I’ve always had trouble with school rules. This isn’t because I’m some kind of “rules are made to be broken” sort of person, although sometimes, like most kids, I did intentionally flout one rule or another. The more common problem was that I had a knack for accidentally discovering rules no one had bothered to tell me about (or bringing the school’s attention to the need for a rule where one hadn’t existed before).
For example, when I was in second grade I had a teacher who would often snack in the afternoon while she was teaching. She would eat a little something out of her pocket. She probably thought we didn’t notice, but I sure did. And I wanted a snack too. So one day, when our school lunch featured a side dish of peanuts and raisins, I saw my opportunity and tucked the peanuts into my shirt pocket so I could enjoy them as a little pick-me-up that afternoon.
Unfortunately, I forgot the peanuts were there, and when I dropped my pencil on the floor during class, I bent over to pick it up and…you guessed it. Peanuts all over the floor. My teacher, who was given to histrionics, reacted as if I had brought a live grenade into the classroom. She yelled and huffed and reminded the whole classroom that I was a pastor’s daughter and ought to behave better.
The thing was, I hadn’t really known I was doing anything wrong. I thought I was being resourceful–saving part of my lunch for later so I could do the same thing my teacher did. My sense of shame over my teacher’s scolding was doubled by the fact that I hadn’t even known I was breaking a rule–so I felt clueless too. But no one had ever mentioned a rule against eating in class.
Later, in a new school I got in trouble on the playground for hanging upside-down off the monkey bars. Apparently it was a safety concern–but no one had told me. I got in trouble for putting library books back on the shelf; I thought I was being helpful. On my first day of ninth grade, I found myself on the receiving end of a teacher’s furious tongue-lashing after I unwittingly broke the rules by going down a staircase reserved for going up. I had moved to this community three days earlier, I felt a lot like a visitor to another planet, and the assistant principal who had given us a tour the day before had failed to mention this particular convention or to point out the “up” and “down” signs above all the stairways. In my focus on mere survival, I had missed them too.
Unfortunately, this problem has carried over into adulthood. I have a knack for stumbling over rules at my kids’ schools too.
A few years ago, my daughter’s elementary school was sponsoring a competitive food drive for donations to a local food pantry. My daughter, who loves an altruistic cause, collected donations in lieu of gifts at her birthday party. So we had bags of food to donate, and we figured we’d bring them to school and help her grade win some points in the competition to bring in the most food.
One morning my daughter had a doctor appointment, and I brought her to school in the middle of the day, along with the food donations. The school was getting ready for the midday exchange of kindergartners, when the morning students left and the afternoon kids arrived. In anticipation, a couple of teachers (or maybe they were volunteer moms) were standing outside on the sidewalk, one of them holding a megaphone. I parked and got the food out of the car, and my daughter and I started walking toward the school, already sweating under the heavy load of canned foods. I was walking as fast as I could–so I wouldn’t drop the food or collapse in the parking lot–when suddenly one of the women on the sidewalk raised her megaphone and started yelling at me. It took me a moment to realize what was happening, so she got louder and started waving her arm and jumping up and down. The other woman started yelling too. “You can’t walk there!” they screamed. They pointed to some white lines painted on the asphalt. “Use the crosswalk!” they shrieked. I stopped for a second, stunned. They were about 20 feet away from me, yelling at the top of their lungs and desperately pointing me toward the path outlined by white lines. No one else was around–no moving cars, no other pedestrians, just a mostly empty parking lot with my daughter and me walking outside the lines. And again, this was another rule no one had bothered to tell me about before. To me they were just lines in a parking lot.
Suddenly one of the handles broke on a plastic bag of canned food. I struggled to grab onto it and knew I would have to make a beeline for the school or drop everything in the parking lot. So I ignored the screaming women and kept walking through the lot.
My poor daughter was mortified. She walked beside me, her head down. “Mom,” she said softly, “you’re going the wrong way. We’re supposed to go to the crosswalk.”
“I can’t,” I panted. “These cans are heavy, and I’m not going to make this trip any longer because of some stupid rule. Just ignore them.”
She trudged along beside me, obediently trying to ignore these authority figures, and I felt her embarrassment. At the same time, I saw one of the women run over to cut into my path, and I got really angry.
I walked up to that woman and let her have it. I don’t really remember what I said, but I think I included something about how she was welcome to carry the cans of food back through the crosswalk and about how her safety rules were stupid and she was obviously on some kind of power trip. Then I walked into the school, said good riddance to our food donations, took a deep breath, and apologized to my daughter.
She was crushed. And I don’t think my apology helped. I could see her respect for me diminish in that moment–not because I had broken the rule, but because I had been so contemptuous, out of control, and unkind. I had received correction and attacked in return. It didn’t matter how ludicrous the women’s behavior had seemed to me; mine had been wrong. I had set a terrible example for my kindhearted daughter. I felt embarrassed and so, so sorry.
I’ve had a few more run-ins with school rules since then, although middle school and high school are a little easier because they ease up a bit on the regulations. But the thing is, no matter how hard I try to follow the rules, I will always miss some of them.
The same thing is true in every area of my life–and yours. We can try so hard to get everything right–and believe me, I am inclined to try–and we will not pull it off. Sometimes the consequences are extremely painful, even when we didn’t mean to hurt anyone or we felt we had no choice or we didn’t even know we were breaking a rule. No matter how hard we try, on our own we cannot be the perfectly loving, patient, kind, and Christlike people we want to be. We cannot be people who contribute to the world only in positive ways, never taking anything away from it. We just don’t have it in us.
That’s where grace comes in. With repentance, our failures become opportunities for God’s incredible kindness. We are all in process, and I, for one, am tremendously grateful for this. I’m also grateful that God does not transform us immediately but allows us to go through a process we can tolerate, see, and appreciate. I know many of you are hanging on to failures, bad choices, and words you wish you could take back. You’re punishing yourselves for things God has forgiven and condemning yourself for things that aren’t true of you anymore. (You might want to open up Bible Gateway, type in the word “grace,” and start reading.) This Christian life is not about following rules; it’s about being remade. It’s not about trying until we get it right; it’s about recognizing we’ll never pull it off. The Bible tells us the law exists not to make us better people, but to show us our sin and our need for grace (Romans 5:20-21). Being a Christian is about recognizing that we cannot do it on our own–not about deciding we’ll try harder.
How about letting go of something you’re hanging on to and celebrating grace today?
© 2017 Amy Simpson.