I’m an Episcopalian now, but my parents joined a Unitarian Universalist church when I was seven years old, so I was raised in that denomination. There were many things about it that weren’t compatible with my spirituality, but I did learn at least one valuable lesson there: Some secular books contain wisdom and moral dilemmas that can be valuable catalysts for religious discussion and development. I’m a big fan of the Bible and prefer attending a church where it’s the main text. It’s just not the only book that can speak to the truth in our hearts. Last Sunday, I had an opportunity to apply this idea in my Episcopal church.
We normally have an Adult Education program on Sunday after the coffee hour. During Lent, these programs are a special series with a theme and are meant to be intergenerational, although the planners have had some trouble figuring out how to involve children. This year, the theme of the series was inspired by a song lyric something like, “O God, my sins are like the highest mountain, and my good works are like the smallest pebble.” Everyone’s felt like that–overwhelmed by our wrongness, downplaying our goodness–and while it’s important to admit when you’re wrong, bogging down in it can prevent you from turning in a better direction. Humility, our visiting priest suggested, really means honest and clear-eyed self-evaluation, acknowledging both good and bad. Some people objected that this was too complicated and abstract an idea for children.
Well, the planners decided to bring in guest speakers and were having some trouble getting enough speakers for all the Sundays, so they asked my friend Wiltrud to coordinate a program for the first Sunday in Lent. She asked me to help think of something that would be particularly accessible to the children. I suggested reading a story about a child who did something wrong and felt overwhelmingly bad. I thought that relating to a child having that experience would help the kids understand our theme and help the adults tap into it on a deeper, less intellectual level than the typical Adult Ed discussion.
The story I chose was an abridged version of the last two chapters of Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary. I cut out non-essential parts and got it down to about 14 minutes, read aloud. It’s so well-written and emotionally powerful that it’s hard to summarize, but I’ll try.
Ramona is all set for a great day: She has her first loose tooth, and her mother is trusting her to stay home alone for a few minutes and then walk to kindergarten alone (while her mother takes her sister to the dentist). But Ramona misunderstands how to read the clock and is late for school. Her classmate Susan is rude about it, but her teacher Miss Binney is forgiving. Ramona’s tooth comes out–great excitement!–and Miss Binney says she is a brave girl. Ramona is overjoyed. When Susan is unimpressed by the tooth crater, Ramona pulls a curl of Susan’s beautiful hair and says, “Boing!” Although Susan doesn’t like this and says so, Ramona persists because it’s fun and she’s having a great day. Miss Binney tells her to stop, and Ramona intends to stop, but then Susan calls her a pest–a word that really stings Ramona–and she boings just once more. Miss Binney is very disappointed in Ramona and tells her that if she cannot stop pulling hair, she must stay home until she can. Ramona admits that she cannot stop. She goes home thinking Miss Binney does not love her anymore, feeling exiled from the school she has so enjoyed. At home that night, Ramona tries to show off some knowledge but realizes her misunderstanding when her big sister laughs at her and her parents are amused. Ramona flies into a rage, kicking the bedroom wall, thinking she’s just a stupid little sister who can’t do anything right, thinking no one understands her. In the moment, it feels good to be so bad! Next day, she feels calmer but sad and lost. She stays home from school all week. Finally, her neighbor brings a letter from Miss Binney, with her tooth and the simple question, “When are you coming back to kindergarten?” Ramona realizes she is loved and wanted after all and decides to return.
We had about 20 people in the session, ranging from almost 4 years old to over 70 years old. All agreed that we’ve had times when we felt like Ramona! That moment when you realize you are wrong, really wrong and doing damage to an important relationship, is such a horrible feeling. Having an especially happy day punctured by someone’s nasty comment is an awful feeling, too. Even grown-ups still have these same basic experiences over and over again. Talking about the universality of these feelings really brought us all together.
In fact, during the discussion I shifted from trying to make these big abstract concepts accessible to children, to realizing that this may be an example of coming to God like a little child: We adults think we’re so much more mature than we were in kindergarten, but when our special day is marred by rudeness, we might snap right back; we can dish out disrespect but can’t take it; we sometimes can’t resist doing things we know we shouldn’t; we are devastated when someone important to us expresses disapproval, even if we deserve it; we easily jump to the conclusion that we are unloved and misunderstood and can’t do anything right; we sometimes hide because we don’t know how to fix the problems we caused. Inside each of us is a vulnerable little child who just wants to sit in God’s lap and know that we are loved.
Wiltrud had planned some discussion questions, and a bunch of interesting topics came up:
- What do you think happened next? The book ends with Ramona’s decision to go back to kindergarten; it doesn’t tell us what happened when she did. Was she able to resist Susan’s curls? Did she apologize? Some people said that in that sort of situation, they feel they ought to apologize but can’t figure out how to approach it, so they go on for a long time feeling like there’s still something wrong and it’s their fault.
- Did Ramona ever feel bad about what she did to Susan? Her remorse seems to be primarily about damaging Miss Binney’s regard for her. She’s still angry at Susan; in fact, during her time off school, she continues to feel justified in her response to Susan’s behavior. What about Susan–do you think she felt bad about what she said to Ramona?
- How is Ramona’s relationship with Miss Binney like our relationship with God? (I immediately thought of the song lyric, “Jesus loves me when I’m bad, though it makes him oh so sad.”) God does not stop loving us when we do wrong, but we often fear that will happen. We have a choice about whether or not to obey. Just like Miss Binney remembered Ramona and kept her tooth safe, God waits patiently for us and forgets no details. Sometimes all we need is a simple reminder that we are still loved and are welcome to return when we are ready.
- Ramona’s suffering is worse because she feels so alone. She won’t tell her parents much about what happened, and they make little effort to understand. It doesn’t occur to anyone to ask why Ramona pulled Susan’s hair; her defensive explanation, “Susan called me a pest!” is met by Miss Binney saying, “That is no excuse for pulling hair.” Why is it that we cannot have a hair-puller in our kindergarten, but a name-caller in our kindergarten gets to play the victim?
- Nobody ever found out why Ramona was late for school, so her clock-reading error wasn’t corrected. She knows she must have done something wrong, but she doesn’t know what–and that bewildered, powerless feeling must have been lingering dormant under her joy about the lost tooth, ready to contribute to her “can’t get anything right” feelings later.
- Did Ramona’s mother set her up for trouble by expecting too much of her? The book is almost 50 years old, but people in this session who were little children around that time disagreed on whether or not it used to be commonplace for kindergartners to spend short periods alone and walk short, familiar distances alone. These days, it’s generally considered inappropriate, although my kindergartner has walked to school alone. Sure enough, Ramona didn’t have all the skills she needed to get herself to school on time. Her mother shouldn’t have left her without making sure she understood how to read the clock.
- Miss Binney’s punishment seems shockingly drastic. What kind of school lets a teacher just send a child away in disgrace, without even a trip to the principal’s office? Ramona’s parents, after a conference with Miss Binney, accept it: “Ramona has to make up her own mind that she is ready to behave herself.” Is that too big a task for little Ramona to tackle without any guidance? Several of the kids had ideas for self-control strategies someone could teach Ramona.
- Ramona’s great day was all about her: her loose tooth, her feelings of maturity about getting herself to school, and the praise Miss Binney gave her. She was so focused on herself that she didn’t think about Susan’s feelings. In fact, she started teasing Susan because Susan refused to admire her accomplishment and said, “I’m glad you were late because I got to open the door on my very first day as door monitor.” Susan’s self-centeredness made Ramona indignant, even as Ramona herself was very self-centered. (Yeah, yeah, they’re only five years old–well, adults do this all the time, too!)
- Feeling grown-up is very important to Ramona because she’s the youngest in her family and immediate neighborhood. “Pest” has become a trigger word for her because big kids call her that; she feels she shouldn’t have to tolerate being called a pest by someone her own age. Susan didn’t know that, yet Ramona reacted as if Susan should have known.
- Just as Susan “pushed Ramona’s button,” Ramona teased Susan about something she’s probably sensitive about: her unusual hair. My curly-headed son and a red-haired girl agreed that they get tired of people always talking about their hair, wanting to touch it, and sometimes touching without permission so that they pull it. We all have our triggers!
- It’s really very brave and perceptive of Ramona to admit that she is not going to be able to resist Susan’s curls. How many of us, given the choice between getting yet another chance to behave correctly and admitting we are powerless, would choose to state in front of the class that we cannot control ourselves? But then, having done that, where can we go from there?
It was a really great discussion! Several of the adults who had never read Beverly Cleary’s books left making plans to read them. I recommend them all. Serious ethical dilemmas, worked into realistic childhood situations with perfectly rendered emotional detail, appear in Ramona the Brave, Ellen Tebbits, and Otis Spofford as well, and all of her books are among the best children’s books I’ve ever read.