The Scandal of Grace
I once had an ice cream cone with the school bully—a fifth-grader named Jay. There are bullies who earn their reputations by being big and talking tough. Jay earned his by kicking people’s butts. He was short and wiry. His twitchy movements and swaggering gait gave him a roosterish aspect, an effect that was magnified by a cowlick that made a ridge of hair stand up like a comb along the top of his head. He had taken up the habit of holding his arms out from his torso like a bodybuilder or a gunslinger.
I don’t remember how exactly it came to pass that Jay and I were together at Baskin-Robbins—maybe he and I just happened to be there at the same time. But I remember that he and I and another boy ate our ice cream cones outside, in the grimy hindparts of a shopping center, among the dumpsters and the discarded pallets. I remember Jay swiping the last crumbs of the ice cream cone off his hands, then balling up his hard little fist and punching me right below my left eye. I remember the hot shame that burned on my face as I pelted home as fast as my bike would take me.
When my parents asked about the bruise below my eye, I made something up rather than tell them what really happened. I didn’t want my mother to baby me. I didn’t want my father to be ashamed of me.
I had a very special teacher that fourth-grade year—Mrs. Romero, a beautiful Cuban woman, so kind and generous-hearted that every kid in the class believed himself to be her favorite. In my case, of course, it was true. She was exactly the sort of person you could give your troubles to. But I didn’t give my troubles to Mrs. Romero, and she didn’t give me comfort. Instead she gave me something much more important—something I didn’t even want.
Field Day at Miller Elementary fell a week or two after my ice cream outing with Jay. When the fifth-grade sprinters lined up to run the hundred-yard dash, my stomach churned at the sight of Jay taking his place. My loathing was magnified by the knowledge that Jay would probably win. The whistle blew, the boys bolted from the starting line, and my heart sank as Jay pulled into the lead like some sort of flying rooster.
Above the shouts and squeals of children came a delicious Cuban trill: “Rrrrun, Jay, rrrrun!” The intent look on Jay’s face spread into a grin when he heard Mrs. Romero’s encouragement, and he ran faster, beating his nearest competitor by ten yards.
I glared at Mrs. Romero in hurt astonishment. Did she even know what kind of delinquent she was encouraging? If she had any idea what Jay had done to me, her favorite student, she wouldn’t have been so friendly.
Of course, Mrs. Romero knew and understood much more about Jay than I did. She understood that he was still a boy, that his course didn’t have to be set just yet. And she understood how badly a fatherless boy needs for somebody—anybody—to delight in him. I thought it undignified and scandalous for a grown woman to be yelling like that for a little criminal. But grace is always a scandal.
The root of the word ‘educate’ means literally to lead forth or to draw out. Mrs. Romero, the educator, drew something out of Jay that I had never seen. I had seen smirks and sneers and the occasional wicked grin on Jay’s face. But I had never seen happiness.
Mrs. Romero drew something out of me too, though she didn’t know it. Quite by accident—just by doing her job well—she brought an ugly self-righteousness out into the open where I could get a good look at it. She was an agent of grace that day—for me no less than Jay. She showed me that there is a wideness in God’s mercy that is wider than the sea.
As it turned out, fifth grade was the high-water mark in Jay’s bullying career. When he went to Warner Robins Junior High, he was eclipsed by the ninth-grade bullies (young men of considerable ambition and ingenuity). By the time Jay was a ninth-grader himself, widespread puberty had scrambled the pecking order beyond all recognition.
I don’t know what became of Jay. But when I think of him, I try to remember not the beady-eyed sinner behind the ice cream shop, but the Field Day runner taking a boyish joy in the delight of a woman who loved him in spite of all.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Wilderking Trilogy, The World According to Narnia, and other books. He is also a frequent contributor to The Rabbit Room. He is Head of the Liberal Arts Program at New College Franklin in Franklin, Tennessee, and teaches creative writing seminars and online classes. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife Lou Alice and their children.
“You have a story to tell — many stories, no doubt. You need to tell our story, not only to be understood, but in order to understand yourself.” Jonathan Rogers
On Saturday, November 22, Jonathan Rogers will be conducting a one-day writing seminar in Charlotte.
All are welcome, regardless of writing experience. Who should attend? Anyone who:
> Enjoys writing
> Processes through journaling
> Wants to explore the smaller stories that have shaped who they are and are becoming
> Is interested in learning more about the writing process
You can learn more about the seminar and reserve your spot here.