I went through several changes before settling on the calling that would define my life. In high school, I fell in love with mathematics, at which I excelled, and so I determined to pursue that love in higher education. Two years in an Honors B.Sc. program went very well, but I hit the wall in year three. The nature of the discipline was very different, and I found myself struggling with academic work for the first time in my life. During that year, a friend challenged me: “Are you going to work with people or things?” Good question! Higher mathematics is perhaps the most “thingy” discipline anyone could imagine, far removed from the ordinary lives of almost everyone — including me at the time, truth be told.
I made a change: I would walk away from the world of mathematicians, and embrace the teaching profession, where I would be dealing with people. I got my B.Sc. (a general degree with double math. major), and then enrolled in teacher training. Much of what I had to endure in that one year needed for certification was ridiculous and ultimately useless, but I did well at it.
I had financed my year of teacher ed. with a bursary from my home school district. They gave me $1200 (a princely sum in 1969) for my year of training, in return for two years guaranteed service in their employ. If I left before the end of the two years, the whole bursary became repayable immediately.
The first while there went reasonably well, but I soon found that I really could not connect with most of my students. I had spent 5 years away from my home town, and it seemed to me to have changed dramatically in that time. What had actually happened was that I had changed: my politics had become firmly left-wing, I was deeply committed to the movement for peace, and I had found a reason for this in the Gospel as I had come to perceive it through my various connections at University.
Long story made short: the move back to my home town was a disaster. I had changed a great deal, but the town was still stuck in its historical dysfunction, and too many people remembered me from before. Added to the problem was my parents’ prominence in the community, which gave me more visibility than I wanted.
My time in the classroom had some real high points. I loved it when a student’s eyes lit up as they “got it!” On the other hand, I struggled with those students who just couldn’t get it. I was teaching Grade 9 math., with a curriculum of algebra and geometry that I found exciting. One of my students handed in an assignment which was so full of nonsense that I had to work hard to give him 15% on his work. What was wrong? I went to the office and pulled his file, and found that he had received a final grade of 40% in Grade 7 math., and 30% in Grade 8. Why was he in a Grade 9 class? Answer: he had been identified early on as headed for the “pre-vocational” program in our High School, and the Jr. High was simply moving him along.
I protested to the higher-ups, the Principal, Vice-Principal, and the Deputy Superintendent, and received the consistent answer: “You have a curriculum to teach. Teach it. Some will fail.” All I wanted was some remedial workbooks for this boy and others like him to use, so that they could succeed at something.
I got discouraged, and I began to lose control of my class. My avowedly peace-making ways became the laughing-stock of some of my students, who understood violence as the only way of settling differences. By the spring of my first year, I knew that this was a disaster, and I could not go on, even though I could not afford to leave before the end of my second year.
As things fell apart, I had several sessions with the V-P and the Deputy. At one point, one of them (I’m not sure which one) said, “Robin, your problem is that you are a very reasonable person, and you expect everyone else to be the same.”
Truer words were never spoken. It took quite a while for me to accept their truth, but I’ve been living with it ever since. I made sojourns back in the math. world, from which I eventually received a Master’s degree, and then into the world of government bureaucracy, where I learned a whole lot of important life skills. Finally, I changed course, entered seminary, was ordained, and spent 26 years in the service of the church.
Shortly before graduating from seminary, all prospective graduates had an interview with the college faculty. The basic question was “Are you ready and equipped to be ordained?” We agreed that I was, and then went on to a session of helpful observations from the faculty. I don’t remember what else they said, but one thing has stuck with me: “We have observed that you do not suffer fools gladly. We believe this may be a problem for you in your future ministry.” Their observations were based on aspects of life within the college community, but their assessment was correct.
The two assessments from school and seminary authorities were separated by almost 20 years. Both groups had seen the same thing in me, and as predicted I have struggled with them ever since, even seven years into retirement.
Life is a struggle at times, and sometimes the struggle is almost more than we can bear. Last Sunday’s lectionary reading from Genesis is perhaps the archetypical story of struggle in the Bible. Jacob struggles all night with “a man,” who is obliquely revealed to be God in person, and who ultimately blesses Jacob and gives him a new name — Israel.
Jacob learned and was changed by his struggle. I have had my own struggles, whether or not I have understood them at the time as struggles with God, and I hope I have learned from them.
We all struggle in our own way with people who do not see things as we do. For some of us (ME!) this can be a huge obstacle in life. May we all learn to live with others as they are and as we receive them.