“They just don’t care,” she said bleakly. Her curly blonde hair and kind blue eyes in a young beautiful face helped to make her one of the most popular fourth grade teachers. She was gifted and compassionate, but it is almost inhuman not to fall into the trap of cynicism and blame, even if only temporarily. She explained for several minutes how there was no way for her to help her struggling students because they were simply too lazy. They lacked the motivation.
I’ve thought many times about my experiences in the schools both as a student and as a teacher. I can honestly say I never met a lazy student. I’ve definitely seen students lack motivation. Children are driven by a biological and instinctive need to please their adult care givers. It is almost impossible to exhaust that drive, but it does happen with devastating frequency in the classroom. Students who struggle to learn to read, have English as a second language, or have attention or behavioral deficits learn very quickly that to try is to fail, to try is to care; to try is to care about failing. As a teacher, you must drive those children to fight against the natural urge to avoid pain. We build the child up, we try to give him tools to succeed, we build relationships of trust to maximize their desire to please us. Many times, too often, the child fails again and it will be that much harder to get them to try the next time.
One of the most cognitively dissonant things I observed in the classroom was the disparity between the haves and the have nots when it came to academic ability. I remember Austin. He was one of my favorite students. By the time I had the assignment passed out and was beginning to circulate the room to assist students, he was half way finished with his work. Within five or ten minutes, he had turned it in and he was off exploring, reading, and engaging in self-directed learning. An hour later, I was still trying to help some students to find their pencils or correctly read the questions. I would have them put their half-completed assignments in their folder to work on during their “free time.” Then I would go on to the next subject. This pattern would repeat with Austin and the other successful students happy, self-directed, able to easily complete their work and enrich their educational experiences; and the struggling students, sitting miserably at their desks, barely able to function academically, reminded every day that they would have to work three times harder, three times longer, with little hope of any recognition or meaningful success as long as they were in school.
Sometimes I was able to connect with a struggling student. Bradley and Jordan were two little boys that I convinced that they were something special. Bradley was born to a mother addicted to crack. He lived with his father in a very difficult home environment. He had learning disabilities and always looked a little unkempt. He wore a big blue coat all the time that hid his very thin frame. He spoke softly and with an impediment. He was remarkably kind and gentle and my mother heart made him my son. He loved the Lord of the Rings movies, and I gave him a copy of the book, Fellowship of the Ring even though I knew it was far above his reading level. Something told me that it wouldn’t matter to Bradley. He would read it anyway. He loved that book. He carried it with him everywhere. Whenever I had time, I was working as an aide at the time, I would read aloud to him from the book. I wrote him notes and he kept them all. He loved me and I loved him. I believed in him and I helped him with his work. My favorite memory of him was seeing him at the grocery store outside of school. He said hi to me and I looked up in surprise. He ran up to me and gave me a big hug with his big squishy coat. I wish I could have told him how special he was. How much of a difference he made in my life.
Jordan had ADHD and a class clown persona. I connected with him right away appreciating his ability to connect with his peers and his obvious intelligence. The classroom had been a punitive place for him, but I was determined that my students would have a different experience, and for him, it was. I can’t take total credit for Jordan’s transformation. His parents put him in Karate that year, which helped him with his confidence and focus. Still, they said that he was a different kid when he left my classroom. He had come into his own and become a leader with focus and vision for his life. He went from having lots of missing work and poor grades, to being one of the top students, getting A’s and B’s easily. He went from having to stay in from recess in study hall regularly to almost never. He went from defiant and defensive, to responsible and self-directed. I couldn’t have been more proud of his progress.
The classroom is a microcosm of life. Some people in the world seem to glide through life like Austin did, easily completing tasks and able to pursue their interests and goals without much opposition. Then there are people like Bradley and Jordan that find hope through meaningful connections and even achievement in spite of opposition. Then there are the people who succumb to discouragement, give up on societal expectations, and live lives of anger and resentment far beneath their potential. At some points in life, we probably all fit in each of these categories. Sometimes our strengths are suited to our roles and we are on top of the world, then circumstances change and things become difficult.
Depression and despair are not always optional. It’s impossible to fairly judge someone’s life from the outside and say they are to blame for these things. Still, as a society we do judge, and our jails, prisons, homeless shelters, and half-way houses are full of those whom society judges unfit.
I’m not the type to advocate taxes and spending to solve these problems. I don’t see government as the solution because government is only a reflection of the values and judgements of the people who control it. If we are to change our society and make it more compassionate, we must start as individuals to do that. Perhaps it is easier to think in global or national terms when it comes to compassion. It is easy to consider the refugee in the Middle East, or the single mother trying to make a better life for her child in the ghetto, or the child hauling water to her hut in Africa. These cardboard cutout people make easy targets for our compassion which is produced like a fast-food hamburger; cheap, easy, and gone within a few minutes. In today’s troubled times, I think we need to do something much harder. There is within us, both light and darkness, both good and evil, both demon and saint. Can we love all of ourselves? Can we find compassion within, that we may have it without?
God commands us to first love Him. How do we know Him? The only evidence we have of God is our own minds and hearts. The reality of our soul is evidence of His divine design. No Earthly source could create consciousness; only greater intelligence can comprehend and design lesser intelligence. The only way to know God is to know ourselves. Our core self is his creation; the light and the dark. He loves us with perfect love, withholding judgement until the all things return to their eternal state. Can we do the same? Can we love the flawed and broken parts of ourselves?
The faith of my childhood was a works based faith. I believed that I needed to be saved or changed in order to be loved. I thought that God would love me I after he had fixed me. It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I could understand the way God loves a temporal person. He sees all of me in all stages of my development and loves all of me the way I love my children. I don’t think, “I will love my son after he is potty trained,” I know that his potty training is a part of his development. I don’t like the accidents and the hassle of potty training, but it is worth it because he is worth it. I love him the same before he is potty trained as I do afterward. The same with my older son as he has gone through the repentance process for sins he has committed. I don’t love him any less for committing the sins. The fact that he sinned and had to suffer the consequences of that was painful, but I saw the sins and the repentance as part of his growth and development, not as evidence that he was unworthy of my love. God’s love is just like this. He loves us and he is deeply invested in our growth and development as his children. He is not ashamed of our flaws, he created them indirectly. He does not turn away from our soiled potty chair in disgust, but with compassion and understanding. He demonstrates in the human soul, his own complexity and capacity for contradiction while still abiding by the immutable laws of nature.
Compassion for self, charity for self, acceptance of self, is a pre-requisite to hope. First, we develop faith in God. That requires that we know Him through examining ourselves and learning to see Him within us. Then, we find hope through the atonement of the Savior. Finally, we are able to have charity for the other creatures like us on this planet. We can see the good and the evil within them, and understand that they too are creations of God with divine design and potential.
It is no wonder that Paul rightly said that without charity we are nothing! It is the only path to salvation.
Last night I was driving down the road to Wesley’s basketball practice. I was late and very frustrated with myself. I had actually tried very hard to be on time, and as I explained before; to try is to fail, to care is to try; to try is to care if you fail. Because I cared so much and tried so much, the pain of failure was overwhelming. Despair came over my mind like a black cloud of darkness. Tears stung my eyes and I struggled against the urge to turn the van into oncoming traffic. Satan’s sharp talons raked across my soul, torturing me and I felt helpless against it. “It doesn’t matter how much you care and how hard you try, it will only make it worse when you fail. Your blog, your therapy, your parenting, your efforts to develop yourself, are doomed to failure. Give in to despair because sin, death, and darkness are your fate,” his message bored into my brain. All this effort going to therapy, reading Jung, journalling, blogging, reaching out to other people with vulnerability, trying and failing, and picking myself up and trying again, believing that somehow it will all be worth the pain…..that’s a lot of trying and caring. That raises the stakes. It makes the thought of failure indescribably painful.
Last night I fought a hard, long battle against Satan. This morning I commanded Satan in the name of my Lord to depart from me and torture my soul no more. I return again to my blog. I choose faith, hope, and charity. The enemy I fight may be in my head, that makes him no less real. Discouragement and despair are the inevitable byproducts of opposition, but I refuse to give in to them. I have faith that there is a God. He created my soul and he sees the good and evil in me and loves me. I have hope that my Savior has the power to save me. I have charity for all my fellow travelers, the other demigods who walk this mortal path with me. I choose the path of Bradley and Jordan because I know that even though there is opposition, my Savior believes there is something special about me. With his help, I can overcome and find success. May my faith and my testimony strengthen each person who reads my words. You are not alone. Your faith is not in vain. He is Mighty to Save!