Wednesday, December 01, 2010

advent journal: fully human

At church last Sunday we lit the first candle for hope. At school this week, we are preparing to send out midterm progress reports. At my school, the reports have both a grade and a narrative. Most all of my students struggle in one way or another; some more than others. One boy is new this year and is having a hard time. Even at a school aimed at the kids that don’t fit in a more conventional structure, he is an outsider. It’s painful to watch. He had been at school about a month when he asked me at the end of class one day, “Mr. B-C, am I a bad person?”

“No,” I replied, “you’re not.”

“Then why don’t people like me?”

I didn’t have an answer. This term, he has stopped doing most all of his homework. Today, I pulled him aside, along with our academic dean who is wonderful with kids, not to chide the boy but to see if I could find some way to reach him. Over the past several days, when I have asked for his homework, his head drops, he lets out a deep sigh, and his body physically deflates. He looks defeated and disgraced all in one motion. As we talked this afternoon, he sank deeper and deeper into the chair as he talked about feeling paralyzed by perfectionism. He wasn’t turning in the work, he said, because he didn’t think it would be good enough and he would feel like a failure.

Three different times I told him the homework assignments (reading journals) were things he got full credit just for turning them in. If something was not right, he could revise it without penalty. Then I would ask him what he heard me say and he would talk about not being good enough. We talked long enough to agree that his best way out of the hole he has dug for himself was one assignment at a time. Bird by bird, if you will. I didn’t ask him to make any promises other than he would turn in the next reading journal, which is due on Friday. He agreed. As I drove home, I remembered a poem I wrote a decade ago about a young man who was being beaten down by high school. I dug back through my files and found it.

high school
say you start with
a thousand candles
tiny little beacons
beaming together
in adolescent brilliance
say you blow out one
it doesn’t take much
this one here
at the edge
in the back
say you blow out one
no one will notice
one each night
just one
how could it matter
come back
in a thousand nights
the eyes
will have nothing
left to say
only the light over
the kitchen sink
goes out
with the flick
of a switch
the light inside
dies incrementally
My student thinks failure is the default setting for what it means to be human. No matter how hard he tries, sooner or later he is going to come up short – too short – and be exposed for the failure that he is to the core of his being. And he’s not alone, which makes me wonder if perhaps grade reports in the middle of Advent are not so out of place. One of the most powerful implications of the Incarnation is what Jesus being born “fully human” says about what it means for any of us to be human. Yes, we are all capable of doing damage to our selves and to one another, but because of the birth in Bethlehem, because the Word became flesh, I am reminded that my student is not most human when he is deflated and despairing and neither am I.

It is good to be human. Jesus said so with his birth.

Keep lighting candles.


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