what Charlie Brown taught me about teaching

Sometimes on a rough day, when I’m feeling more insecure than usual, I play a little game. It’s so subtly manipulative that it seems benevolent. Unlike the more obvious put-downs or the fishing for compliments, I almost subconciously try and build a mini-monument to myself.

We’re in the classroom painting the mural and when we run out of white, I strike up a conversation with a few former students. “How do you like you’re team this year?” It’s an unfair question, not too different than a divorced parent using a child as a pawn.

“I miss your class,” a girl responds. Her newfound sweetheart (It’ll last a week or two) says, “Yeah, it’s just not as fun.” I play the game of charade for awhile, posing seemingly thoughtful questions, “What do you do in his class? What types of projects do you guys do?”

After a few minutes, I realize what I am doing. See, I have this mental line-up of teachers. I gather the data, so I can judge a teacher like the back of a baseball card. I start thinking of which teachers I want on my team and secretly I want to be that clean-up hitter who knocks the ball out of the park. I start comparing, not to learn new strategies, but to feel that I am somehow above them.

I switch the conversation to music and we end up in a long dialogue about the relationship between culture and music and questions about whether hip hop musicians can be role models if they have a positive message but a negative lifestyle.

As I drive home, I start to think of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. In the moment, I probably look like Shroeder, playing for a stage, seeing if I can get people to dance. Inside, I feel like Charlie. Good grief, I’m such a blockhead. So, in the special, he laments the commercialization of Christmas. Somehow, even as a child, that always struck a chord with me. So did the children who taunted him and called him “hopeless.” I’m glad the special doesn’t wax sentimental.

I start to think of the kids I work with. I wonder if it’s worse to be a Lucy that people secretly despise or a Charlie who is openly mocked or perhaps a Linus who still sucks his thumb and carries a blanket. I’m not sure. So, my mind wanders to the students during school – to the small troubles that feel so big, like a rumor or a broken friendship or the feeling of being excited about an outfit only to go unnoticed. Then I think of the bigger things, like the girl who writes a poem about what it feels like to be raped. I want to cry, but even in the confines of my car, the tear ducts stay empty.

I think about the “bad teachers,” and how quick I am to score them and label them and inwardly call them names worse than “blockheads.” It feels so hypocritical, because I am really careful to be so inclusive with all of my students – to embrace some of the traviesos and nerds and the bossy Lucies and the kids who are as filthy as pig pen, because the power has been shut off for days. Yet, I miss the teachers.

So my mind goes back to the special. Linus breaks into a Christmas monologue in the midst of Charlie’s pain. He tells the Christmas story and he leads the gang in transforming this ugly wreck of a tree into something beautiful. The animation is so cheezy that the original tree is unrecognizable. I think that’s what it’s all about. Ultimately, that’s why I am here as a teacher; so that, in the right moment, I can speak truth and I can listen and I can see the beauty when all that others see is ugliness. On a good day, I can remember that ultimately transformation does not come from great teaching but from a God whose story is so incredible that it seems crazier than any cheezy Christmas special animation.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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