This is an awesome sight. I am both honored and humbled to have been asked to preach in the heart of so much history. As a nation, we have knelt with presidents at this familiar altar to celebrate and grieve and give thanks.
This morning, however, we are here in prayer for our city. And as we observe D.C. Day, I believe that we must also do a little soul searching. I’m going to speak about Washington’s commitment to our youngest. And it’s my hope that if we find ourselves lacking, we will leave here vowing to “work what is good toward all” by devoting time and energy to our best hope for the future.
Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians to deal with the question of whether a person must obey the law of Moses in order to be a true Christian. Paul said, “What I say is this: Let the Spirit direct your lives, and you will not satisfy the desires of the human nature. For what our human nature wants is opposed to what the Spirit wants, and what the Spirit wants is opposed to what our human nature wants. These two are enemies, and this means that you can not do what you want to do. If the Spirit leads you, then you are not subject to the law.”
Paul argued in his letter that the only sound basis for life in Christ was faith, by which all are put right with God. This morning I intend to talk about Christian conduct and the need for more spirit and less human nature particularly when it comes to the students of our public schools.
The District of Columbia has had a traumatic time and its children have fared even worse. Three years ago, a presidentially appointed control board assumed the responsibility to pull this city out of the depths of total despair. Eighteen months ago that same board asked me to change the fortunes of a lot of children whose futures appeared to be mighty bleak.
According to the control board, “in virtually every category and for every grade level, by virtually every measure of performance, the public school system has failed to provide a quality education for all children and a safe environment in which to learn.” Indeed, the school system was broken in fundamental ways.
The team we assembled had to be exceptional: not just as results-oriented problem-solvers, not just as skillful managers and organizers, but as folks who could see things in the seed, so to speak, and in doing so believed, as I did, in putting children first.
In my judgment we were committed and we knew we were doing the work of the Lord—some of us coming out of retirement, another commuting on weekends to Kansas City to be with his spouse, others forgoing lucrative private business opportunities and one even giving up the opportunity for promotion to a general officer.
Where are we today? Well, we may not have leaped tall buildings in a single bound, but we’ve “kept the school bus from plunging off the bridge” and I believe we set it firmly on the road to success. Thanks to system-wide effort and determination, we achieved results I’m extremely proud of. Doubly so, since they required a new spirit of caring and concern and cooperation. While we accomplished much, more could have been done if more parents and members of this community had been willing to join us.
Where are we going? Well, a lot depends on you. While in Wall Street’s views the District of Columbia is recovering, in my view full recovery cannot be expected unless public education in D.C. is revitalized. The reason is simple. Public schooling is a major factor in keeping and attracting families and maintaining economic growth and stability. And unless the silent majority becomes vocal and active when it comes to public education, the district will never completely recover.
We must be ever mindful of our motto—”Children First”—and understand that Christian conduct is more than attending church on Sunday. Among other things it’s also going forth into the community as modern-day apostles to do good and to help others in need; to be an advocate for the less fortunate and a strong voice when smaller ones cannot be heard. So I ask you to volunteer at a school for the sake of our children. I ask you to join me as a tutor for a second grade student. I ask you for donations that will reinforce our children’s programs. And I ask you to be mindful of school-related issues and support the educational well-being of all our children, not just a few. And while we are about it, let’s debate issues and stop attacking personalities.
We need to follow the lead of this great institution as it reaches out in love to people of all faiths, traditions and backgrounds. In this respect two and a half months ago, the district’s faith community launched a seven-point plan, involving local ministers, rabbis, priests and representatives from more than 100 churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship. Together with parents and the school system, they developed a partnership to carry out the concept that “it takes a village to raise a child.”
Consider this. It may not be in our human nature to venture into certain parts of this city. It may not be in our human nature to see the ample potential that exists in every child. It may not be in our human nature to want to get involved. But it is every bit a wonderful and rewarding spiritual journey to move beyond those self-imposed confines. Listen to one such journey. I think you will find it as moving as I did.
Jean Thompson stood in front of her fifth-grade class on the very first day of school in the fall and told the children a lie. Like most teachers, she looked at her pupils and said that she loved them all the same, that she would treat them all alike. And that was impossible because there in front of her, slumped in his seat on the third row, was a little black boy named Teddy Stoddard.
Mrs. Thompson had watched Teddy the year before and noticed he didn’t play well with the other children, that his clothes were unkempt and that he constantly needed a bath. And Teddy was unpleasant. It got to the point during the first few months that she would actually take delight in marking his papers with a broad red pen, making bold Xs and then marking the “F” at the top of the paper…biggest of all. Because Teddy was a sullen little boy, no one else seemed to enjoy him, either.
At the school where Mrs. Thompson taught, she was required to review each child’s records, and she put Teddy’s off until last. When she opened his file, she was in for a surprise. His first-grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is a bright, inquisitive child with a ready laugh. He does his work neatly and has good manners…he is a joy to be around.” His second-grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is an excellent student, well-liked by his classmates, but he is troubled because his mother has a terminal illness and life at home must be a struggle.” His third-grade teacher wrote, “Teddy continues to work hard but his mother’s death has been hard on him. He tries to do his best but his father doesn’t show much interest and his home life will soon affect him if some steps aren’t taken.” Teddy’s fourth-grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is withdrawn and doesn’t show much interest in school. He doesn’t have many friends and sometimes sleeps in class. He is tardy and could become a problem.” By now Mrs. Thompson realized the problem but Christmas was coming fast. It was all she could do, with the school play and all, until the day before the holidays began and she was suddenly forced to focus on Teddy Stoddard.
Her children brought her presents, all in beautiful ribbon and bright paper, except for Teddy’s, which was clumsily wrapped in the heavy, brown paper of a scissored grocery bag. Mrs. Thompson took pains to open it in the middle of the other presents. Some of the children started to laugh when she found a rhinestone bracelet with some of the stones missing and a bottle that was one-quarter full of cologne. She stifled the children’s laughter when she exclaimed how pretty the bracelet was, putting it on, and dabbing some of the perfume behind the other wrist. Teddy Stoddard stayed behind just long enough to say, “Mrs. Thompson, today you smelled just like my mom used to.” After the children left she cried for at least an hour.
On that very day, she quit teaching reading and writing and speaking. Instead, she began to teach children. Jean Thompson paid particular attention to one they all called “Teddy.” As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive. The more she encouraged him, the faster he responded. On days there would be an important test, Mrs. Thompson would remember that cologne. By the end of the year he had become one of the smartest children in the class and, well, he had also become the “pet” of the teacher who had once vowed to love all of her children exactly the same.
A year later she found a note under her door, from Teddy, telling her that of all the teachers he’d had in elementary school, she was his favorite. Six years went by before she got another note from Teddy. He then wrote that he had finished high school, third in his class, and she was still his favorite teacher of all time. Four years after that, she got another letter saying that, while things had been tough at times, he’d stayed in school, had stuck with it, and would graduate from college with the highest of honors. He assured Mrs. Thompson she was still his favorite teacher. Then four more years passed and yet another letter came. This time he explained that after he got his bachelor’s degree, he decided to go a little further. The letter explained that she was still his favorite teacher but that now his name was a little longer. The letter was signed, Theodore F. Stoddard, M.D.
The story doesn’t end there. You see, there was yet another letter that spring. Teddy said he’d met this girl and was to be married. He explained that his father had died a couple of years ago and he was wondering, well, if Mrs. Thompson might agree to sit in the pew usually reserved for the mother of the groom. And guess what, she wore that bracelet, the one with several rhinestones missing. And I bet on that special day, Jean Thompson smelled just like, well, just like the way Teddy remembered his mother smelling on their last Christmas together.
The moral: you never can tell what type of impact you may make on another’s life by your actions or lack of action. Consider this fact as you follow your own path. And remember that the Teddy Stoddards of Washington, D.C., are waiting. Let’s all help to give them the chance of a lifetime.