Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Rituals That Connect Us

As a boy, my family attended church every Sunday morning. We moved around a lot, so there isn't any specific church that I can look back on and call my childhood church, but each time we found ourselves in a new place one of the first things we did was join a Lutheran church, and if there wasn't one around, we found something else, like the non-denominational church to which we belonged during our years in Athens, Greece. We went to church for the sake of our souls, of course, but we were also there for the fellowship. Our churches were a way to connect with our fellow humans who gathered together week after week to lift our voices together in song and to engaged in meaningful ritual and ceremony (and, of course, to play cat-and-mouse chasing games after services while the adults conversed over coffee).

Yesterday, during our class meeting, circle time, we sang:

I have a little turtle,
His name is Tiny Tim,
I put him in the bathtub
To see if he could swim.
He drank up all the water,
He ate up all the soap,
And now my little turtle
Has a bubble in his throat.

It's a common enough song, one that is sung in preschools everywhere I reckon, but as with most of these "common songs," we have over the years, made it our own. Upon finishing the song, at least one of the children, usually several, shout out, "Faster!" and so we sing it faster. Then the call rises up again, "Faster!" so we sing it as fast as we can. But, of course, they call for even faster, so this time, always, I express concern, "We can try it, but I'm worried we'll hurt ourselves, so we're going to have to warm up." Then we "loosen up our rotator cuffs" by rotating our shoulders backward, then foreward, followed by stretches "up high," "to the side," "to the other side," "to the front," "to the back." And finally we rub our hands together to warm them up.

We've done it a million times before and nearly everyone, every time, participates. We all know what to do. It's a long set-up for a punchline we all know is coming. We finally get our turtles ready (hands opening and closing rapidly like a snapping mouth), we take a moment to admire how fast they are. I say, "Ready . . ." then together we all say, "Bloop!" finishing the song before we've even started. The fastest song in the universe, even faster than the speed of light.

We've welcomed a few new students at Woodland Park over the past few weeks. Yesterday, as we sang the song, I was watching those new faces experiencing us through fresh eyes. Most of the children I teach are with us for three or four years. They don't remember a time when they didn't take part in this joke we tell together, but for these new kids, even if they already knew the basic song from their previous preschools, it was just a song, an engaging one perhaps, but they had no idea we were leading up to our specific, ceremonial payoff. As the "old" kids enthusiastically performed their parts, singing and shouting "faster" on cue, I was reminded of my experience of attending church as a boy, singing the familiar songs, chanting the familiar chants, lighting the familiar candles. This isn't the only song we sing together that has become an important bonding ritual for the children of Woodland Park, one that connects us as a community not just now, but over the years and even generations.

It occurred to me as we sang that as we have made these songs our own, they have become important rituals in the highest sense. As we have made them, they have also been part of making us. That is the power and importance of ritual and ceremony not just for communities of young children, but for every community if it is to be worthy of the name.

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