My daily walks take me past our neighborhood elementary school. Normally, as I walk by, I offer a prayer of thanksgiving for my teaching career which ended with a four-year stint as an administrator. Though I truly enjoyed most of the time I spent in education, I also offer a prayer of thanksgiving for my retirement. As I passed the school this morning, I watched as the principal and teachers managed school bus drills. I chuckled as I listened to the familiar directives repeated at the onset of every new year. Without warning, a tear slid down my cheek as thoughts of numerous first days past flooded my memory. One such day says it all…
Everywhere on the opening day, teachers flank the entrance and surrounding grounds of our schools long before the children begin to arrive. Some of the children may be unfamiliar with the environment, and some may need a reminder that order will prevail. Thus, my teaching colleagues wait to greet the new year’s students.
Eventually, the children make their way to the building like an army of ants charging a picnic. Some approach with confidence- returning students who did well last year. They know where to line up and what to expect. Their backpacks bulge with supplies in anticipation of anything the new teacher might ask of them. Others arrive with their hands wrapped tightly around a hand much larger than their own. Mom, Dad, Grandma or Grandpa brings a bit of reassurance. That older, experienced hand prevents the tears that would otherwise flow freely. For some, who reluctantly inch toward school, tears flow regardless of the company. The presence or absence of a significant adult makes no difference. The onset of a new year frightens them to death. Older siblings warned them of the dangers to be found in school –mean teachers, hard work, and the really strict principal. No matter what, these poor unfortunates expect the worst.
The children I worried about most on my tour of first day duty were always the last ones outside. They feared crossing the threshold into a new year, and they hid wherever they could. These children attended school every day and worked hard at their assignments. They did most of their homework, but never quite finished because it seemed too hard. Without special help, they would have failed the most important subjects. One year in particular, I found several of these children in the midst of their avoidance behavior. One stood behind a tree. Another squatted low, hiding next to the dumpster. Still another perched himself high above the playground at the top of the slide. Gym-shoed feet betrayed the girl lurking behind a teacher’s van. The last one I eyed started to walk home, refusing to endure failure once again.
Because I did not have a classroom of my own, I was charged with gathering these creative imps. I tended first to the young man bolting home. Jonah was a big boy who had a rough year last time around. I knew him because he received extra support in literacy learning. Jonah actually made excellent progress with his reading teacher. I marveled at the pre– and post-test scores that proclaimed the eighteen months of growth he had achieved. He moved from first to third grade reading level. Unfortunately, Jonah still performed two years below his new grade level. I shared the frustration that must have eaten away at him. His more competent peers skated by with only six, eight or ten months’ growth because that was enough for them. I wondered with Jonah why he was not rewarded for his success when it was greater than that of most of the other students.
With this question in mind, I followed Jonah down the walk. Luckily, his good nature impelled Jonah to stop as he recognized that my dress shoes made it impossible for me to chase him. His eyes told me that he almost welcomed my company. “Jonah,” I asked, “Where are you going? What will I do if you’re not in school today?” Jonah sniffed and tears followed. “I can’t do that stuff. I hate school. I’m stupid and I ain’t goin’ in there!” Trying to keep my own tears in check, I reminded Jonah, “You learned eighteen months worth of reading in only nine months. If you do that again, you’ll be right where you’re supposed to be.” Jonah wiped his eyes, smiling just a bit. “That’s why I got that paper, huh? My mom put it on her bedroom mirror.” “Does she like that paper?” I asked. “Me and her both like it,” Jonah told me as I walked him to the door. Jonah skipped to his classroom, ready to try once again.
One by one, I coaxed the other reluctant children from their various hiding places. One by one, they allowed me to convince them of the special talents only they possessed. One by one, they risked everything to enter their classrooms with hope. One by one, they gave meaning to that day and to every day that I was privileged to work in with them.
At the close of Luke’s gospel (14:1, 7-14), Jesus says, “…when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
I beg your pardon, Lord, but, if this is so, I have already experienced resurrection because nothing can repay me more than Jonah already has.
Let none of us overlook the treasure to be found in the company of those this world considers to be castaways. It is in our association with these favored ones that we witness God’s greatest investment in all of our goodness.
©2013 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved