Have you ever worked tirelessly, pushed yourself beyond exhaustion, and received disrespect in return? If you’ve hung out with a toddler long enough, you might can relate! Taking care of kids isn’t a prerequisite for this, though. You could experience this at work, in a relationship, or even in a volunteer situation. One moment that I felt this way that’s etched in my mind, even three years after its occurrence, took place immediately after graduate school. I was teaching double what I should have been: seven courses at three different campuses. Little did I know, full-time was four courses, and they were usually all at the same campus.
Here’s how a typical Thursday went that crazy semester:
- Sleep as long as possible until I have to leave the house
- Drive an hour. Listen to a sermon but not retain it
- Teach at 9:30 and 11:00
- Race down three floors to the refrigerator, scarf down lunch, teach again at 1:00
- Have office hours until it’s time for another class
- Drive back to town in silence (or call my mom and vent, depending on the day)
Probablyhave to stop for coffee
- Teach again at 5:20
- Go home and eat oatmeal because eating anything else is too exhausting
- Prep Friday’s lessons
- Fall into bed, sometimes surrounded by papers
So, how would you have responded at 5:25 on a day like that if your student replied to your innocent request with:
“Well, that’s ridiculous.”
After a long day on my feet and several weeks of burning my candle at both ends, those words and the disdain with which they were spoken were the straw that broke the camel’s back. As soon as he uttered them, I stopped in my tracks and turned on my heels, honestly hoping to see that his facial expression indicated that he was joking. Unfortunately, he wasn’t.
With all eyes on me, I struggled to conceal my fury. My face transitioned from its usual grin, to one of complete shock, to one with no emotion at all in a matter of seconds. Instead of offering a mature response, I began educating the class on the rationale behind the classroom policy in question, intending to defend my position rather than provide clarification.
When I finished lecturing them, my goal for the remainder of class was just to keep from crying. With cold words and a flat tone, I was glued to the podium, afraid to look anyone in the eye. My students didn’t dare ask questions, and they answered mine with timidity. As they filed out of the classroom into the fall evening that still felt like summer, I watched them from the corner of my eye, wanting so badly to apologize. Instead, I busied myself by gathering my belongings and erasing the whiteboard, leaving much unsaid and a huge conflict unresolved.
As much as I hate that this happened, I learned a valuable lesson that Thursday night.
It’s often said that the mother is the thermostat of the home; her mood affects the very air of the four walls she’s in and the dispositions of those around her. That evening, I saw that the same was true about a teacher. Imagine how differently that night—and, regrettably, the weeks to follow—would’ve been had I not allowed this student’s thoughtless remark to dictate my response.
I may not have had control over what he said, but I had complete control over how (and when) I responded. When we’re tempted to react quickly to someone’s careless words, like I was that night, we should ask first: Are we being slow to speak and slow to anger (James 1:19)? What’s the spirit behind our words? What’s the intention behind our conversation?
There’s a verse in the Bible that says, “out of the abundance of the heart, [the] mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). Sadly, due to my schedule that semester, I had failed to take the time to “incline my heart unto the Lord” (Joshua 24:23), and as weeks went by, I was filled with bitterness and resentment. And that was exactly what came out of my mouth in that Comp II class. That’s one reason it’s so important to guard our hearts and our time—what we allow to grow in our hearts, what we intentionally cultivate, and what we fail to weed out, will be what comes bubbling out, whether that’s love or hate, forgiveness or bitterness, joy or despair.
In every situation, we have a choice to make: Will we be one of many thermometers, viscerally responding to the atmospheres in which we find ourselves, or will we be the thermostat, setting the tone for ourselves and those around us?