At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Monday, April 15, 2013

My Greatest Teachers: Those Who Mentor

It was February of 2000 and my plane was landing at Dulles Airport outside of Washington, D.C. This journey was taking me to the Covenant School in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I would guest teach and interview the next day for a teaching position in the Bible department. It was somewhat scary and difficult to think about a potential move, but we were thinking about relocating to a high-level medical community for Joshua's significant needs.

I strolled off the plane toward the waiting area at the gate where a small crowd was gathered in these pre-9/11 days of being able to meet your party immediately off the plane. Seeing a well-built, respectable-looking character holding a card with my name on it, I walked right over to the man known as Tom Foley.

"Luke," he said, his smile beaming like the moon that hung in that night sky. "Welcome."

It wasn't the first time I had encountered this man who would be a fine example, a driven yet compassionate leader, and a dear friend. But until that point, every contact with Tom about the teaching gig and any questions I had about Covenant or that he had about me had taken place over the phone. And so began a four-year term in which I desired to learn from this man.

Don't ask me why that thought was so instinctive. Perhaps it had something to do with the first three years of my teaching career. In Louisiana, we had enjoyed our time at Westminster Christian Academy in Opelousas tremendously. I had grown professionally. I had been asked to detonate, then rewrite, revise, and renew the curriculum for my Ethics, Christian Doctrine, and Worldviews classes. I had been named department chairman. Opportunity seemed boundless. But I knew that I was also in a position where I was learning so fast on the go, and having to put out so much of myself, that I was in danger of drying up by not taking anything in from a teacher positioned above me in the same area.

I needed a river from which I could drink and refresh myself. I needed to get outside my comfort zone and be challenged. I needed to place myself under someone, to clip my wings go they could grow back stronger.

I needed a mentor. And Tom Foley was--is--the gift I needed.

It's really difficult to describe Tom in a way that does him justice and incorporates all the meats of his personality stew. I do recall that he struck me as a very humble person. When I mentioned I was in desperate need of mentoring, his first words were, "Well, I don't know how effective I'll be, but if you want to throw in your lot with me, go for it."

During my time in Charlottesville, I had a mother lode of moments when I couldn't make heads or tails of the man. There were times that Tom could make you feel edgy. I didn't know when he'd be dropping by my classroom or ambling past at the moment I was typing up a quiz and he'd say, "I think you should really change that third question." One day he kept me behind after a department meeting and lit into me: "Your classroom management is going to hell." I was slightly encouraged by the fact he used the present participle rather than the past tense, and thus there was time to change. But he was right. I was going through a spell when I needed to clamp down and take charge, and I did.

There were others times when Tom displayed the compassion and kindness for which he is well known. There was never a time we met when he didn't pray for me. After each round of constructive criticism (which thankfully got less frequent as time went by), he would always ask, "Are we okay?", always wanting to confirm that no matter what, we were brothers fighting on the same side. I remember  seeing him weep openly when he was convicted there were things--important priorities--in his life that he had deeply neglected. When you prayed with Tom, you sense you were in the throne room of the Almighty Himself.

For the first couple years I was vexed over what I viewed as Tom's vacillation between hard-line and godly love. As I matured and figured things out, I came to realize those were two sides of the same coin that all great mentors possess. Tom was merely making the call and giving me the direction that I needed at the moment I needed it. And that meant Tom had to be different at times, but boy did he make the right call over and over.

It was Tom who was speaking in chapel on the morning of 9/11 when our headmaster, Dr. Ron Sykes, approached him beforehand and whispered into his ear the news of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. I saw Tom's eyes widen and his body harden, and then I knew instinctively that he was praying himself through this difficult time. He managed it with supreme grace.

It was Tom who--during a conversation at Bodo's Bagels in late July of 2000, just before new teacher meetings got underway--spoke the line that would be formative in my teaching soul for years to come: "We are teachers of truth, and God will give us relationships." Translation: Do what you're called to do, and the opportunities for deep, meaningful, ongoing interaction will come naturally. Given the location where he spoke that wisdom, I call it the Bodo's Mandate.

More than anything, I remember that through all my scatter-brainedness and need for growth, Tom never stopped believing in me. He exemplified what great teacher/mentors display: a long trust in a consistent direction (to tweak Eugene Peterson). During my second year at Covenant, he asked me to build a unit on the Old Testament minor prophets into eleventh-grade Bible. Excited but curious, I asked him why. He quickly replied, "Because it's Bible, because it's important, and because I know you'll do it creatively and do it well."

Tom also emphasized (I believe rightly) that when teaching Bible in a Christian school--especially in an increasingly secular society as ours--it does no service to be sectarian. Rather that teaching from a "room"--a denominational bunker of belief, be it Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, etc.--Tom said in C.S. Lewis-esque fashion, "Stay in the hallway, the great stream of Christian consensus. What have Christian believed at all times in all places? That's from where you work." Even now when a student asks me a question in class, the first reminder that goes through my head is, "Stay in the hallway. Stay in the hallway."

After several years of figuring out the ropes and pushing up the mountain of professionalism, I got to the point where Tom had full confidence. Once after a department meeting in early 2004--at this point we were getting set to move to North Carolina and pastor a church--when I had gone back through my notes and found some information he needed, Tom emailed me and said, "Thank you for doing this. You have become a 'right hand' that I will miss greatly."

Now Tom is no longer at Covenant, but he is still a great mentor. To me. And to others. He heads up Christian Educators Outreach, an organization dedicated to placing and developing Christian teachers and leaders in Eastern Europe (with special emphasis in Hungary and the Ukraine). And if these folks get from Tom what he gave me, then that part of the world had better get set for some amazing transformation.

It's been some time since I had some face-to-face time with Tom, but his influence is always there. For now, God may have taken me away from Tom Foley, but it's impossible to take Tom Foley out of me.

Thank you, brother.

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