Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Flavor of the Daily Grind

Some people break rocks for a living. Some enter numbers into a computer. Some make tiny plastic toys for the coin machine at Steak N' Shake. I am a substitute teacher. For now.

 My job is to create an atmosphere of stability while the regular teacher is out. This helps the students continue their education when life happens to teachers. At times, quite frankly, it can be babysitting. Other times I can be giving a fully loaded lesson blasting new knowledge into the cerebral cortex of young minds. Whether we are reading silently, watching a movie, or tearing through a packet of paperwork, my college education is being used. How to present new information, how to talk to students, how to manage a classroom and make sure it doesn’t delve into chaos with little Billy and Sarah eating little Edgar while roasting his remains over an open fire in the middle of the classroom. This has never happened to me.

 My daily grind varies as everyone’s does. It ranges from very colorful (having students leave the room literally yelling that they hate me), and very boring (the students working quietly while I count the ceiling tiles). I am certified to teach high school students but I mostly sub for middle school teachers. This can be very trying. My wife, Katherine, and I have found that dealing with 6th, 7th, and 8th graders to be the best birth control around. After eight hours of needy 6th graders I often want to castrate myself in the parking lot so that I never have to bring that sort of whiney annoying problem home with me. In time, I suppose, my heart will change.

 And actually on really good days (especially with the younger ones) the buds of fatherhood begin to peek their little heads out of the tree of my soul (you’re welcome for the strange imagery). All in all, I do not want to do this forever nor does it do anything for my ambition to be a teacher. A lot of the time it makes me want to pursue some other trade altogether. Like welding. I could weld some things. Or do something with science or robots or something.

 After a really bad day the other day (yesterday) I wanted to never ever, ever, ever substitute teach again and I never wanted to see that group of kids again. Too bad it was at the school I sub at ninety percent of the time and I was also contracted to sub for the exact same teacher the very next day. It was one of those days that got progressively worse as it went on. You know the type. It’s always darkest before it gets really, really dark. Then they turn out the lights. After school let out, I wanted to punch something beautiful. Right in the face. Not a kid. Although some of them need a good spanking, but maybe a Nazi. I was all in a fog.

 I yelled at my last class harsher than I ever have. I told them I was going to be a serious monster the next day and that they will never treat me how they treated me today. I actually dismissed the class with the words, “get out of my class.” I hate hearing myself say things like that. I hate being a disciplinarian. I hate coming down on them and feeling like Hitler.

 I gave a kid detention because one of the other teachers suggested it might help show them I follow through with threats. It was a kid that has gotten into tiffs with me in the past. He was kind of on my bad list already. He was pretty upset. Probably dreading going home to tell his parents he was in trouble. Probably dreading every minute he was going to have to spend with me today.

 But I had a revelation between yesterday and today.

Being in a place where I’m constantly stretched and forced to practice forgiveness and reconciliation might not be a bad thing. Every industry has challenges and difficult people. There is no oasis. I cannot change the gifts God gave me. I cannot run to some mirage thinking that better circumstances are going to solve all my problems. I just might be the common denominator to all my awful days and difficult circumstances.

 As a Christian that actually believes in sin as a real thing that is just a part of my nature, I am inclined to believe that this may be true. The sin within me taints my perspective. My heart seeks to blame everything except its own attitude. It wants to be the last place to point the finger. Man, this makes marriage interesting. More on that later.

 Because I am learning to suspect myself first and work on placing the blame where it is due, I had a serious heart check before today. Maybe it wasn’t the kids or the fact that I hate how little they pay me, or how awful everything felt. Maybe it was because my heart likes to be in control. It feels safe when I am in control. In power. Maybe when they don’t behave the way I expect them to this threatens my comfort. Maybe when they don’t like me it makes me feel unloved. So what? God is in control. I will never be. Why try? The power I have is laughable. Why hold on to it? Comfort is irrelevant as Christ didn’t die for me to be comfortable. He suffered. I will too. Who cares if they don’t approve of every little thing I do. God’s approval in me because of Christ is all that matters. I am fully accepted because He has Redeemed me. Not because I work for it. I didn’t and can’t earn it. It’s a gift.

Accepting it is really, really freaking hard.

 Because God was gracious with us, through Christ, we ought to steward this grace to others. Those that need it and those who don’t deserve it. But we suck at this. Me especially. I was reminded of this, and His Grace broke through in a practical way. Before the worst class began today, I pulled the kid out into the hall for a private conversation. I told him I wanted to tear up the detention slip and pretend his offense never happened. I told him it was up to him. I told him I knew he could have a great class and be respectful and succeed in being restored to my good favor.

 He was the perfect student.

At the end of class I approached him and held out the detention slip with his name and then dramatically tore it up (its all about theatricality, baby). I patted him on the back and walked away. What happened next threw me for a loop. Broke my heart in a Gospel-ninja sort of way. The way that only God can. You know, when He grabs your heart and turns the tables and says, “See! My way is so much better!” After class I began cleaning up and I noticed this student intentionally was the last to leave. He handed me a sheet of paper, looked up at me with admiring eyes and then walked away. Cue the tears. He had drawn me a really good picture of the cover of the book he had been reading. Above the illustration read, “Mr. G,” and below read, “on a roll.” (aka Mr. G, you're the bomb digity).

 Parents, I will not pretend to know how you feel or know what it means to be a father or a mother but when a kid goes out of their way to say thank you or to say I love you (especially in a creative way) I have a feeling that it warms you in a way that no other thing on earth can.

 If you don’t know anything about public education…this sort of thing does NOT happen to substitutes.

 I was glad the kid left soon after because I thought I was going to cry. Some of you may be thinking, “Brian, that is so lame. Some kid gave you a drawing and you wanted to cry? You have mental problems!” I probably do.

 I almost cried because it was beautiful. Reconciliation is beautiful. Shalom is beautiful.  Sunsets are beautiful. My wife is beautiful. Mountains and an ice cold Boulevard Amber Ale after a long hot run are beautiful. Yet beauty in this life is but a reflection of that which is truly Beautiful—The Creator of Beauty. God’s Grace is Beautiful. Experiencing it is palpable and heavy sometimes. Especially when you sort of understand it in a new way.

 I could have chosen to follow through with the detention. I could have been a jerk to this kid. I could have punished the rest of my classes for making my job harder the previous day. Something prompted me to do otherwise. To reach out instead of push away. To build a bridge instead of burn one. To forgive. Don’t get me wrong. Actions have consequences. Sometimes you gotta bring down the hammer. Others you have to just let go.

 As meaningful as this story is to me it is not entirely theologically sound. I know that. The kid worked for my favor and I rewarded him. Cause, effect. The Reality of Christianity is the opposite. We did nothing and Christ died for us. In fact, we didn’t just do nothing, we were openly rebellious and murderous in our thoughts to him. We actively persecuted him and he still died for us. We still do. We turn our backs on Him and He still offers His Grace…free of charge.

 We love to pay for the things we own. I for one hate getting gifts. I feel like I owe the person. But we cannot earn his Grace. That is religion (I do this thing and a deity rewards me). My pastor, Kevin Cawley, reminds me every week that playing the religion game will kill me. I am thankful for that. It will kill you too.

 Believe this gift is yours, as it is mine, and be changed. You cannot earn more of that which is fully and freely given. “It is finished.” There is no need to seek more. All we can do is respond. Respond and be thankful and give to others the same kind of treatment—Grace to the undeserving. Putting this into practice, I fear, may take a lifetime of teaching, marriage, and raising my own little disrespectful brats.

 By the way, I want to publicly apologize for being such an awful smartass to all my substitutes when I was in school. I had no idea…

 As my mother in law says from time to time, “you plant peas, you get peas.” God has a sense of humor that way.