The Paideia of the Playground: How Tutoring Impacts the Trinity Fellows

It was a Thursday afternoon in early September when the Trinity Fellows first filtered onto the small playground behind Johnson Elementary School. Some came eagerly, and within minutes of meeting their student, were chasing their child around the monkey bars and up the slide. Others approached the playground more tentatively; fidgeting as they stood on the edge of the woodchip rectangle, they seemed a bit unwilling to enter in. As I watched the eager and the uncomfortable alike, I couldn’t help but wonder: should they all be required to participate? In the past five months, I have come to answer that question with an emphatic “yes” as I have watched Fellows who do not share my innate love-of-children grow in their capacity to empathize and understand their students. And I have begun to see that the beauty of the Fellows Program, and its partnership with Abundant Life, lies in the way in which it commits individuals to loving what Christ loves. The program requires that Fellows tutor with Abundant Life – not because they are “good” with kids or have any interest in teaching – but because Christ cares for these children, and thus they should as well.

In his book, Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith argues that “liturgy” (a term he broadly defines as any identity-forming practice – from shopping to cooking to reading the Bible) fundamentally shapes our desires, which, in turn, mold our character. In short, Smith believes that what we do determines what we love, and what we love determines who we will become.

For the Trinity Fellows, tutoring at Abundant Life has become one of these “liturgies” – a sanctifying, identity-forming ritual that is slowly shaping them into men and women who love God and neighbor most. Each week, they are learning to love others as Christ first loved us: by listening to their students with compassion, encouraging them in times of frustration, and disciplining them out of a spirit of love. Each week, they are learning to see their student as Christ sees us – with a redemptive vision that recognizes great beauty in great brokenness and affirms the truth that we are all image-bearing sons and daughters of the living God. In effect, the practices of the playground – and the discipline of actively stepping-into the life of a child, week after week – form a type of paideia, or “training in righteousness.”

By simply sitting with their student, sharing a snack, helping with math-facts, and listening to a little bit of his or her life, these Fellows are becoming people who boldly enter the messiness of a broken world – not because they are innately-equipped to do so – but because they know that the all-sufficient God of Creation goes before them, enabling and empowering them to do His good work. By entering into the chaos of that woodchip arena in order to pull-back a swing or push a student down the slide, these Fellows are, in some minute way, enacting Christ’s incarnational love.

And so I’ll leave you with this paradox: that, perhaps, paideia is more at work on the playground of Johnson Elementary than it is in our seminary class; and, perhaps, the thing that will most impact these Fellows is not what they read in a textbook or discuss with their mentor, but rather what they do every Thursday afternoon.