Many of the children in our neighbourhood class come from families who fled conflict in Myanmar (Burma) many years ago, having spent several years of their young lives in refugee camps before arriving in Canada. We tend to forget this sometimes when we teach the class, until they bring out the football with the UNHCR logo and start kicking it around—a symbol of a troubled past that echoes into the present.
That’s why I was shocked the very first time we offered a class on kindness, and heard one of the older children—one who only occasionally attended the class—say that he could never be kind to a Burmese. Why not, I asked? “Because they killed my family,” he replied. He had seen loved ones shot and killed before his eyes. How could he treat their killers with kindness? As I fell into a speechless silence, trying to find a way to respond, it seemed like the entire lesson fell apart in my mind. From my comfortable, sheltered vantage point as one who had never known war, loss and destitution, I had never considered how to respond to the needs of children who had endured that kind of suffering.
Many of our children, thankfully, are too young to have witnessed much of this violence themselves; they were born in the camps, after their families had already fled the conflict. But all of them have older siblings and cousins, some of whom were approaching the age of junior youth. At one point, as we were meeting together to reflect upon the neighbourhood’s progress, it became obvious to us that we should try to engage them by inviting them to form a junior youth empowerment group.
Now, usually we would start a new group with the book Breezes of Confirmation, because its content is most appropriate as an introduction to the program—a lower reading level, and simpler exercises that serve as a stepping stone to more complex ones in further books. But knowing the families we were involved with, and hoping to find ways to address what we saw as an important issue in their lives, we decided to experiment with another book, entitled Glimmerings of Hope.
Many of us are familiar with Ruhu’llah, who, although he was very young, was ready to lay down his life rather than deny the cause of God—I’ve told this story several times, and blogged about how it was received positively by the children in our class. While doing some reading the other day, I came upon another, short story about Ruhu’llah which would be perfect for classes on a number of themes, including progressive revelation, seeking knowledge, and the investigation of truth. The story can be found on page 58 of The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, Vol. 4.
Varqa’s two children ‘Azizu’llah and Ruhu’llah who accompanied him to ‘Akka also had the honour of attaining the presence of Bahá’u’lláh several times. Contact with the Supreme Manifestation of God left an abiding impression on their souls. Though young in age they both became charged with the spirit of faith. Ruhu’llah in particular flourished spiritually in those holy surroundings. He may be regarded as one of the spiritual prodigies which the hand of God has raised up in this Dispensation. Although He was only about eight years old when He came into the presence of Bahá’u’lláh, his understanding of the Faith was very profound.
To cite one example: One day Bahá’u’lláh asked Ruhu’llah, ‘What did you do today?’
He replied, ‘I was having lessons from — [a certain teacher].’ Bahá’u’lláh asked, ‘What subject were you learning?’ ‘Concerning the return [of the prophets]’, said Ruhu’llah. ‘Will you explain what this means?’ Bahá’u’lláh demanded. He replied: ‘By return is meant the return of realities and qualities.’
Bahá’u’lláh, questioning him further, said: ‘These are exactly the words of your teacher and you are repeating them like a parrot. Tell me in your own words your own understanding of the subject.’
‘It is like cutting a flower from a plant this year,’ answered Ruhu’llah. ‘Next year’s flower will look exactly like this one, but it is not the same.’
The Blessed Beauty praised the child for his intelligent answer and often called him Jinab-i-Muballigh (His honour, the Bahá’í teacher).
My sister-in-law, Quyên, runs a kindergarten out of her home in Danang, Vietnam. She and her husband had to take a trip to Huế this weekend, so Quỳnh and I came over to help out. Here’s how the day went. This post was originally blogged at doberman pizza.
Class starts early in the day. It’s 7:30 AM, and a table’s worth of children, aged around 4-5 years old, have already arrived and have started studying, dotting their i’s, crossing their t’s, and hooking their ơ’s. Quyên teaches handwriting, which is a bit advanced for kindergarten, but appeals to many Vietnamese parents who want their children to be well-prepared when they get to primary school. That’s her specialty, but it’s not all she teaches. Children learn reading, writing and arithmetic, sing songs and listen to stories. This year, Quỳnh’s brother Nu (who studied architecture in Ho Chi Minh City) has also started teaching art classes after hours, to which parents can send their children separately (although the classes happen in the same place).
Some children start studying as they arrive. Some of them have signed up to have breakfast in the morning, so they sit at the table and eat first. Some of them are playing together in another room, using building blocks to make and break fanciful contraptions. A few others sit and watch children’s programming on television—although they’re restricted to short, intermittent periods of screen time, until the next activity starts. All together, it gives the schoolhouse—Quyên’s home—a playful, varied ambience, as a kindergarten should have.
I get a lot of amazed looks from the kids due to my height (nearly 6″). One of the children gazes at me and mutters quietly, “cao quá… (so tall…)” Another asks why I’m so tall, and one of the teachers insists it’s because I ate all my vegetables when I was young. (I did, too.) I try to kneel down and squat a little more to make them feel a little more comfortable with me. After a while, the children get used to my presence, but I get a lot of attention. Many of them may never have seen another foreigner in their lives, so I try to leave as good an impression as I can. That I can use my (still broken, but sufficient) Vietnamese to communicate with them helps a lot.
The morning rolls on, and around 10:30 it’s time for the children to eat. Lunch is served in the dining room, between the classroom and the kitchen; it’s a typical meal of rice, vegetables, and various bits of seafood, all served in the same bowl. When they finish eating, children sit back against the classroom wall to rest and digest, and prepare for what comes next: the several-hours-long naptime that’s common to almost every Vietnamese work day. Wooden pallets are laid out, and upon them, woven bamboo mats. After taking their potty breaks and washing their hands, the children settle in with their pillows, the curtains are drawn, and massive mosquito nets are strung up. Naptime lasts from around 11:30 to 2:30 PM—a bigger lunchtime break than any Canadian worker (barring CEOs) could ever dream of. During the break, the teachers and helpers—five of us in total—hang out in the dining room, watching over the children and having our lunch of bún cá, or fish with rice noodles. Something doesn’t quite sit right in my stomach, though, so I go home to pop some antacids and take a nap myself, returning around 3:00.
The afternoon proceeds much like the morning. Children continue to copy down letter forms in their books, in neat little rows, while others play. They repeat sounds out loud as they write down different combinations of letters, to help them learn proper Vietnamese pronunciation. A few younger children—siblings of the older students—have arrived too. A couple of three-year olds tag along after me, shouting to get my attention and offering me cups. I thank them, pretending to take a drink, and they move away. Then they come back again, offering the same deal. And so it continues for the next half-hour, every twenty seconds or so (I timed them). As in all cases with very young children, you gotta adapt, so we gradually turn it into an opportunity for them to practice addressing their elders politely: “Chú ơi (Uncle)! Please have some water!” instead of shouting. They eventually get sidetracked by other things, and I manage to go back to the classroom where I assist Quyên’s boys, who are off to the side learning English. What’s a table? What’s a chair? What’s an eraser? And how do you spell it? The silent e’s in “make a circle” cause no end of confusion. Oh, English. You crazy, haphazard patchwork of a language. How exactly did you become so universal? Don’t answer that.
The afternoon is drawing to a close, and parents will soon come to take their children home. The benches are rearranged to form rows, and Lâm (Quỳnh’s mother) takes center stage for game time. The game is some sort of traffic police game: someone acts as a traffic cop, and the rest are all sitting on their benches, riding motorbikes. As far as I could tell, the traffic cop gives directions (like “turn left”, “stop”, and so on) and the rest of the players have to follow the directions. If the traffic cop catches anyone who misses a command, they have to come up and pay a fine(?), which amounts to singing a song. I’ll have to inquire further to see if we could use this game in our children’s class back home. Anyway, little by little, parents drop in to drive their children home. One by one, boys and girls graciously go to each of their teachers to announce their departure—“thưa bà, con về”, “thưa cô, con về”—as the Vietnamese culture of respect for elders demands. Eventually, only Quyên’s boys remain, along with one more girl whose parents let us know that they would be at work late. We sit down for dinner—bánh canh cua, or thick noodles with crab. By the time I Ieave the schoolhouse, it’s past 6:30 PM, for a work day of eleven hours.
Eleven hours and sometimes more, six days a week. And yet Quyên doesn’t complain. Not only because she enjoys teaching, but because it supports her family quite well. Teachers are generally well-respected and well-paid in Vietnam, but Quyên is particularly respected by parents for her teaching skill, her sense of discipline and her trustworthiness. People simply know she does a good job, and they’re proud to send her their children.
Trustworthiness, I’m coming to believe, is one of the keys to sustaining prosperity. Since the turn of the 21st century, we’ve seen ample evidence of the opposite—untrustworthiness—everywhere around the world, from Enrons and Worldcoms through Fannie Maes and Freddie Macs. How long do you think economies, which are fundamentally based on trust, can keep going when the people and institutions that make up those economies are not worthy of that trust? The alternative, says Bahá’u’lláh, is to “be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor”. This, He says, is “the supreme instrument for the prosperity of the world”, and “the greatest portal leading unto the tranquillity and security of the people”. Beyond her teaching skills, her smiling face, and her beautiful handwriting, that’s what impresses me about Quyên—how trustworthy she is, and the effect that has on the people around her. She may only teach kindergarten, but the whole world has a lot to learn from people like her.
January is done, and we’re advancing into an exciting February filled with promise for our neighbourhood. Our junior youth have finished studying Glimmerings of Hope, and we’re holding a “graduation” ceremony for them this Thursday (now there’s something we should do for the children’s class, too). That group will soon move on to study Breezes of Confirmation, hopefully doubling in size if everyone who said they were coming actually comes. Some of the new junior youth had attended a few sessions before—back when we first started with Glimmerings—but dropped out for various reasons. We think at least one of those reasons related to the more advanced language used in that book; hopefully, Breezes will help us address that issue.
In a recent post I wrote about our struggles with language and literacy levels. In the month that’s passed since then, we’ve done a few things with our children’s class that are worth reflecting on.
First off, we started offering more activities for building vocabulary. The most popular ones were our “vocabulary builders”, which you can find on the files page. These consist of two sheets of paper: one printed with a grid of pictures on one side and words on the reverse, and the other with a grid containing phrases, each missing a word. The goal is for the children to match the pictures with the phrase, and then write the corresponding word into the blank space in the phrase. For example, a picture of a report card with the word “attain” on the reverse would match up with the phrase “Because he worked hard, Jun was able to _________ high marks on his report card.”
So far, the children have responded well to these vocabulary builders, as long as we don’t use them every week (too much of the same thing becomes mundane, I guess). They use them a little differently than I’d expected: instead of taping only one side of the picture to the grid to allow them to reveal the phrase below, they prefer to glue the picture directly to the grid, meaning that both the word and phrase are hidden—only the picture is visible. To get around this, I’ll probably design the next one differently, so that, for example, each phrase has an empty space next to it where they can glue the picture. As well, the picture and the word could be on the same side of the paper, so that the word’s not hidden when they glue down the picture.
Another thing we’ve done—and this is a big one—is to start focusing on getting them to practice saying prayers every day of the week, and not just during the class. We’ve even called them up during the week to remind them to say their prayers. This has had a noticeable effect on the children and on class discipline. Now, instead of struggling with “O God, guide me”, the ones who’ve been reciting the prayers during the week are calm, present and confident during prayers. That confidence rubs off onto the other children, who see the seriousness and readiness with which their peers are approaching prayer time, and seem to clean up their own act in response. As I wrote before, sometimes it might just take a friend to set the example to inspire others to follow suit.
As we know, having the children reciting prayers outside of class isn’t just about building vocabulary; it’s about giving them regular contact with the creative Word of God. That’s why it’s a much more exciting and significant development than coming up with a clever vocabulary building activity. Reciting and memorizing prayers has the potential to kindle the children’s souls, and create within them spiritual susceptibilities. I remember calling up one of the parents recently and asking about whether her daughter was reading her prayers, and she replied in amazement that she was—that she would often find her standing in front of the refrigerator (where we posted a copy of the prayer) silently, and then walk off. Big transformations start with little changes, and I hope that before the year is out, we can report back with even greater changes—ones that may foster the growth of a profound devotional character in these families, and in the entire community.
November 14, 2012: The class went well, although we focused mainly on memorizing the prayer and quote rather than the story and other activities. Since several children were showing signs of wanting to let out pent-up energy as we approached the house, running, jumping and screaming, we spent a little time at the outset playing some circle games, such as our usual name game (say your name and associate it with an action) and Tap Hands. Then we continued with the Unity Prayer, asked them about their understanding of unity, and then continued on to learn the quote, identifying difficult words. We had started late and had already spent much of the beginning of class on games, so we skipped straight ahead to our art activity—blow painting, with another brief game as we stepped aside to prepare the paint. We prepared six cups with diluted acrylic paint—red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple—along with a bunch of straws and coloured paper. We showed the children how to pick up the diluted paint with the straw—just cover the top of it with your finger—and asked them to drop bits of paint onto their paper, and then blow it around with the straw. The result was quite impressive!
And fun to make!
The point of the exercise, of course, was to produce a backing for the prayer we had read—copies of which I had printed out before coming. Of course, some of the children put so much paint on their papers that they couldn’t stick the prayer on right afterwards, and had to wait a while before trying again. That just shows that we really need to practice these kinds of projects at home before bringing them to the class, so we have a good idea of how to do them properly. (I’m reminded of the time I tried to teach origami without having learned to do it myself beforehand.) All in all though, this was a fun class, but I’m worried that because we spent so much time on games this time, we might lack time to finish all the other activities next week. Watch this space, I guess?
Two good friends of mine, a couple who I met while pioneering in the province of Quebec a while ago, taught me a beautiful Baha’i children’s song. I forget what it’s called, but the lyrics of the chorus are: “Follow in the footsteps of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá / And in the pathway of the Abhá Beauty”. It’s going through my head right now. Anyone who’s taught children’s classes based on the Ruhi curriculum has had the chance to memorize plenty of stories about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and can probably call them to mind at a moment’s notice: The Merchant and the Coal, Lua Getsinger and the Poor Man, The Crystal Water, The Expensive Coat, and so on. These stories form the basis of a moral structure by which children can examine situations and determine what response would be in keeping with the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. What a blessing we have in the example of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá—a perfect example.
A few days ago I was getting ready for our weekly neighbourhood children’s class, going over the lesson and the activities we had planned. For various reasons—perhaps including the weather, a long trip we’d taken for a day-long training workshop, and the fact I’d just had a wisdom tooth taken out—I felt tired. All the same, we had planned the class for the next day, and there was no good reason to cancel or postpone it; in fact, we all agreed that we had arranged the best date for it. So with everything prepared, we drifted off to sleep, to get as much rest as we could. The next day I was still fatigued, and I could feel the insistent self in me trying to come up with ways and reasons to postpone the class. Finding none, I turned my thoughts to the example of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, especially to his trip to the West, when he spent every day moving from place to place, seeking no rest, continually engaged in serving his fellow human beings and in spreading the glad-tidings of Bahá’u’lláh’s Cause. As the Universal House of Justice recounted in its Ridván Message of 2011 (168 B.E.):
Tirelessly, He expounded the teachings in every social space: in homes and mission halls, churches and synagogues, parks and public squares, railway carriages and ocean liners, clubs and societies, schools and universities. Uncompromising in defence of the truth, yet infinitely gentle in manner, He brought the universal divine principles to bear on the exigencies of the age. To all without distinction—officials, scientists, workers, children, parents, exiles, activists, clerics, sceptics—He imparted love, wisdom, comfort, whatever the particular need. While elevating their souls, He challenged their assumptions, reoriented their perspectives, expanded their consciousness, and focused their energies. He demonstrated by word and deed such compassion and generosity that hearts were utterly transformed. No one was turned away.
These thoughts seemed to buoy my spirit, and solidify in me the desire to serve. I was further confirmed by the positive response of friends and family—whether Bahá’í or otherwise—when I my updated my status on Facebook, saying, “Tired, but still getting ready for children’s class tonight. Thinking of the example of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who taught and served humanity so tirelessly his whole life through.”
Looking back now, it probably would have served me better to stay home and rest, something that I’ve had to do since that time in order to let my body recover after dental surgery. And we should all be aware of the many references in the Bahá’í Writings to preserving our health in order to better carry out our service to humanity. Amatu’l-Bahá Ruhiyyih Khanúm, in her book The Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, recalls that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had once written the following words in a tablet to Shoghi Effendi expressing concern about his health:
He is God! Shoghi Effendi, upon him be the glory of the All-Glorious! Oh thou who art young in years and radiant of countenance, I understand you have been ill and obliged to rest; never mind, from time to time rest is essential, otherwise, like unto ‘Abdu’l-Bahá from excessive toil you will become weak and powerless and unable to work. Therefore rest a few days, it does not matter. I hope that you will be under the care and protection of the Blessed Beauty.
The challenge to all of us in this respect, of course, is learning the fine art of discerning genuine need for rest from attachment to comfort and ease. Sometimes rest is needed—even essential—but there is likewise a point at which rest becomes excessive and even unhealthy. (Think about what happens to one’s body if it doesn’t get proper exercise.) Discernment is needed to find that dividing line, which is as unique to each one of us as our bodies, their powers and their limitations are unique. What might be a healthy pace for one person might be too fast or slow for another; it might drive one to exhaustion and another to impatience and frustration. Our duty is to learn what we are able to do and whether we could, each day, do more than the last; to be forbearing and understanding with others as they do the same; and to encourage and accompany others in a journey of discovery and a shared path of service. The way forward along this path was illustrated for us by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in His Tablets of the Divine Plan, in which He urges us:
Consequently, rest ye not, seek ye no composure, attach not yourselves to the luxuries of this ephemeral world, free yourselves from every attachment, and strive with heart and soul to become fully established in the Kingdom of God. Gain ye the heavenly treasures. Day by day become ye more illumined. Draw ye nearer and nearer unto the threshold of oneness. Become ye the manifestors of spiritual favors and the dawning-places of infinite lights!
As we continue to serve in a humble posture of learning, undaunted by the awareness of our own shortcomings, we are “inspired and fortified” by the example of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. We “set His example before our eyes and fix our gaze upon it,” and “let it be our instinctive guide in our pursuit of the aim of the Plan”. Throughout this dynamic and profound process of building spiritual communities based on service to humanity, we learn to increase, little by little, our capacity to serve—and thus our capacity to draw forth our share from the ocean of God’s grace. The more we make teaching and service the dominating passion of our lives, the more we develop the sort of discernment needed to pursue this passion more effectively.