Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Power of Second Chances


by Teri Goggin-Roberts

Theodore Johnson, or "Mr. J" was my fifth grade teacher.

He was a tall, slender man with a reputation for fun that made students pray to be assigned to his class. Mr. J was significant in my life for many reasons. As an educator, he brought mundane subjects to life with humor and passion. As a person, he taught me the blessing of an unexpected second chance.

One Monday morning, the schoolyard buzzed with rumors about a fire in the school over the weekend. When the bell rang I raced inside, excited by the acrid scent of burnt wood that confirmed the rumors. Homeroom hummed with conversation. Mr. J quieted the class and explained that "Home Economics" would be cancelled due to a fire. He also warned us not to go near the room because it could be dangerous. At morning recess, my friend Kim and I cooked up a plan to check out the damage. A first hand observation would make us heroes at lunch. Since Kim was in a different class, we decided to synchronize a time to go to the bathroom and divert to the "Home Ec" room instead. As the appointed time approached, I ignored a growing sense of dread. I didn't want to face the consequences at home if I got caught but I also couldn't "chicken out" and face Kim after school. When the clock ticked into position, I raised my hand and got permission to "go to the lavatory." Kim was already waiting in the hall.

Kim and I safely reached the home economics room. We stood on tiptoes peering through the door window trying in vain to see what was forbidden. A firm grip on our shoulders stopped my heart cold. "Where do you belong? Certainly not here!" I whirled around to find a teacher staring angrily at us. I'd seen angry teachers before, but they were always glaring at someone else, not me. In those frozen seconds millions of thoughts flashed through my mind. My father would kill me for defying a teacher. Worse than that, my mom might be so mad she might not stop him. Utter terror froze my tongue but eventually I stuttered, "I belong in Mr. J's class." My spirits sank even lower when I realized my lie to Mr. J would soon be exposed. The arresting teacher led Kim and I back to our classrooms and knocked on the doors.

I stood in the hall as my captor spoke with Mr. Johnson who rubbed his chin and arched his eyebrows as he listened. I wanted to melt into the floor. There was nowhere to hide from Mr. Johnson's angry eyes when they darted toward me during parts of the story. I lived with an alcoholic father so anger meant pain and I was already nauseous from the pain in my head. The teacher swished past, leaving my destiny in the hands of Mr. Johnson -- who now hated me. I blinked hard, fighting back tears of self-loathing. Like home, I desperately tried not to let Mr. J see me cry, instead, I braced myself for a barrage of anger. But Mr. Johnson had a different lesson to teach. Slowly, he knelt down on one knee and hunched his lanky body in an attempt to look me in the eye. When I glanced up from my shoes, I was met with a look of concern rather than anger. He spoke softly and carefully as he explained why he was disappointed in my decision to go where I may have gotten hurt. I was stunned that he cared more about my safety than the fact that I'd broken a rule. There was no yelling and no berating. As I looked into the eyes of the man who could send me to unimagined consequences at home, I began to cry. The full weight of disappointing Mr. J crushed my ten-year-old shoulders. I wiped my tears and wished I'd been expelled so I wouldn't have to return to a class full of staring eyes and spend the rest of the year hoping Mr. J would like me again. But the lesson was not complete. Mr. J stood up, indicating it was time to return to class. My heart was heavy with regret as we walked. The load lifted instantly with the gentle touch of Mr. J's hand on my shoulder. I glanced up and he smiled. My love for Mr. J blossomed in the moment I discovered that he still liked me even after I'd disappointed him. Slowly, it sunk in that he didn't raise his voice or threaten me. He didn't do anything but let me feel the impact of my actions. It was the first time I felt the exquisite freedom of forgiveness. Mr. J made no public mention of my crime, nor did he tell my parents. The rest of the day he smiled and acted normally. I saw the world from a fresh angle. At 10 years of age, I couldn't pinpoint what was different, I just knew I felt better about myself. I also knew I'd never disappoint Mr. Johnson again.

Looking back, I can clearly see what was different. When I made mistakes at home the recovery from anger took days. But on that day, trust was restored the moment Mr. J smiled. I learned many things that year, but nothing more important than the power of being granted an unexpected second chance.