I was on my way out of the classroom on a Thursday when he handed back my paper. In it, he told me he had been honest, as I had asked. And then, as I kicked gravel under my Puma sneakers in the hazy fall sun, I read his comments.
He told me that I was a better writer than what I had produced. That I had, in my gleeful mistaken assumptions about the author, the text, the implications of the words on the page, taken offense to the author of the text. I could have done much better, he wrote.
I cried about it hysterically on the car ride home, one of those few days when I was picked up alone by my Dad and we got donuts from Dunks on our way back to our old red house, the home of what I thought was my list of ceaseless triumphs. I am a good girl ever being re-formed back into a whole self, and in high school, I ran myself hard in marathons of expectations and disappointments, the weight of each heavy in my heart.
There is something about being new to graduate school that, if you’re new or old there, or new or old in any kind of work, big or small, apparent or hidden, that keeps making me think of that high school version of me.
I was so unwilling to allow for wrong. I was so unwilling to believe that some things are learned by slow osmosis. By a silence that enters and changes us, by a year upon year returning to the same question the same text the same author the same gracious God who is over and through and in all. No, I would tell myself in the walk between buildings, you must learn immediately and remember forever. You must never make the same mistake twice. You must never relearn something you should have known or were already taught.
It was true for me in French class, loathing my forgetfulness of the conditionnel passé. It was true in theater, forgetting a line or a gesture that was all-important in the scene that we had already rehearsed. It was true in friendship. It was true in faith.
So by the time I was a senior hearing my favorite teacher tell me that I was, in fact, a better writer than what I had turned in, I cried hysterically on the way home because his words meant I had to relearn something. I had to go back. I had to try again. I had to revisit something I believed I should have already mastered. And that must mean, I thought, that I was never capable of knowing it at all. That I was never going to be smart enough. That I was never going to see the light or come to a good conclusion or write a better paper. If I couldn’t do it perfectly now I could never do it.
Eventually, I realized God was there.
I don’t mean footsteps, or whispers in fire or rain or wind. I mean the slow awakening, that itself is the result of practice, of grace received, of many mistakes. And ours is not a God who believes in instant mastery.
There is no lesson that is not to be relearned. There is nothing to be either good at (and capable of) or bad at (and incapable of) in the most important works we do. There is natural gifting, yes, but how gracious and wild and freeing is it that even those with abundant gifts are given the same tasks to work at, again and again?
That we are all taught to trust God over the whole of life – each season, each event, each uncertainty – and that such relearning is not for the faint of heart only but also for the strong?
That we are tasked to revise, reimagine, recreate, relearn the most glorious things about God in the most mundane and everyday ways?
Because there is nothing new under the sun and that makes everything new.
I can’t do it – faith, graduate school, philosophy, creating a family, learning to cook, teaching – any of it, perfectly, and I don’t serve a God who sees me as a failed marathon runner in expectation and disappointment.
I serve a God who retaught His disciples the same things about the kingdom of heaven in many parables. I serve a God who reteaches the people Israel the meaning of trust in Him, in manna, in the stories of Abraham and all the faithful, in the prophets. I serve a God who is unafraid to teach me again the things I couldn’t understand, didn’t do right or perfectly or well, the first time.
Maybe in all of us there is a hidden high-school self that is asking us why we can’t just wake up and not need to relearn all the things we keep needing to relearn. Maybe in the work you do, wherever you are, there is a self asking why you think you can do it at all since you couldn’t the first time, the thirtieth time, the hundredth time.
To that voice, in as much love as I can muster, I say: there, in the repetition, in the almost-giving-up, is the God who leaves us breathless with how He loves to teach us the same things for the thousandth time.
We don’t need to be afraid to re-learn.