I was eagerly looking forward to my annual school reunion. Inevitably, we’d pass the hours reminiscing about the classes we’d loved and loathed, the girls we’d fancied, the pranks we’d played.
Our gaggle of teachers had included a few rather odd characters. There was the chemistry teacher who lectured us endlessly about safety, but who also had a very oddly-shaped head, a souvenir from a bungled laboratory experiment. We had a French teacher who was nicknamed “breath of death”. He was a genius with languages, but when he opened his mouth to speak them, the halitosis-fuelled blast was unbearable.
I especially remember the head of history, a gentleman with severely crossed eyes. I openly mocked him (if you’re wondering, this was in my pre-Christian days) and I’m still ashamed of my unkindness to this day. Exasperated, he invited me to stay behind after class for a little chat, during which he punched me hard in the stomach. Back then I shrugged it off; these days he would be snacking on prison food.
As I boarded the London-bound train, I suddenly recognised a very odd trait in me; one I’m embarrassed to admit. I felt a ridiculous pressure to impress my friends. All four of us failed our 11-plus exams, but my chums had all enjoyed very successful careers: a high-level business administrator, a recording studio owner and a BBC producer. Their accomplishments were very tangible. Demonstrating any measurable achievement in Christian leadership isn’t so easy.
Sadly, the drive to impress others is a virus that can infect us all, especially in our spirituality. Jesus repeatedly warned his followers to avoid the temptation to show off with our prayers, fasting and giving.
As the train rumbled on, I recalled the insights of novelist David Foster Wallace, who exposed the fallacy of living our lives endlessly fretting about how others view us: “We’d worry less about what people think about us when we realise how seldom they do.” I decided to discard my ridiculous intentions to impress.
It was then that another memory surfaced from those long-lost school days. It was of Mrs Richardson, our religious education teacher. A passionate Christian who was married to a local minister, she was endlessly generous, kind and caring. Noticing my troubled teenaged soul, she gave time that she didn’t really have to encourage me, often forgiving my classroom cheekiness with a momentary look of disapproval followed by a warm smile. When I became curious about faith, I turned to her for answers.
Across the UK, there are huge numbers of believers who love Jesus. And because they do, they quietly serve others. Oblivious to a desire for applause – and often unappreciated – they soldier on. If you are one of those who keep showing up, thank you. And if you are a teacher, charged with the heavy task of shaping and influencing young hearts and minds in the challenging culture that we live in, may you be encouraged that your life, well-lived, can turn heads and hearts.
Later, I sat in a London pub and reminded my friends about Mrs Richardson, who changed my life with her beautiful example. After a brave battle with cancer, she is now at home with Christ.
She was surely not perfect but, in my eyes, she came close. Put simply, she was very much like the Jesus she loved. And that, to the bewildered, confused teenage boy that was me, was really impressive.