“Mr. M, can I go to the bathroom?”
“I don’t know, can you?”
My twelve-year-old student rolls his eyes, tries to hide his smile from me, and makes a second attempt:
“MAY I go to the bathroom?!”
There was, I was told, a list circulating around my old school called “$#@% Mr. M says,” and this little dialogue topped the list. I can’t tell you how many thousands of times I’ve said this over the course of my still-somewhat-short teaching career.
The joke has a bit of life-cycle in the course of a student’s 7th grade year…At first, there’s surprise: “did he really just ask me if I can go to the bathroom?!” Then, there is annoyance: “Why does he say that EVERY SINGLE TIME?!” Then, there is bemused acceptance. Finally, by the end of the year, the student gets to the point where he is terribly disappointed if I forget to say it: it has become a beloved part of the routine, a defining aspect of the student-teacher give-and-take.
G.K. Chesterton once said:
“All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington, he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness. The very speed and ecstacy of his life would have the stillness of death. The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life.”
I used to think that the Catholic practice of repeating prayers was dull and annoying, if not out-right sinful. “Why would you say the same thing to God over and over again? Don’t you have a real relationship with Him?!”
But now, though, as I’ve practiced devotions like the Rosary and the Jesus Prayer, I’ve realized that there’s a beautiful depth and nuance to repeating myself. Saying the same, familiar prayers has become a beloved part of my relationship with God. I find that I would be terribly disappointed if someone told me I couldn’t say the Our Father or the Hail Mary; some part of my life with God would feel like it was sick or fatigued.
I have learned the supreme joy of repeating myself, and of delighting in the routine. And yes, you may go to the bathroom now…