Issue: Fall/Winter 2012
Why Ordinary Matters
Deborah A. Johnson ‘11
As I contemplate the months that followed my graduation from Houghton, my thoughts turn to my fellow classmates and to alumni from years past. A question forms in my mind: “What have I done that is worth sharing with them?” I’m not a full-time missionary. I’m not doing relief work overseas. I’m not working with refugees in an inner city.
What, then, am I doing? What do I represent?
In looking back at my day-to-day life over the past year, I believe I represent Ordinary. My life is like countless others. Neither my home nor my job is particularly exotic, but I’ve learned that exotic isn’t what matters. It’s what we do with what God gives us and how we live where He places us that counts. Ordinary, I’ve come to find, is an adventure.
When I graduated from Houghton in 2011 with a degree in inclusive childhood education, my walk across the stage was bittersweet. It was difficult to leave after learning so much, thinking so deeply, and developing so many friendships with professors and classmates. I knew I would miss the community which for four years had catalyzed both spiritual and academic growth. However, like scores of other college grads and teaching hopefuls, I dutifully gathered recommendations, spent countless hours filling out job applications, and waited with bated breath. I knew that jobs were scarce, that I was young and lacked experience, and that my odds of being hired were slim at best.
God surprised me. In the August following graduation, I was hired to work as a special education teacher in a little town called Bainbridge, N.Y.
With two gas stations, three antique stores, a Dollar General, and a Great American that’s gasping its dying breaths, Bainbridge is not unlike many rural towns. In the spring, the maple trees lining the streets are tapped, spicket-plugged, and bucket-hung. In the fall, I step out the door of the school and inhale the pungent, earthy smell of smoke from a woodburning stove.
This area cannot be solely defined by its quaintness, however. It has other faces that can be described with words like poverty, neglect, abuse, addiction, apathy: all words that are a nagging whisper in a number of my students’ lives.
The students I work with every day are burdened with labels: Autism, ADHD, Learning Disability, Emotional Behavioral Disorder. However, the more deeply I come to know my kids, the less their labels matter. Kids are kids. For all of their differences and disabilities, their abilities continue to astound me. At the risk of sounding sappy, each student truly is a treasure.
Take Derek [pseudonym], for example. A fellow special educator said she’s never known a student like him in her 20-plus years of teaching. He has too many labels for one small boy — high-functioning autism, ADHD, obsessive compulsive tendencies, and a suspected mood disorder. As a beginning teacher, I knew that I was about to get a lot of what more seasoned teachers refer to as “experience.” It took all of last year to get to know Derek. Truthfully, I’m still unearthing parts of him that I never suspected existed. During that first year there were occasional moments of breakthrough when I could see vulnerability in his eyes and knew we were connecting. There were far more moments, however, when he would be belligerent and unpredictable and make me want to pull my hair out… In all of this, though, I found that I was learning patience. I was learning to be quiet and gentle and positive even when I didn’t feel I had it in me.
And Derek is just one student.
Without doubt, teaching is the most difficult thing I have ever done. Under the pressure of state expectations and feelings of disillusionment, I sometimes wonder if students have been reduced to mere brains and bodies. Where’s the soul?
In these situations I revert to what first motivated me to become a teacher: my love for children and my love for learning. There is so much in our world that fascinates, that puzzles, that affronts. As we learn about the world around us, we also learn to know ourselves better, to know others better, and to know God better. To learn is to avoid self-satisfaction and complacency and to strive to be wiser, kinder, and humbler in the future than we are in the present.
I take courage in the knowledge that good teachers have existed for centuries under every educational model and in all corners of the globe. This indicates a common denominator that cuts through educational models and theories: a love for students, a love for learning, and a love for teaching. It encompasses a willingness to be unorthodox. It demands purpose and vision. It requires soul.
With my convictions about teaching, what do I hope to contribute? I am too
much of a realist to believe that I am going to inspire every student who comes into contact with me. My ambition is rather to inspire those students I can. Joy in the teaching profession can be found in the little things: the page being read, the unexpectedly profound comment from the lips of a 10-year old, the slow-but-sure progress of the laggers and the strugglers. It is in these little things that I see the face of Christ and know that He cares about my Ordinary.
I’ve often heard it said — and I believe — that living for Christ is all or nothing. I think sometimes we perceive “all” as something exotic, and since we aren’t doing that, we settle for “nothing.” What we fail to realize is that “all” encompasses wherever we are right now. I am inspired by those working overseas to create social change and spiritual awakening. I admire those who impact the world in such big ways that they make the headlines. However, I also believe that making a difference can be subtle: smiling at the cashier in the grocery story, becoming involved in our communities, getting to know the person who lives in the house next to ours. If we take a look around us, I think we’ll realize something important. Making a difference can look a lot like Ordinary.