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Dinner Plate University

February 2, 2014

“Aw, you ought to see our family at dinner time, Doc,” said Danny. “It’s a debate every night.  My dad will get a controversial subject going and we’ll all fly into it, my mom, dad, brothers and me.  Every weeknight, I kid you not.”  He shook his head.  “It’s loud and it’s fun.  Not your usual American family, though.”

Danny was a straight-A student whose dad was a nuclearimage physicist.  Those debates would be something to see, I would bet.

Through my years of teaching, I found that one of the most profound influences in a student’s life was their parents – specifically at dinnertime.  Many a pupil would come into school and mention something they learned from their folks while sharing the evening repast.

It’s reflection and logic.

It’s emotion and intimacy.

It’s just like an evening college course.  And I get a glimpse of the class courses on occasion.

Boy, do I learn a lot.

One dinner that springs to mind was when I was on staff in Hollister, California.  Although I did not teach elementary school, a father whose three children attended our academy would often call me for advice not only about the children’s learning advancement, but also their inability to make friends among the little folk in the school.  This dad was a big fellow – a California Highway Patrol officer – and as amiable as anyone I’d ever met, which added to the mystery:  why couldn’t these children get along?  He seemed quite happy with my assistance, and invited me to dinner one night.

“The kids would like to see you, and also I want you to meet my wife,” he said, clapping me on the shoulder.  “We’ll have some sir-fry and a nice time to chat.”

On the designated evening I showed up and rang the doorbell of the neat and tidy suburban home.  The instant the bell sounded, I was shocked at the piercing screams that emanated from within.  Not one.  Not two.  There were various pitches of siren-like screeches ripping through the air.  I stepped back, stunned.

The door opened and there stood the father.  “Come on in,” he said, brushing past three children who were yowling and yelping only a few feet from each other. “They’re excited to see you,” he said, waving me on in.  The children lapped around me, screaming at the top of their lungs.  I had not been in the house thirty seconds and already my ears hurt.

“This is my wife, Jeannie,” he said, and I shook hands with a woman who gave me a half-smile and a jittering eyebrow.  She was a bundle of nerves.  The kids were still screaming.

The uproar paused enough for the Dad to say grace, but as soon as the “Amen” was said, the noise commenced back into a trip to full volume. It was a strange evolutionary pace from talk, to bark, to shout, to scream.  While Dad dished up the stir-fry, the kids were shrieking for milk, napkins, a bigger portion, a better seat…

“Shuuuut uuup!”

Jeannie had exploded with deafening volume.  The screech was stunning.  The room grew quiet.

For a minute.

Then the whole cycle began again.

Talk. Bark. Shout. Scream.  “Shuuuuut Uuuuup!”

I was speechless.  I had never experienced such a nerve-wracking scene.  Even more amazing, Dad acted like nothing was wrong.  This went on for a full hour, with Jeannie measuring the tone of noise and then leveling another blast.  Twenty times, thirty times this happened?  My memory is a blur.  It was awful.

The weird twist is that the food was incredibly tasty.  The experience, though, was torture, and we never had any intelligent conversation – how could anyone talk between siren-like blasts?  Somehow, some way I got through the meal and finished the evening in somewhat of a normal state.  The screaming never stopped and the parents were clueless as to this inept social behavior.  I got in my car and drove around the town until my ears stopped ringing, realizing that all the advice I could ever give as a teacher would never overshadow the impact of that horrible nightly exercise.  The kids didn’t know normal behavior.

Within that same year I was invited to Casey and Carol’s family home, a wonderful set of teenagers who nevertheless were troubled in their spirit – you could tell it in the classroom.  They loved school, I noticed, almost too much, often hanging around the classroom well into late afternoon.  They seemed very hesitant to go home in the evening. About three months into the school year their mother asked me to the dinner table on a weeknight for a time of veal and conversation.  The teens let me know that this was an important meeting – Dad wanted to see me face-to-face.  “He’s a Believer, and calls himself born again … but he’s gone, well, weird about Christianity.  He’s kind of a cynic,” said Casey. “We’ve been praying for him, but he hasn’t been to church in over three years.” I agreed to go and sat down to a very nice meal with Dad ruling the roost at the head of the table.

For some reason he felt it important to impress me with his intellect.  I do treasure an intelligent discussion, but this was more of a patriarchal monologue, ranging from state politics to fast food calories to the newest Atari game technology. He wouldn’t shut up.  Casey, Carol and Mom said nary a word.

“Well, I’m glad you’re teaching my kids,” he announced over dessert. “Christian stuff is good for them – for us all really.  I say the Bible ought to be in everyone’s life, especially church.  You can’t get good training about God and the like if you don’t go get the teaching necessary to anyone’s spiritual growth.”

Then he leaned forward and pointed.

“I just don’t understand these people who don’t go to church … and they call themselves Christians.”

The two kids almost choked on their food.  They kept their heads down, from humor or embarrassment, I’m not sure which. Mom got up quickly to get me more coffee.

Small wonder that upon graduation, both teens never looked back at their home. They each moved to other states and, sadly enough, walked away from the Christian faith for years before coming to terms with the Lord on their own.  Yes, they got instruction at the dinner table.  Hypocrisy 101.

Years later during my teaching in Arizona, I was called into the principal’s office for a private conversation. I was teaching sophomores and juniors at the time.

“We have a serious rebellion problem with a senior student,” said the principal.  “Seems that Kirk is disruptive in just about every class he’s in.  Moreover, he causes a scene every morning during the Pledge of Allegiance.”

“What kind of a scene?” I asked.

The principal tilted his head.  “It’s odd, really.  He refuses to salute the flag, and while everyone else does, he starts shouting insults.  Weird stuff.”

The principal looked at me.  “He has a fixation on Hitler.  He really, really hates America and can’t stand our school.  Brad, he’s about to be dismissed but I figured that you might be able to talk with him.  We want to give him one more chance, and well, kind of find out why he has this pro-Nazi militaristic attitude.”

I sat down with Kirk in a quiet empty classroom.  “Kirk, you’ve told me that everyone hear has treated you respectfully since you transferred in, right?”

He nodded.  “Right.”

“You’re doing okay grade-wise, and the quizzes and tests have been fair?”


I leaned back.  “Well, I’m afraid I just don’t get it.  You’ve been disrupting class time from the moment you get here in the morning, for over a month now.  Where has all of this anger come from?  Why this Aryan supremacy shouting match every day? ”

He tapped the desk with his finger.  “Because this country is a sham.  This republic form of government is corrupt and the idea of one-person-one-vote is a cover-up. ” He snorted. “State’s rights and federal funding.  What a joke.”

“But you follow Hitler’s philosophy of leadership?” I asked.  “The man who authorized the killing of Jews by the hundreds of thousands, even millions?”

Kirk shook his head.  “It never happened.  American propaganda.” He tapped the desk again.  “Hitler’s only problem was that his public relations were bad. ”

I shook my head in wonderment. “Where did you get all this … information?”

He sat back, smug.  “My dad’s been teaching me all about it.  Every night.  At dinner.”

Kirk had to go, of course.  On the evening of his dismissal I sat at my desk, fingering a paper clip and reflecting on the mealtime impact that each mother and father carry in the continuing education of their children.

Concerning the Lord’s wisdom and His direction, the parent is told in Deuteronomy chapter eleven:  “Teach them to your children, when you sit at home and when you walk along the road; when you lie down and when you rise up…”

What’s that again, parent?

“…when you sit down..”

There is only so much that we Bible teachers can offer.  We have a limited relationship.  Your instruction will be deep-rooted… for right or wrong.  Your dinnertime teaching is collegiate.

I recall the faces of three teen members of a family here in Tennessee, all former students of mine. The three have grown and are in separate parts of the country, each with family.  The boy is a pastor and the two girls are each involved in a Christian ministry of some sort within their community and local church.  I smile when I recall the joy that their family had, and in the many times I enjoyed dinnertime with them I was part of a joking, boisterous and loving clan.  The witticisms flew, but so did the compliments.  I saw each teen look at their parents with a deep love and respect throughout the meal.  Never once did Dad need to raise his voice. He didn’t have to.

“I’ve never heard my parents argue,” said the eldest girl Joy.  “Even in conflict, they were always examples of Christian leadership.”

“I’ve learned a lot from them.”

Dinner Plate University.

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One Comment
  1. Great job Brad. So true….kids learn more from home than they do anywhere else.

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