I was once told that grace is when we get what we don’t deserve and mercy is when we don’t get what we do deserve.
I needed some help unpacking that, so let me do so here. Grace would be the presence of love when perhaps what we’ve earned is coldness, and mercy is the absence of a punishment we deserve — the opposite of justice.
While this was used in terms of Christianity and God, I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to apply it to the classroom.
Let me tell you a story.
My second year teaching, I had a student. We’ll call him Charles, but that is not his name. Charles was a very respectful student, usually pretty quiet, did his work, and kind of stayed out of everyone’s way. I don’t mean to imply he was a loner, so let me be clear about that. He was well-liked, presumably because he was, as mentioned above, respectful to everyone.
Well, I was taking attendance one day, and Charles let out a not-too-loud but also not-too-quiet “Oh fuck!”
Now, the school I was teaching at at the time had some pretty clear rules on that sort of language. Detention was the punishment mandated by the student handbook.
So I turned around, and I looked at Charles, asking him “what did you say?” because I honestly could not believe he would have said that. It would be more likely to hear “Yes, sir” from his lips than the f-bomb.
Charles didn’t answer my question. Well, that’s not true. He apologized and said he didn’t mean to say that. I imagine a truthful answer of my question (thus repeating the word) was not something he wanted to do. His face, normally a fairly light shade, had turned nearly tomato-red. In the few seconds of eye contact that followed, we had a conversation, though it wasn’t out loud:
“Just to clarify: did you just say ‘Oh fuck’?”
“Yes, I did. And I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to. It just popped out.”
“Are you going to say it again?”
The “Okay” was out loud. That was it, and we moved on.
I thought relatively little of this incident. A little mercy in the midst of an Algebra II class.
This was, as I said, my 2nd year teaching. 2008.
9 years later, this past November, I received a message from Charles. It started with this tweet:
“Maybe this is a bit of a stretch, but I’ll share anyways. I think it was my junior year when I was sitting in your class (I was in the second column from the door and like 3-4 seats back). I was at my desk and said, ‘Oh, f***.’ It wasn’t loud, but it wasn’t quiet, so you did a 180, looked at me, and asked what I just said. I didn’t repeat it but said that I was so sorry and didn’t mean for that to come out. You looked at me for a couple more seconds, I assume because you could not believe that I had actually said that word aloud, and I became so fearful that I was going to get a detention. That would have been the only detention in my entire school career. I’m pretty straight-edged and hate knowing that I ever broke a rule or acted up. I know that many of my peers got more detentions than they could count and that detentions are minor infractions in the grand scheme of things, but I would have felt so much shame from my parents, friends, and teachers. Would a detention from that incident have positively shaped my future? It is impossible to know for certain, but I truly believe that it would not have. The way that I interpreted your reaction was that my words were bad, and that you knew that I knew they were bad, but you would trust me to adjust the behavior on my own since I otherwise 100% earned a detention. Because you did not write me up, I chose to always remember that experience and that I need to be mindful of the words I use at every place and time. It also taught me the power of relationships when it comes to making tough decisions. Thank you for practicing the above tweet. Your action was the most appropriate response for me and I have never lived it down.”
To be honest, my version of this story was completely reconstructed from his message. I don’t recall this incident, though I can imagine how it went. But it’s not about me; it’s about him. By not issuing the detention, Charles learned to be mindful of his words as well as the power of relationships.
Was this the right move on my part? At the time, I likely didn’t know. But to him, it made a huge difference.
But here’s the rub: was I being unfairly impartial with doling out this mercy, because Charles was a respectful student? What if it were a student who often was late to class, didn’t do their work, and wasn’t respectful? What if that student dropped an f-bomb, yet also turned red and apologized? Would I have shown them the same mercy? Would I have denied that student the same opportunity to learn as Charles had?
I don’t know. I wish I knew. What I do know is that teaching is full of these moments. These times when a quick decision must be made that might impact the student for years. And so often, it comes down to simple questions:
Justice, or mercy?
Coldness, or grace?
Relationship-building, or not?
It may give me a reputation as a pushover. It may get me in trouble with my administrators. It may let some students take advantage of me. I don’t know about my 2nd year teaching, but now? I will choose relationship-building nearly every time.