One Valentine’s Day during my second year of teaching I felt two arms encircling me from behind. They held me tightly and I had to twist my body around to discover that it was Reniesha. Reniesha, an angry little second grade girl who sometimes made loud noises to disrupt the class, frequently stuck out her foot to trip other students as they walked by and “accidentally” bumped into children with her elbow. With her, life was a daily challenge in my classroom, and yet, there was something about her that wound its way into my heart. I reached out to her with everything I knew, but life had hardened her heart… had taught her not to trust… had convinced her she was bad.
Reniesha and the public schools were a culture shock for me. In the one-room Old Order Mennonite School where I taught previously, I was concerned about note writing, paper wads, gum chewing and talking. The only one of those I dealt with on a daily basis was talking. While the academic education of these little minds was important to the Old Order Mennonite parents, instilling Godly principals was even more so.
But now, in this inner-city public school some of my students had parents who were just trying to survive, trying to figure out a way to make it through another day. For years I questioned their level of commitment to their children. But over time, as I have gotten to know them, I have come to the realization that their love for their children is every bit as powerful as the Old Order Mennonite mother who daily helps her little daughter climb up on a chair so she can help measure out flour and sugar and wash dishes. As powerful as the Old Order Mennonite father whose greatest desire is to farm or have a business at home where he can daily teach his sons to become studious men. I have come to understand that the families of many of my current students are fighting battles in their lives that I can only begin to imagine… battles that involve drugs, gun shots at night, sexual exploitation, hateful words and holes in their hearts that have left them wounded and without the knowledge of how to keep these same things from happening to their own children.
In contrast my childhood playground was a peaceful safe neighborhood of barns, swamp, railroad tracks, woods, creek, pond and poison ivy beds. I went to sleep each night under grossmommy-made quilts and comforters with warm snuggling memories of bedtime fairytales, nursery rhymes, Bible Stories, Richard Scarry or Dr, Seuss and always the cheerful “Good-Night, Aleta, Schlof Gut. Sleep Well.” and I awoke to the whirring-snap of green pull shades accompanying my mom’s soprano voice:
Let the sun shine in. Face it with a grin.
Smilers never lose and frowners never win.
So let the sun shine in. Face it with a grin.
Open up your heart and let the sun shine in. (Stuart Hamblen)
I still taste the sugary sweetness of Captain Crunch drowned in fresh milk from my uncle’s dairy followed by a slurping ahhh as I tipped the bowl to my lips and savored the remaining goodness of sweet milk and then the subsequent quiet reminder, “I let you slurp the milk out of your bowl here at home, but remember it is not polite to do it at other people’s houses.”
The satisfying taste of the cookies we were allowed to sneak in between mealtimes reminds me that the worst hunger I experienced as a child was while peddling my bicycle home from the furthest corners of my playground anticipating the aroma of meat and vegetables my mom would dish out onto our dinner or supper plates.
My mom never yelled or referred to us in any unpleasant ways. She never even called us kids. We were children. Kids were baby goats. The Bible refers to goats being on the left and sheep on the right. She believed children deserved more respect than to be referred to as goats.
As a teacher I have attempted to convey this sense of love and security to my students, but Reneisha, like many others, would only respond in part, her guard up, protecting her heart in the only way she knew how. I believed love and praise, along with rewards and consequences were the tools needed to raise a child’s behavior to the next level of greatness. I would watch challenging students like Reneisha in an effort to catch them doing the right thing, even the least little thing such as a Math problem all by themselves, and then I would praise them sincerely. It made some difference which was evidenced by Reneisha’s arms around my waist, but even though I received a few more hugs that year, nothing changed permanently. And finding those moments when she deserved words of praise were often difficult.
What I did not know then, was that when God created me in his image, he had placed his own Creative Force within my tongue. I would not have needed to wait until I caught Reneisha doing the right thing before I spoke words of praise and life into her heart and mind. God speaks those things which are not as though they already were (Rom. 4:17). He has told us to do the same, to speak in faith, believing that we have what we ask him for (Mark 11:23-24).
I had a very angry boy in my classroom this year. At Open House the night before school began he and his siblings ran in and out of my classroom throughout the evening yelling and laughing, “He’s bad! He’s bad! Daren’s bad!”
I hugged him with the smiling comment that I was sure he would be a good student. He was for about a three day honeymoon, then I had a substitute for two days and when I returned he soon began to live up to his siblings' prophecies. I began with the typical “praise him for every little bit of good he does” and give logical consequences for wrong choices, but he became even more angry and defiant than before. Then one day as I was praying God brought two things to my memory.
The first was a book that I had read about strong-willed children: You Can’t Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded) by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias. The author had stated that all the consequences in the world could not convince a strong-willed child to follow the rules. A strong-willed child would rather do the proverbial “cut off the nose to spite the face” rather than allow the adult to win.
So I quit trying to make him follow classroom rules through the reward and punishment method and instead began to do the second thing God had brought to my remembrance. Speak the Word of God into his life. God says that his Word brings us life and health (Prov. 4: 20-22). But this was the public schools. I could not speak as freely as I would have liked, so I asked god to place his health and life into the words I was able to speak.
I began to hug Daren throughout the day and say, “Daren you’re a good boy. I love you. I’m so glad you are in my class.” And he would yell, “I’m bad. I hate this school.”
I ignored his comments and continued to repeat, “Daren you’re a good boy. I love you. I’m so glad you are in my class. You are a good boy and sometimes it takes time for good boys to learn how to make good choices.” Instead of giving him the negative consequences he deserved, I spoke those same words of life to him when his behavior was atrocious. Soon I would feel his body begin to relax and lean into my hug. I continued to speak the truth of God’s word into his life. You are a good boy. Within days his behavior began to improve. Speaking the goodness and love of God into his life before it was visible has brought that goodness and love into the realm of the visible. He still has challenges, but nothing like what it used to be and he continues to improve every day.
God tells us to be imitators of him (Eph. 5: 1). So I spoke to the mountain and spoke those things that are not as though they already were, knowing that in the Spirit World… they already are. I continue to speak the goodness and love of God into Daren’s life and God performs his Word in ways that I never could.
My relationship with God works kind of like those charities that have large corporations backing them up, for each dollar raised the corporation promises to donate double or triple the amount. Therefore, if I give $100 to that charity, I’ve in reality helped them raise $200 or $300. Without that corporation’s support my $100 would be just that- $100. Likewise, when I try to do the good and right things in life on my own strength, I am limited by my own ability.
On my own, whatever good I am capable of accomplishing, that’s all that gets done. I have twenty-five first graders with whom I have to remember to each day verbalize hope even when it looks hopeless, to praise when I’d rather complain, to speak kind loving words when I feel exasperated, to speak the goodness of God into their hearts and minds when all I see is misbehaviors, to patiently explain and re-explain in four different ways to six different children how to do a Math problem, to gently but firmly remind them that they need to turn and look at the teacher when she is talking, to quietly tell two children who have misbehaved for the third time that day to go change their behavior cards, to smile and exclaim excitedly to the fourth loose tooth within three minutes time, to know exactly how much sympathy to show to a chronic complainer, to wisely decide when a Band-Aid is necessary to a stop blood flow, when the bandage is necessary to stop the tear-flow and when it is time to say: You WILL be fine. You do NOT need another bandage., to not allow the strong-willed child to demand more of my attention than the ones doing the right thing, to know when to be firm and when to be gentle, to remember to be kind and smiling and loving while I teach Reading and Writing and Spelling and Math and Science, Social Studies and social skills with great enthusiasm from 8 o’clock in the morning until 2:20 in the afternoon…
On the days when I realize how far short I have fallen and begin to feel overwhelmed with the realization that I can never remember to do it all… On those days I realize that I have been trying to do it on my own strength. I have been forgetting to rely on the one who called and equipped me. Then instead of trying to do better, I build my relationship with God: I read his Word, I spend time in worship and rest in his presence. Then as his Spirit within me increases and I decrease, his power within me does what I could not. He backs up my feeble $100 efforts in love with double and triple the amount of results.