“The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellarfull of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred proof Grace – of bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly. The word of the Gospel – after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the perfection of your bootstraps – suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home before they started… Grace has to be drunk straight: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale; neither goodness, nor badness, not the flowers that bloom in the spring of super spirituality could be allowed to enter into the case.” Robert Farrar Capon
Today is Teacher Appreciation Day. I thought in honor of this day, it might be nice to write about a teacher who had a big impact on me.
When I was a junior in high school, I took AP US history. I had to petition to get into the class in the first place, because I hadn’t taken honors world history, and that was a prerequisite for the class. I did manage to get on a waiting list (the class was full), and then eventually got a space in the class. Of course, this was a big deal, because if I was successful in the class, and later with the AP exam, I would get college credit before I ever got to college.
It was, as you might expect, a difficult class. The teacher had high expectations, and gave out a lot of assignments. He also had a good sense of humor, though, as was evidenced by the fact that he used Dave Barry Slept Here as a classroom resource. He challenged us, worked with us, made us laugh, and even occasionally yelled at us. In short, he was a pretty darn good teacher.
The closer we got to the end of the school year, the more frazzled everyone in the class became. Of course, the end goal was passing the AP exam, and it loomed on the horizon. But the day finally came, and the test was taken, and there was a general sense of relief, which only increased once I learned I had been successful in obtaining the college credit I was hoping for.
But there was still one small matter…the class final. I studied hard for it. I expected to do well…if I had passed the AP exam, surely one final wouldn’t be a problem. I thought I was prepared…and then I proceeded to completely bomb the test. We’re talking tanked so badly that my entire grade for the class was going to take a major hit.
I made an appointment to talk to the teacher about it. Partly to see what I had screwed up, but I suppose part of me hoped that when we looked it over, it would become obvious that there was a mistake with the Scantron machine (remember those?), or that I would discover that I missed filling in one bubble, resulting in all of my answers being correct, but in the wrong place.
That didn’t happen. I still don’t really know why I apparently forgot everything I had learned, but I discovered that I had just done a really, really poor job on the test. And there was nothing I could say about, no defense I could give. So I thanked my teacher for his time, and left school, knowing that I may have earned some college credit that year, but that I had hurt my overall GPA because I had done so much damage to my grade in that class.
I got in my car to go home, and I think I was probably crying. And as I started driving out of the parking lot, I noticed my history teacher walking down the sidewalk. And then he waved me over. So I pulled up next to him, and rolled down the window. And he said some words that I have never forgotten:
“I’m not going to give you the lower grade for the class. You came to me, and admitted that you screwed up the exam. If you had whined or complained or debated with me about your grade, if you had asked me to change it, you would have received the grade you deserve. But you didn’t, and I know you learned the material, so I’m not changing your grade.”
I learned more in that moment at a public high school about grace than I did in all my years at Lutheran day school. He didn’t have to do that for me…maybe he even shouldn’t have. I really did deserve to receive a lower grade for that semester. But for some reason that spring afternoon, he looked at a student that he thought needed a little extra grace and encouragement, and he extended it to me. It wasn’t something I asked for…it couldn’t have been. But it was grace that was freely given to me, and it’s something I’ve never forgotten, even 20 years later.