Bonhoeffer, fifth-grade teachers, and souls in chaos

By Jeffrey Oak '85 M.Div., '96 Ph.D.
YDS Alumni Association Board President

It was a Saturday morning and I had just finished up at the gym. I stopped at Dunkin Donuts to get a cup of coffee on my way to pick something up at the mall. As I was waiting at the counter, I glanced at the TV and saw the headline on the national news: “Three confirmed dead in shooting at mall.” The words kept scrolling at the bottom of the screen, “….in Columbia Maryland.” This was not just national news. It was local news. We live in the town adjacent to Columbia; the shopping mall that was to be my destination at the beginning of the day was now a crime scene.

Another crime scene with innocent victims. Another instance of unspeakable violence. Another tableau of chaos. 

A few days later I was reading Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss and came across this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “It will be the task of our generation, not to ‘seek great things,’ but to save and preserve our souls out of the chaos, and to realize that it is the only thing we can carry as a ‘prize’ from the burning building.” Or from the locked down mall. Or the kindergarten classroom. Or the darkened movie theater.

“To save and preserve our souls out of the chaos.”

A week after the mall shooting a fellow Yale Divinity School graduate shared a link to a post on by Glennon Doyle Melton. The post was about Melton’s son’s fifth grade schoolteacher. According to Melton, every Friday afternoon, this teacher “asks her students to take out a piece of paper and write down the names of four children with whom they’d like to sit the following week. The children know that these requests may or may not be honored. She also asks the students to nominate one student whom they believe has been an exceptional classroom citizen that week. All ballots are privately submitted to her.”

Melton explains that after the students go home, this teacher trained in mathematics takes out the pieces of paper, arranges them on her desk and looks for patterns. Not quantitative patterns, as she was trained when she was an analyst for NASA. Not geometric patterns. Human patterns:

  • Who is not getting requested by anyone else?
  • Who doesn’t even seem to know whom to request?
  • Who never gets noticed?
  • Who had a hundred friends last week and none this week?

This teacher “is not looking for a new seating chart or ‘exceptional citizens,’” explains Melton. Instead, the teacher “is looking for lonely children. She’s looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She’s identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class’s social life.” This teacher is looking for the sheep at risk of being lost. 

Melton was struck by this teacher’s ingenuity and asked, “how long have you been using this system?”

“Ever since Columbine,” the teacher replied. “Every single Friday since Columbine.”

Perhaps Bonhoeffer is right that the task of our generation is to save and preserve our souls out of the chaos. And not only our own souls, but also the souls of children and teenagers and the elderly, those who are lonely and sick in body or mind, of those on the margins.

YDS’s mission to prepare leaders for service in church and the world at a time of dramatic change could not be more timely and important. The world needs more leaders who think like that teacher.

Date Posted: Monday, February 3, 2014 - 1:01pm