Shortly after moving to Virginia, it became clear that I was going to need to pick up an extra job in addition to the internship I was doing at the church there. So I did what every single one of us said we would never do- I became a substitute teacher. I say this because we all know how subs were treated when we were in school and to put ourselves in that same situation would be like wearing a tuna-flavored swimsuit into a shark tank. I remember one incident in high school when a student with a watch that doubled as a remote control kept changing the video that our substitute had set up for us to watch. As you might imagine, this drove the substitute crazy because they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the VCR. But because I needed the money and Virginia has low credentials for substitutes, there I was, filling out paperwork at the school administration building. A few short days later, I was called for my first assignment; three days of in-school suspension detail at a local high school.
I was fortunate enough to avoid in-school suspension when I was a student. I had my share of detentions but never crossed the line worthy of spending the entire day in a solitary classroom. As the principal walked me into the stark white room, he explained my responsibilities. “Keep them in their seats. Get them to do their school work. Don’t hurt anyone or get hurt by anyone. Oh, and lunch is fifth period.” I thought it a bit out of line to say but I wondered how I was supposed to miraculously create diligent workhorses out of misfits who had just been kicked out of class. Did he really expect to walk in at the end of the day and find us telling algebra riddles (“Because seven eight nine!”) and crafting haikus about our favorite elements of nature? As far as I could tell, all we had managed to do is put them all together in a room where, with their powers combined, they could wreak havoc on the substitute teacher.
The first day was borderline torturous. I sat at my desk at the front of the class (a truly strange experience if you never have before) and read a book I had thankfully brought along. I would glance up from the page to give the allusion that I had total control of the room. I was watching. I didn’t know what I was going to do if things got out of hand, but you can believe I was watching.
Repeating this throughout the day, I began to realize something that I hadn’t expected. These kids, as it turned out, were in fact just kids. Most of them had never spent time in prison or had their face digitally blurred on an episode of COPS. Behind the hardened exterior, they were a lot like the kids on the other side of these walls in the rooms with colorful posters and learning.
I realized another thing. It became clear that most of these kids had already accepted this as their lot in life. They knew very little was expected of them and that a seat would always be reserved for them in a solitary room somewhere. They were expected to fail. Worse yet, they expected to fail. Were they in charge of their actions? Sure. But sometimes it helps to have someone in your corner that actually believes in you. Someone who loves you enough to call you out from the place you’re in. For most of them, however, they had crossed some invisible line where, not only was there nobody to believe in them, nobody was even surprised by their poor choices anymore. They had gone too far. This was now expected.
The question this experience leads me to is this- how do we change? When we are made aware that there is something wrong in our life, how do we fix it? Do we just wait it out by sitting in a stark white classroom somewhere and let the bad seed die of boredom? Do we just try really hard and, if we fail again, go back to the start and try really really hard this time? What will cause a person to see the error of their ways and change their course?
I think change is mostly relational. Seriously. Think about it. If there is no one to believe in you, why in the world would you ever need to change? Sure there are these great moments of self-realization when a person pulls themselves up out of the depths and makes great change because that’s what they knew they needed to do. I would bet these are few and far between. My guess would be that for every story like that, there are thousands of stories of failed New Year’s resolutions, defeating addictions and hopeless misery.
Sometimes it takes someone else to point something out for us to know it’s wrong.
It’s like the time I accidentally put on a Polo Skirt in the middle of Eddie Bauer. I honestly thought it was just a really long shirt until I heard my brother-in-law saying “Umm Matt…you’re wearing a dress.” In that moment, there was no mistaking something was wrong. I’m sure I would have figured it out (or bought it), but it was sure nice to have someone there to point it out to me.
I don’t know about you, but I can only muster up so much motivation to change myself. I am too good at justifying where I’m really at. I have really become quite convincing when it comes to fooling myself into believing things are better than they are. “You’re not that out of shape.” “You weren’t that passive aggressive with them.” “At least you’re still doing better than that guy.”
This kind of self-deception is difficult with the relationships in my life however. I’m sure you would agree. The best relationships in my life are the ones in which I have a real sense that the other person is “for me.” They stand in my corner. They love me enough to call me out of the place I’m in. And when this kind of person does call me out, when they humbly yet boldly walk out on a limb with our relationship in hand, it is very hard to return the same. They make me want to change.
Ultimately, they give us a better picture of ourselves. And who doesn’t want that?
This is most certainly one of the characteristics of God that I appreciate the most. Contrary to what is easy to believe, God does not ask us to come perfect. Not even close. But do not confuse that with complacency on his part to overlook the place we’re in. You want to talk about walking out on a limb for the sake of the relationship. His story tops all else. And now, in Jesus, God stands in our corner to give us a better picture of ourselves.
I don’t know about you, but I sure like his picture a whole lot better. And I love that he still thinks there is hope for me yet. It’s enough to make me want to change.