End of the Year Haikus

It’s that time of year everyone is waiting for.  When I force my students to sum up their learning in well-formulated (or not so well formulated) haikus.

While I’m wading through this year’s exams, I thought I would give you some of the highlights from last year:

Life of Pi

Stuck on a life boat
with a tiger, for a year.
But guess what? He lived. -B.A.

In the lifeboat there
was one boy and one tiger
hungry to survive. -K.L.

Tiger and Pi. Boat.
Death swirling like a black bird.
Peace is kept. Life wins. -D.F.

A boy in a boat
Accompanied by his God(s)
And a large tiger -N.J.

Things Fall Apart

A culture crumbles:
The will of a “loving” God;
a man can’t stand it. -M.M.

He was a strong man
But he resided in fear
Destruction followed -Y.K.

Valiant we stand
Together unbreakable
They betray; I die. -K.G.

The Mission

The Lord is the light,
that’s on top of the darkness,
to light up the world. -K.N.

The Alchemist

I march to Egypt.
The treasure lies before me.
Wait, no, it’s back home. -J.T.

A shepherd no more
for dreams called him into a
golden world of love. -C.M.

Treasure can be found
If we travel great distances
We will find it there -A. H.

He dreamt of treasure,
Adventure. He searched for Gold
And found destiny. -C.M.

Personification and Hyperbole

My shoe attacked me.
It was like a mad falcon
falling off that shelf. -B.A.

The oceans roared and
Pi felt his whole world drowning
in the deep blue sea. -R.H.

The frozen drops dance
in the wind, then fall on me
smashing me apart. -M.F.

The chair talked to me
as I sat down. He said, “You
weigh a thousand pounds.” -K.L.

The sea receded.
The wave rose like a giant–
And then face planted. -Y.K.

This test is eating
me alive. My brain is mush.
Oh! What will I do! -C.G.

I have never felt
fear like this. The paper stares
at me with malice. -C.M.

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This Is [Not] The End

sunghee and majdIt hasn’t quite sunk in yet. I’ve hugged, and hugged, and hugged, and hugged these seniors. And yet, I can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that this was truly it. Today, their last day on the Rosslyn campus. Tomorrow, spreading across the world on grand, beautiful adventures.

It dawned on me today that my entire experience of Rosslyn has been shaped by them. I’ve never known this school without them in it. Never known my classroom except as a place they wander by, periodically, and call out, “Hello, Ms. Magnuson!” in bright, cheerful voices (and perhaps pause to read a poem or two).

The tears today, shed by seniors, teachers, and underclassmen alike, are a testimony to the incredible impact this class has had — the legacy they are leaving behind. They have loved well, they have cared deeply, they have invested freely — and they are ready to go forth and bless the nations.

Graduation 045

We spend weeks (months? years?) building up to this moment, yet it always seems to arrive too soon. No matter how intentionally one tries to mark the threshold, honor the moment, one’s attempts always seem insufficient. I will never have words that are big enough for these goodbyes.

Grief, I’ve learned, is really love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot. All of that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go. -Jamie Anderson

As I sit in the gathering dusk of a closing school year, surrounded by notes of gratitude and appreciation, there are no words left, only the ache of anticipated loss, and the simultaneous recognition that I have been blessed indeed.

Commencement Address

I had the incredible honor of being the graduation speaker for a rather spectacular group of students at Rosslyn’s commencement ceremony yesterday. The following is a rough transcript of what I shared. 

It is such an honor, and a privilege, and a delight to be here today with all of you who have come from near and from far to celebrate these graduates.

However, I’m actually here to talk to them, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to turn my podium.

I’m going to start by reading a paragraph from a blog post I wrote in May of 2015, reflecting back over the spring semester of my first year here in Kenya. These are words that I wrote about you:

Seventy-four days (give or take), 300 periods (give or take), 18,800 minutes … and counting. And I’ve loved some (many?) of those moments. There is much that I wanted from this semester that I do not have. But one thing I do have is my students — courageous, tenacious, creative, and so, so beautiful. I didn’t expect to enjoy them ([to] be blessed by them) quite this much.

Class of 2017, you have blessed my life from the moment I arrived in Kenya. You blessed me with laughter, with creativity, with kindness, with joy — with your willingness to be challenged and to challenge. To think deeply, to listen carefully, to question courageously. Your willingness to bring your whole selves into the classroom — your passions, your interests, your convictions, your uncertainties.

You’ve blessed me with your acceptance of who I am — my love of the Doctor, my obsession with Shakespeare, my delight in all things epic. You’ve borne with my “unique,” Arabic-inspired handwriting, with my insistence on punctuation in poetry, with my tragic inability to spell, with my fumbling attempts to put ideas into words – to communicate in this unwieldy, imprecise language.

Through it all you have trusted me to walk alongside you in this journey that is learning, that is high school, that is life, and that is not something I take for granted.

You made teaching, for the first time in my life, an unmitigated delight. Something I woke up in the morning and wanted to do. And for that I can never thank you enough.

Class of 2017, do you know what a miracle you are? What I see when I look at you? You are athletes, artists, musicians, dancers, actors, scholars, questers, mathematicians, scientists, inventors, leaders, jokesters, activists … you are courageous, you are kind, you are servant-hearted, you are lovers of beauty, pursuers of truth, seekers of the good … you are fingerprints of the divine.

In knowing you, I have come to know a bit more of the beauty and glory of the God who made you — and all I can do is stand amazed.

And this brings me to my first point: As you walk off this stage and into the rest of your lives — into all of the journeys and challenges and joys that await you — know that you are loved. Know that you are delighted in. Know that the One who made you named you “good.”

Everyone sitting behind me, and those who would have longed to be here today, but are not — your family, your friends — they are proud of you. We — your teachers — are proud of you. Proud of what you’ve accomplished, yes, but much more so, proud of the people that you are. The people you choose to be.

Which brings me, rather quickly, to my second point: As you go forth into the world, do not accept its definition of success. Don’t let it define you by what you have accomplished or will accomplish. By what you can fit on a resume. Don’t let it reduce your worth to the things that you do, no matter how worthy those deeds might be.

We all long for purpose; for our lives to be meaningful. Refuse the narrative that says if you don’t change the world, you’ve failed.

One of my very favorite authors, Charles Williams, reminds us that the word “extraordinary” literally means “extra-ordinary.” The meaning that you seek isn’t to be found “out there” in what you do with your lives. It’s right here, in this present moment. Do you know that the ground you stand on is holy ground? Holy, because God is here, and you are here. This, right now, right here, is the place for encounter.

The place to encounter truth, the place to encounter God, the place to encounter the sacred Other who bears God’s image. C.S. Lewis reminds us that “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.”

Remember that as you go forward from this place, and this community – as you find yourselves among strangers in strange lands – as demands are made upon your time, and you are forced to evaluate and re-evaluate where your true values lie – how you will spend the moments that will become your life. All that withstands the test of time are the eternal souls to your right and to your left. So if you desire greatness, seek to love greatly, and when you do, let no one – least of all yourself – doubt the meaning of your life.

No matter what lies ahead of you in the years to come — no matter how closely it resembles your dreams, or how far it is from your expectations – refuse the narrative that says your life is ordinary, that it is unimportant, that it is mundane, that it is boring. There is no such thing as an insignificant life. If we have done one thing at Rosslyn, I pray that we have given you eyes to see the beauty that is all around you, and to call that beauty forth. To partner with God is his holy work of creation, which is the work of healing and redemption, of restoring wholeness, of calling forth the good.

One of my favorite quotes is by George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement, who told his followers to “walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in everyone.” And Philippians 4:8 tells us to focus our eyes on the pure and the lovely, the admirable and the praiseworthy.

Choose to live with eyes that are open to the presence of God in your everyday moments. Choose to be awake to the miracle that is existence. Choose to find the sacred within the life that others may call mundane. Choose to worship.

Mary Oliver ends her poem, “The Summer Day,” with the statement:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

May you also know how fall down into the grass, how to kneel down, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, how to know peace, how to be awake – always – to wonder, how to pay attention to the gift that is your life.

And here is my last point: it is gift. You have not earned it, you cannot earn it, you do not need to earn it, stop trying to earn it. Salvation by faith means accepting that God has done for you what you cannot do for yourself. It means allowing yourself to be frail and human, imperfect, broken, yet loved beyond imagining by a God who makes broken things beautiful.

A God who takes the shards of our lives and turns them into masterful mosaics.

When life feels too big, the stakes too high, the task at hand too large, remember that you are not journeying alone.

Remember that your life’s worth does not rest upon your ability to succeed. Your ability to be good enough, strong enough, whole enough.

When you fail – and you will – remember that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness; that living water flows more abundantly through cracked vessels; and that your calling is to become less, so he can become more.

I want to leave you with a poem by the Sufi poet Rumi – a poem that reminds me of Josh Garrels’ “At the Table” which has been played in chapel and baccalaureate this past week:

Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving,
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Even if you have broken your vows a thousand times
It doesn’t matter
Come, come yet again, come.

Class of 2017, there will always be a place for you at my table; but more importantly, there will always be a place for you at God’s. You are always invited in. No matter how far you journey, no matter how long you wander, no matter where your sojourn takes you, you are wanted, you are desired, you belong.

May you take this truth with you as you walk across this stage. May you have strength and courage for the journey; may you know God’s comfort and goodness in this time of transition and in the years ahead; may you have hope in abundance.

I love you. Thank you for loving me. Thank you for enriching my life. Thank you for showing me a little more of God.

Lessons Learned in Failure and Grace

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Some lovely students I taught as 7th graders and again as 9th graders.

I was asked this past fall if I would write a blog post about teaching literature and what it has taught me about God.

I was intrigued, but also stumped. Literature itself has been a significant–vital?–part of my faith journey, but has teaching it taught me anything about God I couldn’t have learned by simply reading it myself? By simply studying it myself? Certainly one of my great joys as a teacher are those moments when student insights clarify, deepen, and even reshape, my own understanding of a text. When I come away enriched and stretched in ways I was not anticipating. When teaching allows me to issue an invitation into the sacred space where ideas are shared and souls enlivened–where teaching and learning becomes a communion, a meeting (as my Quaker friends might say), between the self and the other (as represented by the classmate, the student, the teacher, the text) in the presence of God. When learning awakens us to the truest longings of our souls, and we encounter Beauty and Truth in deeper and richer ways than we knew ourselves capable of.

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Reviewing a year’s worth of Ancient Literature (Whitman Academy, 2012)

But that experience is not new to me. I have long been on the receiving end of that invitation–an invitation first issued to be by my parents, my teachers, my professors, and the texts themselves. If I now seek to extend the hospitality that was once extended to me, it is simply the natural progression of the same lifelong journey. Not a new encounter, but simply the next stage of an old one.

Teaching itself has certainly taught me much about God and about myself; lessons I could not, perhaps, have learned any other way. But those lessons would have been the same, I think, regardless of my subject matter. Responsible for the growth of eternal souls, I have felt the weight of my own inadequacy as I never experienced it while responsible for myself alone. A lifelong perfectionist, I have come to know myself (irrevocably, deeply, painfully) imperfect and have been forced to throw myself, daily, hourly, on the mercy and grace of a God who is bigger than I.

I am a craver of control, and teaching is nothing if not a thing uncontrollable. I cannot outplan or outmaneuver the unknown which will meet me in each new day–which will require a hundred tiny (and not so tiny) in-the-moment decisions. I cannot outrun my own failure (which, when one believes all that is not perfect is failure, meets one around every corner and in every moment)–failure which will be witnessed by (at minimum) twenty-some pairs of watchful eyes. Failure which will impact, not just myself, but the students under my care.

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My 9th Grade Ancient Literature Class (Whitman Academy, 2012)

When I choose judgement over grace, frustration over encouragement, exclusion over embrace–consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or not–I am shaping students’ perceptions of themselves, of authority, of life (of all they may expect from it), and of God. This, of course, is true of all of us in our daily interactions with eternal souls–but being a teacher has made me deeply, painfully aware of it.

This is a job too heavy for me to carry. A role far too large for my slight frame.

And so I learn (or try to learn) how to trust the God who heals brokenness, who turns ashes to beauty, who uses the weak to shame the strong, and who can feed the multitude with a handful of bread and two small fish.

I am learning (oh so slowly) that what I know, what I can do, will never make me worthy enough or useful enough. Will never make me good enough. No matter how hard I try, I will never be “big” enough for this job or this life. And so I must learn instead to be small enough–small enough to go where I am sent and stay where I am put. Small enough to trust the God who is bigger than I. Small enough to acknowledge mistakes and imperfections–to model the grace that pours through our cracked and broken lives, and waters the garden at our feet.jill briscoe

This is what teaching has taught me and is teaching me. And though the road has been long and filled with stones, I am thankful for the journey.

To Write of Evening

I walked home today in the dusk.  The bright of Kenya’s greenery stark against an overcast sky.  Walked home in the knowledge that the year is almost done.  Home in the relief of exams graded.  Of a to-do list shrunk to an odd assortment of final bits and pieces: more textbooks to collect, a graduation to attend, some portfolios to grade.  And then it will be Friday, and I will be closing the book on this particular chapter of this particular story.  This particular combination of weeks, and months, and essays.  Of students and lessons and whiteboard markers.  Of all the odds and ends, victories and defeats, joys and exhaustions, that make up a school-year.  Make up the life of an English teacher.

Ipod Pics 055If this was the year of any one thing, it was the year of AP Language and Composition.  The year I spent every Saturday, without fail, grading at Dormans — the quietest of the local coffee shops.

The year my students wrote, and wrote, and wrote.

A week ago (much less a month) I could not quite imagine today.  Could not quite see over, or around, the terrible to-do list that demanded that particular day’s attention.  Couldn’t think past the scattered, frantic, fullness of my brain.

And, even now, I know that pressing just beyond the borders of this coming Friday, and the boundaries of my teaching responsibilities, there are other lists demanding my attention.  Travels to plan, emails to write, details to take care of.

And, most terrifying of all, in two short months, it is time to start all over again.

But I cannot think about that tonight.  Tonight is not for beginnings.  That is what the morning is for.  The morning, with its sun tipping over the horizon, and spilling brightness new-born into the world — restoring hope to all new things.

Tonight is for endings.  Tonight is for finish-lines crossed and mile-stones reached.

Tonight is for all of those words read.  All of those papers graded.  All of those comments written.  Tonight is for remembering.  For setting aside a moment to acknowledge what my students and I did this year, what we created, in that awkward space that exists between the quest for perfection and the acknowledgement of failure.  That space where all living happens.

Sometime in July the College Board will let me know what my students achieved.  Sometime in July they will pass on their judgement.  But I really don’t care what the College Board has to say.  Because I know what we achieved.  What we strove for.  What we overcame.

I have read words birthed in fire, and I am content.

And so I will leave you with an evening poem.  A poem for tonight — for the gathering dusk, for the dark.  A poem for endings, and for the grace that undergirds all things.

Let Evening Come
by Jane Kenyon

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

“Let it come, as it will, and don’t / be afraid.  God does not leave us / comfortless.

* And yes, this post does include a link to every one of my AP students’ blogs.  And no, I’m not sorry.  Not even a little bit.

In Praise of Sleep

So, I have a confession to make.  I am a perfectionist, and it is a disease.  One of its many symptoms?  The trail of accumulating posts in my drafts folder.  I don’t know why I never posted this, back when I wrote it (Thursday, Nov. 12th).  Clearly, at the time, I did not think it qualified as “finished” or “good enough.”  And probably it doesn’t.  

After all, all writing, like all living, is ultimately process rather than product.

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Sleep is a daily reminder from God that we are not God. “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4). But Israel will. For we are not God. . . . Sleep is a parable that God is God and we are [human]. God handles the world quite nicely while a hemisphere sleeps. Sleep is like a broken record that comes around with the same message every day: [Humanity] is not sovereign. [Humanity] is not sovereign. [Humanity] is not sovereign. Don’t let the lesson be lost on you. God wants to be trusted as the great worker who never tires and never sleeps. He is not nearly so impressed with our late nights and early mornings as he is with the peaceful trust that casts all anxieties on him and sleeps.

-John Piper

A few weeks ago, I asked my AP Lang students to begin the day by reflecting on part of the above passage.  I asked them to write about the challenges in their life that were currently reminding them that they are not God.  I asked them to consider how those challenges — how that reminder — might be a blessing, even if a painful one.

Today that challenge was turned on me.

I spent the morning at a ladies brunch organized by the church I attend.  And the topic was cultivating a thankful heart.  Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts — which spoke to me so powerfully when I read it several years ago — was repeatedly referenced, and the message was powerful and simple and convicting and familiar all at once.

I have long advocated (to myself, mostly) a life of gratefulness — a life lived fully alive — fully aware, and awake, to the beauty that surrounds us.  To the presence of God in the Other and in the world at large.  As G.K. Chesteron declares: “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”  I have long wanted to exist — to live — inside of that wonder.

But finding things, in all situations, that I am thankful for, is not quite the same as being thankful for all things, or for all situations.  Enjoying the beauty of the flaming bougainvillea outside my window does not keep me from grumbling about my daily grading, or my distance from family, or my loneliness, or my singleness, or my migraines — or whatever else I happen to be discontent with on this particular morning.  And when the bougainvillea starts to fade, becoming no more than a wall of dusty green (as is the case at this moment), what then am I left with?

I feel that God is challenging me — as I tried to challenge my students — to find his presence, not on the periphery of the struggle, of the pain, of the heartache, of the weakness, but within it.  As Voskamp states (and as I have quoted elsewhere), “I want to see beauty. In the ugly, in the sink, in the suffering, in the daily, in all the days before I die, the moments before I sleep.”

Not on the edges, but within.  The costly thanksgiving.  The thanksgiving that is repentance and surrender and submission — that is a prayer of “your kingdom come, your will be done.”  Not my way, not my dreams, not my best, but yours.

And as we were reminded today, God’s kingdom coming is, in its very nature, disruptive.  I am currently reading Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, and her story, if nothing else, reminds one that conversion is always “arduous and transformative.”  The paradox of the Christian faith has always been that one must die to live.

And truth be told, I am trying not to die.  I have always been trying not to die.  To hold on to my dreams, and my story, and my control, and my mastery.  I am trying to live my life my way.  To fully give in — to give thanks — for singleness, and teaching, and the lessons learned through loneliness and heartache — to embrace the life that God has given me, in this moment, as it is — to do so it to truly give my life over to the one who created it to do with as God pleases.

I remember, as a child, responding to requests to wash dishes, or clean my room, with a grumbling reluctance that was intended to communicate, “I will do what you ask (because I must), but I want you to know that I resent your authority over me.”  To respond cheerfully (without complaining or arguing) was to relinquish some imagined right of resistance.

And, like George MacDonald’s Lilith — with her clenched fist — I am still clinging to that right.  That right to say, “No, this is not what I want,” when the path of joy is there before me.  Requiring only that I give thanks.  That I say, “Yes.” That I allow myself to fall into the arms that wait to catch me.  Into the story that has been prepared.  Into this day, and this one.  That I accept each and every breath, every task, as gift.  As possibility.

The path to life is not complicated: all we need do (once more in MacDonald’s imagery) is accept the bed prepared for us.  Accept the sleep that reminds us we are not God.  Lie down, rest, and relinquish our burdens.  Salvation is not, I think, so much a doing, as a ceasing.  An accepting of what has already been done, and what we could never have done ourselves.  The end of striving, and the beginning of thanks.

Fall in, let go, and live.

It is not complicated, but it is hard.  The way is narrow and the cost is high.  I must choose to be human, and to be satisfied.  Submitted to the One who governs my life.  The One whose ways are good (but also inexplicable and mysterious: higher than mine).

I must choose thanks.

To Write Of Grace

It’s happened again.

The semester has gotten the better of me, moving at a pace I can barely maintain, hardly a moment to pause, or ponder, or write.

No matter how strong the intentions I begin the year with — intentions of early morning rising and daily writing — they always seem to dissipate like so much summer dreaming.  And thus it is that my calendar declares Aberderes 027October nearly over and the semester halfway through, and yet my last blog post was in August.  Cultural Field Studies came and went without comment, as did Spiritual Emphasis Week, and a September camping trip to the highlands of the Aberdares.

I am very good at preaching a discipline of writing.  And very poor at practicing it.

And I know that this is my life.  That if I cannot discover a way to incorporate the writing I long to do into my days, and nights, as they are, then I never will.  The ideal working environment — the hours free to ponder words at my own pace — will never happen upon me.  And though I certainly may return to school one day, to pursue my own studies, I will not discover writing waiting for me there, like some long-suffering and ever-patient friend.

There are muscles in the brain — in one’s writing fingers — the same way there are muscles in an athlete’s arms and legs.  Fail to use them, and they will atrophy. Unnurtured, discipline goes the way of all good things: it dissipates, and fades, and turns to so much useless gelatin.  So much unhelpful weight.

Which is why I am returning to NaNoWriMo this November — not to purge some burning story from within me, but simply to remind myself that writing is a choice, a discipline, and one that I am capable of making.

And why I am writing today.  Because one must begin somewhere.  Must choose to pick up the pieces (for the thousandth time) and start again.  There is tenacity in continuing on when one has momentum behind one.  Tenacity in choosing not to stop, not to slow, not to quit.  But there is also a kind of tenacity — a grittier kind, perhaps — in choosing to start again when one has slowed, stopped, failed.    Choosing to stoop to pick up the balls when one has dropped them; choosing to put them back up in the air, fairly certain one will drop them again.

For better or for worse that’s my life these days.

And I am trying to learn to recognize this process, this continually growing awareness of my own weakness, as an opportunity rather than a failure.   An opportunity to remember that I am not God.  That I was never meant to be God.  Which is also a reminder to fix my eyes on the one who is God.  The one who has the strength I do not.  The one who does not slumber or sleep.  The one who watches over my bedside.  The one who can lift me up on wings like eagles.  What does the Lord require of me, a frail and failing mortal?  To seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in the shadow of the Almighty.  All of these tasks require me to take my eyes off myself — to release my desire for perfection — and to care about bigger things.  More important things.

I am fascinated by the Old Testament story of Moses.  The prince who tried to save his people, and failed.  And who, crushed by that failure, disappeared into the wilderness until his very identity had been all but purged from him.  When God spoke to Moses, at last, out of a burning bush, utterly gone was the cocky prince, ready to make decisions about what was right and wrong.  Ready to be the arbiter of justice and the working arm of God.  And in his place, a man humble in his own weakness, empty of his own greatness.  Like Gideon’s three hundred, here at last was a smallness God could use.

I think God is busy making me smaller, so God can be greater.  And I am trying to embrace the lesson.  To lean back into the foundation that is not, and Aberderes 042never has been,
my own strength. The water I draw from the well of my own identity, discipline, courage, faith, will always, ultimately, run dry.  Which is why I need to draw on a different source — why I need to return, daily, to the water of life, the water capable of turning me into a vessel cracked, but overflowing.

In the words of Rumi:

Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come.

If this is not the message of grace, I don’t know what is.

It Begins Again

Yesterday marked the end of the first week back at school.  Today, the beginning of the ruthless, unending ocean of grades.  We are in it once again, and there is no land anywhere in sight.  The only options: perish or swim.

Though I have been back in Nairobi for nearly three weeks, I had been struggling to motivate myself into gear.  Tasks like lesson planning and prepping just seemed so far away, distant and indistinct.  So theoretical and difficult to pin down.

With students back in my classroom, and a stack of essays on my desk, the reality of the situation is suddenly immeasurably real, immediate, and, yes, rather terrifying.

All the indistinct responsibilities that simply refused to put on flesh and blood two weeks ago are now threatening to break down my door.  And there are simply not enough hours in the day to do what needs to be done, and certainly not to do it well.

Ah, teaching.  How I’ve missed you.  That tinge of panic.  That taste of doom.

With all of the endorphins and adrenaline coursing through my system, is it any wonder that I keep coming back to this job?  That it calls to me, like a drug?  Who needs extreme sports, when there is this — this chance to fall or fly?

Back at the beginning, there is no guarantee of where this year will go.  Last year’s hard work will not carry me through this semester.  Previous performance is no guarantee of success.  Once again we walk by faith and not by sight, putting in the painful groundwork, hoping we are sowing the rights seeds in the right soil.  Hoping there will be a harvest, hoping we are working hard enough.  Hoping, at some point, the magic will kick in.

Like theatre, like farming, teaching is a bit of a mystery.  A bit of a miracle.  And all I can do is hope, and pray, and work, and hold my breath.

And remember that last year was no different.  That I umed my way, awkwardly, through that first week, too.  Yet somehow it was all okay.  And whatever fears and uncertainties I still harbor, at least I can look back on my first day in front of a classroom — barely twenty-two and staring down a room full of seniors, the erratic beating of my heart leaking into the terror coloring my voice — and know that I have come somewhere in six years.

A Whole New Year

dreads 019

Twenty-eight for the win.

Yesterday was my birthday.

It was also the last day of full staff orientation.  Ready or not, a new school year is starting, and this adventure I committed to last year is rolling right along.

I’m fairly used to my birthday’s inconvenient timing — growing up, having a summer birthday nearly always meant a dearth of friends (if we weren’t travelling, everyone else was), and if I had a party (the traditional kind), it was never on the actual day of my birth.  My dad often had meetings, and sometimes both of my parents were absent.

I knew that none of this meant I wasn’t loved (I was clearly very loved), but I did learn not to expect a whole lot out of the day itself.  No expectations equaled no disappointments, and I came to view my birthday as mostly just another day.  [Though of course there were exceptions: a Beauty and the Beast birthday when I turned seven (or possibly six?), with friends and cake and a hand-drawn “pin the bow on Belle” poster; a tea party for turning ten, complete with all the new friends a new country had to offer; my sweet sixteenth, when my mother made all my favorite foods, and fed them to a house full of girls who spent 24 hours lavishing me with cards and gifts and memories; and my nineteenth, when my precious older brother (the only member of my immediate family present in the States) took me for a day of bike-riding around the lakes in Minneapolis, inclusive of a picnic lunch and a long, long conversation over iced chai.]  So I was not anticipating the reaction yesterday when a friend called at 4:00 to wish me a happy birthday, and discovered I had no plans for the evening (other than a cup of tea and some time spent reflecting) — by 6:30 there were twelve beautiful people crowding into cars to take me out to dinner.

And it reminds me of where I was this time last year, and where I am now.  Everyone told me, again and again, that coming back for year two would be so much easier than starting year one.  And I’m not sure I believed them.  In some ways, I’m still not sure I believe them.  I still feel new — still feel like there’s a lot about the school, about my neighborhood, about Nairobi, that I just don’t know.  Things I probably should know by now.  There are still faces on staff that I can’t connect to names.  Still questions I’m no more sure of the answer to than when I started here last July.  But there are also ways in which things are different.  I have a bit more of a foundation to build on.  I’m a bit more comfortable in the community and in my surroundings.  A bit more comfortable in my skin.

For one thing, I’m starting off the year in my own classroom, a luxury I didn’t have at the beginning of last year.  For another, three of my five classes are sections of Global Literature, a class I have already taught — and loved.  And though I’m facing down the new challenge of AP Language and Composition, it’s a class filled with students I already know, respect, and enjoy (students who hopefully trust me enough to extend me the benefit of the doubt).  Not to mention that my dream of having game nights — unrealized all last year — is already coming to fruition, and my Seven Wonders (a Christmas gift from a generous younger brother) has finally been christened.

My birthday camera.

My new birthday camera.

But while there is comfort in the familiar, there is also its own kind of pressure.  For one thing, the familiar is not familiar, not to me.  This is the first time since college I’ve returned to the same place, the same job, for a consecutive year.  And while there is comfort in knowing that last year, at least professionally, was a success, there is also the worrying doubt: can I live up to my own past?  Can I repeat the performance?  Surely teachers are meant to be getting better at what they do, but what if I fail to even maintain the status quo?  So much of teaching is beyond the teacher’s control — so much is reliant on the student, and the rapport between the two — and what if I fail, this year, to connect?   What if my success, thus far, is based on the very non-continuity of my teaching?  On the breaks I’ve taken between years?  On the terror and adrenaline of the new?

I know that many of these fears may seem irrational, but they are no less real for that.  I also know that my fear is rooted, ultimately, in concern for my own success and reputation and pride.  It’s based in a need to succeed, so that I can believe in my own value, my own excellence.  So that I can feel worthy.  Worthy of respect.  Worthy of attention.  Worthy of trust.  I hate to fail, because I wrap my identity, my worth, up in the not failing.  Up in the succeeding.

But the God I serve is a God whose strength is made perfect in weakness.  So the journey of trust continues, one day at a time.  Not relying on the strength of the past, not teaching by rote, but seeking to meet each new student, each new day, as gift.  An opportunity for encountering the Other.  An opportunity for growth.  An opportunity for transformation.  For living out the story of redemption.  For becoming more like Christ.

“We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.” 2 Corinthians 4:7

It’s a new year, folks.  And the journey continues: pressed, but not crushed; persecuted, not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.  I am blessed beyond the curse for His promise will endure: His joy’s gonna be my strength.

And I say yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord.  Amen.

To Teach A Poet

I’ve written elsewhere about my journey with poetry.  How I never loved it until I started to teach it.

These days, one of my greatest joys as a teacher is getting to teach poets.  Getting to read the beauty they craft from words and ink and the break of a line on a page.  Getting to catch a glimpse of the world they see when they open their eyes in the morning or close their eyes at night.

I have never been a poet — not really — and I don’t think I ever will be.  The beauty of narrative will always be the language of my heart.  But I fall more in love with the medium every year I teach it — every time I watch an artist discover that there exists within them a burning core of words.  A vision.  A brightness.

That they have something to say, and words with which to say it.

The following were taken from short answer questions on my Global Literature final exams.  They were created hastily and under pressure (as evidenced by the inconsistent punctuation).  Yet even so, in 17 syllables, many of them capture profound (and unique) truths about the texts read, and some do so while utilizing well-developed imagery and sophisticated enjambment.

I’m proud of these poets, these readers, these thinkers.  I’m proud of these kids.  And I’m thrilled that I get to teach some of them again next year.

Life of Pi (by far the most popular choice): 

Pi survives alone
In the lifeboat with Richard
But God is with him.  -M.R.

A boy of 3 faiths,
Stranded on sea with tiger,
No one believes him. -N.S.

Struggles in the sea,
Full of fear but not lonely–
Richard was with me. -J.H.K.

Pi almost lost hope
through fear, hunger, thirst and pain.
Then, he reached the shore. -J.J.

I’ve lost everything.
Hope grows thinner every day
I wait.  I watch, Pray.  -A.T.

Could this be a dream?
A tiger and a young boy.
What unlikely friends. -A.R.R.

Reading Life of Pi
was like a journey to me,
never-ending ‘ifs’. -G.O.

A boy all alone,
imagination was all
he ever had left.  -N.G.

The Mission: 

God sends Gabe to the falls.
Rodrigo joins after pain.
All is lost; light stays.  -R.C.

Things Fall Apart:

Okonkwo showed strength
His fear of weakness got the
Best of him. He died. -J.O.

I want to succeed.
I can’t be like my father.
In the end I was. -B.O.

The Alchemist:

He looks far and wide
The treasure that he must find,
in his heart it lies.  -N.M.

Not connected with a particular text, but needed to demonstrate hyperbole and personification:

Like a stoic mime
the rock sat atop the cliff
its ignorance, bliss.  -M.N.

the wind whistles through
the tress; like God would whistle,
loud; unforgiving. -R.C.

The rains have come here,
we hear the thunder screaming,
A sign, the world is dying. -N.S.

Agony screams.  Screams
Because her world is over.
Freedom is now queen.  -A.T.

The boat cried with fear
waves tall as mountains crashed down
we just wait and pray -J.A.

And one of my students wrote me a fairly long, utterly spontaneous “Ode to Global Lit.”  It began with this foreboding stanza:

Global Lit.  A class
full of homework and writing.
Where one can feel
the breath of death.
Where knees tremble like an earthquake
where fear can be made.

But ended with this one:

Well there is no class
like the Global Lit class
Where the teacher always,
Always laughs and smiles
and makes the class
smile with a laugh brighter
than the sun.
Thank you, Ms. Magnuson. -H.R.L.