Why I Love Teaching Kids, And How Darth Vader Became A Christian

I love kids. Of course I loved my own kids when they were little (and still do, though they’re not quite as cute now) and now I love my grandchildren. But I love all kids. Guess that’s how God made me. They’re adorable. Sweet. Funny.

In the 70’s I taught middle school art for a year, then was an itinerant art teacher in 5 elementary schools for a year.

Kids are so hilarious. Once I was teaching a class of 2nd graders how to cut out a heart by folding the paper and cutting the curve on the side opposite the fold. I said, “After I’m finished explaining how to do it, if anybody has any questions I’ll answer them.” Almost immediately a little boy in the back raised his hand. “Wait a minute, Matt, let me explain this then I’ll answer your question.” A few seconds later his hand shot up again. “Just a minute, Matt. I’ll answer you in a minute.” Before I was finished demonstrating how to cut out a heart, Matt raised his hand at least two more times. Finally I finished and said, “Ok Matt, what did you want to ask me?” to which he replied, “We got a new puppy last night!”

I don’t remember how his “heart” turned out.

A few years after that, after I had become a pastor, I always had a heart for kids. I heard about a church where Santa Claus came for a visit and the pastor led him to the Lord, so we did the same thing on a December Sunday morning after worship. I was doing the announcements when all of a sudden Santa came strutting in from the back of the room. He came up on stage and told me he was sure he was going to heaven because of all the good deeds he did, bringing toys to all the girls and boys in the world, and of course I explained we were saved by Jesus and his work, not our own work. Santa gave his life to the Lord on the spot, much to the joy of all the kids in the church.

Since that went so well, a few months later, we had another special guest stroll into our church during the announcements – Batman. Batman was played by my friend Greg who was on the thin side, and the Batman suit was about 3 sizes too large for him. I asked Batman if he thought he was going to heaven and of course he did, because he captured bad guys and rescued people from danger. Then he looked right at me – Greg’s tiny head inside the huge Batman mask – and said, “And besides that, Alfred and Robin and I have little church services in the Batcave,” at which point I lost it and burst out laughing. I managed to regain my composure to instruct Batman, as I had Santa, that we aren’t saved by our works or even by church services in the Batcave, but by Jesus, and sure enough, I led Batman in a sinner’s prayer and changed the course of world history.

Around the same time, the family of churches of which we were a part began to hold a spring conference called “Celebration” each year on the local university campus. I was so blessed to be asked to teach the 4th – 6th graders every year, usually around 200 kids or so, for three evenings in the Student Union on campus. There were lots of adults involved. We had some great worship teams who lead the kids in singing, and hilarious folks who did crazy skits. And I did the main teaching.

When you teach kids you want to have captivating illustrations if you can. One year the theme was anger. I told the kids that if you keep giving into anger it’s like the fuse on a stick of dynamite and eventually you will just explode with disastrous results. I told the kids about when I was in high school and my rock band practiced in the attic above a friend’s garage and some other friends came to watch us and when they left, tossed an M-80, which was like a small stick of dynamite, onto the landing. I said when it went off it was so loud it felt like it took all the air out of the room and I felt like I couldn’t breath for a minute. The kids stared up a me, eyes wide open, as I told the story.

Then I said, “Now I have an M-80 right here,” and held up a fake M-80 I’d made by wrapping black paper around a plastic pill bottle. My secretary had found a long fuse that nothing could put out once it was lit – it was waterproof, stomp-proof – nothing could stop the fuse until it burned out. I had put this 2 foot fuse on my fake M-80. I said, “Remember how anger is like a fuse. If you keep giving into anger, eventually it burns down and blows up the dynamite. Well, here is an M-80. I’m going to light the fuse, but don’t worry boys and girls, I won’t let it blow up. I’ll stomp it out first.”

Kids were beginning to squirm, nervous looks on their faces as I lit a match, and held it up to the fuse. The fuse began sparking and smoking. Far more smoke than I had expected. Kids looking around, fearful expressions, wriggling in their seats.

“Don’t worry kids,” I said as the fuse kept burning, sparking and smoking, “I won’t let it get down to the M-80. I’ll put it out in just a minute.” When the fuse had burned down to only a few inches from the fake firecracker I said, “Ok, I’m going to stomp it out now,” and tossed it onto the stage and began stomping on it.

“Oh no! It’s not going out!” I screamed. Stomp – stomp – stomp. “Oh no! Oh no! Cover your ears everyone!” I covered my ears and jumped off the stage, getting ready to quickly turn around, grab the firecracker when it didn’t go off, and tell everyone, “Hey everybody, don’t worry, it’s a fake firecracker.” But it was too late. Pandemonium broke out. A bunch of kids jumped out of their seats and bolted past the adult helpers, out of the Student Union and onto the campus, helpers running behind them. Eventually they managed to gather the fleeing kids and get them back into the room.

I had a vision of a neon sign flashing “LAWSUIT – LAWSUIT – LAWSUIT,” certain I would be sued by angry parents for permanently damaging their children. By God’s grace nobody sued me. And I figured that though it hadn’t quite turned out the way I’d thought, that at least the kids would remember the illustration for a while.

I think it was the same year, maybe the next night, I was teaching about temptation. One of the helpers had dressed up like a silly Satan, and slithered about the room saying to the kids, “Helloooo. Can I tempt you?” I had planned another incredible illustration for that evening. I had asked a woman in our church to bake a few hundred cookies, coating a number of them with chocolate icing. The rest were plain sugar cookies. The chocolate cookies had Tide detergent inside. My plan was to talk about how the devil tempted Eve by getting her to look at the delicious fruit in the garden, then tell the kids we were going to take a break and have some cookies. I would tell them I was going into a side room to give trays of cookies to the helpers to pass out. While I was in the side room, the Coordinator of the class would get on stage and say, “Boys and girls, DO NOT eat the chocolate cookies.” A few minutes later I would come out of the side room and try to tempt kids to eat the chocolate cookies. I was going to say, “Look how delicious they look! Don’t they look good? Come on, just take one bite.”

But when I came out of the room and got back on stage, the helpers were bringing back empty cookie trays. I had expected them to be full of chocolate cookies. But they were empty.

“Ummm,” I said, “Did anyone eat the chocolate cookies?” Hands went up all over the room. “Ummm did anybody taste anything?”

“Yeah!” the kids yelled, “They tasted like SOAP!”

“But, but, you weren’t supposed to eat the chocolate cookies,” I stammered.

The “LAWSUIT” sign began flashing again in my mind. This time I could see kids throwing up from ingesting Tide. I could see them taken to the emergency room. I pictured angry parents shaking their fingers in my face, yelling at me for making their kids sick. I would never be asked to teach kids again. I would probably be thrown into prison.

I wonder if the kids still remember that illustration.

Fortunately I heard only one child had an upset stomach afterwards. And no angry parents picketed my house or sued me. God was merciful to me yet again.

For some unknown reason they let me keep teaching the kids. For the next few years, no more kids bolted out the doors or ate anything disgusting. Things went pretty well for the most part. In fact, at one Celebration I led Darth Vader to the Lord one evening. Yep, you will be seeing Darth Vader in heaven, along with Santa Claus and Batman.

But there was one more time a child got grossed out and a parent wasn’t too happy with me. That was when we did “The Substitute Game”. In an attempt to illustrate how Jesus became our substitute and took our punishment, I came up with this game where I would pick 5 boys and 5 girls and have them line up boy/girl, boy/girl. Then, beginning with the first kid, I would read a “sin” he had committed from a notecard. The “sins” were silly things like, “You shot a paperwad at your teacher when she had her back turned,” or, “You turned off the hot water when your sister was in the shower and doused her with freezing cold water.” Then I would read the “punishment” – which was something like “Get made into an ice cream sundae by having whipped cream sprayed on your head and a cherry on top.” The “sinner” could either take their “punishment” or give it to the “Substitute,” one of the adult helpers, always a guy who was willing to have pies smashed in his face or kiss a raw fish. Most of the boys took the punishments; girls tended to give them to the Substitute.

Well, I always saved the ultimate “punishment” for last, and was sure that it was a girl who got it, being pretty sure she would give it to the Substitute. So one year the final punishment was to kiss an octopus. Our secretary found one at a local grocery store. It was about 4 feet long, slimy and gross as all get out. During the game, I kept it in a cooler until we came to the last girl in line. I read her her “sin” then the “punishment”: Kiss an octopus. I said, “Would you like to take the punishment or give it to the Substitute?”

She didn’t hesitate. “Give it to the Substitute.” So he came over, opened the cooler, lifted the slimy head and the dangling tentacles and held it up high for all to see. A loud, “Ewwww! Yuck! Gross!” and other exclamations filled the room. The “sinner” squinched up her face, shook her head and backed away as the brave guy who had volunteered to be the Substitute held the ugly octopus before his face. Then with all the drama of a Broadway actor, he grabbed one tentacle and slung it over his right shoulder. Then grabbed another and slung it over his left shoulder. Then he planted the most magnificent kiss right on the face of the octopus and held it there. The room erupted! The Substitute took the punishment! The girl went free!

The next day someone told me that one parent was not happy because her daughter had been grossed out. But again, no lawsuit. And I think that most of the kids would remember the illustration. Especially the girl who didn’t have to kiss the octopus.

Those are some great memories for me. And I recently have gotten to teach a few kids classes in our church. Maybe we’ll play the Substitute game again. Or maybe we’ll get a visit from one of the Incredibles and I can see if they think they’re going to heaven.

Mark Altrogge

I’m a pastor at Saving Grace Church in Indiana, PA. I’m married to Kristi, have 5 kids, and a growing number of grandkids. I enjoy songwriting, oil painting and coffee, not necessarily in that order.

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