Ethics & Matthew 26

(March is coming to an end, and I have a backlog of topics that I want to blog about.  I drafted this post at the beginning of the month, after attending the California Council for Social Studies conference, and never managed to finish it.)

On Friday, after I left the CCSS Conference, I was quite hungry and I knew I had a long drive home ahead of me.  (I was right – it took about 90 minutes.)  I Googled “Costa Mesa vegan” and was delighted to see that there was a Native Foods branch nearby.

So I drove over to The Camp, the hip strip mall that houses the Native Foods, and parked in the first space I could find.  I was speed-walking through the complex when a young man in a florescent Greenpeace T-shirt hailed me and asked if he could talk to me.

For a moment, I hesitated:  I was in Somewhere To Go Mode, and it had been a frustrating day for a number of reasons that aren’t worth going into here.  I was eager to find Native Foods, get my dinner, and get on the road to get home.  (In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been in such a hurry, since I was about to…get on the road to get home at rush hour on the 405 on Friday.)

However, my better nature prevailed, and I slowed down enough to realize that it would be rude to blow past this guy.  So I stopped, and he went into his pitch.  I realized that he was very young, probably only 19 or 20; he could easily have been a student in my classroom or in one of my clubs in the past few years.

Greenpeace is right up my political alley, so it was easy for me to agree with what the young man was sharing.  But I quickly discovered that he was very nervous and inexperienced, he stumbled and apologized a couple of times, and then said it was his first day.  I found myself switching into teacher mode:  I tried to ease his anxiety by telling him that it was okay.  “You’re doing fine,” I said, “just think of talking to me as practice.”

He seemed to feel a bit better after that, and we got to the payoff – would I join Greenpeace with a monthly donation?  At this point, I couldn’t say no and let the young man down, so I agreed to a modest monthly donation and signed up.

As I walked away, I felt good about helping a young person.  This, after all, is at the heart of why I teach:  to encourage young people, to help them build their skills and confidence, and to play a supporting role in their progress toward their goals.  Yet my feeling of accomplishment mingled with embarrassment at how I almost hurried my way past a chance to help another person.

After all, I would never act like that at Mountain View.  On campus, I make a special effort to be polite to anyone who needs help.  Why, then, would I not take that same approach off campus?

As I mentioned, this young man could easily have been one of my recently graduated students:  bright and obviously motivated to change the world, but also inexperienced and unsure of himself.  I would be horrified and angry if another teacher treated my kids the way I almost treated this Greenpeace representative!

Granted, on the job and off the job are different situations, with different expectations.   But I realized yesterday that my demeanor and behavior outside of work doesn’t always match up with the ethics that I profess.

This morning, I headed out early for the conference, and stopped at Tierra Mia for coffee en route.  I posted to Facebook that I was up before the rooster.

After I got my coffee and got back in the car to finish the drive to Costa Mesa, the rooster was still on the brain, and my brain rolled around to ponder the memorable story in the Gospels of Peter’s denial of Jesus.  The story appears in all of the Gospels, but I like the account in Matthew 26 the best.  Jesus tells the disciples that he will be put to death, and the disciples assure him that they will not allow this to happen.

Jesus, however, tells Peter:  “Truly I say unto thee, that this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.”

Peter insists:  “Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee.”

After the Romans come for Jesus, chaos breaks out, and the disciples’ faith is put to the test.  Bystanders recognize Peter, and twice he denies that he knows Jesus.  Finally, in Matthew 26.73-75, Peter’s trial comes to a climax:

And after a while came unto him they that stood by, and said to Peter, Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech bewrayeth thee. / Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man. And immediately the cock crew. And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.

I am not religious, but I grew up reading the Bible, and I often find myself drawing on its stories for insight into my everyday experience.  As Jesus was to Peter, so my moral code is to me; and when I act badly, I am denying my ethics just as Peter denied Jesus.

I first read the story of Peter and the crowing rooster when I was young – probably in middle school, and I remember appreciating the poignancy of the last sentence:  “…he went out, and wept bitterly.”  Now, 25 years later, I think I understand what I did not as a younger person:  Peter is all of us.  We all fail.