A Classroom Epiphany: The True Meaning of Freedom

Tired TeacherThere is nothing more exciting than realizing that your students are really beginning to understand what you’ve been painstakingly teaching them.  Sometimes, your efforts seem to be near futile- for instance, three weeks ago when one of my students tried to explain how Jesus Christ was half-God and half-man after a thirty-minute discussion on the nature of the Hypostatic Union.  Or two weeks ago, when my students responded that we believed in three gods instead of three Persons (at least in that case, I’m pretty sure the students actually meant to give the correct answer).  I love my students, but sometimes teaching can leave me with flabbergasted at how little the children seem to retain.  Even after repetition, chapter reviews, and discussions of the topics, I still find myself wondering how much my students have actually learned.  You begin to lose faith in your ability to teach, but then you have one shining moment in the classroom.  One moment when you remember why you started teaching in the first place.  One moment when you realize that you might not be as awful as you thought.

I just had one of those moments last weekend.  I was teaching the fundamentals of morality to my Confirmation students, when we moved into a discussion of freedom.  It began with a brief consideration of the nature of slavery, and my students enthusiastically told me all about the life of a slave.  We talked about their lives, and their lack of freedom.  We talked about the fact that slaves are not free to make their own choices and are often forced to do things that they otherwise would have chosen against.  And so our conversation began to move into the crux of the matter, as I asked, “Which is better, to be free or to be a slave?”

Life Choices“To be free!”  They all announced in unison.

“And what is freedom?”  I asked them.  I knew what kinds of answers to expect, and I was not disappointed in the least.

“You can do whatever you want.”

“You can make your own choices without anyone telling you what you should do.”

“You get to choose.”

I was expecting these answers.  I had even prepared for them.  I quickly moved to my next question, “So if I wanted to commit murder, I’m free to do it?”

They paused, realizing that their answers were not sufficient.  Finally, one of them proposed another solution.

“Freedom is being able to do whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone else.”  I had been expecting this as well.

“So as long as you don’t hurt anyone else, you can do whatever you want?  And only those people who can do whatever they want are free?”  They were still enthusiastic about their responses, and most of them had no idea that I was leading them into a trap.

“Well, yeah,” they replied.

ChainsSo I proceeded to give them two scenarios.  On the one hand, there is a runner.  He has a coach who encourages him to eat healthy foods, sleep enough, and run on a regular basis.  His routine is rigorous, but the more he practices, the better he gets.  On the other hand, there is a couch potato.  He has his TV as company, rarely exercises, and eats whatever he wants whenever he wants.  There is no one to ever tell him what to do, and he gets to choose how he spends his time.  And finally, the big question: “Who’s more free?”

One of my students immediately responded, “The couch potato,” and many of my students nodded in agreement.  She went on to explain her choice, citing his eating and exercise choices and lack of unwelcome influence as reasons that he was freer.  I smiled, knowing that I still had them in my web.  I nodded as well, but then asked, “Does anyone disagree?”

A single student raised his hand, suggesting that he believed the runner was freer.  I asked him why he thought so, and in the most genuine voice possible, he responded, “You like asking trick questions, and this definitely feels like one of them.”

Freedom ChainsI couldn’t help but laugh.  Even though I had most of my students trapped, one of them had tricked me.  Even though he couldn’t defend his answer, he already knew where I was headed with our discussion.  I acknowledged that he was correct, but continued with our scenarios to explain why this was the case.

“What happens if you always eat whatever you want and you never exercise?”  I asked them.

“You’d get sick.”

“You’d get fat.”

“Your doctor would probably get angry at you.”

“You could die prematurely.”

All good answers.

“And what about those who treat their bodies well?  Who eat well, sleep well, and exercise regularly?” I continued.  And then I saw it.  Wheels turning.  Brains making connections.  The truth clicking into place.  I watched as their eyes lit up, as smiles spread across their face.  I watched as they got it.  And before anyone could speak, the student who had given the original incorrect answer was speaking again.

“It’s the runner.  He’ll be freer because his body will be able to do what it’s supposed to.  He’ll be happier and healthier.  And he’ll probably live longer.”  I nodded, and asked once more, “So what’s freedom?”  And then the most amazing moment ever.

“Freedom is choosing to do what’s right.  Freedom is choosing to do what’s good for you.”

Christ AloneI nearly did a dance right there and then, I was so happy.  They’d gotten it.  They’d figured it out, and all they’d needed was a little prodding, a little challenge to the garbage that they’d been spoon-fed on a regular basis by our culture.  No, freedom is not the ability to do whatever you want.  It’s not even the ability to do whatever you want as long as you’re not hurting anyone else.  Freedom is so much better.  Freedom is choosing what’s right.  Freedom is choosing what’s good.  Freedom will lead to happiness and health in our daily lives, and it’ll lead to happiness in eternal life if we continually pursue it.  Freedom is not indifferent; it is not whatever we want it to be.  Freedom is the result of making choices that help us to become the people that God desires us to be.  Freedom is the result of making choices that will make us more Christ-like.  The more we imitate Christ, the freer we will become.  And that’s the truth.  And as they say, “The Truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!

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