“Do You Still Not Understand?”

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In yesterday’s Gospel, Christ, in what I imagine to be the same frustrated tone I use with my students when they ask, yet again, if they have to answer a question in a complete sentence, asks “Do you not understand?” I imagine him throwing up his hands at his disciples’ ignorance as he offers proof of God’s constant fidelity: the multiplication of the loaves and fish, which is added to the multiple miracles he’s already accomplished. The main point of this section of the Gospel is to remind us, yet again, that God is ever-faithful and that, in those moments that require the most trust, we must look on the ways that God has already provided for us as a source of a faith that moves us forward to confront the ever-available challenges of day-to-day life.

This is one of my favorite moments in Mark’s Gospel, as it echoes both the unknowable depths of Christ’s love while at the same time expresses the almost comic frustration that he experiences when trying to teach the disciples. This is especially appealing to my teacher persona, as it draws to mind one of the earliest (and perhaps most fruitful) revelations I’ve had as an educator.

As a first year teacher, the one sensation I remember plaguing me through most of those early weeks was, “I have to do this again tomorrow?” As unflattering as it may be, the thought of spending hour after hour with the same faces, letting them see my mistakes and continuously correcting theirs, without a break, seemed at the best monotonous and, at the worst, mentally (and emotionally) backbreaking. Every now and again, I have flashbacks to those moments of uncertainty, weariness, and (I’m only sort of ashamed to say) tears, and I have to laugh at my former self. The terrible reality I was imagining was understandable, to be sure – who really wants to spend most of their time with a bunch of 16-year-olds who are, like, 95% sure that Shakespeare is dead (that’s a very real and depressing story that deserves a post of its own)? However, I did not understand. Just as the disciples on the boat, I imagined that I knew what was in store for me, what I could expect. The disciples think themselves clever in understanding what God has laid before them. When Christ warns them to guard against the leaven of Herod and the Pharisees, “They concluded among themselves that it was because they had no bread.” They did not understand.

As the weeks wore on, I began to realize that the more time I spent with my students, the easier it became. Those first days were hard because I didn’t know my students and they didn’t know me. However, the fear of monotony soon dissipated in the wake of my growing understanding that in building an active relationship with my students, it allowed me to move even deeper and with more tenacity into the experience of teaching I so desired. God multiplied my efforts as he had always done, despite my ever-present doubt. I was influencing my students in my teaching and, Heaven help me, they were influencing me.*

J.R.R. Tolkien references something akin to this phenomenon in his recommendation that his son, Christopher, receive the Eucharist as frequently as possible: “Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise.” I pillage the phrase because it emphasizes the relationship between the kind of faith required to move forward, day after day, in a world that encourages resignation and stagnation and the kind of faith that grows exponentially with exercise. Our newfound strength allows for more movement, which in turn requires more faith. The essence of the philosophy is not that exercise makes a task easier, but it allows us to take on larger and more challenging tasks. No wonder discipline of spiritual exercise is so often a clear mark of the faithful!

The exercise of teaching has, for me, become very similar to my exercise of faith: taxing, occasionally frustrating, and ultimately rewarding in unexpected ways. We cannot always understand, but we can remember. The remembrance of those early teaching days emboldens me professionally; the remembrance of God’s faithfulness in my uncertainty emboldens me spiritually. I’ll have to remember that when the doubt returns tomorrow.

*I feel obligated to note that this admittedly rosy perspective on my teacher career is often marred by low test scores, my own temper, and disinterest (both my students’ and my own). But alas, rosiness is not a mark of untruth, at least theoretically.

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