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School Shooting Reflections

August 22nd, 2008

Focus Text: Proverbs 2: 9-11 (NLT)

9 Then you will understand what is right, just, and fair,
      and you will find the right way to go.
 10 For wisdom will enter your heart,
      and knowledge will fill you with joy.
 11 Wise choices will watch over you.
      Understanding will keep you safe.

 

Stop Here and Reflect Before Reading Ahead

Yesterday, I turned on the television to hear the breaking news report of a school shooting at a high school in Knoxville, Tennessee . . . Central High School, to be exact.  Central is a school I know quite well.  Besides the fact that it is located in a neighborhood I used to frequent often, it was also the location of my very first substitute teaching assignment.  Consequently, that first assignment was also almost my last.

I remember it vividly.  I was a Junior at the University of Tennessee and engaged to be married.  I was in the Education Program, training to become a high school teacher, so the thought of getting paid a whole fifty dollars for eight hours of work thrilled me beyond description.  I put on the most adult-looking clothes I could find in my college wardrobe and made the early trek to Central.

Upon arrival, I was escorted down the hallway towards my classroom for the day.  The school was pretty nice.  Creatively decorated rooms passed by me on the left and right and I became excited to step into one of these “centers of learning” where I could impact young minds on a deep and meaningful level that would be both educational and spiritual in nature.  That generation of students had no idea that such brilliance was parading through their hallways, just waiting for the moment to begin transforming lives.  My expectations were completely realistic . . . yeah right.

Our sojourn led us past the many “normal” classrooms and straight into the virtual armpit of Central High School.  It was positioned in the corner of an obscurely located corridor that I’m not sure was ever intended by the school’s architects to actually be used as educational space.  With boiler rooms all around, I entered my ghetto classroom and beheld the carnage.  The only educational decorations in this room were the six-month old spitball piles that were plastered to the ceilings and profanity-laden, NC-17 rated drawings that were carved into the rickety, antiquated desks.  Nope, this wasn’t exactly what I was expecting.

Then came the students.  Now, I enjoy the challenge of building relationships with students who seem unreachable, but the “younger me” didn’t possess the limited wisdom that I have now that realizes such quality relationships usually can’t be built in a day.  The students filtered their way into their seats with a volume of noise that rivaled a football stadium.  They were all shapes and sizes . . . colors and creeds . . . and apparently all very familiar with the inside of the principal’s office.  Yeah, I quickly ascertained that I had been assigned to “teach” a class of students that the school considered to be “unteachable” — so much so that the previous teacher had resigned her position for unknown reasons.  Not to be dramatic, but I’m guessing I could come up with a few.

The icing on the cake was the subject I was teaching: Algebra.  As a math teacher, one thing you quickly learn is that students fear math more than any other subject, especially if they haven’t had much academic success.  That means that every student who sat in that nasty, old classroom that day was fully convinced that they could not learn how to do Algebra.  In their minds, my attempts were futile.  For that first day, they were right.

I don’t recall the specifics of every single comment or correction that I made that day, but I do recall that on my way home I called Laura and informed her that I might have made a mistake in deciding to become a teacher.  The day overwhelmed me, not because the students were bad at math, but because they didn’t seem to possess any internal compass of right or wrong.  They were just wandering and the influence of some lame substitute teacher would never be enough to help them find their way.

Proverbs 2: 9 says that those who seek wisdom will “understand what is right, just, and fair, and you will find the right way to go.”  It’s not all about right and wrong– it’s not that simple.  Remember that finding the right way doesn’t begin with just a search for the right way– it begins with a search for God.  Like Solomon, we will find the correct natural way when we seek first the correct spiritual way.  

As a former teacher and youth pastor for all these years, that’s the most frequently asked question that comes my way: “What am I supposed to do?”  In other words, people are searching for the “right way to go.” Truth is, even those students in my class that day wanted to find the right paths for themselves; they just didn’t necessarily know where to look.  This search is common to all humanity.  

I didn’t quit teaching, by the way.  I even spent several weeks subbing in that classroom.  Were lives changed?  Only time and eternity will tell.  Were the students more knowledgeable of the Quadratic Equation?  Again, I’ll never know.  However, one thing definitely changed in those few weeks: me.  I learned that face-value judgments are usually not accurate and that each of those disrespectful students in that class had personal value and personal choices.  

This passage says that the right and wise choices “watch over us” and “keep us safe.”  I’ve spent most of my life in various teaching environments trying to help people find the wisdom that is offered in the grace of God.  Why?  Because I exercise this wisdom flawlessly?  No, because this grace has helped me find the “right way” out of every wrong situation and has kept me “safe” even when my actions should have done me in.

Those students from my first little class have no doubt graduated or dropped out and I have no idea where they are today, but wisdom still reaches out to them and to every other student who will walk into that dilapidated old classroom.  Today I mourn for the student who was shot and killed just a few feet from where I taught.  I didn’t know him, nor the other student who pulled the trigger; but I do know a God who desires to show us all the right way. I pray that God will keep this generation “safe” as we love them and humbly point them to the wisdom that comes from the grace of God.  It’s something we all need to seek.

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