Old School Room at Dollywood - Tennessee

Chester Arthur – The Teacher

I Don’t See It

“And the Lord said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock….” Exodus 33:21 KJV

Although I don’t spend too much time thinking about it, I’m probably my harshest critic. Maybe it’s just a hint of a perfectionist streak, but I constantly see ways I can improve on myself or some project I’m working on. I spend a lot of time planning, so when flaws appear, I already have the eraser in my hand and I’m starting the process to correct the problem.

One of the hardest problems to deal with in being your own harshest critic is when someone else criticizes you. You know you are not perfect, but you are trying as hard as you can to get close. You really don’t need anyone else’s help getting you there by reminding you how far from perfection you really are.

The second side effect of being your harshest critic is, believe it or not, the lack of vision that someone else can look up to you. It’s not that you have a paranoid feeling that people are looking down at you, you just can’t see there being anything more than average about yourself.

Being your own harshest critic is not a hopeless situation, though. Balance is the key. You just have to learn a few things and apply them to your life. The first key is that you need to take your eyes off your project or yourself and see that there is a world around you.

Once you notice the world around you, you need to realize you are part of that world. If you are part of that world you need to be a participating member. Being a participating member involves getting to know other people. Once you start getting to know other people, you start caring about other people. Once you start caring about people, your perspective of perfection’s importance changes.

The next thing you need to know is that you are helping other people reach their goals. You are helping them solve their problems. You are helping to develop their talents. You are helping them feel better about life. Then, before you know it, life becomes less worrisome and it becomes much more fun.

As you then look around at your life, you notice a very strange thing. There are all these people looking up to you. Where in the world did they come from? Don’t they know that you are just an average person?

One of those awakening moments happened to me a few years ago. I was leading a church puppet group. We had a great group of young kids in the group. Even younger kids couldn’t wait until they were old enough to join the group. I had been doing puppets for many years and I had led other groups before, but there was something very different about this group, or maybe it was just me.

These young kids were quick to learn the basic puppet techniques. Sometimes they would get a little lazy and forget the basics, though. This was very frustrating to me, especially if their laziness happened during a show. It wasn’t the fact that they performed badly; it was that they didn’t perform up to what they were capable of with their talent. Kids and parents came from all over to see their performances and, as performers, they owed it to the audience to perform at their best.

So during the next practice we would practice over and over again the basics which they already knew. “We already know this stuff, why do we have to practice it over and over again?” would come the whining. “I didn’t see it in your last performance, so you either forgot how to do it or you forgot how to use it in a performance. Either way, I don’t want you to forget it the next time,” came my reply.

The group got the message and very rarely after that did we have to go back to basics. Our practices became more about developing other talents. The end result is that there are now some young and talented puppeteers roaming the streets today.

One day I left the group, but I was invited to a cookout for a couple of the kids who were graduating. One of the girls was telling me about a “professional puppeteer,” a well-known puppet performer, she saw. She said he wasn’t that good and that “Mr. Cruse would have had a fit with his puppet technique.” She said it proudly.

All those years I taught those kids, I don’t think I ever thought I was an influence to them. I was just having fun helping them reach the potential I knew they had. It wasn’t until she said something to me that I realized I wasn’t the only one who got something out of the relationship.

Many of our Presidents have been teachers from time to time. Chet, as he was called, was one of those Presidents who was a teacher early in his life. He got his education at Union College. He must have been pretty bright because he entered Union College as a sophomore, right after attending Union Village School.

Although Union College was known for all its science curriculum, and it even had started a civil engineering division, Chet decided to go with the traditional classical curriculum.

Chet also got involved in a little mischief while he attended college. He once threw the West College bell into the Erie Canal. He also was known to have at least twice carved his name into some of the college buildings. He also joined a fraternity and was the president of the debating society.

During his winter school breaks, Chet would teach at a nearby school in Schaghticoke. After he graduated from Union College, Chet went to work at the school in Schaghticoke as a teacher. Chet was a very tough, stern instructor.

Don’t you think it is a little strange how a lot of the Bible characters are so, well, average? Couldn’t God have picked better examples for us? Why is it that the ones that stumble, fail, disobey, or just seem so “unreligious” are the ones whose stories fill its pages?

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Common looking people are the best in the world: that is the reason the Lord makes so many of them.” I think the Bible gives us common, or average people as I call them, to look at because that is what most of us are. Most of us don’t walk into success. Most of us get mistreated or have bad things happen to us. Most of us have to learn things the hard way. Rarely are most of us give an easy life nor do we usually inherit a fortune.

When you are average, you look up to people who you think are “above average” and you hope that one day you will get where they are. That journey usually involves mistakes, miscalculations, associating with the wrong people, and a whole bunch of learning. The more modest “average” person comes to learn, through life’s experiences, no matter how hard you try, no matter how much success you think you have gained, no matter how many people you think look up to you, you are always going to be average. The wise ones learn that being average is okay, because I believe God loves the average ones the best.

One of the characters in the Bible had the nickname Cephas. The best way to describe Cephas is that he was average. As an average guy he always seemed to be looking for a way to get in that “above average” or better category. It seemed like every time he would move closer to his goal, reality would slap him in the face and bring him back down to reside with the average people.

Cephas was always asking questions. In fact, he may have asked more questions than anyone else in the Bible. He wanted to get better. He wanted to know the answers. But old Cephas was also the first one to offer answers that were asked in a group. He wanted to be “the man.”

Cephas was very lucky, for he was taught by a very patient, yet stern teacher. His teacher allowed him to learn, make mistakes, and even say stupid things. That’s not to say that his teacher sugar-coated things. Quite the contrary, the teacher would think nothing of rebuking poor Cephas, even if it was in public or even if they were surrounded by friends.

Asa G. Stillman was an eight-year-old student of Chet’s. Many years later Asa would recall a lesson his teacher, Chet, had taught him when he was younger and at school. Chet had given the class an assignment to write a poem and read it in front of the class. Asa was very bashful and he also insisted he wasn’t talented enough to write a poem on his own. Asa was fully expecting to get the birch rod treatment to his bottom. Chet had another idea, though.

Chet told him he would write down the following poem, by Thaddeus Mason Harris, and he could read it:

Prayer, how shall I a little lad
In speaking make a figure?
You are by jesting, I’m afraid,
Do wait till I get bigger.
But since you wish to hear my part,
And urge me to begin it,
I’ll strive for praise with all my art,
Though small my chance to win it.

Asa told his teacher, Chet, that he was not very good at reading things that were written. Chet then told him he would print it out for him. Chet then asked, “Will you learn it if I do?” Asa replied, “I’ll do my best.”

The next day, the very nervous lad came to school and performed his poem so very well that Chet, parents and a number of guests heaped praise on the lad.

In 1883, when Chester “Chet” Arthur was President, New York physician, Dr. Asa G. Stillman, told the story of his former teacher. He even produced the poem, hand-written by Arthur many years before. He also mentioned to the crowd that, several years ago, he had named one of his own children: Chester Arthur Stillman.

Cephas was a nickname that means “The Rock.” Cephas may be better known by his birth name: Simon Bar-Jonah. Or maybe you might know him better by the name Peter, which Jesus seems to use to replace calling him Simon. Or perhaps, you might know him by Simon Peter, which is the way John refers to him fifteen times in his Gospel.

Jesus seems to change Simon’s name to Peter as a way of drawing a line between Peter’s old way of life and his new way of life. Most of the time Jesus calls him Peter, but when Peter seems to revert back to his old ways, Jesus usually calls him Simon. I guess it is like when you were younger and your parents used your middle name. That was a sure indication they were not pleased with your choices.

After Jesus left his disciples the final time, Cephas, The Rock, Simon, Peter, or whatever you want to call him, took that stern discipline that Jesus dished out and he used it to guide his and the church’s direction. I’m sure Peter came to appreciate Jesus not being so easy on him.

In a world where everyone seems to get a prize or it almost becomes a crime to say anything to someone for fear of upsetting them or hurting their feelings, people with visions of a better life are often looked upon as evil. We don’t want to be corrected by the puppet leader, the teacher who wants us to recite a poem, or even Jesus Himself.

Sometimes stern discipline frustrates us. We don’t like it, but the simple fact is that it sometimes helps us to grow stronger and lead better lives. That is especially true when that stern direction comes from God.

Prayer: Dear Mighty Father, I know I’m not always the best student when you try to teach me to follow Your direction. Help me to always remember that there will be a day when I understand and appreciate Your unbending wisdom. Amen.

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