A Locker, A Manger, and A Teacher's Lie
With five minutes left in class, I yelled above the zipping backpacks and moving desks, “How about a hand for team Too Hot over here.” Students clapped politely, and the review games were over. Christmas vacation was a few exam days away. “Are there any more questions about the exam?” One hand popped up. “Yes Kyle.” A blonde-haired kid in the back had a furrowed brow. He was a wild card. One comment from him would bring depth to a lesson about Othello, and then, with a sour grapes attitude, a complaint would deflate an entire discussion.
This time, he had no filter: “How can we get motivated for this exam if you take forever to enter grades.” He wasn’t smiling. All eyes shifted to me. The sounds of zippers and side conversations were gone. Let me pause to say that the phrase “never let them see you sweat” is especially true for teachers. There are days I feel like a minnow in a shark tank, when one tremulous ripple of fear could create a wild frenzy. Students have cussed at me, threatened to kill me, and one kid threw his body against the door to keep me from calling his mom, but none of that got to me like Kyle’s words. I paused, took a breath, and said, “Kyle, I spend 20 minutes on every essay. If you multiply that by 150, it equals a lot of time. I do that because I care about you, but I also have 3 kids, exams to create, and lesson plans to write. I will enter grades, but the motivation should be there regardless because doing well is a reflection of you.” Everyone, including me, wanted to leave, and the bell rang. It was the last class of the semester and a horrible way to end it, but a lie in my heart made it even worse.
It began in 7th grade, the year of acne and painful rejection. I couldn’t wait to decorate my locker. Being a Broncos fan, I cut out John Elway’s body from a Sporting News article. He was holding his helmet and smiling, and I taped him with pride in my skinny metal home, but the winds of a storm were brewing. One day Mr. Elway wasn’t holding his helmet; he was holding his head. My snickering 9th grade neighbors, twice my height and weight, gave themselves away. I did nothing, and the boys, grown men to me, enjoyed my ineptitude. A few days later, reaching up for my math book, I felt the awful closeness of those snickering 9th graders again. “Hey buddy. What’s up?” one asked. Another walked up behind me, and I was stuck. Arms wrapped around my chest, and someone grabbed my feet. They lifted me in the air, and then the room was spinning. The one holding my feet was the hub, and I was the spinning spoke of the wheel. The laughter and gasps proved there was a crowd, and this was a crowd pleaser. I was alone. Change fell from my pocket, the “hub’s” girlfriend smiled awkwardly, and then my spinning ride came to an end on the hallway floor. Hot shame pulsed through my body while the crowd watched me scramble to my feet. The final touches of a lie were inscribed on the heart of a 7th grader: “You are weak, too weak to lead or make a difference.” Any sense of strength flickering in my adolescent body was extinguished by a lie, a lie that still finds its way to the surface of my heart even as an adult.
Thirty years later, I drove home; Kyle’s words hung over me like a dark cloud. The house was empty, and I was a 42-year-old man dealing with a 7th grader's insecurity still lingering inside. Dropping my keys on the counter, I collapsed onto a bar stool. Wise men and shepherds looked at me, some chipped and some with broken pieces next to them. Deb and the kids got them out to do repairs before setting them back in the manger. I felt like them, chipped and broken, a mess of a teacher, but in the quiet, as I picked up the glue and worked at repairing the shepherd’s face, God was doing something. A subtle foreshadowing was taking place. I held symbols of God’s entrance into our world, of the moment in time when He became Emmanuel, God with us, and with each dab of glue, He was speaking truth. The Author of Life was weaving in His symbolism.
When my family arrived, we ate dinner, and I headed back to school to finish an exam. Stepping out of my car, I looked up at the stars and prayed, “Lord, I don’t know how to resolve what I’m feeling. You’re going to have to do it.” Broken pieces were laying around me, and I had no idea how to glue them back. I slipped on some headphones, staring at my computer, and got lost in music and multiple choice questions. About an hour into it, in the midst of processing Kyle’s words and whether or not to include one more grammar question, Jadon Lavik’s version of “This is My Father’s World” started to play. It was God’s glue! Truth broke through every word: “This is my Father’s world. And let me ne’er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” The question came to mind, whose world is it, Kyle's or God's? If I was really living in my Father's world, it is His voice, not Kyle's, that has authority to speak into my life. The One who “conveniently” placed those ceramic figures in front of me sent His son, born in a manger to usher in His Spirit and pick up our broken pieces. He called out strength from deep in my heart and silenced the power of a lie. The tears came. Test-making had ceased, and I was wrapped up in the arms of a God who I knew loved me. He had done what I told Him only He could do. He was there to put me back together, to smooth over my chips and glue back my broken pieces. Like the shepherds and wise men on my counter, I had been pieced back together, and I left my office that night healed.