Thursday, February 24, 2011

For My Classmate in the Back Row

She sits in the back of the classroom where I spend one night a week as a graduate student. We are a class of career-changers who felt the pull in midlife to share our knowledge with children. She's raising her son on her own.

A few times, her young son has joined us in class, playing quietly with his Gameboy while we adults share the frustrations and joys of our first years as teachers.

She's German and teaches German at a public school nearly an hour away and her job does not sound easy; a chaotic administration, outdated textbooks and the constant exhaustion of juggling the demands of home and work and graduate school. And throughout she has told us of her passion for guiding her students, for trying to understand their lives and their struggles. Let's call this woman Marta.

During a recent class, Marta shared a problem she is facing that she had with another teacher, who insists on rigid rules and liberally assigns detentions to teenagers for infractions such as not sitting up at 90 degree angles, or standing up to sharpen one's pencil in class. Her supervisor wants her to follow that teacher's example. We were all stunned by the recounting of rigid rules and agreed she should not follow them. We couldn't believe her colleague was so rigid.

"That woman sounds German," a classmate quipped. I laughed with the others until I turned and saw Marta's face, which had tightened and turned red. She told the man she was deeply insulted. He apologized immediately. "I never should have said that," he said. "I was wrong. I am sorry." Silence.

Our instructor, a man approaching 70 who spent a lifetime teaching teens and running school districts, said "Will you accept his apology?" "Reluctantly," Marta answered. "He has apologized Marta," he said quietly but firmly. More silence.

And just then, I felt the presence of Christ in that now-awkward classroom. I watched my instructor. He could see she was hurt, feeling fragile despite the apology. We could all see that. My instructor kept questioning her, gently, about her predicament at her school. He asked her questions. He asked to find out some more information from her district. He asked her to let us know at the next class what she had discovered.

As I drove home in the dark chilly air in our ancient sedan, I meditated on my classmate, on her emotional delicacy that evening, on the hurt I imagine she felt of offering us her vulnerability and being greeted with laughter that hurt her. I realized she is like me, like so many of us, aching for the kind of love that accepts us unconditionally with all our limitations and faults. I thought about how unlikely we humans are to offer this kind of love consistently to one another, even to those closest to us, those to whom we pledge our lives.

I thought about my sharp words that afternoon to my son and how I had blamed my own exhaustion for my impatience with him.  How much harder it is to offer unequivocal love to the near-strangers we encounter. I thought about my instructor, who for me that night was the face of Christ among us.

And as I was heading down my street, a song came on the radio that I never had heard before. The lyrics spoke to my heart. I sat in my car in the driveway and listened.

Who will love me for me?
Not for what I have done or what I will become
Who will love me for me?
Cause nobody has shown me what love, what love really means