There’s a lot I don’t know about God. And as a volunteer, this fact is especially terrifying. Of all the things I’m supposed to understand, God and His grace are the most important. After all, what else am I here for?
I remember years ago, my mom told me that she understood God much better when she had kids. Being in a role that required constant, selfless love heightened her awareness of what God’s love must be like. I imagine that she has learned a lot about God through the years – when my sister and I fought in the car all the way to Michigan, or when I threw a tantrum because my Barbie’s head popped off, or in high school and college when I ignored my parents’ advice and did what I wanted. Regardless, they picked up the pieces afterward.
In the last few months, I’ve been wondering a lot about God, and especially about grace. I don’t understand it. When someone hands me a late paper, pleads with me, pours out pitiful excuses about the traffic and homework, I really struggle with knowing what to do. The policies of my class clearly state that late homework will not be accepted at full score. Okay I’m sorry, student, but choosing to procrastinate was your choice, I justify, and now you have to be accountable. What about the one who doesn’t show up for exams and then complains about his grade? Or the one who plagiarized once? Can I ever trust her to do honest work again? I struggle to look at these students equally, and to be willing to bend backwards a little bit more for the ones who don’t bend themselves. Sometimes, being jaded, I’m tempted to abandon the ones who don’t try or those who abuse the trust we’ve spent all cycle (semester) building. I’m tired and I assume that my students just want to see how far they can push me before I push back.
And then sometimes my assumptions punch me square in the jaw.
“Miss, I need talk to you and Miss Grelte, este, possible after class?”
It’s 9:50 a.m., an hour and fifty minutes after class started and ten minutes after our first break was supposed to start. My hands are black and blue from the residue of dry-erase markers, and I have to visit the restroom. The fake leather of my Target shoes is already starting to chaff in Lima’s December heat.
“Sure, okay Sara*. What’s up?”
“Miss, you think it be possible, este, take the exam early? I have be gone this weekend, maybe too the Monday.”
I stiffen. Memories of slacker students from last cycle flood my mind, making me want to stay rigid and unbending. I want to say immediately, No rescheduling. Period. I’m tired of any morsel of grace being taken advantage of. Plus, if she takes the exam early she could share the questions with her classmates, giving them an unfair advantage. Wouldn’t it be simpler to run a classroom in black and white? Clear expectations, no exceptions. Besides, Sara is the one who added the class late and has missed several classes since, without justification.
“Oh. You know all three final exams are Monday, right? Oral, writing, and grammar.”
“Yes, miss. Is difficult. But…Well, miss, my grandfather is...is sick. And I’m go to, …uh..este…a visitar?”
“To visit him?”
“Yes miss, I go to visit him in… in hospital.”
“Oh I’m so sorry!” I stop shuffling papers to listen to the tension in her voice. The last student leaves for the break. We are alone.
“Yes miss. He has...I don’t know the word miss! But he has, este, in his inside, in his pulmones, the co-, the ca-, the can-.”
I feel like the wind has been knocked out of me.
That dirty word. It hangs in the distance between us. I want to put my arm around her, to squeeze her hand, to tell her don’t worry about the exam. I don’t. I want to tell her something comforting, that I’m sure everything will be okay. I’m not. I want to read a verse about grace and miracles and sanitize that word cancer from the air. I can’t. At the very least, a casserole? No, casseroles don’t make lungs whole again. I’m her English teacher. And all I do in this moment is give the disease she fears a name. Cancer.
“…so I need, este, take the exam early. Is ok?”
“Well, it might be better if you take the exam after you return. Maybe Tuesday? That way you will have more time to study. When will you return from your trip?”
“Yes miss, but I’m not sure when I come back.” Her eyes are wet now and dignified; remaining quiet, she looks away. “It depend of the...of what happen… you know, este…on when... if he...”
The thing about English is we like to gloss things over. We like to say “pass away” or “go to another place” or “leave this world” because when we talk about it, we can’t just say it. But the thing about teaching English as a second language is the glossy phrases just don’t exist. We have to understand and be understood in one or two hours of linguistic gymnastics. And sooner or later, our shoes hit the dirt. In that moment, we glance away, because we both feel the impact of earth vibrating from our heels to our eardrums, but neither of us can say the word.
I nod. The window is open, and a pen blows off the desk and onto the floor.
“Sure, you can take your exam before you leave. How’s Thursday at 2:00?”
“One and half will be better, miss.”
“Okay. Thursday at 1:30.”
She leaves. I close the window and pick up my pen.
A friend once told me what she learned as a volunteer in Honduras: love means giving what is needed. Maybe what is needed is not giving in to excuses or giving up on sincerity but rather giving more understanding. Maybe grace means giving a little thoughtful flexibility. Maybe each action is isolated and redeemable. Maybe giving someone grace means that I will have to fight harder to look cheaters or class-skippers in the face with a smile and compassion, knowing that someday their grandfathers might also be dying of cancer, and this will interfere with final exams, among other things. So even while I must let my students suffer for their own decisions, I must also help them to bear the consequences with hope of a better outcome next time. Or the next. Or the next. Or the next.
There’s a lot I don’t know about teaching, about love, or grace, or compassion, or even about God. But this I believe: the God that can keep giving grace to people who reject it over and over is a much deeper God than I ever imagined. And I don’t understand him at all. But I’m trying.
*The student’s name has been changed.
Brittany Blankenship is originally from the United States. She served as an English Teacher at the Peruvian Union University. She served from August of 2010 to June of 2011. Brittany believes that volunteering changed her as much as it changed those whom she served. She wants to spend her life serving others.
Tatiana* was desperate. With her husband gone, she wasn’t sure how she and her three-year-old son, Vladimir, would survive.
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