It’s a universal fact that we spend the better part of our youth trying to construct a personal identity. Perhaps you’re the jock or the skater or the goth or the musician or the Christian. I experimented with a number of identities.
The first for me was the artist. I had a natural ability with art as a child. I took art classes at a museum in Little Rock. I entered contests and won. I idolized Leonardo Da Vinci. Eventually I was also the baseball catcher and later, the musician. But the one identify that stuck with me throughout my young life was the “smart one”.
I made good grades. I advanced quickly on all subjects. I found out what my IQ was and was proud of it. I became accustomed to receiving praise from teachers, and eventually became emotionally dependent upon it. I liked to show off in class. I was the guy who always raised his hand first to answer questions in front of the class.
My friendships began to dwindle in high school. I sincerely believed that it was because people were jealous of me. I learned later that this was not the case, but no one took the time to tell me otherwise. I see now that many of my high school teachers were patiently tolerating me at best.
In college, I studied music, and this is when I began to create serious trouble for myself. In my first year music theory class, there was a marvelous professor. He was funny and very talented. I enjoyed his class very much. He was so popular that he had a fan club of sorts. But it turned out he was not enjoying me so much.
One morning, he handed back our tests and asked if we had any questions. I examined my test and found something that I believed to be an egregious error. I raised my hand immediately.
“Professor, you counted off for missing an extra credit question. My grade should be 100%.”
“David, ” he said. “You didn’t have to take the extra credit, but by doing so you take the chance of being counted off for missing them.”
I knew I was in the right so I rebutted. “No, extra credit means that if I get it right I get extra points, but if I get it wrong, there are no points taken. That’s why it’s called extra.”
I could see that he was becoming very agitated with me as I continued to argue with him in front of the entire class. I suspect that the class was becoming very uncomfortable with this scene, but I just COULDN’T let it go.
Then he did something that I had never seen a teacher do. He threw up his hands and shouted “You know what? I just can’t deal with this today. Class dismissed!”
I walked out of class thinking this guy was totally out of line ,and that I had every right to challenge him. After all, he had asked if we had questions. When the rest of the students began leave the class, one of my buddies found me and said, “I just thought you should know that he totally trashed you to the whole class after you left.” I was stunned and furious. I couldn’t understand. I had always been the “good” kid. I had believed that my teachers had always loved me.
Weeks later, it appeared that all was forgotten. We were studying a duet from Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, and before class began he approached my twin and me about it. The version we were looking at in the textbook was written in German. He wanted us to use his own English translation to learn the piece because he wanted the class to sing it the next day in class and needed strong singers to lead.
As I studied the translation that evening, I realized just how brilliant the man truly was. It was so masterfully done. The next day, as class was about to start, he approached us and asked if we were ready. And this is where I made my fatal mistake.
“It’s ready, but MAN whoever did this translation really sucked.” Now, in my very immature mind, this was a playful ribbing. To me, it was self-evident that the translation was an extraordinary accomplishment. He did not say anything at first.
He called the class to order and began introducing the lesson, but in the middle of it he flat out stopped. I was on the front row. He looked right at me and said, “Ok, so you come in here and disrupt the beginning of my class and…you know what?! That’s it! I cannot deal with your bullshit today. Everybody leave! Class dismissed. You can blame this guy!” And he pointed to me with a grand j’accuse.
I later tried to find him to clear the air and explain myself. I passed him on the way to my voice lessons, and I tried to hail him. As I approached him, a burning expression exploded onto his face, and he said “I’m not ready to talk you, yet. I don’t even want to look at you.”
I stopped for a moment and took a few deep breaths. I had never to my knowledge upset an adult like this before. I didn’t think I was capable of hurting an adult’s feelings. I went to my adviser, who was also the choir director and laid it out for him. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he was kind about it. Apparently, he and the entire department were already familiar with the story. He recommended that I give it a couple of weeks before trying to approach him again.
In two weeks, I went to the theory professor’s office and he invited me to take a seat. I apologized and tried to explain why I had said what I had said. He took the high road and I never had a conflict with him again. But the damage was done, I had humiliated a professor and he had humiliated me. You might say that the guy was over-sensitive and had no right to respond the way he did, and that’s the way I saw it for a long time.
But my disruptive behavior was not confined to that one class. I brought it with me to choir. I loved and idolized the director. He was ever a positive force in my life. I credit him for making me the choir director that I am today. He was very patient with me; more patient then I truly realized.
And then one day, I crossed the line. We were in a dress rehearsal in a church near campus. The performance halls for the School of Music had not yet been built, so we sang all of our concerts in churches. We were rehearsing a very tricky piece of music. I sang in the tenor section, and we were really struggling with an 11/8 meter phrase. He made us do it over and over with no success. But after examining his conducting pattern, I discovered that he was dropping the eleventh beat and that was what was throwing us.
He was becoming impatient with us and perhaps a little bit panicked. The concert was that evening. It was at that moment when I lost my patience. My face became hot as the hinges of Hell. My hand shot up before I could even think of what I was doing.
“Professor. We’re never going to get this right if you keep dropping the 11th beat!”
There was an audible gasp from the choir followed by heated whispers. He quietly looked at me and then at his music, and said, “Let’s jump to page 3. We’ll come back to this.”
But we didn’t sing for long before he said, “Ok guys let’s take 10.” I know that he was helping me save face by delaying his reaction.
As I was heading for the bathroom he motioned me to him. He invited me to take a seat with him on one of the pews. He began to tell me a story.
“David, it’s perfectly ok for you to raise concerns with me. I will never be offended by your comments, but next time I would appreciate it if you come to me on a break or after rehearsal.” He looked me steadily in the eye as he continued with a demeanor of deep concern. “There was a guy in my choir just a few years ago. Perhaps you even remember him. He was very smart and an outstanding singer, just like you. But he had a tendency to raise his hand a lot in my rehearsals to challenge me or his classmates. He was earning a bad reputation with the entire music faculty. It wasn’t long before every time he raised his hand, his classmates were rolling their eyes. After two years of this, no one could stand him and whatever friends he had would no longer have anything to do with him. That was a shame, and I would hate to see it happen to you, David. You’re better than that. It’s not too late for you to turn it around.”
He patted my knee and left me sitting in the pew to be alone with my thoughts. I began to reflect on my academic career and the way I’d been behaving. I had always believed that teachers wanted their students to be active participants, and that’s the way I saw myself…until that very moment. He had lifted an obscuring veil of sorts. I was deeply ashamed, but this moment changed my life forever. I never behaved that way again in college nor anytime after, and I have more friends than I can count.
I learned that my need to be right, to be the smart guy, was far less important than being patient and humbly respectful of the people in my life. This act of his was an extravagant gift of grace. He gave me a powerful glimpse of Christ in the world. The Emmanuel. God with us. Perhaps I will be Christ to someone in need one day, or perhaps I’ve already done it and will never know it just as he probably never knew it.