Pens need to be vertical. Every teacher knows that. When a student’s wrist goes limp and his pen falls to the desk, it’s trouble. It’s the sign of despair, the sign that the mental willpower to tackle a problem has been exhausted.
I find these horizontal-pen students to be the most difficult to work with. They often respond equally sourly to problems or help, muttering a flat “I can’t,” or “I’m just dumb, Miss.” When faced with this type of student, I usually feel an initial sense of frustration at the helpless attitude that leads a student to give up without much effort. Luckily, a more sympathetic second emotion generally kicks in afterward, and I wonder what combination of low self-esteem and pattern of discouragement leads her to think that she is unteachable.
"If Peter was not deemed incorrigible by Jesus, then we must not be in such bad shape, either."
When approaching these students, I feel grateful to teach in a Catholic school, because the core of Catholicism is that imperfect beings can grow to be more perfect through self-discipline, prayer, and persistence. The champion of the bumblers is Peter. He fumbles through the Gospels, making blunder after blunder, but his painful learning is rewarded with the most sacred of missions: guarding God’s Church on Earth. If Peter was not deemed incorrigible by Jesus, then we must not be in such bad shape, either.
The hope that we are not unteachable is echoed in the sacrament of Reconciliation, which invites Catholics and Catholic school students into a cycle based in deep hope: we fail, we ask forgiveness and help, we are forgiven, and we try again to live a good life. Reconciliation is based on the belief that, with each mistake, we are learning and trying again, inching slowly toward God’s perfection. In our admission of weakness and God’s affirmation that we are not lost is the encouragement that gets the pen back in the hand, vertical and writing, trying to solve.
Some of us can write without much coaching. Others, like Peter, need guidance every step of the way to keep the pen going. Our faith shows us and our Catholic school students that though we cannot hope to solve every problem, we can always keep our pens vertical.