"Why don't you guys study like the kids from Africa?"
In a moment of exasperation last spring, I asked that question to a virtually all-black class of 12th-graders who had done horribly on a test I had just given. A kid who seldom came to class -- and was constantly distracting other students when he did -- shot back: "It's because they have fathers who kick their butts and make them study."
Another student angrily challenged me: "You ask the class, just ask how many of us have our fathers living with us." When I did, not one hand went up.
I was stunned. These were good kids; I had grown attached to them over the school year. It hit me that these students, at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, understood what I knew too well: The lack of a father in their lives had undermined their education. The young man who spoke up knew that with a father in his house he probably wouldn't be ending 12 years of school in the bottom 10 percent of his class with a D average. His classmate, normally a sweet young woman with a great sense of humor, must have long harbored resentment at her father's absence to speak out as she did. Both had hit upon an essential difference between the kids who make it in school and those who don't: parents.
Welsh's opinion piece is good, though maybe a bit simplistic. He is drawing a fair amount of criticism in the comments but also some support. One comment has kept me thinking all afternoon. The writer acknowledges that parents make a difference. But how is the school supposed to respond to this? Does the school just pretend all the kids have supportive parents and those who don't are just out of luck? Should the school assume all parents are inept and weave complex programs to compensate? My experience with public schools is that they tend towards the latter. However, public education policy is not what has been spinning in my head. I could write a very similar article about religious education. What is the difference between the kids who embrace their Catholic faith and grow in their understanding throughout their high school years and those who tolerate CCD until they are confirmed and then have no use for the Church through high school and beyond? It's about parents.
I gave a workshop yesterday morning on Building Your Domestic Church. It was a three-hour version of the six session program I gave last spring. The bottom line is that parents are the primary catechists for their children. If the Catholic Church is not relevant in the every day lives of parents it will not be relevant to their children. Parents need to believe and convey that being Catholic matters. Unfortunately, the vast majority of parents are poorly catechized and do not bring their faith to bear on their lives outside of Sunday Mass. Probably over half of the students do not attend Sunday Mass on a regular basis. Given this reality, what is a religious education program to do?
I have taught religious education around the United States for over twenty years. Most programs tend to follow the model of the public school system. They assume the parents are inept and try to develop a program that teaches the children while excluding the parents. The poor response by parents to any outreach programs discourages most religious education programs from even trying. I understand that. I only had a handful of attendees at my workshop. But the truth is the parents matter too much to exclude them. I stand before my students every week and tell them how important it is to go to Mass. Every week their parents are too busy or too tired to take them to Mass. The students don't see any immediate consequences of missing Mass. Are they going to believe me or their parents?
We've been trying gentle persuasion to get parents to learn more about their faith. I have asked parents to attend some of the CCD classes so both parents and children could cover material together. I received good feedback from the parents on these sessions, but most have not been inspired to attend any of the other adult education offering. Now our DRE is pushing a little harder. Parents of students who are preparing for confirmation are required to attend three hours of adult education. The adult education in our parish is expanding exponentially. There are Bible studies. There are studies of papal documents. There is a study of the Catechism using Peter Kreeft's Catholic Christianity. I did a presentation on end of life care. There is a program to discuss financial planning using Catholic principles. Parents are free to pick which three hours of adult education they want to attend.
I presented my workshop at the same time the eighth grade students were participating in a confirmation retreat. Most of the attendees were there because they could meet their adult education requirement in one fell swoop. However, several people came up to me after the talk to tell me how glad they were that they had heard my talk. They had a new appreciation for continuing religious education. I know there is some grumbling from parents as well. How dare the religious education office impose education requirements on them so that their children can be confirmed? For these parents, I just pray. Parenting is a vocation. Jobs, rounds of golf, and the latest reality show are occupations. It is the vocation, not the occupation, that answers God's call and leads us to Heaven.