Though Advent hasn’t yet begun, I found myself browsing in a Christmas store a few weeks ago. I controlled my wallet until a tiny bird’s nest beckoned me. This sweet little creation, fashioned from nature’s finest twine and twigs, closely resembles a gift I’d received from a student in my first class. Eugene’s older sister enjoyed crafts, and she’d produced many beautiful items for Christmas that year. She generously parted with this little nest to provide Eugene a gift for me. I’d told the children that no gifts were necessary. It would be enough to celebrate by enjoying our class party together. Still, on party day, Eugene joined me in ignoring this rule. Eugene’s bird’s nest has remained one of our favorite ornaments. It rests on a prominent branch of our Christmas Tree every year. As a result, this poor little nest began to show serious wear some years ago. When I saw its new counterpart, it occurred to me that Eugene’s sister could have made it as well. It looks so much like her work! So it was that I purchased this new reminder of my first Christmas as a teacher. When Eugene’s nest finally refuses to respond to my repairs, this new ornament will keep alive my memories of Christmas 1973 and the struggle within my classroom during the difficult days before Christmas.
I was a new teacher and it was during November that I finally felt confident about managing my students. I’d learned that I had to be consistent with my discipline and that I had to do what I said I’d do -no matter what! Things were going well until we began to prepare for Christmas. My students spent their music classes practicing holiday songs that they’d perform for their parents. They made paper props to wear and to decorate the school stage. We teachers organized an afternoon movie assembly and our individual class Christmas Parties. All of this was intended to “keep the lid on” until Friday, December 21, when we’d release the children for Christmas Break. Good teacher that I was, I reminded my students that they needed to cooperate by behaving and by doing their work. None of us –especially me!- wanted to miss our assembly, our evening parent program or our class Christmas Party. A few well placed references to Santa Claus did the trick for most of my third graders.
Three of my students, who’d distinguished themselves behavior-wise early on, had a terrible time throughout December. The little imps still hadn’t begun to master self-control. They couldn’t keep themselves in line; they couldn’t keep themselves quiet, and they couldn’t keep their hands to themselves. By Wednesday before our party, they’d pushed beyond my fairly minimal limits. That afternoon, I informed them that they would not attend our class party. Crestfallen, they moped in line on their way home that afternoon. Thursday morning, they caroused around the playground –until they saw me. My presence must have reminded them that they’d be sitting outside the principal’s office the following afternoon. Their skips became slow walks and their smiling eyes clouded over as they focused on the blacktop beneath their feet and joined the line to enter school.
In today’s gospel (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus speaks clearly regarding his appreciation of those who behave toward one another as he would. Jesus tells us that these good people will be rewarded for their trouble in his kingdom to come. Jesus goes on to say that those who fail to do as Jesus asked will not be welcomed into the eternal banquet that awaits us all. As I consider my own imperfections, I find myself moping like my wayward students who did their best to spoil Christmas for themselves that year. It was up to me to maintain an orderly classroom. It was up to me to enforce appropriate rules. Still, I couldn’t help noting that my three outcasts were somewhat subdued the day before our party. By Friday morning, I hardly noticed them at all as they’d joined in their classmates’ cooperative efforts. An hour after lunch, as my three friends gathered pencils, paper and books for the trek to the principal’s office, my heart ached. “Do you know why you’re leaving?” I asked. Each one nodded. “What are you going to do about it?” I asked. “Be good!” they said unison. With that, in spite of what I’d told them earlier, I led them back to their desks to join in the festivities.
Though Jesus is quite stern in his remarks regarding those who fail to do good, Jesus is also quite persistent in his message of forgiveness. Like this third grade teacher who couldn’t bear to hurt her students more than they’d already hurt themselves, Jesus leaves room for our regret and for God’s forgiveness. In the end, my wayward third graders fulfilled my hope that January would bring them a new beginning. I believe that Jesus allows us the same opportunity –even if it’s at our last moment– to be good!
©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved