“South side of the Tree of Life — don’t forget.” This stern admonition came from my gray-haired, bespectacled eighth-grade teacher, Norman Edwards, on our last day of school at Simi Valley Adventist Elementary. By the time he retired, he’d been teaching for over 40 years and had made every one of his graduating classes promise the same thing. We may have been going our separate ways, but he expected to see every one of his former students in heaven for a grand reunion.
I’ve reflected on that promise often since then — the tireless dedication of one individual to bring young people to the foot of the cross. Mr. Edwards was an excellent teacher; he had high academic standards in his classroom and always ran a tight ship. I remember doing all sorts of science and history projects that year as well as being allowed to work ahead in my math and reading textbooks — and this was long before project-based learning and differentiated instruction became trendy educational approaches! However, it was clear to all of us — students, parents, teachers — that he was in the business of Adventist education because he had a burden and responsibility to tell us about Jesus.
As an Adventist educator myself now, I’m able to appreciate even more Mr. Edwards’ commitment to the ministry of teaching. I have sat in many, many board and staff meetings as well as been a part of conference, union and North American Division (NAD) conversations about the mission of Adventist education. Why do our schools exist? What purpose do they serve?
Early on in my teaching career, I heard a story that has since become my mantra — that echoes the example set forth by Mr. Edwards and has also served to keep me attuned to why I do what I do. The establishment of our denominational schools began in the late 1800s after the foundation of the church had been set and leaders began to look past the immediate structure — both literal and figurative — of the church. As the story goes, a group of church elders gathered together for a meeting one evening to discuss the future and vision of the fledgling church. At that point, evangelists had already been dispatched to share their faith across the world, and hospitals — another strong emphasis of the Seventh-day Adventist church — were beginning to be established. “What now?” they purportedly asked themselves. “Where should we direct our resources, our time, our efforts?” After some murmured discussion, a clear voice rang out, “What can we take to heaven with us? Not our clothes or our homes or any worldly belongings. The only thing we can take with us is our children. And so, there is our answer — we must invest in our children.” And thus — as legend has it — was the start of the Seventh-day Adventist educational system.
I have no doubt that the reunion in heaven with all of Mr. Edwards’ students will be well-attended — because that’s exactly what he did. He invested in us. He knew there was no better way to direct his resources and time and efforts. I imagine him looking around that glorious scene, and nodding his head with quiet satisfaction at each one gathered there at the south side of the Tree of Life.
When you’re bogged down with piles of papers left to grade or parent-teacher conferences to schedule or your turn again for after school supervision, it’s easy for that vision — that original intent of Adventist education — to become blurry. You may fume about your current workload or wonder why you pour in so much time and effort for so little money or wring your hands over a wayward student. But I urge you to remember that you are investing in our children, that you have been tasked with the noblest of professions, and that your efforts are so very appreciated, both on earth and in heaven.