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Of Stinkbugs and God

Spiritual Nurture and Young Children

valleI am sitting on the floor in a circle with my 15 young students, four‐ and five‐year‐olds, during our morning worship time. This year, as a deliberate change, I have given up imposing themes or reading books during worship in favor of a less structured approach. We began the year merely by greeting each other in turn around the circle. Over the first few weeks of school, the children, of their own accord, began using this time to discuss the things in their lives for which they are thankful. Without any input or suggestion from me, they have have developed a spontaneous ritual of gratitude, one all the more meaningful for being purely their own. Instead of pat remarks suggested by some book or theme, they follow each other’s lead, expand on what’s come before, or open new avenues of discussion. I have become very proud—perhaps too much so—of the fruits of their progress and my restraint. Wholly on their own, my students have spoken of their love for their siblings, their appreciation of those who care for them, their desire for sick classmates to feel better, their gratitude to God and Jesus—as well as, of course, more mundane topics, such as a love of crab cakes or the fact that it is night in Hong Kong when it’s morning in Baltimore. The divine and the mundane are seldom less separate than in the world of childhood.

This particular morning, we are being observed by an admissions tour guide and a number of prospective parents. Doing my best not to betray any urgency, I help the children settle into silence. I watch the visitors out of the corner of my eye and wonder what impressive gems will fall from my students’ lips: perhaps a heart‐warming desire to hug a newborn brother or a request that God watch over an ailing family member. I nod toward the first child, and the class wishes him a good morning. He greets us in turn and thinks a moment. “Good morning, friends. I am thankful for … stinkbugs!” The quiet circle dissolves into peals of laughter. “P.U.!” “Stinky stinkbugs!” “Smelly!” I sigh inwardly and settle the children back into worship. The parents move on. I shake my head at my own pride. Working with young children provides, if nothing else, a firm grounding in reality.

 

I have been thinking lately of what it means to teach: both in general and in particular at a Quaker school. What is it we bring to children? What is the true role of the teacher? Dealing with such young children, I feel that the teaching I do is the most elemental; it is teaching stripped bare of the disguise of rhetoric and jargon. We’re really dealing with the raw stuff of human nature, as the children begin to look outward to recognize and respect others. There is also, perhaps, a corresponding inward turn, as they learn to examine their own thoughts and feelings. Their young world is expanding and, hopefully, will continue to do so for the rest of their lives. Emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, these years are foundational and thus crucial. This realization lends an extra urgency to my questioning.

In my search for meaning, I have been greatly aided by opportunities to convene with my colleagues. The role of the teacher in a Quaker setting is something many of us ponder. It is through this work with Friends that I was introduced to the writings of Rufus Jones, which immediately captured me with their beauty and profundity. Here I came upon the notion of spiritual nurture and its unique importance to the Quaker faith. This concept captured my imagination. I was intrigued that a great mystic and activist would place such importance on our work with children, finding in education a spiritual task. Indeed, in Rethinking Quaker Principles, Jones speaks of Quaker schools as being first and foremost “nurseries of spiritual culture,” meant to “nourish the inner life of the child.” But how are they to do this? In a typical maneuver, Jones proposes no definitive answer but instead meets our uncertainty with a challenge:

But we need to ask once more very seriously in the silent confessional of our Queries: Do you still in these modern times … bring up your children and those under your care in the nurture of Truth?

So, as I deal with stinkbugs and scraped elbows and broken crayons, I have been letting this query from Jones simmer in the back of my mind. It is clear that the spiritual is not a gift we bestow but a natural endowment we attempt to nourish. This is the beauty of the term spiritual nurture. We may fabricate things and shape them to our exact specifications, but we nurture living beings, who assume a shape imprinted upon them by their very natures. We are charged not with inculcating set values in those in our care but with allowing them to develop values of their own.

The approach of spiritual nurture arises from a characteristic feature of Quaker faith. It is a faith not in words or books, in prophecy or previous accomplishment but in the living capabilities within each of us. Quaker faith is placed not in the achievements of the past, too often calcified into rigid hierarchy and rote sentiment, but in the promise of what is to come. And who is more filled with promise than the young child?

This openness is a quality of the Quaker faith at its best. Here, I turn again to Jones and his admonition to Friends to remain an open rather than a closed religion, to “move forward once more and break new ground.” This suggests that spiritual nurture is a journey made together, one of discovery. There is no enforced destination, no creed or litany of beliefs to be memorized. The teacher knows no better than the student just where the trail leads. Each step taken, each child encouraged to move forward along his or her own path, is a small but vital incursion into new ground. Each of us, no matter how young, is a seeker and walks a newly trodden path into an unknown land.

 

Still, as a teacher, I am left to wonder at my own role in this process. Much of it, I have realized, is indirect. It consists in providing an environment in which children may uncover their own innate gifts. This is harder than it seems. Our first impulse, as caregivers and responsible adults, is to intervene, to direct, to help children avoid the difficult and messy and painful in life. But it is precisely these challenging situations which so often provide the raw experience for growth. As any of us who work with or have our own children know, it is easier, much of the time, to do something for them than to sit on our hands as they make mistakes. Yet how can there be growth without mistakes? We have to wrestle with our own impatience, our own pride, and even at times our own good intentions, and learn to grant children the time, space, and corresponding freedom to walk their own crooked paths.

In considering this approach, I am frequently reminded of a parable told by Mencius, the great Chinese philosopher and Confucian sage. One of his own paramount concerns was this very issue of spiritual nurture, however differently conceived from the Quaker variety. He held that the virtue of “human-heartedness”—an ability to see that others’ lives are as valuable as our own—existed as a seed in each of us from birth. Of course, seeds need fertile soil in which to grow and must be watered and tended. But Mencius suggests those in our care require more than this: they also require trust and patience—we might say faith—in those who tend them. They require us, at the appropriate time, to let them be. To illustrate this, he tells of a clever rice farmer who decides to help his newly planted seedlings grow. The farmer kneels among his plants, yanking and pulling them upward, urging them to grow faster. At dinner, he brags to his son about his new method of speeding the plants’ growth. The son rushes out to see the fruits of his father’s work and finds all of their seedlings dead and shriveled on the ground.

We have to check our own impulse to control the growth of those in our care. With the best of intentions, we may ruin their progress. Human growth, particularly spiritual growth, is rarely straightforward, much less efficient. The very obstacles we attempt to remove from our students’ paths may be just the ones required for them to find a way forward.

And how do they make their way forward? The mechanism of spiritual growth in children seems to be two‐fold: silence and play. These seem to reflect the general Quaker process, corresponding respectively to faith and practice. Silence allows them their first taste of inward mystery, and play lets them experiment in how to put their insights into practice. Silence—in small doses for children, of course!—is the basic condition of Quaker worship, a time in which no one is dictating your relationship to God but allowing you to roam imaginatively. Play is an outward trek through the imagination. It is the child’s method of discovering how to be in the world. Similarly, Quaker practice is the outward expression of spiritual discoveries made in silent worship.

Both silence and play are largely beyond adult control, and this is no coincidence. True learning is something we allow, rather than compel, to happen. It arises out of an inward pressure, in order to satisfy developing needs. If we attempt, in our sincere desire to be helpful, to shape or hasten the process, we will be left with dry and shriveled seedlings. If we maintain our faith in our children and their promise, then we shall be amazed, in the fullness of time, at the rich harvest of their spiritual Truth.

But there is more to spiritual nurture than mere restraint. There is active, positive work for us to do as well. We are, all of us, exemplars to those in our care. The greatest lesson any teacher may grant is in how he or she lives life. It is as simple, and as achingly difficult, as that. Jones puts it thusly: “The important features [of Quaker ideals] were not so much explained as exhibited in life and action. You learned to live by being in the currents of life.” It is daunting, of course, to take on a responsibility such as this. At first blush, it seems we are to live as Quaker virtues personified, flawless paragons for our children to emulate. How are any of us even to attempt such a life?

Reflecting more deeply, though, I do not think this is necessary or intended. Quakerism is a faith rooted not in perfection but in striving. Perfection implies a static Truth, rather than a living, evolving, unfolding Truth. Quaker life is meant to be an experiment, and experiments often fail; in fact, failure is frequently when we learn the most from them. So we are not urged toward perfection. If anything, I think we are freed from the attempt, excused from trying to project the image of infallible authority so many teachers feel pressured into adopting.

Instead, we are drawn toward sincerity. We are encouraged to be open with our students. We come again to the notion of giving up control, perhaps most of all control of our image. We admit what we don’t know and see no shame in that. Sometimes we lose our temper, but then we apologize. We sigh when our children laugh about stinkbugs instead of expressing weightier ideas, but then perhaps we chuckle ourselves and mention that, after all, stinkbugs too are part of the grand design of nature. We let our students see us as we are: not perfectly virtuous but seekers, as they are, as students ourselves. We are not giving them a map to follow but walking alongside them into grand and nameless territory.

So we must learn to wait, to be patient, to let go, and to be open to stinkbugs and crab cakes as well as God and gratitude. We must trust in our children. They, as we, must walk a singular path, one of their own making. We must hold faith that, rocky and crooked as it may often be, this path is true. As all true paths do, it leads inexorably toward the Light.

Joshua Valle is a pre-K teacher at Friends School of Baltimore, his alma mater. He lives in Baltimore, Md., with his wife and daughter (a Friends School student) and enjoys reading, writing, and spending time in the woods.


Posted in: April 2014: Education, Features

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3 Responses to Of Stinkbugs and God

  1. Tom Dineen April 13, 2015 at 4:55 pm #

    City & State
    Baltimore, MD
    Superb essay. My daughter is a second‐grader at Friends Baltimore and it’s encouraging to know that her teachers are exploring these complex pedagogical and emotional issues in depth.

  2. Jay T. April 16, 2015 at 1:48 pm #

    City & State
    Corvallis, OR
    Thank you, Joshua Valle. In a small space, you have written so much that is true and vital for educators to practice. I will recommend your essay to the volunteers I am blessed to be working with at our yearly meeting.

  3. Jim Ross May 1, 2015 at 10:37 am #

    City & State
    Silver Spring
    Thank you. I enjoyed this. And stinkbugs are the perfect example of the point you want to make. Not only do they elicit laughter, for many they represent the lowest rung of creation. I’ve a friend who notoriously reminds his circle of friends on every possible occasion that they are armor bugs, not stinkbugs, and have as much right to live as the rest of creation. I liked your piece a lot and forwarded it to him (and others).

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