By Christin Van Atta
As a 7th grade teacher in an urban school, people often ask, “how do you deal with these kids’ attitudes?” I would be lying if I said I don’t ask myself the same questions sometimes. Our students come from some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Cleveland, and they bring a lot of emotional baggage with them to school that often affects their ability to learn.
Many of them are angry at the thought of having to come to school at all, let alone the idea of trying to perform well and remain quiet during a long school day.
On the other hand, I have many students who come to school each day and work as hard as they can during class, never talk out of turn, and always respect me and their fellow classmates. I also have many students who test me daily. They speak out of turn continuously in class, refuse to work independently on their reading and writing, and sometimes even mock other students when they answer questions in class. Obviously, there are distinct differences between both of these types of students, but the biggest difference I can think of has nothing to do with their attitude towards me.
It has to do with my attitude towards them.
You might think that the second group of students are my least favorite in the class, but they have taught me more about forgiveness, love-driven teaching, and finding joy in small victories than any of the “good” students ever have or will. My attitude towards these challenging students is: “if I can get even one of them to value their education and think positively about their school work, then I have won a thousand times over.”
Each day, I spend long hours thinking about what I can do to convince these students who refuse to work to value their education. Each day, I come to work with a new arsenal of ideas about how to get them to complete even one page of their reading assignments in class, because one page for some students would be a true victory. One page of quiet reading for some students would be a celebration like the return of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel reading today. One page of quiet reading would mean that I got that student to care… if only for a moment.
To me, the value of the Prodigal Son story is that it reminds me that no matter how many “sheep” I have in my classroom doing the right thing all the time,
I will always be more joyful and grateful to see the struggling students finally succeed.
The Prodigal Son story continues to be relevant not just in my urban classroom, but in our music, movies, TV shows, and our real relationships with people in our lives because no matter what you do in life, no matter if you have kids, no matter what job you do, there will always be people who stray from the beaten path. But fortunately, there will always be people who desperately want them to return to that path, just like the Father in the story wants his son to return to him despite his shortcomings.
I have a saying that goes, “real people are really complicated.”
Now that’s not to say everyone is a walking disaster who will piddle their parent’s inheritance away on prostitutes, but it is to say that everyone has issues that occasionally cause them to make bad decisions and hurt others. We may all become the Prodigal Son at some point in our lives, returning sheepishly to someone we hurt or a situation we did not handle well. But more importantly, I think we may all also become “the father” at some point in our lives, welcoming someone back into our lives who hurt us, someone who we thought might never make the right choices.
Many of my students are Prodigal Sons in my eyes, and I challenge myself daily to wait patiently (and sometimes not so patiently) for them to realize their mistakes and change their attitudes.
But perhaps more importantly, I try to turn the mirror around occasionally and remember that, like my students, I am also always a Prodigal Son in God’s eyes.
God will always be waiting with open arms to welcome me back from my wanderings from Him, and to celebrate with me because one sinner repenting is greater than ninety-nine sons and daughters who require no repentance.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
CHRISTIN VAN ATTA
Christin was born on the west side of Cleveland, graduated John Carroll University in 2014 with an English degree, and also has her Master's of English Literature from Kent State University. She is now a first year English teacher in Cleveland for 90 crazy 7th graders whom she loves dearly despite their craziness. Christin loves all pizza and her cat, Sienna, just as dearly, and hopes to visit Ireland someday because of the cool, rainy weather.