A Cause for Applause

“There is no massing of men with God.”

— George MacDonald

After the bell rang, I walked into my classroom to face the first herd of the school year. Two dozen still unidentified bodies had been severed in half. The sand-colored laminate blade of a large tabletop saw had made its fresh, horizontal cut into the chest of each of my students — stopping just short of the heart.

And here they thought they were just sitting down in their desks.

Above and below the saw, random body parts sputtered and twitched from the release of pent-up nervous systems. On top, fingers clutched a notebook. Underneath, a pair of feet kicked back and forth.

The faces of these unknown victims presaged at least a million complicated personal histories, though I couldn’t hear any of the breathing. The room was too quiet.

And then, suddenly, a holy wind rushed across my face. I began clapping. Just clapping until they joined me in a loud, rapturous applause. This didn’t make any sense.

“One never knows when the (S)pirit will move,” I told them, shaking my head.

Typically, the first class following summer vacation will carry the skulduggery of a slaughter day. I expected rigid bodies, blank stares, but also cold flashes of fear and resentment among the wise. With bitter clarity, those souls would understand the reason why they had been caged and corralled.

School was no zoo after all.

Yet our hand-clapping must have cut through some fences and iron bars. As my eyes rolled across the bright colors of carefully chosen outfits, their eyes actually invited me to the front of the room. These students were awake and eager to move again.

Thank goodness I hadn’t decided to spend the rest of class reading through a black and white syllabus of class rules, guidelines and expectations.

The first week of school is life or death. At least that’s always been my opinion with respect to students. A teacher can whisper to them –or whip at them. However, experience tells me that, should the prodigal student dare to run toward his desk again, the sight of a taskmaster toting a horsewhip (or, say, a grammar book) will send that boy running back to his old swine quicker than you can say “introductory adverbial clause”.

After a few days of feasting, then we can head back to the fields and get dirty again. But not today.

In my classroom, the first week is all about attendance. Well, not only attendance. But it is about being present. Fully present.

We spent most of our class time on attendance during that first day. Sitting in a squarish circle, I asked students, as I called their names, what they had for breakfast. We ate up many delicious tangents in the process, with much laughing.

I made sure that everyone smiled at least once. Within 40 minutes, I knew each person’s name. The students were happy, impressed. Someone began clapping again, and we all celebrated with more applause, together.

But most importantly, I looked each student in the eye and shared a conversation. It’s so easy for some students to fade into the background and go days, weeks, even months without speaking in class. Some students go years without being present. Let alone fully present.

Learning their names is only the beginning. Names point to something else — something still unseen and undiscovered. Names point to the over-arching presence which will slowly occupy the course of our lives.

Our attendance matters.

George MacDonald writes about the oak which God sees “in the heart of the acorn.” God names us by what we can’t yet see in ourselves. Better than any teacher, God understands the gravity of our attendance, and presence, in His forest.

The very nature of education requires both the learner and teacher to have a faith which sees beyond the smallness of the seed. Appearing inscrutable and insignificant at first, the seed does matter. And every seed has a name.

MacDonald writes, “It is the blossom, the perfection, the completion, that determines the name; and God foresees that from the first, because he made it so; but the tree of the soul, before its blossom comes, cannot understand what blossom it is to bear, and could not know what the word meant, which, in representing its own unarrived completeness, named itself. Such a name cannot be given until the man is the name.”

In life, we’re all students of discovery, including teachers. Together, as we learn to inhabit our God-given names, we have much cause for celebration.

“The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you,
And all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”

Isaiah 55:12 (NASB)

8 thoughts on “A Cause for Applause

  1. Thanks, Matt for the inspiration! I took a break from working on my class (just one this semester, which starts next week) to catch up on your blog. I will do my best to not see my students as an unruly heard :-)

  2. You’re amazing! Do you realize how lucky your students are to have you? Why can’t teachers see students as precious little packages of potential instead of a herd to be wrangled? Why can’t my son have an English teacher like you instead of the mess he is already struggling to deal with after just 3 days? Bless you, Matt. Keep up this divine work you’re doing – and slip in a little grammar along the way.

    • I don’t know about that. Kyle and I could be too dangerous in the classroom together! The curriculum might quickly evolve to include only U2’s body of work — at the expense of Shakespeare and Harper Lee. But, yes, it would be a “Beautiful Day”! Thank you for your classroom encouragement, too. yes I wil trie two through in alot of Spelling an grammer i hop eye kin help them kidz

  3. This actually made me hungry – at least the photo did. There’s nothing better than a big, juicy porterhouse steak cooked medium rare out on the grill. Deee-li-cious!

  4. Today’s post really struck several responsive chords, Matthew. Just having seen on TV what Syrian troops are doing to their own children, there was a repulsive reaction to the body parts at classroom tables followed by a big grin to recognize a clever way to describe what we see with our eyes without using our minds to fill in the body sections we assume are really there. : ) To see quotes from MacDonald, to whom your grandfather first directed me, and to find a C.S. Lewis anthology on MacDonald when I tried to find the full quote from Unspoken Sermons brought back many happy memories of all three of them. And to look at the names of students as the acorns who will yet grow up to give full substance to those names is one of the most creative ways of starting the first day of school that I have ever encountered. I have often sought
    for ways education in a Christian school could contrast favorably to that in the public school and you have demonstrated that Christian caring and concern can be demonstrated in public schools with approval of all belief systems of belief. I pray that the supply of creative thinking and thought sharing always remain as your God given gift used in His honor.

    • Your encouragement is a big gift, and I’m always blessed to hear from you. And I do not say that lightly. Given your vision, wisdom and heart, I feel as though I’ve stumbled upon a kindred spirit on the other side of the world. Most importantly, thank you for your prayer. Using God-given gifts, for His honor, is exactly how I want to begin each day. And thank you for using yours today, too.

  5. You say, “…a holy wind blew…this didn’t make sense…” Yet, you saw results! You saw life stirring in the seeds! Keep up the good work, teacher! Wow, it got teenage faces smiling and engaged the first day back at school! That was no small feat. Keep listening to the Spirit.

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