Just Look...

Just Look...

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Nothing Pretty to See Here

I've kind of put off this blog post because I kept thinking I could come up with a more positive spin to put on things before I wrote it. That maybe I could think of the words to make what just feels bad sound good. That maybe with time, I could at least own my feelings and not feel so stinking guilty about my lack of joy and excitement.

None of that worked. So here it is, in all of its ugliness...

I'm so glad to see the end of 2013. I started this year with such excitement and optimism, and the first six months plus delivered, at least somewhat. I think that 2013 showed me some things that I didn't want to see. It forced me to acknowledge that the somewhat charmed life I have lived isn't promised. It brought me in close contact with days when you don't love every moment of your job and opened my eyes to the emptiness that some people struggle with on a regular basis. I brushed up close to the mortality of my loved ones and it didn't feel good.

My family had some pretty major health scares this year, all scares that were resolved by the Lord before they amounted to anything, thank goodness. The lives of my Grandmother and Grandaddy were changed forever, but we are so grateful she is still here to have a changed life. For the first time, I found out what chronic scary health issues are like, beyond my mild issues I have had in the past. Truthfully, I think I have battled some mild depression in the past five months, something I have never dealt with. These feelings either caused or were caused by a void in my job satisfaction and a struggle to find meaning and purpose in anything I have done. I feel a distance from the friends I had once been so close to. I avoid social situations whenever possible. And maybe most frightening of all, I haven't enjoyed that close relationship with my Father that had previously defined my life. I just feel distant, like I'm a spectator watching life carry on around me. And I kind of hated it.

The last six months have felt like I failed at everything I attempted. And sometimes, I didn't even care. That's not me. In fact, the only piece of 2013 that has brought even a modicum of success with it has been this blog. I have finally committed to writing regularly and it has felt really good. I referenced Anne Voskamp's end of the year blog on fb the other day and wrote my own status about it. That status is the best description I can give to my analysis of this year, or at least the last half of it...
"I am not ending 2013 on a high note. In fact, I am ending it feeling like I have completely forgotten how to play."
 I have changed my mind five or six times about posting this blog. While in many ways I am extremely transparent, I hate being a downer and detest feeling vulnerable. However, when I started this blog, I promised myself it would be a reflection of the true me, not the me I wanted people to see. And right now, and since August, this has been the true me. Maybe it's you, too. I don't have any answers. No solutions. I am going to try and change some simple things in the hopes that it makes a difference for me, try to remember those things that defined who I am and hope that recommitting to those things will at least give me a new sense of self and purpose. I'm going to discipline myself back into spending daily time with my Father in the hopes that what might start as a habit will evolve back into a closeness. And I'm going to wake up tomorrow and approach 2014 with all of the optimism that I brought into 2013, hoping that a year from tonight I will be writing a whole different reflection.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Math and Singing and Such....

I have these two daughters. And they really look a lot like me. Sometimes I find myself assuming that since they look like me, and often act like me, that they are little me's. This past month, they chose to participate in two activities that, though perfectly wonderful activities, serve as major reminders that my life and theirs will likely be lived very separately.

I will never forget the day Kelsey came home so excited that she had checked out her very first library book. As an English teacher, I was thrilled that she was so thrilled. She dug around in her backpack to locate it, triumphantly pulled it out, and spun around to me holding it up with the biggest smile on her face. The book? a little diddy bearing the title I Hate English! I think I gasped first, then tried to smile at the irony. My heart broke a little bit, though, to be honest.

I have so anticipated the day that the girls were old enough to introduce them to a deep understanding of the Holocaust, more so than the basics I have always told them. I decided last year that they could watch "Life is Beautiful" and really looked forward to discussing it with them afterward. Their reponse? "that was so sad and kind of scary and we don't ever want to watch anything like that again." Every time I've tried to get Emma to read one of the early Holocaust books I have bought her, she refuses by saying it's scary.

In fact, reading itself falls into this category as well. Neither of them are avid readers. I have lived in denial as long as I could and have finally accepted that this is fact and even spoken it aloud. But it certainly pains me.

This month, both girls were invited to be part of the STEM Club. For the uninitiated, that's Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. (Yes, it could also be called the Future Earners of America Club, I suppose...) In my mind, it's Misery, Confusion, Frustration, and Despair. The very last thing on this earth I would have ever wanted to do is stay after school to do math and science FOR FUN.

I have imagined my kids as teenagers very frequently. I think when you teach high school, it sort of frames your context for everything. So I often see my students and imagine which activities my kids will pursue and which friends they would have, etc. I have always, I repeat ALWAYS, envisioned them as band kids. Band was a huge part of my life and I have celebrated the marching band shows as equally important to football at every single home game since they were BABIES. I rave about band. I adore band. And I have looked forward to being a band mom since before I had kids. This is still possible, for certain. But two Saturdays ago, they attended a show choir workshop and they both loved it. Do you know what I would choose to do only after I chose to spend an afternoon working math problems for fun? Singing and dancing in front of others. Or alone. Now don't get me wrong, I love watching our choir and I adore my choir kids. In fact, this year I have more of them than ever and I think I have developed an all new appreciation of their dedication. But never ever would I have anticipated having children in choir.

The next thing I know, these kids are going to be telling me they can't wait to go to LEE. ;) Old inside joke, don't panic--I'm a Cleveland COG'er, I can't hate Lee. (Besides, they already have. The current rationale is because they have a Chick-fil-A on campus...)

But honestly... it's not at all that I want to raise clones of myself (though the smart mouths seem to have been genetic) or that I am unwilling to learn about new things. It's just been a little bit of a shock to see them becoming their own people, people who apparently hate some of the things I love and who might love some of the things that terrify me. And I know that, as they age, these things will only become larger. They will very likely choose friends who might get on my nerves and one day date people I never would have selected for them to date.

But I realized something that afternoon I watched them singing and dancing on the stage of the Betsy Vines Little Theater, home of my one and only dramatic venture in the form of "Our Miss Brooks" in middle school... I realized that this parenting journey is going to be about letting go of my dreams to make room for theirs. I've picked my hobbies and chosen my activities and pursued my goals and ambitions and dreams. And now it's going to be their turn. And they will likely have false starts and missteps along the way, but that's ok. Because as Paulo Coelho says in one of my favorite books, "It's the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting." And far be it from me to stand in their way...

Monday, December 16, 2013

Dear Christmas

Dear Christmas,

It's not you. It's me. I'm looking for something or someone to blame but I'm not having much luck. I have considered the late Thanksgiving, the awful rain and gray skies from the past two months, and overall gray-ness that has permeated the entire second half of 2013... it could be any or all of the above. But no matter the root, this year, Christmas just doesn't have the sparkle that it normally does. The tree doesn't dazzle, the lights don't shine as bright, the elves aren't as active, I don't have any awesome presents I'm looking forward to giving, I haven't scheduled a single event at our home, and to just keep it all real here, the Random Acts of Christmas Kindness aren't even feeling very meaningful this season.

I'm trying really hard to maintain a proper perspective. I know that I have been so very blessed in my life and I know that Christmas isn't about any of the things I named in the above paragraph. But still. The big day is only 9 days away and I've got nothin'. Maybe last year was such a great Christmas season and so this year is a natural low? I don't know.

But I've made a decision tonight. I was looking at our nativity scene (with two elves in it... forgive her, Jesus) and thinking a little bit about that night and the days leading up to it. I know that there probably wasn't much sparkle on that journey to Bethlehem. I would suspect that the days were long and the nights were likely even longer. I've been pregnant. I know how hard it is to get comfortable in a king-size pillow-top bed. I can't imagine sleeping on the ground after spending the day on the back of a donkey. The stable probably didn't really dazzle much either, with the crowding and discomfort. It wasn't about the gifts, that year, either receiving OR giving... Well, except one Gift.

And that Gift allows me to take the pressure off myself to make the season perfect and festive and right. Thanks to that Gift, I can stop feeling guilty for not oozing green and red glitter and instead just remember two scared teenagers who made a conscious decision to trust. This might be my year to consider the scratchiness of the straw and the chill of the night, the odor of the animals in the stable. There was very little about that first Christmas that looked remotely like our Christmas of today. And so maybe this year, I'll quietly savor the love of a Father who looked into that stable, knowing the Cross that was to come, the humanity of a man and woman who accepted the way their community and society would see them, and the compassion of a King who willingly took on the weakness of a Baby. All of this so that I would one day have Life.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Passing of the Torch

 So our elf problem I discussed last night in this post is solved... although not in the way you might expect. (And luckily also not via an elfy funeral.)

First of all, it's so insanely ironic that one of my favorite bloggers posted a very similar post this morning after mine last night. Apparently the dissatisfaction with household elves is going around. Or maybe those of us who started this early are finally burning out?

Today, Kelsey had STEM club after school, so I picked Emma up and we were (unusually) alone in the car. As we were leaving Mayfield, I showed her a picture of what Natalie's classroom elf did today. She asked me when the elf did it and I said, "Um, I guess last night?" She said, "Or maybe when Natalie left the room at some point?" I quickly latched onto that and said that might be the case. The next thing I knew, Emma had leaned up between the two front seats, face only a couple of inches from mine, and said, "Mommy. The elves aren't real." Her tone was a mixture of dismay that I am so naive as to buy into magic elves and humor that she had figured it out before I did.

I said, "They're not???" and she said, "I knew that last year but I didn't want to say anything." I started cracking up and let her read my blog post from yesterday. I asked about Kelsey and she said she's pretty sure Kelsey is still all in. We talked about it a bit, then I got an epiphany.

"Emma," I said, "I have a great idea! I'm over the elves, you know they aren't real, Kelsey still believes... WHY DON'T YOU TAKE OVER THE ELVES???"

And with that, I was relieved of my elving duties and the torch was officially passed. It was a beautiful moment.

Emma's First Elf Set-up ... She's going to make a fine mother one day. ;)
(And boy has she started out on fire. We came home this afternoon before we picked Kelsey up, but Kelsey didn't know that. Tonight after church, Kelsey came flying down the steps, absolutely elated. She told me that she KNEW the elves were real now because they were in the American Girl jeep when we left this AM and now they are in the recliner and NO ONE HAS EVEN BEEN HERE! I'd say Emma has already proven herself.)
Kelsey was VERY concerned that the elves might ruin her gingerbread house she made at church.
SO, she left a very specific (and polite) note.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Elf-Life's Not for Me.

Maybe it's just a Scroogy year for me, but these elves are killing me. In the past, I have loved the little tableaus every night and getting to watch the magic in the morning. Now ours hasn't always been messy or mean or even mischievous... sometimes he's are smart and creative and he is almost always funny. I mean, until this year.

This year, they kind of stink. Those jokers have moved to different places around our bedroom, one night they did get some candy out, they have hung from nearly every light fixture in the downstairs, they have reclined under the tree and looked at the lights, they sat on the ladder, and they ate some cotton balls. That's it. And one night, they didn't even go anywhere at all. That was Saturday, and when the girls realized they were in possession of slacker elves this year, the elves did at least have the self-respect to get the thermometer and some medicine out of the cabinet and pose themselves on a pillow while the girls were gone somewhere that day.

It's like they don't even have any spirit at all. It's like they are just too lazy or too busy or too ROTTEN to do this Christmas thing this year. And you know what, I blame the little one. He's new this year and I think that he must be the common denominator. When it was just Elvis, he did all kinds of awesome things, things like ziplining across the living room and making snow angels in flour and painting Kraig's toenails while we slept! He could hardly wait for the household to get to sleep for him to partake in some kind of cool activity. Well this year he brought his little brother (who Emma insists is his son but he doesn't even have a wife so I am rather certain it's not his son) and the small one is just like a wet blanket on all things red and green.

To be totally honest, and I hate to even voice this, but I'm just waiting on the moment when we wake up to find both of them either in some sort of emotional treatment facility or dead. They just don't have the spirit to live a life of elfiness anymore and it really pains me to have watched their fall from Christmas merriment. There could be an elf funeral in our future. And I'm not even sure what type of music they would want played...

{An addendum here is that I am about 102% sure our kids are playing us. They have already confessed a knowledge of the lack of a Tooth Fairy for years before we realized. That's a lot of dollars we will never get back. I just don't see how it's possible that they both still believe in Santa and magic elves and I am pretty certain that we are paying dearly for our years of deceit. I think the joke's on us and the last laugh is being had by Emma and Kelsey, laying in bed at night chuckling at the thought of me racking my brain for some stupid elfy scene that I really don't even have the energy or desire to put together. If this is the case, and I think it is, I must say to them, WELL PLAYED. We are two of the biggest, dumbest elves you have ever seen.}

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

All RACK'd Up!

Last year I wrote this post about a few Christmas traditions we have established. I have had lots of interest in our RACK and lots of questions about it, so I thought I would explain it more thoroughly on here instead of continually repeating myself. (I have also, interestingly enough, had three different people ask my permission to "borrow" it. Let me answer that one for good: OHMYWORDNUMBERONEIDON'THAVETHEMARKETCORNEREDONKINDNESS and NUMBERTWOWHYONEARTHWOULDINOTWANTEVERYONETOCOPYIT and NUMBERTHREEIDIDN'TINVENTITANYWAY!

:) I have seen and read lots of posts about Random Acts of Kindness through the years and was trying to come up with an Advent-type activity for us to do to both count down and the days AND illustrate the true meaning of Christmas. So last year I just added "Christmas" to Random Acts of Kindness and we decided to start them on December 1! I made little cards that have a little note about how we are counting down the days to our Savior's birth and that you matter to us, or something to that effect, and we leave a card with any of the acts that involve giving something to someone.

I have had lots of people ask me for "my list"... I don't mind sharing ideas but it would take forever to type the whole thing out, so I'm just going to provide links to online lists, all of which are similar to mine. The main difference in many of these lists and mine is that several of ours involve local events and activities. I think it's important to sow into your community as much as you possibly can and support local ministries and charities. Therefore, we always partner for one day with Refuge (last year we helped them sort toys for their Christmas giveaway and I think we are working the giveaway this year), we are volunteering with People for Care and Learning to sell Christmas trees, we picked a boy from the CMS Raider Angel tree and bought gifts for him, we donated to Transition Furniture's Christmas for families who will be without,  we may be ringing bells with the Salvation Army, last year we donated to Toys for Tots one day... Some of our favorites last year were any that involved work, the day we gave gift cards to Smoothie King to Lee U students studying for finals, taking treats to the firefighters, buying a candy bar for a cashier to enjoy while on break (did that one tonight!), taking cards to the nursing home, and paying for the meal of the people in a car behind us at the drive-through.

I can tell you a couple of things we learned last year, and I'm sure we will learn more this year. First of all, the library will not tell you the names of, nor let you donate toward, those with overdue fines. I'm not sure if there is some librarian version of HIPPA or what, but the CPL is not all about letting people act kindly. ;) Secondly, and thankfully I found out before we tried it and got sent to the Big House, but it's actually illegal to feed meters. In addition, make sure you ask the total of the car behind you before you pay unless you are up for a big one.

I never would have thought of taking a basket of goodies to the ICU waiting room had a friend who had recently been through that not suggested it to me. Little did I know that we would be the ones benefitting from that act in only 8 short months. That's the thing about acts of kindness... not only are you blessed by doing them, you never know when you are going to be on the receiving end of one.

We are not held captive by our list of ideas, either. On Sunday I wasn't sure what we were going to do since we had no plans of leaving the house all day and had almost decided on writing letters to people who mean something to us when an opportunity came along to, through a friend, bless another family. So that was our RACK for the day. Today we happened to be in Target and see a harried cashier, so we picked the candy bar option. On a cold morning, we will send hot chocolate to the crossing guards or teachers on bus duty. To be completely honest, last year I did not and I mean DID NOT feel like attending a play some of my students were in. We counted that as our RACK for the day (and also ended up being VERY glad we went because it was AWESOME!).

The important thing is to put the focus on other people for this season. My kids absolutely loved this and it was the one tradition they mentioned several times in the year that they wanted to do again. I make them be the ones who give the goods/cards (if giving is to be done) because I want them to be comfortable with the act of giving. I blogged about this a while back, but I don't understand why we are so uncomfortable and even embarrassed by giving! We read something in Holocaust Lit today that had a line that said, "Goodness leaves us gasping"and I am afraid that's so true. I don't want my girls to consider activities like these to be unusual, but rather that they live a life of giving and service. I also think the card is important. It doesn't have our name on it and many of the people we RACK have no clue who we are, either by name or even face (taping quarters onto the buggies at Aldi). But I want people who are on the receiving end of this to know that we are driven by a love of a Savior and a hope in Christ who came as a tiny gift in a manger.

Anyway, here are some links below to various lists. Make it work in whatever way you wish but I would love for you to make it happen in some way. I won't even sue you for copyright infringement. ;)





Thursday, November 28, 2013

My Thanksgiving Prayer

The brilliantly blue sky seems to kiss the drifts of white snow, sunlight twinkling... and I sit in awe of His goodness. There is something so dazzling about the contrast between the depth of blue next to the almost painful brightness of white. I think about the past year, a year of great contrasts.

The house of meaningless clutter... the shack with a cooking pot and a few articles of clothing in Andong.

The family gathered round the table... the 3rd foster home this year.

The excess that I have purchased in previous Black Friday sales... the sparsely furnished hotel room.

The day of celebration and laughter... the holiday spent on an ICU waiting room chair.

I have changed so very much this past year. I have learned that the life I am so grateful for is also filled with things that clutter my soul and mind. I am learning to live open-palmed. I have bought less and consumed less since last Thanksgiving than I ever have in my life. I have been reminded that, though we should hold our loved ones close, His will is sovereign. 

So while I am appropriately grateful on this Thanksgiving for all of my many blessings-- a family of people who challenge and inspire and encourage me, friends who make my life so full, a church that gives me a home and a mission, a career that makes my everyday feel purposeful, and a salvation that has redeemed me and set me free-- I am also thankful that I have a Savior who is constant. He is the same Father to me as in an orphanage in Siem Reap, Cambodia. He is the same Comforter to my family gathered around my sister's table as He was huddled around my grandmother's ICU hospital bed just under three months ago. He is the same Provider to me as He is through the hands of those doling out food in a soup kitchen. 

The contrasts of this year have shown me most of all that my God is so faithful. And that He wants to prove His faithfulness to all of His children through all of us at different times. I have been as ministered to since last Thanksgiving as I have ministered. 

So no matter which side of the contrast you fall this year, I pray one of two things... either that someone would be there to show you His faithfulness or that you would be available to be used to show it to someone else. 
"You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God's people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ,and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!" 2 Cor. 9:11-15

Sunday, November 24, 2013

What a Ten Year Old and Disney Princesses Taught Me on my 36th Birthday

So today is the first day of my 37th year. (This always confuses me. I just turned 36. So I am FINISHING my 36th year and STARTING my 37th, yes???) Anyway, birthdays are always great times for reflection and contemplation...

{Complete sidenote, and I needed to get this out of the way or it's going to bug me the entire time I write. I have a really hard time writing after I've had a "writing high". Any time I have written a post I have loved that has had lots of readers, I am almost scared to write again. It makes little to no sense, I know. But in keeping with the spirit of Athena that requires me to word vomit and live as the biggest open book ever on the earth, I needed to say that. So this post, it is making me uncomfortable.}


I love a good birthday on fb, and one post yesterday really got my attention. It said,
"You really seem to enjoy your life." 
It's really very true, and it actually surprised me a bit (which it probably shouldn't have)... I do enjoy my life. I have been so blessed with so many wonderful people and places that mean so much to me. I feel called to my job, I feel like God has placed me in certain ministries that occupy huge pieces of my heart, and I have some really fun hobbies.

But I have this one issue... I'm always waiting. 

I am waiting on one of two things. Number one, I am always waiting on the shoe to drop. (That saying makes no sense and I wonder if I have mixed metaphors...) The guillotine to fall... (That's WAY more gruesome than necessary) I don't know. But I do feel like I always have a sense of just waiting on it all to fall apart. The terrifying diagnosis, the tragic accident, the financial disaster, the wayward child, the horrific scandal... something awful in which this little house of cards I've been dealt is going to crash to the ground. I don't know what it is that makes me feel this way, but it's been part of my life since I was tiny. I just always have a sense of dread of the unknown, inevitable... and it's always bad.

Secondly, I am always waiting on "just the right time". Whereas many people look backward, I look forward to the "next thing". Always the "next thing". When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be a teenager. When I was a teenager in high school, I couldn't wait for college. I spent my college years anticipating marriage and a career. The first thing I looked toward when I got married was the house and kids. With the arrival of Kelsey (whom I knew to be our last biological child) and the move to this house (that we will eventually die in), I started to hope for a future adoption. That's where I still am, in fact. And with all of those future hopes and dreams is a sense of holding back because I can't "waste it all" until it's "the right time".

Yesterday, Emma was cleaning some things out of her room. She brought a sheet of Disney princess stickers, all packaged up and never opened. She handed it to me and said, "Send these to Shelby [a friend's young daughter]. I'm too old for them now." I asked her why she hadn't ever opened them and this was her answer:
"I was waiting till I had something that was worthy of them to put them on. They were too nice to just stick on something and I didn't want to waste them."

I'm not kidding, I'm crying right now as I type this. Although she didn't seem to be terribly bothered by it, the whole experience made me sick inside. Those stickers were so special that she saved them until it was too late to use them at all.

They were magical... glittery princesses that had the power to transform something simple into something glorious. Except by holding back, they have become ordinary girls wearing pretty dresses on sticky-backed paper.

It just made me wonder... what am I holding back? What is so special to me that nothing seems worthy of it? And am I going to "save it", waiting on "the right time", until the window closes and the magical becomes the ordinary? The princesses become girls? The glitter becomes dust?

So I decided yesterday, on the 36th anniversary of my birth, to stop holding back. I'm going to tear off the plastic, rip into the stickers, and slap them onto my life. I'm going to revel in the right now instead of waiting for the next thing... whether that next thing is my life's biggest trial or the fulfillment of my heart's most secret dream. Because right now is all I have been promised. And I might even need to use it a bit recklessly, Disney princess stickers and all.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

It's Heavy

It's heavy. Whether it's the bag of crafting supplies for an enrichment activity for a 2nd grade classroom, a box of things for a middle school science teacher to attempt to make the subject matter come alive, or two Frankenstein cakes, clear cups with the monster's face drawn on them and a jug of green milk... it's heavy. And it's a long walk with it from the house to the car and the car to the classroom. And back.

I think that might be the part that people overlook when they talk about the easy life of teachers, summers off and tenure and all. The work of teaching? It's heavy.

Not the art of it... not the days I spend in my classroom just reveling in the beauty of great literature and the profound discussions that sometimes result in it. Not the craft of it... not the time spent coming up with the perfect activity or lesson plan, the one that you know will drive the standard or objective home. But the WORK of it. That's what's so heavy.

Because see, the thing of it is... teachers don't have to work at teaching to remain teachers, in fact to be known as good teachers. They can rely on the art and the craft and those two things will get them great evaluations and top-notch test scores.

But the work is what determines which classrooms kids are excited to get to, which teachers make learning a magical experience. Work is why my now 5th grader told me tonight that she will never have another teacher like Ms. Ethel Cooper, no matter how long she stays in school. Ms. Cooper, who made loaves of homemade bread the days she taught certain skills and who used Hershey bars to illustrate fractions. Do you think Ms. Cooper had a PO to buy the ingredients for that bread or those Hershey bars? Do you think she got paid overtime during the hours she kneaded the dough and waited on the bread to rise? Surely she at least had an assistant who came to her car the morning she lugged in all of her supplies, right? Not quite. And it was heavy.

Work is why my 1st grade teacher, Mrs. Sarah Wagner, will always be one of my very favorite memories. In fact, her work is very likely why I have this blog. She taught me that writing is the most valuable form of self-expression, that your voice in writing is the best tool you have, that there are no highs like those of sharing a piece of yourself through writing. She didn't teach me those things through brilliant lessons (though she had those) or magical classroom moments (though there were also those). She taught me those things through the time she took and work she put in to cut my illustrated stories into leafs and sew them into the binding of a cardboard cover, held together with a strip of electrical tape. She got the cardboard (frame shop matting) donated and carried loads of it into our little classroom. And it was heavy.

Work is why my cousin Melissa Adams, a business teacher at CHS, spends multiple afternoons a week making trips to Walmart to buy merchandise for our Raider Trader, the in-house store her class runs. Those kids run that store like it's a true business, which it is. They take ownership in the organization of the store, the cleanliness. One of them, during his week as manager, bought pizzas for his staff to celebrate their hard work. Do you think those kids aren't getting what business is really about? Melissa carries box after box of chips and candy and cokes into the school from her car three or more days a week to keep this venture going. And it's heavy.

Work is why Jeannie Cuervo takes kids in the cold and rain, sometimes on her own time, to conduct research in Mouse Creek. Work is why Julie Phillips and Patty Puckett drag food and drink into the school once a week for their students to enjoy during discussion. Work is why Mindy Kiser and Connie Stobert arrange for special speakers and programs for their students. Work is why Jim Burton and Alex Denton and Andi Wendorf took a massive trip to New York for their band and guard students to perform in a national-level competition. Work is why Melissa Barnette seeks out service opportunities for her cheerleaders. Work is why Sarah Smartt and Heather Ringstaff were out in the rainy cold this morning in front of Books a Million, trying to earn money for SGA. Work is why Cheri Carroll-Morgan collaborates with local emergency agencies to conduct mass casualty simulations. Work is why Kellye Huff and Mary Ann Millard get LifeForce to land at the school for their classes to learn from professionals. Work is why Steve Stephenson drove to Knoxville for years to pick up an elderly Holocaust survivor in order for her to speak to Cleveland students. Work is why our administration gets pep buses to football games and sells cheap tickets to the students. Work is why these and so very many other of my coworkers do so much more than what is necessary for high standardized test scores and top evaluations. And it's so, so very heavy sometimes.

You may hear a lot of times lately about teachers being beaten down, burned out, giving up, overwhelmed. You are probably hearing a lot of demonization of Common Core, talk about evaluations and student surveys, and general disgust in viral videos of teachers who have had it.

Don't worry.

The Ms. Cooper's are still baking bread, the Mrs. Wagner's are still binding books, and the Melissa Adams's are still carrying merchandise. Kids are crawling around in Mouse Creek testing levels of this and that, discussing the end of colonialism while sipping tea, watching Supercross bikers talk about character, being rewarded for perseverance and hard work, serving their community, learning from professionals, and experiencing first-hand accounts of history. They sat in the stands Friday night and cheered for their team, then rode home together in a euphoric cloud.

But we are tired. Because this work? It's just very heavy. And really and truly, all we want is to know that it's worth it. Most days, we don't even need that. But there are those other days when we wonder if any of this junk we are dragging around with us is even making a difference in a single life. And we are kind of, just a little bit, exhausted.

We don't want you to tell us we are trying to do too much. We don't need you to point out that we care too much. We don't even desire newspaper articles about test scores or pats on the back about evaluations. But maybe if you wanted to grab a bag when you see us coming from our car loaded down, or to hold a door open when we have a box of junk, or say a thank you when we buy donuts, or share with us how much a field trip meant to your child, or drop a note to say you remember your time in our classrooms... That's really all it takes to push us through, rejuvenate us, and remind us that, while it may be heavy, it is so noble of a calling.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Some Stuff I've Been Thinking...

Because I apparently become narcoleptic around 11 PM and fall asleep on the couch for two hours, this blog post is going to contain several burning topics for me from this week.

So I co-sponsor this book club at school called RaiderReads. It's exactly like your typical book club except it consists of students and teachers and meets in teachers' homes. We had our first in-home meeting of the year tonight and it was really, really great. I'm just very excited about this group and the year ahead. Even though I have always been a reader and often surrounded myself with others who read, I still feel so pleasantly surprised to find people willing to give up a weeknight to come to a teacher's house and talk about a book. (And eat. And tonight, partake in a pretty kickin' hot chocolate bar.) It was a great night about a fantastic book with wonderful people. However... what struck me tonight wasn't as much the book or the club meeting itself, it was watching my two littles interact with these kids (mostly girls) and being struck all over again what an enriched life they lead as the children of a high school teacher. (That sentence did not sound nearly as arrogant in my mind as it looks in print...) Let me explain. My kids are drawn like little magnets to the crowd every time I have students over. And they interact with them on varying levels of shyness, depending on the student. Tonight at one point, Emma recognized one of them from the plays and said, "That's so and so! She put ----- in her written part on that play program!" There was another student there whose name they recognized from attending the plays as well, and whom they are a little bit obsessed with. They got to see the drum major up close, met a girl who loves horses probably even more than they do, talked to one they've watched play soccer many times about her turtle. At other times, they have been able to interact with their volleyball idol and the kids from the show choir and the best dancer on the dance team. They cheer by name for the football players from my class. These guys and gals are all larger than life to them, truly superstars, and they are entering their world... it's big stuff! Sometimes like tonight I realize how blessed I am that my two girls have examples long before they reach high school of how it's done. And these kids are all such positive role models for Emma and Kelsey. I just love that this opportunity is available to my kids.

Why are we so uncomfortable with doing good? I am never more nervous or ill at ease than when I am about to give someone a card I wrote or do something nice for them or give them something or help them out. I did something today for another person and quite literally could not look her in the eye afterward. She thanked me and hugged me and she probably thought I was the most awkward person ever because I stiff-side-hugged her and mumbled something like, "You're welcome, I have to get to the dentist." (In my defense, I was truly headed to the dentist. But still.) I just think it's so odd and rather sad. I don't fancy myself a person who is more familiar with doing wrong, but I just don't understand why I feel so vulnerable and uncomfortable doing something nice for another person. I will avoid reading fb messages, text, or cards that are sent by people to say nice things to me because it EMBARRASSES ME TO READ THEM. ALONE. IN MY OWN HOME. I have to sort of psych myself up for it. It's kind of insane.

Last of all, and it is highly likely I have addressed this before on this blog, but I cannot let a reading of All But My Life pass without sharing this quote. It's from the epilogue where Gerda Weissman Klein is talking about her time in America after her survival of the Holocaust. She states, in regard to this country: "It has been home, better than I ever dreamed it would be. I love this country as only one who has been homeless for so long can understand. I love it with a possessive fierceness that excuses its inadequacies, because I deeply want to belong. And I am still fearful of rejection, feeling I have no right to criticize, only an obligation to help correct." (emphasis added) I'm just going to let that one ruminate with you for a while. Can you even imagine what this country would be like if more of us (myself included) felt that we have "no right to criticize, only an obligation to help correct"??? Wow. What about your workplace? Your church? Your community organizations? Your family? Your friend groups? I think I'm going to make that my motto for the remainder of this month of gratitude and Veteran's Day and see what sort of effect it might have in small doses. :)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

11.11.13. Grateful.

As we near liberation in the chronology study in my Holocaust Lit class, I am always moved in a way that is unique to this topic. We read accounts of the liberators, hear their testimonies, look at the pictures and videos of what they found, watch the Band of Brothers episode "Why We Fight", and hear survivors explain the details of their liberation... and I am overwhelmed every time with such gratitude. I am grateful that I live in a country of people who are willing to sacrifice all for a few... who will give everything for something... who will stand up to the world for one. I'm grateful that this was not unique to the WWII generation but every generation since. I'm grateful for veterans of every war and those who served in peacetime. I'm grateful for those who are currently deployed and serving away from families and those who have recently returned home. I'm grateful on Veteran's Day and every day. Thank you.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

That Time I Waited until the Night Before to Reread TWO Books I am Teaching Tomorrow

And then, instead of reading them when the clock turned 9:43, I started a blog post. A blog post about..... nothing. Except a funny and sweet story about one of my babes. And the reason the ACLU will probably come after us. ;)

My little and her bff have started a club, it seems. In K's words, a "church club". The premise of said club is that during recess, they sit down with their friends and ask them if they "have any problems or things they need to talk about". If they do, they sit and discuss it with them. Then they ask them if it's ok if they pray about it. She said, "Some people want us to pray right then and there but sometimes we don't have time and so we tell them we will pray for them at home tonight and then talk to them more tomorrow."

I would like to say that this beats the club they apparently had LAST year on the playground, which got them into pretty big trouble once. Haha!

I think it's incredibly cute and sweet that they feel like the best they have to offer their classmates is a listening ear and a prayer. I love that they have compassion for the people sharing the swingsets and monkey bars. But most of all, I love that they are seeing the 3rd graders around them the way Jesus sees them. They are showing empathy and I don't believe empathy is something you can teach to other people, so it fills my heart with joy that they just get it.

And I guess that's what I'll tell the ACLU. ;)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

I'm Something of a Contrarian. But Here's This...

It's not that I don't like November. It's not that I am not grateful or that Thanksgiving is a wasted holiday in my mind or anything like that. In fact, it's my BIRTHDAY MONTH, so I'm actually a giant fan. It's that... how do I put this... I am kind of a contrarian. I know it's so silly and so childish, but I can't bring myself to do the days of gratitude on fb because... well, because everyone else is. There. I said it. I did my month of love back in February and it kind of served the same purpose. :) I know, I should be so embarrassed to admit it, but... here we are. I also won't read the books everyone is reading (still haven't read Purpose Driven Life, though I did cave months after the fact and read Hunger Games) while they are reading them, or listen to the music everyone else is listening to. Even if I desperately had wanted to run or consider running, there's no way I would have started when our church had a massive movement (no pun intended) toward running. I would have waited until the bandwagon had some other riders and was headed in another direction before I did it. (Although, at least in regard to running-- the ENTIRE WORLD COULD STOP RUNNING AND I WOULDN'T START.) (Should I get in shape in some way? YES. Will I? I just don't know. My lack of self-control is appalling when it comes to exercise.) (And grading.) Anyway, back to the point...

I'm sure I'll do a Thanksgiving post later. But I wanted to share something on here that I have decided to try to put into practice in my life and there MIGHT be some (non-contrarian) readers out there who want to do it as well. I have decided to do something nice for someone else every time I'm feeling... not nice. :) I have given it a test run and I'm here to tell you that it works.

I had a terrrrrrrrible morning about a month ago, so I went to Hardees before school. I decided to pay for the elderly man in the car behind me and it completely changed my approach to the day. Feeling really down about something? Send an encouraging text to another person. Is that "green-eyed monster sitting on your shoulder" (as Emma says)? Make it a point to compliment someone who you frequently feel inferior to or intimidated by. When you're angry at a situation or person, make it a point to speak gently and softly to the next person you see. Feeling inconvenienced and tired? Go out of your way to make things easier for someone else.  The week before fall break, I was feeling everything slipping away a little every day... I knew if I didn't get a break soon, I was going to break. So, I sent little gifts to Emma and Kelsey's teachers, figuring they probably felt pretty similar to the way I was feeling.

It's not 30 days of gratitude... and it's not life-changing or Pulitzer-worthy... but imagine the impact on our little worlds if we practiced this. I'm not sure what to call it since it's not exactly paying it forward. It's almost repackaging any negativity we have and doling it out as positive. Whatever you call it, it's making a conscious decision to change our mood and circumstances by improving someone else's. And I think it's gonna work.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

I DON'T Know... and I'm Not Good at That.

So Friday was a rough one for me. I woke up late, moved slowly, and had a leftover headache from our firepit Thursday night. I was late to school and that leftover headache became the dizziness and fuzzy-headedness that had plagued me for over a month until it took an almost two week break, but is now apparently back. Seems many kids took the day off, so I had lots of absences in my classes. I certainly didn't make any friends in one class because I gave a test that was apparently very hard and many of them had no notes to study. (I will concede on this point that, had I thought about it at all, I would not have scheduled a test for the day after Halloween. It was just the way my calendar fell and I didn't even think about them being out late the night before. My fault.) A kid came to get my recycling and accidentally crushed my plastic recycling container into smithereens. Plus the paper in my classroom? It's smothering me to death. If I don't find a few hours to file some things and put that room back in order, I'm probably going to completely lose my mind.

So by my planning period, I was feeling pretty whiny and had worked up a doggone good "poor me" mood. And then reality paid a little visit to room 222.

Without being too specific, in order to protect their identity, let's just say that I had an opportunity to spend some time in conversation with several of my students whose lives make my "bad day" look like an afternoon in the King's Palace. They didn't come to my room looking to sing me a sad song, or in need of pity, or even for advice or any other reason. They actually came on an errand and we just were talking about various things. They both are living a life of a level of responsibility I never knew existed until after I was married. Honestly, it probably didn't even come home to me at that point. Their burdens and cares and situations are not those of your typical 17 year old... And yet they are 17. They are both responsible in some way for other individuals and they both keep hours out of necessity that I keep out of irresponsibility. The part that struck me the most is that they weren't anything but matter-of-fact about the cards they have been dealt. And they are MAKING IT HAPPEN. They work, they provide care, they go to school, they clean, they do homework, they transport other people, they make the grade, they are GOOD PEOPLE.  The entire time we talked, it was all I could do not to wrap my arms around them and tell them how much I adore them, how amazed I am by them, the level of deep respect I have for them and the choices they make. (And I'm not even a hugger!) I fought tears multiple times, just thinking about what has gotten them to this point, to this place... and for me to have visibly teared up would have felt disrespectful to them. They don't need my tears... or my pity... or even my words or my hugs. They've done it. On their own. They've done it for 17 years and you know what? They are survivors. They are going to make it, and make it with class, because they haven't had people to tug and pull them along. How dare I complain? How dare I whine about people giving me a hard time or needing time to file some papers?

I don't know why one person is born into one life situation and another person is born into another. I don't know why my kids have more crap than they can even play with while other kids don't have a single thing to call their own. I don't know why I grew up with parents who doted on me and extended family who supported me and church friends who loved me when there are people out there with not a single person in their lives. I don't get it and I don't know how to feel about it. I've felt sad and I've felt moved and I've felt mad and I've felt overwhelmed and I just don't know how I'm supposed to feel. Or maybe it's patronizing to even spend time THINKING about how I feel? I don't know. I don't.

I left school Friday with a soul-heaviness that hasn't really lifted. My tears right now are of frustration and exhaustion and not a little bit of anger at all the people who have it so easy and don't even know it...the people who have no clue what stories are sitting beside them or walking toward them or sleeping down the hall from them...the people like ME, half the time... the people who judge without ever considering the backstory... the people who complain about such trivial things when there are others who have worked so hard just to break even. I just want to fix it. And I don't know how.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What Sort of Work do YOUR Shirts Do?

So I might have a tshirt problem. I kind of love them. And I've decided they are a great way to raise funds. We all wear them, why not support a cause???

So here are two opportunities to help a worthy cause, make me happy, and get an awesome new shirt.

First of all, have I mentioned I went to Cambodia last summer? ;) My poor Holocaust Lit kids probably wish I would SHUT UP ALREADY ABOUT CAMBODIA. Haha! But anyway, I'm going back this coming summer and I have started making shirts (using transfers) to sell to raise money for my trip. I can do (or at least try) pretty much any design you want, from school spirit to event to silly stuff, but the ones I am selling pretty actively are state shirts. You can put any word you want on them but I have mostly been putting "home" or "y'all" on them. I can do any color or size shirt, any state, any color of the state, and any color font. Long sleeve are $20 and short sleeve are $10. If you want to order, feel free to comment here or email me at athenajdavis@yahoo.com. The profit from these shirts will go in my Cambodia trip account.

The other cause I may or may not have mentioned here is Royal Family Kids' Camp. ;) Anyway, we are selling some incredible shirts (designed by a student in my Holocaust Lit class!). You simply go to this link and you can order the shirt. It will ship straight to you. The big thing we would love for you to do is share the link to our Royal Family shirts! They are only for sale until November 18.

Go to
https://www.booster.com/royalfamilykidsfundraiser and click, buy, and SHARE! Please repost/retweet/share! 

Happy shopping! 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

To the ICU Nurse, A Beautiful Character in So Many Stories

Dear ICU Nurse,

I hope it doesn't offend you, but until very recently, I didn't think about you very much. To be honest, I was relatively unaware of your existence. You are one of those people who aren't really at the top of the list when it comes to "People I Hope I'm In a Situation to Get to Meet". However, you are now on the top of my "Just Exactly the Perfect People for their Job" list...

I can't imagine what it must take to do your job. You encounter families at their most vulnerable, meet patients at their most broken. Many of your patients aren't even in a responsive state and visiting hours are few, so your job is a very lonely one. There are only two endings for patients in your care and neither involve much positive affirmation for you. In my job, I get visits from former students and am able to watch them grow and succeed. Your patients either don't make it at all or they move to a regular room and I suspect families are so eager to see improvement, it's doubtful they linger long to thank you or visit later.

Your job is also one of hyper-vigilance. You don't get the option of a "day off while still at work", a day to just go through the motions. If you slack or daydream or don't pay close attention, a person could die. That is quite a burden to carry.  If you're like most people in service professions, you connect to people. There are likely days and nights when you are at home, worrying and wondering about different patients in your care. I bet there are heart-breaking cases where you know the patient has no support system, no visitors, no one who is wishing them home.

During our ICU experience, I noticed your gentleness and kindness not only with your patients, but with their families. We tried not to be "that family" but I know you sensed our desperation as we asked you question after question regarding Grandmother's care and prognosis. We were often asking you to do the impossible, or at least the job of the doctor, and predict the future. We knew in our heads that you couldn't promise us any sort of outcome, but in our hearts we knew you wished you could as well. You just had a sense of when to be close and when to give us space. You turned a blind eye to the restrictions on number of visitors, seeming to understand that we all drew comfort from the presence of the others and wanted to milk every possible moment of time with Grandmother that we could get. You brought extra blankets when we mentioned that her feet felt cool, even though you probably knew she was comfortable. The blankets were ultimately for our own comfort. You lingered near when various family members had questions about care and you gave us distance when we held each other and cried. I saw you close your eyes one dark night as we gathered around her bedside and prayed. And to the older male nurse who, seeing us try to hold the door open for three frightened children to try and catch a glimpse of Grandmother, waving furiously, as she strained to see them and glean a little bit of hope, asked their ages and quickly ushered them all in for a quick hug and visit-- you honestly may have provided the turning point in her recovery.

Your patience with my grandfather as he vacillated from almost frantic hope, continually predicting that she would be home by the weekend, to low moments of despair was beautiful. You listened to him do the only thing he could do at that point... tell the details of their lives together and the stories of our family. You listened, and you didn't act like you had somewhere else to be, or you had heard the same things at the last visiting hours, or that he needed patronizing. You listened like he needed you in that moment as much as your patient, and you know what? He did.

I am in awe of your calling. You are capable and compassionate and courageous. You operate machines that hold human life in the balance, yet you also stroke an elderly hand and put warm socks on cold feet. You watch life return to broken bodies, but probably just as often, you stand guard as it leaves. You carry all that, watch the monitors, smile at the visiting families, and encourage your patients. I am so grateful you were there for our family in our time of trauma, and I pray that you are refreshed and renewed daily, given a supernatural strength to keep pressing forward. You are a beautiful character in so many stories.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Case for Field Trips

So this week I went on two field trips...

One as the teacher who coordinated the trip, taking almost 20 teenagers to a Holocaust conference,

The other as a parent, chaperoning a group of four 3rd graders to the Knoxville zoo.

Though these two trips were as different as my roles and responsibilities on them, both had the same effect on me.

We have to preserve field trips in the educational setting. I understand all of the downsides to them, especially from the teacher's perspective. Every. single. time. I take one, I struggle about halfway through the process with giving up and canceling it.

For the uninitiated, here is what goes on behind the scenes each time you sign a permission slip for your child to go on a field trip:

  • Research of the field trip, from location to transportation to dates and times, etc.
  • Plans made in regard to time, other people involved, etc.
  • If the field trip has a cost, you cannot require students to pay. Therefore, you have to decide on an amount to ask for donations, then figure out the plan if you DON'T get enough money. Options would be to cancel the trip or seek alternative funding. 
  • Field trip approval form completed and submitted to school administrator
  • If field trip is an overnight, it must be submitted to the school board for approval. If not, it's in-house.
  • Transportation-- if you are using charter busses, book the busses and figure out funding. If school busses, you have to decide who you are using. If it's city, they have to be back by the time the school day ends. If you need them longer, you have to find an independent contractor and work on funding. If you choose instead to use teacher/parent transportation, you must submit proof of driver's license and insurance to the school for each driver. You need to recruit parents who are willing to drive and use their own gas, perhaps pay for parking, and give up time. Once you hear of the approval by the school for each driver, you can then determine how many students can ride with each parent.
  • Participants-- you have to find out which students are going on the trip, send home a permission form and also give students a form to get filled out by teachers at the school for classes they miss. You then have to collect all forms and money.
  • Wherever the field trip is, you need to either register students, buy tickets, or plan with the venue.
  • A list of students must be sent to the attendance secretary ten days before the trip.
  • Forms must also be submitted to the cafeteria.
  • It is only after all of these steps have been taken that you are then free to simply stress over the trip.
  • The night before a field trip is almost always spent worrying that something important was not done, that you don't have good directions, that an accident will happen, that some other issue will arise.
  • Most often, teachers pay for their own gas and their own admission to the trip.
  • You almost must book a sub and leave lesson plans for other classes for that sub (on the high school level).
  • The day of the trip is spent dealing with students you took with you on the trip while also often trouble-shooting things at school.
  • If the trip extends past the school day, it's all your own time.
So ... field trips? They are a JOB for teachers. They are incredibly stressful and often feel like they aren't worth the trouble. That is, until they are over. 

I come home from this Holocaust Conference every year feeling so very grateful for so many things. First of all, that the Tennessee Holocaust Commission puts this conference on every year for high school students. Secondly, that I have students who care enough about the things that matter to go on the trip even though it takes about three hours of time after school and means that they have to get to school at 6 AM. Finally, that I took the time and energy to plan the trip even though it is a giant pain. 

It is an invaluable experience for students to get outside the walls of the school and extend their educational experience. Because you see, whether they are high schoolers who are hearing Holocaust survivors tell their stories for what may be the last times or those third graders, some of who have never been outside of Bradley County, seeing animals and hearing a presentation on habitats, it's something that cannot be replicated in the classroom.

No matter now much work it is for the teacher or how much expense there is for the trips, they must continue to happen. I believe this should be a consideration of philanthropists and companies who are donating money to schools-- donate money and fund field trips! I am concerned that the way of the future is going to be away from field trips, and I desperately hope that is not the case. Hearing those kids giggle at the giraffes and squeal when the bear lumbered by is enough for me... 

Teachers, thank you. Thank you for doing all the hard work to make every single field trip my elementary school daughters have ever been on. It has truly enhanced their education. Administrators, thank YOU. Thank you for seeing the significance of these trips and willingly approving them. School board, thank you. Thank you for understanding that some trips require an overnight stay and being willing to accept liability issues that are more possible with longer trips. And parents, because times are changing in regard to funding and payment for the trips, thank you for your willingness to donate toward these trips. If you can ever donate extra and pay for multiple students, please do. It makes all the difference to these teachers and these students.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

In Which I Convert and Worship at the Altar of Fall Break

I have a theory about Fall Breaks. I think they are the single most beneficial and almost medicinal breaks in an entire school year. (It should be noted that I am the person who, when calender talk comes up, ALWAYS says I prefer longer summers and fewer breaks in the school year. I have been converted, at least as far as Fall Break goes.)

Summer break, though wonderful and perfect, has some sort of "slipping through your fingers" feel to it. I can hardly enjoy the days because I am so conscious of their passing. Thanksgiving and Christmas both are full of so many other obligations and traditions (though these things are wonderful, they do tend to take as much out of us as they put in us). Spring Break just seems like it comes with lots of expectations. I guess it's been Hollywoodized so much or something, but my Spring Break never feels like it measures up to what a Spring Break should be.

But Fall Break....

Oh my, what a breath of pure oxygen, a soul-rest, a time to pull your family in close and accomplish so many tasks...

This week, I have felt closer to my people, closer to my Savior, and closer to my inner self than I have since early June.

Our trip was so meaningful to us. I know it's not always possible for everyone all the time, but I can't put enough emphasis on how important it is to take time for only your in-your-household family. Every single year, I try to get friends or other family to accompany us on our fall trip. And every year, everyone has a reason they can't go. But you know what I have discovered? God knows that we need that time to grow closer to each other. It would be fun with other people, sure, but it matters so much to spend time with only our four, especially as the girls grow older (and more distant?). So I decided this year that I am glad no one can ever go because the memories of two trips to Disney, a cruise, and now a trip to DC are filed away in my little golden treasure chest in my mind, only to be taken out and handled carefully with a smile every now and then.

The four days since we have been back home have felt almost supernaturally long. We have cleaned and organized and laundry'd, trampoline-jumped and grocery-shopped, soccer and football-gamed, Raider-supported, Bear-stomped, errand-run, grandparent and great-grandparent time-spent, cooked and biked, Buck the pony-ridden, photo-taken, Jesus-worshipped, late-slept, read and painted, fall-decorated, and used book-shopped. The night before our trip we play-watched and student-celebrated. We end this evening well-rested and happy.

I could not ask for more from a school vacation than what we received from this one. There was no pressure, low expectations (thanks for that, government shutdown!), and lots of together-time. (9 hours in a rental car, to be specific...)

So Fall Break 2013-- we bid you farewell and thank you. You were a blessing at a most-needed time and we are grateful. We feel revived and energized to go back to Mayfield and CHS and Lifecare and do what needs to be done.

These are the memories that last for lifetimes...

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Ones the World Forgot

This morning, a two year old son of an NFL player was taken off life support and died soon after. This two year old was a victim of child abuse allegedly by his mother's boyfriend. He died of blunt trauma to the head. This story is filling up the media, as it should be. However, the sad part is that this is only one child who happens to be related to someone famous. There are so many tragic stories that don't end in death, although many come very close. And truthfully, death sometimes isn't even the worst ending to a story-- sometimes living through the abuse only to suffer it again and again and again and again... that's almost worse.

Something else happened today. In Chattanooga, a teenager who had been in the foster care system for seven years was adopted. He is now 16 and was granted a new life of sorts in a courtroom this morning. In the span of one morning, he received a new name, a family, a place to go home to at Christmas with his own family one day, and a birthright of belonging somewhere.

I'm not certain, but I think the first stories outnumber this story by about five to one.

Two weeks ago, we held our 10th annual retreat for middle school foster children. It's such a different time than our summer camp for elementary kids in foster care and I really felt it very acutely this year. I sat in the boys' service and looking around me at these boy-men... I saw them listen intently to Kevin's message and considered their futures. I watched that afternoon as they played in the field with the male staff members... one pair playing soccer, another throwing horseshoes, yet another tetherball, and a big group playing football... So many of these boys have no males in their home, no positive role model to look up to. You could feel their desperation for these men to be proud of them, to clap them on the back and tell them they had done well.

I listened to the girls talk to each other about school and friends. I knew without asking the struggle so many of them probably have socially, the way they feel isolated in their classes and among their peer groups. See, I don't know what it feels like to not feel wanted. I don't know what it would be like to seek acceptance from all the wrong people because you never got it from the most important people in your life.

The sad facts regarding foster care? 80% of the prison population was once in foster care and girls in foster care are 600% more likely than the general population to become pregnant before the age of 21. This is not to blame the foster care system or say that these are bad kids. They aren't. They are kids who have very little chance in life unless something dramatically turns around for them.

The turn could be in a mentor or a program like the Boys and Girls Club. It could be an experience like Royal Family, where they learn that people truly care about them. It could be one of those phenomenal foster homes or a group home that nurtures them like Tennessee Baptist. It could be a teacher who sees a potential in them that needs to be cultivated or a church that emphasizes orphan care and urges its members to involve themselves in foster care and adoption. It could be a social worker who pushes and fights and claws for them, against all odds, and for very little compensation or even thank you's.

Whatever it is, I pray it over them tonight and every day. I was overwhelmed this year as I looked at the middle schoolers at our retreat because it struck me that this is where the shift happens. Those kids in the summer get my heart because I fear what could happen to them and so desire to protect their vulnerable selves. These kids are at the point where their future is being determined. I worry more about what they will do themselves rather than what might be done to them. Boys, especially in certain geographic areas, will be heavily recruited by gangs. Girls will be at high risk for sexually active behavior, bringing with it pregnancy and STD's. Both will be in great danger of dropping out of school in the next few years.

We did something new this year at Royal Connection. We got paper lanterns and the kids wrote a hope or dream on them, then we lit them and sent them off into the night sky. It was beautiful and moving to consider the symbolism of the whole thing. They, who are so weighted down by this world and its difficulties, even at a young age, watching their dreams and hopes for the future rise above present circumstances.

I know what we do at Royal Family matters. And it is in moments like these that I know that we are making a difference in the life of one the world has forgotten.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

That Time I Cost My Family $200+, My Girls Learned 3 Valuable Lessons, and I Saw Grace in Human Form

Every time I imagined the end of our fall break trip to Washington, D.C., let me tell you what I never pictured...


Yes, that is the sight of Megabus. In our REAR VIEW MIRROR. Almost to KNOXVILLE.

But let me back up. We left last Saturday for a family vacation to Washington, D.C.. We are trying to save money for one or all of us to go to Cambodia next summer (and, let's be honest, we are cheapskates), so we did this trip on the cheap. We travelled via Megabus ($162, total) and stayed in Alexandria (thus saving lots of money on the hotel). The hotel ran a shuttle to the airport, so we took it to catch the metro every day. (This part wasn't so bad, though it sounds it.) The best money-saving part of any trip to DC is that the attractions are... you've got it! .... free

Of course, if the government shutdown that hasn't happened in 17 years happens to coincide with your trip, you're in to spend a bit more money. However, it ended up working out just fine and we had an absolutely fantastic trip. And then....

We left this morning with time to get to Union Station about 45 min early. That way we could go to the bathroom, get breakfast, and then get in the front of the line for Megabus to ensure that we picked our seats. All went well and we got to the line by 9:17, a full almost 30 min early for our bus! We were excited that no one else was in line yet and even joked that perhaps we would have the bus to ourselves. If only.... ;) 

Instead, we checked to make certain we were in the right line, only for the Megabus employee tell us, "Oh, that bus left at 9." Yes. Please imagine for one moment: You, your husband, and your two children, fresh from a fabulous family vacation, loaded down with luggage and checked out of your hotel, hearing these words... Certain that he was confused, I quickly pulled the email on my phone... Um, yes. Very clearly, plain as day: 9:00 AM. 

What do you even do in that moment???

Well, we walked to an open area rather in a daze and I had Kraig and the girls sit down while I figured out our options and called Megabus. (They ate their breakfast, in fact.) I hated to have to pay another night's hotel and even more so, I hated for Kraig to miss work and for me to miss a (much-needed) fall break day at home, but options were rather limited. Bad news? We lost the $60 (total) for today's tickets. Worse news? Tomorrow's bus had only two seats open rather than the four we needed. After sharing that info with Kraig (who had yet to say anything negative to me at all), I took off to the Greyhound office. There was a bus leaving for Knoxville in 15 min with seats-- at $130 per ticket and not arriving until tonight at 11 PM. I was shaky talking to that agent but still largely in control of myself (though starting to get extremely fearful that we were never getting home). From there, I headed to the Amtrak counter, by which point I was weeping openly. Amtrak was $170 per ticket and would go to Atlanta (our van was in Knoxville). My next (and last) option, since I knew airfare would be through the roof, was the rental car agencies. I cried to multiple agents (telling one, "I don't even cry in front of people I know, much less strangers!") and found the best rate was $213. I called Kraig and the girls to come to that counter and presented him with all of our options, explaining that rental car seemed most cost-efficient. I promised to pay out of my fun-money and also that I would drive the entire way so that he could rest. 

We got the car and headed south toward home, with Kraig at no point ever berating or fussing or even saying a single negative word to me about the entire situation. We had a lovely (private) ride, stopping when we wished, eating at Cracker Barrel, getting incredibly good gas mileage, and finally reaching the point where we could joke about the whole thing. Emma said, "Well, we didn't have wi-fi" and I said, "It didn't work anyway" and she said, "But we could charge our Kindles". I responded by saying, "We couldn't have eaten at Cracker Barrel" and Kraig finished with, "But we could have had Christmas." HAHAHAHAHA!!!!

Even leaving two hours later and stopping for a long Cracker Barrel meal, we still caught and passed Megabus. I have to say, it was kind of a surreal and hilarious moment. On the way from the bus station to the car rental place, I told the girls that they learned three valuable lessons:

1. Always check and double check tickets. To anywhere. All the time.
2. If something does go wrong, there's no point in crying in a corner. You can cry, but take action. Step forward, come up with a Plan B (or C or D or E or F) and make it happen. 
3. If another person in your life makes a completely stupid mistake, show grace. Kraig certainly knew how terribly I felt about the whole thing and he was so kind. He also can read me well enough that he knew at what point it was ok to joke about it. I have probably never in all of my life been so grateful that I married him than today. I cannot think of another man (other than maybe my dad) who would have been so gracious and I know of several husbands of friends (you know who you are! haha!) who would have gone absolutely crazy. ;)

So thanks to my stupidity, our cheap DC trip cost a bit more than we had planned. Kraig said on the way home that he thought the entire ordeal only cost us about 20 min, to which I replied, "at a rate of about $10/minute, I guess". 

It's just another situation in a long list that feels so desperate at the time but turns out to be rather trivial in the grand scheme of life. This trip was a perfect five days for our four, and I include today in that perfection. It will be part of our family lore from this day forward, no matter how many tears it caused me this morning. 

Just one more look... A view I will never forget. :)

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Because January isn't the Only "Beginning of the Year"...

So I am kind of a fan of time. And marking time. And while I know most of the world celebrates January as the start of a new year, I have multiple "New Year's Days". As an educator and parent, August always marks a new year for me. I love the fresh schedules and calenders and systems and plans of a new school year, the high hopes and opportunities for clean slates. Obviously I take time out on January 1 to look toward a new calender year, make some resolutions, etc.

But for the past three years, I have had another "New Year" with which I mark time and that is the dotMom conference hosted by Lifeway. I have come home from this event changed every single year for the past three. I have started with new resolve and better intentions each year after the third weekend of September. I honestly believe my Christian walk and my role as a mother and wife have improved every year at this time.

I won't overshare (HA! Have you MET me? I am the QUEEN of the overshare) about every detail of the past two years except to say that last year I came home desperate. It was a culmination of the conference and some books I was reading and some things the Lord was telling me, but I came home so frantic to respond to a call. It was only one month after the conference that I was helping coordinate a 5K for a little city in Cambodia and only nine months after that first conversation that I was standing IN that little city in Cambodia. I love to look back and see the ways the Lord has moved in ways I never expected when I finally decide to listen. Who KNOWS what I will be writing about a year from NOW???

Mostly I wanted to write tonight and share my takeaways from this year. I want to share partly to get my plans down in print but also in case anyone else who didn't get to go might benefit from it.

(Sidenote, I take copious notes that are more transcript-like so if you want a copy of those, just email me and athenajdavis@yahoo.com and I'll be happy to send them to you (from any general or breakout session).)

My own takeaways and plan:

1. Parent the heart, not the actions. (My wording)
 Literally four different people said this in some way this weekend. Jen Hatmaker said we have desire a code of morality instead of a right heart and that we focus on systems of behavior. Vicki Courtney worded it as "we focus more on behavior modification than heart evaluation". It was also reference in multiple breakout sessions. This convicted me, as a parent who cares very much about how they act (and, if I'm honest, how they are perceived by others). I know that our kids NEED to act right, but the actions are the fruit from the heart. Our biggest concern should be with their hearts and if they keep their hearts turned toward Him, the behavior will follow. I am really going to try and remember this and focus on it.

2. Be part of the details of their lives.
I am terrible about having kids over here. TERRIBLE. Partly because we are gone so much that I prefer for our nights at home to just be us and also because... I don't like to. I do feel badly about that. This is another point that multiple people made separately. John Croyle said, "If you don't know your daughter's five closest friends, you are too busy. Because next to you and your husband, they will have the biggest influence on her life." Angela Thomas continually emphasized that we should want them at our house with their friends so that we are able to monitor what is going on. I know that if I wait until my kids are older, in my position, their friends will never want to come over here because it will be too awkward when I am their teachers. I need to start establishing relationships NOW with their friends. SO, my plan is to make a conscious effort to have friends of theirs over at least once a month.

3. Just have fun.
I realized when Angela Thomas said something in her keynote that I spend entirely too much time... ticked off. She stated, "My laughter and my joy is a ministry to my children." Now don't get me wrong... I do laugh and have fun with them. Frequently. But I also spend a lot of time rushing them ("Hurry! Come on! We're late!") and just reverting to a default setting of soured-ness. I need to be joyful far more often. The amount of time they are mine is just so, so short. I have to spend it enjoying them. I plan to smile more, listen more, laugh more...

4. Anticipate the teen years.
I went to a session on parenting teens knowing full well that I don't have one yet. I went because I teach them but ALSO because I hoped to get some tips I can get a jumpstart on now. And boy did I! Sissy Goff made several really important points that I am planning to implement now. First of all, she said kids need other voices in their lives (not just ours). She suggested finding people whom our children trust and whom WE trust. There will come a time when they won't listen to us and likely also won't talk much to us. We need people who can tell them the same things we are but in a different voice. I called my sister when I got home and suggested that, though she already has a great relationship with my kids, she start taking Emma out every 3-4 months for some one-on-one time with her. I think establishing that now will prove to be a good thing. She also suggested asking kids questions about everything and really giving them a chance to talk. Women (especially the writer of this blog post) tend to jump in with the talking way too quickly. Give them space to talk. She also discussed boundaries and saying no and that we need to widen the boundaries a little every year so that at 18, they don't go completely crazy. If we loosed them a bit all along, we are there to pick up the pieces when they mess up rather than it happening once they leave our roost. This seems like a good plan to me.

5. Parent for the Kingdom.
I don't know about the rest of you, but Kraig and I yell too much. We say no way more often than yes. And sometimes it's just a matter of reframing things a bit. I absolutely loved something Jen Hatmaker said about letting them start to make their own choices and I decided to adjust it a bit and use it in discipline. She suggested asking your children, "What would 'well done' look like here?" "What would a 'good and faithful servant' do in this situation?" I want to use those things in reminding them in the midst of situations and afterward in discipline.
[In talking to them about this, I wanted to make sure they understood the context, so I asked them what God says to believers when they make it home. Kelsey, without missing a beat, fist pumped and said, "You LUCKY GUY! Get in here!" Probably should have disturbed me but FUNNIEST. MOMENT. EVER.]
She also emphasized again that they just simply have to see us living and doing Kingdom work for Him. We cannot just tell our kids about loving our neighbor. They have to SEE us doing it. She had two lines that got me right in the gut: "If my kids imitate me, what does that look like for the Kingdom in ten years?" OUCH. and "Whatever we have to do to follow Jesus into the Kingdom, just say yes."

So above are the five things I plan to implement immediately. Below are some of my favorite other little nuggets from the past two days.

Gems from the two days:

Vicki Courtney General
*You don't have to be so frantic to keep the pace of our crazy over-scheduled lives. Just show them Him, and that will be enough.
*"Only one life, twill soon be past, only what's done for Christ will last."

Intentional Parenting - Dave Thomas and Sissy Goff
*Don't feed the imaginary audience that all adolescents have.
*Discipline is an extended and carefully managed event, not a sudden, spontaneous reaction to the child's behavior.
*Brain research is starting to pile up regarding screen time. Between 8 and 13, their brains lock onto the things they do most. This is the time for imaginative play, reading, and playing outside-- NOT screens.

Angela Thomas General
*We are responsible for the boundaries of our home and we are accountable to God for keeping evil out.

Raising the Kids We Have, Not the Kids We Were- Jen Hatmaker (DO YOU HAVE ALL DAY? Because everything she said was perfect.)
*80% of kids growing up now will be gone from the church by age 29.
*Society has changed and what has always worked will no longer work. The words we have puppeted for years have lost their meaning. They need to SEE us live for Jesus in a very real, raw way.
*Is it beneficial to be so busy serving the saved that we have no time to reach out to the marginalized?
*Many people didn't expect the life they have. They expected more kids, fewer kids, bigger house, no divorce, etc. Be brave enough to let go of what you expected and embrace what you actually have. God does His best work in reality.

Grounded for Life- Vicki Courtney
*We are raising kids who have no idea what "Be still and know that I am God" looks like-- because WE don't.
*If you are always saying no, they will find a situation in which to do it but it will be without your guidance.

Back Door to Your Teen's Heart- Sissy Goff
*To the degree that kids can predict you, they will dismiss you.
*You can't be Jesus to your kids, but you can need Him in front of them.

Jen Hatmaker General Session
*We can give our kids a safe and happy life or cultivate in them a single-minded passion for the Kingdom.
*He has a whole world to save and redeem. Someone has to go. May we raise kids who will say, "Here am I, Lord. Send me."
*Live it or you have no hope of leading it.
*We can't possibly lead our children on mission if we aren't on mission ourselves.