Last week I posted about Charlotte Mason’s approach to children, “born persons” in relationship to creation, completed images of God, albeit “weak and ignorant” images in need of support and instruction. Boy are they in need. Apparently, fifth graders have a particularly hard time controlling their mouths and bodies. At least, the fifth graders I teach do.
No matter how many times I remind them to raise a hand, turn around in their chair, stop shouting, listen when I’m giving instructions, stop climbing the walls, be a human… they just don’t seem to hear a word. For that matter, third and fourth graders are pretty much the same. Sometimes I feel like I’m a ghost, talking and talking, but nobody pays the slightest attention. “My work is useless. My work is fruitless. My work is not worth the effort.” These thoughts creep in as the class flows in and out of my control.
And then, the distractible, freckly-faced kid in the back of the room throws his hand in the air. He knows the answer, you can see it on his face. Sure enough, this little mind that has plagued me for weeks with its inattention regurgitates sentence after sentence in Spanish. He’s making an effort, and he’s proud of it. His face lights up when I call on him again. This is the reaction to a lesson that teachers dream about, and I almost gave up on it. It felt too hard, impossible to accomplish, and then there it was. Small and fleeting, but there – a piece of delicious fruit surrounded by thorns and thistles.
I confess I find it hard to see past the obstacles between me and the success of my work, not just in the classroom, but also in my other areas of interest: writing, photography, long-form journalism. I’m aware of the ways work is difficult and let the improbability of success keep me from jumping into some things. I feel the curse on work. The fruits of my labor, whether a correct Spanish pronunciation from a student or a well-written paper for class, seem out of reach.
But I found something helpful this week. I was reading How Then Should We Work, by Hugh Whelchel, and another perspective on Genesis 3:14-20 opened up for me. Whelchel writes for several pages on the facets of God’s grace, explaining that our sin has not corrupted the earth as fully as it could apart from the grace of the Creator. He writes, “For example, even though the ground is cursed due to the sin of Adam, it still brings forth enough to sustain mankind.” Even in cursing mankind for disobedience, God is gracious.
What an incredible distinction to make. God made work hard, not impossible. He made it a trial, but it remains worthwhile. God could have easily, and justly, said “Because of your sin you will work and see no reward. You will starve because you did not trust the hand that fed you.” Instead, God says, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food.”
That moment of understanding in my student’s face wasn’t just a fluke. It was the fulfillment of a promise and a reminder of what work is supposed to be. Though sin forces me to toil, I won’t be left with empty hands.
Emilee Lamb is a first-year teacher in the Washington, DC area and a member of the 2016-2017 class of the Capital Fellows Program at McLean Presbyterian Church.
 Hugh Whelchel, “How then Should We Work,” pg. 35.