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Experiential Learning

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At first glance, Foggy’s afraid that a morbid little forest of cereal-box tombstones is growing in the arts and crafts room. (Bible Crafts with Mr. Murdock!, the poster outside the door proclaims, created by someone with a pack of fluorescent markers and a “go big or go home” attitude towards curlicues and flourishes.) But he’s relieved, upon further inspection, to realize they’re meant to be Moses’ stone tablets. Some already have “thou shalt nots” inscribed in black magic marker; others are still shiny-wet with gray tempera paint.

Mr. Murdock sits on the edge of his desk, shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, while a whirlwind of small Catholics whips around pushing in chairs, throwing away scraps of wet newspaper, and rinsing paintbrushes, chattering excitedly all the while.

Either the summer sunlight streaming in through the windows is contributing to some kind of halo effect, or there's glitter in his hair. Foggy edges closer to Matt, out of the path of a dark-haired girl who's frowning with concentration as she walks a dangerously full glass of muddy paintbrush water towards the sink.

“So I see you have a table full of commandments over there,” Foggy says. “What’s really happening here, Mr. Murdock? Bible arts and crafts, or Foundations of Law 101?”

Matt’s smile sparkles like the presumed glitter in his hair. “Who says it can’t be both?”

Foggy snorts. “I guess Lantom knew what he was getting into when he roped you into teaching Vacation Bible School,” he says, which, actually, he has no doubt is one hundred percent true. He's met him. That guy is sharp.

The smile sparkles again, wider. Then Matt calls out, voice carrying over the commotion: “3, 2, 1 - line!”

The whirlwind coalesces, changing direction, and Foggy instinctively moves closer to the relative safety of Matt’s shoulder. In no time, though, he's looking at twelve eager to please faces in a line almost straight enough to have been drawn with a ruler. It’s pretty impressive. Foggy thinks it would probably cost him about ten bucks in candy-based bribes to achieve anything like it.

“Welllll...” Matt draws out assessingly, into the sudden hush. He tips his head to the side and furrows his brow - total theatrics - and his audience laps it up, shooting glances back over their shoulders. Foggy thinks half the kids are probably holding their breaths. “Yes… I think we sound ready for Sister Constance. Iliana? Do we look ready?”

The dark-haired girl steps to the left and runs a very serious, very critical eye over the rest of the group, and Foggy fights the urge to stand up a little straighter. “Ready to walk!”

When Matt slips off the desk, Foggy catches his wince; the knee he’s been pretending is fine is still bothering him, then. Foggy heads for the door, thinking to save Matt a few steps and take the kids wherever it is they need to go, but of course Matt refuses to take the hint, and they both end up walking Matt's paint-spattered group down the hall to the top of the staircase.

At the bottom, a nun waits, lips pressed into a firm line, hands folded in front of her. Foggy gives her a little wave, but the gesture is not returned. He's pretty sure he can hear her unimpressed sniff from a whole flight up.

“I think she can smell the agnostic on me,” Foggy whispers as they turn back toward Matt's classroom. “What do agnostics smell like, anyway?”

“Sweat and sunshine.” After a beat, Matt clarifies, “Because you were all outside - I don't know - rollerblading in the park while we were sitting in Mass.”

“Trust me, Murdock, I never rollerbladed a day in my life.”

Matt shakes his head. “Sorry, it was the nineties. I think we both know better than that.”

“You’re saying I need a shower. I get it,” Foggy says. They've reached the crafts room, and Foggy wanders over to check out some shoebox Noah’s Arks (messily-glued down animal crackers marching in two by two) while Matt limps - oh, it's a carefully controlled limp, but it's fooling exactly no one - over to the windows and begins lowering the blinds.

“You’re not the problem. I - they go to Sister Constance for Prayerful Meditation, and she’s - sort of had an issue with me since I crushed a spider on “thou shalt not kill” day.”

Foggy tries not to laugh, but the attempt is doomed from start.

Yes, I realize trapping it and taking it outside would’ve fit better with her “love all God’s creatures” line, but.” Matt grimaces. “Kids were screaming.”

“So you stepped on its head.” Foggy nods. “Like I said: Lantom knew who he was getting when he hired you.”

“I handled it - we talked about an arachnid’s brain not being like a person’s and it not being capable of comprehending or choosing the love of God, but after that….”

“They weren’t very meditative? Or prayerful?”

“Listening to them argue about which animals it's okay to kill was like listening to a high school debate team free-for-all.” Matt sighs. “Sister Constance still mutters unflattering things about lawyers under her breath whenever she sees me.”

“Just wait until she needs one.” Foggy’s still circling the room, checking out the artwork. It’s the second and final week of Matt’s VBS tenure, and the tables are bursting with things to see. And feel - everything is mixed media or has at least some 3D element to it, and when Matt comes close Foggy can see he’s got dried glue and smeared paint on his fingertips. He can just imagine the kids bouncing around with their projects, determined to make Mr. Murdock touch everything, no matter how wet it might be.

“Tell me about this one,” Foggy says. “The bookmark with the cross, the greater than sign, and Pikachu.”

“Oh, it’s - “thou shalt have no other gods before me.” For their final project they’re supposed to create something to remind them of the commandment they need to work on the most.”

It’s probably a good thing Matt isn’t working with older kids. Foggy shudders to think about the pieces that might result from some of the, should he say, racier commandments. He opens his mouth to say something to that effect, but Matt’s face has gone all broody, and he keeps swallowing like there are words rising in his throat he just can’t keep down.

Foggy waits.

“You keep talking about why Father Lantom asked me to do this,” Matt finally says. It's not precisely the case, but okay. “Pretty sure I know what I’m supposed to be working on, pretty sure I’m… failing, Foggy, I….” He turns his head away. “If doing this was supposed to make me - less angry. Less… it’s not working. The more I know these kids, the more I hate the world they have to live in. The more I….”

The limp is three days old. The shadowy bruise on the curve of Matt’s jaw - it wasn’t there yesterday.

There was a time when Foggy would have said, Yeah, Matt, if passing out glitter and glue sticks makes you want to put people in the hospital, maybe it’s a sign something needs to change.

But there was also a time when it would've taken pliers for Foggy to drag an admission like that out of Matt. Change comes in its own way, and some bridges are strongest with a little water underneath them.

What Foggy says is, “I'm pretty sure “love thy neighbor” looks different for different people, Matt. Even for the same person at different times.”

Matt’s head is still turned, but Foggy thinks maybe the corner of his mouth twitches. “That's your certified agnostic opinion?”

“It is.”

Matt fiddles with the nearest thing on the craft table, a gleeful depiction of Jonah being eaten by the whale. His pipe cleaner legs are all that’s left of him. “Different times,” Matt says. “So, what, day and night? Eleven a.m. and eleven p.m.?”

“Sure. Or noon and midnight. Or nine a.m. and one o’clock in the morning. These are illustrative examples, not a definitive list.”

“In this - illustration, then,” Matt says, “what - what would a person be working on.”

The answer lies in the glitter in Matt's hair, and the paint on his fingers, and that insanely sparkly smile he'd worn when Foggy first came in. And in the kids’ bright faces and their happy chatter, and the riot of creativity surrounding Foggy right now -
every unique, joyful creation existing only because of the little world Matt and the kids built in this room together.

Seems fairly obvious to Foggy. But then, these days he knows who’s the smart one here.

“I don’t know,” Foggy says dryly, “I can only guess, but this seems like the perfect place for a person to really practice isolating himself from other people. And be really miserable while he was doing it, you know, bring absolutely no joy to himself or anyone else.”

“Oh yeah?” Matt’s mouth-twitch is back. “So I've been doing it right, is what you're saying.”

“Yeah, yeah, funnyman. I’m glad my heathen ass could help you out,” Foggy says. “Now come on, I’m here because I was promised lunch, and my heathen ass is also a hungry one.”

Matt laughs. “By all means, let’s appease the ass.” He crosses over to the desk and picks up his cane and keys. “Where to?”

“Wherever the portions are big, the prices are cheap, and the air conditioning is plentiful. Although, I gotta say, being surrounded by so many macaroni Jesus fish collages… I’m starting to think Italian. Bowl of pasta as big as your face.”

“Not seafood?”

“Cheap, Matthew, I said cheap!”

Glue is hardening on macaroni fish, paint is drying on stone tablets, and tomorrow every work in progress will be just a little further along than it is today. On the way out, Matt forgets about the switch by the door, but Foggy takes care of it, to help keep the light from burning out too soon.