Life-Giving Connection

Expecting judgment and hate, a student decides he is not going to like his Christian teacher. 

*The names and a few details in this story have been changed to protect the identity of the student.

The school year began like any other. I spent the first few days with my eighth graders reviewing procedures and rules, setting expectations, and getting to know my new classes. As always, I used the tried and true “Name Tent” method of learning my students’ names with a slight twist taken from a teacher mentor of mine: Have students write two truths and a lie about themselves on the back of the tent. Then use their class opener time to have conversations with them guessing which one was not true. 

An exceptionally tall student chose a seat in the back of the classroom, barely able to fit his large frame into the small desk. As I walked by him, I noticed his name tent said “Drew” but his name on my roster was “Josh.” This caught my attention, but I also knew it wasn’t unusual. We all know how students often like to change names and find new identities. It’s a part of middle school, after all. However, as the first week of school progressed, I noticed no other student or teacher was calling him by that name. It turns out he was just trying to mess with me. 

I first thought this was good-natured teasing, but when I looked over “Drew’s” two truths and a lie during the class open discussion time, I started to wonder if the name tent was more about deception than fun. His two truths and one lie included the phrase: I am an atheist. Like many of my other students, this young man knew about my faith since I served as the staff sponsor for the school’s First Priority club. As I approached him to get to know him better, I noticed his eyes darting between me and this sentence. Once I stood next to his desk, he said in defiance, “I am an atheist, and I am not interested in getting to know you.” 

Typically, a response like this would have raised my hackles. But as I looked at this young man, the Holy Spirit prompted me to pause. I had a decision to make. I could take a combative stance or I could respond with grace and love. After a brief second of prayer, I decided on the latter. 

I simply said, “Well, Drew, I understand we may have different belief systems, but I still would love to get to know you and better understand what you believe, if you’d like!” I patted him on the back and moved about my business. I knew I shouldn’t push it too far.

I had a decision to make. I could take a combative stance or I could respond with grace and love. After a brief second of prayer, I decided on the latter.

As the year went on, I treated Drew as any other student. I greeted him at the door each class period with a smile and a comment of encouragement; I asked him about his interests and his family; I complimented all the things I saw in him that deserved complimenting. It became clear he was a very intelligent and analytical young man. After a while, we began discussing literature and music and discovered that we shared similar tastes in both despite our different belief systems.

Then, the time arrived for me to teach my favorite Common Core standard: RL 8.9, which stated that I must teach my eighth-grade language arts students to analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new. I loved this unit because I got to share the impact of Scripture on modern-day works! Another eighth-grade language arts teacher and I worked painstakingly on this unit, using The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as the anchor text while pulling in Scripture, Greek and Roman mythology, and even traditional works such as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. The unit hit this standard (and many others) perfectly. 

As usual, I was excited to get started on the unit. However, I was also a little worried because Drew was in my class this year. I knew that the themes in this unit would clash with his beliefs, possibly causing his defiance to rise considerably. 

Despite my concerns, I began the unit as I did every year with a long discussion about why and how we would be studying these works of literature. I clearly pointed out that each individual is free to make decisions about his or her beliefs. And, even though we may have different belief systems, we can all agree that each of these texts includes important literary elements we must study. I made a point to emphasize that they do not have to believe that any parts of these texts are true, including mythological characters like Father Christmas and Mr. Tumnus as well as biblical principles. As I always do, I told them their beliefs will not make me love them any differently and my classroom is a safe place to share those beliefs.

As the unit progressed, Drew contributed some deep insights into each discussion. He was keenly interested in all the texts and did his best on the short answers, even when they included Scripture references. 

As I always do, I told them their beliefs will not make me love them any differently and my classroom is a safe place to share those beliefs.

One day after class he came up to me and said, “Mrs. B, when this year first began, I had decided immediately that I was not going to like you. I had put you in a box along with other Christians I have known who have judged and hated me for not believing in their God. When we first started this unit, I was worried all the faith I had in you had been misplaced, but you have taken what could have been offensive to me and made it interesting. Now, I may not believe in your God, but I do believe that you respect me. And that means a lot.”

He was finally beginning to open up to me.  

A couple of weeks later, Drew lost a loved one who had been a father figure in his life. He attended the funeral a few days before Christmas break. The next day, he came into my room first thing in the morning and handed me the obituary program from the funeral. In it were the lyrics to “Silent Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” 

He said, “Mrs. B, I received this from the funeral and wanted to share it with you. I knew it would mean something to you, so I saved it to give to you.” 

I still have that program on the bulletin board by my desk. By the time we wrapped up the unit, Drew had begun to initiate theological conversations with me. While always asserting his atheism, he posed deep questions about Christianity that showed he was researching things on his own. 

As the end of the school year approached, we began working on our final writing assignment. It was an argumentative writing piece, which was right up Drew’s alley. While looking over his rough draft, I noticed several blank white pages at the bottom of the Google Doc and wondered if maybe he had tried to hide a comment in the white space. Feeling prompted by the Holy Spirit to double-check, I highlighted the blank space. He had hit “return” several times. I then discovered he had also typed something in a white font at the very bottom of the document. But when I changed the color of the font, I couldn't read the message because it was written in the "Wingdings" font.

As hard as I tried, I couldn’t get the font to change on the document, so I searched for a “Wingdings translator” and copied and pasted his text into the site.

What I found floored me…

“Mrs. B, if you are reading this, then you actually must care. I have been really depressed lately, and I don’t think I want to live anymore. If I’m not at school tomorrow, please know I have enjoyed being your student and am thankful to have been in your class. You treated me well even though we believed differently. Love, Drew” 

It just so happened that I was grading this assignment as Drew sat in my classroom. I immediately asked him to join me in the hall to talk about the hidden message. Tears filled his eyes as he assured me that he would not harm himself. I explained that I cared for him and had a duty to report what he said. During the ensuing intervention, we discovered that this young man had a fully developed plan to end his life and the means to do so. He was taken to a facility and given the care he needed. 

Recently, Drew, who is now a senior, asked to meet with me, and we were able to reconnect. After giving me a Christmas gift, he shared how he was doing. Having just completed the elective course Old and New Testament at our high school, he is still learning about the Word of God. He is not a believer yet, but he is alive and thriving.


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