It was Christian School night at Grace Baptist Church and my first Sunday as an actual employee of Heritage Hall Christian School, a ministry of my church here in Muncie. I was recently hired to work in extended care, a program for children whose moms and dads can’t pick them up right after school. Basically, I get to hang out with preschoolers for two and a half hours, three days a week. So far, we’ve discussed which snack food is better, pretzels or goldfish and why doing flips on the monkey bars in a dress without shorts on underneath would be a bad idea, so I can already tell this is going to be an awesome job.
Before the preaching began, Dr. Ice asked all of the school’s faculty and staff to come and stand on the stage. He spoke about the high quality of the teachers standing around him to the congregation and the sacrifices many of them made to teach at Heritage Hall as opposed to other private or public schools in the area. After he was finished, he asked if anyone would like to give a testimony. Had I been prepared, I might have stepped up, but thinking about it now, my fear of public speaking would have probably gotten the better of me. I thought about what I would have said while listening to the preaching and, having missed my chance to say it publicly, I’ll go ahead and give the unabridged version here as I have no time constraints.
I have been in a Christian school all my life, preschool on up. I came to Community Baptist School in the middle of second grade, where I met some wonderful teachers who honestly cared about their students and a few not-so-great teachers, let’s face it. I had two of those consecutively in elementary school. The good teachers didn’t just care about academics, they cared about the student — (in no particular order) what was going on at home, what was going on with peers, their relationship with God, etc.. That’s not to say there aren’t public school teachers who care about their students — there are plenty. Hallmark and Lifetime put out movies illustrating this fact every year. However, the fact that my father, who, at the time, was not a Christian and had a pretty dim view of organized religion in general, would choose to send his kids to a school he could barely afford tells me that the education I received from Community was vitally important to who I would (and want to) become.
I was not always a model student and I think I was even less of a model Christian student. I didn’t really read my textbooks (and still don’t), I doodled rather than took notes, and procrastinated with everything but Creative Writing assignments. Desperate for friends or anyone to include me, I allowed people who pulled me back from following Christ to become my influences. Yes, even in Christian schools, there are kids who would rather jump into a pit full of rabid squirrels than live a life dedicated to Christ. In hindsight, I know this only fueled my issues with depression and gave me no desire whatsoever for the things of God or my grades. My closer friends (and I can use that term loosely now) seemed to have no practical ambition for life or love for God, and while I held (and still hold) tightly to my ambition of being a writer, I was losing my grip on the vital importance of Christ in my life to guide my future. I was still the good kid who didn’t get in much trouble and tried to keep my “friends” out of it (sometimes even dipping to being their lying alibi when people asked about something they were rumored to have done). I didn’t cross the line as far as rules went — I didn’t drink, didn’t smoke (anything), didn’t sneak out of the house under cover of darkness, didn’t run away from home like some I could mention, and my grades stayed up (aside from Algebra, and who can blame me?) — but the heart for Christ I once had and the desire to become more like Him wasn’t there, despite the prayers of my mother and teachers. I suppose I was angry at Him for one reason or another or simply allowed my “friends” to get in the way. To be honest, it was probably a mixture thereof.
Towards the middle of high school, I found myself shocked back to God through a ridiculous cancer scare (more on that some other time). Let me tell you, nothing will bring you back to Him like the possibility that you might be meeting Him face-to-face soon. Of course, God had a plan for putting me through that scare (which was only scary because I let it go so long without telling anyone or getting it checked out — stupid, stupid, stupid). He was preparing me, not only for a renewed relationship with Him, but also the friends He wanted me to have, not only in the rest of my time in high school, but in the next step of my life — college.
It didn’t take me long after arriving on campus to realize that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. In fact, I wasn’t sure I was even in the same hemisphere. Up to that point, my life had been spent mostly in the protective bubble of a Christian school and semi-Christian home. My father cursed, sometimes violently, depending on his circumstances, but I wasn’t prepared to hear the profanity (both the words themselves and their regular and over-usage) coming from both my fellow students and the professors. My father drank, very responsibly, but I wasn’t prepared to for the stories I heard before classes started about people getting completely trashed over the weekends (despite having seen it on TV and in movies). I wasn’t prepared for the viciousness people felt and exhibited towards Christianity, through words and mostly passive-aggressive actions. Of course, I had been told that this was what the real world was. Teachers said it would be like this, the media showed it would be like this, but no matter how many people tell you about it, little will prepare you for having to go out there and see and hear it for yourself.
While my Christian education didn’t prepare me for what I would see and hear at a state school, it did prepare me for how to handle it. I could go back to what I’d learned in Bible classes about who God was and why He deserved my devotion to Him. I could remember those who went through much worse than what I was dealing with and get encouragement from them. Within a month or so of starting at Ball State, I found my church home at Grace and found new friends there who have helped and encouraged me to continue in the ways which thou (I) hast (hadst?) learned.
On my right ring finger, I wear my high school ring. While looking at the rings Balfour brings to campus every year with friends who are interested in buying college rings, I have been asked if I wanted to trade my high school ring for credit towards a college one. I’ve refused every time. Not because it’s the most expensive piece of jewelry I own or because it has my name on it in two places or because I’m stuck in my accessory ways. I refuse to part with it because it stands as a reminder of the people and the place that have given me the best foundation possible for the rest of my life. It wasn’t just the theology I learned in Bible classes and the Bible verse memory or the godly music we listened to and sang in school choir — though all of those are good. It was the examples of godly lives I saw in my teachers. One of the best teachers I had, Mr. Bradford (now Pastor Bradford thanks to a promotion to principal a few years ago), not only tutored me through Algebra I (which in a flurry of brilliance I followed up with Algebra II, much to my own frustration) but showed me joy, even through the midst of struggles. The man hardly ever frowned. Ever. Another teacher, one of the best and the hardest, Mr. Wellin, sang in the church choir and the enthusiasm and joy was abundantly evident on his face while he was singing. Mrs. Elliott taught four classes of English, one class of creative writing, edited the school newsletter and the yearbook, attended about 98% of the school sporting events while being a single mom to two teenagers. She had a laugh you could hear down the hall and we heard it a lot. None of this could have been possible without the joy of the Lord, which you can’t have if you’re away from Him. There were other teachers, in elementary, junior- and high school, who exhibited this joy, but I don’t have the time to mention them all here.
And so, here I am, three years out of that school and working in another Christian school. I’m not a teacher. I’m not even full-time and I doubt any of the kids I get to work with will remember me down the road, but I hope these little 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds will be able to see at least a little of Christ in me as I continue the pretzel vs. goldfish debate. And I hope they realize what a gift they are receiving through going to a Christian school.