Monday, January 9, 2012

David, Goliath and me

It was my turn to teach Sunday school, and according to the syllabus, we’d reached the story of David and Goliath, whom I admit I have generally tended to confuse with Samson and Delilah. One of the best reasons to teach Sunday school is that it compels me to acquaint myself with material that I should already know. After a few hours of preparation for the class, I felt familiar with the basic details of the story.

But the best-laid plans, and all that. At our church, attendance fluctuates throughout the year. While we all love the tenets of religious freedom that govern the UU faith, those same tenets give many families the assurance that soccer, baseball and birthday parties are all good reasons to miss church. And Carlisle is a town full of skiers, so the pews empty out noticeably after Christmas, even on a low-snow year like this one.

When the director of religious education and I had a look at who actually showed up for church yesterday, we did some quick juggling. Only one of my anticipated six to eight members of the grades 3-5 class had appeared, whereas seven from the grades K-2 group were in attendance. It was decided on the spot that I would instead teach David and Goliath to this younger group.

I was a little disappointed. I’d put a lot of time into planning this class, and hit a number of minor obstacles along the way. Earlier in the week, the Director of Religious Education had suggested that I have the kids act the story out. She happens to be someone who loves theater and has had great success with putting kids on stage. I, on the other hand, couldn’t quite imagine urging a group of seven- and eight-year-olds to pretend to slay each other with slingshots. Our progressive textbook wasn’t much help either; the exercise the teacher’s manual recommended for helping the kids to imagine a giant like Goliath was to ask the tallest man in church to come to our classroom, lie down on a piece of paper, and let the kids trace his body. All I could picture was Gulliver’s Travels, with my eight tiny charges swarming over the poor man. And the fact that I’m currently reading a novel about the priest sex abuse scandal – a novel that happens to revolve around a false charge – gave me all the more reason to think having my students run over a church member with crayons was not the best lesson plan.

Instead, I decided to base the class on group discussion. First I mentioned that we hadn’t had a class in several weeks, due to the Christmas pageant and the holidays, and did anyone want to share a memory from their holidays or their vacation? Yes, all eight of them wanted to share something. All the boys recited the names of the electronics they’d received for Christmas; all the girls listed which relatives had stayed with them during the holidays. I now know that Carlisle houses were full of video games and grandmothers during vacation week.

Then I read them a version of the David and Goliath story and asked what they thought the life lesson it contained might be. “Don’t throw a rock at anyone because you might kill them,” said one student.

I agreed that this was an important and interesting aspect to the story, but what else? We talked about the concept that being smaller than other contenders doesn’t mean you are intrinsically unfit for a task: sometimes, as in David’s case, having faith and courage compensates for lack of might. I asked them for examples of times their abilities were underestimated because of their small stature. Two of the boys shared stories of turning out to be much better at football than their older brothers expected them to be. I asked if any of the kids who had younger siblings had themselves ever underestimated a younger and smaller child’s abilities. A girl told the story of the time she closed the door to her room, thinking it meant she’d have privacy, only to have her two-year-old brother break the knob to make his way in.

Before dismissing the class, I emphasized that the important thing about the story for our purposes was not that a large soldier could be felled by a rock catapulted from a slingshot but that faith and courage sometimes matter more than age, size and strength. “That’s what I think about driving!” agreed one of the boys. “My parents won’t let me drive, but I just know I could do it! I just need to keep begging until they see I’m not too small.”

I didn’t have time to explain that wasn’t quite the same principle. I’m the first to admit I’m not that great a Sunday school teacher, but during ski season, I’m often the best my church has to offer. And at least I can recycle the same lesson plan in another few weeks when the third through fifth graders filter back to church. I still don’t think I’m ready to try the trace-the-tall-guy exercise. But I’ve got the story straight in my own mind now and won’t confuse David with Delilah again.

Although perhaps to underscore the Biblical connections among the stories, we could get the woman with the longest hair at church to come to Sunday school so that we could trace her while we discussed whether faith and courage are enough to win a small child the right to drive the family car.

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