We were in the car the other day, driving to ballet class or the library or somewhere like that, when Molly—who has an innate, accurate sense of direction—asked which way we needed to turn next. She is observant, this one. She watches where we go, she notes the landmarks and the traffic patterns, and she remembers—for next time.
“Right.” I said, concentrating on the drive, barely hearing her.
“Well, but which way is right?”
Yes. I suppose that the words left and right are a bit useless as directions unless you know which is which. So I pointed to the right and—while still driving—attempted to show her the trick about the left hand making an L so that she could have a handy way to know the difference. That seemed to appease her for the moment. I could see her in my rearview mirror holding up both of her hands and examining the L shape made by both—one forward, one backward. She appeared delighted by this helpful trick.
Fast forward a few days.
Molly came home with a pile of papers from first grade: some math sheets, some science worksheets and coloring pages and a certificate deeming her a member of the “First Grade Experts Club.” (This last one was adorable. Molly declared proudly that she was “in a club”. And that—somehow—every person in her class had been asked to join the club, too, after passing some sort of a test. She was thrilled. I developed a soft spot in my heart for her lovely teacher at that very moment.) But the paper that made me pause and, admittedly, take a picture and post a funny comment on Instagram, was one that had a Venn Diagram outlining the similarities and differences between first grade and kindergarten.
The diagram was painstakingly filled out. At this age, writing each letter takes, well, a loooong time. And she had written quite a bit. It sounds like her teacher was writing on the board or the overhead as students offered their observations on kindergarten vs. first grade. And somewhere between the listening, the copying, and the writing, this is the diagram that Molly came up with.
At some point, as she was writing, her letters got flipped around, and she began writing backwards. Perfectly formed letters, all pointing the wrong way.
Admittedly, it’s cute. Ben’s snarky reaction was that maybe she was preparing to learn Hebrew. I giggled and reflected that maybe we should have done a little more writing practice over the summer.
But I couldn’t help recalling the conversation I’d had with her in the car about left and right a few days earlier. I thought I had given her a helpful method for knowing. I thought we were done with the whole left/right question. “When the L is facing the correct direction, that is your left hand. When it’s backwards, it’s right.” Problem solved.
But what do you do when you don’t even know which way the L is supposed to go? Where is your guidepost then?
I remember very clearly how I learned my left and right. When I was in preschool or kindergarten or somewhere thereabouts, I had this awesome pair of Punky Brewster shoes. I kid you not. They were amazing. And the best part? The shoelaces. On one shoe, the laces were neon pink; on the other, neon green. The shoes never changed feet. The pink always went on my left, and the green always went on my right, and if I got that wrong, my feet pinched, so I knew to fix them.
Day after day, I could look down and see pink on the left and green on the right. Rather than learning my left and right directions as abstract things, I learned my directions as “toward the pink shoelace” and “toward the green shoelace.” Eventually, I could associate the word “left” with one fixed direction, and the word “right” with another. And after that, I began to know left and right without even looking down. They just became part of my unconscious bank of knowledge, and I knew them without thinking.
I think this is basically the way we humans work. When we learn, we start with the concrete. We need fixed things to look at, to follow, as we learn to do something new. When learning a new algebra concept or a new recipe, I need an example to follow. I need plain, laid out steps and (ideally) someone walking me through the process. Then I need a whole lot of practice.
Eventually, something that seemed complex becomes as easy as breathing—I don’t even have to think about it.
My favorite part is what happens after arriving at this point. You get to play a little. Once I’ve learned my left and right, I can go off course and explore because I know how to get back to where I started. Or in the case of algebra, I can fiddle with the math and find shortcuts or make truly fascinating discoveries about numbers and functions because I know how things work (and how they don’t). Or in cooking, I can tweak a recipe or make my own because I have some concept about how things go together well, which I learned from following good recipes for such a long time.
But there is an order to it all. If I start with the latter steps, I’ll just end up with bad results. I’ll end up lost without being able to get home. Or I’ll end up totally confused, unable to do even simple things like cook spaghetti right or do a simple math problem.
I think about this a lot. Especially lately.
Admittedly, I am in an odd position in life at the moment. I move very abruptly between very small children and very wise adults, and everything in between. I find that I have to be very aware of all of these different stages of development in people and in learning and in the world in general.
I am a mom with a preschooler and a first grader. They are very young and still need to be taught the tedious, obvious things—like left and right. But I spend my days thinking about teenagers and interacting with adults. And the questions and conversations are much more complex there. There are still basic concepts being discussed: Right and wrong. Just and unjust. Good and bad. But our level of complexity has increased. We (hopefully) have a basic understanding and agreement that right and wrong and good and bad exist, but as we get older we play around in that millieu a little—not to be rebellious, but because our minds start understanding things as more than just black and white. This is where things tend to get interesting, and this is where I have learned to tread very, very carefully. This is where know thy context becomes my refrain.
Teachers are ever mindful of how we can’t just go in and teach whatever we want, however we want, without knowing our students. It might be fun for the teacher to dive into something interesting and exciting, but teaching isn’t about the teacher. It’s about the student. Before you can launch into something, you have to know what your students know. If I want to teach you Shakespeare, but you don’t know English, we have a problem. And as the teacher, it is my job to meet you where you are. You can’t learn English—especially not at a level in which you can read Shakespeare—without someone who knows English helping you. The teacher has to change her plans, has to fill in the gaps, has to figure out how to make the information and the student meet in a way that will actually be accessible.
Teaching, guiding, parenting, leading, then, need to be doused in humility. The moment I become a teacher to someone, I have the very difficult job of unknowing all that I know (so that I can put myself in the other’s shoes) while still holding on to what I know (so that I can teach effectively).
All of these (rather scattered) thoughts have really begun to shape and form my understanding of discipleship, and they have helped me to appreciate all the more the example we have in Jesus, who leads and teaches and guides from a posture of humility.
He reaches out to children and prostitutes; pharisees and tax collectors; Jews and Gentiles. And his methods are unpredictable. There is not a certain tack he takes to convince people of his Lordship, not a certain turn of phrase he uses with each person to get them to believe. Sometimes, he says, “Repent and believe!” Sometimes, “your sins are forgiven!”. Sometimes, “go and sin no more.” Sometimes, he just heals people or does miracles or tells them not to tell anyone what has just happened. I have no doubt that all of these exhortations and actions are leading people towards the same place—towards God. There is no pluralism or wishy-washiness here. But Jesus seems to know how to address people in a way that they can hear. He knows the places to press, and the places not to.
I read the gospel accounts and feel challenged to lead and teach in the way that Jesus does. It is hard to do things in this way, and it takes a lot of time and energy to think about others and what they need, rather than myself and what I want to talk about or pursue. I feel this with my kids—sometimes, the last thing I want to do is figure out how to teach Molly something simple like how to obey me when I tell her to do something specific. I just want her to obey, plain and simple, without putting in the hard work of teaching obedience. That is hard to do. And it takes humility, and patience, and lots of grace.
And this is just a guess—because I certainly have not mastered the art of leading and teaching and parenting with humility—but I think that once we begin to wrap our minds around the idea that leading is truly about serving, greater rewards begin to appear. Whereas my gut tells me that leading is about making myself look good with all the fantastic things I accomplish, this inside-out understanding of leading begins to care less about that, and more about what we see happening in others. When I adopt a posture of humble leadership, my great teaching is no longer about the amazing things and ways I have taught you (and who cares about that, really?). But as a teacher, as a parent, as a leader, I think that seeing how I have helped someone change and grow and become more fully human is eternally rewarding.
That’s what feels like an accomplishment. That feels like something larger than myself at work. And that feels right.
As a Christian, I am still in the ‘concrete’ phase of learning how to follow. I need the daily example of Jesus in the Gospels to show me how to live this life in the right way. I long for His life to become lodged in my bones, for His example to become part of my DNA so that I don’t have to think about these things, but so I can just do them.
And maybe the mercy is that we never fully get there until heaven. Perhaps the grace is that we always need God, right there, helping us and teaching us and guiding us.
We are the dependent ones, humbly leading the dependent ones.
May God give us the grace to see this as a gift. And may we steward it wisely.