The Greatest in the Kingdom

It was a typical Monday morning at The Ambrose School. Students had trickled in slowly, and a small handful were left in the hallways, grabbing their books and stuffing coats into their lockers.

The conversation of two girls, their lockers a few lockers apart, caught my attention.

Girl 1 (warmly): “Good morning, Abigail!”

Girl 2 (sleepily): “Good morning.”

Girl 1: “Have a great day!”

Girl 2: “You, too!”

You might be scratching your head at the above exchange and wondering why it was praiseworthy. Great question.

The conversation, simple in itself, was made beautiful by its context. The girl who initiated the brief exchange was a senior, a House leader and a star athlete, a leader in our school community in every way; the second girl was an eighth grader, a member of what in many other schools would be that lowly caste of junior high kids whose sole station in life seems at times to be the object of scorn from high school students.fullsizeoutput_66b

Not so in our hallways.

In Matthew 23, Jesus describes a view on leadership, saying, “[H]e who is greatest among you shall be your servant.  And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” In this passage Jesus completely inverts the world’s view on leadership; He takes it and flips it on its head. The world presents a leader as the one who garners the most servants or followers; Jesus presents a leader as the one who pours out his life most fully in service to others. Examples of the world’s view on leadership are easy to find: the CEO who gets the covered parking spot nearest the door, every fraternity hazing ritual, every freshmen football player carrying a senior’s pads, etc.

The Christian view of leadership can by more difficult to find, especially amongst teens. I’m blessed to be in the place that I am, where I get to see such things on a daily basis.  The View from the Golden Wood is truly beautiful and encouraging.

When a Scale is Not Enough

Each November our students fill out what we call The Student Culture Survey. It is a simple 12 question survey, administered anonymously, that gives us a brief and fleeting view into the collective mind of our students. The survey asks students such questions as:

  • Do you feel like your teachers want you to do well?
  • Do you look forward to coming to school?
  • Are you proud of your school?

As you can imagine, responses to these questions vary widely. If you have a teen at home, you likely know that adolescence makes one a bit fickle: they are known to swing from loving to hating the same thing, often on the same day; the speed with which those $150 shoes that only yesterday were essential to life itself become anathema to a teen can make the head swim! This characteristic of the teen years is amplified by all the dynamics that surround a school.

Keeping all that in mind, we resolutely distribute the surveys and ask students to share their experiences with us. We drop the results into a spreadsheet with colorful charts and graphs and search for trends. We share the results with faculty and pray for classes as they go through our school. We celebrate where there is joy and we carefully consider where it might be absent. We share the results with other schools like ours across the nation and search for trends in our movement, youth culture, and the broader culture.

Student culture SurveyOn occasion, the survey reveals something truly praiseworthy. This year was no exception. Teachers had collected the surveys and had turned them into the office. Our registrar was compiling the results when she stumbled upon a survey from the 7th grade class, where a student took it upon himself to edit question #4, which reads: “It has been obvious to me that my teachers really want me to do well – in school and out of school.” The “1 to 9” scale wasn’t sufficient for this student to share how confident he was that his teachers really wanted him to do well; he needed to add a “10.”

Keep in mind this is an anonymous survey filled out by a 13 year old. The student wasn’t being a sycophant; he didn’t stand to gain anything. He just really feels secure in knowing his teachers care about him, and he wanted to share that with anyone who would listen. That is something to celebrate.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, Paul urges us to, “recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake.” My experience after having worked with them for nearly 7 years is that our students do this better than most adults, myself included. Almost without exception, our students esteem very highly in love the leaders that God has placed over them.

Sometimes “esteem very highly” even requires going beyond the “1 to 9” scale.

Be Content

It was just about the most beautiful fall morning imaginable: leaves were golden all along the river, the dawn was crisp and clear, and an electric anticipation energized our cross country team.

The State Meet had arrived.

Our entire girls team was there, an underdog to bring home a trophy for the first time ever. While I was excited for them, most of my attention was on Blaine, our lone boy runner.

We were all aware of Blaine’s story. A senior, Blaine had prepared for this moment for years. He was well-positioned to challenge for the individual state championship, having a season best time in the top 3 in the state. He had worked tirelessly, pushing himself in practice and meets, all to get to this day.

IMG_2071 3.JPGThere was also a powerful undercurrent of emotion that lay just under the surface for Blaine: Blaine’s mom Karmen, a talented athlete herself who ran cross country in college and competed in the Boston Marathon, had passed away years before when Blaine was only 9. Running is an important connection to his mom, and this made the day of the State Meet even more important to Blaine.

You never would have guessed looking at Blaine as he stood at the starting line, composed and confident. The gun sounded, and the runners were off.

Blaine was fast out of the gate. A cluster of runners quickly separated themselves from the rest of the pack, and Blaine was right in the heart of them.

They made the first loop, and Blaine was right where he wanted to be: drafting behind a few other runners, well within striking distance of 1st for his final kick.IMG_0983.JPG

I hurried over to the last turn, anxious to see Blaine run down the other athletes in the last stretch. I waited anxiously, more excited than I’ve been in years.

And then life threw Blaine a curve.

Runner after runner passed me, and Blaine was nowhere to be seen.

Blaine had fallen down amidst the jostling of runners, and  was outside the top 20. By the time Blaine got to the final turn, raw emotion and disappointment were evident on his face. My heart hurt for him, and I cheered him on before hurrying over to the finish line, hopeful I would get a chance to encourage him.

As He so often does, in that moment of personal trial, God showed me something beautiful.

When I found Blaine, he was sitting on a cooler as our athletic trainer helped him with his timing chip. Another runner had come over to talk to him, and I saw Blaine muster a smile and offer the kid a fistbump. Their conversation went something like this:

Other Runner: “Good race! Today you helped me achieve a life-long goal!”

Blaine: “Oh, congratulations. What was your goal?”

Other Runner: “To beat you!”

Blaine, a fierce competitor, smiled and made some small talk with the other runner before the kid finally wandered off. No one thinks the other runner was trying to be malicious or hurtful, but you can only imagine how Blaine must have felt in the moment.

I kept a close eye on Blaine as he got up and flitted about from group to group, hugging his parents, encouraging his teammates, and fellowshipping with other runners. Never once did he appear sullen or petulant. The graciousness and depth of character Blaine showed that day humbled me.

In Philippians 4, Paul writes, “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound…. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” As Christian educators and parents, we must not lose sight of this truth: our hope is that our students mature to the place where they can be content in whatever situation they find themselves; that they can, in fact, flourish in any trial through Christ Who is their strength. Our prayer is that they will be able to do just as Blaine did: look one of life’s many disappointments straight in the face, offer it a fistbump, and give God all the glory for it.

You see, more often than not, winning in life means infinitely more than just finishing first.