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Mrs. Cotton and the Power of a Tiny Word

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My homeroom teacher in 7th grade was named Mrs. Cotton.

That's not remarkable, except that I have a very clear memory of her in my mind, even though I was only in her class for one semester. After being homeschooled for several years, my parents enrolled me in a Christian school in Ft. Worth, TX called Calvary Academy. In the middle of the school year my father accepted a pastoral position in a small town about an hour away, and my brief time at Calvary Academy, and in Mrs. Cotton's class, came to an abrupt end.

But Mrs. Cotton made a big difference in my life in not only a few short months, but with one small word. In fact, it was in a moment of careful self-editing during a time of prayer before class began.

You see, each day at the beginning of class, before we began our studies for the day, Mrs. Cotton would gather prayer requests from the students in the room, and then would pray aloud to begin the day, including in her prayer any specific requests that had been made. On the day that stands in my memory - probably in late November - I had just found out about my dad's new pastoral position, and our upcoming relocation. So when Mrs. Cotton called for prayer requests, I raised my hand and told the class that I would be moving soon, because my dad had gotten a job as a pastor.

I was surprised by her reaction. She responded like she had just received very good, but very surprising, news. With genuine enthusiasm she exclaimed, "Kyle! That's such wonderful news about your father! Praise God that he got this new position." Then she actually teared up a little, and added, "But we're going to miss you!" She started to turn and walk back toward her desk, but then she paused and turned back toward me, and then she said a sentence I've never forgotten:

"No, that's not what I meant. Praise God that your father got the position, AND we're going to miss you."

That three-letter word communicated a lot to me. On one level, it demonstrated in a very tangible way the importance of word choice, and how much can be communicated by simply changing one word in a sentence. Perhaps this is part of what instilled in me a love for language and communication, which is still an art I'm pursuing and growing in today.

But the spiritual, even theological, meaning behind her simple change from "but" to "and" stuck with me perhaps in an even deeper way. Her first version of the sentence could have left me with the impression that my father's calling to serve as a church's pastor was mostly good, but with some drawbacks (namely, of me being missed in Mrs. Cotton's class). But when she paused and corrected herself, the edited version of her sentence communicated the same truths - my father's pastoral role was a good thing, and I would be missed - but it no longer set them in opposition to one another.

In other words, serving God is always worth it, even when it leads to some things that make us sad. "We'll miss you" did not belong on the "Con" side of a "Pro-Con List;" it was simply another fact to observe, alongside the good news about my father's calling into the pastorate. Human relationships are important in our lives, but they're never more important than pleasing God and doing what he calls us to do. No difficulty or challenge we anticipate is ever a reason to shrink back from following Jesus.

Yes, I processed all that on the basis of one sentence spoken by a teacher about 23 years ago. And I still remember it vividly.

Teachers - you have NO IDEA how your words and example will influence the students who come through your doors. I'm sure Mrs. Cotton had no clue what an impact on me that sentence would have; for that matter, I was only her student for about four months. She may have assumed I wasn't there long enough for her to make a difference for me.

But she did. And you do, too. And not always in the ways you expect, or in the obvious moments. You may have uttered a sentence today, or responded to a question, in a way a particular student in your class will never forget. There is great potential for you to affect your students in powerful ways. For that reason, you have an important stewardship to carry. Wield it well.

For this Teacher Appreciation Week, I'm thankful for the influence in my life of Mrs. Cotton, and for the countless other men and women who serve, love, instruct, and influence students in our community every day. It's hard work, but you're making a difference.

No, that's not what I meant. It's hard work, AND you're making a difference.