I SIGNED UP for Janie’s SOC 202 course unwillingly.
From the start, I was suspicious of the course title: Problems in Society. The fact that it was a sociology course only made it worse. I had grown up in an Amish-Mennonite world, and I believed anything to do with social work was suspect.
What kind of “problems” would we discuss?
I figured the only problem society faced was its refusal to submit to God.
I didn’t need a class to teach me that.
My father had raised me on a diet of salvation, Godly fear, and the Last Judgment. As far as I could tell, social workers worked for the Government — that faceless monster who embraced Atheism, wished to persecute Christians, and tried to remove children out of Christian homes (because it disapproved of spanking).
Those who became social workers rejected the true gospel of Jesus — which focused on saving the soul, getting people born again, and sanctifying their behavior. I had learned this at my father’s knee.
God had provided Christians with Godly armor to ward off such evil thinking.
Christians who became social workers had gone astray. The idea that it was more important to feed someone or help them medically — rather than save their soul — was flat-out wrong. I wondered if “Christian” social workers were headed for eternal damnation.
But to be certified as a teacher in the State of Ohio, I needed this course.
So I reluctantly agreed to sign up for the course.
PERUSING MY PROFESSOR’S BIOGRAPHY, I realized she had gotten her Master’s degree in social work from Syracuse University: The School of Social Work.
More bad news.
Ms. Hoyt-Oliver sounded like a liberal.
I knew all about liberals. None of them were true Christians. How did she ever get hired here?
I also couldn’t understand why her students adored her, calling her “Janie.”
Deception, for sure.
Did the administration know what she was teaching?
Thank goodness I had learned the Truth at Maranatha Bible School in the spring of 1984, a boarding school for Amish-Mennonite youth. I had taken rigorous studies in the authority and inerrancy of the Bible.
I knew the Bible must be interpreted literally.
I worried about studying sociology. I fully expected my new professor to try and sway me from the True Faith. So I prayed about it. My spiritual mentors prayed for me. I was fully prepared to ward off the fiery darts of the Devil.
Coming — no doubt — from my distinguished, deceived teacher.
So on a Monday afternoon in January 1987, I entered Janie’s classroom — having put on the full armor of God.
I SAT down at my desk, looking around me. The room was already full, students not saying much, eyeing each other.
Beside me, a stocky guy in a rumpled sweatshirt had planted his head on the desk, snoring. On the other side, a girl with dark, curly hair applied lipstick, checking her tanned face in a compact mirror. She snapped it shut, glanced over at me, then pulled out her notebook and pen.
I quickly looked away.
Suddenly, the students stirred and looked as one toward the door in the front of the room. Our professor slipped in, carrying a brown leather briefcase. She put it on the table, then glanced around the room, her smile reaching all the way to her eyes.
“Good afternoon, everyone. This is Sociology 202.” Her voice was bright, clear. She glanced at the class, students stretching away from her like a small stadium. “I’m your instructor. But you can call me ‘Janie.’”
I realized the students around me had their pens out and were copying down our professor’s words. Even Mr. Sleepy was awake, his body slouched back in the chair, his eyes bleary as he viewed her.
“I’m aware that for most of you, this course was not your first choice,” Janie noted, wryly.
Mr. Sleepy suddenly erupted with a loud guffaw, and Janie looked up at us, a grin of amusement on her face.
“There’s always one student.” She checked her attendance sheet. “Good to see you here, George.”
“Whatever,” Mr. Sleepy mumbled. Janie glanced at me, then turned back to the class.
“But since we all have to take this class together, let’s make the most of it.”
Then she launched into an introduction of our first book, Slavery, Sabbath, War & Women by Willard Swartley. Briefly, she explained that the same arguments ministers used in the nineteenth century to promote slavery were now being used by fundamentalists to defend the subjugation of women by men.
I LISTENED TO my professor explain the biblical rationale for biblical feminism.
Biblical feminism? Sounded like an oxymoron.
No matter. Whatever she was teaching — it was dead wrong.
I knew I Corinthians 11, chapter and verse.
It’s where the Apostle Paul proclaims no woman should teach a man.
By now, my professor was talking about men and women living in submission to each other.
This woman is misguided, I thought.
But she had my full attention. I was the bull snorting in the ring. Judging from the murmurs of students around me, I wasn’t the only one. There she was down at the front of the class, the fractious bullfighter, waving the red flag of feminist theory.
I didn’t buy her arguments for a second.
AT THE END of that first class, I descended to the front. It was time I corrected my instructor’s false view of Scripture. Students surrounded her, asking questions, but eventually, she turned to me.
“How can I help you, Steve?”
She knew my name already. I was taken off guard, glancing around. The entire group got quiet. I breathed a prayer, then plunged ahead.
“I don’t understand how you can question the Bible’s authority. The Apostle Paul is very clear when he says women are supposed to submit to their husbands.”
Janie nodded, her face thoughtful. Encouraged, I continued. “So how can you be a Christian and a feminist?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glare from one of the girls, but my professor beamed.
“You’re right, Steve. My husband once mentioned that verse in Corinthians to me. Then we discussed Ephesians 5:21 where Paul talks about husbands and wives “submitting yourselves to one another in the fear of God.”
I gaped at her. Her return smile was almost tender. Around me, I could hear my classmates murmuring, but suddenly, it didn’t matter.
“It’s difficult, isn’t it?” she said. “I get where you’re coming from, Steve. But the Bible? Its answers just aren’t that simple.”
PERHAPS IT WAS her kindness, giving me credit where she could, that caught my attention.
Perhaps it was her gentleness when she corrected my false assumption that sociology was a synonym for social work.
Perhaps it was the fact that she actually looked me in the eyes, listening respectfully as I answered, rather than scornfully exposing my ignorance in front of my peers.
But that kindness was a mark of her teaching. Across that semester, I saw others receive the same respect, no matter how ignorant the question.
Unlike the fierce fundamentalist preachers I had known, Janie didn’t need to answer rudeness with rudeness.
She didn’t need to take charge.
She didn’t need to win.
It made me think she was someone I could trust.
IT WAS THE suicide scare that drove me to Janie.
We were several weeks into the course by then. I had heard Janie tell stories about her experiences with depressed clients. I knew by then she had experience in working with dysfunctional families.
At the time, I was a youth group leader in our Amish-Mennonite church. Perhaps out of rebellion toward our community, perhaps because it’s what some of us believed, perhaps because some of my fellow youth leaders were also attending college — we had begun to attract a lot of youth who hadn’t grown up within our church. They came with their own issues, their own beliefs.
As youth group leaders, we tried to welcome them all.
It was bound to happen. One of the young women who came — I’ll call her “Ethel” — quickly spotted me for an easy mark, someone who could easily be manipulated. Within minutes, she had glommed onto me.
When Ethel told me one evening she needed to talk to me privately — that she needed help — I courteously agreed to listen. Her intensity made me uncomfortable, but as a Christian, caring about people was my duty, I thought. Within moments, I was listening to an outrageous tale of woe.
I swallowed every spoonful.
“I’m having all kinds of problems.”
“Well, my parents don’t like me. They’re refusing to help me. And I’m facing a crisis.”
“What kind of crisis?” I asked.
She glanced at me. Tears stood in her eyes.
“No one cares about me.” The words suddenly burst from her, and two people passing by paused. I waved them on, which they did in relief. In the distance, there were shouts from the volleyball game in the front yard.
I waited patiently. The tension seemed to drain from Ethel’s body. She leaned against me, whispering.
“There are times I’ve thought of killing myself.”
I tensed, worried, pulling away. She eyed me, then reassured me.
“Not often. Not now. It’s just, I have no friends … you know?”
Looking at her, having watched the way our girls held her at arm’s length — with the boys following the girls’ lead — I thought I understood.
People were so unkind.
“I guess I’m depressed,” she said. She began sobbing, reaching for me. I got up and looked around, catching the eye of two other girls walking by. Usually, they would have stepped in to help. But no one seemed interested. Perhaps they knew something I didn’t.
I was 23.
I was not trained for this.
I was in over my head.
In my world, therapists were the enemy, as were social workers. Prayer was the answer. Or at least one of our ministers and his wife. And since Ethel wasn’t a member of our church, I doubted any ministers could really help.
I needed help.
It was at this point I thought of Janie.
I WAITED OUTSIDE the office door, which was closed. I heard voices murmuring inside, and then a young woman opened it. I knew her.
She smiled in surprise.
“You’re here to see Janie?”
She glanced back at my professor, who appeared, smiling at me.
“Steve, how can I help you?”
In a flash, she read my face, and then quickly grew serious. She gestured to her aide. “Get him a cup of tea.” She gestured me inside.
Moments later, Janie settled inside her office, with me sitting in the chair across from her.
She flipped through her gradebook and smiled.
“Since you’re doing fine in my class, I assume you’re not here to complain about your grade.”
I tried to smile. “No.”
She settled, waiting quietly. At that moment, her aide came in, set down a cup of creamy, sweetened tea, then disappeared, leaving the door open. The room was lit dimly.
For the first time, I felt safe.
I tried to smile but felt like crying. It made no sense, so I pushed ahead.
“I think I need your advice.”
Janie nodded, leaning forward, eyes intent upon me.
“Someone needs my help, a girl.” Janie didn’t look surprised, just continued to listen.
“I think she might be suicidal. She’s very strange.”
“Has she told you she wants to commit suicide?”
I nodded. “But I didn’t know what to think. She seems very … odd. I do know she’s very upset. I didn’t know what to do.”
Janie reached for her Rolodex and a pen, pulling out a sheet of paper. She scribbled down several names and numbers, then pushed the sheet towards me.
“Here is help. You can give her these.”
I looked at the names of women and men listed, none of them Amish-Mennonite. Each of them had official-sounding titles jotted after their names.
“Are these people … Christian?” I asked.
“They’re professionals.” Janie leaned back in her chair. “They know how to help your friend. If she’s really looking for it.”
I picked up the sheet, then set it back down again.
“I shouldn’t help her myself?”
Janie measured me.
“I think your discomfort with the situation — your decision to come to me for help — probably answers that question.”
I shifted in my chair. Somehow, something didn’t seem right. This girl had come to me for help. I was passing her off to a non-Christian.
“But am … I mean, by not helping her myself, am I avoiding my responsibility as a Christian?
“Do you have training in mental health issues?”
“Have you ever before helped a person who is suicidal?
I stared at her, my mind whirling.
“Steve, people who work with potential suicides are highly trained. They have experience. Don’t you want your friend to have the best help?”
“But she came to me.”
Janie chuckled, then smiled reassuringly.
“Perhaps you should consider the possibility that you are not required to solve every problem — especially those you are not trained to deal with?”
Slowly, the light dawned.
“By coming to me, by getting her the resources she needs, you are giving her exactly the kind of care she needs.”
IT WAS A transformational moment.
Until then, the concept of professional training had been hazy for me. In my world, people did what they needed to do, especially when it came to spiritual matters. Professional training didn’t exist.
We believed God gave obedient Christians all the strength they needed to fight the Devil. Professional training was deceptive. In fact, in my world, I’d seen ministers attempt to cast out demons.
Looking back now, I realize it wasn’t the ministers who were in danger in those situations. It was the misdiagnosed victims — innocent young people suffering debilitating psychological conditions — who suffered abuse by men fervently who believed they knew the will of God for their victims.
TODAY, WHEN I consider this moment, I am struck by my inability to measure myself, amazed at how ignorant and arrogant I must have seemed to Janie.
The fact that I believed I could counsel a total stranger struggling with suicidal impulses astonishes me.
But why wouldn’t I have felt that way? I was a man, a spiritual head. I was a youth leader, a teacher in our parochial high school, a Godly role model in the eyes of the church. Of course, I was expected to counsel this woman.
Thank God I listened to Janie.
IT ALL CAME together about six years later. This time, I was the teacher.
I was at Steubenville High School in southern Ohio, teaching a class of senior boys. Basic English — the kind of class created by a lethal blend of frustrated counselors and annoyed administrators who clump together all the students who are failing.
It was my job to help them pass the course so they could graduate.
I had free rein — and virtually no experience with this level of teaching.
Most of them were athletes, skating on the edge of juvenile delinquency. I was the newbie teacher. They were the class no one else wanted to teach. I was supposed to work miracles.
You know, like they do in Hollywood.
Think Danny DeVito in Renaissance Man. Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love.
Well-intentioned, idealistic — and completely clueless.
I struggled, trying to help this class of inner-city kids. Like Danny DeVito, I even tried to teach them Hamlet. Seeing my passion for the piece, they became intrigued. They went with me. They tried.
But the mysteries of the Bard remained … mysterious.
AS WITH MOST basic-level classes, two-thirds of the battle was winning my students’ respect, convincing them that I actually cared about them.
Their previous experience with impatient teachers, abusive parents, academic failure — it all told them otherwise.
My fellow teachers expressed support for my plight in various ways. I felt their sympathy in the kind words they offered, the suggestions given me by the principal and my English department chair.
Even our football coach — who knew these boys well because most of them played for him — stopped by regularly to check up on the most difficult cases, making sure they were getting their work done, making sure they showed respect for me.
I had little experience with students like this. I was on edge during every moment. I dreaded the hour immediately after lunch when they would slouch into the room, their caps pulled down, their energy crimped by their firm conviction they could “never learn this stupid stuff.”
Hope had fled the classroom back in their preschool days. And as I paced the room, trying to reach them, I feared they were right.
In the midst of this cosmic wreck, I plowed into “Nathan.”
JANIE WAS RIGHT: there’s always one student.
I couldn’t miss Nathan, starting on Day One of the semester. He rarely settled. Restlessly, he moved about the room — he needed to go to the restroom, sharpen his pencil, get some paper.
When I ordered him to sit down, he launched into a screaming match, which entertained his peers mightily.
Every day, I dreaded the inevitable conflict. Every day, I tried to find a way to avoid what I knew was coming. Every day, I somehow managed to tap the same power button.
It would be decades before I learned there was such a thing as Oppositional Defiant Disorder.
It wouldn’t have mattered. I had a job to do. I needed to help Nathan graduate.
I’D START OUT calmly.
“I need you to do your homework, Nathan.”
“Why not?” Still trying to be patient.
“Don’t need to.”
“You do, Nathan.”
By now, the entire class’s focus was riveted by the drama. Nathan glanced around him, taking in the spectators. He turned to face me, his worn notebook in his hands.
Gripping the cover, his ragged fingernails turned white.
“I. Can’t. Do. It.” His face grew red. “And this fucking school is ridiculous. I hate English.”
A murmur from the class, a whoop. In the back of the room, a slouching giant leaned forward, his eyes glowing, a grin plastered across his broad face.
“Truth to Power, Nathaniel! We gotcha, dog!”
I gestured towards the door.
“Can we talk in the hall, Nathan?”
He glared at me, then hurled his scrawny body out of the seat, racing past me. I ordered the class to start the day’s reading.
I stepped outside, closing the door. I could feel my mouth going dry as I looked into his hooded eyes. From my usually raucous classroom, I heard only silence.
I tried to be firm.
“Nathan, if you don’t do your homework, I can’t give you credit.”
He turned, jolting away. His voice was quiet, the drawl emerging as it occasionally did.
“I’ll never graduate anyway. You hate me.”
His voice was rising. Two classrooms down, a door clicked shut. I could see the train wreck coming. It was me alone on the train track. No one was going to step in. The office didn’t want me sending him there; besides, it would only paralyze any progress we had made.
There was nowhere to go except straight ahead.
There was a moment of silence, and then suddenly he turned back to me, screaming in my face at the top of his lungs.
“No. No. No. I’m not gonna do that stupid assignment. I don’t know how. You can’t make me. You hate me. Everyone hates me.”
The endgame was always the same, with little variety. Once he flushed the pain, the anger, the screams from his system, he calmed down and returned to the class.
Only then would Nathan do his homework.
I DON’T REMEMBER how Nathan passed the class. I don’t remember our last class together. I certainly don’t remember watching him graduate. The class was done, and so was I. The worst year of my life was over.
I felt depressed — by his profound lack of respect. I felt hurt — by his lack of appreciation. I felt battered — by his anger, his verbal abuse, his insults.
When I returned at the end of the summer, I was given a different teaching schedule: Honors Freshmen, American Literature, Journalism. My new schedule inspired me. It’s what I had wanted from the start.
Occasionally, I thought about Nathan, but mostly, I tried to cover up the searing burns of the previous year. It was time to wipe that hellish class from my memory.
And then in May during my planning period, Nathan appeared in my classroom, once again.
I didn’t recognize him. The young Marine before me filled the doorway. No longer slouching, he wore a crisp uniform and shiny black shoes. He carried his hat in his hand.
“Mr. D.” His face, acne-scarred, framed by a buzz cut, was wreathed in smiles. “I came back to thank you.”
I looked at him, confused. His grin enlarged itself, spreading to both ears.
“You don’t recognize me, do you? Remember Basic English last year? The class I had to pass to graduate?”
I recognized the drawl. Suddenly, it clicked.
“Oh. You. Wow!”
He saluted me, then stood at attention.
“I came back to thank you,” he said. “You taught me so much last year.”
“But — “ my voice trailed off.
“I was a hard student. It took boot camp to …. well.” He shifted, glancing down, then faced me like a man. “I wanted to apologize. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t think I did a very good job,” I said, stunned by his apology. “I just didn’t know how —”
“It was my fault,” he said. “You were a great teacher.”
I knew better. I knew I had done very little to help him. I knew how lost I was, unprepared, how much I dreaded the time I spent with students I was sure hated me.
But something had gotten through.
IT WAS THEN I thought of Janie, and what she had modeled for me.
I thought of the abrasive young man who challenged her in the classroom. I thought of her patience, the time she took to advise me, the kindness she showed in the face of my arrogance.
I thought of the many times she set her work aside when I came to her for advice — how she listened, cheered me on, believed in me. I thought of the years following, her generous responses to the letters I sent her from Europe — with me lost in a culture only she seemed to be able to translate.
In my darkest times, Janie had given me hope. It’s what had gotten me through.
And now Nathan. Unlike Janie, my efforts were bumbling, my methods amateurish. Yet somehow, without understanding what I was doing, I had passed on to him Janie’s gift to me.
During those moments, so painful to both of us, he had harvested hope.
My throat constricted, and I swallowed.
“I’m so happy for you,” I said, finally. “Thank you for telling me this.”
MOMENTS LATER, I stood at the door of my classroom, watching Nathan stride down the hall. He had become a responsible adult, a member of our nation’s finest.
He was radically different from the restless, angry young man I had once taught.
And I realized, finally, what I had gleaned from Janie, from the woman who had become one of my greatest soul teachers.
She had shown me the power of relationship. She understood instinctively that no real teaching takes place without caring.
It wasn’t the English grammar I taught Nathan that mattered. Or the literature I discussed with the class. Or the writing I taught him.
What mattered to Nathan was that I cared. That I wasn’t afraid to listen to his screams.
Discovering this gave him hope. It helped him find his way out.
Because that’s what teaching is all about.