I have to admit that for me, making “small talk” does not always come easy. When it comes to interacting socially with students, I’m not necessarily the “warm and fuzzy” type, at least not right off the bat. I’m professionally pleasant and cordial but it takes me a while to let my guard down and just be myself. Last night, I was pleasantly “disarmed” by one of the young people who asked at the outset, “where were you last week?” I replied that I was in California, doing some presentations. This, of course, led to a bevy of other questions: was it warm in California? did you see any skateboarders? what kind of presentations did you do? etc. Before long, we were engaged in the most delightful banter (they were intrigued by my traveling) that made me feel so much more relaxed than usual. I’m sure it’s taken time for the young people to “warm up” to me and to one another as well and they just seem so much more relaxed and comfortable at this point in the year.
I’m reminded of a professor of mine at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago who, in a course about ministry and leadership in the Church, identified the number one goal of any leader as “the need to ensure people that they are safe.” When kids come to religious education or any new setting for that matter, they are not entirely sure if they are safe – not necessarily from violence, but from emotional harm (i.e. being made fun of, being criticized, being pressured, feeling dumb, etc) As catechists, we provide our young people with a “safe haven” – a feeling that is especially reinforced by a climate of prayerfulness (the presence of a loving God). I think the kids are feeling “safe” with me and with one another. They still are reticent to share about any needs they might bring to prayer (e.g. anyone sick in their families, etc.) but overall all, they seem very comfortable just being themselves and engaging in our sessions.
One more thing: it’s funny how the better you know your students and the more relaxed you are with them, the easier it is to discipline them with a look and a smile that says, “allright…you’re funny…now cut it out!”