The week after I presented my students with the writing prompt about problems in our world that make them mad, I caught them all flat-footed by flipping the question.
With my back to my students, I began to scribble excitedly with large letters on the white board at the front of our furnitureless classroom:
What are some problems (sins) inside of you that make you mad? Why?
Then I stepped away from the board, revealing the day’s writing prompt. Several of the kids immediately had pressing questions and doubts, as if their minds just couldn’t wrap around what I was asking of them. I laughed — we humans! — and began to explain in greater detail the fact that whatever evil exists in the world — all of the liars, the kids who bully, the people who ignore the poor, those who wage war — also exists within each one of us.
“Last week as I read and re-read your journal entries, many of you went on tirades against your classmates who make fun of you. And you? Have you ever made fun of others?” I looked out at about a dozen blank faces while one or two of the more mature students laughed along with me, already understanding where I was leading them.
“You said that one of the problems in our world is that people lie. Do you lie, or is it just everyone else?” I swept my eyes across the semi-circle of students before me, surprised by the fact that their fixed expression of utter confusion remained painted on their faces, so I continued.
“You angels! Ok, well maybe we don’t need to touch this topic, because it seems like it’s just everyone else out there who lies, steals, and commits sins.” Some of the students actually looked relieved, misunderstanding my good-humored sarcasm and thinking that I really was going to cancel the writing assignment.
After explaining a few more times and in several different ways that the writing prompt actually wasn’t impossible or some kind of trick question, they finally settled down and spread out all across the tile floor of our quiet upstairs room where we meet every Friday. I turned up the volume on the classical music playing from the little red CD player I brought in my teaching suitcase from home and began weaving in and around the students as they wrote, some sprawled out on their bellies to write, others sitting up comfortably against one of the walls, all munching on little candies that I deposited one-by-one on the open surface of their notebooks as the wrote.
Later that afternoon as class came to a close with rounds of chess and logic puzzles, I carried my (extremely) heavy black teaching suitcase downstairs and excitedly took out the kids’ journals, eager to see how they had responded to the prompt.
No! No. No. No. He didn’t understand. I closed the first notebook I had opened, disappointed that instead of recognizing his own sin, the student had continued his tirade about his mean classmates who bully him. It’s not about what they do. It’s about what you do. No! I thought. Maybe the next kid will understand.
I then opened the next brightly colored notebook in the large stack, quickly flipping past prior writing assignments to find today’s. My heart sunk upon reading the first sentence, and from there my eyes skimmed the rest of the page-and-a-half answer in frustration. How can we be so blind? This student, too, continued with their long list of complaints about all of the evil out there, basically repeating the same that she had written the week before about the problems in our world that make her mad.
I went through five or six journals with the same results, and my heart sank. We are so far from understanding who Christ is. We cannot accept His forgiveness until we can recognize that we need it. We are blind to our own hypocrisy, our own sin, even from childhood. Lord, help us to see.
I continued onward, almost frantically opening and closing the journals one after the other, hoping for at least one student who understood that the evil that is in the world roams in his own heart.
And then, with only a few journals remaining, I opened the journal of a new student in the program, a beautiful 10-year-old girl who rarely speaks and could be the poster child for good school behavior. My heart leapt as my eyes travelled across her answer:
“Sometimes I am a hypocrite, and sometimes I lie, and I almost always yell, and I’m mad. Sometimes I have bad feelings towards others, and I fight. Sometimes I make fun of others, and sometimes I play too rough. And sometimes I do not fulfill my promises.”
My lips let out an audible “Whoa!” in the empty school auditorium and I sat back against the wall, overcome with joy. If this little girl — who by all human standards seems ‘perfect’ — can recognize her own sin, none of us have any excuses!
I continued onward, this time with renewed hope. I then proceeded with another new student’s notebook, a 9-year-old boy. His response:
“Some of my intimate problems that I have committed are that I have lied; I have committed a lot of errors and I accept it. But I know that Jesus Christ will give me strength…Sometimes I laugh at others and that is not correct…Today I was reading the Bible and there I found the Word of God and I understood that our errors can be forgiven by the Lord so that we have eternal life. I am a human being like everyone else, but if we want eternal life we have to follow the way of our Lord Jesus Christ. And I accept all of my problems…”
I let out a long, pure laugh — a sigh of relief in joyful form. Thank you, Father.
The following notebook, a 12-year-old girl:
“Well, I lie. I am not perfect — only God. But when I lie they are ‘white lies’ (so they say), but a lie is a lie, so I repent. Another problem is that I am resentful and it is difficult for me to forgive others. When someone bothers me, I become sad and I start to think of all the wrong they have done me and say, “What a bad person he/she is; I will never speak to him/her again,” but I always end up forgiving them and that is good because as I forgive them God will forgive me. Another thing is that I lose my patience quickly…As it says in the Bible (well, Jesus), you should not judge others if we, too, have sin in us (and it is much bigger than that of other people’s.)”
I then cradled in my palms the last of all the journals, and carefully opened it. The 14-year-old author of it contents wrote:
“One of the problems that makes me mad is…Lying: When I lie to other people. It makes me furious because it is not good. Sometimes I talk about the other people who lie, but I am another one…Rebellious teenagers: this is something that pains me a lot because when I was with my biological mom I always disrespected her and became very rebellious with her…Now I have nightmares about when I disrespected my biological mom and I cry because I did not take care of her when I was with her…Perfection: It makes me mad because immediately when I begin to focus on the perfection of my beauty I forget about God, and I am slapping Him in the face. It makes me very mad when I do this, because I have not wanted to focus so much on physical beauty. May God forgive me…”
1 John 1:8-10: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.”