Honorably Imperfect

I was an Honors student.

Though it’s been well over a decade since my last advanced class, there are still days when I remember my academic roots. The flash of indignation at the suggestion that my performance was just adequate. The hope that somehow my many busy commitments are evidence of an above-average life. The sting of doing something imperfectly, especially when others are watching or worse, comparing themselves to me.

A brief academic history. From the vague moment when I picked up a Calvin and Hobbes book with the hope of understanding the pictures as well as the words, until nearly the end of the book-report riddled sixth grade, I was home schooled. I was a mediocre artist and a reluctant-practicing violinist. I devoured books and felt compelled to write, but that was the whole of my academic aspiration. For most of elementary school, I thought of myself as a good rock climber and a decent musician, not a student.

Among the delights of paper-bag lunches and Lisa Frank binders, middle school introduced a new component to learning: competition. Both with myself and other students, school offered endless points of comparison. We had only one opportunity for tracking, two different math classes. To my chagrin, I was capable of the higher one. Thus, with a math class that made me feel both smart and lost, an honors student was born.

There were times in public high school when my motives were as honorable as the course titles suggested. I took four years of advanced English, relishing the in-depth discussions and assignments. My AP history classes, European and United States, remain among my favorite classes to date, fostering a deep passion for history that has served me well as a literature and briefly a history teacher. Honors classes taught me to think creatively, to study hard, and to revel in the process of learning in community.

Still, for every humanities class that excited curiosity and passion, there was a math or science class that I selected solely for the “H” or “AP” on the transcript (with the exception of one beloved year of AP Chemistry, taken on a physics-hating whim). My coordination at a low point in my early teenage years, I nearly “ruined” my GPA by trying to learn to type and drive, bitterly resenting the classes that “punished” me for a lack of motor skills. I finished high school with strong grades and test scores, but also a sense of self-worth perilously knit to an academic scorecard.

All this comes to mind when my own Honors students–hardworking eleventh graders energetically reading The Scarlet Letter–bring me their Honors woes. 4 out of 5 on a homework assignment. 89% on an essay. A quiz answer that was technically, in some ways, close to right–though way off the mark of what was asked–so “can’t I just get the point?”

My most recent classroom experiences, tempt me to smile. I spent the first five years of my teaching career in an urban public school with ninth graders, many of them the first English-literate members of their families. I’ve celebrated just-passing grades earned by students who couldn’t write their own names a year before and spent hours helping them understand how to do the work that it entailed. Even here, I see native English speakers writing essays for the first time in their mother tongue, struggling to master the academic lexicon that their peers find so simple. With that spectrum in mind, it’s hard for me to feel like a B is a bad grade.

A few chapters back, though, I remember what it felt like to be inches away from the perfection I expected of myself.  I remember the feeling that college applications were an unbearable pass, asking me to spend endless energy trying to leave a place where I felt safe and clever. I remember when test scores and transcripts made my world turn.

For my students, none of the pressures have changed. Some of them, like me, hope to be “perfect” students, juggling classes and commitments with seeming ease. If their expectation, explicit or implicit, is perfection right now, then learning will be a perilous tightrope walk, where the first misstep spells doom. Fearing to fail, students will be unable to take the risks required to learn.

Caught between my own past and present, I wonder what I’m teaching my Honors students. I look back on the experiences that most helped me to grow–academically, spiritually and emotionally–and realize that all of them involved some level of failure. The first history teacher to give me a D for a florid but information-less essay remains my favorite, her class the one in which I learned the most. My teaching mentor reminded me, again and again, that I would fail “hard and often” as I learned to teach, and that I’d survive only if I could have more grace with myself.

Grace is the key, I remember, because learning isn’t a tightrope walk. It’s a journey, certainly, and sometimes a steep one, requiring all our concentration and energy, but each step is important, even the unsteady ones. There are hands to guide, hold, and pull us back again. There’s the unrelenting love of Christ, who brought us on the journey to begin with, our gentle teacher along the way. It’s taken me ages to understand this, plenty of failures in front of people who loved me, picked me up, and showed me how to do it better next time. Becoming a teacher, letting go of the notions of perfection that haunted my own walk as a learner, has taught me more about grace than I could ever have imagined, that final day of high school.

It’s this prayer for grace and love that I bring with me as I begin a new week in my fourth year as an Honors teacher. I pray that my classes can be a safe space to explore new ideas and try new things, that I can be a teacher who both loves my eager students and helps them to grow through challenges. I rest in the knowledge that out on the edges of what we know, we find safety in the grounding truth that, no matter what, we’re rooted deeply in the love of God who made us–Honors or regular, teacher or student–to worship and delight in Him with all we do.

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