I Think I Can’t
By Jane Thornton –
Returning from the bathroom and twirling to snap into position by my classroom door, I caught a glimpse of Natalie sobbing at her desk; Anne patted her haplessly on the shoulder. Immediately I shut the door for privacy and hurried to squat and rub her other shoulder. “What’s wrong?”“Her uncle passed last night.” Anne rose to fetch some Kleenex.
Between her tears, gasps, and shudders, Natalie managed to convey that her mind was spinning around with grief, and she couldn’t concentrate. Finals were less than two weeks away; she had a major project due with me, graduation tottered on her performance on these assignments, and she was about to miss at least two days of school.
I soothed and reassured, but her concerns were legitimate. She needed to overcome two dismal failures in the previous grading periods. Just a week before, I had her at my desk after class for a conference. To pass my class (and graduate) would require an 86 both on her final and for her six weeks grade.
She had thrown up her hands. “I might as well give up. I can’t make a B in your class.”
“Oh, yes, you can. You’ve never put your full effort into it.” I tried to strike the fine balance between reproach, encouragement, and wheedling.
“I’ve never even passed a single vocabulary test.” Natalie poised to leave the room.
“Let’s look.” We had to go back to the second six weeks, but I found a vocabulary test where she had earned a B. We looked at all the contributing factors–attendance, work not turned in, lack of preparation for tests–and concluded that passing was still a possibility. Natalie promised to try, and I promised to help.
In spite of her sorrow and funeral absences, a week later Natalie was in tutorials reassuring another student that if she could make a 100 on her project (this was an earned grade, not a pity grade), so could this guy. She proudly read off her poem as an example for the boy to emulate.
She made the requisite 86 on her final (exactly!), and I will be thrilled to give her a hug as she crosses the stage next week.
I had several students in similar positions last week. Somehow it doesn’t hit home until the week before exams that lack of effort makes failure a real possibility, if not probability. I gave comparable spiels to all of them, holding out a carrot and cracking a whip. Some kids who had made minimal effort throughout the year were attending tutorials and working. They looked up terms and explained them to me. They made practical applications as they corrected projects, determined to earn the points necessary to walk.
Then a few of them came to their appointed tutorial just to tell me that they could quit trying. Due to a technicality in our credit recovery program, they had discovered that they didn’t have to pass English IV to get the credit.
I fumed. I stalked to the office to discover the truth of their claims, determined to hold them to a higher standard. Unfortunately, they were correct.
Although I cannot say I will be sad to see them graduate, I will not feel the triumph and pride over their accomplishment that Natalie and I feel over hers. Neither will they.
As I stewed over the injustice and frailty of our system, some of my own words echoed through my mind, “You’ve never put your full effort into it.” So true—and it made me angry.
Then God applied some brakes to my thoughts. Do I always put my full effort into my tasks? Usually I do at work, but not always. What about my marriage? My parenting? My service? Jesus’ words came back to me. “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone…” (John 8:7b, NIV).
So, instead of seething, I need to continue to coax, continue to demand, not only of my students but of myself: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23, NIV).