Total depravity meets Christmas in 4th grade classroom

[The column appeared in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette on Sunday, December 8, 2019.]

On a hot summer day last August, I was thinking back to an early December day when I was in the 4th-grade at Hoxie Elementary School in Hoxie, Kansas. Miss Karnes, my teacher, asked me to choose the Christmas tree for the class.

Paying my respects at my dad’s grave site, and taking care of some business, had taken me back to Northwestern Kansas. While there, I decided to explore my old elementary school. I had not stepped foot in the building for more than 50 years.

When I drove up to the school, I immediately thought of the incident that led to me joining Miss Karnes and picking out the Christmas tree. It all started one December morning during reading time. The entire class was taking turns reading out loud. When a boy on my right took his turn, he butchered almost every word. The boy on my left started giggling. And guess whose giggling followed? 

Well, that did for Miss Karnes. At nearly 6-foot tall and quite sturdy, she stopped the boy from trying to read. Then she belted my name: “Donny Follis.” I froze. “Look at me.” Enunciating every word, she said, “Do not ever, ever (greatly emphasizing “ever”) make fun of someone who is trying his best to read.” And then deliberately and loudly, she added, “Do-you-understand-me?”

When I stood outside that classroom last summer, Miss Karnes’ voice came pounding back into my memory. Standing alone in the doorway in the August heat, I literally spoke out loud the words my 9-year-old self wish he could have said. “Miss Karnes, please, Miss Karnes, I am sorry for giggling. Two of us boys here in the back were being ornery 9-year-olds. Please forgive me. It won’t happen again.”

But of course, what 9-year-old would ever say that, especially with a giant teacher breathing down his neck? In fact, little red-headed Frosty-the-Snowman named Donny Follis completely melted.

Here’s what happened next.  The class broke for lunch. As we all headed out for recess, Miss Karnes stopped me. Patting me on the shoulder she said, “I need a little help, Donny. What do you say you and I go pick out a Christmas tree for the class right now?” I was confused, but the next thing I knew Miss Karnes and I were standing outside Getz’s IGA looking through the pine trees resting upright against the outside wall.

Miss Karnes was contrite, and I was compliant. I knew that letting me choose the class Christmas tree was her attempt at restitution for yelling at me in front of the entire class. But even that didn’t stop my 4th-grade mind from wondering if it wouldn’t have been better if she had asked both the boy who was the poor reader and me to go with her. Nonetheless, I quickly picked out a tree. Miss Karnes and I loaded it in her car, drove back to the school and hauled it up to the classroom.

That same December my dad got transferred to a new town. By early January we had moved. There was a new school and a new 4th-grade teacher. I never saw Miss Karnes again. Last summer I looked up her name and discovered that she taught school for nearly 40 years. She never married and was retired for many years before her death in 2003.

Was Miss Karnes’ response toward me too severe?  It was. Was my giggling wrong? It was. While I said I didn’t initiate the giggling, memory is notoriously faulty. Maybe I did. As I returned from Kansas to Illinois, I was thinking about “Total Depravity,” an idea developed by Protestant Reformation-era theologians in the 16th century. Their understanding gave words to theology behind such verses as this one from the Prophet Jeremiah: “The heart is deceitful beyond all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

While I was raised out on the High Plans to believe that all people basically are good – you do right by people; they’ll do right by you – when I grew up I came to believe, as total depravity purports, and as David writes in the Psalms, “I was born in sin and in sin did my mother give me birth.”

I now believe humans should be framed not as good people who sometimes mess up but as messed-up people who, with God’s help, can do some good deeds.  Even our best deeds, though, never will be entirely good. Therefore, it should come as no surprise to people who feel their every thought and action is tinged by sin. Not only are we unable to love everyone we meet, it is impossible to untangle our individual lives from systems of injustice that surround us.

So, if someone like Miss Karnes comes right at you in these days leading up to Christmas, don’t be too shocked. And if you start giggling at someone’s misfortune, well, you might just remember that you are a messed-up person who, with God’s help, can do some good deeds, however limited.

Our “Merry Christmas to all,” always is buttressed with our knowing that we await a final Advent where there will be joy beyond the walls of this broken world more poignant than grief.