Once upon a time, a small group of small students, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and aged 6½ (the ½ very carefully insisted on, with the help of gestures) – once upon a time these students were asked to decorate a project they’d made for the corridor wall. The teacher gave instructions, indicated felt-tip pens, stars, shapes, squiggles, smiley faces. The students were more or less baffled until one said, “Oh, she wants us to draw Happy Things”, and they all piled in: stars, shapes, squiggles, smiley faces, multicoloured felt-tip Happy Things. And then one said, “io disegno il croce di Gesù.”
I’m fond of Trippy Theological Teaching Moments in the Young Learner classroom. Here are some others:
1. when a class of four-year-olds were comparing names, and little Masha, very self-possessed, observed that her name was the best name because it was the name of the Mother of God.
2. when I asked the students why they were speaking Italian during the Hello Circle, and they said they were wondering why Muslims don’t eat pork, whereupon we had a fine discussion about traditions and diversity which was totally irrelevant to the linguistic aims of the lesson.
3. when they said that the last student into the classroom would have to do a forfeit, which was the same word as a penance, and I found this unreasonably irritating and stipulated that in our classroom the first would be last and the last would be first, apparently a Bible verse that they knew already, possibly from Scouts.
4. when the students suggested ‘Do you like Jesus?’ as a discussion question alongside ‘Do you like Easter?’ and ‘Do you like chocolate?’: I can report that eight out of a random sample of eight Italian pre-adolescents liked Jesus.
5. when one student said that although Easter was important to him because of Jesus, really Easter was important to him mostly because of chocolate.
But “io disegno il croce di Gesù” is definitely up there among my favourite Trippy Theological Teaching Moments. Perhaps because she said it with such determination, an eminently logical next step from stars and squiggles. Perhaps because the other children questioned and then cheerfully copied her. Is the cross of Jesus a Happy Thing? they said. Is he happy on the cross, after all? È felice perché salva i cattivi, she said: he is happy because he saves the bad people, a weird reminder to English ears that he saves both the caitiff and the captive, these being the same person etymologically speaking, and that if etymology would stop its ears for a moment one might even suggest that he saves the catty. Perhaps because from his felt-tip chest on the felt-tip cross that big heart booms in the manner of a Looney Tunes character falling in love. Perhaps because the small students were so proud, showing off the project on the wall to their perplexed parents.
È felice perché salva i cattivi. But I’ve worked so hard, I thought; I’ve tried so hard not to be cattiva but to be one of the nice people, saying the right thing at the right time, polite, never offensive, apologising constantly, so that after a while people roll their eyes and think oh, she’s apologising again, as who should say, there she goes again crying wolf.
Excessive politeness can of course be great fun, a brightener for those banal moments between life’s more meaningful interactions, and perhaps worth introducing as a sport in the next Olympic Games. For example, I recently had a delightful telephone conversation with someone wanting to speak to Rosabella’s mum, in which I tentatively suggested that she might have the wrong number, and she apologised for disturbing me, and I cordially said not at all and I hoped she would get through eventually, which perhaps she didn’t because today someone called wanting to speak to Rosabella’s mum all over again. A little over-apologising can be a thoughtful communication strategy at times. Other times, sadly, the apologies don’t really earn their keep. Here’s another clickbait–list, “16 apologies I imagine you’d rather not hear”. (One of them will shock you. But only one.)
1. when I apologise as a defensive move in case I’m about to be criticised or corrected.
2. when I apologise because I’m not sure what to say and it seems a convenient filler.
3. when I apologise because I’m embarrassed, but all that’s at stake is my own dignity and you didn’t noticed that anything had happened.
4. when I apologise because I’m trying too hard to be liked.
5. when I apologise because I’d prefer to be 100% perfect and am constantly appalled to discover that I’m not.
6. when I apologise because I’m dissatisfied with what I’ve said so far, and it hasn’t occurred to me instead to ask you a question about your news or thoughts, or to say something nice about your clothing decisions, professional achievements or general excellence, or in some other way to move the conversation forward.
7. when I apologise for nothing in particular because I’m just feeling generally apologetic.
8. when I apologise because I’m fishing for the reassurance of being told it’s fine.
9. when I apologise in a second language for the billionth time using the same words because I don’t know any other way of apologising in that language.
10. when I say “sorry” as a knee-jerk reaction because it’s what you just said.
11. when I apologise when it was nobody’s fault, and nobody really needs to take any blame, or perhaps things didn’t really go very awry in the first place.
12. when I apologise for apologising.
13. when I apologise so much you don’t feel you can really be up-front with me and tell me that I did something wrong because I might be too upset.
14. when I apologise about the thing that wasn’t a problem, and don’t apologise about the thing that was a problem.
15. when I apologise for doing something that you also did, thus making you feel guilty, or that you ought to apologise when really you can’t see the need.
16. when I apologise because it’s become a habit and I’m not sure how to stop, like I’m not sure how to round off this list.
Crying wolf: after too many random apologies, one single strongly-felt and important apology could come to seem less valuable just when you really need it to. Or one might completely overlook the opportunity to apologise for real, bogged down in trivial anxieties, unable to see the wood of friendship for the trees of embarrassment. And it would be an opportunity: what is it like, one wonders, when saying sorry is the first step and all the steps after that are positive changes, stronger relationships and more expansive views? What is it like when you get up somewhere, out of the valley, out of the Slough of Over-apology located somewhere near the Slough of Despond, into the hills and the mountains? It’s nice to be told that you didn’t need to say sorry, but what does it feel like to be forgiven, to know that you did do wrong and that it really was lifted away?
He never came to save the nice people.
When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table…
Well, he did come to save the nice people of course—
… A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them…
—but not with any sense of deference to their orderliness and proper ways of doing things.
“Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
È felice perché salva i cattivi: joyously, crazily, chaotically, in bright felt-tip childish scrawls all over the boring universe. Lavishly, like a broken jar of perfume poured out over someone’s feet. She with her jar, he with his life, neither of them were ever going to apologise for fluffing the script of the ordinary patterns of social interaction. They chose what was better. They were impatient in love, like children, who will always get the pen to the paper with immediate action, rather than stopping to question the artistic impulse. They had more important things to be getting on with.
This is not to deny that one can use the ordinary patterns of social interaction, apologising included, lavishly, lovingly and life-givingly. The question is how to develop a less hesitating, less apologetic, more forgiven, more confident approach, so that from the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks, even if the mouth is not normally very good at that kind of thing. I once tried giving up apologising for Lent: whether this had any even short-term effect is doubtful, as it’s a tough habit to kick. In theory, the jar of pride and self-doubt once kicked over, thoroughly kicked over and broken, would then pour out pure nard. Which is almost certainly not what another student had in mind when he rewrote Ten Green Bottles:
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put the EFL teacher together again. But togetherness in oneself is not much worth having without togetherness with others. One’s own dignity, in the end, is not a Happy Thing. Better to be a little chaotic for the sake of compassion and affection. Better to not say sorry quite so often. Better to operate with a bit more colour, a bit more joy, a bit more freedom. After all, what Italian children apparently call a felt-tip pen is lo spirito.