Back in home school days—maybe ninth grade—my sister and I joined a handful of other homeschooled kids from our church to meet every Tuesday and Thursday for real lessons. By real lessons, I mean we had to report to teachers, listen to actual lectures, and do work as opposed to pretend we were watching biology videos at home when really we were watching Saved by the Bell (for the record, AC Slater still has my heart).
On these communal home school days, we drove half an hour to our church, an old brick building in Flint, Michigan that struggled to hang on to its historic charm when everything around it was falling apart. Wrapped high around the sanctuary of this church was a U-shaped balcony housing a number of modest offices. The floors creaked, the carpet was worn, and the walls were cold and paint-chipped, but there was character, especially after the rooms were transformed to home school classrooms. Chalkboards, desks and a few colored posters greeted us in these rooms on Tuesdays and Thursdays, along with teachers—church members who volunteered their time to instruct subjects in which they were experienced. Several of them were licensed teachers who traded public school jobs to stay at home with their kids and offer their help with homeschooled students in our church. It worked out perfectly.
Sue was our algebra teacher—or Sister Sue as we called her because in our church everyone was a Sister or a Brother, a Deacon or a Pastor, and you respectfully referred to them as such. Home school outings sounded a lot like the hallways in Sister Act—kids running around, shouting “Sister Mary! Sister Theresa! Sister Sue!” Except no habits or cool nuns with pasts as Reno lounge singers. Sister Sue was a math whiz, an algebra genius, and teaching higher math classes came easy for her. On the first day of algebra class, we (the three kids who made up Algebra I) received our text books (A Beka for curious homeschoolers) and immediately began flipping through them, just asking to be intimidated. And we were. The middle of the book revealed quadratic function graphs, square roots, equations with too many parentheses to count—a cryptic map to the future of our class, and we were certain we’d never decipher it.
“We’re never going to be able to do this,” my friend complained, “this is, like, way too hard.”
“What page are you looking at?” Sister Sue asked.
“Page 181,” my friend answered. We each flipped through our books until everyone was on page 181. She was right, it was bad—a hot mess of x’s and y’s and detailed graphs that made no sense. While we moaned and protested, Sister Sue smiled and walked to the chalkboard.
“So you think that looks really hard, huh?” she asked as she picked up a piece of chalk and wrote in a small corner at the top of the board the number 181 and circled it. “We’ll see about that.”
We eventually forgot about page 181, the tiny chalked circle at the top of the board lost among weekly lessons. Gradually and—for the most part—painlessly, we learned to solve square roots, function graphs and equations with too many parentheses to count. And then one day, in the middle of class, Sister Sue announced, “I’d like you to look down and see what page we’re on.”
Behold, page 181.
We were shocked. It looked completely different now that we were there. We laughed in disbelief and chided our former selves for doubting our capabilities. Function graphs? Child’s play. Square roots? Cakewalk. Here we were, on page 181, and we hadn’t even realized how high we had climbed.
Sister Sue erased the number on the top corner of the board that day. And strangely, it was a little disappointing not to have a scary goal anymore.
I’ve remembered this story through many moments of intimidation and doubt and have repeated the words “page 181” to myself a number of times now, its significance intensified with events in my life far more important than algebra lessons. The message remains though—I’m equipped with 181 pages of confidence and experience, enough to know I’ve proved myself wrong. Instead of the “I’ll never…” mindset, I will continue to face goals—far-off ones, challenging ones—by circling an objective on a corner of a chalkboard, showing up for class every day, turning the pages, and knowing with certainty that I will get there eventually.
For all the Page 181s we face: I’ll lose the weight, I’ll get out of debt, I’ll stop yelling at my kids so much, I’ll stop caring what people think, I’ll restore order to my home, I’ll save the money, I’ll learn to forgive, I’ll stop being so critical, I’ll repair that relationship…write it down, circle it, and start on page 1. Allow for sick days and extra time on some lessons. You’ll get there.
I’m heading toward the holiday cave, feeling the need for more family and friends, impromptu trips to the beach for soul recharge, good food, good books and some holiday traditions…time to dock this ship and settle down. We’re headed to the North Pole later this week.
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