There is a fact of my childhood that folks who have only known me as an adult sometimes struggle to believe. I was a bad kid.
The principal at Lincoln Elementary School in Mount Pleasant, Iowa told my poor mom that I was the worst discipline problem he had encountered in 30 years of education. He then told her that she needed to attend parent-teacher-principal conferences … EVERY WEEK!
Problems continued through junior high (30+ detentions in 7th grade pre-Algebra), high school (I once glued my own shoes to the wall in French class), and, although I was not necessarily disruptive in the classroom, college. (Yes, Dad, I am finally ready to admit that you did not get full value from those tuition dollars.)
I find nothing constructive—or even mildly funny—in my behavior. It was a waste of time, opportunity, and a pretty good brain. I am just thankful for a praying mom, a wife who somehow saw through the stupidity to the possibility, and the US Army, which gave me four years to grow up while getting paid.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject lately because my son, Caleb, is finishing high school. He’s got plenty of credits and has decided enough is enough. He, his sister, and his brother will spend Spring camping the American West. Then, well, maybe the military, maybe college, maybe a job. He’ll figure it out.
Caleb and I have struggled because Caleb is a reincarnation of me. Perhaps he never acted quite as badly, but there were plenty of teachers in his past who recognized the talent imprisoned by his attitude and thought, what a loss.
And I, the dad who should have coached him through his struggles, instead saw him risking so much potential and got wildly, dangerously angry.
In the last six months, though, all has changed. Caleb has become more forgiving, more tolerant, more disciplined. It’s not as if I’m doing better as a father. Nor have his siblings or teachers radically evolved. (His mom has always been perfect.) Caleb just got wiser.
I know it has not been easy. He still grinds his teeth at petty irritations. He still has the perfect joke at just the wrong time. And he still struggles to direct his mental and physical energies; he could solve nuclear fusion if not for the distractions of hip hop, and anime, and sports, and squirrels.
To have seen Caleb race against himself for three years of high school only to take an insurmountable lead as a senior makes my chest ache.
Forgiveness has gone out of favor in our country. Prison overcrowding. Cancel culture. Everybody’s worst moments looped on YouTube. Success seems reserved for those who were born right and never waivered.
If we are to be the Land of Opportunity of our most aspirational myths, we must provide room for all potential to flourish.
At Christmastime, we are reminded of mercy and of grace. It has been said that justice is getting what you deserve, mercy is not getting what you deserve, and grace is getting what you could never earn. If people truly were bound by the mistakes of their past, then I, the kid who shot a spit wad down his buddy’s earhole and committed other wrongs much less funny and far more hurtful, could not be the President and CEO of the Iowa Lakes Corridor Development Corporation.
Thankfully, there is grace, which I witness not just in the nativity scene, but everyday in my 17-year-old son.