My elementary P.E. teacher did not like me. Harsh, right? Could be that little ol’ me deserved a bit of her ire but that’s not what this is about. Teachers have their preferred students and if you don’t think that’s true then bless your heart.
One fateful day during class in the gymnasium she finally let the fact be known out loud within my hearing which led me to report it to my mother (hmm . . . wonder why I wasn’t likeable . . .) and that evening the mother proceeded to telephone the P.E. teacher at home to ask her why she had called the wonderful child a “snot.” And the P.E. teacher responded:
“I didn’t call her a snot. I called her a sap.”
The mother rambled uncomfortably for a few moments, and it could’ve been my imagination, but I thought I heard her agreeing a bit as she hung up the phone and proceeded to have a rather memorable conversation with the child about accurate reporting.
So there you have it. A sap.
What even is that? Webster’s has a fairly full inventory of synonyms including dolt, dunderhead, numbskull, and peabrain. After that the list gets really uncomplimentary.
Taking that P.E. scenario to heart and with some strong encouragement from my mother — very strong encouragement indeed — I silently vowed to try and change my ways. Not easy for a numbskull. But I had an idea of what about me had caused Mrs. Pitts (honest — that was her name!) to have finally cracked under pressure and called me a name in public.
I did not have a competitive bone in my body during Physical Education. Not an ounce of me cared whether I won or lost, made it to the top of the rope or not, got the ball through the basket, or finished first or last in the race. In fact I was so ambivalent about coming out on top that I’d almost invite others to run me over, pass me by, use me as a stepping stool, take my turn, or just generally do my best to become invisible. Once at a community Easter egg hunt when hundreds of cheering children couldn’t wait to start when the Easter bunny said “Go!” I froze. Wouldn’t take a step. Refused to hunt. Didn’t want nary an egg. Boy was my dad embarrassed. And that translated to mad. We left. He probably muttered something about “sap” under his breath. Nobody likes a kid who won’t get out there and compete.
And then one day it happened. Third grade rolled around and the basic music instruction we’d gotten up to that point took on a wonderfully extraordinary twist–BAND. A clarinet was placed in my sappy little hands. I looked to the left of me. Peered to the right. From that point on I vowed no one would play that beautiful black magnificent beast better than I. That thought probably wasn’t spelled out in so many words in my brain but was more of a feeling — a COMPETITIVE feeling. And compete I did. I won every contest and every chair challenge from that point on up through graduation. (Well, to save myself the Pinocchio nose, there was that one aggravating girl my junior year of high school who gave me fits and I ended up stewing in the 2nd chair a couple times.)
So as it turned out, in that same gymnasium where nightmares were born, I soared to new exhilarating heights in a creaky folding chair in the woodwind section even without climbing that blankety-blank rope. Nobody had to give me a boost. Nobody rolled their eyes. Nobody gave up on me. I had it in hand. I still didn’t win any ribbons at the Obstacle Course Field Day, but I was used to that and still held my shoulders square and proud as my name was never called. I was the General Patton of the Martin Park Elementary School band. Take that, Mrs. Pitts.
Over the decades since those tender childhood feelings about P.E. and Mrs. Pitts and being called a name dominated my day dreams and night time thoughts, I’ve wondered about the players in those scenarios. And while my memories may be cloudy and naturally bent toward my own viewpoint, it has struck me with passing years that I most likely wasn’t as alone in my little world as I then imagined. Aren’t we all full of “sap” to one degree or another? There’s an aspect to all of us that somehow displeases others in certain situations or scenarios, makes us not quite fit the mold or reach expectations, whereas carrying our same selves into a vastly different arena with our same makeup (“sappiness” if you will) we thrive.
Maybe if we could just line up like maple trees and get the right amount drained here and there. Not too much. Not too little. Okay, that’s dumb. But you get where I’m going? It’s tough to get balanced. To know how to handle ourselves in different situations. Even more so for children. They’re tender.
It’s difficult to explain identity and confidence to a child. To bolster their little wounded spirits when all is not well in a situation that carries the weight of the world in their dear young hearts. And when we fail to remember the intensity and depth of feeling that we had as children in scenarios that may not have been any big deal to other children but impacted us in long-lasting impressionable ways, then we do a disservice to youngsters around us. Don’t forget what it was like to be a kid. Sympathize. Empathize. Every child has a Mrs. Pitts to deal with. It’s best we do not minimize or brush it away. All the pop psychology in the world does not make up for loving arms of comfort and time spent listening and encouraging. Christian parents, impart to your children their identity in Jesus and give them the tools to realize their value to Him and to the world even in situations where they are made to feel small and worthless. You cannot always be with them. Somebody inevitably is going to call them a sap. Or worse. The world we’re raising children in today (well, maybe you are . . . I’m done thankfully) is vastly different than what it was like in that gymnasium in 1969.
And in case you think I’ve never told my children to straighten up and toughen up and get out there and face the day, oh boy, you’re wrong. And if any of them are reading this right now, they’re undoubtedly shouting that fact from the rooftops. We had many a day where the last thing they heard from me on their way out the door was to “Put a song in your heart and a smile on your face and straighten up and fly right.” There are certainly occasions that call for a little “Buck up, Buttercup” speech. I guess I’m asking you to exercise discernment about when. How. And why. The God of all wisdom knit each one of them together differently and hence what troubles one deeply won’t even be a ripple on the pond of another.
Sap. It can be a derogatory name to call someone. Or for our purposes here, stretched though they may be, it’s what runs through our veins and makes us individuals apart from one another yet kin to each other also. Friends, remember your young years. That’s easier for some than others. If you’ve got children in your circle of influence these days will you look into their eyes and remember yourself at their age? Will you pray before you speak? Can you discern the deep-seated need for a place to fit in for that child? To excel at something? To display a God-given identity and ability that might not shine where others do? Truly it’s as big a deal as I’m making it sound.
One day in the lunchroom when I was a full-fledged 4th grader, I had just sat down with my plastic lunch tray and was foraging around for something edible. A looming presence threw a shadow over my back. Upon raising my head straight up I found myself looking directly into the eyes of She Herself–Mrs. Pitts, who was suggesting that I was doing something categorically, theoretically, and quite possibly morally wrong with my carrots. As she moved on to her next victim I confidently continued my carrot routine and did NOT shake right down to the depths of my 1970 go-go boots. So there.
I had the beginning marks of a girl who was maturing ever so slightly in her identity in Christ. Sap and all. He raised me up.
Stay sappy, friends. You never know when it will come in handy. Somebody out there might need you to see them and to understand.
Get along among yourselves, each of you doing your part. Our counsel is that you warn the freeloaders to get a move on. Gently encourage the stragglers, and reach out for the exhausted, pulling them to their feet. Be patient with each person, attentive to individual needs. And be careful that when you get on each other’s nerves you don’t snap at each other. Look for the best in each other, and always do your best to bring it out.
1 Thessalonians 5:15 (The Message)