Last weekend I started a run at the rec center behind the high school where I taught for over 30 years. Signs were out welcoming students back for the new school year.
When I run past the high school, especially at this time of year, it evokes a flood of memories of my time in the classroom.
Sometimes I remember certain activities I did with my students, like the times we hiked down to the nearby stream to get water samples for chemical testing as part of our stream study unit, or when we made “golden” pennies in the lab.
Sometimes I recall colleagues, friends I made over the years while sharing classroom successes and failures, celebrating and commiserating together.
Often I think of students, the many kids I got to know and love.
Last week, I thought of Jordan (not his real name).
I had the privilege of teaching many bright kids in chemistry class but Jordan was different. He was brilliant.
Well-read, curious, and a deep thinker, Jordan was an atypical teenager. He was friendly in a detached kind of way, not interested in girls, sports, or the usual dramas of his peers.
One day in class, I happened to mention an unusual bird I had seen over the weekend and Jordan stayed after school to talk to me about it. He was interested in birds too.
After that, he stopped in several times a week, staying for 20 minutes or half an hour, talking about birds, nature, and the environment with me.
Eventually, our after-school conversations shifted to weightier subjects – the cosmos, time and eternity, God, all topics Jordan read and thought about and wanted very much to discuss. He sometimes stayed for over an hour.
At the same time, Jordan was executing an ambitious and technically difficult science project as part of the Honors Class I taught. It involved finding a remedy for an infestation of native trees by an invasive insect that was decimating the hemlock forests in our state.
Unsurprisingly, Jordan won the Biology division of our regional science fair with his project, along with quite a bit of acclaim. He worked intently on the project and needed very little help from me.
Unfortunately, Jordan did not exhibit the same enthusiasm for classroom assignments, which I am sure bored him. He could easily have aced the class, but, due to handing in assignments either late or not at all, his grade was in the B range.
One day after school, I received a phone call from Jordan’s father, a high-ranking administrator in a different school district. He angrily berated me, accusing me of basking in the reflected glow of Jordan’s science fair glory, while not giving his son a fair grade in the class.
Jordan was aghast. Worried that the phone call would put an end to our after-school discussions and knowing the true reason for his less-than-stellar grade, he stammered out an apology for his father. I told him that no apology was needed and we continued our talks.
To appease his father, he subsequently made slightly more effort to hand in his assignments on time and finished the year with a respectable grade.
The whole incident made me think about how we define success.
To Jordan, success involved testing new ideas, satisfying his curiosity, expanding his knowledge. To his father, it meant receiving good grades to gain admission to a competitive college.
We revere success, especially in finances or influence.
Power is celebrated.
We use success as a justification for atrocious behavior.
Bad behavior by sports stars and celebrities is well-documented but often overlooked.
Until very recently, baseball and football players committed violent acts of relationship abuse that were never made public. Actors and Hollywood power brokers regularly committed sexual harassment or even sexual assault for years without negative consequences.
An instance when overlooking bad behavior lead to much more dire results was in the 1920s and 30s in Germany.
Adolph Hitler was celebrated by Germans during this time as the leader who avenged Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I. Germans who had reservations or misgivings about Hitler’s treatment of Jews and other minorities or his aggression toward neighboring nations were willing to look the other way because he was undoubtedly successful at restoring Germany to her former glory after their ignominious disgrace at Versailles.
German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was eventually executed by the Nazis, had this to say about the worship of success: “The world will allow itself to be subject only by success…Success alone justifies wrongs done.”
Bonhoeffer further wrote this: “In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things, the figure of Him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger and is at best the object of pity. “
Nazis could not fathom Christ’s selfless behavior. Success was the end that justified all means. Ironically, Germany was destroyed not by failure, but by success, through “an ever escalating orgy of self-love and self-worship.”
Today in this country, people willing to put their health, and even their lives on the line in the service of others are looked at as dupes or fools. Self-love and self-aggrandizement abound.
It is not easy to take the narrow path of compassionate, unselfish, altruistic behavior.
We must recalibrate our definition of success to include humility, selflessness, and respect for others.
A healthy amount of curiosity and admitting that we just might not be right all the time wouldn’t hurt either.
I will remember Jordan as a good example of someone who was not afraid to set his own definition of success.
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.– Matthew 7:13-14
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