When I was a teacher on my first ever teaching assignment (on payroll and not as a student teacher) I had an obstinate little child whose name was a derivative of the name Eve, an irony which I appreciated since I was teaching at a Catholic school. This little child, but four years old, gave me a run for my money. She was the one who whined, who constantly broke the rules, who already had a reputation among the other teachers as a handful, and who never listened to a word I said. Definitely not the ideal student for a first-year teacher trying to impress. However, Eve was my favorite student.
Eve came to me at a time in my life where I was growing in my relationship with God, fighting to believe in His unconditional love for me. I was meditating heavily, per the advice of the confessor I had left behind in Charlottesville, on the story of the prodigal son. I used to go to a fairly secluded beach about five minutes from the school where I worked and walk aimlessly along the shore. It was an interesting experience because I realized when I tried to place myself in the shoes of the prodigal walking back home I couldn’t make it all the way back. Too ashamed of who I had been and what I had done, full of doubt at a loving reception, I could not approach the center of intimate family life. I could not approach the table even for the promise of the feast.
I believe it was because of this that God gave me Eve. Eve reminded me of myself in the context of my relationship with God. Obstinate, disobedient, but also frustrated because no matter how hard she tried she just couldn’t be as good as the other kids. Eve would often act up, disobeyed the classroom rules (often including my direct instruction) and exhausted my patience. It is really hard to have a child look into your eyes and do the exact thing you are telling them not to do. Not only does it undermine your authority, I knew as the adult that these rules were ultimately for her good and were designed to help her flourish in the classroom. I could only imagine what it must be like to be God since salvation is even more important than learning your colors and alphabet, but also because when you truly care about someone and want what is best for them it cuts to the quick when they don’t trust you.
My daily experiences in the classroom changed my reflections on those evenings where I’d meander down the shore of the beach. I eventually stopped focusing on myself as the prodigal on a tough journey home and tried to focus on the Father in the story. It framed everything in a whole new light. I saw a Father who never stops seeking His child. I saw a Father who runs out to meet the son even when it would have made him look ridiculous to his household. I saw a Father who was generosity itself. Most of all I saw a Father whose love was constant and truly unconditional. And the growing trust slowly changed the scene. First I imagined the Father running to meet me. Then I was able to meet the Father outside of the house and offer an awkward apology. Eventually, I made it back to the table and to my surprise I was not seated as a headstrong woman in my early 20s but as a very little girl marked with the insignia of the family (given from the Father to the son in the parable) because I too had been dead and now I was alive again.
With this interior change, I found a new patience to draw from when it came to dealing with Eve. As time passed we found a way to make it work in group lessons, you could even say we bonded, and she started to exhibit a curious new behavior. Even though she was behaving better during lessons she would shrink into private tantrums more often when she couldn’t do something, particularly when I was present. I asked my more experienced coworker to weigh in and she explained, “She worries that when she fails you’ll be mad at her.”
My coworker’s words struck me because I realized that God had placed me on the other side of the very scenario I had been struggling with, casting me in the role not of the one who needed to trust but of the one who desired to be trusted. While I was fairly surprised that I’d reached a point in the school year where Eve would seek my good opinion, I understood completely. Now that Eve wanted to be a part of my class she was having trouble trusting me to love her as her teacher, thinking I would prefer the best rather than a student like her who struggled.
I instinctively knew I needed to speak to Eve to help build that trust so one day in after school care I tried to give her a sort of secularized version of what God had been saying to me and it came out as follows, “you know I am so proud of you Eve. I have seen how hard you have been working and how hard you try. And I just want you to know that whether you succeed or fail I will always be glad to have you in my classroom.” In that moment I believe Eve realized what I admitted to you all earlier, that she was my favorite student, because she deserved love the least yet needed it the most. And with the smile she gave, I thoroughly understood God’s enduring love for me because for the first time in my life I understood the core of Divine mercy.
To this day I am convinced that the story of the prodigal is not a story of the son, but the story of a Father because only after trusting the merciful Heart of the Father can you become the child.
Wishing everyone a Blessed Feast of the Epiphany and a Happy Birthday to my Granddad!