Life Lessons from 3rd Grade

By the second grade, I was impossibly awkward in every sense of the word. On my first day of first grade, I had already been established as the “nerdiest of nerds,” so by second grade there was no where to go but teacher’s pet. This became known clearly to the students of our grade without any extra effort on my part. To make matters more complicated, I was 5’1″ tall when I started second grade. I gathered a reputation as not only the nerdiest kid in the second grade, but also the best chance at defeating any bullies in the older grades. I had been, after all, taller than one of my first grade teachers…barely.

While I was trying to take all this in, wondering how any of it even happened to me, I got another shock. One of my best friends, Melissa, took me aside in the bathroom, and whispered six horrific words into my ear, which, I’m sure, shall forever live in infamy for both of us: “You need to wear a bra.”

It was as if she said the sentence through a molasses filter. My brain just couldn’t compute. “What?” I asked, my heart also refusing to accept the truth of her statement. She repeated her embarrassing comment at a slightly louder decibel level and in the most loving way possible, “You need to wear a bra. I had to start wearing one too, and boys look at you funny.”

How could this be? I was 8!! Surely, I hadn’t heard her right…right? So I asked her to say it again. The embarrassment must have been paramount, because suddenly, she yelled it at me…staccato…like each word was it’s own sentence.  It was a growing moment for both of us, and to this day, I am very grateful she was brave enough to tell me that. However, someone must have been in a bathroom stall, because the conversation was all over the playground that afternoon, before I’d even had a chance to have a similarly difficult conversation with my mother. Sigh.

Having grown to 5’6″ tall, it was from this background, physically and socially awkward in the highest degree, that I entered 3rd grade, and Mrs. Billings class. It was her last year to teach. After 35 years of teaching mostly 3rd grade, she was changing out the chalk for the new excitement and adventure of retirement. That’s what she told us it would be…an adventure. She believed that with her whole heart too.

You see, Mrs. Billings had a different way of looking at life, proven by the first different thing I really noticed about her classroom. It was a sentence, in 18″, all-capital letters, hung over the chalkboard.

“CAN’T” IS NOT A WORD.

Now, I happened to remember clearly from 2nd grade spelling, and the many books I had read (nerdiest nerd, remember?), that it was most certainly a word. As book smart as I was, I hadn’t gotten the concept of symbolism yet, and so, being me, I raised my hand to question the teachers presumption. I tried to let her down “easy” in my mind. I must have sounded like a total smart aleck to the average person, but not to Mrs. Billings. She did what all good teachers do. She proceeded to educate me.

“I’m glad you asked that Michele (every teacher called me Michele until 8th grade). Class, why don’t you all sit down please. I’m going to answer Michele’s question, and I want you all to listen.” She waited…and waited…and waited. Mrs. Billings was infinitely patient.

Once we were all settled, she began what has become to me, the most important words any teacher has ever spoken to me…ever. No one has ever imparted anything of more value in all my years of learning, though a select few have communicated equally important wisdom.

She spoke calmly and with respect. She spoke like she knew we wanted to learn. She spoke clearly and boldly. We knew in the first short sentence that we could not argue. She was certain of what she was saying, and we took it as truth. Here is what she said.

“‘Can’t’ is not a word. It is a contraction. A shortcut. An excuse. It will get you no where good, and take you to all the places you do NOT want to be. It is not a valuable part of anyone’s vocabulary. All obstacles can be overcome. All problems can be solved. If you are willing, you can do all things. Therefore, “can’t” will not be used in my classroom. Do you all understand me?”

We nodded our heads like we understood. I doubt if any of us did at that moment, but we wanted so badly to please this teacher who didn’t speak to us like we were babies, but rather like we were mature and capable of understanding anything she might want to tell us. So we nodded vigorously, and I was fascinated. I, me, this awkward kid in the second column, second row (who thinks like that except a painfully awkward, “nerdy” child??)…I could do anything? If I was willing…what did that even mean? How did my willingness make any difference at all? It never had before…or had it?

Mrs. Billings continued, “If you use that so-called word in my classroom, I will unfortunately have to make you stay in from recess, so that you can write the sentence above the board 20 times for each instance. Do you understand?” We again nodded vigorously.

I began to question my life up to that point. All the nearly six years that I could remember seemed filled with circumstances, which were piled upon situations, and then smashed into life experiences, all over which I had had no control, no influence, no choice. However, after she said that, I thought carefully over those times, and realized that how I had reacted-maybe-was my choice. At least, I thought it was. I decided to ask her about it a few weeks after that first day.

“Mrs. Billings, can I choose how I react to people when they hurt my feelings or make me mad? How about if something happens that I am not able to change?” I had thought about that wording carefully. I did not want to get caught and have to do sentences!

She smiled and looked me in the eye, “Michele, if you can choose, then did they make you mad or did you choose it?” Why, oh why, do all the good teachers respond to your questions with more questions??

“But Mrs. Billings, I just can’t seem to…” I had done it! I said that contraction. Oh no! I couldn’t believe it.

She remained calm, and handing me a paper and pencil from the sentence basket on her desk, she said, “Why don’t you think about it while you write your 20 sentences.” With a smile, she silently sent me to my seat and my thoughts.

Was Mrs. Billings an idealist? Yes. Absolutely. My 3rd grade teacher  was retiring after 35 years in the public school system, in a suburban ghetto, and she was still an idealist, still overcoming obstacles. I forgot to mention that she also leaned heavily on a cane as she balanced writing with her non-dominant hand so she could keep doing what she loved. She died 3 years later of stomach cancer. She had it as she taught us that year, though none of us knew it at the time. She had been dealing with the slow-growing cancer for many years. That is some kind of special. She was amazing, and she was a Christian.

In contrast, I had another 3rd grade teacher of a different sort, though she too, had more than 30 years of teaching under her belt. Back then, we switched classes for a few subjects to get us used to a junior high schedule, and this other teacher taught us math and science. She was Mrs. Billings’ polar opposite. She said “can’t” often, to tell her students both what she “couldn’t” do and what they “couldn’t” do. She judged when she could have encouraged. Rather than believe in her students, she assumed the worst of them. She took a negative situation, and made it more so. She gave me the only “C” grades I ever received, based solely on my behavior on one bad day, rather than the class and homework of an entire quarter.

Everyday of 3rd grade, I saw the contrast of these two teachers, and when I considered who I wanted to be like when I grew up, there was no question. I wanted to be more like Mrs. Billings. The lessons she taught us that year never left me. I tried to get better and better at them every year.

So now, I teach my children (who are also my students), and those that I teach privately, to never say “can’t” because it has no real value in their vocabulary.  I teach them to reach for their goals, no matter how many times they fall down. I teach them not to make excuses, or take short cuts which contract, rather than expand their lives.

Paul emphasized Mrs. Billings’ concept in Philippians 4:13, where he wrote, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”

Just three years later, about the time Mrs. Billings fight with cancer ended, I found out I had scoliosis, and in a few more years, ended up being the worst case ever operated on in the world in 1992. I had many doctors tell me that first of all, it would fail, so they wouldn’t do the surgery. My parents took me to the world’s best surgeon, and even he wanted to use that contraction. I challenged him and won.

Then they told me I wouldn’t be able to walk normally. Within 3 months, that was checked off the list of things I might not be able to do. They told me I probably wouldn’t be able to carry a child to full term. I now have 3 awesome kids, all carried to at least full term (some of you moms know what I’m talking about here, don’t ya?) Checked that one off too.

My body started falling apart during the pregnancy with baby #3, so the potential can’ts of my life started piling up again. However, by then, I was a strong Christian myself. This verse-Philippians 4:13- it kept bouncing around my head. It slowly became a powerful proverbial river of spiritual truth, rushing through my soul, sweeping away all the doubts and selfish I-don’t-want-to’s. This verse took over my mind and my heart, and it reminded me of how, at just the right time, God placed in my life this wise lady with a mighty will. I would repeat the verse to myself, learning its concept… memorizing it…savoring it…storing it up.

I can do ALL things…oh, but God, the pain. It HURTS!

I can do all things through CHRIST…but Lord, why must I endure a life like this? I can’t hide it anymore. People are going to think of me as someone who can’t.

I CAN DO ALL things through CHRIST who strengthens… They want me to have another surgery. It could paralyze me or even worse. I want to believe you Lord. Help me with my unbelief.

I CAN DO ALL things through CHRIST who STRENGTHENS me…Here I am Lord, fill me with your strength and I will go. I will do what you ask me to do.

I CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH CHRIST WHO STRENGTHENS ME.
I CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH CHRIST WHO STRENGTHENS ME.

I CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH CHRIST WHO STRENGTHENS ME.

I CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH CHRIST WHO STRENGTHENS ME.

I CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH CHRIST WHO STRENGTHENS ME.

I CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH CHRIST WHO STRENGTHENS ME.

Oh, and friend, take a lesson from Mrs. Billings and I. So can you.

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