Through a series of surprises, disasters, and unplanned circumstances I have ended up a Special Education Teacher. That was never part of my plan for my life. It’s just what happened, and I thank God every day for it. (O.K., actually that’s probably not true. I try to thank God every day for it; I should thank God every day for it. But in fact, I probably don’t thank God every day for it.)
For over a decade, I have worked in the poorest and biggest inner city schools in Massachusetts and in residential schools for troubled kids in Los Angeles and on the East Coast. I have had students who have done drive-bys and been third generation gang members. I’ve tried to teach kids who’ve been prostituted by their parents for drugs. I’ve worked with kids who have sexually abused hundreds of other kids. I have worked with kids who have been abused hundreds of times.
There was this boy who had scars on his arms. When the voices told him to light himself on fire he did. There was this girl, over 6 feet tall, probably 225 pounds. Chronologically she was 17 years old, but on the inside she was so much younger. She was 11 when she found her parents dead, in bed, a suicide-murder. She hadn’t grown emotionally a day since.
It’s hard to get beyond the cliches in this situation. I learned so much from these kids. It was such a privilige and a joy to work with them. Those things are true. But maybe I get beyond the cliches by telling the whole story. Because those sentences are not false… but they are only half the story.
The full story is this: There were days I was sure I could not do it. There were days that it didn’t feel worth it. There were many days that I came close to hating the students, and a few days when I actually did hate them.
Two years ago I sprained my back breaking up a fight between my students. I spent a month on disabality. I was warned, quite off the record, to watch myself. The school district had a history of wanting to sever ties with teachers who could prove to be legal problems down the road. Unsurprisingly, my contract wasn’t renewed the next year.
I spent last school year at a middle school that was on the verge of being taken over by the state. To say that it was a tough situation would be to understate the case significantly. Student, teacher, parent morale was abysmal.
After ten years of these sorts of schools, a different kind-of position fell into my lap. An affluent, mostly suburban (with a bit of rural thrown in) smallish school district was looking to begin a class for behaviorally challenged students.
Sometimes, I felt like I was at a country club. It was easy to view this as a bit of a sabbatical. I was desperate for a moment to catch my breath, but it didn’t feel like what I’m really called to do.
It was strange to have enough supplies, technology, and support to actually impact these kids. Occasionally, I’d have these perverse flashes of guilt that I’m not working in an absurdly hopeless situation.
Mostly, though, it was easy to see my new position as bordering on the trivial, to see the severity of these kids’ issues as comparitively light-weight. Like lots of realizations that come easy, this easy realization was dangerous.
There was this Freshman girl. Let’s call her Lori. Lori is a tough kid, as kids within this particular district go. Like many kids she’s received absurdly inconsistent expectations, parenting, and boundaries. She’s learned to push, test, and manipulate. She has this great smile and a big heart, but it’s easy to lose sight of this when she’s cursing and yelling.
One of the keys to my job is deciding what I’m going to fight over and what I’m not going to. Giving up on the areas I’ve decided to dig my heels in can create some problems for both me and the kids. I do my best not to.
An area I decided I wasn’t going to compromise with Lorie was around the issues of wearing shoes in my class. Every day she would come and want to take them off. I figured this to be a power game with her. There was a wide variety of areas I gave in on with her (and my other students.) There are some areas where I don’t. This was one I wasn’t going to budge on.
Every day we’d lock horns. Every day I would instruct her that shoes needed to be worn in my class. Every day I’d level consequences when she didn’t meet my expectations.
I was proud of myself when the day finally came that she gave up on taking off her shoes. I had known it would come. These kids are used to wearing down the adults in there lives. They can be outlasted, but it’s not easy. I put a tally mark on the mental chalk score board in my head under my own name: Score one for me.
The days and weeks went by. I made some progress with some kids, I didn’t make as much with other kids. I worked at building relationships while I taught them, I worked at caring for them as I worked with them, I tried to be there for them as I held them accountable. The great thing about being a special Educator is that I get to see many of my kids for significant portions of the day. These are kids who often have no meaningful relationships, especially with adults.
With Lori… Not so much. There was this wall. I figured I could wait this out, too. I felt confident in my assessment, proud of my abilities; I’d seen it all before, in kids twice as tough, twice as desperate.
I hope you’ll share my surprise when I tell you that a co-worker approached at some point in the middle of all this. She’d sent Lori to the nurse. Lori, it seemed had these tremendous blisters.
She’d been cramming her feet into shoes two sizes too small. She’d been wearing them to school every day. She’d been wearing them home, every day. She’d been wanting to take them off in my class, every day.
And I was so proud of myself when I one that battle with her. I was so proud of myself when she gave up trying to take them off. No wonder she was never focused on what was going on in class. I wouldn’t either, if you crammed my size 11 feet into size 9’s. (And who knows what other ways she’s been and continues to be neglected… it’s quite likely that her shoes are pretty low on the list of troubling issues in her life.)
There are these lessons that we learn over and over again. One for me is that God can be trusted. Another for me is that there is work to do wherever I am. A third is that the teacher-student relationship is not a simple, one sided deal. There are ways in which the “students” teach me more than I teach them.
But perhaps the most important thing is this: Sometimes when we are the most sure in our beliefs, that is when we are the most wrong.
What does all this have to do with mystery? Well, there’s this great thing about mystery. The world tells us to pick a side. The world tells us to evaluate the evidence and the whole-heartedly choose one group over the other.
One of the great things about mystery is this: We are free to recognize that there is truth on both sides of a debate, even if there is only one Truth. I should have checked my assumptions. I should have tried to find what truth Lori was living, by taking off her shoes every day.
Lori and kids like her all the least among us. Scripture tells me that the way I treat her is the way I treat Jesus himself. What all this means is that one day, Jesus wandered into my class and he wanted to take his shoes off, because there were blisters on his feet. I wielded my power and I stuck to my guns. And Jesus? He put those shoes back on those blistered feet.
My prayer for you and for me is that our hearts might be open to some issue which we see as so very one-sided. I hope that we can dwell for a while, that we can affirm the little truths that live on both sides of the debate. Because that’s where Jesus is: not in the right or wrong answers, but in those little truths with a lower case “t”, that eventually will add up to Truth with an upper case “T”