Grace: The Most Precious Gift I Gave and Received this Christmas

iStock_000022043493XSmallDavid and I attended an afternoon gathering at our church a few Sundays ago, a few weeks before Christmas.

After a couple of songs, the host pastor urged us to greet our neighbors.  We turned to a couple sitting a few rows behind us. “I’m Junko,” I said, as I extended my hand to shake the man’s.

“Junko! I’m ‘Corey’,” he said, in a hey-I-know-you sort of a way, and I took a second look at his vaguely familiar, smiling face.  Hmmm…who was he again? His wife was explaining to David that they were just visiting that day from Los Angeles.

After everyone took their seats and the place quieted down, the senior pastor came out and began speaking.  My mind, however, was flipping through my mental Rolodex.  Then I got it.

Oooooh, THAT Corey!

This guy still owes me money from 1994!  If you add interest, we’re talking about over a thousand dollars.  At that time, he was promoting a Christian music festival with some “Christians” he had met in prison while serving time for a white collar crime (that should have been my first red flag), and they signed me up as one of the acts.  I was just releasing my debut album, still naive and trusting of everyone. They promised me a generous appearance fee and I, in turn, hired a band.

The day of the festival arrived, and it turned out to be a complete mess.  It was the hottest, ugliest day in LA that year, and attendance was low.  None of the amenities that they had promised — food, ATM machines, green room — came to be, and the people were upset.  Some of the biggest acts in Christian music in the 90′s backed out at the last minute when they sensed that they would be stiffed.  I dutifully performed, even though I had gotten rear-ended on the freeway on my way there.  Then I discovered that my CD’s were stolen right off of my merch table!  It was a horrible day.

Corey and his friends promised to pay me, but I never heard from them again.

I had long ago erased this unpleasant experience from my mind, but it’s amazing how powerfully memories can come back.  As our pastor spoke, I was trying to keep anger from welling back up and kept searching for the quickest exit.

As soon as the meeting ended, Corey and his wife came dashing over to us.  They must have been doing some strategizing during the sermon.

“Hey, we know a bunch of things happened about 20 years ago, but we just want you to know that we are so, so sorry for what we did to you,” they said to me.  “We were foolish and dumb, and what we did was not fair to you.  Please forgive us.”

I was floored!  They’re trying to make amends!

I was then reminded of the conversation I had just had that morning at church with Howard, an 80-something widower.  He was telling me about the full life he’s lived, even as his hand shook with tremors.  “I have some friends who are now alone and bitter.  I don’t want to be bitter!  I want to keep enjoying life, so I’m not looking back,” he declared with a smile as his coffee dribbled out of the cup in his trembling hand.

“Of course I forgive you,” I exclaimed, as I hugged Corey and his wife.  They looked relieved, as if I had been that last person to cross off the list from their 12-step program.  They thanked me for my graciousness and wished us a Merry Christmas.

* * * *

As they left, I thought of the many foolish things I’ve done over the years and the people I have wronged and hurt.  The couple had more courage than I to make amends.  I should be the one thanking them for this chance meeting, for it was a huge lesson in grace.  Not the grace I extended to them but the grace given to me by God…in spite of myself.

Thank you, Corey, and thank you, Howard, for this most interesting and important gift I received for Christmas this year.

My Child Is A Big Fish In A Little Pond, And I’m OK With That

1489141_10152074329369866_742898553_oI have been engrossed in a gem of a book entitled “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants” by Malcolm Gladwell.  One of the chapters I just read really made me think: would I rather that my child be a little fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond? My inner-tiger mom tends towards the big pond.

My son Josh struggled in 8th grade Algebra and ended up needing to repeat the subject his freshman year in high school.  I was devastated.  I was a computer science major, and David was a math major.  We are a family of mathematicians.  Our child should have passed Algebra with flying colors and moved on to Geometry as a freshman!  I thought I totally failed as a mother and as a human being.

Because Geometry was a concurrent requirement for Honors Biology, Josh was also forced into pedestrian-level science track, thereby tarnishing his college applications for sure.  Josh is a scientist, for goodness’ sake!  He had gotten a perfect score in his 8th grade state testing for science. He loves science.

I thought that his 8th grade Algebra teacher was lousy and was more interested in her pending retirement than in teaching.  I was mad at myself for not intervening sooner, but I felt even worse that Josh began to think of himself as being stupid. Yikes!

Alas, when Josh retook Algebra at his high school, something finally clicked.  He began to do really well in his class.  It helped, of course, that he was taking the class for the second time.  It also was a major plus that his teacher was young and enthusiastic and had an innovative way of teaching to make certain that all students understood a concept before moving on.  Josh began acing all the tests, and he became a star student.

He felt good about being the best in this class, a decidedly smaller pond in comparison to the Honors Geometry class which would have been a big pond for him.  If I had insisted that he move up to Geometry, he may very well have struggled and continued to think of himself as a “dumb math student.” Instead, he got A’s in Algebra last year and is now continuing to do well in his sophomore Geometry class.  He thinks of himself now as a good mathematician.  He got his mojo back.

According to writer Malcolm Gladwell, many Ivy league students in the bottom quarter of the class get so discouraged that they drop out of their majors or, worse still, college altogether.  Every single person who gets accepted at Harvard, Yale, or Stanford is most assuredly brilliant, but somebody still has to be at the bottom quarter of the class, right?  Gladwell also sites studies which show that the top students at many of the “mediocre” schools actually accomplish much more than the bottom-half students at the top schools.  It’s good to be a big fish in a smaller pond!

Pushing Josh to take advanced classes just so that it would look better on his college application — or, truth be told, so it would make me look better as a parent — would have done him much disservice in two ways: One, he would have gotten less-than-stellar grades, and two, he would have lost his self-confidence.  We would have set him up for failure.

Perhaps it was in God’s divine wisdom that Josh ended up in Algebra for the second time in 9th grade.  And because his workload has been relatively light as compared to his comrades in honors classes, Josh has been able to enjoy his high school years to the fullest.  He plays the trumpet in the marching band and is making a lot of friends and memories.

I still hope for Josh that he ends up at a decent college and has a great future.  If we have to scale back the Big Pond dreams we had for him, so be it.  Now, after reading this book, this panda mom is thoroughly convinced that it’s better for him to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond.