Learning to Walk in the Dark

Life quickly becomes the curriculum in our classrooms. Week after week Christina, your second-grade student, misses school; her headaches turn out to be a brain tumor. One of your colleagues arrives home after school to find her sixty-year-old husband dead on the floor from a heart attack. When you ask José why he has been absent so much, he hesitatingly admits it’s because his mother is afraid that the ICE agents seen in the area are looking for undocumented residents. Middle-schooler David is withdrawn and distant; after conversations with the school counselor, you learn he’s pretty sure he’s gay—and he’s afraid. Fear, anxiety, and sadness are everyday visitors in our classrooms, along with the frisson of joy and laughter.

With our constant access to news, we are more aware than ever of school shootings, kidnappings, destructive storms, the plight of refugees, and other global horrors. Some of our students walk a gauntlet of potential violence on their way to school every day and fear going outside after dark. For some children, darkness comes early. For others, with “helicopter” parents, darkness may be an unexpected intrusion on a sheltered and privileged life.

Leading through the Darkness

In schools that are communities of grace, we learn to walk in the dark together. We shouldn’t be surprised when the darkness comes. When Jesus told his disciples, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33), he was speaking from personal experience. How do we create a culture in which we learn to walk in the dark together? As followers of Jesus we are pilgrims learning to live and love well: to speak the truth in love, to reach out to those on the margins, and, eventually, to die well.

But we adults can only lead well in these circumstances if we are practicing spiritual disciplines. As Ruth Haley Barton writes, “Those who are looking to us for spiritual sustenance need us first and foremost to be spiritual seekers ourselves. They need us to keep searching for the bread of life that feeds our own souls so that we can guide them to places of sustenance. . . . Then, rather than offering the cold stone of past devotionals, . . . we will have bread to offer that is warm from the oven of our intimacy with God” (Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, 29).

When the diagnosis of cancer comes or you are informed of the death of your spouse or child, you find yourself in the darkness of a deep cave; the walls close in and claustrophobic dampness stirs a sense of helpless panic. But then you feel a hand reaching for yours in that impenetrable darkness, and you realize you aren’t alone. Numbly, you are led through the dark into the light. Ecclesiastes says it simply: “Two are better than one, / . . . If either of them falls down, / one can help the other up” (4:9, 10).

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