Just Look...

Just Look...

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.