is dazzled by the intellectual elites. He is probably not talking about all the identity issues of a leftover female Anabaptist who sometimes feels like a polar bear at a rice convention. (But maybe he is.)

Ah well. Perhaps we all are little devils. Because as C. S. Lewis writes, we soon find that he is sniggering at us. In a helpful uncle-y way.

And as annoying as it is, I’m glad.

READ THIS BOOK

 

 

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A Good Mennonite Poem

One new little blog feature that I’m happy to roll out this year is a Good Reads widget that gives you a peek at what I’m currently reading.

(Yes, I said books, plural. I’m famous for reading several at a time. This is actually good practice according to Douglas Wilson, author of the cunning little writing book Wordsmithy. In his chapter, “Read until Your Brain Creaks,” he encourages writers to read widely, and he announces that it’s perfectly acceptable to have to have, say, twenty books going at a time.

I don’t quite have that many, but I DO try to follow his advice by reading a lot, dabbling in different genres, and bouncing between several different covers.)

Currently, I’m still digesting The Brothers Karamasov… then there’s Vera Brittain’s autobiography, Testament of Youth (a movie by the same name was released in 2014) about a young British scholar, who, after fiiiiinally convincing her Papa to let her go to college (and Oxford at that!), she abandons her studies to enlist as a nurse in the armed forces during World War I, after which, she becomes a staunch pacifist, due to her experiences on the front and the war-time death of her brother, her lover, and another friend.

A reader once pointed me to the biography of Lilias Trotter (after having blogged about the writings of John Ruskin), and let me tell you, Lilias Trotter’s testimony is phenomel (though much of the literature around her life is a bit lacking). A documentary of her life was made in 2015 (a little disappointing cinematically, but I made my parents watch it on Christmas with me, and we enjoyed her testimony, despite some of the movie’s slow pacing). Basically, John Ruskin, leading art critic of the Victorian era finds 20-year-old Lilias to be England’s next rising artist. Convinced of her artistic genius, he offers to tutor her, and they enjoy the kind of friendship that only the arts provides, until Lilias announces that she cannot continue to paint, but that she has another love–that of Jesus Christ, and as a young women, heads off to Algeria as a missionary. Despite her poor health, her inability to speak Arabic, and the fact that all missionary societies refuse to support her, she and a few friends leave on their own, determined to make North Africa home. Her slow, steady work and her approach to missions was uncommon for the time as she tried to reach the Arab world through the written word and the arts. Go google Lilias Trotter! Or better yet, read her biography A Passion for the Impossible!

I’m also reading The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost Their Sense of Evil by Andrew Delbanco. (That’s pretty self-explanatory.)

And finally, I continue to page through one of my new favorite books, an anthology of poems (published by the University of Iowa Press and edited by Ann Hostetler, professor of English at Goshen College) called A Capella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry.

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I picked up my copy at my favorite used book store in Goshen, Indiana for $9, only to go to the Goshen Library sale a few weeks later and find a copy for $1. (Lucky me. I gifted one to my roommate). And. We have been devouring Mennonite poems for days!

Who even knew that writing like this existed?!

Good Mennonite poems!

Good poems. The kind I read at university and dearly loved but never stumbled across ones that were about me.

I read the poetry of white British mothers, African American artists, Native American activists, political poetry from Guam, plays from Hawaii, Lakota cries, Cherokee voices, Argentine verse… but where was the story of me?

In Mennonite Voices, these poems are our story.

Probably the strangest poem in the anthology is this poem about cookies. It is my favorite poem of the anthology. If you read it here, and you don’t understand it, that’s fine. It’s probably not meant to be totally understood at the first reading.

The Cookie Poem
by Jeff Gundy

“Here are my sad cookies”

The sad cookies. The once and future cookies.
The broken sweet cookies. The cookies
of heartbreaking beauty. The stony cookies
of Palestine. The gummy and delicious
olive and honey cookie. The pasty
damp cookie trapped in the child’s hand.

Sad cookies, weird cookies, slippery
and dangerous cookies. Brilliant helpless
soiled and torn cookies, feverish and sweaty
cookies. Sullen cookies, sassy cookies,
the cookies of tantrum and the cookie of joy
and the sweet dark cookie of peace.

The faithful cookie of Rotterdam. The wild-eyed
cookie of Muenster. The salty Atlantic cookie.
Cookies in black coats, in coveralls,
in business suits, cookies in bonnets
and coverings and heels, cookies scratching
their heads and their bellies, cookies utterly
and shamelessly naked before the beloved.

Cookies of the Amish division, cookies
of the Wahlerhof, cookies of Zurich and
Stassburg and Volhynia and Chortitza,
Nairobi Djakarta Winnipeg Goshen.
Cookies who hand their children off
to strangers, who admonish their sons
to remember the Lord’s Prayer, cookies
who say all right, baptize my children
and then sneak back to the hidden church anyway.
Cookies who cave in utterly. Cookies
who die with their boots on. Cookies
with fists, and with contusions.
The black hearted cookie. The cookie with issues.
Hard cookies, hot cookies, compassionate
conservative cookies, cookies we loathe
and love, cookies lost, fallen, stolen,
crushed, abandoned, shunned. Weary
and heroic cookies, scathingly noted cookies,
flawed cookies who did their best.
Single cookies, queer cookies, cookies of color,
homeless cookie families sleeping the car,
obsolete cookies broken down on the information
highway. Sad cookies, silent cookies,
loud cookies, loved cookies, your cookies,
my cookies our cookies, all cookies
God’s cookies, strange sweet hapless cookies
marked each one by the Imago Dei,
oh the Father the Son the Mother The Daughter
and the Holy Ghost all love cookies,
love all cookies, God’s mouth is full
of cookies, God chews and swallows and flings
hands wide in joy, the crumbs fly
everywhere, oh God loves us all.

The Entire Presidential Race As Told by Characters in Macbeth

Let’s have a little fun, shall we? What if we cast Trump and Clinton as our favorite Shakespearean power-hungry couple, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?

hillary

Trump, to the sixteen candidates he beats for Republican nominee:
“Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.” (Act V, Scene V)

Ben Carson, to Trump, after dropping out:
“Let’s briefly put on manly readiness
And meet i’the’ hall together. (Act II, Scene III)

Trump, when asked about proposed policy:
“Strange things I have in head, that will to hand
Which must be acted ere they may be scanned.” (Act III, Scene IV)

Trump, to no one in particular:
“I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.” (Act I, Scene VII)

The American public, upon discovering the two nominees for President:
“If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well
It were done quickly.” (Act I, Scene 7)

News Reporter: Trump, how do you feel about Russia and North Korea?
Trump: “Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear
The armed rhinoceros, or th’ Hyrcan tiger;
Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble.” (Act III, Scene IV)

Trump, to women: “Bring forth men-children only!
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.” (Act 1, Scene 7)
Trump: “What sound is that?”
Attendant: “It is the cry of women, my good lord.” (Act V, Scene V)

New reporter, speaking to Democrat: Any words on the Republican nominee?
Democrat: “Not in the legions
Of horrid hell can come a devil more damned
In evils to top [Trump].” (Act 4, Scene III)

News reporter, to nearby Republican: How do feel about the Democratic candidate?
Republican: “I grant [her] bloody,
Luxurious, malicious, false, deceitful,
Sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin
That has a name.” (Act 4, Scene III)

News reporter: And your thoughts on the Republican candidate?
Women, Hispanics, Muslims, in unison:
“The devil himself could not pronounce a title
More hateful to mine ear.” (Act V, Scene 7)

Clinton, as depicted by Republicans (on hiding emails):
“Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.” (Act I, Scene IV)

Obama, late in Clinton’s campaign: “Welcome hither!
I have begun to plant thee, and will labor
To make thee full growing…let me enfold thee
And hold thee to my heart.”

Clinton: “There if I grow
The harvest is your own.” (Act I, Scene IV)

Clinton, to the American public, on emails:
“Things without all remedy
Should be without regard. What’s done is done.” (Act III, Scene II)

Trump: You oughta drop out!
Clinton: “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” (Act 5, Scene I)

Democrats, when the FBI announces more investigation days before the election:
“If we should fail?”

Clinton: “We fail!
But screw your courage to the sticking place
And we’ll not fail.” (Act I, Scene 7)

Trump, upon hearing that Clinton has indeed been cleared for the emails:
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair!” (Act I, Scene I)

Republicans: “Let us seek out some desolate shade , and there
Weep our sad bosoms empty.” (Act IV, Scene III)

Democrats: “Each new morn
New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows
Strike heaven on the face, that it resounds
As if it felt with [America] and yelled out.” (Act IV, Scene III)

Young facebook activists: “What I believe, I’ll wail;
What I know, believe, and what I can redress,
As I shall find the time to friend, I will.” (Act IV, Scene III)

Pious non-voters: “Bleed, bleed, poor country!
Great tyranny, lay thou thy basis sure
For goodness dare not check thee; wear thou thy wrongs.” (Act IV, Scene III)

Disenchanted voters: When I go to vote, “yet my poor country
Shall have more vices than it had before,
More suffer, and more sundry ways than ever,
By him [or her] that shall succeed.” (Act IV, Scene III)

Half of America, day after election day: “I have lost my hopes.” (Act IV, Scene III)

A Poem: Teaching Heart Beats

I’ve been working on portions of this poem every spring over the last three years of teaching here in Indiana. It’s deeply personal, and for my students.

There are things left unspoken inside a teacher’s heart. After the grading is done and the lesson plans are printed and the meetings are over, some of us teachers go home, and myriad thoughts whirl around in our heads, long after the sun sleeps, and we lie in darkness praying for tomorrow.

In “Part I: Memories,” you’ll meet several students that are characters created from parts of students’ personalities from the past three years, collected into single characters. “Part II: Lament” grieves students’ loss of innocence, and “Part III: Credo” is a charge for Christian teachers. “Part IV: Invocation” is a prayer for my students.

I’m not particularly fond of this poem (obviously, as I’ve been continually revising it). But sometimes revisions are never done. So I’m putting it out here, meaning, it’s good enough, and it’s what I want it to be for now.

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Teaching Heart Beats

Part I: Memories

Once,
I saw you reach out.
Once, I saw you pray.
Once, I saw you put an end to the mocking.
Once, I saw you listen.

I see you.

They told me, “His name is Learning Problem.” “He calls himself Attitude.”
I try to see potential.
And buried in your sporadically-done homework, I once heard a quiet moral opinion from you.
I whisper-cheered through clenched teeth, at my desk, at 9:00 p.m.
“Yessss.” He thought today.
My hope is that you will think tomorrow.
And the next day.
And the day after that.

I see you.
You’re the one who demands A’s.
But I gave you a B
To teach you to think.
Writing is the measure of thinking,
Not silly test scores.

I see you.
You’re all alone at lunchtime,
The others gathered around in desperate cliques, animatedly eating.
And my heart aches for you.
I pray for you.
I think you are special. I think you are unique.
(If I were 14, we would be friends!)

I see you.
You’re the intellectual one.
You keep me on my toes when you fact-check me.
Your assignments are almost chilling in their brilliance.
You will be taking a road that not many of your peers will.
My advice: keep your social life and go play some volleyball. Get the B.
(Learning the art of friendship is also a lifelong study.)
Teaching you is one of my biggest tasks.
I feel a huge responsibility to guide you toward the big “c.”
College.
You will go.
Will you become bitter at your uneducated subculture?
When will you realize that Mennonite pastors and deacons are fallible humans?
Will you notice the uncommon fellowship of our subculture?
Will that fellowship be important enough for you to stay?
Will you find community, acceptance, love, or romance outside our culture, leading you away?
Will that acceptance change your morals?

I see you.
Wasting time.
Staring
At
The
Clock.
Creatively taking a long time to do anything besides your work.
Throw away a tissue.
Get a drink.
Go to the bathroom.
(I snicker at you.)
Know why?
Your vocab words still aren’t done. Even after all that.

I see you.
You had to stay in from recess.
Again.
You glance up from your book
And with your inquisitive face
You inquire
What this verse means
And how to deal with an angry friend.
Your thirst for wisdom is deep.

I see you

I see you all.

Do you know
…that your radiant face in 8 a.m. Bible class is inspiring?
…that your seriousness and bold attention in literature is startling?
…that your hard work and goodwill are so convicting?

You are skillful students. You clean, cook, work, and play with such excellence.

(Who do we think we are, trying to exercise your minds?)

To the students at UCS:
Your faces and lives stretch before me
like a promising Midwestern sunset

And I weep
on my knees
for the lives you will live.
I thank God for the pain you will endure in the next five years,
pain being the only thing God can use to empty you of yourself so that you cling all the more to Him.

What token, what gift, can I give to you who have given me so much?
This poem
is my photograph.
Keep a copy to glance at sometimes
and remember a teacher who saw you in this way.

Part II: Lament

I am weeping for you.
My heart is bleeding for you.
Oh my students.
The pain in your lives.
The hurts from your past.
Your broken families.
Your lost childhoods.

Part III: Credo

We will be strong.
We will be pure.
We will stand in the gap.
We will sacrifice our lives.
We will build up the church.
We will love each other.

We will not back down.
We will be good role models.
We will love Jesus more.
We will be disciplined.
We will be difference makers.

We will not be down-hearted, cynical, or hopeless.
We serve the God of all comfort.

Our task is not our task.
Our task is God’s task.
To bind up the broken hearted, to heal their wounds, to love.
God is our hope.

Part IV: Invocation

The wind whips and whistles through the early spring sunshine
Tries to dry the wet land and white lumps in the fields.

I know that spring is coming.
We are not surprised.
It always does.

So like spring
comes the enduring work of God.
And wherever His Word goes
It is not wasted.

Oh Jesus
Ravish us with the spring-dream of your unending faithfulness and blessing.
Amen.

How My School Ruled April Fool’s

You know, April Fool’s Day doesn’t fall on a school day for another three years, so my co-teachers and I planned a memorable day for the students.

First, the tired and trodden students ambled sleepily into the hallway only to be met with a Barrage of Large Objects in Their Path, and found themselves ducking under the high jump bars, around a very large caged bunny, moving past a fake tree, hoisting themselves over a massive, ten foot long, two foot high long jump mat, and proceeding down the hallway, filled with a roll-y cart, a commercial vacuum cleaner, and a table supporting a large bowl of…. onions. And a broom was sticking out of the library book return receptacle.

As students streamed into school, they asked our secretary who filled the hall.

“You tell me!” she retorted.

Confused, the high school students turned to our “slightly annoyed” high school teacher.

“Who filled the hall?”

“Well it was obviously some of the older ones, either the seniors or the youth group who rented the gym last night!” he sighed, irritated. (Our prank wasn’t just the hall-filling, but also convincing the students that we hadn’t done it.) The surprised students immediately began denying their involvement; THEY certainly didn’t want to be held responsible or have to clean up the mess. (We as teachers VOWED that the responsible parties would put everything away.)

“I wonder who it was,” the ornery students asked, in awe.

Students who attended the “offending” youth group’s gym night immediately began protesting.

“I’m sure it wasn’t us! We didn’t even have keys to the school! They school renter unlocked for us!”

The high school teacher brushed them aside.

“You could have easily gotten a key!”

“But it wasn’t us! You have to believe us!”

One conscientious student, on his way to class, approached the teacher and said penitently, “I just want you to know that it wasn’t me. You can call my parents. I was definitely home last night and there is no way that I did it.”

Meanwhile, the seniors headed to their second class and stopped the principal.

“Who was it? Who filled the hall?”

“Well it was obviously your youth group!” he retorted.

“It wasn’t us! We promise!”

“Well then maybe it was the senior girls!” he hurumphed.

The senior girls were getting visibly upset and started protesting louder,

“IT WASN’T US! Why do we always get blamed for everything?!”

“All right, come here, I need you to help me with something,” our principal said. He disappeared for a few moments, and then pulled up to the school’s front door with his car, of which he had taken off the side mirrors.

For the seniors, it suddenly clicked what was going on. They greedily helped him ease the car into the hallway. Just yet another Large Object in the Path.

Around this time, we teachers released the three BABY GOATS into the gym.

The poor little kindergarten class, whose classroom is right next door to the gym, heard a bleating sound. One small student excitedly announced to his pregnant teacher, “I just heard your baby make a noise!”

Next, our secretary asked a senior girl to “go get me something from the fridge.” A few moments later we hear screams of terror as she returns.

“MISS MILLER, MISS MILLER! THERE’S BABY GOATS IN THE GYM! THEY’RE RUNNING AROUND AND THEY SCARED ME SO BAD!”

Meanwhile, in the junior high classroom, we were having a surprisingly fun class. We had just played a game in celebration of finishing our annual research papers and had settled in to a monotonous grammar review. Midway through the review, I stopped.

“Did you all hear that? I heard a cell phone.”

No response.

“I was sure I heard a cell phone,” I said. “Does anyone have one in your desk?”

I cocked my head at a seventh grade boy and bored into him with my gaze. I marched over to him.

“I’ve talked to you before about having your phone in your desk instead of keeping it turned off and outside in the hall in your backpack.” I put my hands on my hips. “You’re going to have to give me your phone.” I returned to the front of class and threw the purple cell phone on my desk. I put my hands on hips and sighed angrily. Suddenly, I whipped a hammer out of my desk and began smashing the phone to pieces! Up and down and up and down I raised the hammer, hitting the phone to bits! Tiny pieces of glass spread over my desk and onto the floor. The phone nearly slid off my desk, but I reached after it smashing it over and over with my mallet.

Out of the corner of my eye, I grew startled by junior high students’ scared, apprehensive glances. THEY WERE IN LITERAL SHOCK.

I could hardly contain myself. I fought not to laugh, but all of a sudden I grew pained because I realized that my students were actually afraid of me in that moment, terrified at the monster I had become.

I gurgled and giggled nervously. “Uh, April Fool’s, guys.”

Only two students kind of giggled. The rest stared at me strangely, not believing what they had just seen. They sat in solemn terror. I tried to lighten it up by laughing and explaining how I had planned this at the beginning of the day with the seventh grade boy. He, of course, was smiling behind his hand. Once I was sure that they all got that it was a joke, we resumed English class, but they were all still a little shaken! They all sat quietly through the rest of grammar class, even as I kept giggling at the front of the classroom. By the end though, they were smiling shyly and me and each other.

Student 1: “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I thought: ‘She is WAY overreacting.’”

Student 2: “I was SOOOOO scared! I was shaking!”

Student 3: “I was pretty sure a guy wouldn’t have a purple phone.”

Student 4: “I knew he didn’t have a phone, so I was pretty sure it was a joke.”

Student 5: “I thought you had literally GONE CRAZY.”

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Down at typing class, our secretary had created her own fun by changing the autocorrect on all the computers so that whenever the students typed the word “candy” (a word from their typing exercise for the day), it would automatically change to rude name-calling names. How would you like it if the words you keep trying to type change to “Stinky Face” or “Liver-witted Hiney Squeegee”? (Tears are rolling down my cheeks right now.)

One high school teacher gave a test, with regular questions interspersed with IMPOSSIBLE questions that the students could never be expected to know.

A particularly conscientious student, quite confused, reasoned, “Mr. Yoder, I’m SURE we never went over these in class! And I KNOW they weren’t on the review sheet!”

“Are you sure?” he answered, calm and surprised. “Keep working; maybe you’ll find a question later that can help you with this one.”

That question being the last question on the test: “DO YOU REMEMBER THAT TODAY IS APRIL FOOL’S DAY?!”

Not wanting to leave out the little ones, we even got the youngest students in on the fun. Our kindergarten teacher passed out little packets of Cheerios labeled “Donut Seeds.”

“Take these home and plant them, and you can have your very own donut tree!” she said.

Most of the young ones knew it was a joke because she had carefully explained to them about the prank in the hallway and had even read a story about April Fool’s Day. But one young man somehow missed it all because later he was still talking about taking home his donut seeds so that he could grow his own donuts.

Back in the high school classroom, our math teacher was explaining the kindergarten prank to some students in one of his math classes. Which prompted the math students to ask:

“So what’s YOUR April Fool’s day joke? What’s YOUR teacher prank?”

Mr. Dave squinted his eyes and said, “Well, actually, I was the one who put the stuff in the hall.”

“No you didn’t!” they crowed. “That’s your prank, is you getting us to THINK that you put the stuff in the hallway! But you actually didn’t!”

By this time, we as teachers are just howling because of how many levels of prank-ness there is by now.

“No, this time I really did it!” he laughed.

By this time, the students decided to get in on the fun. They successfully sequestered the high school teacher’s fancy, cushy, office chair, awkwardly lugging the large rolling chair, from end-to-end of the school, in panicked rush, to avoid being seen by the high school teacher on the warpath to find his chair.

Ninth and tenth did a great one on me. I breezed into class ready to give them their vocabulary quiz, going off about the absent students and chirping about who should and shouldn’t take the quiz today… I began passing out the quizzes when I realized that all of them were smiling strangely at me. Then I realized: they’re ALL in different seats! (I have assigned seating in that class.) I hadn’t noticed at all!

One last April Fool’s Day prank came from the junior high students. Our student council planned a beautiful Easter meal today. We set up in the back of our classroom. We had fancy decorations of tulips and pearls, and ate off those really nice fake silver plasticware sets, and had grilled chicken, mashed potatoes, salad, jello, and the most especially divine white chocolate raspberry cheesecake. (Mother who made the cheesecake: it was superb, as always!) Before we prayed our Easter prayer and ate our meal, the student council made an announcement.

“Since it’s Easter, we have a gift for each of you! BUT: you have to wait til everyone gets a present to open one!” One seventh grader ceremoniously handed each student a nicely-packaged gift bag.

“Okay! You can open them!”

We dove into our bags, clawing, and giggling with glee. And we each unwrapped…. a rock.

A dumb ‘ole rock.

Boring gray lumps of stone.

“What.” we intoned.

“APRIL FOOL’S!” the Council yelled.

We all laughed together and then our class president led us in a special prayer of thanks.

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Probably one of the best April Fool’s days I’ve ever had. 🙂

Later in study hall, the junior high girls and I dissected the rest of the cell phone. So, obviously, we had fun.

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On Teaching Leadership: How Twelve Kids Raised $6000 for Syrian Refugees

We do not expect much from our youth today. When our students exhibit the all-too-common irresponsibility of a self-gratifying entertainment-driven society, we nod our heads knowingly. “Kids these days.” As a third-year English teacher, I’ve been around enough teachers to know that, all too often, sarcasm is a way of coping with young people’s lack of earnestness. We complain about their apathy, their lethargy, and their lack of leadership. We roll our eyes at their dispassionate, caffeine-sodden dreary faces. We watch them play their popularity games and wonder if they’ll ever grow up. We sigh, fatalistically, and point to their culture or their parents and roll our eyes. “They’re a bunch of idiots,” I hear us say. We complain about their lack of leadership. We complain. But we do not teach. We expect. But we do not model.

The thing about teaching leadership is that it takes time. I realized this the day that I ran damage control for a junior high student council event, and I found myself dashing about, flinging open windows, desperately shooing out smoke from an overheating cotton candy machine, while the entire school gathered in the parking lot at the behest of squalling alarms blaring their warnings. It was at that moment that I realized that I had two choices. I could blame. Or I could teach.

I could teach leadership.

Over the past two years, I’ve adopted a much more explicit approach to teaching leadership, especially in forming my class’s student council. Before nominations, I remind them what a student council is, and I hint at the possibilities of what I believe a junior high class can accomplish. I remind that they should not vote for their best friends or for whom they think is the coolest. It is not a popularity contest. Rather they ought to think about who is the most creative, who has the best ideas, and who is hard-working enough to carry out their own ideas. I challenge them by saying that no class before has taken me seriously on this point. This makes students perk up.

Last year it was a miracle if I could get my student council to actually fill out my “meeting minutes” templates. (Yes, organization is a part of leadership.) This year I was surprised to find curious, newly-elected student council members asking when their first meeting was. And one young man came to his first meeting with a little box of special notecards labeled “Student Council.” However, I still expected a very normal junior high student council, and I expected them to plan the normal frivolous events, full of indulgent ideas. (We eat a looooot of birthday pizza, that’s all I’m saying.) So I was curious when two student council girls asked to meet during study hall. They came to me a half-hour later asking if they could host a fundraiser for Christians in Iraq being persecuted by ISIS. (!) What a surprise! A glimmer of hope shined above their questioning faces. None of my students had ever done anything like this before. It was outside-of-the-box. And it demonstrated to me a higher-order development in them, because the students would be getting absolutely nothing out of it. Their motivation was purely selfless.

It was certainly a learning experience for all of us. Their youthful zeal wanted their fundraiser and Rome to be built in a day, and we had to talk about the importance of finding a charity first (which takes time), of creating fliers, and of contacting donors. (Okay, I cheated. I created the fliers, loosely based on the hand-written instructions they had given me, but give me a break. This was the first event like this that we’ve ever done. There’s plenty more time to teach 13 year olds layout skills.) Besides, the students used their creativity in other ways, so that besides contacting parents, grandparents, and their local congregations, they also hosted a classroom bake sale, some students baking brownies, others providing Rise & Roll donuts, which high school students hoarded in handfuls while dropping large bills in a glass jar. (I encouraged the students to make our bake sale free, instead seeking “Donations Accepted.”) One eighth grader coordinated with the science teacher to see if she would be willing to sell extra recess and donate the money to our fundraiser. Quite a few junior high students bought ten minutes of extra recess. We received an outpouring of generosity, and in a few weeks, my class of twelve students raised over $6000, which we donated to Christian Aid Ministries’ “Conflict in Syria” and “Terror in Iraq” projects, which provide immediate assistance in the form of food parcels and hygiene items to fleeing Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

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I’m delighted with what my students have accomplished with a relatively simple idea, baked up by two junior high girls one September afternoon. I asked in a class discussion where the idea to help refugees came from, and the council never really said, but one student offered, “Well, they really need our help.” We went on to discuss what it must mean to live in a country that is in a state of war. In a state of anarchy. No government. No infrastructure. Bombed-out buildings. You have to leave your home. You travel with only the things you can carry. Your father and sister are killed. Your mom is taking care of your baby siblings. And there are no clean diapers for days.

And I liked how this fundraiser related to some other conversations we’ve been having in high school English. Conversations about immigration and the migrant crisis in Europe, which are removed from our own American immigration issues, but not very. So when we talked in 9th and 10th about German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the decisions that she and other European nations have to be making due to migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, we talked about this, and how 11,000 Icelanders have offered to house Syrian refugees to help the European crisis, even though their government is technically only required to accept 50 immigrants. And we talked about which international actions better relate to Christ-like attitudes toward those in need. These are passing topics in my classes. Things I insert into boring grammar lectures about colons and semicolons. But you see, there’s a big difference between “I like the following types of ice cream: chocolate, mint, and raspberry” and “Refugees migrating to Germany come from the following countries: Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.” Yes, in my classes, grammar is often a cover for discussing current events. And these discussions are not always comfortable as my students often have their own strong opinions about immigration, but I hope to at least broaden the discussion by looking at immigration issues on an international level. Because I would hate for my students to graduate and think that life is made up of the four walls of Nappanee, Indiana, America.

And because leadership must be taught. Leadership is something that is lacking in today’s world. Where are leaders of integrity? Where are leaders who are servants? Where is the lack of bias? Where is the knowledgeable leader? Where is the hopeful leader? Where is the leader who rises above the constant slinging of critiques and instead guides in quiet humility, always pointing to truth, beauty, and goodness?

I’m quite proud of my young students. I’m proud that a few of them selflessly responded to an injustice. And I truly hope that this is just the beginning. To my fellow teachers I say, “Do not give up.” Continue teaching leadership. Expect it. You will reap rewards in due time if you do not give up.