Thursday, November 8, 2007

Monday, November 5, 2007

Catholic Schools & the Smoke of Dragons

I think we can all agree that our world is a complicated one in which discerning Right from Wrong is almost never easy. There is an ongoing Spiritual Battle between Good and Evil. We live in a world of seductions that are... well, extremely seductive. Once seduced, one cannot see the Wrong of it without the Grace of God. On the other hand, the pull of a Puritanical response to everything modern is strong since one does not have to discern in that direction either. Neither response, everything is Wrong or everything is Right, is discernment and both are seductions of the Evil One.

As parents, we have it even harder, since we have to discern for little ones without knowing exactly what they'll get, what they'll think, what they'll understand or how any of it will affect their choices towards or away from God and His Church. There has been much discussion on many blogs recently about the Harry Potter series and The Golden Compass. Where should Catholic parents (and "Catholic" schools) stand on these neo-pagan fantasy books? Are they a good thing because kids should be introduced to even the bad things in our culture? Are they just good, clean fun? Are they EVIL and to be avoided by every respectable Catholic?

These are huge topics in the Catholic and secular media. I think most parents will have the chance to decide for themselves about these books. I know I've made my own decisions. This post is about the smaller, unknown influences at one particular Catholic school in the Heartland. This true story is only ONE of MANY reasons why I made the decision to homeschool.

Every year, our K-8 school had a book fair to raise money for the school. Every year, I saw more and more books with storylines about magic and occultism, which I have to admit are very seductive topics. None of these books were screened by the parish priest or principal. Trust me, I asked and received that blank WTH-are-you-talking-about look with which Catholic "trouble-making" parents are all familiar. It was just assumed that Scholastic books must be OK for Catholic kiddos to read. It's not just Harry Potter and the Golden Compass we have to worry about.

During the last year (2nd grade) that my oldest was in Catholic schools, a Scholastic brand book called "Horrible Harry and the Dragon War" was assigned to the entire class. The kids were then asked to either write a book report or make a poster and give a presentation before the class. I love this type of project because the kids learn so many things (reading, comprehension, analysis, outlining, writing, public speaking) and are able to take pride in a final tangible accomplishment.

After reading the book, I wrote her teacher an e-mail saying that the book had some problems. What did she think about them? She wrote that the kids argue in the beginning of the book and that's pretty nasty but they resolve the disagreement by the end of the book, so she thought it was OK. This teacher (and 2 of the 3 others my daughter had at "Catholic" school) was protestant. I'm not saying that every Catholic (even THIS Catholic) has perfect discernment, but it would help if the teachers in a Catholic school were... you know, Catholic.

This story by Suzy Kline is about a classroom where two people who have very different conceptions of dragons meet. The boy ("Horrible Harry") is clearly white and Christian. He wants to be a knight and slay dragons and save the maidens from the clutches of dragons. The girl is Korean and secular or pagan or indeterminate. She loves dragons because they are wise and friendly. She thinks Harry is mean and tells him outright that she doesn't need to be saved. Once it has been established that Harry is rude and wrong, the adult reader thinks tolerance is the lesson. But then the Korean girl's dragon displays a supernatural ability that seems to say that the neo-pagan love of dragons has a basis in REALITY.

This is the e-mail I wrote her. Sorry for the length:
Listen, first I want you to know that [DAUGHTER #1] is reading and outlining the book and will do her project on the book. I'm probably going to "direct" her towards including some other stuff, just because I want HER to understand a little more. I'm gonna explain in this e-mail exactly what bothers me about this book, but don't get me wrong. I fully realize that she does NOT understand the book this way. She's too young, is in the "parrot" stage, doesn't analyze yet, etc. But, I do believe that we get fuzzy, hazy understandings from grammar school that stay with us precisely because we didn't and couldn't analyze them. With an older child, I wouldn't worry much about this type of book since we would be able to talk about what the author is trying to say. Although, there are people who argue that 7 and 8 year olds can be critical thinkers, I disagree. I agree with the Trivium/Classical method of education. They are sponges right now and if they are saturated with the right stuff, they will become critical thinkers later when they are developmentally ready.
Now, about the book... Actually, I agree with you that Suzy Kline demonstrates how grade school kids should NOT act to each other and she has Harry apologize for his rude behavior. I really don't think anyone would want to imitate Harry because she does such a good job of showing how one hateful word can really hurt. This is a lesson [DAUGHTER #1] could read more about any time.
No, I was more worried that [DAUGHTER #1] would so dislike Harry (which she does) that she would reject a whole group of people to which Harry and she belong. Before I explain, let me first say that I gave the book to a friend and my husband to read just to check if I was misreading it. The same main points that had bothered me, bothered them.

  1. Although Suzy Kline doesn't fully explain Harry's dragon, she explains quite a bit about the Korean dragon (which incidentally has nothing to do with "My Father's Dragon"). Harry gets his conception of the dragon from Margaret Hodges re-telling of the story of "Saint George and the Dragon". Saint George (patron of England) was a real guy and he was really martyred and he is really in the liturgical calendar. It's a classic Catholic tale about a good, persevering, self-sacrificing knight who frees a people from a terrible dragon. It's a great story. What bothered me here was that although Kline's little story has Harry being "intolerant", ironically it's Harry's (i.e., the Christian) viewpoint that is "silenced".

  2. The Dragon has traditionally been a symbol of evil (devouring people and hording treasure) ALL OVER THE WORLD (see Michael O'Brien's "A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind"). In the Christian world (in Scripture - see Genesis and Revelation), the dragon/serpent has always been the Devil. Even the Pearl Dragon in Chinese folklore is not a "nice" dragon. Bringing luck is not the same as nice or good. "Eastern" dragons are absolutley NOT "beautiful, friendly, and wise" (p. 41). I love learning about other cultures (my background is in anthropology), but it seems that Kline is really only using cultural sensitivity to say that all cultures are OK except Catholic culture, which only produces bigots. In fact, Kline could not be more obvious when she has Harry offer to be Sir Harry and "save" Song Lee from the dragon (p. 12). Song Lee responds, "I don't need to be saved. I love dragons! They bring good luck!" Are most 2nd grade girls aware of male chauvinism? Is THAT Kline's point? I doubt it. On the contrary, what Song Lee says makes most Christians cringe.

  3. Then, there's the issue of the "indoor rainbow". So, at this point, it's pretty clear that Kline probably doesn't believe there is Truth, but that we are all free to have or make up our own personal truth. The only Truth is that we should be nice and get along, no matter what. The assumption of this way of thinking is that no one religion is correct and the world is strictly material. That's not an uncommon belief in our society.:) But, then Kline has a "magical" (not miraculous) INDOOR rainbow appear directly above Song Lee's dragon which "proves" that dragons bring good luck. Harry, in his very inarticulate way, tries to say that rainbows don't have anything to do with luck. Could he be on the verge of explaining the natural phenomenon of the various wavelengths of light being separated as they pass through water molecules? Or maybe he was thinking of sharing his own cultural view that they are a sign of the promise between God and His people that the world will never be destroyed by flood again? Nope, I guess not.

  4. Then, there's the minor point of logical inconsistency about Harry's team BEING the dragons against Song Lee's dragons. If Harry had really read "Saint George and the Dragon" he would most definitely NOT want to be THAT dragon. He would only want to be Sir George and kill dragons. That's the whole point, really. But, then how could everyone be a member of the peaceful brotherhood of world dragons.:)

  5. And, of course, the book ends with a parade led by the "two different kinds of dragons" proving that peace can only happen in our world when believing, intolerant nuts like Horrible Harry forget about their beliefs and embrace ALL worldviews (washed clean of those pesky claims of absolute Truth) and infused with a touch of magic.
Anyway, enough about such a small book. I was just surprised that [DAUGHTER #1] brought this type of book home from her Catholic school. I'm pretty selective about what goes into her head at this stage. You probably wouldn't believe it, but 5 years ago I would have applauded Kline. I'm a convert (from atheism). So, I know a thing or two about the camp of the Enemy and I absolutely hold the Truths of our Faith dear.
Do you know what happened after this e-mail? You guessed it -- NOTHING. The teacher supposedly talked to the principal, who was supposed to get back to me. Daughter #1 turned in her poster about Dragons and Good and Evil and gave her presentation. She got an A and that's that. It was most likely one more piece of evidence to many folks at my parish that I was a nutcase. While I like a good fight every once in a while, after our life-altering wreck, I was too tired to keep up this good fight without my husband and we left, both school and parish. We now homeschool and are blessed to be members of a parish with the traditional mass, sacraments and catechism AND no school.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Feast of All Souls

Pray For This Man Marcin Maciej
December 19, 1969 - December 28, 2003
Catholic Husband, Father & Scientist

When I met him, I thought he was a Catholic Fruitcake Egghead Pollack in need of a tan and some fashion advice. He just needed some of my edjamucation, American-style. I mean, he had been locked away living under a mushroom in an ex-Soviet central European Gulag.

Well, I was right on every count (except that last little bit about the Gulag stuff). But I fell deeply, madly in love anyway. I helped him get some sun and stop wearing black dress socks with shorts and tennis shoes.

He helped me see that there must be a Creator and that the Creator was none other than Jesus Christ who established the One True Catholic Church. I definitely got the better end of that deal. Although, I didn't do him any harm either. Look above at what our Southern food, sun and woman did for him.

He was a paradox.

He was a serious thinker -- the smartest person I've ever met -- and a lover of Christ. He had an innocence and purity to him that I just can't describe in words. Dostoyevsky's The Idiot captures some of the idea of his goodness, kindness, and innocence. But he could also get angry and scream scary curses in Polish that made me want to hide under something. He loved new foods, new experiences and meeting new people but could be painfully shy and suffered from social anxiety at inconvenient times. He loved big pickup trucks, big tools and big guns but he wasn't afraid to let little girls fix his hair. And he only used the guns on non-living targets. He just couldn't kill animals himself but saw nothing wrong with hunting and loved meat, like any red-blooded man.

I miss being able to discuss everything under the sun with this intelligent, funny, sweet man.
This is him at our dining room table probably laughing at me trying to pronounce Polish. He always got a kick out that. I mean, have any of you even tried to pronounce that language? Sheesh! Give me a break!

This is him a couple of hours after making a decent woman of me.

"What in the world have I done?! Man, keep those beers coming, would ya'?! Don't you have any kielbasa? Oh, well, I'll just stand here like a man in a JCPenney ad and hope no one notices that I'm the groom."

I'll leave you with my absolute favorite photo of Marcin. I took it when we were at our favorite destination, the lake, after he had been painted like a Brave by daughter #1.

Please pray for my wonderful hubby and all the
Poor Souls in Purgatory.
They cannot pray for themselves and
depend on our prayers.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Somewhat Important Chapter

If you'd like to read some great writing from a young preteen writer about a very traumatic part of her life, go here. Please, leave her comments to encourage her budding talent.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Be Nice To Atheists

I am a changed woman. I don't do things small or halfway -- I either do them... or more often, I don't. Before my conversion, I was an atheist pro-choice feminist libertarian. OK, how many of you got chills down your spine on that one?

This is one reason why I avoid (when I can) running into old friends whom I haven't seen in years. It's embarrassing to remember all those stupid haircuts (and colors), the ridiculous clothes, hideous rock/punk music and the obnoxious political stances. And I'm mostly talking about myself.

This is also why it's sometimes difficult for me to have patience with atheist types. I was one myself and when engaged in "conversation" with one I am often seized with the irrational urge to shake the person violently and shout, "Get some sense, man. Snap out of it."

Last week, someone introduced me to a man with whom they thought I might have something in common. He was a very nice man, a very educated man... a biochemist like my husband (RIP) was. He had been told some of the details of our tragedy and so he expressed admiration at how I handled it all.

I told him, as I always admit, that it wasn't that admirable since I didn't have a choice. I had children and I just had to go on. And then I said that God helped me through it all in ways I never could have thought possible... that He bombarded me with His Grace when I most needed It. The man was a little taken aback... perhaps because he didn't expect an "educated" person, someone who was introduced to him as an equal, to speak of God this way. He paused, looked down, and then said, rather candidly, that he envied me in a way because he had always wished he could have the faith I obviously had.

As an aside, I don't have great faith. In fact, my faith wobbles quite a bit IMHO but that's not for lack of Grace from God but because of my own sinful obstacles.

But, anyway, I have been where he is and I understood him completely. He went on to say that it did not feel authentic to have to believe first in order to believe more. I told him that I used to think that also, and that it was a mystery to me how anyone came to believe in Christ. This is the dilemma of the atheist/agnostic... how to get them to soften even a little to Christ's Love.

I told him that what changed everything for me was that I realized that faith in Christ is like love of other people. You can't ever love anyone unless you first encounter them, talk to them, get to know them. When we do for others and make sacrifices for their well-being, we come to love them even more deeply. Love doesn't just happen, like in the movies, from a distance. It is a result of actions and choices. Although faith is a gift from God, our reception of it doesn't just happen. We have to make a step to know Him and in order to make that step we have to trust even imperfectly that He is there.

I told this man that I prayed and went to Mass before I believed in the Triune God. I didn't tell him (for lack of time) but I had already arrived at the conclusion that the complexity in nature pointed towards a designer-creator. I really hoped it wasn't the Christian God... too demanding. Arriving at that conclusion took time and a miracle.

What's the moral of the story, you ask. I don't know except that although I'll never know if I played any part in that man's pilgrimage, I'd still tell him the same thing. God loves even atheists.