Fifth grade was the hardest year of my school experience. I struggled academically. I worried socially. I went on an emotional roller coaster daily. Until fifth grade, I had made good grades without really having to study too hard and I had always had a great group of friends around me who didn’t require me to work at being friends. Until fifth grade, I accepted and followed all rules as exactly what they are–rules to be followed.
But in fifth grade, things became different. Things that had always been easy for me to accept and follow suddenly became giant question marks to me. Being accepted by the crowd became so important in my life. And suddenly, the values that had been instilled in me since I was a tiny child started to look a little less than perfect in my adolescent eyes.
I became a Christian at an early age. I firmly believed then, and still do, that Christ loved me and died for my sins. At the tender age of five, I asked Him to come into my heart and clean all of the sin out. I asked Him to stay there, and He did. I totally agree with Romans 8:38 that “nothing can ever separate us from God’s love.” And I have proof. Even as a fifth grader who suddenly came to a wall of questions and fear about the faith she had embraced as a young child, God showed me that nothing could separate me from Him. He provided a lifeline in my life just when I needed it the most.
He put my name on the fifth grade class list of Suzette Johnson.
He knew. He knew the friends I would want to join, the choices I would struggle over, the school work I would want to shrug off. He knew that for the first time ever I would want to disobey. So He sent me someone who would not let me stray. He sent me someone who would allow no less than my best, someone who would not be satisfied with my half efforts. Someone who wasn’t satisfied with anyone’s half efforts. He sent me Mrs. Johnson.
Mrs. Johnson was the teacher that all fifth grade girls want to have. She was young, pretty, and exuberant. She didn’t use textbooks very often, and she put our desks into community tables rather than the long, straight rows we were used to. And then, a few weeks into school, our fifth grade girlish excitement grew even further when Mrs. Johnson told us that she was expecting her first baby! She let us suggest names when she found out the baby was a boy, she let us snack throughout the day when she had to eat special foods, and she let us hear the baby’s heartbeat on tape. I even remember when she read the book Shiloh to us and she cried at the end. Right in front of us. I couldn’t believe there was a teacher who was as wonderful as Mrs. Johnson.
And of all the years for me to be “un-wonderful” it was in fifth grade with this teacher. I had always tried so hard to be good, to be smart, and to do my best, but suddenly in fifth grade I was all mixed up as to whether I wanted to be good and do my best anymore. But I so wanted to please Mrs. Johnson–it just seemed that my desire to fit in with certain crowds overrode the desire to make my teacher proud.
I remember when a visiting preacher came to my church during a revival time that year and he preached about the reality of heaven and hell. The deceiver began to whisper doubts into my ear of whether I was really a Christian. Wasn’t five a little too young to become a Christian? If I was really going to heaven , why was I struggling so hard to be good? Why was it so unpopular to do the right thing? I would lay awake at night and try unsuccessfully to work through my inner turmoil.
Meanwhile, at school, my grades fell, my choices became poor, and my conduct grew worse. I won’t say I was a terrible student, but I definitely was not doing well academically or socially. I thought I had it pretty bad, but soon I would learn that my life was not as bad as I thought it to be.
Mrs. Johnson, for all of her fun and innovative ways, would tolerate no nonsense from her students. She lovingly but firmly demanded our best and confronted us when we tried to pretend with our half efforts. She spent a lot of time on me that year. I still remember her saying more than once to me, “Paige, you are too smart and too good to behave like this…”
The day that changed me started out like most days. Halfway through the day, I was involved in some kind of catty, girlish conflict that landed a small group of us out in the hall with a fiery Mrs. Johnson, who was tired of our craziness. We were all talking at once and seemed to land our blame on one friend, who had her eyes on her shoes. Mrs. Johnson turned to the friend and just said, “Well?”
The one word question prompted a torrent of tears from the friend. With the tears came words about a broken home, more broken than I’d ever imagined a home could be. Words and sobs that told of drugs and abuse. All of us other girls stared in horror as we heard a story of a foreign life that was happening right beside us every day.
Mrs. Johnson’s arms wrapped tenderly around the friend, but the fire remained in her eyes as she turned to us. “Not. A. Word. To Anyone. Understand?”
I realized my life was not as bad as it could be. I realized how totally, completely blessed I was to have a stable home, a loving family, and a relationship with a heavenly Father who would just not give up on me. I realized that the choices I was struggling over really weren’t that hard to make in light of my friend’s turmoil. Later, Mrs. Johnson spoke to our little group one at a time about what we had heard. I poured out my conflicts and my new realizations to her with my tears and told her that I would try harder. I told her I was a Christian and that I needed to act better. She said, “You need to let Jesus act through you and it won’t be so hard…you know, I’m a Christian, too, Paige. We have that in common.” And just like that, the choices were no longer hard.
Teachers have so much more influence than they even know. I never told Mrs. Johnson what an impact she had on me, because at the time I didn’t realize it was happening. I could’ve had a cold, impersonal instructor for the year who would only notice my worst and call attention to it daily. Instead, God knew I would need Suzette Johnson and her influence.
Thank a teacher today. Thank the ones who did so much more than just academic instruction in your life. Thank the ones who didn’t settle for your average efforts. Thank a teacher who took the time to listen to you, to shape you, and to push you towards the person you are today.
I had some wonderful teachers in my life.
Thank you Mrs. Reid for teaching me that school was a safe, loving place to come to. And thank you for teaching me how to be a kindergarten teacher when I came back to you 17 years later.
Thank you Mrs. Russell for teaching me how to read even when it was hard for me.
Thank you Mrs. Wilder for teaching me to love math!
Thank you Mr. Parker for teaching me that technology was important–and that guy teachers were okay to have!
Thank you Mrs. Palmer for teaching me to LOVE reading.
Thank you Mr. Reid for teaching me to “chug on” in geometry, even when it was hard.
Thank you Mrs. Cutcliffe for teaching me to be a writer.
Thank you Mr. Arnold for teaching me what Christianity looks like when it is lived out daily.
Thank you Mrs. Linda Parker for teaching me to take the time to listen to my kindergarten babies.
And thank you Mrs. Johnson. Thank you. Thank you for being God’s tool to keep me in His hand at a time when I felt separated. He used you to change my life.
I pray that I can be that tool in a student’s life, too.
“And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love.” Romans 8:38 (NLT)