Third-Grade Grace

Winslow Homer, “Homework.” Public Domain.

I think I was in third grade when this happened, so a lot of the details are pretty fuzzy.

Either I had an assignment I forgot about until really close to bedtime, or I had an assignment that was too hard for me…my memory, in any case, was that there was an assignment that was due the next day (probably in math–I hated math), and I had not completed it, and I knew I hadn’t completed it, and I was really upset that I hadn’t completed it, and there was a significant barrier to its completion (i.e.: bedtime or difficulty level or whatever).

All I know is that I went to bed that night certain that I would have to walk into school the next day and receive an “Incomplete” for that assignment, and there was nothing that my perfectionist little eight-year-old self could do about it.

I had shared all this angst with my mom in a state of considerable perturb, and knowing that her sympathy would be somewhat limited, because whatever my reason for not completing the assignment was, it could have been overcome by dint of organization/ better time management /checking my assignment book, all things that she had been fruitlessly trying to teach me to do. I remember Mom’s reaction being a kind of, “well, this is what you get” philosophical sigh. I was relieved that she hadn’t yelled at me, but still pretty angst-ridden about not being able to turn in the assignment the next day.

So I went to bed that night, and rose the next morning in a state of hopeless resignation, ready to march to my humiliating fate. When lo and behold, at breakfast, my mom handed me the assignment, and it was complete. Clearly, by her. And she looked at me and said something like, “This won’t ever happen again. Will it?”

In that moment it was clear to me that, to my mom, this was a moment of terrible parenting. And that actually meant a great deal to me—like, for one moment, she put aside being MOM: overseer of homework, keeper of the chorelist, giver of groundings… and instead, as a friend, and someone who didn’t want to see their child face the pain and humiliation I was expected, just stepped in and made it better.

I was filled with a mix of emotions—some shame, because hey, my mother did my homework for me; some determination, because hell no, that was never going to happen again; but mostly wonderment, because I knew that walking into school with an incomplete assignment was absolutely what I deserved to do, and I had steeled myself to do it, and being able to turn in a completed assignment instead was a gift of grace that was so deeply unexpected and unmerited that, twenty years later, it is still the example I go to when I need a human metaphor to describe what God’s grace might look like.

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