Scholar’s Call: The Student Who Walked Away

walked away photo

In today’s Scholar’s Call piece, Paul Yandle meditates on how the experience of teaching shows him more about God, even in those moments when a student’s response is not what the professor was hoping for. 

“Why would God care if people believed in him or not?” (Julia Sweeney, quoted at

“What is man, that thou art mindful of him? (Psalm 8:4)

The Student Who Walked Away

I do not claim to be a great teacher today, though I’d like to think I am getting better. When I first started teaching I was woefully inadequate to the task. Research and writing came naturally to me. Standing in front of a room full of people and commanding respect did not. I started out learning the hard way, and semester by semester I continue to do so.

I have also learned how incredibly easy it is to be misheard, misunderstood and misinterpreted. During my first year of teaching night classes as an adjunct instructor at a community college some 25 years ago, I encountered for the first time a test written by a student whose responses seemed to indicate that he might have a learning disability. I did not want to simply hand back a failing grade to the student and watch him slip through the cracks. Not knowing what to do at the time, I took the test by the school’s disability services office and asked someone in the office what she thought. Of course the person in the office could give no definitive answer, but she agreed that the test responses had the earmarks of an issue other than laziness or poor preparation. I cannot remember what advice she gave me now; I only remember that I wanted the student to stay after class, probably to discuss taking the test in a format more compatible with his learning style. I put a note on the front of his paper asking him to see me after class. That was my first mistake. My second mistake was making eye contact with him after I handed out all of the papers at the end of class. When I dismissed the class he left, and he never returned. I have no idea what has happened to him over the intervening years. My first instinct was surprise: how could he look right at me, then turn and leave?

That’s how I learned how students are almost certain to react if they think they are about to be subjected to an uncomfortable confrontation. I learned the lesson at this young man’s expense, and I felt a sadness at the time that lingers to this day. As I remember the look on his face and his silent exit, I have to believe that he thought that I wanted to chastise him, to tell him how inadequate his test paper was—or to tell him that he was not able to cut it as a student at the college level.

My inexperience in both classroom management and in protocol for dealing with underperforming students played a factor in his leaving. Nonetheless, I think that there was a principle behind our interaction that played into his departure regardless of what I did. Part of the problem in how we deal with students lies in the fact that as teachers, we keep score. Letter grades or numerical grades appear on every assignment that most of us return to students. We are lawgivers. And the weight of the law can be a burden on people whether it is reflected in a graded exercise or in Scripture.

Few if any of us end up teaching because we enjoy grading or passing judgment. If you teach for a while you will have a variety of feelings—from anger or frustration that your teaching sometimes seems to amount to naught, to annoyance at the seeming obtuseness of some students, to rage when you read a negative comment on a student evaluation, to compassion when you know that a student’s life is crashing down around him or her. You will also have this sad feeling that there is something you want to give your students that will enrich their lives, and they either do not want to receive it or they are not tuned in enough to realize what they are missing (to wit: “Did I miss anything important in class today?”). Some students want to game the system, some want to learn and feel inadequate, and some are good students in other classes who, for whatever reason, may not be doing well in your particular class. For various reasons, some students will walk away from your classes by refusing to engage or by dropping altogether.

Unlike me, God does not mishandle His encounters with humanity. I wonder how God feels when I misinterpret Him, do not want to receive what He has for me or try to take advantage of His grace. If I who am weak and sinful have feelings of frustration or sadness toward my students, how much more must a holy, pure God feel sadness when I misinterpret or avoid Him—or simply walk away from Him? Is it possible for God to feel distress?

One celebrity who moved away from her church background to embrace atheism seems to think such distress an unbecoming quality for a deity. “Why would God care if people believed in him or not?” comedian Julia Sweeney mused in an NPR interview. “That was one of the many things I found so shocking reading the Bible. First of all, how insecure God is. God is so insecure he needs everyone to say, ‘You’re the #1 over all the other gods!’ . . . It’s the most insecure character.” As Sweeney recounted her childhood in the interview, her description of her religious upbringing sounded very much as if it were based on an economy in which trusting God seemed to be equated with operating under the premise that He was keeping tabs on everything she did. And the scorekeeping seemed petty to her, perhaps like the vigilance of busybodies who monitor parking and lawn care rules in their communities seems petty to me when I find a warning stuck to the side of my mailbox.

Sometimes I move away from God because His law seems too much to bear. Sometimes I tend to move the Cross in my mind from the hill at Calvary to the top of Mount Sinai. At such times I do not like to feel indebted to Christ. It’s easy for me to perceive even gratitude as a moral obligation—some sort of homage I have to wearily pay to the celestial scorekeeper in order to prevent judgment. Walking away from the entire process might seem a relief. Doing so, however, would leave me with an incorrect view of God and with the question unanswered. Why would God care whether people believed in Him or not? Because He needs our affirmation in order to maintain His grasp on who He is?

God uses other people to teach us about ourselves. Maybe God feels something similar to what I felt toward that student many years ago. I don’t think I cared about that student because I felt the need for his affirmation. I simply wanted to give him an opportunity to learn something about the world and himself without shame. And I am increasingly convinced that God is always trying to give me something when I view Him with suspicion or waste my time trying to muster up affection for Him. It is amazing that God takes such an interest in us that Julia Sweeney, I or anyone could misconstrue His attitude toward us as insecurity or as a nuisance. God made Himself vulnerable to us because He wants to love us. And when we have proper perspective on who we are, who He is and His amazing condescension, we can ask the question not with the disbelief of a skeptic but with the wonder of the psalmist. “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?”

God paid the price for my sin in order to save me. There is a limit to what I can do for my students. I can’t obey on their behalf the “law” that they break in my classroom. I can’t save their souls, and sometimes may not be able to save their grades. I can, however, reflect in my life the giving nature of the One who can save them, realizing that He has stepped into my life despite the fact that I am far more like every one of the most trying of my students—or Julia Sweeney—than I care to admit.

Image courtesy of TanteTati at

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Paul Yandle

Paul Yandle is Assistant Professor of History at North Greenville University. He received his Ph.D. from West Virginia University in 2006, and his current research focuses on infrastructure, race relations and regional identity in the nineteenth century United States. He teaches Middle Eastern, Islamic, British and United States history. Though he lives near the Blue Ridge Parkway and often imagines pursuing fascinating hobbies, he mainly takes naps in his spare time.

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