I want to tell you about someone whose life’s work made a difference.
Not everyone gets to see immediate results from their hard labor. In some ways, I suppose very few do. Pastors surely don’t very often. Other than a few polite remarks at the back door on Sundays, we are left fervently hoping that God is moving among our people.
Meanwhile, the architect gets to see his or her design come to life within months. The sign-maker can drive by his creation for years, proud to see their craftsmanship. The bricklayer who builds the walls can see the results of their work perhaps for the rest of their days. The nurse watches the patient leave the hospital. The cook can taste their food.
Teachers are a lot more like pastors than they might first guess. They toil in the classroom daily. Yes, the tests, papers and report cards give some feedback on how their students are doing. But if the proof of their work rests in the true progress their students make, then perhaps it is another teacher far up the chain who gets to register the accomplishment.
I never was the most gifted student in any class I attended. I mean that truthfully and quite literally. Nor, to be fair, was I ever the least gifted student. I was right in the middle somewhere. As an 8-year-old, because I forgot to return some signed papers one day, my teacher paraded me before the entire class. She got their undivided attention, told them what I had done and assured them that I never would amount to anything.
She did it to punish me. Little may she have known that her punitive action would hit its mark and have a lasting effect. I believed her, since I already had assessed myself as being far below the “smart kids” abilities. Knowing I had somewhat less talent than some, I already was down on myself. Now, I took her words to heart for the next several years.
An average student who really feels below average, and who doesn’t have a natural romance with learning itself, may find it easy to get disinterested. Why bother, when some of the subjects don’t appeal to you and an educator already has signed off on your life’s doom? At least for the next several years, that was my outlook. Into high school, I coasted right along expecting nothing but the same.
Each summer when I was in high school, we had to stop by the school to pick up what was then a hand-written report card from our homeroom teacher. Then, we could move along with our summer. Except after my 10-grade year, my young teacher, Mrs. Shoenig, looked up over her glasses at me as she held the card in her hand. “You know, you could do better.” She handed me the card and I started to leave.
She would have no reason to recall this now, yet it changed my life.
“What was that you said?” I asked.
“I said that you could do better,” Mrs. Shoenig replied.
I followed up by asking genuinely, “Do you really think so?”
Now, here is when it happened. That profound thing that will perhaps sound like nothing to you. She said simply, “I know you can. You’re smarter than these grades.”
She said simply, “I know you can. You’re smarter than these grades.”
I mumbled something like “thank you,” and walked out the door with a sheepish, confused expression on my face, I’m sure. I didn’t say anything about the conversation to my parents or to anyone else. But I thought about it off and on for the rest of the day. Truth is, she was the first teacher who ever expressed any confidence in my abilities up to that point.
When the new school year began, my entire approach changed. I paid better attention, took better notes and studied harder than ever. Still never the most accomplished student, I did at least begin to make the Honor Roll each quarter. At the end of my senior year, I was invited to an honors night for my relatively good academic performance that school year.
Nearly 40 years have passed since that day. My young teacher has retired. I earned my doctorate years ago and have written nine books. I am sure that not one thing I’ve done in the classroom, at the keyboard or from the pulpit would have happened if she hadn’t spoken up back then.
Actually, there is an epilogue to all this. It involves my years of effort to find and thank her. That is a story for another day.
The splendid pastor Truett Gannon once said, “Few things are more inspiring than to see a person standing in someone’s winter, helping them believe in a better springtime to come.” That’s what Mrs. Shoenig did for me, and it has made all the difference. That’s what we could do for each other, too, don’t you think?
Now, I wonder who needs for me to see something in them that they do not yet see? I wonder who could use a word of confidence spoken into a season when they lack that belief? Talk about paying something forward. When I think of her example, I am reminded that we, too, are called to touch each other’s lives in helpful ways.
Charles Qualls serves as pastor of Franklin Baptist Church in Franklin, Va.
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