A twenty-eight year-old does not have much hindsight. I admit that. Even so, as I look back it’s impossible not to see many of the ways and means God has used to mold me. For the past three years, I’ve pastored a church in Newberry, SC, and it is strange how even basic summer jobs of the past have come full circle. I spent two high school summers weed-eating and mowing at a retirement complex. Now I mow a 3-acre church property twice a month. God is funny like that.
But what shaped me the most?
I’ve mulled this question over, and the answer surprised me. It was a four-year span where my mind was bent and stretched. Four years where I was intoxicated with a love for writing. Where I learned how to love reading books and words. Four foundational years that equipped me for my future as a pastor. I’m talking about the four years I spent as a high school student in the English department at Wesleyan Academy in High Point, NC. Let me tell you why.
They gave me a love for writing.
My English teachers taught me how to write. They taught me how to put together well-structured paragraphs. They taught me how to form a concise thesis and support it with logical arguments using concrete evidence. They forced me to write. A lot. My junior and senior years we wrote timed essays nearly every week. Initially it was a dread. I never knew when I was going to go to class and have to wear my hand out frantically scribbling down five-paragraphs on a 40 minute deadline. Weirdly, I came to enjoy the challenge. The time-crunch, the organizing of evidence, the bolstering of a concrete thesis. It was…fun (Wow, that sounds really nerdy).
As I practiced writing week after week in those English classes, deep ruts were being formed in my mind. Writing became easier. I got better at stringing sentences together, building good transitions, and incorporating interesting vocabulary. In four years, writing became something I loved to do.
These days I spend more time writing than I would have ever imagined. I write sermons. I write articles. I write Bible studies. I write. I write. I write. One time I tried to compute the number of words I write in a typical week, and it was somewhere in the ballpark of 8,000-9,000. It’s not a slog. I enjoy it, and I have my English teachers to thank.
They gave me a love for reading.
These women loved books. Particularly, they loved the books they taught. It was annoying–at times. Looking back I appreciate the example they set for us as students. Their spine-cracked and tattered novels had pages full of margin notes and underlining. Some of them had been teaching the same stories for over twenty years, yet they approached each unit with a renewed passion as if first discovering the narratives with us.
I’m a typical guy. Science and math–these were the subjects I gravitated toward. However, I left high school with an unanticipated love for stories. Funny how I’m not an engineer or a chemist these days. I sit in my study and read a book. And that Book is as spine-cracked and tattered as those novels my English teachers taught me to love. I wouldn’t love the Bible so much if they hadn’t given me a love for reading books.
They gave me a love for words.
I remember Mrs. Dotty Hoots. She used to talk us up and down about symbolism. Symbols on every page. Everything seemed to have multiple layers of meaning. Every word was more than just a word. My friends and I used to try to think up the most ridiculous “symbols”–outlandish and absurd stuff. We would tell them forth in class over not so subtle sniggers. Do you know what Mrs. Hoots would do? She enthusiastically agreed. Every time.
What I realize now is that Mrs. Hoots was creating an environment that celebrated discovery. She wanted us to dig into texts. She wanted us to expect symbols, types, and allusions. She was encouraging us to wrestle and discover and celebrate what we found. We learned how to recognize an author’s literary devices. As we did our own investigation, we were learning to discover meaning both on the surface and below.
I was so incredulous in those days. Mrs. Hoots gets the last laugh now, because this is what I do all week. I dig into God’s Word looking for symbols, allusions, literary devices, types, double-meaning, and the like. Each new week is a new opportunity to celebrate discovery as I study that week’s sermon text. I know where that enthusiasm began. I know where that seed was planted and cultivated–in high school English.
They gave me a love for discussion.
Some weeks our English classes would be a student-driven interaction concerning a novel or a topic. Our teachers called them paideias. We would be forced to have awkward conversations with each other about things we didn’t really care about. Once we had to debate for or against euthanasia. Of course, my buddies and I got a kick out of siding for euthanasia and making every effort to sound sincere and winsome.
In the midst of my foolishness, I did not realize that I was being given a gift: the ability to see things from another’s perspective. When I had to argue for a viewpoint I didn’t hold, I was forced to see the issue differently. I learned to understand the rationale behind someone else’s perspective, whether or not I ever agreed with it.
Christian charity requires us to show this kind of love for our neighbors. This love of discussion with others encouraged a type of listening by being. When we enter into the minds of others and try to see things from their perspective, then and only then can we have honest, loving interaction. These days, when most people assume the worst and intentionally misinterpret others, I have to believe that many of my classmates are more charitable in their discussions and interactions because of our time together in those English classes.
Thanks so much Mrs. Hoots, Mrs. Eanes, and Ms. Masters. I am so thankful for all the ways God used you and your passions in teaching to shape the man I’ve become. You equipped me with tools and skills. Your love for writing, reading, words, and discussion was contagious. Who knew that faithful English teachers would have such an effect on a future pastor?