Saturday, May 25, 2013


  Each May all of our students spend five weeks engaged full-time in some sort of experiential education project. It's an exciting time for all of us, but especially for the kids as they discover their own resourcefulness, creativity, determination, charity and so on. One of the things they often discover is how well they deal with adversity. This may be the best lesson of all. 

Thursday was testing day for the Bridge-Building Project. Under the guidance of a retired engineer and a physics teacher, each of the students had designed a bridge, and then made a scale model out of thin wooden sticks provided by the teacher. Most of the models wisely followed the familiar truss pattern we see in real-life bridges. Thursday, as I said, was the big day. Each bridge was put to a weight-bearing test using a home-made device that puts pressure on the deck of the bridge in increments of 5 lbs.
I happened to be walking by the lab as the tests were about to start, and so walked in to watch. First up was Kyle (not his real name), the lone 8th grader among all those upperclassmen. (Most projects for older students leave space for a couple of younger kids as well.) I like Kyle, a slightly-built but bright little guy. I stood right beside him has his scale-model (maybe 18” long and 8” high) was placed in the testing apparatus. 

Hey, stuff happens, you know?
Most bridges bear 20 to 40 pounds of weight before slowly collapsing in a painful paroxysm of structural failure. Kyle’s bridge held up against 5 pounds. Then came 10 pounds -- and instant catastrophe! The test weight crashed through the deck of the bridge accompanied by loud whoops and hollers and a few guffaws. Kyle’s superstructure was still perfectly intact, but he had neglected to reinforce the deck. A simple detail. As I stood next to him I could feel the disappointment, shock, and embarrassment radiating from him. The instructor handed him his all-but-intact model that had failed after only 5 lbs of weight, noting that it was still in one piece except for the deck; he then moved on to the next bridge. 

Resisting the urge to hug the devastated kid standing in shock beside me, I took a very matter-of-fact approach with him and noted that his bridge concept was fine and that he had simply neglected one important detail. I don’t imagine he actually heard me as he struggled mightily to hold back the tears, but maybe some day he’ll make the connection with life: sometimes forgetting a small detail can have tremendous consequences. But I left that part unsaid, figuring that he’d be better off figuring that out for himself.


Meanwhile, as Kyle’s bridge was breaking, about fifty miles northwest of the lab a freshman was
I quit!
sitting on the rocky ground at a rest stop on the Appalachian Trail. He had announced that he was not going to hike any more. It was just too much for him. No amount of cajoling and coaxing and reasoning could put his broken spirit back together again. (If he were a two year-old and you were his parent, this is the point at which you would probably pick him up and start carrying him along the Trail against his will.) 
I have only a third-hand account, but it seems that he was so adamant about quitting that he was actually taken off the Trail by the project director with the understanding that this would mean he would almost certainly never graduate from St. Benedict’s Prep. When his mother was called to come up to Sussex County and pick him up she refused, saying that her son must not be allowed to quit, and that he would have to finish the hike just like everybody else. She was not coming to get him. Good for her! After some creative scrambling by the adults in charge, the kid was attached to a different hiking team and did eventually finish but with an F for the course.
I wonder what he will eventually learn from this. Undoubtedly some adult will sit down and debrief it with him, but the lessons probably won’t come right away.


Later that day I was reading Walter Brueggemann’s  The Message of the Psalms, and came across his analysis of  the final verses of Psalm 114, in which all of creation is in an uproar because the almighty God of Israel has delivered His people:
5 Why is it, O sea, that you flee?
   O Jordan, that you turn back?
6 O mountains, that you skip like rams?
   O hills, like lambs?
7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
   at the presence of the God of Jacob,
8 who turns the rock into a pool of water,
   the flint into a spring of water.

The most stable things in the world, the mountains themselves, are shaking, while rocks turn into water. Brueggemann comments about this last line:  “It shows yet another way Yahweh accepts nothing as it is, but always changes everything. Nothing is secure when the God of liberation makes his move.” (141-142)

The implications of this last sentence are pretty scary, wouldn’t you say? Little Kyle had to watch his bridge deck crumble, and the disheartened freshman had to go through the humiliation of quitting in front of 150 peers. But when I experience unwanted change and various kinds of difficulties and failures my faith tells me that this is because God is not finished with me yet. Brueggemann has indeed put it pretty well: Nothing is secure when the God of liberation makes his move.Still, on those days, I admit, sometimes the good old days of Egyptian slavery start to look good by comparison.

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