While waiting in line at the grocery store the other day, I watched as the young man at the opposite end of the counter bagged groceries. Having done that job myself throughout high school and college, I appreciated his careful approach. Before I realized what had happened, my thoughts returned to a similar scene from a few decades earlier. At the time, I had focused upon the young man bagging groceries because he looked familiar. When I made my way through the line, I realized that he was a former student. I had taught him at least ten years earlier in third grade. My heart leapt as I observed his precision while doing his job. I smiled at his professional appearance and demeanor. When he looked up from the task at hand, he greeted me without hesitation. “Mrs. Penich, hi! Do you remember me? I’m…” Before he could finish, I announced, “Of course I remember you, Joshua!” With that, this one-time nine-year-old went on to explain that he was working to save for college which would begin the following fall. He also thanked me for being such a great teacher– one whom he would never forget.
I left the grocery store with mixed emotions. You see, Joshua had been one of the students about whom I worried a great deal. He rarely obeyed our classroom rules and was one of the few students whom I sent to the principal’s office. On one such occasion, Joshua actually sassed the principal. I was shocked at the time because he was never disrespectful toward me. He simply didn’t listen. By the end of the year, I had elicited just enough work from Joshua to promote him to fourth grade. Still, when I handed Joshua his final report card, I wasn’t proud of his or my accomplishments. I felt that he was one of those students whom I simply couldn’t reach. When Joshua remarked that I was a great teacher, I felt extremely undeserving of this judgment. I was proud of who Joshua had become, but I also felt that I had done little to help in the process. I asked myself what Joshua could possibly have remembered from our year together…
As I read through today’s first reading, I realized that I had missed a very important element of my relationship with Joshua. It was certainly my responsibility to create an orderly classroom which supported my students’ learning. However, I could not control my students’ responses. Still, I tried. My charges’ parents had sent me the best child they had to offer that year. I taught, disciplined and interacted on many levels with this in mind. This is the reason that I hoped never to give up on any of my students. Though Joshua had challenged my resolve, he apparently didn’t prevent my efforts from taking root. Something else was at work within us both. Ezekiel (17:22-24) tells us, “Thus says the Lord God: I, too, will take from the crest of the cedar, from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot, and plant it on a high and lofty mountain; on the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it. It shall put forth branches and bear fruit, and become a majestic cedar.” For some reason, the Lord God had planted Joshua in my classroom that year. For some reason, in spite of my seemingly ineffective efforts, God saw to it that Joshua became a majestic cedar in his own right, just as God had done for me. Though neither of us was aware at the time, Joshua and I had actually spent quite a productive year together.
It seems to me that God intends to make a majestic cedar of each of one of us. Just as God takes that tender shoot from the crest of the cedar tree and plants it on the mountaintop to flourish, God plants you and me precisely where we are meant to be. God knows well that our circumstances and those with whom we share them will sometimes test God’s loving resolve. Still, God persists just the same. God provides all of the sunshine, rain and nutrients we need to grow into mighty trees and God trusts that you and I will thrive as a result. It seems appropriate to return God’s generosity by offering the same care to one another.
If you question the value of your life, take it from this teacher who is also a daughter, sister, wife, mom, aunt, grandma and friend, that the time we share with others means the world to them and to us. Whether we have an hour, a day, a year or a lifetime with those we have been given to love, it is just enough time to do for one another what God intends. Just ask Joshua and his third grade teacher!
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