It was the last Friday of the school year when I pulled two freshmen out of study hall for a conversation. They first looked at me quizzically, but when they met each other’s eyes, I saw a knowing fear. They knew exactly why I wanted to talk to them.
But they didn’t admit it. I showed them the evidence of their offense. A paragraph. Written by one of them. Submitted by both of them. With different names on the top of the MLA heading.
They had cheated. One had plagiarized. One had allowed the other to use her words. There would be consequences.
I spoke more than they did. It wasn’t until the door closed behind them that I recognized a simple fact: neither of them had apologized or even acknowledged the wrongness of their actions. And it was clear that if they hadn’t been caught, they would not have confessed to their crime.
But I was slower to acknowledge another fact: I didn’t invite them into a conversation.I was more concerned about finding fault and “calling them out.” I was more focused on my own righteous indignation (“Did they think I wouldn’t notice?”) than anything else.
Twenty years ago, I discovered an indent in the drywall in our tiny dining room. A nail had been driven there, apparently by the sheer force of a kick. The distinctive tread of our oldest son’s shoe around the crooked nail led us to the culprit.
The only problem? He refused to admit his culpability.
“Look, Joshua. This tread here? It matches your shoe exactly. Do you want to explain how this happened?”
We knew what had happened. But he never acknowledged the truth. And because he never admitted it, we could never really find closure.
These episodes, although years apart, have me ruminating about the importance (and difficulty) of confession.
Confession is an interesting word. On the one hand, it is used to describe the act of admitting transgressions or acknowledging crimes. But it is also used to describe the declaration of one’s faith.
Confession is built into our liturgies and our rhythms at church. We press pause for a moment and consider who we are — in our sinfulness — and who God is — in his grace. Although I don’t like being reminded of the blackness of my sin, that time is a necessary reset button, a calibration that turns my eyes to Jesus. The songs that seem to pull me closest to God often include words of confession, reminders to my self-sufficient self of my need for God’s goodness. I know full well that “not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul”.
But confession is hard.
Still, I find it much easier to confess my sin to God than to confess my wrongs to other people. It is far less easy to look someone in the eye and acknowledge wrongdoing and the potential harm I’ve caused as a result.
My husband will affirm this fact: I like to be right. And I get prickly and defensive when my wrongs are exposed. I can rationalize with the best of them.
That seems a pretty human response. It’s the response I see most often in my line of work.
I’ve spent the majority of my life in a high school classroom.
The high school classroom (like many other spaces) is a microcosm of the broader world. Within the walls of room 310C, you can find muted iterations of our culture: the hierarchies, the economies, the politics, the tenuous hold on faith. You can also find a great deal of hope.
Within those walls, we busy ourselves with reading and writing, discussion and debate — but even more importantly, we busy ourselves with relationships. For at the core of every classroom is a contract of sorts. I, as teacher, will plan well, provide you with constructive feedback, respect and encourage you, affirm strengths, and help you overcome weaknesses. You, as student, will do your best work, engage in classroom protocols, and interact with others honestly and respectfully.
But when the “invisible contract” of the teacher-student relationship — or any other contract — is broken, what can bring healing?
My reading of fiction often adds to my understanding of the world and my place in it.
Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache perhaps informs my worldview most – especially within my classroom. In Penny’s debut novel Still Life, Gamache, a homicide detective in Quebec, trains a new hire in his department. He gives her clear guidelines for thriving in her new role: “’There are four sentences we learn to say, and mean.’ Gamache held up his hand as a fist and raised a finger with each point. ‘I don’t know. I need help. I’m sorry. I was wrong.’”
In a world that often skews toward pride, defensiveness, and self-righteousness, these sentences reveal humility, an acknowledgment that there is always more to learn, that we make mistakes and cause harm, that we are constantly struggling to image God as we should.
What if we “confessed” these statements more often in our interactions with others?
At the end of that Friday, one of the aforementioned students walked into my classroom and closed the door behind her. With tears in her eyes, she apologized for her part in the paragraph debacle.
In essence, she repeated Gamache’s words: “I’m sorry. I was wrong.” And then she asked, concern in her tone, “Will we be ok?”
In that moment, I recognized anew the power and purpose of confession. Yes. It’s about the admission of wrongdoing. But it’s also a declaration. A declaration of the importance of relationship and the possibility of restoration. And as such, it is an essential element of faith.
After I had assured her that we were indeed “ok” and she had left the room, noticeably relieved after our conversation, I sat at my desk pondering the events of the day.
I mourned the fact that I hadn’t navigated the initial conversation with more grace. My mind flashed back to the Joshua and the nail incident. If I had asked a question instead of confronting him with evidence, would that have made a difference?”
But mostly I marveled at the lightness both my student and I felt at the end of the day. I celebrated the closure attained by our conversation.
As I walked out of my classroom that day, I felt strangely hopeful — perhaps even inspired.
For if a 15 year old girl can humbly and courageously acknowledge a wrong, apologize for it, and care enough to restore a relationship (with a teacher, no less), all of us, by the grace of God, should be able to do the same.