This past summer my siblings and I stood in the Hoxie, Kansas, cemetery and buried my mom’s ashes next to where my dad and grandparents are laid to rest. After a funeral luncheon and most everyone had left, I drove by my old elementary school, sat in my car and thought back to a December day back in the 1960s. During the lunch recess, my 4th-grade teacher, Miss Karnes, asked me to go with her to pick out the class Christmas tree from Getz’s IGA.
To understand this, you have to go back with me to a December morning when our fourth-grade class was reading aloud just before lunch. Going up and down the rows, Miss Karnes had each of the 20 students taking a turn reading out loud.
When it came time for the boy sitting to my right to read, he butchered nearly every other word. The boy to my left started giggling. And then guess who burst out laughing? Well, that did it for Miss Karnes. At nearly 6-foot tall and sturdy, she asked the struggling reader to stop.
Looking straight at me, she belted out, “Donny Follis.” I froze. With her booming voice she was laser focused. “Do not ever, ever (greatly emphasizing “ever”) make fun of someone who is trying his best to read.” She paused and stared straight at me for what seemed like an eternity before asking, “Do you understand me, Mr. Follis?”
A feeble “yes” squeaked from my voice.
Sitting in my car outside the school last summer, I suddenly remembered that December morning back in the day. And I thought of what I might have said. “Miss Karnes, I am sorry for giggling. I was not making fun of his reading. I just got tickled. I should have controlled myself. I guess the two of us here on the back row were being ornery 9-year-olds. Please forgive me. It won’t happen again.”
Looking at the windows of the old classroom, I then imagined me turning to the boy to my right and saying, “I’m so sorry I giggled. That was wrong. Will you please forgive me?”
But of course, what 9-year-old would think to say those words of contrition while being dressed down by a teacher breathing fire down his neck? In fact, the little red-headed Frosty-the-Snowman named Donny Follis completely melted.
Fortunately, the class soon broke for lunch, giving me a needed reprieve. But as soon as we cleared our trays from the lunch room and started to head outside for noon recess, Miss Karnes grabbed my arm. “Say there, Mr. Follis,” she said using a soft, kind voice that I don’t think I’d heard before. “I need a little help. What do you say you and I go right now and pick out a Christmas tree for the class?”
I was bewildered and scared but compliant. The next thing I knew, Miss Karnes and I were standing outside Getz’s IGA looking through the green pine trees standing against the outside wall of the store.
Miss Karnes, who had a strong, loud voice, suddenly was soft-spoken and playful. My 9-year-old self was puzzled and wondered if it wouldn’t have been better if she had asked both the poor reader and me to go together with her. But it was just me, and so I picked out a tree. The teacher and I loaded it in her car and were soon hauling up to the second-floor classroom.
Late that December, my dad got transferred to a new town and we moved in early January. I never saw Miss Karnes again. When I looked her up last summer, I discovered that she taught school for nearly 40 years, never married and was retired for many years before her death in 2003.
Was my giggling wrong? I’m sure. Was Miss Karnes’ response to severe? Way too severe. Now, I said I was not the first to giggle. But memory is notoriously faulty. Maybe I giggled first. As I returned from Kansas to my home in Illinois last summer, I started thinking about “total depravity,” a phrase first used by Protestant reformation-era theologians in the 16th century. The words from the prophet Jeremiah kept rolling through my mind. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. What can understand it?”
While I was raised out on the High Plains to believe that all people generally are good – you do right by people; they will do right by you – when I grew up, I came to believe, as total depravity teaches, and as David writes in Psalm 51, “I was born in sin and in sin did my mother give me birth.”
I no longer see people as humans who are good but occasionally mess up. Rather, I view people as broken and sinful but with God’s help still are able to love and care for others and perform good deeds. Even so, are our good deeds ever totally selfless? Rarely.
Frankly, then, it should come as no surprise to any of us to realize that so many of our thoughts and actions are tinged with sin. Quite honestly, it is hard to love everyone we meet and utterly impossible to untangle our individual lives from systems of injustice that surround us.
So, if Miss Karnes comes right at you in the days before Christmas, don’t be surprised. And if you start giggling at someone’s misfortune, well, just remember that every human heart is deceitful and beyond fully understanding.
And so now, my friends, you know why I have added this prayer, too, to my Christmas collection:
“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”