In the past month, God has been working overtime to show me something.
As many of you know, I teach high school English and journalism. To say that working with teenagers is a challenge would be the understatement of the year. They are small adults, but much of their choices can be careless; their actions can be very hurtful. So, being your resident softy, I am often cut to the core by some of their decisions. I know I strive to look tough on the outside at my job, but on the inside, I am literally… mush.
There! I said it. Mush! M-U-S-H!
In one of my first years of teaching, a senior of mine on the yearbook staff really, really hurt me. I entrusted her with a lot. I invested in her. I connected with her, but when the chips were down, she fell apart. And in the aftermath, she quit the course without notifying me, and then proceeded to make some very hurtful decisions. I won’t go into details out of respect for her and the fact that once upon a time she was my student…
Well three years went by… and as time often does, it healed many of my wounds over those incidents, and to be honest, the experiences made me a much wiser teacher and tougher person when it came to the letdowns of my job.
So, I was staying late one day to clean my classroom and grade copious essays on the historical context of Harper Lee’s timeless novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. And to my surprise, I heard a little knock and saw a vaguely familiar face in my classroom door’s window…
It a moment’s time, events from a forgotten past came rushing back. I know my reception of this young woman, who was now 21, was a little reserved. I was nervous as to why she was standing in my classroom after all that we’d been through.
Right away, she began speaking. “I know you’re shocked to see me. I wouldn’t blame you after everything I put you through, but I came by today to tell you I am sorry for everything. A lot has been happening in my life, and I’ve been thinking about what I did to you for a long, long time, and I’m sorry.”
There it was. The words I only wished for three years ago. The words I accepted that I’d never hear. But I was hearing them all. And immediately, God softened my heart. My reserved posture became more welcoming, and my washed-out face from the shock regained its color.
She continued on, explaining herself, her mistakes, her sorrow. I could just stand there and listen, and when she was done, I was ready to respond.
“Sarah*,” I said, “Thank you for your apology. Of course I forgive you.”
I told her that she was very brave for coming here to tell me this. I told her that I respected her courage and candor. We talked for a bit more, and then she left.
And I was left with total peace...
When people hurt us we want to hear “I’m sorry.” We want them to own up to what they’ve done. And most often, those words come late, or they don’t come at all.
Can we be okay with this? Can we move on?
This past month, I've learned two things on this subject. 1) If the apology never comes, I must find a way to forgive anyway and 2) If the apology doesn’t come in a timely manner, perhaps hours or days after the injury, it doesn’t mean it’s not coming at all. We must be patient with the people that hurt us because their apology is often the result of their own personal journey and evolution. Apologies, sincere ones at least, can’t come when our enemies are in their original state. They must come after the fact.
And we, being the ones harmed, must take the higher road and recognize the limits of our enemies. That’s a jagged pill to swallow, I know. It's not easy to accept because we want so badly for justice to prevail in the very moment we determine it should show up. We have a strong sense of what's right and just.
But forgiveness is more powerful than justice. Forgiveness is a tool that allows us to let go. It gives us the strength to show mercy and love by freeing the person who did us wrong if we choose to do so. Forgiveness, as I once read, is a gift we give ourselves.
So for me, I know that I need to remember that no matter how badly I am hurt by someone—and in the past couple of months that’s been a lot—I have the power to forgive, and I have the wisdom to understand that though the apology is delayed or never even comes, I can still forgive for myself.
I have to be honest: normally I am the one teaching my students, but this time it was a former student's unexpected apology that taught me a thing or two about life.
*name of student was changed