Standing in someone’s winter

Published 4:25 pm Monday, December 7, 2020

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By Charles Qualls

I want to tell you about someone whose life work made a difference.

Not everyone gets to see immediate results from their hard labor. In some ways, I suppose actually very few do. Pastors surely don’t. Other than a few polite remarks at the back door on Sundays, we are left fervently hoping that God is moving among our people.

Meanwhile, the architect gets to see his or her design come to life. The sign-maker can drive by his creation for years, proud to see their craftsmanship. The bricklayer who builds the walls can see the results of their work perhaps for the rest of their days. The nurse watches the patient leave the hospital. The cook can taste their food.

Teachers are a lot more like pastors than they might first guess. They toil in the classroom daily. Yes the tests, papers and report cards give some feedback on how their students are doing. But if the proof of their work rests in the true progress their students make, then perhaps it is another teacher far up the chain who gets to register the accomplishment.

I was never the most gifted student in any class I attended. I mean that truthfully and quite literally. Nor, to be fair, was I ever the least gifted student. I was right in the middle somewhere. As an eight year-old, because I forgot to return some signed papers one day, my teacher had paraded me before the entire class and assured them that I would never amount to anything.

She did it to punish me. Little may she have known that her punitive action would hit its mark and have a lasting affect. I believed her, since I already assessed myself far below the “smart kids.” Knowing I had somewhat less ability than some, I was already down on myself. Now, I took her words to heart for the next several years.

An average student who really feels below average, and who doesn’t have a natural romance with learning itself, may find it easy to get disinterested. Why bother, when some of the subjects don’t appeal to you and an educator has already signed off on your doom? At least for the next several years, that was my outlook. Into high school, I coasted right along expecting nothing but the same.

Each summer I was there, we had to stop by the school to pick up what was then a hand-written report card from our homeroom teacher. Then, we could move along with our summer. Except after my tenth-grade year, my young teacher Mrs. Shoenig looked up over her glasses at me as she held the card in her hand. “You know you could do better.” She handed me the card and I started to leave.

She would have no reason to recall this now, yet it changed my life. “What was that you said?” I asked. “I said that you could do better,” Mrs. Shoenig replied. I followed up,“Do you really think so?” Here is when it happened. “I know you can. You’re smarter than these grades.”

I mumbled something like “Thank you,” and walked out the door with a sheepish, confused expression on my face I’m sure. I didn’t say anything about the conversation to my parents, nor to anyone else. But I thought about it off and on the rest of the day. Truth is, she was the first teacher who had ever expressed any confidence in my abilities up to that point. When the new school year began, my entire approach changed. I paid attention, took better notes and studied harder than ever. Still never the most accomplished student, I did begin to make the Honor Roll each quarter. At the end of my senior year, I was invited to an honors night for my performance that school year.

Nearly 40 years have passed since that day. My young teacher has retired. I earned my doctorate years ago, and have written nine books. Not one thing I’ve done in the classroom, at the keyboard nor from the pulpit would have happened if she hadn’t spoken up back then. The splendid pastor Truett Gannon once said, “Few things are more inspiring than to see a person standing in someone’s winter, helping them believe in a better springtime to come.” That’s what Mrs. Shoenig did for me, and it has made all the difference. That’s what we ought to do for each other, don’t you think?

THE REV. DR. CHARLES QUALLS is the pastor of Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 757-562-5135.