Tears and triumph under the hammer of God
by Harold "Doc" Arnett
Working at an alternative high school was never on my list of short-term or long-term goals. After teaching seven years in public high school, I did my doctoral work and then taught college for seven years. Teaching college was downright enjoyable. All my students paid to be there and thought I knew more about the subject than they did. Even on the rare occasions when they disagreed with me, they treated me with respect. A large number of them even liked me.
I took the break of a one-year, post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Kentucky and figured I’d go right back to the comfy college setting. It didn’t work out that way.
Toward the end of my fellowship, I sent out 15 job applications but didn’t hear a thing from any of them. Not an interview, not even a phone call. During the summer of ’95 my wife, Randa, and I began contract remodeling and repair. At first business was so slow, we sold our blood plasma to have grocery money. We also started giving money to the church — even from that. Then contracts started picking up. Soon we were booked over a month in advance and were making pretty good money.
Toward summer’s end, I began to worry about what would happen after October. We’d found a good niche in the Lexington area building decks, but I knew that would taper off. I didn’t want to spend three days a week at the Blood Plasma Center and end up looking like a bleached pin cushion.
Then a phone call changed my life.
Kathleen Morrissey identified herself as the principal of a new alternative high school in Georgetown, 15 miles away. “How did you get my name?” I asked, in near shock.
“Leslie Flanders is a friend of mine. She was in a class you were in at UK, and she told me you would be perfect for the alternative school.”
I made a mental note to do bodily harm to Leslie and reluctantly agreed to come for an interview. Even though the idea of going to work with troubling (I mean, “troubled”) adolescents put a knot in my gut, I knew this was God’s finger, pointing north to Scott County.
I tried my best to talk her out of it, but Kathleen hired me anyway. I never intended to work at an alternative high school. But then, I never intended to sell blood plasma either. Out of nowhere, God had come through with a job that gave me a regular paycheck and increased my salary significantly. It would also serve as an anvil on which God would hammer away at me spiritually.
As a fringe benefit in a remarriage packet, I acquired a 14-year-old step-daughter who taught me about the phenomenon of “oppositional defiant.” She had good reason: She was a teenage girl, and I was a step-dad. I hadn’t had to deal with any real rebellion from my own children, but God used my step-daughter as a training program for me. Her outbursts of anger, defiance, deviousness, and verbal onslaught introduced me to what I would face in an alternative school. But they were less-than-adequate preparation.
It only took about ten minutes the first school day for me to see it was going to be a long year. Addressing a group of 25 freshmen, most of whom should have been sophomores at least, gave me a quick reality check. Nobody was going to tell these kids what to do or make them do it. Some ignored me; some glared at me; some whispered to their friends. As I welcomed them and told them about the wonderful things we would do for them that year, none of them looked as if they cared the least bit about what I had to say.
Pressure and perseverance
I didn’t lie; I just didn’t know what I was getting into. In less than four weeks, I’d been cussed at more than in my previous 40 years of life, dealt with more discipline than in my previous 14 years of teaching, and broken up more arguments/fights than in a full hockey season. And in the process, I lost ten pounds I didn’t need to lose.
I couldn’t eat. I woke up in the morning with butterflies in my stomach. On the way to work, they turned into sparrows and tied my intestine into knots. I carried a lunch every day but couldn’t eat it until after the kids left. Eating didn’t make much difference anyway. My digestive track was probably operating at no more than 20 percent efficiency. At times, I even thought my food might be functioning as a diuretic!
But I dug in and held on. I was too stubborn to let a bunch of wanna-be thugs run me off. Besides, I needed the money. In addition to that, several of the students displayed almost human qualities at times. Even though they’d wrapped themselves in a few layers of barbed wire, I found something good and lovable in all the students I worked with. All I had to do was practice forgiveness.
I would find the source of that forgiving grace more available to me than I ever believed possible. I made this discovery after another unexpected blessing. Just before school started back the second year, Kathleen called me. “I’m taking a medical leave. My doctor has told me that I can take my leave voluntarily now or after I have a stroke or heart attack within the next few months. I want you to take my place.”
I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even have my principal’s certification completed. Still, the district promoted me and gave me a year to finish the certification. Having tons of graduate credit already, I only needed one more class and to pass the qualifying tests in order to be certified. No sweat.
Blessings of surrender
Out of nowhere, again, God blessed me beyond what I’d expected or imagined. Thanks to the extra days and raise, my salary nearly doubled from what I had made as a college professor two years earlier. That financial blessing came only because I had been willing to take “no” for an answer to what I wanted and accept His will. What I ultimately realized, though, was that the spiritual shaping God was accomplishing was far more valuable than the pay increase.
Though people at school complimented my patience with students — and with staff — I didn’t really think of myself as being tolerant or patient. In fact, many of the students God placed me in contact with are the very type of individuals I used to avoid whenever possible. Here, though, avoidance isn’t an option. I have to deal with them day after day after day. It’s often trying and almost never easy.
One Wednesday was especially tough. It had been a long day of dealing with fighting, profanity, threats, and defiance — same students, same misbehaviors — over and over. I was weary in body and mind, soul and spirit. At church that night, I silently prayed, “Lord, it’s the same ones over and over. I need Your help, Jesus. They keep doing the same things again and again and again. I can’t deal with this anymore.”
In my weariness, my exhaustion, my despondency, I heard a voice say to me, in tones of calmness, gentleness, and incalculable love, “Harold, how do you think I deal with you?”
The words pierced my soul, convicting me, softly chastising me, and opening my eyes. How many times in the past 44 years had I come to God, asking Him to forgive me for the same sins? How many times had I stumbled? How many times had I wounded Him with “the same things again and again and again”?
I sat, humbled and humiliated. The truth is, I really wasn’t that different from these kids: immature, rebellious, insecure, and troubled. God had taken a man who’d grown up self-righteous and intolerant and placed him smack dab in the middle of a school populated by intolerant and rebellious teenagers. It was where I learned far more than I taught and found His grace at every step of my walk. I needed it.
Though humbled, I was also comforted. In that moment, God gave me a much deeper appreciation of the boundless favor I’ve received from Him. He also made me know that He would share with me from that reservoir of grace so that I could forgive others.
We often think of our jobs as both duty and opportunity. We have a duty to work in honest occupations and provide for our families and for others. We have the opportunity to serve and to witness, to do what is good and right. I’ve seen God’s hand in both duty and opportunity throughout my life.
But here, at this school where forgiveness is a means to professional effectiveness and personal survival, I’ve learned something else about our jobs: God uses us in them not only to serve Him and others but also to shape us into His likeness.