My first grade teacher left a powerful impression on me. I remember some of what she taught me, but not especially for the traditional classroom knowledge. Wava Pippin was a person who cared about each student and made sure we treated each other with respect; she was firm but never mean. She not only taught me to read, but made me stop reading for a while when I developed eyestrain, and gave me jobs to do around the classroom (probably so I would not ask her ten times an hour when I could start reading again). I loved nothing more than reading (which caused the eyestrain), and I’d cried the first day I brought a note from home saying I wasn’t allowed to read for several days. The classroom tasks distracted me from needing and wanting to read.
My favorite job was cleaning the erasers. We had a blackboard and white chalk. The person who was given this task—the lucky eraser cleaner—was allowed to go outside the building and bang the erasers against the brick wall, making eraser-shaped white marks on the building (and you didn’t even get in trouble for that!), and releasing chalk dust into the air and lungs. Coughing but proud, I carried clean erasers back into the classroom in front of my envious classmates who were reading. Then I filled a bucket with water and used a sponge to wash the chalkboard. I felt incredibly special, when 10 minutes before I’d felt left out and sad.
It takes a teacher with a teacher’s heart to work with each individual child’s needs, and to make every one successful every day. My teacher’s lasting impact on my intellect was to teach me to read, but most any teacher could’ve done that. Her lasting impact on my psyche was to help me understand something I never could have articulated then: needs change over time, and the learning process has to be flexible, creative and, most of all, loving and supportive.
Wava Pippin was a powerful person, though you have never heard of her. Her power lay in how she supported generations of first graders by loving them toward their own paths, their own futures, their own selves.
Jesus as much as said the same thing (or, rather, the opposite thing) about the teachers of his day:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. … The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” [From Matthew 23]
Think of a person who helped mold you in a positive way. He might be a school teacher or a teacher of the faith, a relative or neighbor, a friend. What are the qualities of that person that make her stand out? How did his manner of service and humility, of seeing you as a unique human being make you feel?
Jesus would have you go and practice what you’ve learned from these saints. Be the person who lives what you say, who notices the people in the background, who cares more about lifting up others than about making yourself look good.
When I first started preaching, I kept a quote taped above my desk where I wrote every sermon: “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
We—all of us—are charged with noticing the deeper needs of the people around us. Far beyond the words we say ought to be the kindness they need to experience, the hope they long for, the courage they require to move forward.
Power, on Jesus’ terms, is not what one achieves by having an important job or lots of money or status. It’s only when we empower others to live their lives with strength and dignity that we understand the power of humility.
© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2011