This story begins in my third year of teaching. Among other things, I was, perhaps mistakenly, assigned to teach grade two Physical Education.
Teaching smaller children is not exactly my forte.
Thankfully, the young class was generally moving along without too much confusion or strife. A few fits of crying here and there, but hey, I soon learned how to control any tearful outbursts. Yet there was one little lad who affected me like nails on a chalkboard. A typically energetic youngster who, to speak plainly, did not get along with me. At all. Things were downright turbulent between us.
How one deals with struggles is different for each person, especially for young children. I have seen children handle problems by remaining silent, by screaming, by literally running away from school, and even by repeatedly smashing their head on a table. This particular second-grade boy was a shoelace cutter. He would cut and shred his shoelaces if frustrated. I have seen it before; I will probably see it again. Maybe I would shred laces too if I had to be taught by this particular Phys. Ed. teacher. Needless to say, our student/teacher relationship was strenuous, and nothing would ease it. This grade two Phys. Ed. class was easily the worst thirty minutes of my day.
Christmas came and went that school year. It was a gloomy winter day in February when tensions reached a climax. My young friend was running his warm-up laps in the gym when he tripped end over end and slammed hard onto the floor. There he was, all sprawled out. I went over and saw, quite evidently, newly mangled shoelaces which clearly would have tripped Usain Bolt in his prime. I sighed loudly in obvious frustration. This was it! This was too much! This boy and I had to have it out, right now! With anger rising, I cannot imagine what I was about to say.
Call it a direct intervention by God – a moment of grace – at that moment I suddenly looked on him and saw everything differently. I no longer saw my Phys. Ed. adversary, but rather a child who just needed something else. I stopped the rest of the class and had the students carry out some harmless activity away from the scene of the fall. Then I sat down beside the student in question. We calmly talked about whether or not he was hurt, as I patiently untied the remnants of his mangled laces from his shoes. A moment of grace indeed. With the laces off, I went out to the hallway and stopped a nearby teacher and asked if he had any spare laces. The kind-hearted teacher dropped what he was doing and raced back to his class to retrieve a pair which he had kicking around. A smart looking set of orange laces. The student and I sat together and patiently re-laced his shoes. Finally, I helped tie them up nice and snug, and Phys. Ed. class continued.
That moment was a turning point. Everything changed from then on. Sure, some days we still rubbed each other the wrong way, but it was all so different now. We chatted. He shared his excitement with me. I gladly explained how happy I was with his work. It was new life for both of us. Sometimes I would ask him how his shoelaces were. This was not just a literal question; it was a reference to how he was doing. Were things ok? They were. In the evenings when I would go for a jog in town, often I would see him run out of his yard and wave wildly to me with a smile the size of which you have never seen. Life was good. One day a magician came to our school for a presentation. Evidently my little student-friend was wowed by what he saw. We chatted the next recess. He bubbled with enthusiasm. He especially loved the juggling. I told him that I knew how to juggle, and that I would gladly teach him how. His eyes lit up! We arranged to make it happen. I shook my head in disbelief. What a great kid. God was working a miracle.
Now I do not wish to shock or upset anyone, much less give you mental whiplash to the genial story unfolding. But it is at this point that I remind readers that sometimes life takes a tragic turn. We live in a fallen world. This story is no exception. Lord have mercy.
Later that evening I was jogging by new friend’s trailer house, but he did not run out to wave at me. In fact, I never saw him again. Who knows what terror was unfolding in his trailer house at that moment. This young lad, along with his mom and two sisters, had his life taken by his stepdad.
A couple of mornings later, in the midst of the shock and chaos, I slipped into his old classroom before school. With a feeling of nervousness, I went over to his desk and looked down at his shoes. There they were, those sharp looking orange laces, perfectly intact. The laces were as perfect as the day they were first laced up. In the darkness of the situation, there was a little ray of sunshine. The past couple months he had been, by far, happier than I had ever seen him.
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There is no need to explain the significance of this story. My old university chaplain would describe it as, “How do you expect to save the world if you can’t even make your bed in the morning?” My fitness friends would say, “You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.” And Our Lord Jesus Christ would declare, with words that cut to the heart, “Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:30).
The world and Church are rapidly becoming unhinged, and we stare at the imminent wreckage paralyzed, hardly able to step forward. There will be much to do, and only by God’s grace shall it be accomplished. But I still have a pair of sharp looking orange shoelaces in tow to remind me of something. That is, if we are indeed to run so as to win, our shoes must first be tied.
Dan Millette is a husband and father of five. He teaches in Saskatchewan, Canada. Millette is a graduate from Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Ontario and has a Master of Arts degree in theology from Holy Apostles College in Connecticut. His personal blog is www.bravestthing.com.