Monthly Archives: September 2014

Teen: The New Four Letter Word in My Life

Over the weekend, a scary four-letter word became a much more real part of my vocabulary: t-e-e-n! On Saturday, much sooner than I could imagine or prepare for it, my older daughter Grace became a teen, and though I am so proud of the young lady she is becoming, I’m also a little nostalgic for the little girl she no longer is.

Grace was born on the morning of September 13, 2001—almost exactly forty-eight hours after the first of the 9/11 attacks, so of course, for the first few days of her life, news cycles were full of stories about disaster, destruction, death, despair . . .

When I called to tell her that Grace had arrived, my grandmother said, “What a world for a child to be born into!” She made a good point. It was the saddest, scariest, and most anxiety-filled of our nation’s experiences during my lifetime. I remember the feeling–shared by many, I’m sure–that everything had changed, and not for the better. So, maybe we could have wished for a different and better time to welcome our first child into the world.

I looked at the timing of Grace’s birth a little differently, though. In the midst of all that suffering, my little newborn brought a little hope and, well, grace into one of our nation’s darker times. We had chosen her name months in advance, but it took on a deeper meaning and significance in the wake of tragedy.

A couple of years later, Suzanne and I sat in a fertility specialist’s office as he shared some disappointing news: we shouldn’t expect to have another child, short of significant medical intervention like in vitro fertilization, which would improve our chances, but would still leave us with only a chance. I was equally confused and upset. How could he say that we couldn’t have children? Didn’t we have empirical evidence to the contrary? I asked him how he explained the existence of my two year old Grace. His response was, “I don’t know what to tell you. She’s a fluke.”

At first, I was hurt and angry. Had he just dared to call my precious girl a fluke!? Gradually, I absorbed the weight of his words, and I realized that he had just told me that I never really had a right to expect my sweet, beautiful little Grace. The absolute greatest gift in my life to that point had come to us completely against the odds. In only a partial voice, because it was all I could muster at the moment, I said, “In my vocation, we call those miracles.”

And she is a miracle. I know every child is. But she’s my miracle. Through her early years, she has been a bit of a daddy’s girl. She has wanted me near. She has wanted my help. She has enjoyed spending time with me.

Lately, the change that always seemed to be out on the distant horizon has grown closer. She is as tall as her mother (although Suzanne will argue that point when she reads this). She has grown more independent. She no longer needs my help as often as she once did. Though she still tolerates it quite well, she doesn’t seek my company quite as enthusiastically as before. Far more frequently than in any previous season of her life, she worries that I will embarrass her.

In short, now she is a teen. In only a matter of days (or so it will seem), she will learn to drive, and a few brief spins of the earth after that, there will be graduations and college dormitories and a wedding all the unknowns beyond.

As we enter these teen years, I understand that I may be headed for some heartbreak. Friends and relatives tell me that I will soon know very little, but my father assures me that I will be quite smart again once she faces adulthood and all its responsibilities.

Uncomfortable days are ahead as young men notice my young lady. I plan to stand uncomfortably close to each one who comes calling, giving him no other option than to notice my size. Ever the protective father, I will question their motives and intentions, and if they break her heart, I will want to break parts of them.

As she becomes (or imagines she is becoming) increasingly self-sufficient, she will necessarily become (or imagine she is becoming) decreasingly dependent upon me. There will be times when she resents the boundaries I impose and resists the counsel I interject. In the heat of those moments, no doubt she will tell me that she hates me, and in the moment, she might actually believe she does.

I realize it’s coming. I’m trying to enter into these teen years with my eyes wide open. In those painful, hurtful moments, it will be crucial that I remember another four letter word: l-o-v-e. After all, it’s the word that most easily comes to mind as I reflect on the first thirteen years she and I have shared.

Grace, this is what you were meant to do! You were made to grow and to become that beautiful lady that God envisioned when he miraculously knit you together in your mother’s womb! You are uniquely gifted to play a special role in God’s unfolding drama of sharing love and grace with the world! There is a space in this world that only you can fill, and we’re all counting on you to do what God made you to do and to be all that God made you to be!

I confess that I will sometimes miss the little girl, but I also promise that I will always try my best to cherish the young woman that you are becoming. I guarantee that I will always be your biggest fan!

Teen. Even though that word has come into my life before I was prepared, I’m grateful to God that I get to explore that word and season of life with you, sweet Grace. We’re stepping into unknown territory together, but God is already there.

Blogger’s note: an abbreviated version of this post appeared in State Street United Methodist Church’s September newsletter.

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The Difference Between Educating and Teaching

For the first time in thirty years, I talked with Mrs.Compton last Thursday!

Although I have often talked about her, I hadn’t actually spoken with Pamela J. Compton since 1984, when I was in her seventh grade class at E.B. Stanley Elementary School. As we spoke by phone last week, the sound of her voice–once part of the daily soundtrack of my adolescence–turned some key in my memory, allowing me to reoccupy for a moment my plastic seat with chrome legs, which glided almost effortlessly across commercial green carpet to its place beneath the black metal desk with the wood veneer top. I could envision the room’s geography, easily recalling the placement of my desk, Mrs. Compton’s desk, the chalkboard, the flag, the pencil sharpener, and other prominent features.

In fact, I couldn’t help remembering the place so well. It was the setting in which Mrs. Compton changed my life.

At that time, our county had no middle schools or junior high schools. So, we were in elementary school from Kindergarten through seventh grade, after which we moved across the hill to high school for eighth through twelfth grades. During the 1983-84 school year, my classmates and I were the big men and women on campus at E.B. Stanley–we were seventh graders! From our Kindergarten classes adjacent to the gymnasium, we had proceeded from first through third grades down one of the schools twin corridors and from fourth through seventh grades along the other.

By that spring, we were in our eighth year in the building, and we had reached the school’s academic and social summit. One day as we made our way from the gym down that long corridor to the seventh grade “pod,” we stopped at the water fountains just outside the auditorium or “little theater,” as it was called at E.B. Stanley. About that time, a Kindergarten class passed by on its way to the cafeteria, and one of the Kindergarteners was so impressed with our size and status that he said, “Wow! College kids!”

As impressed as he was with us, I may have been just as impressed with myself. By the spring semester, seventh grade was coming to a close, and I was practically in high school. I had learned that I could get by academically without investing a lot of effort, and besides, one of my classmates had started calling me “Mr. A+.” Since I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted that nickname, I reached a point at which I didn’t invest much effort at all. I was merely getting by academically.

It’s safe to say Mrs. Compton was not impressed. As she returned our graded papers to us one day, she stopped very deliberately right in front of my black metal/wood veneer desk and made eye contact that practically commanded my attention. I had not performed well on this particular assignment, and her eyes said so.

My recollection is that Mrs. Compton was not terribly tall–not even when she wore her gray leather cowboy boots. I, on the other hand, have always been relatively tall. So, I sometimes embellish this story by saying that we were eye-to-eye as she stood and I sat. Regardless of that detail, the rest is unquestionably true.

She stood before me, looked right into my eyes, slid my mediocre assignment across the desk, jabbed an index finger onto the paper and said to me, “You can do better than this, and I expect you to do better than this!”

I feel sure that normal daily activity continued in that room, but for me, the world stopped. There was no denying it. She was right. It felt like she was shining a bright light on something I didn’t want to see within myself or about myself. She expected more of me than I was willing to expect of myself. I felt like such a disappointment, and as much as I would love to say that I felt like a disappointment to Mrs. Compton, I had to say then and I must say now that I realized I was a disappointment to myself.

That day in seventh grade was one of the days in my life when everything changed. Thanks to that eye-opening experience, I began to expect more of myself. Academically, athletically, and in most other aspects of life, I learned that I cannot always determine outcomes, but I can determine the effort that I exert. Mrs. Compton was a crucial messenger to me about the importance of a work ethic–of being able to expect yourself to do better. Over the past thirty years, I have remembered her words countless times. Even today, in moments of contentment, self-satisfaction, or outright failure, I look at myself in the mirror–always making eye contact–and say to my reflection, “You can do better than this, and I expect you to do better than this.”

I’ve told the story of that day in seventh grade hundreds of times, but I still have a strong emotional reaction each time I tell it. Call it what you want, whether goose bumps, chill bumps, or hair standing on end, it happens every time I tell or even remember the story. Recently, I shared the story with my congregation, and then just within a few days, my daughter Grace began her own seventh grade year.

Maybe that’s why I felt the urge to reach out to Mrs. Compton last week. We had swapped email messages six or seven years ago, but this time, I really wanted to be able to express my gratitude with my own voice, and I’m so glad I had that opportunity. I got to express thanks. She got to say that she was glad to have made an impression. We both got to catch up on the past thirty years . . .

You cannot possibly imagine the heartbreak I felt when Mrs. Compton told me that she retired a few years ago because she had gotten close to burnout. Like so many others, she had grown tired of the pressure to “teach to the test,” in this era of SOLs and other standardized tests. It was crushing to hear that a person who had changed my life is no longer in a classroom to change lives because our society has changed its view of education.

In fact, I believe I can make a compelling case that our society is in the midst of a pendulum swing away from education and toward mere teaching. You may question whether this distinction is merely splitting hairs. Not to me. I acknowledge this distinction with such great conviction that I have not once referred to  Mrs. Compton as a teacher in this post.

Our word and concept “educate” comes from a pair of Latin words. One is educere, which means “to lead out,” and the other is educare, which means “to train,” or “to shape.” Notice that both of these definitions make the student the object. Education is a process of training or shaping a person. It is a practice of leading out the virtue, reasoning, and potential within the student–within each student.

By contrast, our English word “teach” comes from an Old English word tæcan, which means “to point out, to present, or to show.” Clearly, this definition emphasizes the subject matter, which is presented, shown, or demonstrated to the student. Teaching has to do with imparting a particular set of skills or a particular type of knowledge to the student. So, it’s entirely appropriate to say that today’s teachers are pressured to “teach to the test,” as they present particular Standards of Learning to today’s students.

I empathize with today’s would-be educators. I believe with all my heart that they are responding to a call and that they have a sense of vocation to be educators, rather than merely teachers. I cannot imagine their frustration! What if the church dictated to me what I would preach, when I would preach it, and what my parishioners were expected to learn from my preaching? What if I were evaluated on the basis of what my church members committed to memory, rather than what they committed to heart? What if my effectiveness were gauged by the quantity of what church people learned, rather than by the quality of their life-changing experiences? The very thought is ludicrous to me.

The problem, at least in my view, is that we are so eager to quantify learning that we have rushed into standardization, evaluating teachers, schools, and entire school systems on the basis of how well or poorly they teach particular skills and facts. In the process of standardizing learning, my fear is that we subtly discourage the creativity and attention to the individual person that are so crucial to education. Are we headed for a society in which we excel in games of Trivial Pursuit and fail miserably in the pursuit of virtue?

I can look at any variety of websites to see the body of knowledge that my children and all of their peers are expected to learn, but the only way we can train, shape, and lead out the best that is within each child is by setting teachers free to be educators. Loosen up on the SOLs! It’s far less important to be taught facts than it is to be educated to become a lifelong learner, a contributor to society, and a changer of the world.

That, in a nutshell, is the difference between teaching and educating. Teaching is the transferring of information; educating is the transforming of lives.

I’m living proof. At this very moment, I can’t recall a single language arts fact that Mrs. Compton taught me. I don’t even remember what books we read that year. But as you already know, she changed my life.

As we ended our conversation last Thursday, I thanked her again for expecting so much of me. She simply replied, “I knew you had it in you.”

There’s the magic. I didn’t know I had it in me. It had to be “led out.” I had to be educated.

Thanks again, Mrs. Compton. The world needs you–and more of your kind–educating our children.

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