In early September, just weeks into my first year of teaching, one of my students comes to Room 202 and asks if we can talk. My heart sinks, not because he seems to be struggling not to cry, but because I am ready to get out of that room and go home. But a still small voice tells me, “Stay.”
Mark*, 11, is quiet and gentle, a minister’s son who is struggling with everything he has believed and wants to believe. He does not know that I graduated from seminary, or that since then I have not been able to find my own place in the work of the church, and often wonder if I have anything to offer. As a former pastor and former pastor’s spouse, I anticipate where this conversation is going. I do not have a clue, however, where it will eventually lead.
“Ms. Bradley,” he asks, “do you believe in God?”
My response of “Why do you ask?” is appropriately masterful and evasive for the public school classroom, where Christianity, unless presented in a tight cultural format, is strictly off limits.
I don’t know it at the time, but our initial conversation will blossom into an ongoing after-school discussion. Once a week or so, Mark comes to my room with questions that a lot of adults are reluctant to ask: “Why do Christians hurt each other? Why don’t some of the church people like us? Why does it feel like God is gone?”
After Mark leaves that afternoon, I sit alone with an overwhelming and unexpected sense that I finally understand the word “calling.” In spite of my intellectual doubts and incessant searching, I know that God has put me in this classroom. With shocking clarity, I realize that I am here not only to teach, but to listen to and learn from, of all people, sixth graders.
As I get to know my students, I begin to realize just how many adult-sized challenges they bring into the classroom every day.
Aaron’s mother is addicted to crack. Jessica’s father is in prison for domestic and sexual abuse. Gregory is depressed. Katie has panic attacks. Ann has cancer. Brandon’s family lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. One of my students was shot at the age of 10, the result of gang involvement. A few of my students are sexually active, a few more are dangerously close.
Having guided three daughters through this wilderness we call middle school, I expect many of these things. I know children are not immune from tragedy, and I know sixth graders are on the verge of trying to figure out who they are. I expected this volatile mix.
What I did not expect, however, was that I would fiercely love my students. I did not expect to bring the totality of 100 lives into my heart, to hurt with them, celebrate with them, and most of all, to pray for them. I did not expect those 100 lives to reignite in me a fierce love for God. And I certainly did not expect my now unshakeable belief—11 years out of seminary—that teaching is the ministry I have been called to do.
The word “grace” enters my mind and eventually keeps time with my heartbeat as my students and I move through the seasons of the school year. Grace was one of those words in divinity school that I never quite grasped. Along with “redemption” and “forgiveness,” grace was a word for which I wanted an exact definition. I did not grasp that grace is experiential and speechlessly transforming. I certainly did not know that I would eventually learn this in a sixth-grade classroom.
The school year is officially over, and 11-year-old Ann has asked me to visit her in the pediatric oncology unit as she undergoes treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Her head is covered by a sky blue bandana, her huge brown eyes glued to an art project that will help pass the time during the eight-hour treatment.
“Ms. Bradley,” she says, not looking up from her artwork, “do you believe
I do not have to think about my response. “Yes, I do, sweetie. Do you?”
She responds to my question as if I had just asked her if she could identify a verb.
“Of course I do, Ms. Bradley!” After a pause, she adds softly and matter-of-factly, “But I don’t understand why I have cancer.”
I am the teacher. I am supposed to have the answer, but the only answer I have is, “Neither do I, darlin’.”
As children so often do, Ann seamlessly and joyfully breaks the anguished silence in the treatment room. “I have a present for you, Ms. B.!”
I open the small package and find an exquisite sterling silver bracelet with an apple charm engraved with the words, “Teacher’s Prayer.” Engraved in tiny letters on the bracelet is: “Lord, let me be a teacher of knowledge who will guide our youth and grant them the necessary understanding.”
My thank you seems so small for a gift so enormous. But, again, Ann saves the moment.“Let’s have a brownie,” she says, reaching for the treats the chemo unit provides for the children and their visitors. “And don’t even think you’re going to get me to read. I’m on summer vacation!”
* Student names have been changed.
Mari Bradley, D’96, is a sixth-grade language arts teacher at Turrentine Middle School in Burlington, N.C.