Encourage One Another

Love your neighbor…
From Matthew 22:39

I ran into a former colleague who recently retired. Like I had, she spent her entire teaching career with kids who had far more to worry about than which box of cereal to choose for breakfast. We were both reading teachers whose students came to us from other classrooms. Because we had no homerooms, we monitored the outdoors and school entrances at the open and close of every school day. It was during these morning patrols that we encountered some reluctant grade-school students who expected the worst from every new day in their classrooms.

As my friend and I reminisced, we agreed that our former students had a variety of valid reasons for their daily trepidation. The good news is that they responded to our frequent interactions with surprising openness. My friend and I learned a good deal about these children as we coaxed them to the door. They shared things with us one-to-one which their classroom teachers would never know. We often shared advice with them which some eventually heeded enough to improve their days. We also put in a good word for these little lost souls whenever the opportunity arose. My friend and I also agreed that the best news in the world came in a teacher’s remark that one of our before-school friends was making meaningful progress or had actually enjoyed a good day.

From time to time we all encounter people who are reluctant to embrace the new day. Perhaps our willingness to listen or a word of encouragement will nudge them on their way. If they’re anything like those reluctant students, it’s worth a try.

Loving God, be with those who struggle today and give the rest of us the wisdom and generosity to encourage them along their way, just as you would.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Love… Just Love!

The ordinances of the Lord are true, all of them just.
They are more precious than gold…

Psalm 19:10

As I walked the other day, I passed our local school at dismissal. Though I usually avoid this timing, I enjoyed the circus of it all just the same. The kids were well-behaved as they lined up for their buses and I fully appreciated the effort expended by them and their teachers to accomplish this. I wouldn’t trade my teaching career for anything. Still, there were days when I would’ve preferred to be any place other than in my classroom. This usually had little to do with the children. More often than not, it resulted from fatigue, frustration with “the powers that be” or the problems of people I care about. The good news is that my students managed to dispel my frustration in amazing ways.

When the children sensed an uncharacteristic edge in my voice, they were especially quiet and extremely helpful toward me and one another. In an effort not to darken my mood further, a few of them gave “the eye” to their less perceptive classmates who quickly responded. I always noted -and appreciated- this response to my crankiness and I answered it with a quick return to normalcy.

I worked very hard to make my classroom a productive and compassionate place. I realized that I succeeded at some level when the children managed my “off days” so mercifully. It seems to me that God has worked to make this world of ours a productive and compassionate place as well. The best way to let our Loving Creator know that we appreciate this effort is to respond in kind to one another.

Patient God, thank you for our capacity to love. Remind us often that your most pressing request is that we love each other.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Special in God’s Eyes

This Labor Day weekend, my thoughts turn to all of the children and teachers who recently embraced the new school year. While I always welcomed summer vacation when my husband-the-principal and I-the-teacher regrouped as a family with our own kids, every August, I looked forward to the new school year as well. Of course, I also looked forward to Labor Day which granted all concerned a four-day school week! The other day, Mike shared a Facebook post with me from one of our former students. As I considered the amazing dad and husband he’s become, I offered a prayer for him and all of the great kids I’d met along the way. It was then that one of my own first day of school adventures came to mind. A favorite student wasn’t at all looking forward to the new school year or Labor Day…

On the first day each year, teachers flank school grounds long before the children arrive. Some of the children might have been unfamiliar with the environment while others might have needed a reminder that order would prevail. So it was that my fellow teachers and I stood ready to greet the new year’s students. Eventually, most of the children made their way into the building like an army of ants charging a picnic. Some approached with confidence. They were returning students who’d done well the prior year. They knew where to line up and what to expect. Their backpacks bulged with supplies in anticipation of whatever their new teachers might ask of them. Others arrived hand-in-hand with an adult companion. These grown-up escorts offered a bit of reassurance in an effort to prevent tears which would otherwise have flowed freely. For some who reluctantly inched toward school, tears flowed regardless of the company. The onset of the new year frightened them beyond their abilities to cope. These poor children always expected the worst.

The children I worried about most that first morning of the school year were those who lingered on the periphery of things. They feared crossing the threshold into the school and into the new year and they hid wherever they could. The year before, these children had attended school every day and worked hard at their assignments. They did their homework, but too often found it to be too hard. Without help, they too often failed the most important subjects. I vividly recalled their avoidance behaviors. One stood behind a tree. Another squatted low, hiding next to a dumpster. Still another perched himself high above the playground at the top of the slide. Gym-shoe clad feet betrayed the girl lurking behind a teacher’s van. The last one I eyed had started to walk home. He’d refused to endure failure once again.

Because I was a reading teacher, I didn’t have a class of my own to usher into the building. I was charged with gathering these elusive procrastinators. That year, after retrieving my young friends from their various hiding places, I bolted after the young man who was headed home. Jonah was a sixth grader who felt he’d had a rough year last time around. I knew him because Jonah had been one of my reading students. Jonah had made excellent progress in reading. His pre-test and post-test scores heralded the two-plus years’ growth he’d achieved. Jonah had moved from second to fourth grade reading level. Unfortunately, Jonah still performed two years below his new grade level. I shared the frustration which must have eaten away at him. His peers who were reading at grade level skated by with only six or eight months’ growth and that was enough for them. I understood why Jonah questioned his still being behind when his growth was greater than that of most of the other students.

With all of this in mind, I followed Jonah down the walk. Luckily, Jonah’s good nature impelled him to stop. Had he noticed that my heels 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 going in there!” Trying to keep my own tears in check, I reminded Jonah, “You learned two years’ worth of reading last year. If you do that again, you’ll be right where you’re supposed to be.” Jonah wiped his eyes and smiled just a bit. “That’s why I got that certificate, huh? My mom put it on her bedroom mirror.” I quickly asked, “She liked it?” Jonah smiled as I walked him to the door. “We both like it,” Jonah admitted. With that, Jonah skipped to his classroom, ready to try once again. With that, I prayed once again: “Thank you, Lord, for helping me to convince Jonah of just how special he is.” Jonah had given meaning to that day and to every day that I was privileged to work with him.

Today, 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 admit that Jesus’ promise is above and beyond anything I can hope for today because Jonah repaid me a thousand-fold for simply doing my job that year. So it is that I celebrate Labor Day 2019 with a prayer for you and me…

Loving God, help us never to overlook the treasure to be found in those whom this world considers to be castaways. Like Jesus, help us to see that it is through our association with these favored ones that we witness your greatest work and that we best emulate your loving and welcoming heart.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Love Them All…

We are one body, individually members of one another.
Romans 12:5

As a child, I found the word “hate” to be terribly powerful. I refrained from using it for years. To “hate” anyone seemed to eliminate the possibility that I would ever learn to love him or her. In spite of the occasional teasing and physical trauma I suffered, I truly tried not to hate anyone.

My childhood resolve eventually faded and this became more difficult. Fortunately, college gave me more than the tools I needed to teach. It was there that my appreciation for children young and old grew exponentially. Later, when I had my own classroom, I couldn’t keep my students from occupying special places in my heart. It was more often a colleague or a student’s parent who tested my ability to love than it was any of the children in my classroom. I reminded myself often that these adults were also somebody’s children. I challenged myself to find reasons they these people might be loved by their parents and to focus on those attributes.

As I consider my frustration and sadness over so much of today’s news, I try to remember that those who turn our little worlds upside down and those who are playing havoc with the world at large are somebody’s children as well. We are all God’s children and it is up to us to find ways to get along. Though our efforts may seem small in the grand scheme of things, they will make a difference just the same.

Merciful God, help us to see one another with your eyes and to love one another with your heart. Help us to bring peace and justice back into this world, one encounter at a time.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Gifts of Peace

Their amazement went beyond all bounds.
“He has done everything well!
He heals the deaf and the mute!”

From Mark 7:37

As I made my way out of the store the other day, a teen-aged girl and someone who seemed to be her younger brother made their way in. I couldn’t help hearing as this young woman advised her young companion regarding how to deal with someone who was giving him trouble. Though I’m not certain of how that conversation ended, I liked what I heard as I passed by. This young woman’s wise advice reminded me of a former student from long ago…

I could hear Frankie telling her classmate, “Nasty, nasty, nasty. He’s just nasty, so ignore him!” Frankie, a fifth grader who was wise beyond her years, had mastered the art of defusing misbehavior. Though she would never allow one classmate to physically hurt another, Frankie ignored verbal assaults and she taught those in her company to do the same. Frankie single-handedly prevented many a playground altercation by simply walking away. While the teacher in me addressed any assault, verbal or otherwise, I truly respected Frankie’s approach to getting along in this world.

As I walked on to my car, I prayed for the young woman I’d passed and her little brother. I asked God to help her to replace his anxiety with a bit of peace.

Dear God, thank you for the peacemakers among us. Help us all to learn from those who try to diffuse our troubles with a measure of peace.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Live In Peace

Beside restful waters God leads me;
God refreshes my soul…

From Psalm 23:2-3

The snow day last week elicited a memory from my long-ago classroom… When I taught, I prided myself in remaining calm in the face of misbehavior. My students’ apparently agreed that this was a good approach to our occasional classroom troubles as their subsequent compliance proved me right. Still, I admit to allowing my anger to get the best of me the morning I heard that a former student had died.

Though he had a good and kind heart, Lee had also been taken in by the allure of the streets more than once. This time, he drove a van that his friends had loaded with stolen bicycles from a nearby suburb. A police chase resulted in the accident which took Lee’s life. In the wake of this news, I heard one of Lee’s classmates bragging that he was in the van during that chase and that he flew out the door and ran away when the van tipped over on its side. Before he could finish his yarn, I called him over. “Who do you think you are?” I wailed. “Lee died last night and you were nowhere near that van. Don’t you dare try to make yourself look cool on the death of my friend!”

I didn’t realize the power of my words at the time. Suddenly, one could literally hear a pin drop in the once noisy hallway. While the target of my ire crept into his classroom with his eyes cast to the floor, others who knew Lee stopped to offer their condolences over the friend we had all lost. These kindnesses returned some semblance of peace to each of one of us.

Dear God, while Lee resides in your everlasting peace, bless those he left behind with a taste of the peace he’s found.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved