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Perspective: A teacher’s answered prayer at Christmastime — about math

The child in the manger is also the omnipotent God who stands ready to help us with problems small and large

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Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

At our home, we love everything about Christmas. We bring the Christmas things out early and leave them up through the dark of January. In our cozy,  twinkle-light paradise, our three Nativities have pride of place; the child in the manger sums up for me the sweetness that is Christmas: a baby is born who will change everything.  

However, what happened at 6:15 a.m. on Dec. 6, during a heartfelt prayer — a plea, really, born of frustration, dread and despair — altered and expanded my perspective on Christmas and the Lord’s love for me. Even more surprising to me than the fact that my prayer was answered immediately, I was praying about math.

I’ve been praying a lot in the previous months about my work, because I dreaded it. Every day, I had sick-to-my-stomach, drag-myself-to-work dread. Although I retired last year after 32 years of teaching English and language arts, I now work a few hours a day at my local elementary school, helping out in the lunchroom (a surprisingly enjoyable gig) and tutoring in reading.

This year, however, because the two fourth-grade teachers have really large classes, I was assigned to help them. And it turned out that what they needed was for me to help the few kids who are really struggling with math.

I know what you’re thinking: Fourth grade math, how hard can it be?

But there are significant obstacles here, including my own unresolved math PTSD from the 1970s (when we had to figure out problems on the board with everyone watching) and the fact that math educational strategies have changed a lot since I was in fourth grade.  

Also, the two teachers aren’t quite sure what they need me to do; they’ve expressed a vague wish that I “just do what Mrs. S. does.” Mrs. S. is our school’s kind and generous fifth/sixth grade interventionist who has over several years built up an impressive intervention curriculum for the students she helps. Becoming like her would take me, oh, about a decade.

Finally, a few of the students who need help are under consideration for special education placement, and such intervention should be done by someone qualified in the scope and sequence of fourth grade mathematics. I am not this person.  


For months, I’ve been praying, meditating and employing every positive self-talk tool in my belt about this interventionist task, but my thoughts at work were mostly negative: “I have no idea what to prepare for them,” “I don’t have the background and experience to do this” and the most ominous, “If I don’t get this right, I will let people down.” I couldn’t shake the dread. 

 And so, on the morning of Dec. 6, I was again on my knees, fervently praying, “Help me to understand these lessons. Help me to teach them well.”

My prayer was interrupted by these words: “You are right. You cannot do this. You do not have the background and training to do this task well.” 

I was stunned. I’m not sure what I was asking for, what I thought the answer might be —maybe an expansion of my abilities. The Lord gets fourth grade math, right? He could help me understand it, I thought. But this was unexpected advice.

I had barely formed my next thought when I was told, “You must be a student and learn first. Only then can you can help.”  

Of course — you can’t teach what you don’t know. I’ve known this for decades. I took a deep breath, maybe the first good one in days. I began to feel the weight of discouragement and dread literally lift off of me. To realize that the Lord completely understood this situation, in my little corner of the universe, and had come to my aid. He had reminded me of the obvious answer I could not see, buried as I was in frustration and despair, not able to make sense of the materials I’d been given and yet unwilling to say I couldn’t do it, and more importantly, to step back from my own expectation of competence.  

On that Tuesday morning, the Lord was no baby in a manger, sweet with promise about what he will do in the future. He was the omnipotent Jehovah, my wise older brother, my Savior and deliverer, who broke into the prison cell I’d created with my fear and shame and said, “You are in over your head! I’m breaking you out of here!”

And he did. Everything shifted as my dread evaporated, replaced by gratitude for his mercy. His love for me was large enough to atone for my sins and to show up in my smallest desperate moments.

Later that morning, I ran into both the principal and the math specialist together in the hallway at school. I told them that at this point, I could not be Mrs. S. for the fourth grade teachers, that I needed to first become a student in fourth grade math, to go through the lessons and videos, unapologetically, for the first hour of each morning. Our principal took my shoulders and looked me in the eyes and said, “Yes! Good! Take the time you need to  learn the material.” I wasn’t letting anyone down; they had been waiting for me to say what I needed.  


Perhaps the delight and joy that my husband and I feel in our home with all things Christmas is because so much of the rest of modern life, of the world, is filled with serious challenges that lead to familiar, discouraging refrains: “We have no idea what to do here.” ... “We don’t seem to be able to fix this.” ... “We are failing.” ... “We are letting people down,” and, even more ominous, “I am failing, I am letting others down, I feel hopeless.”

Christmas, however, is the opposite of all that. Christmas delivers redemption from despair, small and large. That redemption is resounding, eternal, immediate and personal, like the answer I got that day. The message of the child in the manger and the all-powerful Messiah is the same: ‘You are not alone.  I am here. For you.’”

We can receive our King, right now. We can prepare our hearts to give him room. Joy to the world, indeed.

Sharon Ellsworth-Nielson is a longtime educator who now enjoys retirement in Salt Lake City — gardening, travel, volunteering, freelance writing, grandkids, pickleball and trying to convince her husband it’s finally time to get a dog.