A while back I gave the keynote address at the 2009 induction ceremony of the Houston County (GA) Educators’ Hall of Fame. Here’s part of that speech…
I once had an ice cream cone with the school bully—a fifth-grader named Jay. I don’t remember how this came to pass exactly—maybe he and I just happened to be at the ice cream shop at the same time. But I remember that he and I and another boy ate our ice cream cones outside, in the grimy hindparts of a shopping center, among the dumpsters and discarded pallets. And I remember Jay swiping the last crumbs of the cone off his hands, then balling up his hard little fist and punching me right below my left eye. I remember the hot shame that burned on my face as I pelted home as fast as my bike would take me.
When my parents asked about the hurt place below my eye, I made something up rather than tell them what really happened. Maybe I wanted to protect them from the knowledge of what a mean world they had brought me into.
But I had a very special teacher that fourth-grade year—Mrs. Romero, a beautiful Cuban woman, so kind and generous-hearted that every kid in the class believed himself to be her favorite. In my case, of course, it was true. She was exactly the sort of person you could give your troubles to.
I didn’t give my troubles to my teacher, however, and she didn’t give me comfort. She gave me something much more important—something I didn’t even want.
Field Day at Miller Elementary fell a week or two after my ice cream outing with Jay. When the fifth-grade sprinters lined up to run the hundred-yard dash, my stomach churned at the sight of Jay taking his place. My loathing was magnified by the knowledge that Jay would probably win. The whistle blew, the boys bolted from the starting line, and my heart sank as Jay pulled into the lead like some sort of flying rooster.
Above the shouts and squeals of children came a delicious Cuban trill: “Rrrrun, Jay, rrrrun!” Jay heard Mrs. Romero’s encouragement. The intent look on his face spread into a grin, and he ran faster, beating his nearest competitor by many yards.
I glared at Mrs. Romero in hurt astonishment. Did she even know what kind of delinquent she was encouraging? If she had any idea what Jay had done to me, her favorite student, she wouldn’t have been so friendly. It was undignified—it was scandalous—for a grown woman to be yelling like that for a little criminal.
But, of course, she knew and understood much more about Jay than I did. She understood that he was still a boy, that his course didn’t have to be set just yet. And she understood how badly a fatherless boy needs for somebody—anybody—to delight in him.
The root of the word ‘educate,’ as I’m sure you know, means literally to lead forth or to draw out. Mrs. Romero drew something out of Jay that day. I had never seen what could happen to his face when he believed that somebody felt he was worth something. I had seen smirks and sneers and the occasional wicked grin on Jay’s face. But I had never seen happiness.
Mrs. Romero drew something out of me too, though she didn’t know it. Quite by accident—just by doing her job incredibly well—she brought an ugly self-righteousness out into the open where I could get a good look at it. She was an agent of grace that day—for me no less than Jay. She showed me that there is a wideness in God’s mercy that is wider than the sea.
I don’t think of Jay very often, but when I do, I try to remember not the beady-eyed sinner behind the ice cream shop, but the Field Day runner taking a boyish joy in the delight of a woman who loved him in spite of all.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.