(Long story but a good one. Especially for all the teachers who read Embrace the Grace!)
This past week at our conference, I had lunch with a lovely young pastor's wife named Candy.
Candy and her family have been missionaries to Austria for over twelve years. In 2012 they moved to Ft. Lauderdale to accept a new pastoral role.
And in the service where we ordain new ministers, I was especially excited to watch another young lady, Londa, being recognized for her call into ministry.
What's the connection? I served as English teacher for both women - many years ago. (Disclaimer: I was but a mere baby myself!)
Seeing them and celebrating their advancements set me pondering the period of my life where I was known as "Mrs. Hawley" English/Social Studies teacher. And, of course, it brought back to mind a story I thought you'd enjoy.
My first year teaching was literally a dream come true. I had hoped for nothing else since the age of fourteen when my own English teacher, Mrs. Myers, put the idea in my head.
My own chalk board! My own classroom! My own bulletin boards! (Must admit, I didn't love doing bulletin boards.)
My. Own. STUDENTS! They were the real prize.
I worked hard to obtain a degree just for the privilege of interacting with scores of teen-aged students. (Yes, it's true. You must be half called and half crazy to want to work with that age group! But I loved it!) Now finally, at twenty-one, I was getting the chance.
That first year was a whirlwind of lesson plans, creating tests, grading papers, establishing boundaries, staff meetings, parent meetings, laughter, tears...............TEACHING!
As spring rolled around, the English chair told me that we would be leading the students through the process of writing a term paper.
Now, I had a lot of experience with writing my own lengthy research papers. But I soon learned that's totally different from training someone else to do the same thing.
One of my classes was made up primarily of students who weren't really writers - at all! The entire year had been a challenge of finding ways to help that group want to learn anything. And in the class, there was one handsome kid named "Mike" who had more attitude than aptitude.
He had no intention of writing a term paper.
"Just give me the F right now, Mrs. Hawley. I'm not doing that!" Mike set his jaw and starred defiantly into my incredulous brown eyes.
"We'll discuss that today in detention!" I didn't tolerate disrespect; even from the coolest kids.
After school, Mike shuffled into my classroom and plopped down into a desk. He flipped open his notebook and started his homework. We'd been through detention together before.
Just before the hour ended, I slipped over to the desk beside Mike. With no other students around, he lost the attitude and became the young man I knew his mother loved.
We talked for several minutes about other things before I brought up the term paper. "Mike, just give it a try," I said. "I'll walk you through every single step. You can do this! I know you can!"
I briefly explained the process. I broke it down into the steps that would be required. He sat up a little straighter and began tracking with me. Before he left, we had a plan in place. And Mike had committed to try.
I was ecstatic!
The next six weeks flew by. I did my very best to walk all my students through the challenge of their first paper. The topic choice. The research. The note taking. The rough draft. Revisions. The final draft.
Frank and I were newlyweds and he lived it with us! The Research Paper Unit required long hours outside the classroom for Mrs. Hawley. We were all relieved when the turn in date finally arrived.
Mike had a huge grin on his face when he walked up to my desk and placed that completed paper on the stack. It felt like an accomplishment for us both.
Although I WISH that was the end of the story - it isn't.
As the English chair and I began the laborious task of reading through hundreds of pages of "research," it soon became evident that some students had cheated. The dreaded word plagiarism had to be written across several title pages. And those students had to be failed.
The grading process became gut-wrenching for me. And my inexperience as a teacher didn't help.
"I've graded your writing all year long," I told one complaining student. "You copied this right out of the book, didn't you?" She dropped her head in admission.
One mother stood in front of my desk angrily waving her son's paper at me. "I have worked too hard on this for you to give him an F!" she yelled. "He had better pass or I'm going to the board about you!!" (Can't make that up, folks!)
I stayed pretty strong until Mike came by to discuss his paper. His shoulders were slumped and he had once again cloaked himself in the "No-care Attitude" - "I'm Too Cool for This" cape.
We looked over each element and I tried to encourage Mike that he could make corrections. Try again. But we both knew he wouldn't.
There was no one screaming demands on his behalf. There was no past experience of success to make him want to try. He was accustomed to academic failure.
Mike shuffled out of my classroom. In that moment, his defeat became my own!
For years afterward, when spring would roll around, I would think of Mike and once again sense the sharp pain of regret for how I'd handled his research paper.
My own heart accused, tried and convicted me!
Such embarrassment. Such concern for how he was doing as an adult. Why hadn't I done a better job of helping him taste success?! Why hadn't I caught the problem sooner?! Why hadn't I been a better teacher for Mike?!
The voice came to accuse me at some point almost every spring.
Years later, I found myself once again teaching the difficult process of research paper writing. This time, the students were my own girls.
The typical frustrations built and finally, I called a halt to school for the day. (Which you can do occasionally with homeschooling.) The teacher went for a walk.
My feet followed a familiar path through a wooded area and the accusing voice joined me once again. "You aren't really much of a teacher, are you? Remember Mike?! That poor kid tried and you failed him!"
Tears began to flow. I could see Mike's defeated posture clearly. I began to agree with the negative thoughts.
As I pondered just giving up, another Voice broke in. "Why don't you use these thoughts as a trigger reminding you to pray for Mike instead of always feeling ashamed of yourself and sorry for him?"
I stopped in my tracks and looked around, wiping tears from my cheeks.
"Really?" I'd never considered that before. It made much better sense than my old habit of beating myself up every time I remembered Mike.
So I started walking again and this time, I began praying out loud for my former student. I prayed for him personally. I prayed over his relationship with God.
As the cloud of shame lifted, I got excited and began to pray for his family. His children. His career. I asked for favor and blessing to rest on Mike.
By the time the path had turned toward home, I felt much more encouraged than I had in days. And believe you me, Heaven had received an earful about Mike!
When I shared my experience with Frank, he celebrated with me. I had hidden my agony for many years, he was thrilled to see me releasing it.
Every spring after that, when the accusing voice brought Mike to my mind - I would PRAY! Probably no other student (other than my girls) has been the object of so many of my prayers. Mike has been well covered through the years.
I have no idea where he landed or what he chose to become. But God does! And my prayers for him have mattered!
God's gracious redemption of a poor decision has been great comfort to this teacher!!
Do you have a decision you regret or rehearse with disappointment? Turn it around! Pray for the ones involved! Ask God to redeem it for you - the way He has for me!