Let not many of you become teachers… (James 3:1)
Mrs. Clark stood in front of her fifth-grade class on the first day of a new fall term and told the eleven-year-old students a lie. Like many teachers, she habitually gathered the children early for an orientation session during which she never failed to share that she would dedicate herself to each of them fairly and equally. At the time, she meant it; she thought she was that kind of teacher. However, slumped in the back row was a skinny boy named Johnny who was just plain difficult to like. He was soon going to unwittingly expose her inadvertent hypocrisy.
Mrs. Clark began noticing that Johnny didn’t play well with the other children, his clothes were messy, and he always needed a bath and a hair washing. Communicating with him was difficult because he only spoke when spoken to, and then only responded in monosyllables like “yup,” “nope,” and most often a noncommittal “maybe.” On the good side, his silent demeanor and standoffishness meant that he was never a disruption, didn’t require admonishment for fighting or bullying, nor need go to the principal’s office for discipline. However, Johnny rarely completed his assignments or turned in his homework. Her frustration with him reached the point that Mrs. Clark almost enjoyed marking his papers with a red pen, drawing bold Xs next to his errors and omissions, or marking the top of his papers with a big F.
Each teacher had access to their student’s academic histories and was encouraged to review them. If she had read Johnny’s school records earlier, she would have understood him better. Mrs. Clark had delayed Johnny’s until last. When she finally checked his file, she was appropriately surprised. His first-grade teacher had written: “Johnny is a bright child with a quick laugh. He does his work neatly and exhibits good manners…he makes friends easily and is pleasant to be around.” His second-grade teacher had written: “Johnny is an excellent student, well-liked by his classmates, but he’s troubled by his mother’s terminal illness and life at home has caused him to struggle.” His third-grade teacher had written: “His mother’s death has been hard on him. He tries to do his best, but his father doesn’t show much interest and his home life will affect him negatively if corrective steps aren’t undertaken.” Johnny’s fourth-grade teacher had written: “Johnny is withdrawn and doesn’t show much interest in school. He doesn’t have many friends and he day-dreams in class.” By fourth grade, the records described Johnny as the poorly performing student that Mrs. Clark knew the following year.
The school year progressed with their relationship mostly unchanged as the two-week Christmas vacation approached. On the final school day of the old year, Mrs. Clark’s students followed the longstanding tradition of bringing their teacher gifts. There were many presents under the little tree in the corner of the room waiting to be opened during the afternoon party. All were wrapped in beautiful ribbons and bright, fancy paper; all except Johnny’s whose were clumsily wrapped in the heavy brown paper commonly used for grocery bags and held together with masking tape. His presents were just like Johnny, not very neat or attractive.
When it was time to unwrap gifts, Mrs. Clark was a little surprised to have received anything from Johnny, so she took care to open his two gifts in the middle of the other presents. A few children began to snicker when she opened the first, containing a rhinestone bracelet with some of the fake jewels missing; and then they did so again when she opened the second containing a half-filled bottle of cheap perfume. Mrs. Clark had the presence of mind to kindly stifle the children’s rude reactions by quickly placing the bracelet and dabs of the perfume on her wrist, holding it up, and exclaiming, “My, how very wonderful!”
Johnny lingered after school that day standing near her desk. This was unusual behavior and it created both curiosity and more surprise in Mrs. Clark. He looked nervous but sounded sincere when he said, “Mrs. Clark, today you smelled just like my mom used to, and her bracelet looks really nice on you. I just want you to know that you’re my favorite teacher.”
That night Mrs. Clark didn’t sleep well; something unidentified was deeply troubling her. She persisted in examining the day’s activities, and eventually gained insight into the situation. A clearer understanding of Johnny’s problem led to perceiving her part in contributing to it. She felt ashamed about her attitude toward him. Before sunrise, Mrs. Clark determined she needed to make some immediate changes. From now on she would really love and help all of her students the same – especially the slow and troubled ones – beginning with Johnny. She would strive to become the kind of teacher she said she was, the kind she wanted to be, and the kind the students needed her to be.
On the first day of school after the holidays, the fifth-grade students were greeted by a new teacher. It was still Mrs. Clark on the outside; but on the inside, she was different. She quit just teaching subjects like reading, social studies, and math; she began teaching students. As she had determined, Mrs. Clark paid particular attention to Johnny. After working with him for some days, his mind seemed to awaken and find a fresh spirit. The more she encouraged him, the more he responded. By the end of the year, Johnny had caught up with most of the other students and he had even begun to surpass a few others. Now to keep her promise of impartiality toward all students, Mrs. Clark had to keep her pride in check and resist the temptation to treat Johnny, and those like him, as teacher’s pets.
The school year ended with Johnny graduating fifth grade, with its accompanying physical move from elementary school to the middle school some miles away. Before departing for summer vacation, Johnny was found one final time waiting by Mrs. Clark’s desk after the rest of his class had charged excitedly out the door. He told Mrs. Clark a simple good-bye, followed by “You’re my favorite teacher.”
Mrs. Clark didn’t hear from him for the next three years. In late spring of the third year, she found a hand-addressed envelope in her assigned mail slot at school. It contained a note from Johnny reporting that middle school had gone well and he was moving on to high school. He concluded it with: “You’re still my favorite teacher.”
Considerable time passed without further contact from Johnny until, at the end of the fourth school year, she received a familiar-looking handwritten envelope in her mail slot. It contained another note from Johnny saying that high school had gone well and he’d been accepted at the state university on a partial scholarship. The note again concluded simply: “You’re still my favorite teacher.”
Mrs. Clark continued to teach fifth grade at the same school. Nearly four more years passed without any more updates from Johnny; that is, until late spring of the fourth year when she found a third note in her mail slot. It was from Johnny and reported that he was graduating from the university in a few days with a degree and summa cum laude honors. This note concluded similarly to the other two: “You’re still my favorite teacher.” That simple statement always reminded her of the long-ago Christmas party and of her renewed commitment to teaching during the sleepless night that followed it. The recollection never failed to inspire and refresh her.
The next six years passed quickly for Mrs. Clark, who had spent more than half of them enjoying retirement from the classroom. Late in the spring of the sixth year, an envelope arrived at her home. It was from the office manager of her old grade school. Upon opening it, she immediately recognized Johnny’s handwriting on what was to be her final note from him. It was another brief update reporting that he’d gone on to medical school, where he met a pretty young nurse to whom he was now engaged. But the personal note wasn’t alone. Attached was a sealed, formal envelope containing both an embossed invitation to his wedding and another handwritten note. In the second one, he reminded Mrs. Clark that he’d lost his mother in elementary school and reported that his father had passed away several years ago. Thus, having no one to represent his parents at the wedding, he asked whether she’d be available and willing to do so. This note concluded with the now-familiar words: “You’re still my favorite teacher,” but it had an unfamiliar signature. It was signed: Dr. John R. Mills, MD.
Mrs. Clark accepted the wedding invitation, considering it an honor to sit up front where Dr. Mills’ parents would have sat. She arrived wearing the bracelet and perfume given to her on that Christmas when she and Dr. Mills were together in her old classroom – when he was still known as Johnny.
After the ceremony, they embraced and Dr. Mills thanked Mrs. Clark for being there for him on his wedding day, and more importantly, he thanked her for what she’d done for him back in fifth grade. Mrs. Clark replied that his gratitude was misplaced, for it was he who had honored her with the invitation as well as he who had encouraged her to become the kind of teacher she wanted and needed to be. It was the combination of his simple trust and fidelity that acted as the catalyst for decisive growth in her life.
They were both correct because they’d been mutually influential in making substantive, positive changes in each other’s lives – changes that cascaded from both of their lives on into the lives of many others thereafter. Johnny’s unquestioning love for Mrs. Clark was the igniting spark for her change; it was her change that reflected the love back to Johnny, who then leveraged it to consistently improve his life. Those two small, physical Christmas gifts of the bracelet and the perfume were the first seeds sown into lives that would grow into greater gift giving for both parties. These kinds of gifts don’t require shopping, money, or wrapping, yet they are gifts that will endure and keep on giving. The real gifts were their time and attention to each other. These were the best gifts they had given, and the best ones they had received.
Their gifts are representative of gifts we can all afford to give: our love, talents, kindness, attention, and time. These are the true gifts that are needed by those unlovable ones like Johnny, or by those misguided ones like Mrs. Clark. At some point in our lives, we are all like Johnny and need to receive from a Mrs. Clark; at other times, we are capably equipped like Mrs. Clark and can give of ourselves to a needy Johnny. Even Johnny, who seemingly had nothing, found something to give Mrs. Clark. We are reminded to be generous in giving of ourselves, for none of us has anything in life of real value that we have not been given ourselves. The investments that we make in others are the best ones because they are life-changing and thus pay lasting dividends to the giver and to the recipient.
There are only four things we can take beyond the grave; I call them the everlasting four: integrity (sometimes called a good name or reputation), relationships, the positive concentric circles that our good deeds have set in motion (sometimes called paying-it-forward), and faith.
…knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. (James 3:1)