Saturday, February 27, 2016


This week I sat down with various students during homeroom period to go over their grades or their standardized test scores.

Going over his test scores with one young man I pointed out to him that his grades were higher than his test scores would have predicted. One possibility was that he’s a poor test-taker, and needs to find ways of improving his test-taking skill. The other possibility, which I happened to favor in his case, is that he simply works very hard, has great study habits, and takes his work seriously - and so gets better grades than some of his smarter classmates.

As I walked away I thought of a run-in I’d had during study hall just the day before with an older student. It hadn’t been my first confrontation with him, either. I’d been looking around the room when I saw him suddenly look up from his book and fire a pencil at the student in the seat next to him, and start giggling. So, in the kindest and gentlest manner I could muster, I walked over to him and confronted him.

He’s a bright enough kid, certainly smarter than average, and his grades are mostly B’s; he’s absolutely content with this state of affairs. I keep aggravating him by telling him he could be so much better and his grades so much higher, but he doesn’t want to hear that. His comeback is always the same: “You can’t complain about me: look at my grades. They’re fine.”

He reminds me sometimes of the kind of Christian that Caesarius of Arles was always going after in his 6th century sermons: people who were content with being “pretty good Christians,” or who were smug because they avoided serious sins in the course of their lives. The bishop had no patience for half-stepping Christians. Anyway, back to my student.

Caesarius of Arles d. 542
In the course of our brief confrontation I asked him why he would just turn and throw a pencil at another student. After a lot of back-and-forth about his potential to be a much better student (which he steadfastly denied), he finally said. “Look, I just want to have some fun.” The subtext was “I have a B average, so I’m immune from criticism about my studies, and it gives me a license to act a couple of years below my age.” What could I say to him? I tried the “I’m disappointed in you” routine, but if disappointing me was the price for just chillin’ and having fun, he was clearly willing to make that sacrifice.

It wasn’t until later that I started to think that maybe one of the reasons that he gets me so upset is that his attitude to studies may be a lot like my attitude toward my relationship with God -- the attitude that Caesarius preaches against. God has given me ten talents and I invest them and bring him back eight more; where’s the problem? I’m a good Christian and a good monk and priest, so leave me alone. Who says I have to be excellent? Who says I have to give everything to the Lord?  

Yes, I’m afraid that sounds way too much like me at my worst: “I’ve got all B’s, God, leave me alone; stop demanding that I try for all A’s.”

And watch out for flying pencils.

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