Field Notes From A Prayer Warrior

Don’t smile until Christmas…

The world can be a nasty place,

you know it, I know it, yeah,

See, we don’t have to fall from grace,

Put down the weapons you fight with

And kill ’em with kindness.

—Selena Gomez, Kill ‘Em with Kindness

“Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness.” —Kathleen B.

In 1992 I was a North Dakota farm girl living in New Jersey and had just secured my first teaching job in a large middle school. The happy ending is that placement turned into an amazing calling and I stayed in that building until I retired, 25 years later…but the beginning?

Uff da.

Middle school is tough. Middle SCHOOLERS are tough. I felt I needed to be tough…all 5’4″, hundred pounds of me.

I tried the “Don’t Smile until Christmas” method. For those of you unfamiliar with this classroom technique, you take the hardline on discipline at the beginning of the year and then loosen up once you’ve established yourself as the Alpha Dog, so to speak.

It was a miserable failure. I am a happy, smiley, positive person. I wasn’t having fun. The kids weren’t having fun. And middle schoolers have a built-in BS detector…they know whether you are being authentic or not and they have no respect for phonies. They saw right through me.

So, by October I’d given up on that. Ironically, the “real me” was immediately embraced by my students, but some of my colleagues were less than captivated. I’m spreading a little sunshine in the hall, and I’d watch them roll their eyes or harumph! or turn quickly down a corridor to avoid me. I couldn’t understand it!

Clarity comes in mysterious ways…

One afternoon, I headed for the teacher’s lounge during my prep, really just to get out of my room for a bit. I’m in the process of choosing between a granola bar (healthy!) or a candy bar (sanity!) in the vending machine, when in walks “A—.”

“A—” had a classroom a couple doors down from me. She was a math teacher…I was a foreign language teacher…so already we’ve got some left brain/right brain differences…

But she was also tall. And assertive. Loud. Physically imposing with an in-your-face caustic humor. Her students were terrified of her. I found her a little terrifying myself, but I struck up a conversation nonetheless and soon we were chatting at a table together.

She had this strange look on her face, like she was disturbed or puzzled about something. After several minutes, I finally asked, “Um, A—, is there something bothering you?”

She narrowed her eyes, took a deep breath, and said, “Shelby…I want to like you! But…you’re so…NICE! You’re too…NICE!”

I took it in, paused, and replied, “You want to like me, but I’m…too nice?”

“Yes! Exactly!”

I could regret my “less than Christian” response to this, but I’m not sure I could’ve made the point without it? She needed to be shaken up…

“So…what you’re saying is…if I was more of a b**** like you, you’d like me better?”

Silence.

And then her face exploded with laughter. She sat there, holding her side, tears running down her cheeks, then leaned forward and pointed at me, “Oh, you got me! You really got me! It sounds so ridiculous when you put it that way!”

She got up out of her chair and pointed at me again.

“You’re alright, Shelby!”

Then she left the lounge.

You can’t plan moments like that. And you never forget them. It was a watershed moment…for me, anyway. Was I going to wilt under attack and vainly attempt to win this person over? Or was I going to turn the spotlight on them and stand firm and proclaim, “Yes, I’m NICE! Yes, I’m a Jesus freak! Bam!!”

We became great “school friends” and I was sad to lose her four years later when she retired. Several years after that, she spotted me at the NJEA Teacher’s Convention, and she raced down the hall, hoisted me up, and spun me around, almost squeezing the life out of me.

Another moment.

A lot of people regard “nice” with suspicion. “What’s your end game? What’s your agenda? What do you want from me? No one is nice just to be NICE.”

Should you find yourself faced with that kind of push back…

“Let all that you do be done in love.” (1 Corinthians 16:14)

And kill ’em with kindness.

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