Class started as it often did. “I want to pray for Kayla,” 1 12 year-old Caylen said with a mischievous smile. “Her mom took her phone away last night. She probably deserves it though because she’s really immature. I mean, I’m pretty immature, but she’s really really immature. You wouldn’t give a five-year old a phone, would you? But still I want to pray for her.”
As our start-of-class prayers have evolved over the past year, the most common petitions by far have to do with iPhones. Some students pray to get them back from parents who are trying to pry their children away from screens. Others pray to acknowledge a rude comment that’s still bothering them from last night’s three hour conversation. Still others offer petitions for people who have suffered misfortune in viral TikTok videos. That’s most common for the seventh grade boys.
Jared’s the one who figured out this way of exploiting my laissez-faire approach to petitions. A few months ago he started his prayer for a “video I saw on TikTok last night.” He described an elaborate set up and a dramatic pratfall, like Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner had come to life on his phone. The class roared. Two of Jared’s good friends completely lost it, nearly falling out of their seats with schadenfreude. It’s become a trend. The seventh grade boys spend most evenings watching ever more bizarre stunts on TikTok. Every morning, they “pray for” the victims of these stunts with their classmates. I have to close the classroom door because the laughter echoes down the halls into the principal’s office. After the laughter subsides, someone inevitably follows up with a plea to God that a phone will be returned by a punishing parent.
The seventh grade girls have figured out that prayer is a productive space in which to sort out classroom drama. They remind me of my grandmother, rehashing the highs and lows of the previous nights’ engagements, though she had cocktail parties, and they have group FaceTime conversations. They offer direct feedback to more difficult personalities. One might say about a girl sitting just a few rows away, “I can’t believe that she said that to me last night.” Such petitions often provoke louds cheers of approval or else protestations from the offending party. Or they might pray about a boy in an ever higher-pitched voice, “that he will stop calling me over and over again, I don’t want to talk to him!” Whenever boys come up, all the girls fall into fits of giggles. Still, no matter what the drama of the night before, everyone can agree that it’s wildly unfair that someone’s mom has taken away her phone.
The eighth grade girls tend to have a worldlier focus than any of the rest of my classes. They’re young women now, precocious and sophisticated. While they still spend hours on their phones, they’re aware of the troubles of the world. We pray for “everyone with COVID” and “the homeless.” Vicki spent weeks praying for an end to “Asian hate” and for the safety of women on a TikTok-promoted “National Rape Day.” Her classmate prayed for justice for George Floyd for weeks before the verdict was released. Recently, though, it got personal.
“He was thirteen. I’m thirteen.”
Yajaira doesn’t always offer petitions, but she prayed for Adam Toledo for a few days after a video went viral in which he was killed by Chicago police. The video stunned her as it seemed to say something about her own life. One inner city Hispanic teenager was dead, and another was sitting here praying for him before trying to focus on linear functions.
At our school, we try to provide a safe home for poor students in Brooklyn. As we prepare to graduate our eighth graders, these black and brown young women are quickly realizing that the big world outside will not be so safe. The girls have adopted a respectable, adult posture toward the dangers of the world. They’ve seen the cross, and they’ve seen the way they might one day be crucified on it. I stand in awe of their ability to face such tragedy despite being only fourteen.
I often sound like those eighth grade girls when I pray. It’s easy for me to offer Jesus a litany of tragedies I’ve read about in the news. I know plenty of dying parents and sick friends and incarcerated brothers worthy of my attention in prayer.
I think Jesus sent me to the seventh graders to learn how to pray. Given the weight of the world, I rarely let Jesus surprise me with laughter the way Jared’s classmates do. I rarely lose myself in the reckless joy in which they bask. As Caylen admitted, they’re all quite immature, but Jesus looked to ones such as these as models for the Kingdom. To my adult mind, heaven is a place where worldly problems are solved, but the seventh graders show me that maybe that’s too small and earthly a picture. What if, instead, heaven is simply where laughter always abounds?
- All names have been changed to protect students’ identities. ↩