I have been in a classroom of one kind or another since 1967. I got the call to teach, while serving in the United States Peace Corps in a small mountain village of 8,000 inhabitants at 13,000 feet in the Andes Mountains of Peru. I say “call” because I truly feel that serving in any type of classroom is a calling. It is a ministry to the students we serve. It is interesting that I joined the Peace Corps to escape education after flunking out of college and ran right into the classroom in Peru. Looking at those eager faces peering up over worn out wooden desks called me to a career of faces looking up from desks over a span of 48 years.
Upon returning to the States, I remember well reading in a Bible commentary about Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. He bent down and wrote something in the sand. The commentator observed, “Just think, a teacher in Nazareth taught the Son of Man to read and write.” That image has stuck with me all these years. I have the great fortune to have been in the classroom long enough to see many of my students go on to do great things. Some are successful businessmen and women, some outstanding engineers and scientists, some pastors, and, yes, many are teachers. Some of my students have come back to recount a conversation that we had in my office or on the soccer field some 40 years ago which “changed their lives.” I don’t remember the conversation and sometimes I don’t even remember the student. . We never know who is in our classroom on any given day or what we might say to that student that might change their life.
There is another aspect to knowing who is in our classroom. I remember from my 20 years of full-time parish ministry looking out over my congregation on a Sunday morning. There they sat all scrubbed and clean, smiling to everyone around them. But many had been in my office the week before sharing with me the enormous pains in their lives. Those same scrubbed faces often sit in our classrooms. They sit there day after day attentively taking notes and repeating pronunciation drills. All the while many of them are torn up inside. Parents are divorcing. Best friends are dying in tragic automobile accidents or from suicide. Some have siblings with catastrophic diseases. Or, they are simply frightened about what lies beyond the walls after graduation.
Recently a young woman in one of my classes, as she was walking out of the classroom, burst into tears. She was accompanied by her roommate and I could have left it there. But, is that why we are in the classroom: to let the roommate take care of the situation? If we view teaching as a ministry then we must realize that our subject is what gets us in the classroom. It is how we react with our students that makes our calling what it is, a calling! I asked her if she wanted to come to my office with her roommate and talk. She agreed and we have had many subsequent conversations. Or, the quiet student in the back of the room, getting ready to graduate in May. She wrote in an essay that her fiancé had died of cancer the summer before. Too young to experience such pain. And yet, there she was.
So, I ask, who is in your classroom and why are you there?
Bill Ripley teaches Spanish at Azusa Pacific University and Rio Hondo College.