Twenty Years, Little Progress

Well, today is that notorious day. Yes, April 20. Hitler’s birthday (he’d be 130), Weed Day (blaze it?), and the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.

Since Columbine, we’ve had a number of school shootings, and I don’t think much has really changed. Mental health and its importance to overall health has been given greater due in the media and by medical professionals. I don’t follow the gun control debate,* but I don’t think much has improved there. Video games have gotten more graphic, violent, and all consuming. Social media has made it harder to be a teenager… and teenagers will always be fascinated with death, to some degree.

I was reading in the news about an 18-year-old female named Sol Pais who was obsessed with Columbine, even to the point of having a strange online journal that looks to be straight out of the early Internet days of the 90s and imitating the musical tastes, writing/art style, and nihilism of the Columbine killers. It seemed like she was about to travel to Columbine from Florida to make a bizarre pilgrimage to Columbine and do some kind of damage. But it turned out that the only damage she did was to herself: she committed suicide.

Back when I was 18, I was fascinated by Columbine, mostly because I was roughly the same age as the killers and many of the victims. I liked the same music and had a fascination with darkness that most teenagers end up growing out of. I would skulk around community college wearing my then-boyfriend’s trench coat and his hat (turned around backwards), but I would never have hurt a soul. I think I just wanted to look like a badass, but in reality, I was just a shy, awkward nerd. And I obviously grew out of my fake-badass stage and became a somewhat reasonable adult.

The trouble is that it is difficult to tell which teenagers will grow out of this obsession with death and which will end up committing heinous acts. Nobody foresaw Sol Pais’s destructive tendencies. She was just a quiet kid, intelligent and talented in art. People probably would have thought she was smart enough to know better than to do what she did. I don’t have any good ideas of how to prevent shootings or suicides, and although help is offered and mental illness is not as stigmatized as it was in the past, some kids still will not ask for help or realize that they need help or be recognized as someone who needs help.

I suppose mandatory mental health screenings at school or the doctor’s office would be a good first step, but the person being evaluated could always lie if he wanted to. Maybe it’s just the way the world is. There will never be perfect happiness or peace. No amount of preventive measures can stop a killer whose actions nobody foresaw or a suicidal person who kept everything inside.

*I have never owned a gun and never fired a gun (except a paintball gun, but that doesn’t count). My ignorant thought on guns is that hunting rifles and tiny guns for self-defense are fine, assuming that the purchaser is thoroughly checked out, but the trouble comes when automatic weapons (and their ammo) that are designed solely for killing can be easily obtained. I don’t see the point of anyone other than the military having access to weapons like that, and they all ought to be banned. If a collector wants to have guns, he should only be allowed to obtain guns and not ammo.

Reflections on Vacation Bible School and Religious Education

I was inspired to write this post after reading a bit of vitriol from Peter Burfeind titled “How Vacation Bible School Drove Millennials Away From Church.” Although I did agree with a lot that the author had to say, I thought his main claim was a little strong. I don’t see how Vacation Bible School (a series of only five sessions, each lasting roughly 2.5 hours, during a summer week) has such a powerful hold over young people that it would be the main factor in their departure from the church. But I could see some of what Burfeind was complaining about in religious education as a whole.*

Religious education is otherwise known as “Sunday school” or “CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine)” or just plain old “church school.” It consists of the once-a-week religious education classes that Catholic parishes hold during the traditional school year,** most often after Sunday Mass. These classes are taught by volunteers who greatly love their faith and their church but who may not have any teaching experience. I think that in my years as a religious education teacher (the Catholic Church calls us “catechists”), I was one of the few who (1) had never been formally trained as a teacher and (2) did not have children. So I suppose that would make me less qualified than most, although the only true requirements for the position are an ability to fulfill the time commitment to plan lessons and teach class, pass the Safe Environment Training course,*** and pass a criminal background check.

On the whole, volunteering as a catechist was greatly enjoyable. You learn about your own faith while teaching others, you get to laugh and joke with little kids, which is always entertaining, you get to help them make crafts and learn their vocabulary words, and if you’re lucky and have a small class, you get to interact one on one with them. Sometimes you do have to deal with minor discipline problems and the occasional parent who has a complaint, but it’s all a very small taste of what public school teachers have to deal with on a daily basis (which only made me more grateful that I never became a teacher and more admiring of those brave souls who do become teachers).

The greatest challenge of being a catechist is—duh—instilling the faith. It is incredibly difficult to do this when the parents of your students do not take the faith seriously. The kids are in class for one hour a week, but they are with their parents and at school the rest of the time. The hour they spend at Mass (that is, if their parents do in fact take them to Mass, which is a separate post) and the hour they spend in class could very well be the only exposure to religion that they get each week. For religion to become a part of a child’s life, it has to be discussed and lived at home. It has to become a part of that child’s culture. That starts with the parents and how they live their faith.

Anyway, back to Vacation Bible School. It’s essentially a microcosm of what students experience in CCD classes: learning about Jesus, playing a game, putting together a craft, singing a song, and eating a snack. All of this is crammed into a very short time, and it mostly ends up being a babysitting session. Any religious content kids experience and learn is not retained, again, because the parents don’t discuss it at home. I understand that Vacation Bible School is supposed to promote the message that Jesus Is Your Friend™, and it’s not a bad message, but too much of that and you start to get into the territory of moralistic therapeutic deism, which many argue is beneath the skin of most of the Christian denominations these days.

Vacation Bible School should emphasize justice and mercy; with all the feel-good stuff, it focuses too much on the mercy and not enough on the justice. Don’t forget: God is a parent, and like any good parent, He gets disappointed in his children when they misbehave, and for good reason. If you make a mistake as a Christian, part of your duty is to own up to it, reconcile yourself with God, and make efforts to not make the same mistake again. God is forgiving, but only as much as you truly are sorry for your sin.

Some may argue that Vacation Bible School is supposed to be about having fun and not about ramming hellfire and brimstone down kids’ throats, but there must be a way to balance it so kids have a healthier sense of right and wrong. Otherwise, how will their consciences be formed? They can’t walk through life thinking that they won’t be held accountable, or they will indeed turn away from the church because it is too soft and does not provide the framework needed to form a conscience and a rule-bound life. So in a sense, I do agree with the original article’s author that Vacation Bible School might not be conveying Christianity in the best possible way.

*I’m writing about religious education from a Catholic perspective; I don’t have much experience with it from the perspectives of other faiths.

**Still considered to be from August to May or from September to June. Your area may have “year-round” school, in which there is no long summer break but several two-week breaks scattered throughout the year.

***The course teaches a volunteer to recognize signs of abuse in children and how to report those signs to the authorities.

10-Year Reunion

I realized that it’s been 10 years since I graduated from high school, so I guess that’s a milestone. I’m happy with my progress since then, especially considering that when I was on the brink of graduating, I was scared of everything that normal teenagers do. Scared of driving a car, scared of getting a part-time job, scared of graduating, scared of going to college, scared of going out with friends… you name it. Back when I was in high school, we had to complete a “senior project” to graduate, and I was terrified of everything that entailed, too. Senior year is supposed to be everyone’s favorite and best-loved year of high school, but it was by far my least favorite.

But somehow, here I am, alive and reasonably well—still scared of certain things, but I know that I can get through it. If I could go back in time and give my 10-years-ago self a message, that message would be the same one I’d give to myself now: Chill the f*** out. It’s gonna be OK.

Now, about the concept of high school reunions… In this age of Facebook, I don’t think high school reunions are as common as they once were, being that many of us never stopped talking to our high school friends and get constant updates on their lives. Sometimes I am curious about what my fellow humans in the class of ’06 are doing these days, but I haven’t been curious enough to go back on Facebook and find out. Then I’d probably find out way too much information. 🙂

So I’ll let this bearded guy from Duck Dynasty sum up my feelings on high school reunions:

high school