I was inspired by the example of my 4th-5th grade Sunday School teacher to take my turn at leading a midweek group of junior boys at our church. Mr. Rice had an intense interest in the spiritual lives and well being of 9 and 10 year olds. During the week he was an employee of aerospace firm McDonnell-Douglas and he always encouraged us to think big. He regularly shared stories from the space program that further ignited our interests in the already exciting new agency. Mr. Rice would frequently bring astronaut posters and actual spaceship parts to Sunday School. As a class project we built a model of the upcoming Gemini spacecraft. Later, when Lt. Colonel Edward White made that historic first space walk, I was in on the project – he was our guy. I am grateful to Mr. Rice for taking the risk to teach with passion.
I couldn’t expect to measure up to Mr. Rice but I agreed to teach the Wednesday night class of fifth grade boys. There were ten young men in the group and we met in the “tower” room under the steeple at the church.
My objectives for the class were to teach scriptural truths with application to their lives and expose them to basic leadership and development ideas for their coming years. Here’s the list of topics:
- How to shake hands and make eye contact
- How to build a three point sermon and how to take sermon notes
- How to take a girl on a date
- How to speak to an adult
- Learn the basics of Robert’s Rules of Order to be able to lead a meeting
- Memorize the books of the Bible.
- Show up
I added a two-part contest as an incentive. First, if they could recite the names of the books of the Bible to me with no errors, we would go to an Indiana Pacer game and stay overnight in Indy. Second, everyone reciting the books would also get a Swiss Army Knife engraved with their name and finally, the guy with the best sermon notes on a designated Sunday would get a bells-and-whistles Swiss Army Knife complete with multi-head screw driver, saw, can opener and magnifier. This thing could prepare a sermon. Game on!
The contest got them engaged – Indiana is the heart of basketball country and who can’t use another pocketknife. When I was able to announce the Pacers would be playing Michael Jordan and the mighty Chicago Bulls it sealed the deal. Some struggled with memorization and tried to limp through with buddy help but there was no room to fudge – all sixty-six books, in order, to me, no errors. They groaned and cited the impossible nature of the task but showed up again next week to give it another try.
Our evenings consisted of a scripture lesson and then our study of one of these leadership lessons. Again, they groaned and complained about such needless and boring stuff. “It’s like arithmetic, Mr. Tidball, we’ll never use this stuff.” But when they saw I had an agenda and wouldn’t budge they became engaged. I knew because they got quiet.
The pastor met us in his study and presented a simple outline of Sunday’s upcoming sermon. He was a seasoned pastor and showed the boys his well-worn Bible. He explained the use of the concordance and pointed to his favorite resource books on the full bookcase behind him. Someone asked, “but how do you know what to talk about?” which led to a timely exchange about his daily Bible study and prayer time.
How to talk to an adult puzzled them. Why would they want to in the first place and what would we talk about? I arranged for five pairs of senior men to station themselves at quiet corners around the church with instructions not to lead the discussions but let the boys direct the flow. I prepared the boys discussing the importance of listening and how to ask leading questions . . . it’s all centered on a sincere desire to get to know the person. I knew it was a stretch for them to concentrate on something outside themselves and their immediate needs and wants. By twos, the boys left to interview the adult men and I listened in on a number of interesting conversations as the boys, nervous at first, probed into the interests and experiences that shaped the lives of these mature individuals. Those interviewed were grateful for the experience and that night many new friendships began.
This may appear a young age to talk about dating and I wasn’t encouraging it but it’s already on their minds and in just a few short years it will happen and the issues need to be on the table. We talked about basic chivalry and etiquette and of preparing to honor the other individual. We touched on possible topics of discussion, how to lead in conversation, how to escort a woman, and how to order in a restaurant. I also spoke of what not to talk about on a date – what topics were out-of-bounds such as speaking ill of others. It was all about behaving as a gentleman if you wanted to be set apart as a gentleman.
I contacted each boy’s mother and asked her to participate in a Coke date with her son. They were to let the boys decide on the location, have them direct the route there, initiate the conversation and stay on topic. The mothers had to play the part of a young lady and not let the conversation slip into a homework discussion or family business. For one mother, known as a talker, I had to spend extra time outlining the program and stressing this was a time for the young man to shine. In nice words – keep your mouth shut even though you can’t stand the silence. I’ll admit the boys were a disappointed to learn they’d be taking out their mothers but they enjoyed being in charge and the focus of attention. The talkative mother returned after the date pleased with the experience but ready to explode with the words she’d held inside for the last hour.
The final lesson was on Robert’s Rules of Order. How do organizations, like the church or the government, conduct meetings and get anything done when there are so many opinions and ideas that must reach common ground? This would be the most basic of lessons – what is a “Motion”, what is a “Second” and how does a discussion work? With the big trip to the Indianapolis just a week away our sample topic to demonstrate Robert’s Rules would be – Where would we eat on the way to the arena. I suggested four fast food options and again outlined how someone must first put forth an idea to see if it will find support.
Some boys were seated in a row of chairs before me and the rest were standing behind in our semi-circle gathering. First, a “Motion” is put forth – a simple proposal statement followed, hopefully, by a supporting voice who “Seconds” the proposal that leads to a discussion. From the front row, one of the quieter boys just a few bubbles shy of nerd-dom, sensed the spirit of Robert’s Rules and gently raised his hand in what for him was a bold move. As chairman, I acknowledged him. “I think it would be a great idea for our trip if we . . . “. I gently interrupted him to point out the proper form. “When making a motion you simply say ‘I move that we have dinner at . . .’ and then fill in the rest.” So he started again, “I move we have dinner at Arby’s.”
Now we’re learning, I prided myself. I’m getting through, I’m imparting knowledge and sewing seeds of leadership and they’re participating. But before I could complete the thought and before the young ‘mover’ could finish the full grin at his boldness in leading the way, in one swift move four guys from the back row dove on top of him and started punching and pinching and rolling him around on the floor. “There’s no way we’re going to that place – change it! Take it back! Are you crazy?! I say we’re going to Burger King and that’s that!!
There was nothing in my Roberts Rules book about separating a fight but we did manage in short order to restore calm and return to our places. It was a great teaching moment in explaining this was not about might but about the power of words and the ability to express your ideas clearly. You must first wait to see if someone will “Second” the “Motion” and then we’ll discuss its merits. If it doesn’t pass a vote then you can propose Burger King and we’ll vote on it in the same way. You must be able to make a compelling case for Burger King to convince enough of the others if you’re going to win the vote with your idea.
The frustration of having to leave the familiar and instantaneous force of brawn to engage their brain and use words was palpable. Their tendency was to just strike out. Well, the first “Motion” died for lack of a second due to the back row boys staring down anyone with an ounce of nerve to offer up support. They finally made their Burger King motion, which got a quick second, and the vote soon passed. It was just a primer but an interesting evening on the need to articulate ideas in a group setting.
The big night finally arrived. One boy had to recite the books of the Bible in the parking lot before we loaded up but we now had 100% participation. “Now remember,” I said to the group, “when you travel with Mr. Tidball, you travel with shirt tails tucked in. We’re representing our group, our church, our town and we want to leave a good impression that we are young men with purpose. We loaded up the van with the fathers who joined us on the trip and headed to Indy and our first stop, Burger King.
I had called ahead and asked the Pacer front office for permission to get my group onto the playing floor before the game. “No, no,” they said, “you can’t meet the players or the coach, you can’t get in the locker room.” “Mr. Thomas,” I responded, “you don’t understand, all I want is to just let them step onto the surface of the basketball floor for sixty seconds and experience the size of the arena and the lights and the crowd.” “That’s all?” he said. “That’s all,” I replied. When we arrived at the arena he greeted us and he took us directly into the basement of the building just outside the locker room of the Pacers. The boys huddled in awe just knowing what was on the other side of the cinder block wall. We headed down long dimly lit hallway with the low hanging pipes then another quick turn and suddenly we were on the basketball court! I’ll never forget the wide smiles and wide eyes of wonder as the boys slowly took it all in . . . the noise, the lights, the players just a few feet away, the space and the specter of it all. Unexpectedly, the host handed each boy a souvenir pennant of the Pacers and we were off to find our seats in the nosebleed section. The memory of that moment is forever in their minds.
Fifth grade boys are just the right age – eager to learn, increasingly aware of their individuality, and secretly appreciative of people who take time for them. Even now, some twenty years later, I’ll get a note or a greeting from one of the young men who pulls out his Swiss Army Knife. “Thanks, Mr. Tidball, I remember our class” . . . and then I remember Mr. Rice and the Gemini spaceship.