From 1989 to 2015

In 1989 I began my professional teaching career in a small second-story classroom near the corner of Seven Mile and Van Dyke in Detroit, Michigan.  I had nine students in a self-contained classroom.  Each of my students had been diagnosed with a learning disability, attention deficit disorder, or some other ‘problem’ that prohibited his or her success in the ‘regular’ classroom.

So why did they get me?  God only knows.  I was fresh from college with only a semester of student teaching under my belt — student teaching in a high school classroom in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.  Although I had worked for eight months in a group home with behaviorally ‘disordered’ girls, I had little to no experience with students who had these kinds of learning challenges.  I had no special education certification. None.  I had one course in college called ‘The Exceptional Child’.  What did I think I was doing?

Ah, to be young and invincible.

That year in that small classroom with those kids — Larry, Larry, Braun, Andrea, Charmaigne, Andrew, Maia, Chris, and Robert —  began to shape my heart and create the cheerleader/coach within me that would get in the corner of many kids who believed they couldn’t do it, were doomed for failure, and didn’t measure up.   I was so determined not to fail at this first job, and none of them were going to fail either.  Not one.

I’m not going to lie, it was a chaotic year.  I had to learn how to respectfully disagree with my principal.  (Yeah, that was an ugly lesson.)  I had to acknowledge that I had no clue what I was doing. (First privately, then for all the world.)  And I had to find my allies.  (Two male coworkers who found great joy in pranking me and getting me to laugh at them, and ultimately at myself.)

I have no idea if I taught those kids anything that had to do with the curriculum.  I am not even one hundred percent sure that I knew what the curriculum was!  But do you know that I piled all of them into a 15-passenger van and drove them from Detroit to Ann Arbor, participated in chapel at my alma mater, checked out the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, then went out to lunch at Pizza Hut with our Book-It Rewards? I paid no attention to time, so we got caught in rush hour traffic on the way back to school and I returned them to their parents far later than our anticipated arrival time.  I don’t remember any parents being upset at our tardiness.  In my memory, they all matter-of-factly retrieved their kids and thanked me for taking them on the field trip.

That classroom was the germ-infested petri dish that fostered the growth of Rathe-isms such as “what they say says more about them than it does about you,” “anybody can change,” and “see what had happened was.” Each of those Rathje-isms, my students will tell you, has a sermon attached to it that gets recited year after year after year.

It’s 2015.  Last week I was tutoring a high school freshman who is scared to death to take her first round of semester exams.  She kept saying, “I’m not good at __________.” I was transported back in time to my little classroom in Detroit where I started coaching students to say, “I’m getting better at ___________.”  I looked across the desk in the basement of a home in Dexter, Michigan and said to the little freshman, all 95 pounds of her, “We’re going to change that phrase.  You’re going to start saying ‘I’m getting better at _____________.”

I loved that class in Detroit.  They taught me so much.  I’ve been sharing their lessons ever since.

Philippians 1:6

“…he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

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