The desk sat empty.
My sixth period avoided looking at it and instead looked to me. I had had eighteen hours to figure out how I was going to handle the empty desk, the desk that had the potential to sit empty for the remainder of the semester unless someone decided they could sit in it.
But it wasn’t completely empty. A handful of students had gone out of the building and purchased flowers and a photo frame so they could make a makeshift memorial that would remain during the short Holy Week leading up to Easter. When we got out of school a day earlier than scheduled so students and faculty could attend the funeral of one of our seniors, I sent the flowers, transferred to a vase, along to the parents, moved the picture to another safe location in the room, and the following week my senior English classes attempted to pick up the pieces of what was left of their senior year.
And the events of one of the most difficult weeks of my teaching career clarified why I went into Lutheran Education in the first place. It followed another difficult month of watching, from a distance, a good friend and former Lutheran high school colleague die after a short battle with cancer. And these two events so closely together solidified why I have stayed for fifteen years.
If I’m being perfectly honest, I went into the family business.
I remember my psychology professor at my Lutheran college asking me why I went into teaching and why I was attending that specific school. At first, the answer was easy. My dad went to school there. Several aunts and uncles went to school there. And I wanted to be a Lutheran school teacher. Wasn’t that a good enough answer?
But what he was getting at was not that I should have picked another school or another path. After all, he is still teaching there, he loves his job, he is excellent at his job, and I’m sure he appreciated that my private college tuition was paying a very small portion of his paycheck. But his question got to me. Like he was indicating that I hadn’t made a decision for myself. I had made a decision because it was what was expected of me and that was just what one did as a member of my large, extended, very Lutheran family. And yes, as the oldest of 23 grandchildren, there was a part of me that felt like it was my family duty. This concern became a reality when, in my third year of teaching, I almost left teaching altogether because of three incredibly difficult years. One of my biggest concerns in leaving wasn’t “What will I do instead?” but “What will my family think of me if I leave Lutheran education?”
It is a question I have never had to answer. A new school called me, my husband and I moved to a new city, and that question has not come up since. I took one year off from Lutheran education when my husband was transferred from one city to the next and I taught at a public university while working starting my master’s degree, but one year later I was right back at it at a new Lutheran high school. With each move my love and appreciation for Lutheran education has grown and I become more convinced every year that this is what I am meant to do. And now, as I watch my young children grow up through the Lutheran system, I am more convinced than ever that, if at all possible, I want them in the Lutheran system until they graduate from high school.
The Lutheran school system isn’t perfect. I’ve seen both the very good and the very bad sides of the system. I’ve seen (and been a part of) schools that are staying open for the sake of staying open and those that are thriving and being the very best. I’ve seen schools talking about ministering to the whole child while not showing real concern for all-around excellence and schools that demonstrate excellence in every area of ministry. But as long as I have the ability to teach in a school pursuing excellence in ministering to the mind, body, and soul, and as long as my children have access to the same thing, we will stay in Lutheran schools.
One criticism of Lutheran schools is that people don’t want to shelter their children and they want their children to be a light in the public school system. I don’t argue that either of those perspectives are wrong, but I feel I must be perfectly clear: I don’t want to shelter my own children. They will stumble. They will fall. And they will do it right alongside their imperfect classmates. But when they do stumble, they will have an adult picking them up and reminding them that they are forgiven children of God. They will have an adult who acknowledges that they screwed up but offers them discipline with a side of Grace.
My mission as a Lutheran school teacher clarified as I watched my good friend, a woman who had been a mentor, colleague, and supportive friend even when I moved away, unexpectedly go home to her heavenly Father long before any of us were ready to say goodbye. She was a woman who lived Grace day in and day out in her classroom. A woman who strove to be her very best, a woman who never stopped learning, and a woman who wanted her students to know that they were loved and forgiven children of God, no matter how crazy some of them might have driven her on a daily basis. The outpouring of love from her former students showed me the impact that a Lutheran school teacher can have on the lives of young people who are just starting to figure out who they are. It showed me just how much of an impact I can, and do have, in my own classroom. It showed me why my role as a Lutheran educator is so important.
On Maundy Thursday of this last Holy Week, we didn’t take an extra day off of school to celebrate the empty tomb. We took the day off to mourn the empty desk in seven of our classrooms. But through a week of mourning, we were constantly reminded of the victory of the empty tomb. We were constantly reminded that all of our students are children of a loving heavenly Father. Instead of focusing on the negative, we kept pointing broken teenagers back to the Cross. And at the funeral, everyone in attendance was reminded of the victory that is theirs.
It was the week that sealed it. Lutheran education has it flaws, just like everything else, but I knew then and there that I wanted to remain where Christ crucified is the main thing. I want my children to remain where Christ crucified is the main thing.
Because if a school is serious about that being the main thing, then that is the fountain from which everything else flows.