For a Christian woman, I have an odd job. I have been teaching in public schools as an English teacher for twenty years. Now, on the surface, that might not seem like such a strange job. Plenty of Christians are public school teachers. However, I am not your usual Christian public school teacher because I don’t have any problem talking with my students about difficult topics. Or better yet, I am willing to have conversations with my students about topics like racism, sexuality, politics, and religion. Topics that are typically pretty taboo in most classrooms, but especially those led by Christians in America.
Some people may be concerned that I use my platform as a teacher to spread my own beliefs and ideologies about the aforementioned topics. However, nothing would be further from the truth. I see my classroom as a forum for students to broach these subjects and others because they need to have a space where they can safely express their opinions. Where someone will not allow them to yell at one another. Where someone will ensure that everyone feels safe. Where someone will let them know that it’s ok to think differently than the crowd.
Over the years, I have become more and more comfortable with these conversations happening in my classroom because I have become more comfortable with my own point of view on some of these topics. I don’t feel threatened when something thinks differently than I do, so I want my students to have the same experience before they leave high school. Once they leave high school, who knows whether or not they will be given opportunities to build skills in respectful public discourse. From my perspective, it looks like most people on public media and social media never learned these lessons. They haven’t learned to listen when someone else is speaking. They haven’t learned to let someone have an opinion other than their own. They haven’t learned that it’s ok to agree to disagree. They haven’t learned that just because someone thinks differently than them that doesn’t mean that the other person is “wrong” and they are “right.”
During this school year, I have been challenged more in this area because for the first time in my career, I feel that I am working with a group of students who are able to have difficult discussions. Sure, this has happened occasionally over my career, but I have never had a class that is able to regularly have discussions where most people openly participate with no feelings being hurt. This last week is a great example of this. In my senior English class, we are currently studying A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. I know, a surprising book choice for a Christian teacher whose husband happens to be a Nazarene pastor. As we were discussing Burgess’s personal history with the trauma of the sexual assault of his wife, my students began a discourse about the complexities of the justice system, the backlash of women falsely accusing men of sexual assault, the concept that the courts often look at who punched second rather than who punched first. It was interesting that at some point in the conversation, one of the students was able to express the frustration she experiences when people assume that because she is atheist that she is immoral. Another student commented, “Just because someone is a Christian doesn’t mean that they are moral.” It was a beautiful experience to see these seventeen and eighteen year olds communicate their observations of the hypocrisy and injustice in so many institutions of our society today. What amazing citizens these students are, and what hope I have that they will take these skills with them into college and their lives ahead.
I have a complicated job. I desire to fully reflect Jesus Christ every day as I interact with my students and my coworkers. I feel that my vocation in life is to be a public school educator and with that responsibility comes the overwhelming task of balancing my personal faith with the complex issues that are raised in literature and in contemporary society. However, I have learned that I do not have to sacrifice either of these aspects of my life on the altar of anyone else’s expectations. I do not fit the stereotype of a Christian, let alone a pastor’s wife. This is because I have learned that I have to be who God has made me to be. Sometimes this means that I will give references in class to Game of Thrones as it relates to Medieval literature. Sometimes this means that I will ask my students if they are familiar with Deadpool because I’m teaching the dramatic convention of asides. And sometimes this means that I am willing to listen to the often cringey narration of your humble narrator Alex in A Clockwork Orange because I want my students to explore the concepts of free will and government control. Some people might look down upon these examples, especially those who are always concerned about being “right.” However, as I’ve been discovering in Richard Rohr’s, Universal Christ, “It is no longer about being correct. It is about being connected” (168).
Through my teaching career, I hope that I have been more concerned about making connections with my students than I have about being correct. I hope that they will remember the awkward teacher who openly pointed out the sexual innuendos of Romeo and Juliet because if you are going to teach Shakespeare, you can’t leave out the bawdy humor. I hope they will remember when we discussed the disgusting racism of Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird and how sadly we still see low-key racism permeating parts of our society today. But more than anything, I hope they will remember that I saw every one of them and valued each of their opinions even when they didn’t line up with my own worldview. My job is not just to prepare students to write and read academically but to help them to grow as human beings who are more concerned about making connections with other human beings rather than whether they are correct.