When Bonxha (Agnes) Bojaxhiu entered her classroom for the first time in 1931, she did so with no idea how much her teaching--and her life--would affect the world. She had been influenced by a French Carmelite nun who believed it was possible to serve God by doing the most mundane jobs gracefully and cheerfully.
Agnes is more known for the work she did with the poor and dying of Calcutta and is better known by her adopted name chosen because of the French Carmelite nun who influenced her. Mother Teresa, the woman who won the 1979 Nobel Prize for Peace, began her life of ministry as a schoolteacher. The teacher heart of Mother Teresa moved from the small St. Mary’s classroom in Calcutta, India, to teach the world about the great heart of God.
Mother Teresa was a teacher. Like all true teachers, she had the special opportunity of making the world a better place. Teachers can impact lives--and sometimes only a single life--but that impact can make a difference in the lives of millions.
The Heart of a Teacher celebrates teachers and shares stories from their lives. Many of these stories are from the lives of schoolteachers and professors. Others are from Sunday school teachers, coaches, and mentors. The thread that connects all of these stories is in the way that each teacher reflects the image of God in practical ways.
As you read these narratives I pray you will gain a fresh
appreciation for those who have magnanimously dedicated their lives to this
distinguished and time-honored calling.
I Never Knew Her First Name
I NEVER KNEW MRS. LEAMER'S first name. She became our substitute teacher my first day in third grade. She had light freckles, sandy-colored hair, and wore thick glasses. When she spoke to me, even at age nine, I felt she directed her attention totally to me.
I can't remember anything Mrs. Leamer taught me; but I can never forget the lessons I learned. I was a shy, skinny boy whose clothes never fit properly. What few "new" clothes I had, Mom bought at a second-hand store or they were hand-me-downs from neighbors. Mrs. Leamer didn't pay attention to my clothes; she did pay a lot of attention to me.
One Friday she asked me to stay after school. As soon as the other students had gone, she handed me a book. "I took this from the big library for you." Both of us knew that no students checked out books from the big library until fourth grade.
"It's written on a fifth-grade level," she said, "but I think you can read it. At least, I'd like you to try."
I stared at the book and read the title: Father's Big Improvements.
I thanked her (at least I hope I did) and raced from the room. I didn't even wait until I got home to start the book. As I walked the eleven blocks to our house, I read the first two chapters. I had trouble with a few words, but she was right: I could read the book. Monday morning I handed it back to her. "It was good. It was about the father who lived on an old farm and put in electricity and learned to operate a gasoline-powered plow."
She patted my arm. "I knew you could read it."
The following Friday after the final bell rang and all my classmates rushed into the hallway, Mrs. Leamer handed me a book. This time she only smiled and walked away. It was Booth Tarkington's Penrod.
I don't know how many weeks this went on, but just before Christmas vacation, she handed me another book, a children's version of Grimm's Fairy Tales. "You might want to read this during your vacation."
I smiled gratefully and clasped the book in my hands.
When school resumed in January, we had a different teacher. I laid the book on her desk when she wasn't looking. I never saw Mrs. Leamer again. I'm sure I missed her, but life moved on quickly for us in third grade.
Long after I became a Christian, I thought of Mrs. Leamer. I couldn't remember anything we studied, but I vividly recalled what she did for me. The books, although significant, weren't the most important. She made school a safe place for me, or as I sometimes think of it today, a haven.
Without ever saying such words, Mrs. Leamer made me feel accepted and valued. She didn't see only that shy, skinny kid, but instead focused on my potential—not just who I was, but who I could be. Home was a house of beatings and drunkenness, a place of yellings and unhappiness. My father drank often and sometimes became violent. That fall a serious illness kept him out of work for months. Yet when I walked into Mrs. Leamer's classroom, I could push that part of my life behind me. For those hours, I escaped from loneliness, poverty, and isolation. I was safe and someone cared about me. Beginning with those days in third grade and continuing all the way through high school, once I walked inside the school building I tuned out my miserable home life.
Years later, I tried to locate that special teacher; unfortunately, the school system no longer kept records dating back that far. Even though she entered and left my life within a three-month period, she had given me hope.
In a way, that's how Jesus Christ operates, isn't it? Jesus has always known my potential. Through the years, he sent people into my life—individuals like Mrs. Leamer—to nurture and encourage me. Those special individuals enabled me to inch toward feeling accepted and worthwhile.
I never knew her first name, but I know God does. I felt as if God had prepared me for wholeness and acceptance. One of those who helped was a woman whose first name I never learned.
T HE MOMENT I dreaded had come. I felt the sweat oozing onto my forehead and pouring out of my armpits as I wobbled on nervous legs to the junior high practice room. There, in front of orchestra teacher Mr. McNamara, I would have my first playing test. It was 1959 and I was a seventh grader sitting in the last chair of the junior high orchestra. The other kids in the orchestra had played their instruments since fifth grade, but three of us in the back row were beginners, there by special permission.
"She'll catch on fast," Mr. McNamara assured my parents after learning I'd taken a few years of piano lessons and could read music. He taught all the district's string students, grade school through high school. I was awed by him and his ability to play not just string bass—his main instrument—but also violin, viola, and cello.
I'd gotten frustrated in piano because my fingers were too short to reach a full octave. Violin offered me hope of becoming a real musician. Besides, we already had an instrument—one my dad played as a twelve-year-old in 1928.
Dad's music career had lasted one year. He sang even worse than he played. Even as an adult in church, his guesses at hymn melodies only made people stare or giggle. Mom could pick out melodies on the piano with her right hand, but she couldn't do left-hand chords. With neither parent a musician, I was on my own except for the teaching of Mr. McNamara.
At first, I found tuning the strings and playing simple songs exciting. I looked forward to each class with this tall, thin man with a crew cut and dark-framed glasses. Behind thick lenses were eyes that focused just on each student as if to say, "I care and want you to love orchestra." Soon, however, I became discouraged by the physical discomfort of the instrument. My fingers stung, my chin hurt, and my shoulders ached. Despite my best efforts, I played poorly. I wondered if I'd ever improve to the level of the other kids in the junior high orchestra.
So when the day of the playing test came, I considered staying home sick. Yet I knew that delaying it wouldn't solve my problems. Instead, I showed up in my favorite pleated blue skirt and matching blouse. I hoped looking nice would help me forget I was a skinny, pimply kid with impossible hair who squawked out-of-tune notes. My sense of impending failure rose with each step I took down the platform to the testing room, past the first-chair concertmistress whose skills intimidated me.
As I came into the room, Mr. McNamara looked weary as he opened a music book to an easy number. My knees shook with fear. I wiped my sweaty hands on my skirt.
"Let's try this one," he said, showing me a piece I'd practiced many times.
I couldn't play more than a few measures before my fingers and bow got out of sync.
"Let's try again."
I did, with worse results. I pulled the violin away from my chin with such frustration that it slipped out of my hands and fell on the floor with a dull clunk. I felt my heart race as I thought the worst—that I'd broken it. What would my dad say?
Mr. McNamara picked up my violin like a precious baby. He shook it gently to make sure the sound post hadn't popped out of place, checked its corners, then re-tuned the strings.
"It seems okay," he said. "Let's try again."
I stared at the floor, tightening my face muscles in a useless attempt to keep more tears from spilling. I'd never catch up. I glanced up at Mr. McNamara, expecting him to chide me for my mistakes.
Instead, he looked at me kindly and said, "I want you to know you're making good progress. Just keep practicing. You'll make it."
He let me wipe my tears before I returned, head down but heart lifted, to the orchestra room. Just those few words had rekindled my passion to practice, even when my fingers throbbed and my neck ached. I practiced at school, in my bedroom, and in the bathroom where the tile walls made the sound a little richer and I could watch my bowing in the mirror.
I later thought how much alike God and Mr. McNamara worked in my life. When I was young in my faith, comparing myself to those older and seasoned in spiritual things, I felt like a failure. But when I cried out in frustration to God, he responded in kindness and understanding. I still needed to practice spiritual disciplines, like prayer and Bible study. But he delighted in encouraging me because he knew each little effort, each time I corrected a sour attitude, brought me closer to his great plan for my life.
By the way, Mr. McNamara was still the orchestra teacher when I reached my senior year of high school, the fruit of his encouragement. That year, I sat in the honored first-chair spot of concertmistress.