The Scandal of Grace (Education of a Grade-School Pharisee, Part 2)

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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.


23 Comments

  1. Aaron Roughton

    Mrs. Romero’s legacy is ongoing, since your story has exposed the part of me that wants to look up Jay and sock him one on your behalf. Thanks for posting this Jonathan. I went back and read Part 1 again and was moved for a second time.

  2. Leigh McLeroy

    There’s always more than we first see, isn’t there? She was a good teacher, and you, in remembering and applying her wisdom, an equally good student!

  3. Tony Heringer

    Great story Jonathan.

    “[So] kind and generous-hearted that every kid in the class believed himself to be her favorite.” – I’ve heard God’s love described this way. Thank God for Mrs. Romero!

  4. Shawn Yates

    Mr. Rogers,

    Wow. I am moved beyond words. You have hit the essence of our desire to be loved and what God desires for us relationally.

    Two years ago, before I had discovered the Rabbit Room, you came to our school and I had the pleasure of introducing you to the Big Bob Gibson pork potato and lemon icebox pie. To quote the Faces song ‘Ooh La La’ from Rushmore, ‘I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.’ Guess we’ll have to have you back to Decatur, AL soon. Our kids love your books.

    This piece you have written is destined to be quoted and referenced many times over. What a blessing to so succinctly sum up our wants and desires as human beings. As a principal of a Christian school, I want it filled with Mrs. Romeros!

  5. Pete Peterson

    Excellent, Jonathan.

    Now figure this one out, when I saw the picture at the top of the post it looked to me like the head of a decapitated swan and I was surprised to discover it was actually an ice cream cone when I read the piece.

    Is this something wrong with me?

  6. becky

    Pete, if there’s something wrong with you I have the same malady. I was wondering why this disturbing image, until I read the first sentence and figured out it was ice cream.

  7. Peter B

    “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.”

    I know you did this on purpose, but wow, way to sock me in the gut just when I was ready to jump on the dogpile. Thank you for the gentle reminder through someone else’s eyes.

  8. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Bravo, Jonathan Rogers. As I read your narrative, wise, discerning, compassionate teachers in my own history came to mind.

    Jonathan wrote:

    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.

    “Agents of grace.” I love that idea. As believers, we are called to be agents of grace, aren’t we? To be reflections of God’s grace to the unlovely. God will give us the vision to see, if only we will look. Once we see, we must act. The truth is often several layers below what the world sees. It’s takes courage to look and greater courage to act.

  9. Jonathan Rogers

    Pete, I’ve looked at the ice cream cone picture from every angle, and I can’t make it look like a decapitated swan. So yes, I think there may be something wrong with you. And Becky.

    Shawn–I am deeply indebted to you for introducing me to the Big Bob pork potato. Believe it or not, I was thinking about that meal in the last week or so. I was trying to decide whether I would eat it with the white sauce or the red sauce if ever I eat it again (must have been a slow day). Besides being delicious, the Big Bob pork potato develops what Andrew Peterson calls the mantestines–manly intestines, which can handle such things as late-night Waffle House and, well, Big Bob pork potatoes.

  10. Charlotte

    Does it look like the head of the decapitated swan? I can see that- but if it’s supposed to be the body then I’m lost….

  11. Peter B

    If you disregard the flange of the cone in the upper portion of the picture, and maybe the melted part of the ice cream, I guess I can see how that might happen… but seriously?

  12. Charlotte

    Big Bird? I’m not seeing it… Oh… no- wait- I think I’m getting something… huh. I never knew ice cream so consistently resembled birds.

  13. becky

    Thanks for considering the weaker sister, Jonathan. I don’t think there was any danger of stumbling, just too much imagination on my part. I can also see Aaron’s roadkill Bigbird in the new image. So you can’t win no matter what photo you use.

  14. Tony Heringer

    “Oh it’s the thread that never ends, it just goes on and on my friends. Some people started blogging, not knowing what it was, and they’ll continue blogging forever just because…”

    Greetings from a Raleigh, NC Starbucks. I’m in town on bid-ness and I see all these posts filling up my mailbox over the last few days. So, I figured I’d finally check out what’s going on in this thread. You guys crack me up!

    Curt,

    Philip Yancey once said Christians should be dispensers of grace and that very much lines up with Jonathan’s idea here.

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