The smell of new books wafted from the cardboard box. The names Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, and Sophocles danced across glossy covers. It was going to be a great year. I’d be using my college degree, doing something I’d dreamed about for a long time.
After two years of serving as residence staff at a school for missionary kids in Europe, I’d arrived in the States and landed a job teaching literature and composition at a fledgling classical school. Nine eighth grade students would enter my classroom in August. It seemed a manageable number. I’d proven that I could take a flying leap—move to another continent alone and work in an intense environment with teenagers—and God would provide the strength to succeed. Although daily life in the dorm crushed pride and prospered humility, by the time I returned to the States I felt a soaring confidence. Back in my comfort zone, life would get easier. The great adventure was over, and through it I had gained enough humility to last the rest of my life.
When I began teaching last fall, I felt some apprehension, but with the knowledge that I’d have less than a dozen students for only two hours per day, the thought beneath the customary jitters was, How hard could it be? On the humid August afternoon when I entered the classroom for the first time, I could not have envisioned how hard.
Classroom management immediately became an issue. Eighth graders love conflict. I hate it. They love to challenge authority and to test the boundaries of school rules. I despised enforcing rules on unwilling students whom I barely knew. At the school in Germany, I’d been able to build relationships with dorm students before disciplining them. The eighth graders, on the other hand, challenged authority immediately and with confidence. They wanted to take control of the classroom.
Meanwhile, I tried to master the art of lesson planning and presenting. Determined to make literature appealing to a group of self-proclaimed non-readers, everything from group discussions to worksheets to skits made an appearance in my plans. Some ideas were successful, and those days were sweet—but they were scarce. More often, I’d go to class with a definite idea of how I wanted the lesson to go, and of how thrilled the students would be to cooperate and learn—only to be met with bored faces, slumped posture, and complaints. It humbled me when I stumbled over my words and could not hold their interest. A constant stream of discipline situations assailed me: what to do when a student throws paper wads in class? How to respond when they call each other names? What about talking out of turn, goofing off, or passing notes?
Each time I dealt with a situation, I second guessed my decision. Between classroom management issues and my lack of experience with planning and implementing lessons, I often left work feeling like a failure. Doubts assaulted me. Was teaching a mistake? Was the hardship a sign that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time? That God had not called me here?
Past failures returned to my mind. What had I learned from frustrations in college and overseas? A scroll of memories unfurled itself: the music theory class I felt sure of failing but ended up adoring; the dreaded piano jury and practice that seemed fruitless—but wasn’t; the first few months in Germany, when I felt insecure and friendless and constantly fudged simple tasks. Failures turned to valuable experiences because they drove me to dependence. To humility. Every experience began with a confident “I can do this” and ended with a cry of utter weakness to the God whose strength is made perfect when we abandon ours.
Could I admit my weakness again? Yes. Pain ensued. The familiar, abrasive pain that makes me squirm because it whispers, “You are insignificant and powerless. Try as hard as you can, you won’t do any good.” To want to do good and to be powerless is a sad combination. Did I want to do good, though? Or did I want to prove myself? To succeed, and take pride in it?
God requires humility in His presence. Human pride cannot come near Him. That is why He allows the painful circumstances—failures—to crush pride and send me to a humble posture before Him.
As the school year draws to a close, the eighth grade literature books are showing signs of wear. C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces has a bent cover. The Odyssey’s spine is creased. Like the books, I feel bent and creased by my failures. The irony of His strength being perfected in weakness makes more sense than ever–mysterious sense. Helpless to make improvements, I surrender to Him and watch Him persevere through me. I see glimpses of His work, and a whispering voice tells me that my failure is becoming a success.
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