A Direction You Can Start In

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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I teach in a university. That's my workplace.

My students are selected for classes by the computer. I see boys with dreadlocks and women who shave their heads. I get runway models and kids from chicken farms. I taught a student who baked cookies and sold them in class. And one who was driven to class in a limousine. What could be more idyllic than a classroom, home of inquiring young minds? But zoom in, and you'll notice the anxiety.

Most of my students are lovely, decent. But increasingly students seem disgruntled by exorbitant tuition. Some are angry they're required to take courses they believe they won't use. Last year when I gave one a B+, she explained savagely, I do not get Bs. Another wore a headset to class on the first day, his shoulders keeping time to music. After class I explained that headsets are not allowed in class. He stared at me with astonishment, as if he had never heard of such a dumb rule. He muttered something. "Excuse me?" I asked as graciously as possible. He wheeled around and sprinted off.

I have gotten rather cynical about students' excuses. You have to, or you don't survive. The workplace demands a certain level of cynicism. So when a student who is failing comes to me after class, I say, "Come to my office. We'll talk." But I have my mind made up already.

She doesn't take off her black coat but perches nervously on the edge of my blue chair. Her gloves droop from one hand. She is a blackbird, poised, ready to fly off. She gives me her excuse. I don't believe it. But something takes over. I watch her face. I want to know who she is.

Here's how I wrote about it afterwards.


In the old stories it's always worth the trouble
but this time you doubt it.
For months she's hidden herself
at the brambled rim of that steep hill

bleating for help as the wind
sings its increasingly wicked song.
Winter is coming. It means business.
You think of yourself as the field

she's absent from, as the shepherd who must
find her. You began to understand
how mercy can start as little more
than a direction you can move in,

how your heart hates death.
You begin picking your way toward her
through a whole vocabulary
of wild flowers and thorns.

I allowed a small crevice in my spirit to open. She needed help. What help, I didn't know. Where this would lead, I didn't know—to more work for me, yes. To trouble, maybe. But I understood the direction I had to move in. It was a turning point. In the end, opening myself to this student changed me as much as it changed her. Sometimes now I remember to watch that crevice. It lets in grace and light.

Questions for personal reflection, online discussion, or small groups:

  • Jesus told Peter, "If you love me, feed my sheep" (John 21:15-18). What are the needs of the people in your daily life and work? How can you help meet these needs?
  • Continue to think about the people you interact with every day. Have you made your mind up about them? What would it take to get to know them better?
  • Walker says, "The workplace demands a certain level of cynicism." What is the difference between a leader who is cynical and one who is shrewd?
  • For more about helping coworkers during tough times, read Glynn Young's article When Layoffs and Fear Enter the Workplace.


"The Failing Student" is from Jeanne Murray Walker's NEW TRACKS, NIGHT FALLING, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009