Recently I retired from a long and wonderful career in public education to pursue a new and exciting career in youth ministry as Minister to Students at Elizabeth Baptist Church in Shelby, NC. After 32 wonderful years spent as an educator in the Cleveland County School System, I felt the need to leave behind some words of encouragement to those colleagues I left behind. Some have asked that I make the letter public, so I decided to publish it to my website. It is intended for educators, but I hope that by reading it, you will in some way sense the hearts of those who devote their lives to educating your children every day.
January 31, 2011
Thirty-two years ago this month, I entered my first month of life as a college graduate, and the economy was in a deep recession. Thirty-two years ago tomorrow, I began my first teaching assignment at Shelby Junior High School. Today, when I turn in my parking tag, hand over my keys, switch off the lights, and walk out the door, I will mark the end of the career I so desperately wanted, worked hard to get, and dreamed of having all through college.
It was a challenge to get a job in January of 1979, let alone a job in a career field that, back then, often generated a hundred applications for a single position. But, the desire of my heart was to teach. Psalm 37:4 says “Delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” I believed that God was actually calling me to become a public school teacher, but at the same time, I doubted that God would actually “call” a person to do anything other than vocational ministry. Nevertheless, the desire of my heart was to teach, and I derived tremendous personal satisfaction from it. God granted me the opportunity to become a teacher on February 1, 1979, and for that, I will always be grateful to him.
I love teenagers. I cannot explain why. It’s one of those “God things” again. That love is in my heart, though. I didn’t put it there, and no matter how rude, mean, kind, smart, academically challenged, or psychotic they may have been through the years, I have loved them all…maybe not all the time, but I managed to love them nonetheless. I have occasionally been so mad at them that I wanted to “act unprofessionally,” but I never really did on purpose. At the end of the day, I went home and prayed for them just the same.
It is a wonder I ever stayed the course, though. The first day I taught school, I had cafeteria duty with another “first day teacher.” He and I broke up a girl fight in the parking lot outside the cafeteria, and the girl my partner had grabbed (because neither of us knew better than to do that back then) wriggled out of both his grasp and her blouse. Then we discovered to our great alarm that she had neglected to wear undergarments above her waist. She had no doubt been in a rush of excitement to ready herself for school that morning. To my horror, she began running toward the girl I still had in my grip, seemingly undaunted by the chilly weather and her serious dress code violation. The young lady in my charge asked, “What do we do?” To which I responded, “Run!” So it was that she and I bolted, and consequently, all four of us went racing wildly across the campus; she and I in pursuit of the principal’s office; my partner’s disheveled and partially disrobed miscreant, wild with rage, in pursuit of us; and my co-worker, bringing up the rear, waving her blouse in the air as though she cared, in pursuit of her. It is a miracle that we were allowed to return the second day. But we did. College had neglected to prepare either of us for that first day.
I have encountered a wild assortment of students. For the first fifteen years of my career, I had only the students that other teachers did not want. Literally, the principal asked teachers to choose their worst four students, and they were assigned to me. I taught (and I use the term loosely) students who had been convicted of animal cruelty, rape, and incest. I had a student who slept in a coffin at his dad’s funeral home. Another claimed to be a warlock and stole the cat of another student, boiled it, and with its bones tried to put a hex on the girls in my class. They wore crosses, chanted, and walked up and down the halls like zombies for days. I had another student who loved to do grave rubbings and whose career goal was to drive a hearse. On a seventh grade field trip to Sunset Cemetery, he rubbed too hard and turned over a six hundred pound tombstone. Thankfully, he was a seventeen-year-old seventh grader (we didn’t always have social promotion), and he was strong enough to help with the newly contrived class project to right the tombstone and replace it upon its base. By the grace of God, there was not another seventh grader beneath the tombstone when we lifted it from the ground. A few years later, he finally found a part-time job driving a hearse, but when he arrived at the graveside service for his first funeral, he realized to his horror that he had left the body at the church. He got a speeding ticket in the hearse on his way back to retrieve her, and he was fired at the end of his first day.
But I have also had students whose brilliance was truly astounding. They have become teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians, ministers, pilots, nurses, chemists, engineers, writers, and even television producers. One of my students did an internship with Oprah Winfrey and worked at Harpo Productions until transitioning into theatre. I have celebrated with them in their successes and cried with them in times of failure and loss. I have had eleven students killed or permanently maimed in traffic accidents. When the Eagle project was unveiled out in front of the school a couple of months ago, I realized that I had known or taught most of those students who were honored posthumously by that tribute to their lives.
In my thirty-two years as an educator, I have taught every grade from the fourth to the twelfth at least once. I have taught at both Cleveland Community College and Gardner-Webb University. I have worked part-time as a field supervisor for UNC-Charlotte. I have taught math (surprise!), English, photography, and journalism. I have worked with the school newspaper, helped coach JV football at Crest Junior High (I’ll bet no one knew that!), been in charge of a science club, worked with FCA, and been a part-time youth minister for fourteen years at two different churches. I have taught remedial English to migrant students, written a monthly article on education for the Shelby Star, taken students to Washington, DC four times, written a book, and had the privilege of working with some of the finest people God ever created. I have married a wonderful woman, and we have raised a son together who is a product of Crest High School and a freshman at Wofford. I have been blessed, and I am a rich man, richer than I ever imagined possible, but if a thief mugged me this afternoon and stole my wallet, he would shoot me out of frustration. I have never had much money to invest, but the investment of my life in the students and faculty of Crest High School represent one of the best investments I have ever made, and with dividends most people only dream of earning. I have earned a lifetime of happiness and joy.
So, as I leave today, it is with mixed emotions. I still love to revisit the past, and a part of me even wants to stay and cling to the familiar, to the tremendous joy and satisfaction that this career and you, my friends and Crest family, have been these many years, but, life cannot be lived in “rewind.” It must be lived only in “play.” We cannot skip scenes or select the ones we want to repeat. We take it for what it is, as it is. We try to remember the good times and forget the bad ones. But there have been far more good times than bad, and even in the bad times, there has often been good. I have known Mr. Fisher for only a short time, but his heart seems pure and good. I have noticed that one of his common sayings is, “It is what it is.” How true. It is what we make of what we’re given that determines God’s ability to maximize our potential. I want you to know that you are a precious group of people. You are blessed to have each other. If you have never worked anywhere else, you may not realize that. I sense that what God called me here to do alongside you has been done. Likewise, I believe that you have all been put here at this time, at this place, with these students, for a reason. You may not know the reason right now, and in reality, there could be many. But you are here, together, as a family, for this moment in time, a moment that will never come again. Cherish that.
I would like to leave you with three things that I have learned over the years. First, it is important to love each other daily; support each other; consider yourselves co-laborers in one of God’s highest callings. Teaching is a calling. Even if you are not a spiritual person, you know deep down in the marrow of your bones that what you do is special and unlike any other profession in the world. Otherwise, you would not be willing to take a vow of poverty to do it. That deep belief in the importance of what we do fuels the energy that keeps us going.
Second, love your students. You may be the only one who does. If you don’t or can’t love them, I would gently urge you to reconsider your profession. They know how you feel about them. Teenagers are some of the most intuitive people on earth. But they can only learn when they feel good about themselves, and if they do not feel loved, they will not learn. We must make them feel loved and secure, and they are naturally fearful and insecure creatures. They are really just children in large bodies, filled with anxiety and insecurity pressed way down where it is sometimes hard to see. It is only after we can connect with them that what we care about also becomes what they care about.
Third, fly the plane. Years ago when I was learning to fly, my flight instructor told me that above all else, fly the plane. Pilots who become distracted by their gadgets, the scenery, their conversations, etc. are more often than not the ones who crash. No matter what happens, he said, fly the plane. The Bible says the same thing, just with different words. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” Don’t allow PLC groups, artifacts, formative and summative observations, PDP’s, IEP’s, or NC Falcon to distract or discourage you. Don’t even worry about the legislature and the budget. I was released and rehired four times because of various budget crises. My salary has been frozen for nearly half of my career. In fact, the first year I taught, they didn’t have enough money to pay but one teacher and needed two. What did they do? They hired two and paid us each half a salary. And I made exactly the same amount of money for six years in a row. And that is happening all over again. But in the end, God always worked it out. If teaching is where God wants you, you will stay. If it isn’t, you won’t, no matter what happens with the budget. Our job is to join with God in what he is doing. It doesn’t work when we try and do it the other way around. You can tell him what you want to do, but if that’s not what he wants you to do or what he wants done, it won’t matter much. I remember the story of a man who was swallowed by a big fish for something sort of like that. If you worry, you will just rob yourself of the joy God meant for you to experience today, and today is really all any of us have. Remember, we only function in “Play.” Make the most of each day. If you let discouragement settle in your heart, your “wellspring of life” will dry up, costing you the joy and energy to relish the day you have. You end up cheated; your students get cheated; and your coworkers are cheated. You and God lose. The devil wins.
I will miss you. I won’t be able to avoid that. You and my (former) students are constantly in my thoughts. Even the clothes in my closet smell like Crest High School. I will miss the sounds and those smells. I will miss the bells and the energy of a class change…how often I’ve taken those simple pleasures for granted. I will miss the yellow buses, the football and soccer gate duties on crisp October nights, the roar of the crowds, and the sounds of the mighty Chargers on the field behind me. I will miss the band. I will miss the baby pictures and watching your children grow up. I will miss the hot dogs and baseball games, the proms, graduation night, and the joy of seeing my students stand proudly to receive their diplomas as their parents cry and their teachers swell with pride. Do we ever stop to think of how truly we have been blessed? We truly reach out each and every day and touch the future.
As my son walked across the stage last year as a senior, memories of kindergarten flooded my mind and the gravity of the investment so many people had made in his life overwhelmed me. The thought of so many people with such positive and powerful influences upon the young man I had entrusted to their care for thirteen years was truly humbling, even breathtaking. To this day, the memories of his teachers are among his most precious, and their influences continue to shape him as he, in his newly discovered independence as a college student, draws upon those memories to contrive the paradigm of decency and maturity that he continues to try and emulate.
That is why our students come back to see us. Surely they have better things to do with their semester breaks and holidays, or do they? Their return is deeply symbolic in a way. It signals the completion of a journey, the one that we sent them forth at graduation to begin. They return, proud of their successes, to receive our affirmation that they’re on the right path, the path that we laid out for them, and a path that they’re proud they have been able to follow independent of us. Their annual migrations are short-lived, for they do not come back forever – only for a year or two. And then the day comes when they return no more, for they have validated to themselves and to us that our bonds were real and meaningful. In fact, they have become, in many respects, the embodiment of our creative powers. But their return is also a form of veiled gratitude, the proof that we mattered to them; that we made a difference in their lives; that we were successful. They, our former students standing proudly before us, represent perhaps the truest measure of our success, and that independence and self-confidence represents a level of validity that far exceeds that of any EOC or AP score.
Yes, there will be much to miss, but more than anything else, I will miss my students. I will miss investing in their lives and reaping their investment in mine. But, life is not static. I learned many years ago that one of life’s certainties is its uncertainty. God has opened another door for me to walk through, and things look mighty good on the other side of it. I am fifty-three years old, but I still love teenagers? Odd, isn’t it? Doesn’t make rational sense, does it? That’s part of why I know that investing in their lives is my “calling.” There is nothing I would rather do.
As I reverently close a chapter in my life and the door to 102, I eagerly and with perfect peace, open another one. It is time once again for a change, and with God’s help and guidance, I am transitioning out of public education to become a youth minister. I also plan to try my hand at writing professionally, both fiction and non-fiction, and much of it for teenagers. Youth minister…seems like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it for someone my age? I will be the oldest youth minister I know. In fact, I have taught some of the youth ministers with whom I will be working. God has a sense of humor doesn’t he? But as a youth minister, I can love students without judging them. I won’t have to assign grades, and I won’t have to evaluate students’ performance. I can just love them the way God created them, and I can teach them how to become the people God has created them to be. If they don’t pass a class, I can help them overcome their disappointment. I can pray freely with and for them. I can talk to them about God and the condition of their souls. Shakespeare is a great writer, but no one ever made it to heaven because of him.
It has taken over thirty years for me to realize it, but I have finally come to understand that I have always been in vocational ministry, just as we all are in a sense. We are ministers whose vocation just happens to be teaching. I am kind of like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. For years I doubted that I was “in Kansas anymore,” but truth is, I have really been there all along. I have actually been a minister all these years and just didn’t realize it. My mission fields have not been in a formal church setting or in Africa or the Amazonian jungles. They have been at Shelby Junior High School, Crest Junior High School, South Cleveland Elementary School, Crest Middle School, and Crest High School. If God has called you to teach, then he has called you into the ministry. Your mission field, though, has a Charger on the door rather than a steeple on the roof.
As I leave, I want you to know that my door is always open to you, and I will always be eager to hear from you, return for visits, etc. Please feel free to call me anytime (704-487-0219, 704-466-8584) or send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com). I would love to meet you for lunch on workdays (if there ever is another one). Remember to pray for each other, your students, and me.
I love you all. Continue to be a blessing to each other and to your students as you have likewise been to me. God will be pleased by that. And you will have a peace that passes all understanding.
Minister to Students
Elizabeth Baptist Church