Monday Over Coffee: "School"

Published October 24, 2022 by Greg Funderburk

We have two lives...the life we learn with and the life we live after that.
Iris Lemon in Bernard Malamud's The Natural

I was thirteen years old, attending middle school at Spring Branch Junior High, and had just gone to see the doctor for a check up. The appointment had gone fine, but when my mother dropped me off at the front of the school, instead of going back in, I waved as she drove away, and I then wandered off, playing hooky for the rest of the day. I don't recall exactly what I did. I wasn't busted, but I didn't do anything of great import either. Ferris Bueller I was not.

Just after three o'clock, I crept back to campus where the buses were loading, quietly mixed in, boarded mine, and headed home without incident. It was only later that I started to feel guilty. Interestingly though, that little censorious ping I felt in my mind and heart didn't just emerge from the fact that I'd been truant and broken the rules, though that was definitely there. More palpably, it was that I'd been taught that I ought to put every moment to good use. There in my bedroom, it suddenly became altogether clear to me that this was a rule of conscience I sincerely believed was important. I truly wanted to live my life that way. So that evening, I resolved I'd never miss a class again unless it was for both a legitimate reason and a good purpose, and in fact, I never did. Now, before holding myself up as a paragon of virtue, believe me, I'm not claiming to have always gleaned such lasting lessons from all my past failures and transgressions, but I certainly did that time. And here's the thing—I think we're supposed to.

In Bernard Malamud's novel The Natural, and in the movie based on the book, gifted baseball player Roy Hobbs makes a youthful but life-altering mistake, one which takes his playing career far off-track. It's only when he's much older, his dazzling younger days a distant memory, that he finally makes it back to the place he believes that his fate, his destiny, were always taking him. However, upon his arrival there, he's faced with yet another ethical dilemma, a crossroads at which he fortunately encounters his childhood girlfriend, Iris Lemon, the moral compass of the story. And as Roy laments to her that he should've seen things more clearly long ago, avoiding the mistakes he'd made, Iris tells him, "I think we have two lives." The weary and now-grizzled Roy looks up at her and says, "What? What's that?" And Iris Lemon—whose first name implies the gift of vision, whose surname is suggestive of refreshment and light, and whose full name conveys she sees things rightly through a lens of hope and optimism—turns to the regretful Roy to say, "We have two lives, Roy, the life we learn with and the life we live after that."

Among the many lessons passed down to us in literature in general and in our sacred texts in particular, this concept of reclamation and redemption is undoubtedly one of the most salient and beautiful. In our Bible, other than those who are identified as divine, most of the rest of the characters who wander on stage insist on making all manner of bone-headed moves leading to every variety of catastrophe. And though we've all been shown the distressing results of their ancient errors and blunders, we seem intent on following in their troubled footsteps. However, in chapter after chapter, our Scriptures, through story, poetry, parable, and law, also suggest that we have the capacity to change and to learn from our mistakes. Cover to cover, God seems to be calling to us and telling us: it's what you remarkable and rambunctious human beings are capable of when you see your lives with clarity and act with resolve. It's sort of your thing, God is saying—or it should be.

Life is indeed an educational process—a kind of school—one unfortunately we decide to play hooky from every so often. But one also to which we can come back, returning to God, resolving with conviction to do better and start over. Consider making a new resolution: a resolution to reframe your past, your regrets, your failures as the life you've learned with?a preface to the life you're continually beginning anew and the life you'll live hereafter.

God — Thank You for both my lives—the one I've learned with and the one I live with now. Oh, and help me to stay in school. Amen.

— Greg Funderburk