A 6TH GRADE STUDENT NAMED BEN
“Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me;” (Matthew 18: 4-5)
Ben was just 11 years old when he entered my sixth grade class in the middle of the school year (1988). He came from a divorced home where there had been much turmoil and hurt. Both of Ben’s parents came from Christian homes, but for a variety of reasons this influence did not help them when important choices had to be made concerning their marriage and the raising of Ben.
After a bitter divorce, Ben’s mother was granted full custody, but knew very little about raising a boy on her own while consumed with work. The alimony and child support were hardly adequate. As Ben developed through the years, he became more and more out of control. He was asked to leave a number of schools for behavioral reasons. His mother, after much consternation and sense of failure, finally gave up control of Ben and passed him to his father. Ben’s father was a very kind man and was thrilled to take him, but like his wife, he had very little skill raising an 11-year-old boy and although he was a Christian, he had no idea how to disciple his son.
After a year trying to be a good father, Ben’s father found that all his efforts with Ben were failing too. But when he was at his lowest, he prayed and it immediately came to him that perhaps Ben could be rescued by the same Christian school that turned his life around years before (Matthew 7:7-9).
So he pursued our Christian school. To his surprise, the 6th grade teacher who rescued him was now the school principal. After a few sessions pleading his case, the principal decided to enroll Ben. He approached me with the situation and I said, “Of course.” How could I say otherwise; my own 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Dean, rescued me. I met with Ben’s father before he came into class. It would be difficult because it was a mid-year transfer. Ben’s dad was very grateful, compliant, and willing to do anything on his end to help. He was determined not to just drop Ben in my class and hope for the best. And so we began a great relationship to not only get Ben turned around behaviorally and academically, but spiritually too. I told Ben’s father that he was Ben’s primary discipler and would help him in that role in the months ahead. And so he approached this discipleship challenge with the same determination that made him a noted sports figure in our area of California (Los Angeles).
Students like Ben, who come in at mid-year, have a tough time, even if they are model students. The 6th grade is especially hard because so many children are beginning to experience adolescence and the struggle of shifting from childhood to young adulthood. Establishing and developing good friendships at this age is critical, because the esteem of an 11 year old now depends more on what his peer group thinks than his parents. The chances for a rebel like Ben to make friends at mid-year in the 6th grade were remote. But my class was very special this year, and as I reflect back on all of my teaching assignments which included most grades from 5th to the freshman in college, this class was like no other. They were a tremendous bunch of kids and were the right combination for Ben. In fact, I still keep in touch with some of these kids even after all these years. So Ben was in for a real surprise the first day of school when he thought he was going to get ostracized. That just was not going to happen with these kids, because for the most part they had been discipled well at home by good Christian parents. So to Ben’s surprise they accepted him with open arms from the outset and never relented. They were as determined as I was to help him get on the right road.
So God answered the prayer of Ben’s dad and put him in just the right class at the most crucial time in his life. But Ben was not an easy student; he lied, cheated, continually failed in much of his schoolwork, and hurt other boys on the playground from time to time.
But we all worked on Ben, and there was gradual progress. The only thing that he simply could not do, though, was tell the truth. I had a consequence system in my class; if you did something wrong but told the truth, then I would give a Plan A consequence. I would never tell the students what that was; it would be applied according to the student and the wrong committed. If you lied about what you did then a Plan B consequence was applied which would be more severe. Once again I did not tell the students what this would be as it was relative to each student.
As you might have guessed, Ben lived according to Plan B almost entirely throughout the year. He simply could not tell the truth about anything. I cannot tell you how many recess periods he missed, how many days he had to stay in my room after school, or how many times his father had to ground him, simply because he would not change his behavior, of which lying was his most consistent offence. But as hard as it was I applied plan B to Ben every time; I never backed off. His father was in full support and agreement, and participated as well in Ben’s discipline. There was little improvement even after months of work with Ben. So Ben’s father and I began to get together once a week to go over Ben’s behavior with Ben. We worked out a system where if he got a good report at the end of the week he would get a reward, but if he didn’t then he would receive a punishment at home. Ben loved going to McDonalds with his dad, but hated to be grounded from play on the weekends. At first this began to work, but then Ben slipped back into his old patterns of misbehavior and lying. As the year came to a close, it looked like nothing had gotten through to Ben. I was very disappointed, and so was his dad.
And then with about 4 weeks to go until the end of school, something dramatic happened; something I believe the Lord orchestrated. One day while I was out of class, Ben really exploded in frustration to his classmates as he exclaimed with a loud voice, “Dr. McClain doesn’t like me, he is always punishing me.” But several students quickly responded, “No that is not true Ben. We know Dr. McClain and if he’s really not happy with you, he won’t say much. Ben! Dr. McClain really likes you, if he didn’t he wouldn’t talk to you all the time.” Somehow that was a pivotal point for Ben. His behavior improved. His weekends were spent doing fun things with his dad. He was really different. But the real change was realized just before school ended.
Two days before school ended, Ben got into a scuffle with another boy on the playground which I actually witnessed from the 2nd row balcony at our school. As the students rolled into class after the break, they began to tell me, but I stopped them in midstream and said, “I know, I saw it all.” I was sad, because Ben had done so well, but I knew it would be his greatest challenge to tell me the truth about what happened. I was already thinking up what the Plan B consequence would be, even though I did not want to discipline him just before school ended. But as he entered the room, I said, “Ben, stay outside for a minute, we need to talk.” I put the class to work, but all were watching out the window with great curiosity. I said, “Now Ben I have knowledge that you got into a fight of sorts on the playground, is this true? Ben put his head down for a while, then looked up and said, “Yes, Dr. McClain, I pushed a boy at recess time which got us into a fight. I am the one who started it all, I shouldn’t have and I am sorry.”
“Ben,” I exclaimed!” I think my students inside the classroom heard me, “You told me the truth. Since you did that then Plan A, not Plan B will be your consequence.” “And what is that Dr. McClain?” Ben asked, “Well, Ben you need to apologize to the boy you pushed, and don’t do it again.” Ben quickly responded, “And that’s it? That’s Plan A?” “You got it Ben that has mostly been Plan A from the beginning.” “Wow,” exclaimed Ben. He immediately made things right with the boy he pushed and spent his last day at school with a real sense of joy and belonging. And that last day of school was like no other for me as a teacher. As the other classes in school partied and rejoiced because they were thrilled to be done, our class moped through the party because we did not want to depart from each other. When the final bell rang, tears flowed as the students left, even from Ben. (I Timothy 1:5)
Ben stayed at our school another two years before he moved. He visited me often. We had many great talks. In his 8th grade year right before he left, he was chosen by his teachers and administrators as the student of the month because of his outstanding Christian character.
Ben was an exception; usually kids like him don’t turn around, but because of his dad’s faithfulness and the circumstances God set for him with this special 6th grade class, he made it. Ben’s story should be an inspiration to us all, but it should also be a warning to us. If you don’t get determined about discipling your own children as Ben’s father did, then they may not turn out how you hope they will. And if you think that your attendance at church or taking your children to Sunday school or a church youth group is going to guarantee success, then you may be mistaken. You need to be more proactive; you need to be the one primarily discipling your children, which means you teach them God’s Word and live it out in their presence. You need to do it with the sense that you are the only one on earth to do it. Besides the commitment of Ben’s dad, the kids in my class were the greatest influence on him because they were his peers. It was their love and acceptance that greatly influenced Ben to change. As I mentioned earlier these kids were special because their parents, for the most part, had done a great job of discipleship with them. Be like these parents and you will have kids like theirs; kids who not only trust God, but know how help other kids like Ben. Teach your kids God’s Word, pray for them, pray with them, but most of all be the example God wants you to be in their presence.
In this teachable moment read the story of Ben to your children. In the story there was a mention of a Plan A and B in my classroom. Plan A was the best plan in regard to discipline; it was far less punitive and based on telling the truth. Plan B was the plan that carried tougher consequences. Ask your children to make up plans A and B for themselves in regard to the wrongdoings they will do in the future. Of course these plans must be based on general guidelines to follow, because not all wrongdoings are the same, nor should they carry the same consequences. The varying degrees of penalties from breaking the 10 Commandments tell you this. Then have them write out Plans of Discipline (A an B) and post them in a location where they can be an effective reminder.
Matthew 7: 7-9 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. “For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. “Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone?
I Timothy 1: 5 For I am mindful of the sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am sure that it is in you as well.