"Well, David, after some of the stories you've told, I'm not sure I think Christians belong in the public schools."
Stunned, I could not believe I had just heard this statement.
Worse than that, I couldn't believe the statement had been inspired by my own words.
I've given my entire adult life to the public schools, and have no plans of ever doing otherwise. The passion I feel for my mission as a public school educator, as a leader of teachers, is fervent and self-sustaining; if you were to ask me for the top three things I would want a stranger to know about me, this mission would make the list.
And my devotion to Jesus finds itself not stifled, but beautifully channeled toward countless hearts in this arena in which I learn and lead and make an imprint I am usually unaware I am making.
To quote one of my early career mentors, "There is so much more good than bad" about working with students in the public school setting, and I would never want anyone to think differently, especially as a result of talking with me.
But there it was.
I, as a public school principal, had led a heart to conclude the public schools were no place for a Christian.
How could this have happened?
It happened because I had chosen to hold the attention of loved ones at holiday gatherings by regaling them with horror stories and battle scars, tales of mayhem and depravity, chronicles of incidents that represented only the smallest proportion of my dealings, but created the bug-eyed response that is so validating to create in others.
Instead of impressing upon the audience my faith in my students' future, which drives me daily but takes forever to yield fruit, and which I can barely explain without tears, I chose quick shock value instead, dime novel drama over the fulfillment of a classic story.
I never meant to lead my listeners to the place they went, but I did nonetheless.
I think almost everyone does what I did.
Of course, some people honestly hate what they do for a living, and that is tragic. I insist on believing, however, that most have at least the potential for joy in their work. But how many people do you know, who work in fields you have little or no knowledge about, whose stories about their work always seem to come from this same sliver of negative experiences with rotten people?
Why do we do this?
Why do we, especially those of us who dearly love our work, so often represent it to others as more trouble than joy, tangled with aggravation, and stressful beyond measure? Why do we give this impression to people who have no context in which to place the horror stories in perspective?
Am I saying we shouldn't vent our frustrations?
I am saying we are telling the wrong stories to the wrong people.
My fellow principals and I have most of the same challenging experiences, and we should share these with one another, encourage one another, and develop the camaraderie that will make these hard times easier to work through. I should share these difficult stories with these individuals, and they with me, because we instinctively understand that these stories are not the real story, but diversions from it, not the dominant characteristic of our work, but critical moments that exercise our leadership and make us stronger, placing into sharper focus the joys we work for every day.
Lots of other folks just don't have a way of making that distinction.
On the other hand, how many of my non-educator friends, acquaintances, and family members have no real familiarity with the forces that drove me into this field and continue to drive me today? No personal knowledge of the mission story I take for granted and assume everyone knows about me? No awareness of the daily joys, big and small, that lift this principal's spirits, renew his faith, and fill his heart?
How many have never heard?
And more to the point: How many have not heard these things, but have heard dramatic tales of woe, even from me?
Why are you doing what you're doing with your precious life? What is the story? Does it move you? Could it move others? I pray it does, and I'm confident it can. And if it doesn't move you, or not anymore, I pray God will open a different door, and you'll have the faith to step through it.
Tell the story. The real story, even if you can't control your emotions. We want to hear it! Tell us what it's really all about, so we'll know whatever war stories we might hear later on are just part of a larger picture that's more than worth the momentary trouble to you.
We're telling the wrong stories to the wrong people, and it's time we got it right.