The Scandal of Grace

ice cream

ice cream

A while back I gave the keynote address at the induction ceremony of the Houston County (GA) Educators’ Hall of Fame. Here’s part of that speech…
I once had an ice cream cone with the school bully—a fifth-grader named Jay. I don’t remember how this came to pass exactly—maybe he and I just happened to be at the ice cream shop 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 discarded pallets. And I remember Jay swiping the last crumbs of the 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 hurt place below my eye, I made something up rather than tell them what really happened. I think I wanted to protect them–didn’t want them to know what a mean world they had brought me into.

But 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.

I didn’t give my troubles to my teacher, however, and she didn’t give me comfort. 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!” Jay heard Mrs. Romero’s encouragement. The intent look on his face spread into a grin, and he ran faster, beating his nearest competitor by many 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. It was undignified—it was scandalous—for a grown woman to be yelling like that for a little criminal.

But, of course, she 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.

The root of the word ‘educate,’ as I’m sure you know, means literally to lead forth or to draw out. Mrs. Romero drew something out of Jay that day. I had never seen what could happen to his face when he believed that somebody felt he was worth something. 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 incredibly 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.

I don’t think of Jay very often, but when I do, 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.

Super Spider Powers

SpiderPowers

“I don’t think it will really work. Do you really think it will work?” If Mark heard me, nothing in his demeanor showed it. He knew it would work. I was still fuzzy on the details, and I was pretty sure Mark was too. But his confidence had nothing to do with niggling details. Mark was an idea man. His confidence came from his grasp of the big picture. And we all agreed on the big picture: when a radioactive spider bites you, you get super spider powers.

From the cartoon on Channel 17, I never really understood how Spiderman got his powers, but Mark had the more authoritative comic books. He explained the whole thing: Peter Parker was in a science lab, and a radioactive spider got loose and bit him, and then he got spider powers. We ate this stuff up.

Mark was the youngest of several brothers, so even in third grade an air of worldliness attached to him. He knew things the rest of us didn’t. It wasn’t just that he knew things; it was his casual, can-do attitude toward life’s great mysteries. This was a young man, after all, who had baptized his own dog.

So when Mark came to school with a plan to give us all super spider powers, he had our attention. He had a spider in a jar. All we had to do was to get the spider radioactive and let it bite us.

I thought getting the spider radioactive would be the hard part, but it wasn’t really. Mark had checked out a book of optical illusions from the school library. On the back cover was a swirling spiral that seemed to spin when you rocked it back and forth. He held it a few inches from the spider’s jar and set the spiral spinning.

This seemed mighty low-tech and dubious to me, and I said so. But the words were hardly out of my mouth when the spider collapsed in a curled-up little heap. Mark raised his eyebrows and gave a knowing nod, as if to say, “This is to be expected.”

“Is he dead?” asked one of the boys.

“Not dead,” Mark answered. “Radioactive. Now, who’s going to go first?”

We all looked at each other. In principle, super spider powers were a good thing. But actually to let a radioactive spider bite you…none of us were very sure about that. Even Peter Parker hadn’t let a spider bite him. It was an accident.

“Look here,” Mark said. There was impatience in his voice. “When this spider wakes up, he’ll only be radioactive for a minute or two.” I’m not sure how he knew this. “We need to decide who’s going to get bit. William, why don’t you go first?”

William appeared to be weighing the pros and the cons. “So what kind of super spider powers will I get?”

“You know, like on the TV show,” said Mark. “You can walk up walls. Jump over buildings. Shoot webs out your wrists.”

William looked carefully at his wrist. “Where’s it going to come out? The web.”

Mark had to think on that one. “We’ll have to cut a little hole. Right there.” He swiped a thumbnail across the soft white underside of William’s wrist.

That’s where he blew it. William wasn’t going to let Mark cut him, and neither were any of the rest of us. Mark cajoled another boy or two, and we all argued back and forth for a while, but negotiations broke off with the recess bell, and we mostly dropped the whole thing.

I don’t know what became of the spider. But I like to imagine him awakening from his swoon and stalking across the Miller Elementary playground, his eyes aglow with radioactivity. He’s looking for an unsuspecting grade-school hero—one who won’t be made to choose greatness or choose against it, but rather will have greatness thrust upon him in the form of a spider bite and the dawn of super spider powers.

Pantsed: A Story of Self-Possession and Sangfroid

middleSchoolFootball

middleSchoolFootball

Here’s an old favorite from the archives of Jonathan-Rogers.com. I hope you enjoy it again.

Think of all the amusing anecdotes you know about junior high football. I’m guessing 75% are set in that “magic hour” when the boys have arrived at the practice field but the coach hasn’t. Thirty junior high boys, no adult supervision. Something’s bound to happen.

In eighth grade, my cousin Brett got his pants pulled down at football practice. The coach was elsewere–wrapping up bus duty or finishing one last cigarette in the teachers’ lounge before facing the barbarians. Frank, the starting fullback, snuck around behind and snatched Brett’s pants in front of God and everybody. It was a beautiful pantsing, not one of those awkward affairs where the victim clamps his knees together and goes into a squat, clutching at his britches and his dignity. No, this was clean and quick. Brett’s pants went right to the ground.

Frank whooped and cavorted in his triumph. It was easily the best pantsing of the season. The other boys howled and pointed at Brett.

Who just stood there.

The hooting mockery swirled around him, but Brett stood his ground–pants around his ankles, arms akimbo, a look of perfect serenity on his face. The howling became nervous laughter as the mockery gave way to confusion. The boys had never seen such a thing before: the one boy who maintained his dignity was the one whose pants were crumpled around his ankles.

Frank looked fitfully toward the school, whence the coach would soon be coming. “Hey, Brett,” he said, his voice broken by a nervous chuckle, “pull up your pants, man.”

Brett crossed his arms and stared off into the middle distance, as grave as a statue.

“Brett, man,” Frank repeated. “Pull up your pants. Coach gonna see.”

Brett shifted his weight but didn’t otherwise move. “I didn’t pull them down,” he said, with withering dignity, “and I’m not going to pull them up.”

Frank looked from Brett to the school building and back to Brett. The fascinated boys had gone silent. The door from the equipment room swung open, and the boys gasped in unison at the sight of the coach’s lanky form emerging. Frank hesitated. For an instant it appeared he would run away. He took one last look at the approaching coach, then circled around behind Brett. Sighing grimly and rolling his eyes, Frank pulled Brett’s pants back up where they belonged.

It was one of the great moments in the history of eighth graders.

Audience Participation Friday: Best Bios

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

Flannery O’Connor wrote, “There won’t be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” It’s true that the outward movements of Flannery O’Connor’s life aren’t as exciting as those of, say, Lawrence of Arabia or Davey Crockett or Catherine the Great. But such an inner life! As it turns out, her life has made surprisingly exciting copy for three major biographies and several minor ones. I’m in the process of adding to the minor ones. I’m not being self-deprecating when I say that. I expect this to be an excellent book, but it’s a small book; the same size as the Saint Patrick bio, if you’ve seen that, and part of the same series–Thomas Nelson’s “Christian Encounters” series.
It’s daunting to be writing in the shadow of Brad Gooch’s excellent 2009 biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor and Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, which is a quadruple biography paralleling the lives of Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Walker Percy. At the moment, the Elie book isn’t just my favorite biography of Flannery O’Connor; it’s my favorite biography period.

The problem with biographies, however, is that people’s lives rarely conform to Aristotle’s rules for plot making. They get off to slow starts. They drag in the middle. They live another two or three decades beyond the climax of the story. The fiction writer has the luxury of making stuff up, but the honest and thorough biographer faces challenges if he or she wants to tell a compelling story. That’s what some readers love about biographies. They can’t wrap things up as neatly as fiction tends to do.

Let’s talk about biographies today. What are your favorites? Why are they your favorites? What are your thoughts on the limitations of biography as a mode of storytelling?

Feechie of the Week: Cobra Pit Custodian

Author’s note: Yes, more video. I’m up to my elbows in this Flannery O’Connor biography and so don’t have time to compose the thoughtful analyses and soul-baring anecdotes you’ve come to expect at Jonathan-Rogers.com. Sorry about that. But I suspect a video of a guy handling cobras is more interesting anyway.
Perhaps it’s the warming weather, but there’s been an encouraging uptick in feechiefied behavior recently. In the previous post, a young man in Florida narrowly escaped an alligator attack thanks to his baggy pants. It wasn’t enough to earn him the honor of Feechie of the Week, but it was a step in the right direction.

Earlier this week I heard about an incident in Memphis in which a policeman got bitten when he confronted a woman in a city park about not picking up after her pit bull. It was the woman who bit him. The pit bull behaved himself. When I heard that story I thought, “Maybe there’s hope that the Feechie of the Week could return.”

Then reader Kenny Clark sent me the video below. It is truly a display of feechie sangfroid:

Thanks, Kenny. And congratulations to the Cobra Pit Custodian, our Feechie of the Week.

World According to Narnia Now Available (Limited Quantity)

The World According to Narnia, my 2005 examination of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, is out of print, but I recently found twenty or so copies that I am making available here on the website. Like all the books sold here, these will be signed by the author–which is to say, me.
You may remember that I published the Voyage of the Dawn Treader chapter here on the blog a few months ago in a five-part series. You can read that excerpt by clicking here.

The World According to Narnia was well-received by critics, including this one from Booklist:

Rogers, the author of the Wilderking fantasy series, takes a serious look at C. S. Lewis’ Narnia novels, teasing out the Christian theology through close textual analysis of each book in turn. In an engaging style, Rogers simply and swiftly retells each story and highlights where the novels speak to the message of the Gospels. He argues convincingly that imagination combined with faith drives the Narnia chronicles, giving substance to our “yearning for something beyond ourselves.” He also notes that it is a delicious irony that Lewis “so carefully constructs a world of metaphor in order to insist that the God of the Bibles is not mere metaphor.” With a live-action film version of the novels soon to debut, the land of Narnia will once again be in the spotlight; those needing a travel guide to Lewis’ world could do no better than this eminently readable combination of literary criticism and religious scholarship.

Ilene Cooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Here, again, is that link to the store, where you can get signed copies of The World According to Narnia (and the rest of my books too).

Audience Participation Friday: April Fools!


If you’ve read The Charlatan’s Boy, you’ll remember Floyd and Grady’s roaring machine. It was inspired by something that happened in my father’s boyhood. Some old boy stretched a cowhide across the bottom of a nail keg and punched a hole in the cowhide. When he pulled a rosined string through the hole, the keg served as a resonance chamber to amplify the vibrations into a very loud moaning, roaring, growling sound. By night the fellow carried his device into Gum Swamp and roared away. Apparently he had no reason other than the pleasure of hearing people speculate as to what the mysterious sounds coming out of the swamp might be.

A couple of bloggers discussing The Charlatan’s Boy mentioned that they, too, had heard of people in other places who had done the same trick. There was a roaring machine operator in Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp, for instance. Apparently that trickster, like the one in Gum Swamp, had no good reason for his hoax other than the simple fact that he thought it would be funny.

It’s April Fools’ Day–a day people go to a lot of trouble to perpetrate tricks and hoaxes simply for the fun of it. What are your favorite April Fools’ Day tricks and hoaxes?

April Fool’s Day

pond

pond

On April Fools’ Day my grandmother and her sisters packed their lunch pails like any other school day. Their mother walked them to the dirt road and kissed them goodbye, but instead of turning left to walk toward school, the girls turned right toward the train tracks. They walked up the tracks a piece until they got to a little marshy pond, a favorite spot of theirs. They lay beside the pond in their school dresses and watched the clouds drift by and giggled at the thought of their classmates sitting at their desks that bright spring morning. They pulled out their lunches and ate them. It was only nine in the morning, but they felt like eating, and it was April Fools’ Day, and who was going to stop them?
They caught some bugs and picked some wildflowers and got mud on their dresses, and then decided to catch the last half of the school day. So they walked back down the train tracks and up the dirt road toward the school. When they passed the house, their mother waved at them from the porch.

When they got to school the teacher said, “Where have you girls been?”

“At the marshy pond,” they said, “beside the railroad tracks.”

“And why were you at the marshy pond?” the teacher asked.

“It’s April Fools’ Day.”

The teacher made the girls stay in from recess for a couple of weeks–a punishment they willingly accepted. From what I understand, this happened more than once. Apparently it was sort of a Dowdy family tradition, to act the fool on April Fools’ Day, and to receive the punishment for that foolishness without complaint or rancor.

I love that picture of my great-grandmother waving to the little truants as they pass back by. Having given them room to try out a little harmless foolishness, she waves them on toward its logical outcome, not intervening on either end, but rather letting her daughters experience the truth that wisdom and foolishness are a matter of choice, and that choices have consequences.

In Case You Didn’t Get Enough: The Clerihew Zone

A couple of weeks ago, a fellow named Bill Naquin wrote in to tell me about a Facebook page with which he is connected: The Clerihew Zone.
A recently concluded contest regarding place names included this clerihew which I reproduce here because it’s funny, not because I endorse its view on Florida and California:

Florida
Is Horrida
Than California.
Don’t say I didn’t warnia.

There’s more where that came from. So if you didn’t get a belly full of clerihews a couple of weeks ago, check out the Clerihew Zone. (Most of the clerihews, by the way, are under the “Discussion” tab.)

Privacy Settings
We use cookies to enhance your experience while using our website. If you are using our Services via a browser you can restrict, block or remove cookies through your web browser settings. We also use content and scripts from third parties that may use tracking technologies. You can selectively provide your consent below to allow such third party embeds. For complete information about the cookies we use, data we collect and how we process them, please check our Privacy Policy
Youtube
Consent to display content from Youtube
Vimeo
Consent to display content from Vimeo
Google Maps
Consent to display content from Google
Main Menu