One of my earliest mentors and teachers was a biology professor in my senior year of high school. His name was Mr. Butler.
In those days, I was something of a class clown. We had moved so many times in the course of my dad’s Navy career that one of the ways I coped with the change and newness of every situation was with humor.
One year on April Fools’ Day, I organized a class walkout. At a given time, all of us simply got up and walked out of class. We all came back a minute or so later and shouted in unison, “April Fools!”
Most of the teachers that we victimized that day took it in stride, and a couple even seemed to appreciate our independence and creativity. They laughed with us and at us, which is what you do with adolescent hubris.
But not Mr. Butler.
Now I need to tell you that Mr. Butler could have easily been a stand-in double for the legendary Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus. Mr. Butler was a big man, and he had a very serious scowl that could melt adolescent hubris like fire on ice cream.
After our little walkout joke, he dismissed class for the day. As we were leaving, he turned to me and said, “Not you, Mr. Evans.”
I was pretty sure at that point that my life was over. I had a sudden vision of this huge man bouncing me off the wall like a basketball.
I wondered what my parents would write on my tombstone – words such as, “He was funny, but not so much…”
But then something unexpected happened – something that changed my life.
Mr. Butler’s whole demeanor changed. The scowl disappeared and was replaced by a look that combined both disappointment and compassion.
“You are a better person than this,” he said, his voice surprisingly kind. “I’ve seen it in you. You can do better than this, and you should.”
I think it is safe to say that it was that day that my calling was born.
I didn’t know then, and not for a long time after then, exactly what form it would take, but I knew then that I wanted my life to mean something. I wanted to do something that mattered, something that had substance and value.
For better or worse, that is what I have tried to do.
But it began with this teacher believing in me and taking the time to both forgive me for my immature insanity, but also to call out in me the better angels that really exist in all of us.
This is one reason I have such high regard for public school teachers. They are required by law to take all that come to them and do with them what they can.
The children that pass through the halls of our public schools come from every imaginable and unimaginable social situation.
Some come from the most nurturing and supportive environments that exist – and some come from family hell.
Public school teachers teach them all.
And some, like Mr. Butler, decide that what they do is not just a job, but also a calling. They decide to take the class clowns and the trouble-makers and the lost souls, and try to make a difference in their lives.
They reach out to their students with wisdom and compassion and try to inspire their better angels.
And thank God for the ones who do.
James L. Evans is a retired Baptist preacher living in Alabama. Over 35 years, he served churches in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. In support of his pastoral work, Evans published 5 books including “First and Second Corinthians: Immersion Bible Studies” (Abingdon Press (2011).