Did you have a favorite teacher growing up? Can you name the reasons why they were your favorite? It could be that their excitement for their subject also excited you. Perhaps it was that they had a great rapport with their students. Maybe they had a phrase they repeated frequently that has served as great advice over the years. If we are lucky we have had at least a few great teachers in our lives that have helped shape us into the people we are today.
I can name multiple teachers that shaped me. My second grade teacher, Mrs Grosbach, taught me the importance of a smile and a kind word. My middle school band teacher, Mr Casteñeda, taught me that “repetition is the mother of all learning.” My eighth grade English teacher, Mrs Chesbro, taught me the joy of imagination when putting pen to paper. My first youth leader, Daniel Richards, taught me how a good cup of tea and a willingness to ask uncomfortably questions can be a wonderful way to welcome the Sacred into your life. My voice teacher, Claudia Kennedy, taught me that with good breathing and great passion music can be conveyed as more than a few notes from your voice. Then, of course, was my piano teacher, choral instructor, VBS teacher, junior high mathematics teacher, college music education professor, and teacher of all things about what it meant to be a fierce woman, my mother Linda Wiles. The number of things she taught me can not be contained by a few sentences.
That being said, all these teachers had at least one things in common. Whether they used a rubric and handed out actual grades or not they all did use a rubric when it came to education. What did they want me to learn? In what ways could they measure if I had learned those concepts? How would I know I had attained a passable understanding of these teachings?
For me, there is something comforting about rubrics even in their underlying challenge. I credit my mother for that. Before my mother ever gave me formal grades in a public classroom setting she was my piano teacher. Those of you who have taken private music lessons may have vivid memories of those wonderful and terrifying times known as guild auditions. If you followed music into your collegiate career you also remember the dreaded jury auditions. You’d prepare several musical pieces and performed them in front of musical judges where they filled out their own rubrics and at the end you would receive their notes and scores. In preparing for these my mother would often have her students play for her and others as if it was their audition. At the end of your performance she would give you a rating. I don’t remember getting very many superior ratings from her leading up to an audition. Part of that was because I rarely practiced enough to rate a superior but I suspect it was also a part of my mother’s teaching technique to remind me that I could always bring more to the music.
When I was in high school there was a year that I was having a particularly difficult time and my grades took a hit. Nothing tragic of course but enough that during mid-terms there was cause for concern. I remember having an argument with my mother about it. I should clarify, Mother doesn’t argue, she reasons with pure logic. I, however, argue with emotion and temper. At the time I was offended that I was in trouble for getting grades that weren’t as poor as another one of my siblings had received previously. I could
only see what I thought was a terribly unjust double standard.
Cries of unfairness and hypocrisy were wailed and in the face of my rebuke my mother said calmly something I’ll never forget. “Have you forgotten that I know what you are capable of? If this was you at your best you would receive my praise but I know better and so do you. This isn’t even your mediocre work. You will not waste your education with less than your excellence.”
It was a good argument and while I don’t believe I backed down verbally I know that internally I knew that she was entirely correct and I had lost the battle.
You see, mother is very adept with her rubrics. That’s because her rubrics are always changing. She finds her excellence and then says, “Well, I can do that which means I can do better than that next time.” Suddenly what was superior work is now rated average. The thing is, she doesn’t just design her own rubrics that way, that’s how she designs rubrics for all of those around her. You can’t help but be pushed to excellence if you let her influence you.
This constant striving for excellence is at once exhausting and exhilarating. It’s not about being the best in the field. It’s about being the best of who you are.
My father has also taught me about this concept. I have a habit of writing in my bible. I try to date when a scripture was preached on and if the preacher had any remarks that especially caught my ear and soul I’ll write it down along that scripture. There is one particular piece that my father said that I find myself referring back to frequently. He told us that in the work of Kingdom life we “must find the time to do our best work amongst all our good work.”
Do you hear it? That call to be our best selves and live to our highest callings.
It has been the source of my deepest grief and fear these past few months.
One would think that after so many years of living with this illness I would become used to it. That somehow I’d find a way to shut out the never ending pain and exhaustion. That while it may shape my abilities I would become more adept at adapting to it so that I would not be forced to refrain from life.
Yet, 20 years into this disease and it’s complications and I’ve found it only becomes more difficult, more pain-filled, more exhausting, and more secluding. At the moment, the cutaneous vasculitis covers more than half of my body. It shapes every interaction I have. How I move, how I breathe, how much energy I may have, how much time I have to spend with others, how I see myself, how I think about myself, how I believe in myself, every piece of me is sharpened or dulled by it’s presence.
There is sorrow that accompanies this reality. These past few months I have been confronted with another change in the rubric of my life. It was as if I could no longer see how my superior could ever be average again. In fact, it may very will be that what was once my mediocre might now remain the superior on my rubric for the rest of my life. Has this reality made it to where all my best work is behind me? I know that physically my best days are quite likely behind me. How does one find a way to do their best work when they do not have any more best days ahead?
The weight of that has suffocated me these past months. The problem is that my faith leads me to believe that the Divine still has some of my best work ahead of me but the sicker I get the harder it is for me to believe that I will be able to even attempt the work the Divine calls me to. Much like the prophets of old I have been saying to the Holy “Surely, not me my Lord.” There are others more suited to this work. Those who have energy, those who have not lost their quick wit, those who can walk in the sunlight to minister, those who can go at least a few minutes without feeling the pain of their brokenness seep through their thoughts.
Still, there’s that incessant call and that ever present rubric. If I could only see what was expected of me perhaps I’d feel a bit more at ease.
It seems though that our best teachers don’t really ever stop teaching us. My mother is frequently putting together concerts that are not only beautiful but educational. She was approached by a group and asked to prepare a concert around a theme of peace. She has taken that theme and moved it beyond peace but also to one of witness to injustice and how peaceful resistance can lead to new realities. In this endeavor she picked a few vocal pieces for me to prepare for the upcoming concert. She had said that there would be one challenging piece and the others would be easy.
Yes, Mother. I’ll perform and try my best.
Then the first piece arrived. A seven to eight minute aria that is not for the faint of heart. Difficult in vocal technique, musicality, and drama. I looked at it with great apprehension. I looked up several renditions on YouTube.
The horror I felt can not be overstated. My mother had lost her mind. I’ve not sung anything like this since college and even then I would have been entirely ill-equipped. I didn’t have the life experience to bring authenticity to the piece. Now at this point in my life I may have too much experience to even be able to perform it without dissolving into tears. My mother is insane. She could not be serious. She has shown an appalling lack of understanding of my own capabilities. It’s simply impossible.
I can not do it.
What’s a woman to do? I live with her. She is stubborn. Saying no won’t do. After all, she doesn’t argue, she reasons. I’m the emotional one. How do you tell your most important, most shaping, most successful teacher that her rubric is seriously skewed? I was beside myself.
It was in the midst of this crisis that I was able to attend a service where my friend Rev Kathryn Palen was delivering the sermon. She talked about our call and our journey. She remarked on what things in our lives weigh us down along our way. What does the Holy ask you to set down even though you can’t imagine journeying without it? I knew what it was for me that Sunday. The fear that because my best physical days are over that my best work is past me as well. Can I lay that down? Lord knows I’m trying to.
I came back that Sunday thinking of that truth and of that cursed aria my mother picked out. I started thinking about this woman who had known me beyond as just her child but as her student. This is a woman who knows exactly what I’m capable of.
“Have you forgotten that I know what you are capable of? If this was you at your best you would receive my praise but I know better and so do you. This isn’t even your mediocre work.”
I could hear what she would say to me now. It’s the words the Divine whispers in my soul every minute of my existence.
“You will not waste this life, your gifts, or your call on anything less than excellence.”
I can not argue this logic. The rubric has changed but whose to say it was to lower my capabilities? Maybe it’s shifted to a new superior that only this life could bring.
I know it’s possible, I’ve seen it in my teacher. A woman who lost the use of her legs not once but twice and still walks, and even more impressively plays the organ beautifully. I’ve seen it in the woman who time and again picks up her life and manages the impossible. I’ve seen it in the woman who has raised three children that dream up fantastical ideas and create even more fantastical realities. I’ve seen it in a God who made the Word flesh. I’ve seen it in a God who calls the speechless and gives them a voice. I’ve seen it in a God who reveals the mystery of relentless call through the parents who remind me what true excellence is. I see it in myself who finds comfort and challenge in the rubric of my life.
Who is my favorite teacher? I suppose you all would expect me to say my mother. I will not lie and say that she is not high on that list. Of all my teachers she ranks second. My favorite teacher is the Holy One that has revealed itself in all the teachers in my life and who designs the very rubric of my existence. Thanks be to God.