I recently read the George Eliot novel The Mill on the Floss which tells the story of young Maggie Tulliver, a spirited, impulsive girl who idolizes her older brother Tom more than anyone in the world. As she gets into her many scrapes, the grown-ups complain of her unruliness and, try as they might, fail to keep her under control. Tom grows older, becoming more proud and serious, and joins the adults in their scolding and rebukes.
   Little do they know the inner tumult Maggie experiences each time she falls out of grace with her brother.  They don't see how desperately she wants to be good so she can please him, or how a single harsh word from Tom can make her feel like the the sun has gone out in her world.

   The book describes the intensity with which she feels all these things, but Mrs. Tulliver and the disapproving aunts write off Maggie's despairs as trifles. And on the surface, they are trifling: a cold glance from Tom, a forgotten token, a spoiled afternoon plan. They're almost nothing compared to the troubles of the grown-ups. 

   But just because her troubles are smaller doesn't mean they're any less painful. Maggie is smaller, and all her woes are proportionate to herself. It only takes a little water to fill a short glass, but nonetheless it is still full. 

   In self-reflection, I was a bit rattled when I recognized Mrs. Tulliver in my own life. When children come to me with their troubles, I'm guilty of belittling their experiences: "That's not so bad compared to ______," I do want to help them get a right perspective of the world, but I also realize that I need to acknowledge those "trifles" as seriously as they do.  
Tom & Maggie from The Mill on the Floss

Educators often talk about that 'magical moment' when a student finally grasps something - when the 'lightbulb comes on.' They'll say it's the main thing that inspires them, the motivation to get through all the planning & grading, paperwork & legal labyrinths & tests. Like any teacher, I love the moments when I can see things 'click,' but there are moments that I cherish far more than that.

I teach on an 'intervention team,' which means that many of my students are 2-3 years below grade level. They all face unique challenges to learning, from troubled homes to learning disabilities. They go through erasers like candy because almost nothing comes to them on the first try. To them, giving up is a tempting relief, a safe place where they can get away from difficulty & failure. So in my day to day work with them, the moments that touch me most aren't when they earn a good grade or a sticker for mastery. It's the ones where they receive the familiar F, but then pick up their pencil to fix the mistakes. The ones where I ask, "Does that make sense?" and they answer, "No, not really," expectantly waiting for me to try another explanation. The disappointment when they miss a problem, but sigh resolutely and start again. I'm touched by those moments because I know how much they want to give up and how impossible it feels to them, yet they keep trying. 

In my own spiritual life, I have many moments of giving up - times when I mess up so badly that it doesn't seem worth it to drag myself back to God and ask forgiveness. I feel the impossibility of living the Christian life because of the sheer number of times I commit the same stupid sins. I avoid prayer or confession because I don't want to go through the process of starting over again. I imagine the disgust God must have for me, how tired he must be of putting Fs on all my life's tests. But then I realize that no matter how many failing grades I give to my students, the last thing that I want them to do is give up. I think of how much I want them to ask for help when they've messed up, and how proud I am when they ask for my big eraser so they can try again.

The love I have for my students is nothing compared to the love God has for his children. It gives him joy when we come back to him no matter what we've done or how many times we've done it.
But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’

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