Word.

~~ Originally printed in Carrboro (NC) Free Press, May 2009 ~~

Church was never about the words.

There were some things that I liked about going to Calvary Baptist Church in Toast, NC: I liked when I got to go to Papa Stone’s Sunday School class for “young marrieds” and draw with markers on his big pad of chart paper. That was much better than when I went to the children’s Sunday School class and people looked at me funny because I had no idea what they were talking about with that John-three-sixteen stuff. I mean, really, what did they mean by all that “whosoevers” and “believeths.” No one in Chapel Hill used words like that.

And I liked when Mimi Stone would pass me sticks of gum from her purse to keep me still and quiet during the interminable sermons I couldn’t understand one word of.

Oh, and I especially liked the pig pickin’s. Now that’s the true language of the world. Crisp pork skin and potato salad and banana pudding and chocolate cream pie. Baptists have got the whole food thing down. Yes, Lord, bless the hands. Praise the Son. Save the sinners. Amen, and pass the devilled eggs.

Aside from the taste of Jell-o salad and the feeling of perfumed old people squeezing my hands too hard, I didn’t really take much away from my early church experiences. They were like brief forays into strange lands where the idioms and customs were so foreign they could not begin to penetrate my consciousness of understanding.

Only much later, when I ventured as an adult into another Baptist church, did I realize what the problem was. The sermons, or “messages,” consisted largely of the preacher reading a passage from the King James bible, and then “translating” the meaning for the congregation. It was as though the preachers had a magic key and everyone else was dependent upon them to unlock the door to salvation. All I knew was that they might as well be reading the text in Aramaic. Would there be a test?

One Sunday, however, the pastor read a passage, and for the first time in my life, I actually “heard” the bible. Monday morning, I called him up in his office and demanded to know what he had been reading from. “The inna vee,” he told me. More jargon. I demanded that he spell it. “N-I-V.” It was a modern translation. I had never heard of such a thing. I called Barnes and Noble and asked if they had something called “The NIV Bible.” They did.

I bought a copy and started reading. I read the whole thing. It took me almost six months to get through it, but I was trouble by the end of the first week.

The preacher went back to reading verses from the KJV. I would corner him after services and ask why he was reading words that no one understood just so he could explain what it meant, instead of reading a clear version we could then all discuss intelligently. I stopped people on the way to the sanctuary, with their unread copies of the KJV tucked dutifully under their arms, and waved my dog-eared, marked-up bible at them and told them they should pick up a copy they could actually understand. I asked lots of questions in Sunday School, and I did not hide my dissatisfaction with the answers.

I challenged everyone. And I could not figure out why this NIV that I had discovered was not the primary source in that church.

Before founding Carrboro Free Press, I was a teacher. Until my position was eliminated during the 2007 CHCCS budget cuts, I taught at McDougle Middle School in Chapel Hill.

At McDougle I had the pleasure of working firsthand with Phillip Shabazz in his poetry workshop, and I also had the pleasure of teaching Language Arts to sixth and seventh graders using Steve Peha’s Teaching That Makes Sense program for conducting readers’ and writers’ workshops. Both of these approaches to literacy put the power in the hands of the young people and give them permission to communicate their thoughts. They also give them the ability to find their voices. Language is a living thing. And teachers are elevated from being lowly gatekeepers of knowledge to being facilitators of growth-giving discourse. These methods are unorthodox, but highly effective, and I couldn’t help wondering why they weren’t being incorporated more fully into all classes.

I paid attention. I read the articles. I stopped people on the way to department meetings with their traditional lesson plans tucked under their arms and told them there was another way.

But it seems to me that many educators and administrators still want to utilize the dusty old methods of teaching by which only they hold the key to salvation. It is much easier to control a group of students when the entire class is reading the same page of the same novel, and the energies of the teacher are focused on explaining the meaning of the vocabulary. But there is no room in that process for higher-ordered thinking, intelligent discussions, and making deeper connections within the text.

The stated intent of the English–Language Arts curriculum in North Carolina is “to equip students with the level of literacy needed to participate as informed citizens in a democratic society, to find challenging and rewarding work, and to pursue their own goals and interests as independent learners throughout their lives.” And the Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools ELA curriculum is “based on an instructional framework in which the student is an active participant in the learning process.” But in my experience, students who are “active participants” are viewed as troublemakers, and teachers who encourage their charges to “pursue their own goals and interests as independent learners” are viewed as not doing their jobs.

Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire.” It is not enough to make kids memorize terms and formulas so they can pass a standardized test. And it is not enough merely to pressure students by telling them that reading and writing are “important.” They must be allowed to grab hold of the tools of language for themselves, so they can rise out of the pews of passivity and become actively engaged as readers and writers, as informed citizens and communicators in society. Because in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.

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