I look up as John swaggers into my seventh-grade English class and shoves his man-sized body hard into his seat. He's back again—this time from a weeklong suspension for beating up a sixth-grader.
When the opening bell rings, I write an introductory exercise on the chalkboard. The students begin writing.
Except John. He stares defiantly at his paper. His slouched, glowering figure makes the blood course through my head; once again, he's testing me, drawing a battle line that he dares me to cross.
I should just send him to the principal's office, I think. He'd probably get slapped with another suspension—something neither I nor the other teachers would mind.
As I see the, however, the Holy Spirit nudges me. Being a teacher, I know how easy it is to let justice fall ruthlessly on those like John who have been troublemakers the entire year. But I also know that they, of all students, particularly need constructive discipline. The haunting pleas of two students from other places I have taught ring in my ears …
"Don't leave me!"
I had met four-year-old Deanna as a visiting teacher for Head Start, a program designed to help at-risk preschoolers prepare for kindergarten.
"Teacher, don't leave me here," she begged one afternoon when her single, 21-year-old mother had carried her screaming baby sister—the youngest of five children—into another room.
As Deanna's big brown eyes peered pleadingly into mine, I wished I could somehow take her away from the squalor. Social services officials were working with the family, but even as I held her, I watched her three-year-old brother pour Cheerios into a bowl crusted with yesterday's cereal. Not far from the table, near a reeking cat litter box, an overflowing potty chair added its stench to the room. And in my arms, Deanna herself smelled as if she hadn't had a bath in a month. To keep from gagging, I whiffed the perfume I always sprayed on my wrist before visiting the home.
"I'll be back next week," I managed to tell her as I unlocked her arms from my neck.
I knew the endearing eyes of even a dirty preschooler like Deanna could still elicit pity from me and others. But, I wondered, how would she be treated when she became an unruly teenager who no longer wrapped her arms around your neck, begging for help? As an adult, she would, of course, need to accept responsibility for her own actions—regardless of her past—but would anyone even begin to try to understand her when she became a teenage mother who beat her children?
"Help me to remember Deanna when I meet distasteful people," I prayed that day as I drove from the home. "Help me to at least consider what kind of chance they've had in life."
"Don't give up"
A few years later, God did remind me. I had begun teaching inmates at a state prison; I wanted to bring a Christian influence to these forgotten pariahs of society. My classroom, I had decided, would be a place where these men would feel God's love and forgiveness.
But then I started hearing their stories: One inmate had murdered a four-year-old girl. He had tied her to a tree and raped her before pouring gasoline over her and setting her on fire. Could God really love him? I wondered. Forgive him?
One day I conducted a short literacy seminar for five men on death row.
"Why do you want to learn to read now?" I asked one condemned man.
"To read the Bible before I die," he responded.
That night I couldn't sleep as I pictured the atrocities those inmates had committed. Were they truly created in God's image? Did God even want such depraved men to read the Bible?