Even as I wander, I’m keeping You in sight

The principal said, “He’s staying in AP chemistry.” Absolutely disagreeing with his decision, but knowing it was pointless to debate, I silently entered the conference room. The student said, “He didn’t listen to a word I said.” He loudly stated, “This isn’t fair. Failing chemistry will ruin my life.” 

My mind replayed recent events. He had struggled with the material. Even with extra help, he still failed the first exam. Next, he had misbehaved. He and I had talked. He had trusted me. We identified the issue. He knew he could not do the work. He did not wish to fail. I had called his mom. She had shared how much time he spent on his homework and how lost he seemed. The Guidance Department had let me know he had been included to meet the required number of students to run the class. Before that meeting, the student had selected an alternative class. Everyone, except the principal, realized this was not a good fit for this student this year. 

I thought Lord what do I do? Lessons in perseverance are best taught in a context where one can hope for the person to grow and reasonably succeed with the task. For an adolescent working really hard to “earn” a failing grade just does not bring forth that message. 

Conscious that the student was shouting, I quietly said, “Well, then you just cannot fail.” The student angrily responded, “We already covered this. We both know that I am not ready for the material.” I nodded. I smiled and said, “I am the teacher. You won’t fail.” Intrigued, his voice fell to a whisper as he said, “What on earth are you talking about?”

He and I made a deal. He was to work hard on the material. I would be checking in with his mom regarding his effort level. He was always just to try his best. Come report card time, no matter what the exam scores said, so long as I knew he had tried his best, he would pass. 

What happened that first quarter? He was open to extra help. He did all his homework. His mom was worried. He was spending many hours on his homework, yet still failing exams. I asked her to support him keeping up with his work. 

Report cards went home. The next day he stopped by to speak with me. He confided that he had been ready to accept his parents’ punishment for failing chemistry. Though he had kept his part, he really hadn’t believed I would keep my end of the bargain. 

Part of me had feared that with that first passing grade he might stop trying. I gently reminded him that my response was predicated upon his hard work. He was not to brag to any classmates about failing, yet passing. He laughed and said not to worry. Even if he did, nobody would believe him. 

He kept up his hard work throughout the year. There were a few topics and days where he mastered the material. For the most part though, he remained a D/C- student. 

I learned from walking beside that student. When he was detached from his fear of a possible negative outcome, he was free to live being fully open to letting good stuff happen. Challenges were always an opportunity to explore and grow. What he found wasn’t what the world calls success. In high school, AP chemistry was always a daily challenge for him. His grade in my class was the lowest on his report card. However, what he found was worth much more than any grade. He found the secret of happiness in being or living in the moment. 

Though we all can intellectually say “God asks us just to try our best,” it seems easier to say that than to live it. In truth, within our heart, the drive to openly live that way escapes many of us. We allow failures and disappointments to close off areas to us. When an opportunity arises in one of those areas, we say, “I’m not good at that.” We tell ourselves that God can and will choose someone else. With that decision, we are succumbing to the possibility of failure instead of embracing opportunity. 

Do you remember Peter walking on the water (Mt 14: 28-31)? The adventure was marvelous until Peter took his eyes off Jesus. The world would classify Peter’s swim as evidence of failure. Yet, it was Peter’s willingness to try that was important to God (not the world’s opinion on the outcome). 

God’s call to our heart will always present adventures as challenges. We can close our heart to them, or we can imitate Peter and that student in being open to the happiness found in embracing them. All we need to do is choose to walk having faith in a Provident God. 

Anchor columnist Helen Flavin is a Catholic scientist, educator and writer.

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