Life is messy. A great metaphor is my desk, piled with papers to be graded or handed back to students. The chaos can be overwhelming at a glance, but looking a little closer at each individual essay and quiz, with names written at the top, I see relationships represented, stories told and hopes found within the 8 ½” X 11” boundaries. A closer look—with a moment’s pause to pray—often leads to the discovery of meaning, the discovery that God’s presence in the mess makes it beautiful.
Although I don’t drink coffee, when I walk into my 1st period classroom and see Sara sitting on Nathan’s lap while he wraps his arms around her waist and then have to duck to avoid the pencil Mike is throwing at Jadon, and all of this before the first bell even rings, I feel like a dark caffeinated beverage is exactly what I need. Just like the classroom, just like my students, and just like the public school, I am far from perfect. Insecurity storms inside me after Ashley makes a comment during 3rd period about Science being her favorite class, and lies creep up after Andrew walks out of 4th period cussing about the kind of teacher he thinks I am.
Critics on the outside of the walls of public schools hear about one boy beating up another over some girl, kids smoking weed, the kid that gave his teacher the finger and walked out, and the class sizes of 40. People hear about the mess, but they miss the conversation between two girls, walking out of Math, when one asked the other to attend the Monday night Young Life club where she could finally find some hope. They don’t see the students rushing from their seats to hug a crying student who was willing, for a moment, to take off her mask. And nobody talks about the young men who circle their desks and take bites from their sandwiches as they open up the Bible and talk about what they see. At the school where I teach, the secular and the sacred meet so closely that they intermingle and a distinction is hard to define.
Glimpses of God at work are not limited to the people. He’s in the books too. Fahrenheit 451 is a book that has become a vital part of curriculums in public schools all across the country and one of my favorites to teach my sophomores, but the main character in the book, Montag moves from the secular into the sacred when he wades into that river passing from his old life to a new one. The water, as it passes over Montag’s weary, desperate body, offers a look into the hope only Jesus can offer. And nobody pulls out The Grapes of Wrath in a Sunday school classroom, but Steinbeck’s themes of being seen and needing community are two of Jesus’ favorite conversation topics. The public school itself and the literature that fills it are so often labeled, even shunned in some circles, as secular, but it is in the mess of those places and stories that we find brokenness, and it is into that brokenness that Jesus loves to speak.
He became Emmanuel, God with us, in a manger filled with smells of fresh poop, sounds of mice scurrying through the hay and cows mooing as they chew their cud. When Jesus was born, God proved, once and for all, that He would truly be with us, and His grand entrance was in a place built to house animals. It seems He likes pulling the sheet off His greatest accomplishments, giving us the clearest glimpses of Himself in the most unlikely, messy places.
As education becomes more controlled and politicized, filling up with labels, testing, and acronyms, the buildings and the people within them, teachers and students, are often forgotten. People can forget as they debate and take sides, but God never does. He’s in the business of showing up in the mess, like the little baby sleeping with the donkeys and sheep. He likes the mess because it’s real. That’s the beauty of the gospel. God chooses to love us with our ripped-up jeans and smelly breath rather than calling us to perform for him in a coat and tie.
The public school is my setting. God chose it as He has written His story about me. There are pieces of the past, pieces like lesson plans, students and books, that have been a part of those classrooms over the years. They are welcome and seemingly random, but put together, it all reveals a very real presence of a creator. The classrooms where I have been called a teacher have actually become the incredible settings where I have been given the chance to be the student, to watch the true Teacher lead anyone hanging out in room 212 in lessons I could have never come up with on my own, creating curriculum that has all the markings of a curriculum artist, and leading discussions that go in a direction I never could have guessed. Despite the mess of essays to be graded and noisy classrooms, pieces of the puzzle fit together along the way, which prove living and teaching have never been done alone. Using lesson plans, books and the people within the walls of a “secular” public school, God speaks. He speaks in the midst of the mess of life, even using the mess to reveal one of the most attractive aspects of His character—His nearness.