How to err on the side of grace in a tradition with a penchant for judgement.

I was lucky Conroy was in his office, or in total exasperation I would have spilled it all to the secretary – that’s how angry I was.

“He’s not coming back in,” I told the principal. “I’ve had it with the kid. He’s a jerk, and he’s pushed me over the line. He’s out of my class forever.”

Conroy swung his chair away from whatever he was reading. “Shut the door,” he said. “And right now, who’s with your class?”

I felt behind me for the knob. “Nobody’s got my kids. They’re ripping the room apart, and frankly, I don’t care.” At least I didn’t slam the door. “I came to tell you that Westgaard is not coming back in my class.”

“What’d he do?” Conroy said.

“Smarted off,” I said.

“Sure,” he said, pointing at a chair. “What exactly did he do?” 

“He gave me this look,” I said.

“What’d he say?” 

“He just gave me this look – he didn’t say nothing.”

Conroy let me have that double negative, even though I was an English teacher, first-year. “Just so I understand – you want me to boot a kid out because he looked at you funny? Didn’t cuss? Didn’t flip a bird?”

I told him not to take the kid’s side. “He gave me this look, and I blew up,” I said. “When I saw the look on his face – I didn’t even yell – he took off.”

“Took off?” Conroy said. 


“Outside the room?” 

“Out the door, outside school, and into the parking lot – around the cars.”

“You’re pulling my leg, right?”

That’s how it happened. I told my boss that was exactly the way it happened. I hadn’t caught him either. Bobby Westgaard was half my size, a punk kid squirreling himself around parked cars, keeping some Ford or Chevy between us to save his life. 

Cut from the same wooly fabric

Never dawned on me, but the rest of 5th-hour English had to have been at the windows, fans at a wrestling match. I have no idea who they were cheering for, but I’d like to think – even now, a half-century later, that it was me. I don’t know what they would have expected had I caught him. Fact is, I didn’t know myself what I’d do. 

Fire got the best of me. Whoever it was we were reading – Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson – the kid didn’t give a rip. I was doing my best to scratch my way into the souls of 5th-hour English when he looked up at me and sneered. 

I chased him out of the room and into the parking lot. Didn’t catch him either. Finally, I threw in the towel, went back inside, not to my room, but directly into Conroy’s office to tell him Westgaard was no longer in 5th-hour. I wanted him out. 

Conroy giggled. “So the two of you did this dance around the cars? And the whole class was watching?”

Something like that.

I loved those students, oddly enough I still do. A couple years ago, a library in southwest Wisconsin asked me, the writer, to do a book thing. Thirty-some of my ex-students showed up, portly as their ex-teacher and just as retired. We talked more about grandchildren than we did about writing, spent two hours laughing, and yes, the Bobby Westgaard story got told to resounding guffaws, even though Bobby wasn’t among the attendees. (He’s likely never been inside a library. . . Yes, I know – that’s mean.)

I had a warm and loving childhood. I was a fair-to-middlin’ high school athlete, and I gave a commencement address after having been chosen for the job by my classmates. I went to college in Iowa, Dordt College, where I lived with people cut into similar patterns of the same wooly fabric. I had no idea that people from across the continent sang the same ditties from the same purple hymnal or knew the first Q and A of the Heidelberger or understood the tiny bits of Dutch I knew – vies, benauwd, and laat ons bidden

I honestly never knew all that many me’s existed as I found in college, and the discovery was, well, enchanting. My family grew exponentially.

Crowned with ashes

Four years later, the Vietnam War raging, the enchantment had vanished. I wanted out. I took a teaching job in southwest Wisconsin, a couple hours from any recognizably Reformed church, started teaching in the little town where I chased Bobby Westgaard into the parking lot.

But there are two Bobbys in my memory. One, I’ve already described. The other I remember the day he wore an ashen cross on his forehead, after he and others attended mass during a noon hour. Amazing for me to see that. But when today my imagination flashes a picture of him – scrawny little blonde-haired scamp, nowhere near 5’10”, armed with a cannon mouth – I see him, even today, crowned with those ashes.

I always thought that my ability to make judgments about people was a useful skill. I was reared at a moment in time when the word “worldliness” was defined as something as greatly to be feared as hated. I loved my students – dairy farmers, cheesemakers, descendants of the original “badgers,” miners that dug iron from the hills east of the Mississippi. I really did love them, but something in me had to fight a notion built into my consciousness: that those students, like so many other folks in the world, weren’t covenant children, and thus somehow stood outside of a jeweled ring of believers. I couldn’t help suspicioning them all of, well, unbelief. 

Judgement came almost like an instinct to me. Still does. Even today, 50 years later, I have to remind myself not to employ those worthy tools of judgement built-in to my heart, my head, and my soul. Those kids were Catholic, some of them. Others were Lutheran and Methodist.

By tradition, I want to judge. I want to rule on others, not over, just on; and quite frankly, fifty years after Bobby Westgaard’s ashen cross and parking lot sprints, I’m tired of it. For years I’ve had to work to keep my tradition’s weapons of judgement on safety, locked away.

Maybe I’m the only one. Maybe it’s just me. 

A hefty price tag

We’re at a point in the life of the church, where a weighty decision has to be made. Like a whole bundle of believers in another bundle of other fellowships, we can’t help but see that those decisions, decisions on gay marriage, wear a hefty price tag. 

There are times I’ve got to remind myself of Bobby Westgaard, his forehead painted with a cross of ashes, tough as it was for me, back then, to get, to understand. I’ve got to remember my penchant for judgements. It comes so easily.

One more story.

The most renowned 19th century Roman Catholic missionary to First Nations up and down the Missouri River, the Belgian priest Pierre-Jean DeSmet, embellished his own memoir with stories of the people he loved and served. The year was 1840 or so, a time when men of the cloth were often perceived as medicine men in long black robes. DeSmet occasionally found himself treating the sick, including children. 

It’s a kind of confession he gives when, in his autobiography, he says that sometimes when he was holding a precious baby, he’d surreptitiously baptize that child when the parents weren’t looking. He just couldn’t help himself. It’s a lovely picture. 

Our preacher, a fine and thoughtful man, flirts with sacramentalism in a fashion that’s new to me in the world of the Christian Reformed Church. Quite frankly, I appreciate his ardor, but that doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally enjoy asking questions. A sacramentalist, I figure, should buy the idea of the saintly DeSmet baptizing those babies on the sly – don’t you think?

So I asked our preacher if what Father DeSmet sometimes sneaked into the medicine he practiced amounted to a true sacrament of baptism. I figured I’d get him on that one – you know, the old contrary: truth vs. grace.

He smiled first. “Well, if I’m going to err,” he said, “I’d choose to err on the side of grace.

I love that answer. All things considered, me too. 

If you’re wondering about Bobby, Conroy stopped by to see me at the end of the day. “I talked to the kid,” he said. “He wants to get back into your class.” Tossing him wasn’t an option.

I just now looked Bobby Westgaard up on Facebook and found him. He’s a good bit heavier 50 years later, not so scrawny as he was when he was 16. Not much hair. In one of his pictures, he’s sitting on a couch with his arm around his grandson. 

Thought maybe you’d like to know.


  • James C. Schaap

    James is a retired Professor of English and the author of more than 40 books, most recently Looking for Dawn (2018).

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