News Articles

FIRST PERSON: A teacher learns 3 lessons in 3 weeks about God’s love

ATLANTA (BP)–Ready to shut my door on a classroom full of exhausted teens for the last period of a school day, I paused when I saw a former student hesitate right outside.

“Ms. Hannigan, I need to talk to you please,” she stammered, gesturing for me to come out into the hallway. Large eyes in a pale face, she nervously wrung her hands together.

“I just wanted to thank you,” she blurted. “I know I was a real pain sometimes, but I think what you did was great and my mother really liked the frame and all.”

It must have been hard for Lisa to come to my classroom at all that day. Some might think she would have every reason to consider me her worst enemy. Others could believe she would have just shaken the dust off her feet and never darken the door of my classroom again. But instead, without realizing it, Lisa gave me one more reason to teach, one more reason to march into my classroom every day and take control.

In Lisa’s case, someone had to.

Being on a high school newspaper staff can be a heady thing for a teenager, with privileges, passes and clout. But most realize quickly it’s not all fun and games and the position often brings a demanding schedule, increased responsibilities and constant deadlines. Not the stuff of a student who barely makes it to school every day, has little or no family support and struggles with health and maturity issues.

I have had no qualms about letting counselors and others place students who were unknown to me in my classes, but with Lisa they obviously had made a mistake. Like the boy who could hardly speak English or the pierced and spiked character in my afternoon English class, “those” students would be cheated by my lack of patience and by inattention. Or so I assumed.

Lisa didn’t make it as a journalist this year. Her immaturity and struggles both inside and outside of school precluded her from being an effective team member. But there she was — skinny arms and a shiny new stainless steel barbell smack in the middle of her tongue — thanking me for the framed copy of our school’s first ever real newspaper.

We hadn’t parted badly. It just came down to finding a class where she could receive credit and in turn get the attention she craved. But still, the parting caused me pain and I wasn’t sure how badly I hurt her fragile feelings in the process.

“How’s the new class going?” I asked gently, after pulling myself from her desperate embrace.

“Oh, it’s great — I get along really well with….” She rambled, filling me in on the details, smiling broadly in a way that spoke volumes.

Little did I know that week would be just the beginning of a three-week period of time when God let me know through the “little” things how much he cares about how much I care. How it’s okay to want to feel I am being used of God. Okay to seek answers and ask questions about life’s calling, while remaining firm in my belief that he will eventually provide all the answers I need.

The student who could barely speak English was my second and most unexpected blessing. After consistently trying to get him out of two of my classes, junior and senior English, in order to have him receive ESOL [English as a second language] support, he insisted on two separate occasions with his counselor that he remain in my class for at least one period a day.

This was hard for me to comprehend, especially after I had to fail him in both classes for the first semester of school. “There’s something about your class that he really likes,” the counselor told me.

That “something” was revealed to me in a letter he copied for me. In a business applications class, this student chose me to be the recipient of a letter naming why I was his favorite teacher.

“In the afternoon when we are tired, sometimes Mrs. Hannigan just talk to us,” he wrote in broken English. “She not scary or loud, she even let us listen to music sometimes.”

Although the second week brought sorrow as well when one of my students told me her mom had just died of a terminal illness, the third week bode of good things to come when the pierced character brought in a container of one of my favorite snack foods. He was originally a transfer student who called himself one of the “bad boys” in my class.

“Okay, Mrs. Hannigan, I know you love Kickin’ Chickin, so here’s a piece,” he smiled, ears held apart from his head by two large hoops on each side. Prying open the throw-away container, Mr. Personality had to remind the class all period long of how “he” was responsible for my seemingly “good mood.”

I have to smile. It is a smile tinged with tears because I know each of these students struggle with burdens I almost cannot fathom — and each are representative of dozens more who pass through my door every day.

It’s also a smile tinged with a heavy burden, however, when I think of the great responsibility I have to be Christ in their world — every look, every word uttered and every thought.

Teaching is not the easiest thing I have ever done. Although lecturing, discussing and facilitating come naturally, the day-to-day connections I make with my myriad of students challenges me. They have the ability to make me smile, to cause me to reflect and to prompt me to worship.

Thankfully my hope and my trust come from knowing that my Savior loves me. No matter my failings, no matter my understanding or lack of security, no matter my misgivings about my calling, my career or my future, he is in control.

Like Lisa or any of the other students in my classes, I don’t always know the right words to say, but I do know to cling desperately to the promises of God. He knows.
Hannigan is a national correspondent for Baptist Press and a high school English and journalism teacher in the Atlanta area.

    About the Author

  • Joni B. Hannigan