Like Shards of Shattered Stained Glass

Desire itself is movement

Not in itself desirable

Love is itself unmoving

Only the cause and end of movement,

Timeless…

        ~ T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

This is my third year teaching at an inner city middle school. My common refrain when asked what it’s like to teach is it’s exhausting but never boring. I often tell others the most overwhelming challenge I have faced in life is the emotions of a middle school girl. I previously had no categories for the appropriate responses to their occasionally incongruous behaviors. This has led me to be uncomfortable, anxious, and downright turned about at times in my role as a teacher, authority figure, and role model.

When I started teaching I had no notion or intention beyond the present need to have a job and hopefully do something which gave me some purpose. The long term desire was always to do something grander- namely go back to school and do something more than just teach 8th grade math and science. This was the desire of my heart.

I have enjoyed teaching and the relationships I have formed, but what has always made me uncomfortable about my job is disciplining students. I often enter into it with fear and anxiety. My thoughts run like this: “You are disrupting my class and wrecking any peace we (I) might have enjoyed here. I need to stop this.” What follows, almost invariably, is a classic mistake of teachers. We do not realize how well students can read our emotions. In these cases the student either reciprocates my fear or anxiety with his own or simply shuts down and detaches. Even if the behavior is corrected through coercion, there is no ground gained in character or relationship, and we percolate along in our functions without growing. There is intrinsically within the personal desire to regain control a tyranny of the moment which gets in the way of transcendent change.

In the previous two years I had taught 6th through 8th grade math, but this year I only teach 8th grade math and science. This has created the chance for me to teach the same 20 kids all day, students who I have taught for going on three years. By now they know my middle name, my pet peeves, and just about every emotional expression I have. They are hyper aware of even the slightest change in my temperament. Also, the way I relate to them personally has changed almost without me realizing it. There is more than simply a nice hope that they might improve or grow. The welfare of my students has grown over my own personal desires. I only realize this and act on it in broken flashes like the shimmer of light off the jagged cut of shattered stained glass.

Two weeks ago one of my students had an emotional reaction to something she was asked to do and stormed angrily out of my class. This was a reaction characteristic of her strong-willed, vitally independent personhood which has shown up in sporadic, irrational outbreaks of defiance that are shattering to my classroom’s peace and also harmful to herself in the form of ensuing consequences. These incidents have occurred over a three year period with me, and as a result of disciplining of her, I have grown a strong bond with her. This time, in the moment of her explosion, I did not feel the usual anxiety and fear which generally accompanies her outbreaks, instead I felt only heaviness. I felt sorrow.

When I spoke to her later my words felt thick, my eyes began to water, and the thought dominating my heart was a worry for her: she was self-destructing in these meltdowns and the continuance of them would not only hurt her relations with others but also her chances of pushing beyond the boundaries of poverty around her. The initial and usual response of defiance in her eyes faded into a reciprocated sadness. In front of me was a lost child. She was aware of the deeper emotion in my eyes of sorrow over her brokenness. I have known this in the eyes of others looking at me when I was so far gone I thought I could not be rescued, and here I was with my eyes full of the same emotions with a girl so different than me yet so much like me.

The reflection in her eyes stirred something beyond my present volatile and inconstant desires. The timelessness of love momentarily overwhelmed my temporal desires. I spoke as honestly and deeply as I have ever spoken to a student.

The truth is I don’t really love people. I am often affectionate, kind, and even generous towards others  but rarely without an ulterior motive. I have not cared for anyone in my life with the charity of God which the puritans described as “benevolent indifference.” But in this moment, I felt the stillness of indifferent love.

Near the end of the school day, after I had meted out the discipline for her actions, she stopped me as I walked by her in study hall. I sat down next to her. She immediately apologized to me with sincerity for her actions. I choked up, hardly able to say anything in response. As I walked back to my room tired and at peace, I was reminded that in our broken friction, in the destructive collision of our obese, selfish desires, we are vulnerable to the entrance of timeless, co-inhering love. Into our time-filled world, in these messy moments enters the God who is pursuing us.

We like the shards of shattered stained glass are brought back together, one crude edge fitting the next, to form the reflection of our Pursuer. He, who in his love let us shatter ourselves and sustained us in our wrecked state, weaves us back together one to another into the unity of a living body, organic in its diverse, messy flesh, and glorified in the binding coinherence of love that threads us to a living-in-love triune God.

My role in this world, however shoddily I accomplish it, is to reflect this all encompassing, pursuing love. I uncover this only in gasps and stabs.

4 Thoughts.

  1. Love this. So many take-aways for me as a mom to kids, too. I love the “benevolent indifference” because my tendency is indignation, self-righteousness and self-obsessed thinking — always filtering “them” through the lens of “me.” And yes, we just have “gasps and stabs.”

    • I don’t know if its possible in ourselves to love other or care for others in a way separate from self-interest. The moments were I’ve felt something like this have always seemed to me to be supernatural. There was such a peace and stillness in my own heart certainly not created by me. I don’t even know how to begin loving others like this quite honestly other than showing up with myself. Maybe that’s the gift of it: it comes in moments not created by us.

      Thanks for the comment, Ashley. Hope your kids are well!

  2. “He…weaves us back together one to another into the unity of a living body, organic in its diverse, messy flesh, and glorified in the binding coinherence of love that threads us to a living-in-love triune God.”

    This doesn’t sound like benevolent indifference to me! Sounds personal, messy, tied up in communion with others!

    Love your loaded phrases…so much captured in each line!

    • Ah, the “benevolent indifference” phrase is just another way of saying unselfish love. The puritans tend to make everything sound pure. My experience is that the actions of love are almost always messy, hard, brown, and loamy. I imagine from your experiences you probably know the same thing.

      Thanks for the comment, Mary.

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