Just Look...

Just Look...

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Stories

Last night was graduation night. It was one of my favorite nights of the year and a night that simultaneously also always breaks my heart a little. When I look at the kids crossing the stage on that night, I see stories crossing that stage. Some kids ham it up, some smile nervously, some beam with pride, some seem almost angry.... last night, one wept all the way across and down the steps. Some kids have families that whoop and holler, some get applause, some get the cheers of their classmates, a few get a standing ovation... and some cross to the polite applause of strangers. In each of these kids, there is a story .... really, two stories-- the story that got them to this point and the story that is yet to be written.

Over 16 years of graduations, I have seen so many stories play out and climax on that stage.

For many of our students, graduation is a natural ending to a rather effortless sequence. They had family support and friend support and teacher support and, while they may have had to work hard in some classes (chemistry, for me), it was a pretty positive and easy experience. I was that student. And for those students (and for me), I am so thankful that life has given them that gift. They walk across with pride on their faces and excitement and maybe a little nervousness about the future.

We have some students who have endured great tragedy in their lives. I don't know every single student who has graduated from CHS but of the ones I DO know, I can name every one of the kids who walked across the stage with one or both parents absent through death. I always tear up at the thought of how proud that mama or daddy would have been to see this day and how, even though that kid smiles a brave smile, he or she has to feel like part of his/her heart is missing.

We have students who have overcome physical hardships, who struggle every day to even get out of the bed, much less make it to school and endure a school day. I have had students whose physical struggles made me wonder how I ever would think I have the right to complain about not feeling well or being tired. I don't know what true tired even feels like with all of my body parts working as they are meant to do.

There are other students who walk across the stage having conquered nearly insurmountable odds, and yet they have come out unscathed and glowing with success. They are comfortable in the fact that they triumphed over their circumstances and they just exude a wisdom that is beyond most of us. I talked to another teacher last night about one such kid who will graduate in the next year or two. These are the kids who, when you hear their story, you are astounded because you never would have dreamed they had a life that difficult. These are also the kids who have a very matter-of-fact attitude about it, who are surprised that you are surprised they have come so far.

Some CHS students are graduating alone. There are kids I have taught, many more of them than you would believe, who have no one in the audience on graduation night. They are either on their own (and many have been for years already), their parents are not interested, or they are estranged. I have kids whose parents are sitting in a jail cell on graduation night, who haven't seen a parent in years, who aren't sure who their parents are, who have been raised bouncing from one foster home to another. Those kids break my heart because there are no pictures after the ceremony, no parties, no special gifts, just another night alone and another morning of hard work the next day.

Some students have spent their high school years feeling isolated. Some feel pulled between two cultural identities, limited by the struggles of living in a society that doesn't understand you and doesn't really try, unable to fully find the words you want to find to connect because your language isn't the same as theirs. Some struggle with acceptance, with emotional issues, with mental illnesses, with addictions already stronger than that of many adults. I have read the words of kids who say how desperately they want to connect with others but they can't seem to find the ways to do it. I have watched kids walk around the prom completely alone. Nothing makes me want to just swoop in and fix it (which I can't do and it wouldn't help) any more than kids who feel alone in a world of connections. I think that's what I love so much about Holocaust education, that I feel that maybe it combats this a little bit by raising up kids who will speak up and stand alongside and walk beside those who need it.

There are always a few to whom that diploma means the world, the ones who scraped by in most classes, some who spent some time away from school for various reasons, kids who didn't ever dream a high school graduation was in the cards for them, some who are the first high school graduates in their family, those who left school early to work or have a baby but finished the courses in time to walk with their class. I love to see those kids walk across. You can see the miracle and wonderment on their faces and many of them acknowledge those who helped them reach that point with a look, a smile, a nod, a hug.

Our kids are our kids. Period. The hard workers, the brainiacs, the just-do-enough-to-get-by's and then-only-barelies, the ones everything comes harder for, those shining with success and those with deep regrets.... they are ours. And their stories matter. I spent the majority of this year preaching that all that you have in this world is your integrity and your voice and the world needs to see and hear both. I teach English, so I teach the stories. I teach the stories on the pages and I teach the stories sitting in the desks.

And no matter where each kid fell last night in the descriptions above, no matter what their story was in getting to that place, I hope they all know that the next chapter starts today. I told one of mine the other day that he is so much more than his past, than his family situation, than his circumstances. He is NOT defined by the story of those around him. He is writing his OWN story. They may leave that school, but they will never leave our hearts and I pray for them and we cheer them on and I hope that their stories only get brighter and brighter, that the kids who have struggled will find some ease, that the lonely kids will find company, that the kids who got here as a result of grace and mercy will find a way to show it to someone else, and that those who have suffered loss will find peace. I pray that every one of them will find success, passion, and laughter. And I am tremendously grateful that, even if only for a few pages, my story intertwined with theirs.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017


For another 45 minutes, today is an extra special day. Today is the 14th anniversary of the birth of my #1 girl, my firstborn, Emma.

My pregnancy with Emma was pretty effortless, as most everything has been with her. We had been trying to get pregnant for less than a month when she was conceived. Other than a little swelling in my feet toward the end (and a really unfortunate fall down the stairs at nine months pregnant, an accident that ended in a broken foot and a walking boot for the last week or so), my body reacted beautifully to her presence.

Her delivery, however, was less than effortless. In fact, it was horrible and is the main reason I encourage people to go natural when birthing babies (Kelsey was a natural childbirth and though it hurt LIKE NO OTHER PAIN ON EARTH OR ANYWHERE I CAN IMAGINE, I still would take it any day over the awfulness of Emma's birth). I had to be induced since my foot was broken, my body wouldn't respond right and so things you don't want to hear about had to be done, things which they thought I couldn't handle without an epidural. I insisted that I not have one, so they gave me "something to take the edge off" in an IV and I started throwing up (allergic to pain meds). The end result was more interventions than I ever imagined-- anti-nausea meds to help the throwing up from the pain meds (which didn't work and I vomited the entire labor and delivery), an eventual epidural ANYWAY, and I was about ten minutes away from a C-section when I finally was able to have her.

From that point on, though, other than the bum foot and some brief nursing issues, she was the easiest baby ever to be birthed. She slept all the time (slept through the night the first night home from the hospital and every night thereafter), ate like a champ, never cried (except at her dedication at church), and was such a happy girl.

And pretty much, other than a few rough spells, those things characterize the entirety of Emma's years on earth. She is happy, funny, smart, athletic, and optimistic. I have never had to wake her for school, she is very rarely in a bad mood, and sometimes she's more responsible than I am. I have always been so proud to be her mom, so pleased to watch her successes and her kindnesses and her wit.

Last year for her birthday, I took Emma on a trip north, just the two of us. We spent two days in Holland, Michigan, then did Cedar Pointe and King's Island. I will never, ever, as long as I live forget that trip together. It was the most peaceful, fun, and happy time I have probably spent with another person. I felt like I got a glimpse on that trip of what being her friend when she's an adult will be like and it was a beautiful sight.

I have watched this girl on the dirt roads of Cambodia, the gym floors of Cleveland, TN, and in a hospital waiting room at Erlanger Hospital where Kraig had rushed her to join our family after Grandmother's stroke. The thing I love most about Emma is that no matter where you are or what's going on, Emma is what you're going to get. She is unapologetic at times, she is stubborn, she is gentle, she is empathetic, she is relentless, and she is a ever striving.

This year has been a challenging one at times between us. I put a fb post up a few weeks ago that said,
"Hello you long shots, You dark horse runners. Hairbrush singers, dashboard drummers. Hello you wild magnolias, Just waiting to bloom. There's a a little bit of all that inside of me and you. Thank God even crazy dreams come true" ~C.UnderwoodWe are feeling our way through this growing up thing, me and you, but I can't imagine anyone I'd rather learn parenting a teen trial by fire with than you. "
I meant that. We have had hard days and we will no doubt have many more, but she's my girl. Emma fights hard and Emma loves hard and I wouldn't trade her for anything.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Mother's Day Here, Mother's Day There

We got word Friday that the required step we weren't aware of until recently is a longer step than we realized, so visas likely won't be issued until June. This still should mean that we can travel on our tentative travel date (June 8), but it would depend on no delays. Being this close and still this far is tough. Being this tired and needing this much energy is challenging. Feeling a little defeated and having so much to celebrate is contradictory. Thinking we would have so much time together before school started and having it continuously eaten into is annoying.
And needing them here and not having them is uncomfortable. I know it's probably hard to understand and I think if I read this, I would think, "How can you miss them? How can you ache to have them in your house, at your table, in your arms, when you haven't ever even had them there before? You don't even know them yet, how can you feel so strongly about them?" I understand your confusion. And I don't have an answer. I just know that I feel like I am living in emotional limbo with half of my heart here and the other half there.
And the only possible explanation I can give is that God does the same work in the heart of adoptive parents that he does in the heart of biologicals. You ache and long for that baby growing inside you, you feel intricately and intimately connected to it in ways that make no sense when you have just seen a grainy black and white ultrasound pic and have never heard its cry or cradled its downy head or felt it grasp your finger. That little baby is already your son or daughter. And those giggly, silly teenagers we have only interacted with over an impersonal computer screen are already our sons and daughter. And we ache and long for them every single day.

It's such a paradox because last Mother's Day, I never imagined that I would have five children by this Mother's Day. NEVER. Never, never, never. And yet since September, I never imagined that I would not have them physically present on this Mother's Day. Much like Easter, every thought I have had about tomorrow included them being here.

And I just.want.them.here.

I am so grateful that we get to Skype with them. But I want to talk to them in person. I am so grateful that God's miracles have allowed us to be their parents. But I want to hug them. I am so grateful that we get the rest of our lives to spend with them. But I want to sit around the table tomorrow with them at our sides. I want to stand beside them in church. I want to hear their laughter tonight as we eat chili (and rice, if they were already here, I guess). :)  I want to hear the rumble of their voices talking as they go to sleep tonight. I want to be at home with them this week, spending time getting to know each other.

I know that people are grieving children they have lost before birth, children who never were, children who are estranged, children who have perished. I know that this day is so hard for so many. And I truly hate that those people are living through that pain and those situations. I know it is selfish of me to want my kids to be here when I am so blessed to have these five kids. But it doesn't change how I feel. I still want them to be here. I want them to be here for me and I want them to be here for them. I want them to have the hug of a mom on Mother's Day.

But instead, I will spend tomorrow being loved on by the ones who are here and they will no doubt spend it loving on the ones who have served the role of mom for them for these past few years. And we will all treasure the day while waiting in joyful anticipation of next year, May 13, 2018, our first Mother's Day all together. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Things I've Carried

My AP class ends the year with excerpts from a book, one of my favorite books of all time, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. There are so many things about this book I love, so many chapters and lines that are so powerful, but a few years ago I started an assignment with this book that I believe to be the most powerful writing my students do in the school year. Last year I added it to my grade level senior classes as well.

The first chapter is the title chapter, "The Things They Carried". It talks about all the things these soldiers carry with them, tangible and intangible, in the Vietnam War. I talk to my students about the fact that they are coming to the end of childhood. The kind of sad part about saying that is that I know for many of them it is only partially true-- for many of them, childhood ended years earlier and they have been on their own, supporting themselves and sometimes others, for many years. Even in that situation, though, high school graduation is a dividing line. It separates the first section of your life from the next, and so I ask them to think about the things they have carried for the past 17, 18, or 19 years, and write about those things. Two years ago when I gave this assignment, I wrote my own along with them about the things I have carried in my teaching career. I am posting it below. 

I just finished reading the writings from my two English IV classes and that's why my face is wet with tears. These kids who sit in our classrooms every day, they carry SO MUCH. So much hurt, so much damage, so much pressure, so much promise, so much potential.... so much of everything. Today I showed a ChickfilA training video to my AP class called "Everyone has a Story". The people in the video all have bubbles above their heads that explain what their lives are like. It's a really important thing to consider, this idea that those around us are living with and carrying weights that we will never see. I wonder how much more gently we would treat each other if we knew what the other was carrying? 

One year away from halfway through… Halfway through the “home years”, halfway through my teaching career, halfway…halfway…

In the past fourteen years, I have carried many, many things. I have carried things for my students and I have carried things because of them. Some things are so very heavy and painful to bear. I have carried the crushing blow of a college rejection, the anxiety of Spring Break trips, the heavy load of the death of a parent. I have suffered under the weight of test scores and I have nearly drowned in the flood of white with blue lines or black text that covers my desk. I have carried the knowledge of kids who work all night and go to school all day just so that they can help a parent pay the bills, of a girl who was skipping school to chase the paper trail that is beaurocracy from the Social Security Office to the bank to the Housing Authority so that she could stay in school and live in a safe place. I have carried disabilities and health plans. I have carried the stress of seniors as they feel pressured to make life decisions RIGHT NOW when those life decisions don’t even need to be made for several years. I have carried the financial burden of a student who didn’t have the money to pay her father’s burial expenses and the funeral home was going to hold the body until they found the money. I have carried the weight of an empty chair at graduation, cap and gown draped over it for a student who never came home. I have carried other students across the stage, metaphorically speaking, to receive a diploma that probably should have had my name on it as well.

But oh, the beautiful things I have carried… I have carried the bite in the air of a Friday night football game, the tears of a successful curtain call, the triumphant cap toss in May. I have carried projects that perfectly captured the theme of a literary work, bags of brown research paper envelopes that proved to some that what seemed to be impossible was very much within their reach. I have carried Holocaust Memorial Projects that took my breath away because I know that THEY GOT IT, they embodied the message and purpose of Holocaust education. I have carried checks to non-profit agencies that represented blood, sweat, and tears from Holocaust Lit kids who went so far above and beyond in their projects that it astounded even me. I have carried the words of thousands of letters of recommendations. I have carried 2100 (more or less) names and faces. I have carried five yearbooks and the staffs I will never forget. I have carried ____ proms. I have carried college graduations and military deployments and weddings and new babies and new jobs for the “kids” who will always be “mine”. I have carried millions of text and fb messages and the occasional handwritten letter that boost my spirit in a way very little else can. I have carried requests to proofread and analyze long after these people leave my classroom.  I have carried the thrill of exciting news, the joy of seeing someone find his or her dream calling, the excitement of watching an athletic ability flourish at the collegiate level.

I have carried the words, the stories… so, so many words and stories. I think when you teach English, you become, in some sense, the keeper of the stories.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

He Used a Donkey. Surely He can Use Me.

I felt prompted to write this several times over the past week but didn't because PRIDE. Then again this morning, through a post from a friend who is going through something similar, I felt God pushing me to swallow my pride and say something that someone else might need to hear. So here we are.

It's not really something you probably should do, still being "evaluated " by social workers and only weeks before you add more kids to your parenting "resume"... admitting a mistake. But I am. And because I think there is a fine line between sharing my own failures so that someone else can be reassured and blasting my kids' poor decisions all over the internet, I will be selective about which forms of social media I share this on as well as how specific I am in my telling. This post isn't about the specific actions that led to this moment. It's about how to move forward.

For WEEKS, I have had a nagging fear that a child of mine was watching a popular show that is completely inappropriate for her age and possibly inappropriate for any age (I still haven't watched it so my jury is still out, although many people have many opinions about it)-- "Thirteen Reasons Why". However, every time I thought about it (and I am fully convinced this was the Holy Spitit prompting me), it's been a time that I couldn't ask her or check Netflix... the middle of the night, middle of the school day, a time when she wasn't home, etc.. Long story short, the timing finally matched up and I had Kraig check Netflix and I had been correct.

Let me say that there are several issues here. Number one and foremost, we are at fault. We did not do our part as parents in setting up the appropriate filters and limits on the Netflix accounts. We are the parents. That is OUR job. They are kids and they are WIRED to push limits. We blew it. However, there is fault on the part of our child as well. She knew full well what our expectations were as far as content and she knew from the first moment that we wouldn't approve. We don't have to make a list of accepted shows, movies, music, apps, etc.. She knows where our lines are and she didn't follow them. There is also a larger issue at play here in that you hope your kids develop their own principles and values that will guide them. Maybe 13 was a little young to see that play out in EVERY situation, so I told her until she developed a conscience of her own, she will have to just borrow mine. ;)

Finally, the main problem and the crux of this blog post is that she has now seen things she cannot unsee. We now have Netflix limits set, we are looking into internet filters, and we have had the moment of raging in anger and frustration frollowed by the rational consequences and discussion. I had a long talk with her about what she took away from the series, how she felt suicide was portrayed, what message she believes the show gives, the finality of death. It was, honestly, a really good talk and the lessons SHE took from the show were lessons I see as very valuable....

  Your words matter. 
You never know how things you say will affect another person. 
So while I feel a little better about it, the huge guilt is still there. And every time I get on fb, another article or blog post is staring me in the face, posted by a well-intentioned and informed parent:
"Why I would Never Let my Preteen Watch 13 Reasons Why"
"13 Reasons Why Your Kid Shouldn't Be Watching This Show"
"13 Reasons Why Blamed for Uptick in Youth Suicide"

And every time I see those, I have to remember that I was NOT an informed parent.
{Compounded by all of this is the fact that only 5 days after THIS discovery, we learned that BOTH girls had an app we didn't approve and one of them had a social media account we had said no to. The bright side is that I searched these and everything was not only fully harmless, but kind of sweet... HOWEVER, it's still deception. So we had THAT battle last weekend, followed by rational consequences and discussion. And not only are things feeling genuinely good at our house now, it has provided opportunities for discussion and solved a problem we had in that we didn't know how to handle our bio kids having devices and not giving them to our new 3. Now NO ONE has devices! Problem solved! :) }

So what do you do when your failures are screaming at you from every side? When you, the informed person in regard to teens, has let something slip? When you have these big fears that maybe this is all a reaction to the changes coming in your house, that what if a secret instagram of goofy falling videos and pics of friends with Bible verses and silly captions is a gateway to premarital sex and a lifestyle of drugs? When you feel crushed under the weight of a guilt that maybe you've been too preoccupied with people who aren't here to appropriately monitor the ones who are?

Or maybe for someone else in other situations: What do you do when the damage has already been done? You can take precautions, you can respond differently in the future, but what's been seen is seen, the seeds have been planted, the friends have been made, the bad choices are made, the dabbling has been done? When you have already "messed up" in your parenting and you can't undo the situation?

As God has been reassuring me this week, you keep going. You keep loving that kid, you keep communicating with him or her, you reassure that child of yours that love isn't conditional and neither is your presence. And then you give it all back to God again, just as you have so many times in the past. We don't just dedicate our children to the Lord as babies. We hand them back over to Him every year, weekly, DAILY. With every mistake, every poor choice, every "teenage moment", you recommit them to Him. He goes beyond internet filters, car tracking devices, and breathalyzers. He is everywhere we can't be and He loves them more than we ever could.

And then you let Him love YOU. Just as your kids make mistakes no matter how carefully you try to teach them, HIS kid (YOU) make mistakes too. And He doesn't want you to live crushed by guilt. He doesn't want your past errors to take away your confidence in the future. Nothing is too messy that God can't redeem it. No matter how dumb you feel and how much your pride hurts, you are still His joy and as long as you're trying, He is in it. God used a donkey. Surely He can use a parent who is trying their level best, against all odds and against a world and society and technology that seems out to get us. Between you and God, you've got this.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Home is Where Your People Are

I will never forget the last few months before Kelsey was born. I was so excited to meet her but I was almost broken-hearted at the thought of the ways Emma's world would be rocked. Not only that, Emma was still such a baby. I also think I knew somewhere in my subconscious, although I was consciously aware of it, that as soon as Kelsey came into our home, Emma wouldn't be a baby any longer and I couldn't keep time reined in. 

I had a few of these same feelings in the winter this year before we met the kids. I wrestled a little with the drastic upheavals this decision was going to bring about for Emma and Kelsey. I worried as we moved them out of their bedrooms, as we consolidated their closets, as we relabeled things and redrew lines. And then we met our Sweet 3 and I knew, just like I knew as soon as my precious almost two year old held her baby sister for the first time, big eyed and soft handed, that this family God was creating was beyond any of my hopes or expectations. 

The last time I bought a "big sister" gift, it was 2005 and I was a nervous wreck that my sweet little 22 month old was going to have her world dashed by the arrival of her new baby sister. I bought these two dolls for her to show her the sweet friendship and love they would eventually share. 

It's been 12 years and 1 month since this last family transition and today I gave the girls these "new sister" gifts, bracelets with their home coordinates that match the bracelets we got for F, R, and A that have the coordinates of their first home and their second. 

With this gift, I want all of us to know that home is each other. Although I'm still a little nervous about this transition too, having seen that blonde, blue-eyed toddler grow to fiercely love that screaming, fuzzy-headed baby (and vice-versa) reassures me that family isn't about your "place". It's about making space for more love.

Home is, after all, where your people are. And all of our people will be in one place very, very soon.