Here’s the thing – sometimes it’s good for us to do things we’re not great at. I know this is true, yet I resist it. I prefer to stick with my things, the jobs and hobbies and opportunities that are right in my wheelhouse.
See, I have this strong theory about operating in our strengths. And though there is some real validity -some wisdom- in that general notion, truth be told, I sometimes use that whole idea as an excuse not to stretch myself. And when we stop stretching ourselves, we stop growing. The word stagnant comes to mind. Blech! Who wants that adjective describing her?! But that is my natural tendency – stagnation. Unless I am intentional about challenging myself, I will automatically veer right back into my well-worn groove.
Several years ago I swam every morning. To say that I started as a weak swimmer is a gross understatement. The first morning I jumped right in and started on my first lap. The freezing water snatched my breath right from my chest. Halfway into the deep end, I gasped for air, every muscle tightly trying to conserve body heat and hold me above the water. In the pre-dawn shadows, I thought I would die right there three feet from the side of the pool. That day, my breathing didn’t settle back into normal rhythms until lunchtime. But the next morning, I was up in the dark, gliding my way through the cold water again. After several months, I had doubled, then tripled the amount of laps I could swim.
Last night, I taught my first GED prep class. The entire two-and-a-half hours was filled with math and science. About forty minutes in, I felt like I was right back to my first morning in the pool, halfway into the deep end, gasping for air, furiously paddling to stay afloat. What was I thinking? An English major who is admittedly dumb at math teaching pre-algebra and algebra? A word-nerd writer trying to teach the inner workings of a cell? A former elementary school teacher standing in front of grown men trying to teach them anything! What the what?! I have lost my mind!
I wanted to quit. Actually, I wanted to quit on the drive there. Just turn my giant red van around and come back home to my crock pot full of soup and my six kids who don’t care that I tap out at fifth grade math. But we have a rule in this family that we finish what we start. And I started this new little part-time job. Because it seemed like a good idea when the program director called out of the blue and then, the next day, offered me a job fifteen minutes into my interview. I had prayed and God had cleared out the one main obstacle, and it seemed like this was God’s provision of an opportunity to earn some money making a positive impact, helping people, encouraging people – those things are right in my wheelhouse. So even though ribosomes and exponents and mitochondria and math problems involving LETTERS threatened to drown me, I sucked it up and went to class.
And I survived. I didn’t drown. I felt really, really dumb. I felt very incapable. Stretched way outside my comfort zone of subjects and predicates and proper punctuation. I imagine that’s how my students also felt. These brave people who are rushing to class after work to study stuff they haven’t thought about in years so they can grasp their second chance to get a diploma. They are also stretching themselves outside their comfort zones. The overwhelming ignorance I felt trying to explain advanced algebra to one student (who is way smarter at math than I am, by the way!) is probably how the one guy felt as I explained factoring to him.
Maybe, just maybe, that I’m about to drown at any second feeling will make me a better GED instructor. Maybe my insecurities and incapabilities will ensure I have empathy with my students. Whatever the case, I am sure all of us in that classroom two evenings a week are praying some version of Jesus, take the wheel! as we delve into those textbooks.
And it’s all going to be good. Because God always works everything out for good. Even math problems involving letters.