Thirty years ago this weekend, I was promoted. I had started first grade a week before, and, at the Rally Day assembly, I mumbled through my assigned recitation (a short poem). The Sunday School superintendent handed me a brand-new, black leather King James Bible, with my name written on the inside cover in her elegant hand. The inscription also notified me that I was now a member of the Junior Department of the Sunday School at Saint John’s Church.
To everyone at Saint John’s, though, I was really joining “Mrs. Truax’s class.” It seemed even then that she had been teaching forever. She had taught my mother back in the early Sixties, when the church was brimming with Baby Boomer children, a class in every corner of the Sunday School annex.
It was rather different on my promotion day, when amid the inevitable fluctuations of children’s attendance, our congregation found itself at a low ebb. I was the only promotion we’d had in several years, and the Junior Department was to be composed of me and about a dozen sixth graders. It was rather abrupt to shift from felt boards one week to reading through the Book of Esther in seventeenth-century prose the next, but I was proud at being able (mostly) to follow the lines in my new Bible.
A few weeks later, though, things changed dramatically. The sixth graders were all confirmed, and they moved on to a class taught by someone else, over beyond the Parish Hall. That left me as Mrs. Truax’s only pupil.
Now by the rules that pertain in most parts of life, that should have been the end of the Junior Department. You just don’t prepare a Sunday School lesson each week for one six-year-old boy.
But Mrs. Truax did.
Every Sunday, throughout most of my elementary school years, she taught a class of one. And she taught me with all the skill she had developed over decades in the classroom. There was a different story each week, Bible memorization games, posters, maps, and a little piece of hard candy on the way out the door. We sang and drew pictures and once made a terrarium in a Sanka can. It was a real class, with a weekly roll call, recitations on the stage three times a year, and little brass pins at Rally Day for perfect attendance. It was the highlight of my week.
She also trained me to serve as Saint John’s only acolyte for the same number of years. I didn’t sit in the chancel, but beside her in the front row. What I remember is the Lord’s Prayer, the weekly canticles, and all the verses of dozens of hymns. I remember her mother who sat with us every week, the ancient and very distinguished Mrs. Weller, who wore hats covered in black netting and brandished a lacquered cane, carved with serpents. And I remember gazing at the stained glass and thinking just how important a job being an acolyte must be. I knew it brought such joy to Mrs. Truax to have me beside her, so surely (I thought) it must give glory to God as well.
Jesus once led a little child into the huddle of his disciples. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me” (Mt. 18:5).
One such child — that was me. She loved me like I was her own, like I was him whom she loved above all. She loved me with the strength he supplied, and it was through her, probably more than anyone else, that I came to find him. I learned to cherish the Bible in those years in the Junior Department, to rejoice in the worship of the Church, to turn to God in prayer. Mrs. Truax thought I would make a fine minister, and she did a great deal of the forming. When I was ordained a priest, she presented me to the bishop and was one of the first in line to receive my blessing.
I last served as rector of a parish that was part of a diocese composed mainly of small, struggling rural churches — churches like the one in which I’d grown up. Four or five times a year, at one clerical gathering or another, the bishop would urge us to have some plan for Sunday School.
“You might only have one or two children,” he would say, “but make sure you have something to offer them. Have somebody ready with a lesson to go in case a child shows up one Sunday.”
The suburban rectors would politely roll their eyes. Who could imagine a class for one child? Best to give it up when you’re beaten, I suppose. But once upon a time that one child was me, and having a teacher who cared enough to pour her best into me made all the difference in the world.
I was grateful for Bruce Robison’s piece a few weeks ago about the insufficiencies of Sunday School. He’s absolutely right that teachers can’t carry the full burden for religious formation and that many parents should take their baptismal promises far more seriously. I am deeply grateful for having parents who read me Bible stories and prayed with me every night, and who brought me with them to service every week.
But there is something unique about the way a faithful teacher can nurture faith in a person’s life. After all, Saint Paul commended Timothy’s mother and grandmother for teaching him the truth, but he was the young man’s true spiritual father. For all Monica’s prayer and tears, it took Ambrose to open Augustine’s eyes. Despite all the piety of Epworth Rectory, John Wesley needed a dose of Moravian fervor to light the fire in his heart. Faithful Christian parents are a blessing, but I suspect that for most of us who keep the faith, a crucial role has been played by someone outside the family, someone whose love and wisdom are an unexpected gift.
I was deeply honored to go back to Saint John’s yesterday to preach at Mrs. Truax’s funeral. She had retired from teaching just a year ago at 93, when one fall too many left her confined to a chair. They were standing in the aisles, dozens upon dozens of her students, grandfathers and grandmothers, teary-eyed young men together with the little girls on the front row who sang so sweetly for her one last time. She taught for fifty-four years, a record probably not soon to be surpassed in these days of distraction and volunteer burnout.
I offered the Eucharist today for the repose of her soul, with a prayer for those who continue in her work. Next week, a new teacher or two will start in the Sunday School at my parish, probably in yours as well. He or she might just be the next Mrs. Truax, you know, with God’s help, a bit more support and encouragement, and a deeper sense of just how crucial this work really is.
The featured image “Sunday School” (2010) was posted by Flickr user bigbirdz. It is licensed under Creative Commons.