Twenty-three years old and fresh out of college, I was hired to teach freshman English at a rural Texas high school. I was poorly equipped for the job. Having decided at the last minute to postpone graduate school, I had little pedagogical training and no student teaching experience. With these glaring shortcomings I was amazed I even got the job. However, as time went on I began to realize that my lack of professional knowledge was the least of my problems.
The product of a broken home as a teen and plagued by depression ever since, I was still too focused on my own life’s losses to care deeply about others. Moreover, having married nearly on the heels of completing high school, then relying on my husband’s financial and emotional support to get me through college, I had not yet learned toappreciate self-reliance. I had not yet learned what it meant to rest in God’s strength. I certainly wasn’t equipped to take on the pain of 100 adolescents while still grappling with my own. But God doesn’t always call the equipped.
God was about to teach major lessons through this job, the most important of which would not be for my students.
On Friday afternoon at the end of my first week, I was so exhausted that I collapsed into bed at 6:00 and slept until morning. This turned out to be a fitting start for the school year, as the next nine months brought alternating bouts of stress, exhaustion, and tears. Often that year I woke anywhere between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. with knots in my stomach, dreading having to manage seven classes of hormonal, unpredictable teenagers.
Through my crucible God refined me.
In the evenings, I left school thankful to have escaped one more day, yet already dreading the next. To cope with my stress, which also caused me loss of appetite and lack of sleep, I exercised excessively, trying to sweat myself into a stupor. If before the job I’d thought I had made progress in my personal mental plights (a college degree is, after all, quite an accomplishment), the stress of the job was calling forth my darkest demons.
On those mornings I woke at 4:00 or 5:00, though I might crack open the book of Psalms for comfort, my mind was generally racing too fast for me to concentrate. Because I couldn’t relax long enough to surrender to God, I tried to battle each day in my own strength. I usually ended up barely clinging to my sanity. By the end of the year I was ready to slam the door on teaching.
Since my husband wouldn’t let me quit, the next year I found myself back for more.
Somehow (perhaps because I now taught juniors instead of freshmen) the year got off to a much better start, and by the end of the first week, I actually felt somewhat excited.
But just weeks into the semester I was informed that back home, more than 1,000 miles away, my mother had been hospitalized and my 10-year-old brother placed in foster care. I was told the possibility existed that Mom might not be able to get my brother back.
The knots in my stomach returned, but this time my mind was far from school matters. During my childhood the family had been through many similar episodes, and I had often let them upset me to the point of incapacitation. Now, 1,000 miles away from my family and with adult responsibilities, I had no choice but to seek help beyond my own strength. That September I spent hours on my knees, pouring out my heart to God.
I was also learning how to sit down and have devotions every morning. Unlike my first year of teaching, out of necessity, I was now disciplining myself to read my Bible, even when I didn’t feel like it.
By November, Mom was out of the hospital and in the process of getting custody of my brother back. But with all the recent turmoil, I was ripe for a life change.
About the middle of the school year my husband shared material from a Revelation Seminar with which he’d assisted years before. Listening to the wealth of scriptures and hard-hitting truths the speaker invoked, I had nowhere to turn but to examine my own life.
I looked inside and saw a self-centered, self-pitying soul. I saw that I had not fully given my life to Christ—the biggest indicators being my frequent and sometimes long-lasting bouts of anxiety or depression, as well as the unhealthy need I felt to micromanage every aspect of my life.
I saw that to be wholeheartedly with Christ I could not remain where I was. I started becoming more conscious of the decisions I made throughout the day, asking myself whether they would bring glory to God.
Toward the end of the school year I began memorizing Scripture and started a systematic plan to read the Bible through in one year. The first passage I memorized was 2 Corinthians 12:9, 10. After the events of the past two years, I could say with confidence God’s grace “is sufficient” for me, that His “power is made perfect in weakness,” and “when I am weak, then I am strong.”
As I came to realize that God’s strength made up for all I lacked, I noticed my focus gradually shifting from myself to my students.
I entered my third year of teaching feeling victorious and determined. By now I had enrolled in graduate school part-time, and I had a pretty good idea that this would be my last year teaching high school. I had finally figured out that God had placed me there for a reason, and I determined to make the most of my last year.
When planning lessons, instead of asking, “How can I fill the time?” I started asking, “How can I positively impact these students? What lessons will be most useful to them in the future?”
Although I couldn’t explicitly share my newfound religious convictions, I found creative ways to slip Bible-based principles into my classes. As the year wound to a close, I saw the fruit of my heart’s conversion in my students, a number of whom, knowing I would be leaving, expressed sincere gratitude.
On the last day of school, many students stopped by with hugs, cards, and words of thanks for my practical and caring instruction. Perhaps most memorable was a phone call I received from a parent in tears, who told me I had been the most influential teacher for her son throughout his high school years.
When I think back to who I was at the beginning of my teaching stint—college grad and married woman, yet too scared of responsibility to own a pet, much less have kids; a perpetual pessimist; a virtual bump on a log in face of perceived crisis; and a lukewarm Christian—I can only marvel that God used me to change lives.
Through my crucible God refined me. Before I began teaching, I felt I deserved a path free from obstacles (the anxiety and depression that had characterized my past). Now I realize that a rocky road was exactly what I needed to grow beyond my self.
God placed me in a situation in which I was held accountable for my attitude and actions by perceptive, sometimes-incisive, and always-searching teens. He taught me how to trust Him, and that it’s not all about me.
Had I merely gone to graduate school after college, those three years would still have been emotionally wrenching (grad school, as I’ve learned, is pretty stressful). However, I would not be “the new creation” I am today (2 Cor. 5:17).
I praise the Lord. Those three God-appointed years taught me lessons I could never have planned, and will never forget!