Teacher Tales: A Voice from the Past

Last week, a piece came on the local news during the sports segment: Steve Yzerman, general manager of the Detroit Red Wings had named Dylan Larkin the new team captain. As I sat on the couch watching, my brain transported me back to my first classroom, near 7 Mile and Van Dyke in Detroit. It was 1989. I saw a smiling seventh grade boy sitting in the front row, center seat, wearing an oversized Yzerman jersey.

“What’s the name on the back of your jersey?” I asked.

“Yzerman, Miss Kolb,” he answered, “you don’t know who Steve Yzerman is?”

“I’m not much of a hockey fan.”

“You gotta watch the Red Wings, Miss Kolb! You’ll love it!”

This happens sometimes. My brain, crammed with thirty some years of parenting and teaching, transports me back in time and I remember a moment. I think of a student and wonder where he is or how she is doing.

In fact, being back in Detroit, thirty years after that hockey conversation and just sixteen miles southwest of that classroom, has made me think of the students in that first class more than once. It was a self-contained classroom of ten students with specific learning needs — some had learning disabilities, some had attention deficit disorder, and some, now that I think about it, were likely just behind their peers due to systemic inequities which were and have been prevalent in urban public schools.

I was fresh out of college with the degree and credentials to teach high school English, but I’d always been drawn to special ed, had always been a champion of the underdog.

Plus, I needed a job.

After graduating in December, I’d found my first gig on the afternoon shift at a group home for teenaged girls who had been court-ordered away from their families. My role was to help with homework, supervise chores and personal hygiene, and chaperone our girls on social outings. I’d had to learn physical management — how to protect myself and others in the event of a physical conflict — how to use a behavior modification system wherein our girls got rewarded for doing the right thing and penalized for missteps. They could use any points they earned for rewards and privileges.

That position taught me a lot, and I loved it, but it wasn’t teaching. So, when, by some miracle of the extensive network that is the Lutheran community, I had a conversation with a principal who was looking for a teacher for his special education seventh grade classroom, I agreed to start grad school and to try to teach these students.

Twenty-three year old me, piled all my stuff into my Dodge Colt and headed for Detroit. With a paper map unfolded on the seat next to me, I followed street by street until I got to the school where I would not only teach, but where I would live, in a small apartment in a large facility that once housed a residential school for the deaf.

Detroit Day School for the Deaf - Wikipedia

Each morning, I donned running clothes and ran the perimeter of the campus grounds that were secured by an eight-foot tall chain-link fence. After a shower and breakfast, I would walk down a network of hallways and up a couple flights of stairs to my classroom.

I taught reading, spelling, math, social studies, science, and physical education, writing lesson plans in pencil in an old school lesson plan book and doing my best to follow along in the textbooks that I’d been given.

Did I know what I was doing? No. This was definitely a fake-it-til-you-make-it situation.

My memories of that year come in flashes — students with high top fades and baggy jeans joking around in the back of my classroom, me writing math problems on a chalk board, our whole group sneaking out for impromptu recess on warm days in the Spring.

The biggest adventure of the year resulted from a reading competition sponsored by Pizza Hut. Each of my students had earned a personal pan pizza, so in all my first-year teacher ambition, I decided to pack them all up in a fifteen passenger van and take them on a field trip. It probably would’ve been adequate to take them to a local Pizza Hut, but instead, I drove them from Detroit to Ann Arbor so that they could attend chapel at Concordia University, my alma mater, and then go to the Ann Arbor Hands On Museum. We ended our day at Pizza Hut, eating our free lunch before heading back to school.

Can’t you just picture 23 year old me, toting ten kids around Ann Arbor? Where in the world did I park? I don’t remember being stressed or ruffled though, not until we got stuck in a traffic jam and returned to school long past pickup time. I figured the parents would be irate, but in my memory, they were unfazed. They gathered their children, thanked me for the field trip, and headed on their way.

There’s something about the students in your first ever class — you love them with a kind of love reserved especially for them. I’ve often thought about those students, but because I moved to a different school in the northern suburbs the next year, long before social media and email, I lost touch.

Several years later, I ran into a former colleague who told me that one of my students from that first class had been shot and killed, and my chest hurt as though I’d lost one of my own. He’d been so bright, so full of personality, so full of promise.

I’ve lost others, too. One of the girls from the group home was struck in the head during a fight after she’d returned home. The brain injury left her in a coma, and she died a few months later. Another student who I met when I worked at a residential treatment facility took her own life — long before she turned twenty. A couple of weeks ago, I got a text from my former principal in St. Louis, one of our grads had been shot and killed between Christmas and New Year’s. He was 32 and a father.

I don’t like to hear these stories, but they are the ones that usually make their way to me.

Because I’ve taught in many different locations, I don’t get former students showing up in my classroom after five or ten years to say, “I was in the area, so I thought I’d drop by.” I did, of course, while I was still in St. Louis. It’s one of the sweetest experiences ever — to see that your students have grown up, achieved some goals, and they want to tell you about it. I follow many of my St. Louis students on social media. I love to see what they are doing — running their own businesses, getting their PhDs, going into teaching, and raising their families.

But the students I had before the rise of the social media — the ones from my first few classrooms — I often wonder where they are, what they are doing, and even if they are still alive.

So when I got to work Friday morning, and saw that I had a message request on Facebook messenger, I was stunned to see that it was from the young man in the Yzerman jersey, the one I had just been wondering about!

“I was reaching out…you used to be my teacher,” he started.

“Oh my goodness! I was just thinking of you the other night when I saw Izerman select his new captain!” I couldn’t type my response quickly enough. I couldn’t believe I was actually hearing from this student!

Guys, he’s a grown man — of course — with a wife and kids. He’s a police officer, and he’s stayed in touch with many of the students who shared that classroom with me all those years ago!

We messaged back and forth for a little bit, and now we’re Facebook friends. I feel like he just dropped by my classroom saying, “I was in the neighborhood.” One of my first-year kiddos, letting me know that he’s ok.

We need this kind of touch right now, don’t we, friends. We need person to person connection — remembering a teacher from a zillion years ago and sending a note just to say hi. We’re spending so much time at home on our couches, isolated from one another and watching our nation split in two on an international stage; we need to remember that we love each other one at a time.

We can decide to hate huge masses of people who seem to stand for things we disagree with, but it’s pretty hard to hate someone you shared a classroom with or someone who remembers you from way back when you ate pizza and laughed together.

It may be a challenging week with the inauguration, more demonstrations, an apparent vaccine shortage, and the ongoing pandemic. I wonder if we might all reach out and say hey to someone we haven’t seen in a while — an old friend, a former teacher, or the neighbor lady who always used to wave when you got home in the afternoon.

It just might make their whole day/week/month. It just might help turn the dial.

Much love to you, KH. Thanks for looking me up.

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.

I Thessalonians 5:11

The Camera’s View

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The camera can’t catch everything.

Over the weekend, a friend sent me a photo to show me how she was spending her evening. In her shot, I could see the television screen and a Piston’s game in progress; I could see her polished toes propped up in front of her, but I couldn’t see her face or who she was watching with. She showed me what she wanted me to see — just a slice of the whole.

Media cameras give us a slice, too. They use selected images and create a neatly packaged narrative to create a story about what’s happening in the world, and while a picture paints a thousand words, actual stories with all their nuances, often take thousands of words to write.

Although we’ve been watching news of Covid-19 for 10 months and we’ve seen images of sickness and death every, we have not seen the true devastation caused by this disease. The screens in our living rooms can’t show us the pain of the 375,000 families who’ve lost loved ones since March. They can’t convey the stress, the weariness, the weight that our health care workers have been carrying. They can’t transport the heaviness of heart of those who are lifting bodies into refrigerated storage units because the morgues are full.

The camera gives a glimpse, but it’s can’t convey the whole.

Last Spring, along with shots of the empty streets of downtown Manhattan and the long lines of people waiting for food, the camera also held its focus for over eight minutes as a police officer kneeled on the neck of a man while officers stood by watching him die. It turned its gaze to another man out for an afternoon jog and watched as he was chased down by men in trucks, assaulted, and killed in the middle of the street. Not long after, the camera found in its frame a man taking the last steps of his life moments before a police officer shot seven bullets into his back severing his spinal cord and rendering him paralyzed.

It showed us these moments when everything changed, but it hasn’t shown us the ongoing impact in the lives of the people who loved those men.

It hasn’t shown us the grieving families — how they struggle to face another day in their forever-altered reality, knowing that those who inflicted violence on their loved ones get to keep right on living, some not facing any consequences at all. The camera hasn’t focused on that.

Throughout the pandemic, we have watched scenes of citizens responding to circumstances that seem unjust. We’ve seen outraged masses demonstrating against police brutality and others infuriated at orders to stay at home and wear a mask. The cameras have marched along, capturing images, and creating narratives.

And this week cameras were in the crowd as the leader of the free world — a man who has never experienced police brutality or had to stand in a line to get food, who has never been forced to stay at home or wear a mask — stood on the mall in Washington, DC, dressed in a fine suit and freshly coiffed, and spoke to thousands who adore him, who view him as the answer to society’s ills, who believe him to be a man of God and a fighter for the people. Cameras recored as he spoke to these people who had travelled across the country at his bidding, paying with their own hard-earned money, or charging flights and hotel rooms on credit cards they may or may not be able to pay back. They were dressed as warriors and carrying weapons; they brought strategies and tactics and stood there ready when he told them to march. The President of the United States said “you can’t be weak” but you must “save our democracy.” And, after listening to him decry our nation for over an hour, these thousands of citizens followed his orders and marched. The camera caught them screaming war cries, pushing police out of the way, breaking windows, climbing walls, destroying property, and terrifying the nation.

Not long after, the camera showed most of them walking away without consequence — not with knees on their necks, not with bullets in their backs, not chased down by vehicles and killed in the street.

And since Wednesday, as we’ve heard cries for justice, for impeachment, for accountability and watched the tapes of that attack played and replayed, we’ve been tempted to shake our fists at our screens, shouting at the ineptitude of the local and federal governments that respond unequally to the actions of black and white bodies, at the corruption of politicians, and at the devastating division in our country. And certainly, we are justified to do so, but all of our shouting and fist-shaking will not, of itself, cause transformation.

However, if we dare, we might turn away from the camera and its limited gaze to see that the issues plaguing the United States are both national and local. They are both political and personal. The same divisions we saw through a camera lens last week, and that we have been seeing for the last several years, are present in our own communities, in our own friend groups, in our own families, and in our own selves. We are a nation — a people — infected with selfishness, pride, racism, and self-righteousness.

And, as our pastor, Marcus Lane, said this morning, “We cannot confront evil in the world without confronting it in ourselves.” No, we sure can’t.

We will not change as a culture until we, as individuals, take intentional steps toward change — toward self-examination, confession, repentance, and walking in a new way. It’s going to take a collective effort to turn the dial, and to right our course.

We’re going to have to step away from our screens and the limited view of life that they display. We’re going to have to take a broader view, putting down our finger-pointing judgmental attitudes and extending not only consequences but grace to those who’ve gotten it wrong, including ourselves. We’re going to have to open up space so that as those around us try to change course, they will find the room to do so.

Look, we are all guilty here. We are all complicit — we’ve all contributed to this very tragic narrative.

We can no longer deny that much of what the camera shows us not only illustrates but perpetuates systemic racism and the privilege of the few. We saw with our own eyes that among the insurrectionists, who were mostly white, were those who carried Confederate flags and wore t-shirts emblazoned with anti-Semitic and racist messages. It is nauseating to see such hatred so blatantly on display — right on the cameras –but really, that’s where it should be, out where we can see it, because for too long it has been carried surreptitiously inside our hearts.

I’ve been idly watching this narrative for too long.

I feel compelled to take an inward look to face the evil within myself so that I will be better equipped to call it out in our world and to give the camera something new to look at. We’ve got to right this ship, friends. We’ve got to change the trajectory of our story.

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts. See if there is any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!

Psalm 139:23-24

Intending for Change

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Many of us enthusiastically waved goodbye to 2020 with a hopeful eye toward the new year, but if the first few days of 2021 are any indication, all that’s changed is the calendar. The Covid-19 pandemic is far from over — we topped 350,000 deaths over the weekend, and the vaccine distribution is way behind schedule. Political divisions are stronger than ever — just two weeks before the inauguration of our next president, the sitting president and many governmental leaders, not to mention a large number of loyal citizens, are still attempting to contest election results. Millions across the country are struggling financially — though some got a little relief from a $600 deposit in their bank accounts this weekend, those who need it the most likely won’t see checks for weeks or even months. And certainly the racism that plagues our nation and flared undeniably in 2020 is as strong, if not stronger, than ever.

Last Monday in my blog (post here), I wondered if now that we’ve more clearly seen — thanks to the pandemic — our systemic failures, our economic inequities, and our blatant racism, we would be content to continue on the course that we have been on as a country. Are we ok with what we have seen? Or are we motivated to make change?

You might be tempted to think that any attempts at change would be futile — our systems are so established, our paths so forged — how can we expect transformation? Certainly we can’t reverse climate change, eradicate poverty and homelessness, right the wrongs of racial injustice, or even get rid of Covid-19 with the flip of a switch.

And it’s true, the idea that change could happen over night — that we might restore the polar ice caps, provide housing and jobs to all the unemployed and underemployed, make up for the all injustices that have been committed against people of color, or even immunize 80% of Americans within the bounds of 2021 — is fantasy-thinking even for the most hopeful among us.

However, it would be criminal for us to throw up our hands and say, “It is what it is. Nothing can be done.” Because, my friends, something can be done.

We may not be able to flip a switch, but we can certainly turn a dial.

I have been learning about the power of dial-turning through my years-long continuing journey to health. In January of 2013, I was diagnosed with autoimmune disease which has been characterized by limited mobility and decreased energy. The severity of symptoms led me to leave my teaching career in 2014, presumably forever.

However, that summer I started making one small change after another. First I took a long rest, then I landed within a network of very supportive friends, altered my diet, found a team of health care advocates, and began daily yoga and walking. Week after week and month after month I continued despite my inability to see much progress. However, recently, six and a half years into the process, I was looking through a pile of photographs when I spotted one from just a few summers ago that took my breath away. I could barely recognize myself! I vividly remembered the day it was taken — one in which I experienced pain, limited mobility, and the ever-present need to rest.

I am no longer that person.

A few seemingly small changes and the power of our restorative God have transformed my health and enabled me to re-enter my teaching career after I was certain I was finished. My choices didn’t flip a switch, but they have certainly turned the dial.

Change, restoration, healing, and progress are possible, but they don’t usually happen over night.

While we long for sweeping transformation right this very minute — that we could eradicate the coronavirus, feed all the hungry, or have affordable high quality health care for everyone in our country, for example — these kinds of changes are going to take some time. However, if we are willing to take small intentional actions, over time we will begin to see change. Who knows, maybe a few years down the road, we’ll be watching a documentary on the Covid-19 pandemic and we won’t even recognize ourselves.

God can do anything, but He often invites His people to get involved in making change.

So, where to start? In my last post, I asked you to consider what you’ve seen over the last several months that just didn’t sit right. What bothered you? Where is God drawing your eye?

For me, the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbury, and Breonna Taylor were personal. These folks, in my mind, represented students I’ve worked with over the years and their families — people I know and love. I watched in horror as their lives were senselessly and abruptly ended. How could I live in a country that so devalued human lives and not do something about it?

Witnessing those events and the slow and inadequate response of our justice system dared me to return to the classroom. Wanting to tangibly demonstrate that I believe Black Lives Matter, I pursued positions in communities of color that have been historically underserved, and I got one.

I have been so excited to 1) be back in the classroom, even if it is a Zoom room, and 2) interact with students and their families with respect, professionalism, and empathy. However, after four months with my Black and Muslim students, I have also become more acutely aware of the racism that lives deep in my bones. It catches me off guard sometimes, and I am horrified to find myself making assumptions and judgments that have roots in ideologies that I — that we — have been learning all of our lives.

So, now that I have seen this — this racism that continues to live inside of me — what do I intend to do? Well, I have a few intentions that, with the grace of God, might cause some slow, incremental change — that just might turn the dial.

First, one of the ladies in my “breakfast club” suggested that we all take an 8-week facilitated course designed to help us interrogate our own beliefs and to expose inherent racism. Six middle-aged white women have agreed to enter a safe space, to be vulnerable, and to take an introspective view that might challenge our long-held beliefs.

At work, I have asked to join a process-oriented group of colleagues — Black, white, and Muslim, administrators and educators, experienced and novice — who will be invited to share stories, examine experiences, and engage in conversations about race. Our goal is to expose our racial biases and to challenge them so that we can better walk beside each other and our students.

With members of our church community, my husband and I are committing to an 8-week facilitated course on ways that we, as Christians, can join in anti-racist work.

These are beginnings — they are first steps. We will likely not see big sweeping changes immediately. However, participating in such conversations might shift attitudes, reshape language, and perhaps even transform beliefs and behaviors. It’s a start.

Way back in the fall of 2014, I had very little flexibility or strength. If I bent at the waist, I could not touch my toes; I could not hold a plank for any length of time, let alone do a pushup. I felt frustrated in yoga and Pilates classes because others around me seemed much stronger, much more flexible. However, one instructor after another reminded me that I had to start somewhere and that I would see progress over time. So, I kept showing up, doing the best that I could, even when it felt like I was making no progress at all. Six years later, touching my toes is still a work in progress, but I can sure hold a plank and do several push-ups. It didn’t happen with the flip of a switch, but I have gradually been able to turn the dial.

I am wondering if you might be willing to make a few small changes this year? Maybe you were moved by the economic disparities that surfaced in 2020 or by the strain on our health care or criminal justice systems. Maybe it is heavy on your heart that all the PPE we’ve used this year is going to end up in a landfill somewhere. Whatever your eye has been drawn to, I wonder if you are feeling like it’s time to take action.

None of us is responsible for fixing all of the world’s ills, but perhaps each of us can find a few small ways to nudge the dial.

Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people.

Colossians 3:23 NLT

p.s. If you have an idea for how you might nudge the dial, leave a comment, either on this blog, or wherever you found it — Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Let’s inspire each other as we lean into the turn and change the course of this ship.

Coronavirus Diary #24: Setting Intentions for 2021

As I was getting ready to write this post, I looked at back last year’s New Year’s blog post (link to post here) — what was I hoping for as I said goodbye to 2019 and looked forward into 2020?

I was fresh off the holidays. All of our people had gathered, and though we had had our tense moments, we had also had moments of mundane togetherness, laughter, and even joy. We were nearing the end of a long, long season of grief, and wanting to move forward differently, I took the year 2020 (20/20) as an invitation to think about vision and sight. I was praying to see things differently. I had missed so much in the soldiering years. Moving forward, I wanted to see — to really see.

I wrote:

In 2020, I’m praying for new sight. I’m praying that I’ll see what’s important, that I’ll notice what’s essential, and that I’ll comprehend what has meaning. I’m praying that I won’t focus so hard on potential danger but that I’ll keep my eyes wide open to possibility.

“Ask and ye shall receive.”

If 2020 offered us anything, it was an opportunity to notice the essential and to comprehend the meaningful. Yes, it’s been a year full of imminent danger, but if we dare, we can also see all kinds of possibility.

Remember how we were plodding through January and February, business as usual, unaware of the depth of the disruption that was about to occur? Remember how we grumbled about getting up early to scrape the ice off the car, about the extra slow commute, and about the coworker who just couldn’t seem to respect our personal space?

Remember how we would run to the grocery store over lunch hour and munch on a snack we’d just purchased on our way out the door? Remember how we offered an open bag of chips to a colleague who enthusiastically grabbed a handful and shared with the person standing next to her? Remember how normal this was?

And look at us now — even when we are wearing our masks, we find ourselves reflexively moving back to allow for six feet of space, we bump elbows if we dare to touch at all, and we glance at each other with suspicion, wondering if either is unknowingly carrying the virus, if this will be the interaction that makes us sick.

Why? Because we’ve seen like we’ve never seen before.

We’ve seen the destructive path of the coronavirus — the death toll in the United States above 330,000, hospitals across the country at capacity, refrigerated trucks serving as morgues.

We’ve seen, in the midst of this health crisis, the comorbidities of archaic infrastructure, financial instability, and centuries-old systemic racism. We’ve seen how quickly our supply chain can be disrupted, leaving us all wondering why we are out of toilet paper, flour, and personal protective equipment. We’ve seen the financial devastation as millions across the country apply for unemployment, wait in line all day to get food, and face imminent eviction. In contrast, we’ve seen the financial excess of our nation’s billionaires who’ve actually “increased their total net worth $637 billion during the COVID-19 pandemic so far” (Business Insider). We’ve seen people of color not only disproportionately impacted by this disease (Harvard Medical School) but less likely to get quality care and much more likely to be living in poverty, targeted by law enforcement, and incarcerated for the same crimes than white people.

If our eyes were opened in 2020, if our vision cleared, then what we saw was a country that has a lot more to worry about than the deadly virus that has traversed the globe. We’ve asked ourselves about the integrity of the news media and the reliability of science. We’ve wondered how much we value our health care workers, our teachers, our postal workers, and our other essential personnel. We’ve become more aware of how the structures of our country have shaped our ideologies, and we’re beginning to see our racism, our bias, and the ways that we ourselves perpetuate these systems and these beliefs.

And now that we have seen, what will we do? That, for me, is the question of 2021.

What do we intend to do about the things that we have seen?

This morning, as we have done most Sunday mornings since March, my husband and I logged into a Zoom room on one laptop while we streamed our church’s worship service on another. Members of our small group community meet in the Zoom room every Sunday to “go” to church. We sit in our own living rooms watching the service, singing, and praying “together.” Then, after the service, we unmute ourselves and chat over “coffee” as we would if we were physically meeting together.

Today’s conversation ranged from how was your Christmas to how are we managing the weather to when do we think we will get the vaccine. Finally, we landed on how we were feeling about life post-Covid. What will work look like? and church? and social gatherings? Will we go back to what we were doing before? or will we change based on the lessons we’ve learned over the last many months?

I sat listening for a few moments, and then I thought out loud, “unless we are intentional, we won’t change. We’ve got to be making thoughtful decisions right now about how we are going to be on the other side of this.” I think we were mostly talking about whether people will continue to work from home, whether we’ll be comfortable physically re-entering our social circles, and how we’ll interact with medicine and business, but I think we need to also think — right now — about how we can intentionally start to shift our culture.

What is it that we’ve seen that we’d like to change? Are we comfortable continuing on the course that we are on?

If, having seen our weaknesses, our broken systems, our inequities, we do not intentionally make moves to right our ship, we will continue to head the same direction we have been heading. If we continue to turn a blind eye to the lack of freedoms in the land of the free and the fear-based decisions made in the home of the brave, we will remain a country that benefits the few at the cost of the many.

It took us a long time to get here, and we won’t immediately change course. We are all going to have to lean hard into the turn, pull on all the ropes we can grasp, and keep our eyes firmly fixed on the world we hope to create. And we’re going to have to hold that position for quite some time.

If we really want a society in which all men, women, and children are treated equally, afforded the same respect and consideration, and endowed with certain unalienable rights, it’s going to look different around here. And it’s going to feel uncomfortable. We’re going to have to make decisions we never thought we’d have to make — about our homes, about our jobs, about our politics, and about our money. And if any of those things seems too dear to us, that’s probably where we need to start.

I invite you to think back with me over the last several months, what did you see that didn’t sit right? What possibilities can you imagine? Are you willing to set an intention that will enable change? Are you willing to discuss your intentions with a friend?

Can you imagine what we might do if we, the people, would be willing to intentionally move forward together? What a more perfect union we might form? What justice we might establish? What common defense we might provide? What domestic tranquility we might ensure? What general welfare we might promote? What blessings of liberty we might ensure? Not only for us, but for those who come after us?

Are we willing to be transformed?

What are your intentions?

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12: 2

Missing the Magical, Longing for the Actual

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When I was a very little girl, Christmas was full and magical. It began with learning our parts for the Christmas Eve program at church. For weeks we would rehearse our lines, “and there were shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night,” and our songs, “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.”

Mrs. Hollenbeck would herd us into the sanctuary, organize us on the steps of the chancel, and direct us to speak more loudly, “so they could hear us in the back.”

Then, on Christmas Eve, donned in our Christmas best, hair combed and inspected by our mother, my brothers, sister, and I would pile into the car and head to the church.

The place would be crawling with people decked out in their finest — all the men in suits, the ladies with lipstick and stockings and heels. We children would be corralled in the basement, lined up, and given last minute instructions before processing up the stairs, into the sanctuary, and down the aisle to the front of the church. Our families beamed at us as we sang and told the Christmas story of stars and shepherds and sheep and a swaddled baby.

After every line had been said and “Silent Night” had been sung (with the last verse a cappella, of course) we would recess down the aisle to the back of the church where the ushers waited with brown lunch bags filled with roasted peanuts, a fresh Florida orange, and several pieces of candy.

Bundled up in our coats and hats and hugging our precious loot, we were transported home, where we were snuggled into our beds, said our prayers. and went to sleep in anticipation of more magic on Christmas morning.

When we woke, we would rush to the tree to find piles of presents, then before we knew it, we were dressed and loaded back into the car for the drive to my grandparents.

After an hour of watching the familiar landscape and ticking off all the familiar milestones, I would bolt from the back seat and run to the door where my grandpa was waiting with a huge smile and open arms. Right past him, in the kitchen, was my grandmother in a dress and heels, a Christmas apron tied around her waist. She was smiling, too, and ready for her hug, even if she had been up since before dawn making a Christmas feast and setting tables with linen, candles, china, and silver.

The food was the stuff of legends — roasted lamb, beef, ham, and/or turkey, homemade rolls, mashed potatoes with gravy, dressing, salads, and sides, all served family style and passed round the table from person to person. Just when you thought you couldn’t eat one more bite, grandma brought out pie and coffee, even though we’d been nibbling all day on sumptuous Christmas cookies that had been placed among the decorations throughout the house.

Full beyond full, we would roll into the living room and gather around the rotating tree that sat in a musical tree stand brought from Germany who knows when. More than 20 of us — the extended family and any additional guests that Grandpa had invited to join us for the day — received gifts selected individually and with care.

After all the packages were opened and all the paper tossed away, we children ran off to play in the basement, the men moved to the den to watch the football game, and the women assembled in the kitchen to pack up leftovers and tend to a mountain of dishes. Grandma would stand at the sink and wash, the rest stood close by, towels in hand, chatting as they wiped and carefully stacked each dish.

Then magically, just as the sun was starting to set and the kids were starting to bicker, the food would reappear again. Leftover potatoes were transformed into potato pancakes and drizzled with gravy. Meats would be warmed and salads set out, and we would eat — impossibly — again.

Then, full of food and joy and love, we would stand in line to each receive a signature grandpa handshake and loads and loads of hugs before we were piled once again into the car for the ride home. I remember pressing my cheek against the car window, gazing out at the stars, and feeling my dad reach his hand around the seat to pat me on the leg.

Of course, that was a million years ago, and certainly, not all of my Christmases since then have been so magical. Some have been disappointing like the time we excitedly drove from Missouri to Michigan for three family Christmases and then drove back, all five of us sick with the stomach flu. Others have been thick with the heartache of family brokenness — loved ones sitting in the same room unable or unwilling to speak to each other, leaving early or angry or both. In fact, even the Christmases at my grandparents’ house that I remember so fondly often ended with my dad carrying me to the car as I cried tears of fatigue and frustration.

This year, as our grown children are far-flung across the country and our parents are close enough to drive to but too dear to risk the chance of a Covid infection, we have made the choice to follow the CDC’s recommendation to not travel, to not visit, to stay at home, and stay safe.

We won’t have a Christmas Eve program at the church. We’ll stream a pre-recorded worship service on our television as we sit together on our couch. Sure, we might sing “Joy to the World,” but we won’t hear the voices of the family sitting behind us or stand in the sanctuary chatting and laughing afterward with our friends and their children who’ve all gathered for the annual celebration.

Our people will open the presents that have been delivered by the United States Postal Service in the safety of their own homes, not sitting near our tree. We’ll likely Zoom and chat for a while, but we won’t have hugs or secret handshakes or extra cups of coffee and pieces of pie. We won’t pile into the living room together to watch a movie, or hockey, or football. We won’t sit around a puzzle or pour over old pictures or play Scrabble or banana-grams or Uno.

Our little house by the river won’t be crowded by people piled on top of each other and taking turns with one little bathroom. We won’t share homemade cinnamon rolls or a roasted turkey (although you know I’m going to make one), and we won’t hear the laughter as our granddaughters run through our house in their flouncy nightgowns.

We won’t see our parents or our siblings or our nieces and nephews — we won’t get a classic photo on my mom’s couch or gather with my in-laws at a Bob Evans. I won’t hug my godmother and godfather; in fact, now that they are living in separate nursing homes, they won’t be able to hug one other either.

I know we’ve made the right choice, but as December 25th gets closer, I am feeling nostalgic and fighting melancholy. I so long to be with the people we love — to hear familiar voices, smell familiar smells — to share space and time with those we love the most, even if it’s not magical, or memorable, or perfect, or impressive.

But we can’t. Not this year.

So, I’m going to schedule some Zoom meetings, put a turkey in the oven, turn on some Christmas music, and start a new puzzle. It won’t be what I’m longing for, but it’ll have to do until it’s safe to travel the miles, to meet fact to face, to embrace one another, to share the couch and a meal and some laughs.

And once we do get to share physical space again, I think I am going to view it differently. I don’t think I’ll care if it’s magical; I think I’ll simply be grateful — so, so grateful — for our gathering to be actual.

May the Lord watch between us while we are apart from one another.

Genesis 31:49

Writing Transformation

As I mentioned last week, my students and I have been writing college application essays. Yes, I said my students and I. For years, I’ve had a practice that whenever my students do a writing project, I do it, too. From the front of my class, or my shared Zoom screen, I work through the whole process in front of them. I show them my planning and my drafting. I let them see my struggle and my shitty first drafts*. When it’s time for peer review, I read my essay aloud and allow them to give me feedback, and then I revise based on their suggestions. I do this because I want them to see that writing is a process that can be done in community; I want them to see the transformation.

Early last week, we examined sample college essays and looked at a variety of prompts posted on college web sites and the common app. These prompts are intended to spark writing that will reveal something personal about the student. I coach my students to identify a strength such as dedication, creativity, or a strong work ethic, and to write a “highlight tape” that shows a moment or several moments in which that strength was on display.

This is all very conceptual, so I model. Last week, as my students and I walked through the prewriting process, we navigated to a list of prompts, and I showed them the one from the Common App that I chose as my starting point:

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

I chose this prompt, I told them, because one of my strengths is the ability to bounce back from difficulty. I am resilient. To show my students how I decide on what to write about, I think aloud, like this: “Hmmm…when was there a time in my life that I bounced back from difficulty? What example could I write about that would show someone who doesn’t know me that I am resilient? I know — I could write about the time that I had to stop teaching due to illness and how it took me six years to get back to the classroom. Yeah, I think I can share enough details about that.”

As I walked through this process, I displayed my planning on the screen while my students filled out a Google document for their planning. We walked through the process together.

The next step was to write a rough draft and bring it to class for peer review. I showed them how to get started then sent them on their way. The next class, I read my draft out loud, then asked them these questions: What did you see? What did you learn about me? What should I delete? What should I add? What made sense? What didn’t?

They told me that they could see me when I left teaching and then when I was home in bed. They told me I was determined, and they remembered that my goal was to show that I was resilient. They wanted me to add more about how I felt now that I was teaching again. I thanked them for their input and then sent them to breakout rooms to repeat this process in small groups, reading their essays to one another.

They reluctantly went. Some shared their drafts, some felt their writing was “too personal” to share. Some showed up in my office hours later in the day — would I help them? They didn’t think they were doing it right.

One by one, they told me their personal stories of difficulty, of lessons learned, and of personal growth. One by one, I cheered them, assured them they were on the right track, and encouraged them to lean into the process.

Tomorrow, when we meet again, I plan to read them my revised draft, with their suggestions, to show them what the process looks like, to share a part of myself, which might prompt them to share a part of themselves with me.

Here’s what I’ll read:

On the last day of school. I took the items from my desk, placed them in a box, and carried them to my car. I left all my books on the shelves for the teacher who was taking my place. I wouldn’t be back the next year; I was going home to rest. 

I’d been teaching in that school for almost ten years. For many of those years, I joined the cross country team after school, changing into shorts and running shoes to run 4, 5, or 6 miles. After that, I would hustle home, make dinner for my family, do dishes and laundry, grade papers, and get ready for the next day. Day after day after day. 

Then, I started noticing pain and fatigue. I couldn’t easily walk =when I first stood up from my chair — my joints felt like they were moving through setting concrete. I was so tired at the end of the school day that I often couldn’t remember driving myself home.

I was exhausted all the time, and my joints ached. Just a few years earlier I had finished a half-marathon in under two hours, and suddenly I was finding it difficult to get out of bed and walk to the bathroom. Each step felt like I was walking on broken glass. I went to doctor after doctor and was finally told that I had an autoimmune disease —  I would have it for the rest of my life.

What? I would always feel this tired? I would always be this achey? How would I be able to continue teaching? 

A year later, I finally admitted it was time to step away. My teaching was suffering, and I spent all my time away from the classroom resting. Something had to change.

On my doctor’s suggestion, I would take six months, at least, to rest. It would be the first time since I was in high school that I didn’t have a job or children to take care of. What was I going to do with my days? I couldn’t go on long runs like I used to. I couldn’t write lesson plans or grade papers. I knew I was going to be bored, so I started writing. 

I opened my laptop and started telling my story. I wrote about that last day of school, about how sick I was, and about how I was spending my days — putting together puzzles, reading books, watching too much Netflix, going for walks, and cooking.

I wrote every day, and I spent lots of time going to doctors and learning to care for myself through yoga, walking, and changing my diet. After those first six months, I began experimenting with work, teaching a class or two at a university and tutoring. I found I was gaining strength and learning to manage the pain. 

Then, last spring, almost six years after I packed up my desk and left teaching, I was working at an agency when Covid-19 showed up and revealed our world’s brokenness — racism, inequity, hatred, violence. As protests occurred across the country, I watched from the comfort of my couch and shouted, “Something’s got to change!’ Then, I remembered how much change can happen inside of a high school classroom.

Maybe I was ready. Maybe I should try again.

And a few months later, I am sitting at my computer meeting with high school students every day, students who know a thing or two about bouncing back from difficulty. They are working through a pandemic and building strength for whatever comes next. 

It took me six YEARS to find my way back to the classroom and to this group of students  — I’m pretty sure we were meant to be together.

After I read my rough draft last week and asked my students, What did you see? one of my students typed in the chat, “I see a miracle.”

I see one, too, dear. I see one, too.

A lot of change can happen inside of a classroom — I am seeing it already.

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:2

*Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, one of my all time favorite books on writing.

Coronavirus Day #23 Gathering

Every day when I start my class, I ask my students a question and they respond by answering through an app on their phones called Mentimeter. After they’ve responded, I project the question and the answers on the screen. It sometimes looks like this:

This practice, called the gathering, is an expectation of all teachers in the educational network within which I teach. It’s a practice that sets the climate for collaboration, builds community, and allows every voice to heard, which is especially tricky in this virtual environment we find ourselves in. Our network feels so strongly about this practice, that we begin every staff meeting with a gathering, too.

On Friday, I started my day with the Cougars to College team meeting. This team’s goal is that all seniors would be accepted to a college or trade school. Most of our students will be first generation college students, so it is imperative that we provide a high level of support as they navigate the journey. As this meeting started, the facilitator, my principal, asked the question for our gathering, “What was the greatest barrier you faced in obtaining your college education?”

One member of the team said it was transitioning from small high school classes to the large lecture halls of the university. Another said it was moving from a Detroit high school to a university in Texas and realizing that though she was an honors student in high school, she was poorly equipped for the rigor of college. The youngest member of the team said he lost his grandmother during college, the person who had been his strongest cheerleader throughout his education. Each member of the team weighed in and was heard by all the other members who listened attentively. We all got to know each other a little better, and we all grew in our commitment to the cause of supporting our students on their quest for an education.

From that meeting, I quickly transitioned to a class of students who are spending their senior year in their bedrooms, at their kitchen tables, or on their couches, logging into a zoom room on a chrome book that the school provided the week before the start of school. They are in various stages of disillusionment, diligence, depression, determination, and disengagement, and I’m teaching them how to write a college essay — in December of their senior year.

This is an activity that I have, in the past, taught during the junior year — long before my students start applying to colleges. I tell them, “I know you are not applying until next fall, but trust me, you’ll be glad to have this essay in your back pocket when you get there.” This year’s students had nothing in their back pockets when I met them — no SAT score (the tests were all cancelled during the pandemic), no essay draft, no real idea where they wanted to go to college, and not much drive to get started. Let’s be honest, I met them in month six of a global pandemic. They had been sent home in March, and many had done little schooling since then.

And here I come, little Miss Energetic, “Good morning! How are you today? It’s great to see you?” And I know that many of them are rolling over in bed, glancing at the screen, saying, “Seriously? Who is this lady?”

Nevertheless, I forge on, starting with a gathering, sharing the objectives for the day, moving to a formative assessment, providing the highest quality instruction I know how to provide in this virtual space, and encouraging them to engage, to ask questions, to complete the assignment, and to come to my office hours.

Three months later, they may still be asking themselves “Who is this lady?” but they are coming to class. Most of them, I should say. We continue to have a problem with chronic absenteeism, as most Detroit schools do. Some students are not coming because of internet connectivity issues, and my school has been working tirelessly to troubleshoot and provide hotspots. Some are not coming because they’ve been going to work, helping to support their families who have been hard hit by the pandemic. Some are not coming because they are providing child care for younger siblings. One of my students missed the whole first quarter because she was caring for her niece during my class period.

But most are coming to class. Most. And that’s something.

So, at the end of last week, when I started our second lesson on college essay writing, the question in the Mentimeter app was this: When was a time you were really proud of yourself? My goal was to cultivate material for the essay, but as typically happens, I discovered something unexpected about my students as I read their responses out loud.

One was proud of his first touch down; another was proud of being accepted into a college, and a third remembered the feeling of getting one of the highest test scores in the school. These are the kinds of responses I was expecting.

The next two responses surprised me, but I found them equally valid. One student was proud just to have shown up in class. The other was proud to have turned work in on time. You might be tempted to think these students were joking around — that they weren’t taking my prompt seriously. Certainly showing up and completing assignments are merely expectations — what all students should be doing every day.

And I might’ve thought that once, too.

In fact, I used to give students all kinds of crap for showing up late, for missing a day, or for failing to turn in assignments. “What’s the problem?” I might ask. “You know what time class starts.” Or, “You need to get these assignments turned in. Each day your grade will go down by 10%, so you’d better turn it in soon.” I pressured, and I persisted. I shamed, and, I’m afraid, sometimes humiliated.

I don’t do that any more.

Students show up to my Zoom room 5 minutes early or 55 minutes late. They turn in assignments on time, three weeks late, and not at all. They miss nine whole weeks of school and then email me that since their sister got a new job, they will finally be able to join class next week.

And am I mad? Am I put out? Not one bit.

I can honestly say, that I am thrilled when students join my class — whenever they join. I am not angry at the large number of students who are absent, who have turned in nothing, or who are failing my class.

I am simply ecstatic at the ones who have found the wherewithal in the middle of a pandemic, when God only knows what their family is struggling through — if they’ve lost their income, if they’ve had to stand in a food line that day, if they are expecting to be evicted at the end of the month, if family members have died, if everyone is at their wits end and snapping at one another — that they’ve managed to roll over in bed or sit up at a table, to log in to the Zoom room, put their face on the screen, and attend this class.

And if they’ve shown up, I want to give them a chance to say something — anything! That they once made a touchdown, that they got accepted to college, that they got the highest score on a test, or that they are simply doing their best to come to class and turn in their work.

We have no idea what these kids are going through.

And, sometimes, I think they don’t either.

During my lesson last week, I read aloud a sample college essay written by a young woman who had shadowed a doctor at a hospital. I wanted to give my students an example of what a “good” essay looked like. When I finished reading, I asked my typical questions, “What did you see?” and “What did that essay tell you about its writer?”

My students answered my questions, and then one said, “But what are we going to write about? What if we don’t have an experience like that — shadowing a doctor? I don’t have anything happening in my life that I can write about.”

“Are you kidding me?” I said. “All of you right now are living through a freaking pandemic. No one has done this is over 100 years. Each day is something that you can write about. You are demonstrating resiliency each time you show up to class.”

She looked into the camera, straight into my eyes.

“You can do this,” I said.

Tomorrow, when my students show up to class, I will send them to Mentimeter. I will post the question: What is one thing you’ve always dreamed of doing?

My hope is that in gathering around this question, we will be able to share some dreams and perhaps some hope. We’ve got a long way to go, and we’re going to need to encourage one another until we get there.

therefore encourage one another and build one another up

I Thes. 5: 11

Coronavirus Diary #22 Family Medicine

Last Monday, I headed out for the first of three medical appointments I had scheduled for the day. Thanksgiving Break had given me a whole week to manage the myriad visits that I maintain as a person with chronic illness, and although I had been diagnosed with Covid-19 on November 3, I had been released from isolation by the county health department on November 13 to “return to regular activities,” so I assumed I could go ahead with my appointments. Nevertheless, as one does these days, I completed the online screening and walked into the first facility toting the QR code that I’d printed out verifying that I’d “passed.” Inside, I was greeted by two women who read through the current list of symptoms and asked me if I’d been exposed to anyone with Covid in the last 14 days. It was November 23, and I said, “no,” I had not been exposed to anyone, and then headed to the clinic that I visit several times a year.

At the entrance to the clinic, I tried to hand the receptionist the paper with my QR code, and she said, “unfortunately, we can’t accept those” before asking me the screening questions again. I confirmed that I did not have symptoms and I had not been exposed and then matter of factly said, “I did have Covid earlier this month, but the health department cleared me on the 13th.”

She looked up. “What day were you diagnosed?”

“November 3.”

“So it hasn’t been the 21 days?”

“Twenty-one days?”

“Hold on,” she said, “I’ll be right back.”

Other people started to file into the waiting area as I stood awkwardly waiting, standing on the sticker on the floor, 6 feet away from the receptionist, wearing my mask.

When she returned, she had to speak loudly so that I could hear her through her mask and across the distance, “so you tested positive on the 3rd and the health department released you on the 13th?”

“Yes,” I said, feeling the eyes of the other patients on my back.

“Ok, wait right there,” she said, and I continued to stand on the sticker, refusing to glance at the people waiting. Certainly they had all taken a step or two back by now.

She appeared from around a corner and said, “Follow me,” then took me down a long hall, around a corner, and past a closed door where we stood in a hallway and she considered which room to put me in. “Wait here,” she said as she scurried down the hall. Two professionals clad in scrubs and masks came through the door while I waited, asking if they could help me before she returned and opened the door to a room that was draped in plastic covers. It certainly had not been used in quite some time.

“You can have a seat, the clinician will be with you shortly.”

I checked my watch, it was 7:50am. I’ve been forgotten in an exam room before, and since this was miles away from the rooms I am usually seen in, I decided right then that I would wait until 8:30, and then I would leave. Around 8:10, I heard some shuffling outside my door before a woman clad in disposable paper gown, aqua latex gloves, and a plastic face shield came in. She glanced at me as she turned on the computer and waited for it to come to life. She introduced herself and then started clicking through screens asking me all the questions she was required to ask. I felt tension in the room, and I was starting to sweat, so when she began looking through the drawers for an instrument that she needed, I said, “I feel like I’ve broken some kind of rule.”

Her eyes opened wide as she nodded her head vigorously and confirmed that no one was supposed to come into the clinic within 21 days of a positive test.

“I didn’t know that. I pre-screened. Is that information in the online materials?”

“I don’t know about online, but they are supposed to screen you at the door.”

“They asked me about my symptoms and my exposure at the door,” I said, “but no one said anything about 21 days.”

“I will talk to them about that because they are supposed to ask,” by now she was visibly huffing, clearly upset that this mistake had been made.

“Well, why didn’t you guys send me away?”

“Because once you are in the building, you’ve already brought contamination with you; it doesn’t help to send you away.”

Her words struck me, and they hurt. I did not appreciate being the target of her wrath, and, of course, I was also horrified. After all the precautions we’ve taken to limit the spread including worshiping from home, avoiding visits with parents, and planning for virtual holidays, I had unwittingly exposed this health care worker. I felt guilty, leprous, and ashamed.

When she left, and my doctor walked in, he unknowingly diffused the tension by saying, “Sorry for all the overkill,” but still I felt rotten. He examined me, made his usual small talk, and even commiserated with me over an unrelated common ailment. Then, when he dismissed me, I scurried out of the building without visiting the check out or making eye contact with staff or other patients.

The clinician was certainly still upset, and I was upset, too.

I fired off a text to our family group chat. We’d been sending messages back and forth for a couple of weeks. It started when I was diagnosed with Covid, and continued as others in the chat dealt with their own symptoms and diagnoses. I was looking for sympathy — I felt mistreated and ashamed and I wanted their compassion. I wanted to vent about my experience and receive justification for my feelings.

The health care professional in our family, who has been treating patients all throughout Covid, expressed empathy for my feelings and perhaps disappointment in the professional who might’ve done been better in spite of the circumstances. She gave me what I was hoping for, an “I’m so sorry that happened to you.”

I was just about to lean into that comfort when a couple others in the chat disrupted my viewpoint. Had I thought about the fact that health care worker has routinely put her life on the line? Wouldn’t I be frustrated if people didn’t observe the safeguards that had been put in place to protect me? Also, had I considered that as a white woman, I don’t regularly experience stigma in the medical office while “women of color are routinely treated like lepers and not trusted to know their own bodies?”

Well, I wasn’t anticipating that reaction. I had been hoping for sympathy and solidarity, and they were pushing back. They were making me take a wider view.

I sat with my now jumbled feelings for a bit as I called the other doctors’ offices I was supposed to visit the same day. “I was diagnosed with Covid on November 3,” I shared. “The health department cleared me on November 13th; do you want me to come in today? Or would you rather I reschedule?” I heard “Let me go check,” several times before all of my other practitioners confirmed that I could indeed be seen, as long as I didn’t have active symptoms or hadn’t been re-exposed. So, I sallied forth.

For the next couple hours, as I went from doctor’s office to doctor’s office receiving respectful high-quality care, the members of our family group chat continued to discuss the complexity of my experience — the uncertainty and fear surrounding Covid, the inequity in the health care system, the privileged experience of white people in America to not only receive care but to complain about any perceived injustice, and the stress that we are all under right now to move around in a world that seems uncertain, even unsafe.

It got emotional at times as rapid-fire and lengthy texts sometimes collided or overlapped, but it was thoughtful and informed, passionate and compassionate. It was a response to my experience, but it contextualized my experience inside a broader lens which is where I really needed to view it from.

And somewhere along the way, I realized that my adult children were choosing to engage in the kind of complex conversation that I’ve been promoting and dreaming of — they were holding competing truths and examining them from all sides. It was fine that I had an emotional reaction to the treatment I received, they acknowledged. It was also valid that the health care worker was annoyed by being put at risk at 7:45 on a Monday morning of a holiday week. It’s true that I enjoy high quality health care almost every week of my life from practitioners who believe that I have the symptoms I have, even with very little clinical evidence they exist, and it’s also true that many don’t have that kind of experience — particularly people who don’t look like me or have the same resources as me.

They identified my reality and then situated it inside the systems that exist in our country — they thought critically and communicated articulately. They weren’t always delicate — perhaps the time for being delicate in such matters is over. If we want to see change — if we want all people to have access to high quality health care, to be heard and respected and seen, then those of us who regularly receive it have to demand that they get it. We who have the privilege of complaining about inadequate care and even the minor lack of courtesies that I experienced need to raise our collective voices and demand better for those who can’t demand it for themselves.

I visited three offices last Monday, but the some of the best medicine I received came from my own family who was willing to meet me in my experience, have compassion for me, and challenge me to think beyond myself.

Now that was some high quality care.

Therefore, ridding yourselves of falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, because we are parts of one another.

Ephesians 4:25

Coronavirus Diary #21: Tales told in School

Click the arrow to listen, or read on.

Last Monday morning, I logged into my Zoom room around 8:25am — my senior English class starts at 8:30. I was checking my online grade book for attendance, cuing up my Google slideshow, and verifying that all my other visual aids were loaded and ready to go when my ‘doorbell’ rang and I noticed that Kelvin* was waiting to come in. I clicked the ‘admit’ button and watched my screen to see his window open.

“Good morning, Kelvin, how are you?” I said.

“I’m good,” he answered.

“Nice to see you.”

“Nice to see you, too.”

“Did you have a good weekend?” I asked, hoping that he would engage in conversation with me, trying to build relationship in this virtual space.

“Yeah, it was good. Do you have Ciara* in your class, too?”

“Yes — next hour.”

“She won’t be here today,” he said.

“Oh?” I answered, looking into the screen.

“Yeah, we had our baby this weekend, so she won’t be able to come to class.”

“You did? Congratulations!” I had known that Ciara was expecting, but I had not been aware that Kelvin was, too.

He held up his phone to his Chromebook camera so that I could barely make out a photo of a baby.

“Aw! So sweet! Are Ciara and the baby doing well?”

“Yeah, they’re doing good.”

“That’s great.” I said, and then the doorbell rang, I allowed the next student in, and we were on with the class — one young man, sitting in his bedroom, looking at a photo on his phone and me teaching the group how to present their research by creating a Google slide. Despite the fact that one student’s life changed forever over the weekend, we still have to move forward with the rest of the class.

If we were in a physical space, I’d have probably hunted down Kelvin later in the day — invited him to come have lunch in my room, given him one of the many gifts I have stockpiled for such an occasion, or just patted him on the back and encouraged him to take care of that baby. But we aren’t in a physical space — all I have are the moments that students choose to log in to my Zoom room. That’s it.

Me in my Zoom Room.

Ciara emailed me on Wednesday afternoon.

“I am sorry I have not been in class this week. I had my baby over the weekend, but I want to know what I missed so that I can get caught up.”

“Congratulations, Ciara! I hope you and the baby are doing well. If you are up to coming to class tomorrow morning, I can help you get caught up. Or, you could come to my office hours on Friday afternoon — whichever works better for you. Take care of yourself.”

“Thank you, I will do that.”

And the next morning, at 10:00am, she joined my class.

I’ve been watching Ciara all fall, ever since I called her mom during the first week of class to introduce myself, to let her know what our class would be focusing on, and to make note of the fact that Ciara wasn’t always turning her camera on when she joined the Zoom room. Her mom told me that Ciara was expecting and that she was working long hours at McDonald’s after school, so she often just woke up in the morning, turned on her laptop, and joined the Zoom room from bed. She didn’t want to take the time to get cleaned up, do her hair, and present herself for inspection.

I was stunned, of course. It was September, and although we weren’t yet in the third wave of the pandemic like we are now, the risk was still very real. And yet this young woman was going to work at a McDonald’s every day, seven months pregnant, so that she could earn some money to manage her very real impending responsibilities.

I’ve continued to watch Ciara, as she’s shown up to class, completed her assignments, and joined our virtual college visits every Wednesday. Not only does she join these visits, but she routinely asks college representatives if they offer family housing on their campuses because she is planning to bring her baby with her when she comes to college. This girl has a plan, and she impresses me.

And she’s not the only student who impresses me. My students live in Detroit, are surviving a pandemic, and are facing unprecedented stress and uncertainty, yet they keep showing up.

Some show up intermittently. I talked to a parent of one of my students last week. She’s concerned about her son. He has “changed ever since the pandemic started.” He wants to stay in his room. He doesn’t want to talk. He’s failing his classes.

He’s not alone. Many students — and, let’s be honest, adults — are struggling with depression. Many feel isolated — they are struggling financially, they have struggled with their health, they have lost loved ones, and nothing feels right. Why would they care about school at a time like this?

I asked the parent if she would mind if the school social worker reached out to her, and she answered, “I’m looking for any help I can get.” At my suggestion and her insistence, her son joined my office hours the next day. He and I worked through some assignments, restored his grade to passing, and got to know each other a little. Before he logged off, he said, “Thank you. I appreciate it.”

“It’s my pleasure,” I replied. He has no idea how pleased I am to bear witness to his journey and the journeys of all of my students.

Early this week, one of my students, Kyla*, asked if she could come to my office hours. She didn’t need help, she just wanted to be “in” my Zoom room while she did her work. She asked only a couple quick questions as she sat in my Zoom room for 90 minutes, working on her assignment and chatting with another student she convinced to join her.

On Thursday, Kyla logged into class and said, “Mrs. Rathje, I just want to let you know that we are having a family emergency, so if I need to leave, I will let you know in the chat.”

“Ok, thank you for letting me know. Are you ok?”

“Yes. I’m ok.”

“Alright, just keep me posted.”

“Ok, thank you.”

Near the end of the hour, she private chatted me that she had to go to the hospital to see her mother who sounded like she was in critical condition. I told her thank you for letting me know and that she could reach out if she needed to.

Then on Friday, the last day of school before a week-long break, she joined my office hours again, just to get some work done, like she did before. I chatted with her a bit, to see how she was doing, you know, making small talk.

And that is when I found out that since early in the week, this seventeen year old has been home alone with her two dogs. Her mom has been in intensive care, and she hasn’t been allowed to visit because she’s only 17 and we’re in the middle of a pandemic. She said she’s been taking care of the house and the dogs and that she put up the Christmas tree because Christmas means a lot to her mom and she wanted to do something nice for her.

These are my students — the kind of students who become parents on Saturday and then show up for school on Monday, the kind of kids who go out in the middle of a pandemic to make fast food because they need to earn money, the kind of kids who show up for help when it’s the last thing they want to do, the kind of kids who, while staying home alone because their only parent is in the hospital, find a way to have an adult in the room while they do their homework.

They are the future — these kids. They are building muscle and resiliency that will serve them for years to come, and they need us. They need us to show up five minutes early in a Zoom room, to hold after school office hours, to call their parents when things don’t seem right, and to respond to their emails and give them options for how to manage their responsibilities.

And that’s what I get to do every day — show up and do what I can to encourage these amazing students.

It is truly my pleasure to do so.

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due when it is in your power to do it.

Proverbs 3:27

*All student names have been changed, of course.

Coronavirus Diary #20: Please, Wait.

Note: I finished editing and recording this around 5pm yesterday — right before Governor Whitmer announced new restrictions for Michigan that will start on Wednesday. It just makes sense, friends. The numbers can’t be denied. Please stay safe and stay well.

I’ve completed my ten days’ isolation after my positive Covid-19 test, and my husband is almost done with his fourteen day quarantine which resulted from my diagnosis. (He is still testing negative.) After patiently abiding our sentences, we are tasting freedom, as it were. I’ve taken my first venture out of the house to the grocery store, and he has relocated his quarantine from the hotel where he was staying while I was contagious to the confines of our home that have now been deemed safe.

You’d be amazed how little one needs to survive 10 days of Covid confinement — even a mild case pretty much obliterates the appetite and renders one exhausted. One can survive on a little chicken soup, hot tea, cold medicine, sleep, and prayer — prayer that the case will be mild, that it won’t spread to anyone else, and that recovery will come quickly and fully.

And when recovery comes, one wants only to disinfect the whole house and give thanks that it’s over.

That’s where I am today, or that’s where I almost am. Although I’m cleared to go out in public, I am not symptom-free. I’ve never had a fever, but I still have a lingering headache and some mild congestion. I am still sleeping 9-10 hours each night, and am trying to take it easy. I will continue to wear a mask everywhere I go, and I won’t come within six feet of others, because although my case was indeed very mild and although the Health Department has said I’m not contagious, I am going to act with an abundance of caution because I wouldn’t want anyone else to get this.

I mean, it wouldn’t be the worst thing ever if someone got a case as mild as mine, but what we’ve learned from Covid is that it is unpredictable — some skate through fairly easily, like I did, but some spend months in the ICU. Some never come home.

And, we all know that cases are on the rise. It seems almost every day we set a new record. For the past several days, the US has had more than 150,000 new cases each day. Hospitals across the country are filling up again, and our frontline workers are overwhelmed.

While last week you might not have had anyone in your immediate circle who has tested positive, before the end of November, you likely will. Some predict that we will have more than 200,000 new cases a day by December 1.

But wait, that’s not great timing! Thanksgiving is two weeks away! We always do Thanksgiving with family. We always have a house full of people. I mean, everyone’s being careful. None of the members of our family have been exposed. Certainly we can share one meal.

But here’s the thing, guys. I was being very careful. We still don’t know how I was exposed. Every time I leave the house it is with a mask. Even then, I stay six feet away. I go to work and to the grocery store. Period. I eat healthfully, I take my vitamins, and I wash my hands like it’s my job. I did not know that I had been exposed, and you don’t know either.

Right this minute, you could be Covid-19 positive. Health experts have been telling us this since last spring — they’ve said, “assume you are carrying the virus and act accordingly”. In other words, wear a mask to keep the virus to yourself, wash your hands so that you don’t spread the virus to surfaces that you touch, and stay away from people, particularly people who are older or in some way health compromised.

I know, I know — we are tired of this! We’ve been isolating in some way, shape, or form since March — March! This has been going on too long! Certainly we deserve a break! What are we going to do, socially distance from one another forever?

No. It won’t be forever. This is temporary.

If 2020 had an instructional goal, it would be this: Humans will learn how to wait.

We haven’t had to practice waiting for a very long time. I remember when I was a little girl, television shows were on when they were on. If memory serves me correctly, Welcome Back, Kotter came on Thursday nights at 8pm. I loved that show — a beloved, if slightly annoyed, teacher in a classroom full of barely invested students finding the teachable moment and making us all laugh. I waited for that show. I came home from school, completed my homework, and made sure my butt was plunked in front of the screen at 8pm. I didn’t want to miss it.

Today, if I want to watch a show, I stream it whenever I want. I can pause it to go to the bathroom, answer a phone call, or go get a snack. I don’t have to wait for a show; the shows wait for me!

We used to know how to wait. When my husband and I were dating, email did not yet exist, nor did cell phones. Calling each other from a landline was expensive, so we did most of our corresponding by letter – you know pens on paper. He would write me a letter, put it in the mail, and then wait. A few days later, I would get the letter, write him back, put it in the mail, and then wait. We did this for most of the first year that we dated. We didn’t have the luxury of firing off texts in the moment, but we had the luxury of reading and re-reading each other’s words over and over again. We took time to think through our responses and to ask thoughtful questions because we knew it would be several days or more before the other would receive our messages and we wanted to make sure that our meaning was clear.

When our children were small, if their grandparents wanted to see what they looked like, we had a few options. We could get in the car and drive a few hours for a visit or we could take some photos, have the film developed, then send pictures in the mail. The grandparents checked the mail each day hoping for photos and treasured each visit since they didn’t know how long they would have to wait before they saw the children again. A few days ago, even though we are in the middle of a pandemic, even though my husband and I were quarantining away from one another, we were still able to have a face-to-face visit with our granddaughters at the drop of a hat — we heard their voices, saw their faces, and laughed with them. We seldom have to wait long between such visits.

But we might have to wait a while to have a visit in the flesh. It’s just the right thing to do.

I am as upset as anyone else. Just a couple of months ago, I still held out hope that perhaps we could jet to Boston to see our daughters — wouldn’t it be great to take the whole family there? When reality struck, I actually shed real tears. Of course I want to have everyone together. However, the absence of family gatherings is temporary.

Covid-19 has taken almost a quarter of a million American lives, and I don’t want the next one to be my son or daughter or mother or brother. I want the opportunity to get together with all of the people that I love next summer or next Thanksgiving or next Christmas, and I am willing to wait.

This year? I mean, we have any number of ways to be “together” while being apart. We can have a Zoom meeting every single day of the week if we’d like. We can call; we can FaceTime; we can text. It’s not the same as being in the same room, wrapping our arms around the ones we love and miss, but it has to suffice — temporarily.

All kinds of scientists have been working around the clock since January trying to create an immunization and they are very, very close. All we need to do is be patient, and wait.

We can do it. We can stay put, roast a turkey or grill some burgers at home, put on some music, and call each other up. We can tell each other that we’re thankful to be alive, that we’re thankful that we have people that we love so much, and that we’re thankful that help is on the way. We can plan our reunions and tell stories of holidays past. We can pass the time “together” until one day when we can be together.

That’s all we gotta do — just wait.

We can do it. We are strong; we are resilient; we have the technology.

Will you join me in staying the course, staying at home, and waiting a little bit longer to get together so that more of us will be here when it’s safe to do so?

Wait for the Lord; Be strong and let your heart take courage; Yes, wait for the Lord.

Psalm 27:14

Coronavirus Diary #19: First-person Account

My phone pinged.

“Please return to the front desk for your test results.”

I’d been waiting 40 minutes since they told me it would be 20 minutes.

I’d been at the testing center for almost two hours. First I had to wait in line to get forms to fill out, then I had to wait in my car to be called for my test, then I had to wait in my car for my results.

We had planned to meet our son and his best friend who was visiting from out of state — just for an outdoor socially-distanced few moments. We had previously planned to do dinner together, but the Covid-19 case numbers were climbing. Across the country we’d been seeing new daily records every day, so we had changed our plans to an outdoor meet up where we would hand them dinner-to-go.

That was before I emailed my director of HR to tell her, “It’s probably just allergies, but my throat is a little scratchy, and I’ve got some post-nasal drip.”

She gave me the standard, “Please work from home until your symptoms go away, and you should probably get a Covid test, just to be on the safe side.”

What with our plans for a get-together, I almost didn’t go for a test. Seriously, it was probably just allergies. The weather was swinging from 20 degrees to 70 degrees inside of 24 hours. My sinuses typically react to these types of fluctuations. However, my husband, who has been overseeing the Covid response on the campus where we live, said ever so delicately, “It’s your decision, but I would recommend sooner rather than later.”

So, I drove to the testing site and began the process.

Did I mention this was on Tuesday? Election day? The election day that has expanded to an election week?

So here I am, on election day, sitting in my vehicle in a parking lot, one of a dozen or more waiting to be tested or get results. The people keep streaming in and out to find out whether or not they have Covid, whether or not they’ll be able to go to work tonight or tomorrow, whether or not they’ll have to cancel all of their plans for the next two weeks or more, whether or not they’ll have to notify everyone they’ve come into contact with over the last several days, whether or not they’ll be at risk to get deathly ill.

I’m convinced my test will be negative, that I’ll rush home, box up the food we want to give to my son and his friend, that we’ll enjoy our visit, that we’ll watch the election returns for a while, and that I’ll go to bed not knowing who will be our next president. I’ve got the whole evening planned, and then I get that text.

I walk into the testing center, give my name to the front desk, and step to the side. In moments, a young girl in scrubs calls my name. I follow her behind a door and into a room.

“Someone will be right with you.”

I start to panic a little. Why am I in a room? Why is ‘someone’ coming to talk to me? If I was negative, wouldn’t they just smile, say, “you’re negative” and I’d be on my way?

The door opens, and in walks a doctor.

I’m stunned. A doctor? Does everyone get a doctor? All these dozens of people all get to see a doctor?

“Have you been around anyone who has tested positive for Covid-19?” he asks.

“No, I am barely ever around any one.”

“Well, your rapid test came back positive.”

“Yeah, but how reliable are those rapid tests?”

“Ninety-seven percent.”

“Shit.”

“So, we are going to do a PCR test. That result will come back in two to three days. You must isolate for 10 days. The health department will call you.”

And someone else came in, put a second swab up my nose and into my brain, and I began to realize what was happening.

We wouldn’t see our son and his friend. In fact, when I got home, my husband met me at the door with a mask on. He was already making arrangements for others to manage his work responsibilities. I showered, got a little to eat, and went right into the spare bedroom where I vowed to stay until we knew if my husband, too, was positive.

When I called my director of HR, she seemed disappointed. I was the first positive case since the start of school in September. We had made it almost the whole first quarter — just three days shy. She had to get a letter out and tell our whole staff that we’d be working from home for two weeks. And, by the way, how was I feeling?

I’ll admit, I felt terrible. I felt guilty for getting sick. I felt responsible for the fact that my colleagues would all have to work from home. I felt overlooked, and I felt ashamed. How could I have let this happen?

But, guys, I didn’t let this happen. It just happened. It’s not my fault, it’s just my circumstance. Since March, my husband and I have followed the guidelines. We’ve worn the masks; we’ve socially distanced. We’ve avoided gatherings, and when on just a couple of occasions we’ve gone to social functions, we’ve stayed to ourselves and waved from afar. Since March, we have continued to wash all the food that comes into our house, we wash our masks after just one wear, and we use hand sanitizer until our hands are raw.

Covid-19 is just that insidious, just that contagious, just that powerful.

Today, as I write, the US has had 9.7 million confirmed cases and 236,000 confirmed deaths. I’m not special. I’m just one of many who have contracted this virus and one of the fortunate who seem to have a very mild case.

Today, on day six of my symptoms, I have a slightly sore throat, minimal sinus congestdion, a little nausea, and a sense that I’m “coming down with something.” It’s very mild, and I’m thankful. Yet even this mild case has an impact. Thankfully, I have a job that I can do from home for two weeks, and I won’t lose any wages. Thankfully, my husband tested negative (twice now) and he is able to quarantine away from me in the hotel where some of our students are also quarantining. Thankfully, I have the company of my faithful Chester, our senior golden retriever. Thankfully, I had just gotten groceries, and I have everything I need here in the house and plenty of people who are willing to run get things for me if I need them.

Everyone doesn’t have this experience. Many who get a positive test lose two weeks’ worth of wages — which would be hard for people like us who have a little in savings and very little debt but which can be devastating for large portions of the population who live pay check to pay check. Many don’t have a place to go when a loved one gets sick but are forced to coexist in an environment where they, too, might be infected. Many don’t have such mild symptoms, but suffer at home or in the hospital for weeks and even months. Many don’t have a stockpile of groceries or friends and family who can help them out while they shelter in place.

I’m inconvenienced, as are the people in my life, but I am not devastated.

Many upon many have been devastated by this disease. As the numbers grow, someone close to you — maybe even surprisingly you — may be impacted.

For the sake of those who aren’t as fortunate as me, please, wear your mask, wash your hands, stay at home, and postpone your plans.

Take one for the team.

At least until you are able and willing to get a vaccine. Ok?

Thanks.

do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

Philippians 2:4

Election 2020: Who are we going to be?

For audio, click the arrow above.

Early last week, I was scrolling through social media, when I saw a post claiming that if Biden is elected, it will be the ruin of our country. It didn’t take long before I saw another post claiming that Trump, if re-elected, will certainly destroy any sense of civility we have left.

The next day, I was listening to this episode of The New York TimesThe Daily podcast which interviewed people across the country who are buying guns in record numbers in preparation for the riots/unrest/civil war that will certainly ensue if Biden/Trump is elected.

Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Libertarians, the far left, the far right, seniors, millennials, Black, white, Latino, are agitated and terrified. They are fighting with family and life-long friends, making accusations and spreading information and misinformation like it’s their job.

Americans of every persuasion are holding their collective breath and bracing themselves. Well, at least we’ve still got something in common.

Sometimes when I am with a classroom (or a Zoom room) full of students, a situation or comment from a student will trigger a response from me. I will hear myself sharing a treatise on academic integrity, intolerance for bullying, or (most often this year) the benefits and necessity of education. After declaring my passionate beliefs with preacher-like cadence, pacing back and forth in the front of the classroom and wiping my brow with my imaginary handkerchief, I’ll come to my conclusion and say, “and that my friends, was Sermon #479” or whatever number pops into my head at the moment.

All week long, I’ve been feeling one of these sermons percolating in the pit of my gut.

So, class, buckle up.

The election is tomorrow, and we have never been more divided. If you are wringing your hands, pacing your floors, and nervously watching the news, you are not alone. Many in the country are confident that if their candidate is not elected, we will see the end of our country as we know it.

Although we are the United States of America, all I’ve been hearing for the last who knows how long is division. What often begins with an accusation, “Obama is a socialist,” “Hillary is a liar,” “Trump is a racist” or “Biden is old and incoherent,” soon devolves into a lob fest of incendiary language that torches any hope of meaningful conversation. We find ourselves watching it all burn, pointing fingers, slinging insults, and refusing to engage in any kind of meaningful dialogue.

Have we forgotten that “united we stand, divided we fall”?

Where this is playing out most often right now is on social media — where we can lob our bombs from the safety of our homes, our beds, or our cars in one-line statements or retweeted memes and we don’t have to engage in the what could possibly follow. We feel smug sharing these posts, thinking, “There, I said it. That’s how I feel, and I want everyone to know it.” Then, we watch to see how many likes or shares we get and feel offended if anyone would dare to challenge our opinion. But isn’t that one of our freedoms — to have divergent views and to enjoy the freedom to share them? If we don’t want others to respond to our opinions, why are we posting them on a public platform?

In the past several months, as we’ve had heightened anxiety from living within the reach of a sometimes deadly pandemic, as some of our liberties have — for a time — been compromised for the sake of safety, it seems many of us have felt the need to more fully express our opinions than we may have in the past. And while this could be healthy, if we were all willing to civilly discuss issues and platforms, it has often become inflammatory. Peaceful protests have been met with law enforcement in riot gear and counter protestors bearing guns. Often what could have been quiet demonstration, has escalated into violence and death. Speaking aloud your choice for president might get you uninvited to social gatherings, judged by friends and family, and targeted by those who want to silence you. Putting a sign in your yard could get your house vandalized; putting one on your car, could make you the target of road rage.

Right here in Michigan, emotions have climbed so high, that citizens have walked into the capital building carrying automatic weapons in a coordinated act of intimidation, and a small faction was arrested by the FBI for plotting to kidnap the governor.

People aren’t playing around.

I have a theory why — I think we are downright terrified. We’re afraid of the pandemic. We’re afraid of economic crisis. We’re afraid of change. And our fears are being stoked by leaders who would use pointed, fear-inducing language for their own benefit. They aren’t talking about coming together; in fact, their language is tearing us apart. In this climate of fear and suspicion, we lash out defensively often hurting those we care about.

Friends, we are not these people.

I know you. You are caring. You support people even when you don’t agree with them, even when they don’t look like you, even when they speak a different language, and even when they worship differently. You know how to get along, how to compromise, how to work things out. And you can do it without name-calling, without belittling, without bullying, without intimidating.

You are smart. And resourceful. You have brilliant ideas and a multitude of resources. You are resilient and forgiving. You know how to have deep conversations and to hear the hearts of those you love and care about.

We haven’t forgotten what that looks like, have we?

The 2020 Presidential Election is tomorrow. And while we may not know the results for several days, or even weeks, we can decide today how we are going to be in these moments.

Whether or not our candidate wins, we can refuse to engage in wars of words or worse, to take violence to the streets. We can express our emotions among the people who love us and care about us with our voices instead of our keypads. We can celebrate or cry, we can be angry or relieved. We can feel any way that we feel, but at the same time, we can be respectful, dignified, and caring toward the people in our lives.

If our team wins, we can gracefully accept the victory and extend a hand of consolation and even brotherhood to those who feel they’ve lost. If our team loses, we can accept that, too, and extend a hand of congratulation to those who feel they’ve won. We can decide, right now, that regardless of the outcome, we are going to step forward and work hard to re-unite our country, to work for the good of all people, to stand against sickness, violence, injustice, and hate. We can insist that our leaders do better — that they engage in meaningful debate about ideas, philosophies, and strategies, not in assaults on character, family, and humanity.

It’s really not hard. What we have found ourselves doing is juvenile. We can admit that, and we can turn around and go the other way.

We don’t have to have a civil war to change our country. We just have to come together and demand that our leaders serve all of our citizens, not just the ones who wield the most power or have the most money. We just have to choose who we are going to be during difficult times.

Let’s choose wisely, my friends.

And that’s the sermon, folks — sermon #2020.

Go in peace, serve the Lord.

If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all people.

Romans 12:18

Coronavirus Diary 18: Returning (Again) to Best Practices

Remember way back in March when we all moved our offices home and agreed that we wouldn’t see each other for a while? Could we have imagined that seven months later we’d still be social distancing — avoiding physical contact with each other, cancelling special events, and considering how to do holidays virtually this year?

I couldn’t have. Sure, I moved my work home, started making cloth masks like my life depended on it, and transitioned to a new way of life that included (still includes) a detailed strategy for de-germing all purchases, standing awkwardly six feet away from friends and family, and spending way too much time in Zoom rooms.

You would think that because I stare at a screen almost all day from Monday through Friday, that I would eschew my phone — it’s just another screen — but I have not. In fact, my phone use is up — drastically.

Before Covid, I had been making an effort to reduce my screen time — plugging my phone in at my bedside after dinner, refusing to check email, texts, or social media in the evening. I’d deleted game apps like Words With Friends and 2048 (don’t judge me) because if they are on my phone, I will play them. I knew that the amount of time I spent on my phone was counterproductive and likely anxiety-producing and sleep-reducing. I had discussed my cell-phone use with at least two health-care providers who both agreed that it would be best if I reduced my screen time for my physical and emotional health.

And I was working on it — not really succeeding — but working on it.

Then came Covid-19, and I found myself frantically texting family and friends, checking the Johns Hopkins website almost on the hour (not kidding), and scrolling through Twitter (which heightened my emotions) followed by Instagram (which did the same only in a more esthetically pleasing way).

When I realized that both of my daughters were playing Words With Friends with my mom sometime last spring, I downloaded the app (again) and started a few games myself. And then my screen time spiraled out of control.

I am embarrassed to tell you that even though I’m down 5% from last week, my current daily screen time average is 4 hours and 16 minutes. Gulp.

I was journaling yesterday morning when I realized — in script on the page — that one of my most beloved habits, this journaling, has taken a back seat to my morning scrolling, Words With Friends playing, and email checking. Just last summer, I was still filling three pages each morning, writing down random thoughts and deeper musings, but lately, I barely fill half a page before I realize I am out of time and I need to get ready for work.

I get up two hours before I have to walk out the door, but I find myself with not enough time to read my daily devotion, complete 20 minutes of yoga, and write three pages before hopping through the shower and heading out the door. Why? Because I’ve spent that time taking all my turns at Words With Friends, scrolling through Instagram, checking emails, and wasting my time.

I met with my therapist on Wednesday. We hadn’t talked in a few weeks, so she asked me how my transition to my new job is going, and I told her that I’d noticed that I am sometimes getting cranky by the end of the day, that I am no longer bouncing around with the excitement of the newness. I told her that I am just observing the change and wondering what I can do about it.

And after I said it, I started realizing what has changed in the past eight weeks — more sitting, more technology use, less writing, less yoga, less walking. Practices that are detrimental to my health and well-being (being sedentary and constant tech-clicking) have been increasing while those that have significantly improved my health (writing and movement) have been decreasing. It’s no wonder that my hips and low back are aching and that I’m feeling a little grumbly. I’ve continued with my regular physical therapy, chiropractic care, and massages right on schedule, but I have been sloppy with my daily moment-by-moment choices. And it’s starting to show.

So, yesterday morning I deleted my Words With Friends app. (Sorry to those I left hanging in the middle of a game.) I’ve gotta break the cycle. I’ve got to get a couple of those hours back — not to accomplish more, not to do more grading or planning, not to clean the house more or cook more — I need that time to create space for myself. I need to fill three pages with messy script each morning. I need time to leisurely read my Bible passages for the day. I need time for a full 20 minutes (or 30!) of yoga before I sit at my desk joining students and colleagues in Zoom rooms all day. Instead of spending my 30-minute lunch break playing WWF and scrolling through social media, I need to spend that time strolling the halls of the school, waving to the other teachers who I barely see each day. Maybe they’ll come out of their rooms and join me. Maybe we’ll share some words — a conversation, a joke, a story about the class we just taught, or a problem we’re working through. Maybe I’ll make a friend.

I’ll miss getting annihilated by my high school buddies — man, they are smart! — and interacting with dear friends I can’t see face to face right now, but I lack the self-control to check in once a day for 20 minutes and play all my turns. That game beckons me from morning to night — even when I have the notifications turned off. It’s as though it wields an invisible force that draws my mind, my eyes, my hands to the phone, and before I know it, I’ve spent four hours of my day looking at a 2 x 5 inch screen.

Sigh.

This pandemic has staying power, doesn’t it? It’s taken 225,000 American lives, it’s disrupted our work, our schooling, our social lives, our worship, our celebrations, and our travel. Word on the street is that Covid-19 is just about to kick into high gear for another round of carnage.

I’m not going to panic. I’m going to put the phone down when I can, choose movement over stagnation, and engage with people face to face (in the flesh or on the screen) whenever possible.

It’s not personal — if I’m gonna make it through this year with my health intact, I’ve gotta return to my best practices.

[Friends,] I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul.

3 John 1:2

Coronavirus Diary 17: Of Zoom Rooms, and Cameras, and the SAT

For six weeks, I’ve been driving 35 miles from my house to the school where I teach.

Each of the 28 instructional days we’ve had has been broken into 3 blocks of 87 minutes. I sit alone in my classroom, peering into a computer screen. I take attendance, provide instruction, assign some classwork, insist on a screen break, then return for questions and one-on-one assistance.

Then I do it again.

I have 126 students. Not all come every day. Some have jobs. Some are sick. Some are helping the family. At least one has lost her mother since school started. At least one is expecting to become a mother before Christmas. Several have insufficient wifi or are experiencing other technical difficulties. Some join the Zoom room while they are still under the covers of their bed, then fall back asleep before I’ve even finished attendance. I’m supposed to insist that they put their cameras on, and I try. “I know this is hard,” I say, “doing school from home, but it’s what we’ve got, and it will be much easier for you to opt in and get what you need if you turn on your camera, sit up, put your face on the screen, unmute to ask questions, and do your best.”

But they chat me privately, “I’m not at home,” or “Other people are here with me,” or “I’m sick today,” and even, “I’m at the hospital right now, but I’m hoping to home by tomorrow,” and their cameras stay off.

“When you turn your cameras on,” I explain, “I’ll get familiar with your face. When you come to school, I’ll call you by name. I will know who you are.”

A couple cameras come on. A few put their face in the screen, give me a flash — a few seconds to see that they are there — and then they turn off their cameras again.

But last week, we had a day with no cameras.

Wednesday, October 14, was the mandatory SAT test for students in the state of Michigan. And, since the SAT must be completed in-person and because it’s a requirement for a Michigan-endorsed diploma, our students made their way to school by 7:45 am where they received a rather unimpressive state-funded breakfast and then filed into socially distanced classrooms, clad in masks.

Eleven of them entered my room. Eleven whole living breathing humans. They spoke. They smiled. They complained about the food, the temperature of the room, the length of the test, and the fact that they have to learn from home.

I couldn’t stop looking at them, beaming.

At 8:30, I started reading the scripted instructions, and they started bubbling in the circles to indicate their name, address, date of birth, and such. I walked up and down rows, checking to see that their answers were in the correct spot, answering their questions, sharing their space.

They were in my classroom!

At 9:30 they began the first section of the test. I wrote the time on the board and let them know they had 65 minutes to read the passages and answer the questions. Then I announced when they had 30 minutes left. Five minutes left.

They were allowed a 10-minute break which they used to walk down the hall to see their friends, to stand in a clump, to “be at school”.

And then we were back in my room. They sat in their desks from 8:30 until 2:00 taking test after test after test.

They were stressed, of course. They’d been away from this building since March, these seniors, and they know that their performance on this test — the one that they should have taken last Spring — will help determine where they go next year, if they go anywhere at all. Although I have dragged them through Khan Academy’s SAT prep, insisting they do practice sets, discussing test strategies, and reminding them of rules, they feel ill-prepared. The reading passages are difficult, especially when you are reading with your head on a pillow trying to drown out the noises of the other family members in your house. The Writing and Language passages are tricky — why should they care about the most effective placement of sentence 5? Who even knows where the comma should go?

They didn’t get to finish Algebra II last spring, and they can’t really remember how to use the functions on the graphing calculator, so during the 55 allocated minutes for calculator math, many closed their books, put their heads down, and fell asleep.

I’m talking deep-breathing REM sleep. My room, with all its fluorescent lighting, sounded like the cabin of an international flight.

I woke them, of course, when they had 5 minutes remaining in the math portion of the test. Then, I collected their test booklets and told them to get up and stretch because we would start the essay, according to SAT directions, “in two minutes” after they’d already been testing for four straight hours.

And, they sat up, asked for sharpened pencils, and did what they could. They wrote and wrote, read their writing, and wrote some more.

And then their heads went down again.

And they slept until I told them they had 5 minutes remaining.

When I had gathered their materials, they began to chat with one another and my room started sounding like a classroom. I stood in the front of the room, overlooking minor expletives, simply glad to hear the voices.

They had to stay in the desks until all the test booklets and answer booklets, every last College Board printed material, was taken from my room, and then they were dismissed to the cafeteria to get their state-funded bologna sandwiches.

Suddenly my room was silent, so after a quick dash to the bathroom, I followed them. They couldn’t leave so soon! I had to see their faces, to hear their voices, to discover that this one was taller than I imagined, that one shorter.

“Hi! It’s so good to see you!”

I made my way through the clumps of students, asking again and again, “What is your name? Have I seen you in my Zoom room?” I had no judgment for anyone, just sheer joy at finally, six weeks after the first day of school, getting to meet my students. I then went to grab the lunch provided for me — corn ships, guacamole, seasoned chicken, lettuce, and tomatoes. I filled a plate and walked to my room.

The teacher from across the hall stood at my door, plate in hand. Would I mind if he joined me for lunch? Neither of us were ready to go back to our solitary confinement. “Please, come in, let’s chat.” And as we chatted, students trickled in. Two or three would walk past my room, peeking in, looking for permission to enter. I practically begged them to come in, to hover over my desk as I ate, to tell me who they were, how they were doing, how they felt about the test.

One young man came in and stood near my desk, “Hi, Mrs. Rathje!” I looked him over head to toe, trying to fill in the facial details that had been covered by the mask.

“Hello! Now help me out, what is your name?”

“You know who I am.”

“I do? Have I seen your face on the screen?”

“Yes, you have.”

“Hmmm….I am thinking that you are LaRon Davis*…but let me think…”

“I always have a background on.”

“You do? Then, that’s my answer — you are LaRon Davis*.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Hooray! Thank you for coming to my classroom! Would you like to pick one of the prizes that I’ve been collecting for today?” I showed him a table covered in lanyards, bottles of hand sanitizer, pens, face masks, wrist bands, and the like. He moved forward and made his selection.


“I can have this?”

“Yes! That’s your reward for taking the time to come see me.”

And my reward, I thought to myself, is having you in my classroom.

These are not small things. Before Covid-19, when I taught in the classroom, students often stopped by to get help with an assignment, to borrow a pen, to ask for a snack, to find a safe space. I was always glad they felt like they could, but I also often hoped they wouldn’t stay long — I had papers to grade, lessons to plan — I needed time to work.

But now? I can’t imagine a time when I will be ready for students to leave.

Our leadership announced last week that we will be continuing 100% virtually through the rest of the semester — through mid-January. And I do believe it’s best. But I sure will be happy when my classroom is full and loud again.

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.

Ephesians 1:16

*not the student’s real name, of course

Trying to be Kind

Always try to be kind to each other.

I Thessalonians 5:15

It’s really not hard — being kind.

It’s not.

For some of you, this is not a revelation. You’ve been being kind to others since your kindergarten teacher expected you to share and take turns: “First Johny gets to use the swing, then when he’s done, Susie can have a turn.”

Some of you said, “Oh, I get it!” and you went on to patiently stand in line at the drinking fountain, to raise your hand and speak only when the teacher called on you, to say “Please, may I borrow the stapler,” and “thank you for holding the door,” from that time forward.

You invited people to play kickball at recess, you put your arm around a friend who skinned her knee, you loaned a pencil to the boy who sat next to you, and brought an extra cookie in your lunch bag for a friend.

But some of us — some of us — lost our way.

Sure, we could wait for the swing, but when we got our turn, we stayed swinging a little too long. We didn’t care about those in line behind us and perhaps even found pleasure in making them wait. We blurted out our answers in class, talked over others, and pushed our way to the front of all the lines.

We had the answers, after all. We were strong, and we were right. We knew where we were going and what we were doing; why shouldn’t we lead? Why wouldn’t we speak? Why couldn’t we take charge?

It’s not that we were trying to be mean; we were just not trying to be kind.

We were doing what we knew how to do: answer the questions, get what we needed, take control of the situation.

But we weren’t always kind.

I, for one, confess to sometimes being downright mean. I’ve laughed at the expense of others and taken more than my fair share — of popcorn, of opportunity, of oxygen. I’ve been sarcastic, vindictive, and careless. I’ve shot off my mouth, sent daggers with my eyes, and literally shoved and swatted to get my own way.

When I could’ve — should’ve — been kind.

And when, after years of pushing through, overpowering, and taking more than my fair share, I was knocked down, benched, and sidelined, I sat there stunned, hurting, and unable to continue.

And what did I find? People who were kind. They showed up, called, sent flowers and food, listened, and cried with me.

And do you know what happened? I softened. I slowed. I began to discover myself being kind — finding space and time for others, sliding over, sharing my popcorn, shutting up, and listening.

It’s really not hard.

I find it quite interesting that the last two professional positions I’ve held have been with organizations that prioritize (even demand) kindness.

When I was hired by Lindamood-Bell, I was stunned by the celebratory and kind culture that I found myself working in. (I wrote about it here.) After having spent several months on the bench, luxuriating in the kindness of newly found friends, I found myself working in an environment where I was expected to practice kindness, positivity, and praise.

I’d lost my way through years of soldiering on, fighting my way through, doing what I knew how to do to make myself heard, get what I needed, and take control of the situation, and I was being given an opportunity to find my way back.

And I did find my way back. While working at Lindamood-Bell, my world crumbled apart. My family was in tatters, and I was lying amid the wreckage, wounded and weeping. I would drag myself out of bed, shower and dress, and autopilot my way into work, to find my colleagues cheering and supporting, offering gifts of tea and chocolate, extending a tissue for my tears, and rallying behind me as I healed. They modeled kindness for me and provided the space — and the expectation — for me to share that kindness to my students and coworkers. They helped me find my way back.

And now — now! — I find myself with Equity Education whose entire mission is to extend kindness to those who have been overlooked and marginalized. They do that by using a model called the No-nonsense Nurturer (NNN), which “empowers teachers to establish a positive classroom culture in which all students are set up to succeed.” Before I even entered the classroom, I received hours and hours of training in this framework which was then modeled throughout two solid weeks of collaborative professional development.

The NNN framework sets clear expectations and provides supports for students (and their teachers) to meet those expectations. It provides reinforcement for those who meet the expectations and firm but kind redirection for those who don’t. NNN is not focused on a few students getting what they need and rising to the top; no — its aim is to get 100% of students in every class meeting expectations that will lead to their academic — and later professional — success. It’s not for the few who would talk over the others and push and claw their way to the top. No, it’s for all. And any strategy that is focused on the achievement, the success, the well-being of all, is going to require kindness, patience, and encouragement.

Those who struggle won’t “step up their game” if they are brow-beaten and humiliated, but they will get off the bench and get back in the game when they are shown kindness — when others come beside them, encourage them, provide them tea and chocolate, tissue for their tears, and the practical and emotional support they need to take another swing.

When I was knocked down, no one shook their finger at me and told me that if I’d just tried harder I wouldn’t have ended up in that difficult situation. No one told me it was my own fault or judged me for landing on the couch, doubled over and in distress.

No, they extended kindness.

On Friday, I was in a Zoom Room with two freshmen. One shows up on time every single day with her work done and her questions ready. The other is late every time, has a young cousin raucously playing in the same room, has adults yelling in the background, and often needs me to repeat directions, support his work, and allow him extra time. I could take a hard line approach — I could say, “You’re late! Why isn’t your assignment done? Can’t you find a quieter room to work in? Come on, you need to catch up!” But wouldn’t it be just as easy to say, “I’m so glad you are here. Show me what you have. What do you need? How can I support you?”

Which way do you picture will yield the best results?

See? It’s not hard.

This lesson doesn’t need to stay in the classroom, does it? All around us are people waiting in line, crying on couches, and struggling to find the space to learn and to grow. It’s pretty easy to step aside, to let someone in, to offer a hand, to lend an ear, to encourage, to cheer… to be kind.

Doing Better than This

It happened again this week — that thing that feels like I’ve just walked out of the theater with a friend, we start to discuss what happened in the movie, and it’s like we were watching two different films.

Has this happened to you?

On Tuesday night, I stayed up to watch the presidential debate. As I watched, I came to conclusions about the two candidates and what I perceived to be happening.

The next day, as I scrolled through social media, it appeared that some of my Facebook friends had watched an entirely different debate. The conclusions they came to didn’t match the ones I came to.

How can we be all participants in the same story and interpret it in such different ways?

We talk about this in literature. When we read a text, we always have to consider 1) the actual text — the words on the paper, 2) what the author intended, and 3) the experiences that the reader brings to the text.

In this case, the actual text — the first 2020 Biden/Trump debate — was pretty hard to track. If you watched it live, you might have had a hard time hearing questions and answers because of all the interruptions. You might have honed in on a few words of one participant and either applauded or vilified that candidate. During the actual broadcast, because the participants talked over one another, it would’ve been difficult to weigh each comment and determine if it was an answer to the question, an intentional or unintentional disruption, or a failure to answer the question fully and completely.

Making sense of what happened in the debate isn’t much easier when you read an official transcript, because words in print don’t carry tone, they don’t convey timing, they don’t show facial expressions or eye contact. It would again be easy to isolate one quote from this transcript and hold it up as evidence of a win or a loss, of civility or disrespect.

Weighing and judging each speaker’s intent is also difficult. We can’t peer inside the hearts and minds of Donald Trump or Joe Biden to see whether they actually were trying to discredit their opponent, to avoid answering questions, or to genuinely answer questions. We have clues — word choice, tone, and body language — and we come to our own conclusions about those clues based on the lens we are looking through.

That lens is shaped by our own experience. Someone who votes Republican may see Donald Trump’s performance as strong — Trump didn’t let Biden fully answer many questions at all; he called out Biden’s track record; and he questioned his integrity. A person who votes Democrat might see Biden’s performance as strong — he spoke to the camera, answered the questions, and provided details, although few, about his plans. An expert debater would likely find fault with Trump — he didn’t follow the agreed upon rules, he didn’t wait his turn, he didn’t fully respond to questions, he interrupted his opponent and the moderator. However, the same expert might not have high praise for Biden either — Biden sometimes stumbled over words, had to search for a name, and responded to Trump’s jabs in frustration. Anyone who’s ever been bullied, was likely triggered by Trump’s assault on Biden’s son Hunter, his reference to Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas, and his continuous interrupting (over 70 times throughout the debate). However, folks who were hoping that someone might take the high road, would have also been disappointed with Biden telling Trump to “shut up” and referring to him as a clown. Certainly many were horrified by Trump’s refusal to denounce white supremacy, but I think some (and not just white supremacists) might have found him strong in that moment — giving his answer boldly and without apology.

Because our country (even more so our world) is made up of people from so many different backgrounds, with myriad life experiences, it makes sense that people would walk away from the debate with varying opinions about what just happened, just like people have varying opinions about American politics in general and specific policies regarding health care, education, law enforcement, or the pandemic. This is America — where we value the freedom to have an opinion and to speak our minds, where we work hard to secure our right to disagree.

In the literature classroom, when I teach literary analysis, in addition to discussing the three texts as above, we ask the question, what is the author doing here? How or why is he or she doing it? Because my students see each piece through their own lens, we don’t have to all come to the same conclusion, but we do have to support our opinion with evidence from the text. I tell my students, “You don’t have to agree with me, but you have to make me believe in the validity of your opinion — you have to make your case.” Maybe Harper Lee is exposing the racism of the South, maybe she’s promoting a system that would put an innocent black man in jail — you can make either point if you back it up with evidence.

What I’ve seen too often lately is a failure to make a case. I see too many people saying what they believe in general terms — “My candidate is the best, yours is the worst!” “My candidate clearly won the debate; yours lost!” — without building a substantial argument based on evidence. I hear sound bytes — “He’ll make America great again!” or “He’ll build back better!” but I don’t see the depth and detail of support that I would require in a high school essay.

More often, I see a devolving into name-calling — “Those left-wing liberals!” or “Those Trumpsters!” — where even long-time friends get down in the mud to fight dirty.

And what does that get us? Dirty clothes, scratched faces, bruised egos, and broken relationships.

I wonder what would happen if we took a different approach. Could we do better than those who spent 90 minutes sparring on stage the other night? Could we step away from our social medial accounts, call each other on the phone, and try a different way?

Could we greet one another? Hi, friend that I usually only interact with on social media? What does your life look like these days? What is important to you? How is your family?

Could we raise questions? How do you feel about health care? Why do you feel that way? What data supports that opinion? How do you imagine we could improve the safety of our communities? Have you seen any research on that? What might we have to sacrifice for that cause?

Could we listen? That’s interesting. I never considered that stance before. Your statistics are convicting. That seems reasonable.

Could we push back respectfully? I can see what you mean about the failures of the Affordable Care Act, how would your suggestions play out in the long-run? I understand your reasons for wanting to ensure Second Amendment rights, how could we keep them while also decreasing incidences of gun violence?

Could we be open to change? How could you and I work together on this? Who else might find these ideas interesting? How can we make our ideas known to governmental leaders?How can we get involved?

Am I too idealistic? Perhaps.

But here’s what I know — it’s very easy to sit on my couch at home slinging one-liners on social media. I can put you in a box pretty quickly, label you according to what I interpret your posts to mean, and dismiss you as being out of your mind. Such behavior keeps me in my lane and keeps you in yours. We continue going our own way, convinced that we are right and the other is wrong. And it’s an angry, lonely existence.

We can do better. We are all capable of examining a text — a debate, a news show, an article, a press conference. We are all able to consider the author’s intent, and to interrogate the lenses through which we view the world. We are all able to research complex issues — educational disparity, income tax law, military funding — and to find evidence that will help us develop an informed opinion. We are all able to pick up a phone and engage in a two-way conversation with other humans. We are able to consider other points of view, to compare them with our own, and to think critically about which views hold the most merit.

Folks, we’ve got to begin doing this hard work. Too much is at stake for us to continue to voice our opinions only on social media. If we really care about the issues we are spouting off about, we need to take action.

Many are right now calling us to vote, and that is of critical importance. And, before we vote — before we check those boxes — let’s spend a little time asking questions, searching for answers, having conversations, and thinking critically.

Let’s not blindly follow a party because we always have or because others say we should. Let’s not be careless with the freedoms and the privileges we’ve been given; let’s do our part to secure them for those who will come behind us.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

James 1:5

Evolution of a Voter

In the house I grew up in, we didn’t talk politics. I knew who the president was, and I knew I should exercise my civic duty and vote, but other than my fifth grade teacher strongly extolling the merits of then-candidate Jimmy Carter, I didn’t know that people held strong opinions about elections or politics.

I was a white girl in middle America, the world was working pretty well for me, and nobody told me I should feel differently.

When I recently watched Mrs. America, a re-telling of the early failed attempts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, I was startled to realize that my family and my community had indeed been political in that they had believed an ideology and pushed to maintain a reality that worked for them, even if they didn’t consciously acknowledge or care to discuss it.

I believed from a young age that “those women” who were fighting for the ERA were bra-burning radicals who were bent on destroying Christian values. They were going to destroy the family as we knew it. No one in my family actually said this out loud, but I know I received that message, because as I watched the series, I was transported back in time to interrogate those beliefs and compare them with what I feel strongly about now.

I’ve been doing that a lot in recent years — interrogating firmly held beliefs. As the president’s nominee for Supreme Court Justice awaits a politically-charged confirmation, I find myself looking back on how I became a one-issue voter and how I walked away from that practice.

I remember voting for the first time as a freshman at Michigan State University in 1984. I walked to the neighboring dorm and cast my vote to re-elect President Reagan. It seemed the obvious choice. I’d watched the footage of him being shot as he was climbing into his vehicle, secret service agents swooping in to move him to safety. He’d survived that and resumed his duties. Why wouldn’t I vote to let him continue doing so? I was 18, what did I know?

I don’t think I voted in 1988. I was registered to vote in Michigan and student teaching in Indiana. I probably assumed the vote would do just fine without me for one cycle. I had more important tasks on my list.

In 1992, my husband and I bent over the Sunday newspaper the week before the presidential election, sorting through pages of charts to find the candidates and proposals we would be voting on. We read, discussed, and began our tradition of creating a “cheat sheet” to carry with us to the polls. Sorting through a sea of candidates, many of whom we did not know, we made a decision, as professional church workers in a conservative denomination, that we would vote for candidates who were pro-life.

Our decision to reduce complex candidates and platforms down to one issue speaks perhaps to our trust in our denominational leadership and our commitment to our duty as leaders in that denomination. That commitment to duty convinced me that we had to get things ‘right’. We had to vote the right way, parent the right way, lead the right way, and live the right way.

This whole-hearted commitment to being right made me very judgmental of those who I believed to be wrong. I was not afraid to speak out if I thought someone was going the wrong way or to impose my beliefs on others.

For example, I believed Halloween was decidedly anti-Christian. I was sure to let other parents know that if they allowed their children to participate they weren’t being very good parents. (Yeah, I was pretty fun to be around all of October.)

Similarly, I was firm in my pro-life commitment, so when my husband and I joined our church community to stand on the side of the street and hold signs and pray to end abortion, it seemed fitting that our children should join us, too. And, we continued to vote based on that one issue through many local and national elections.

The intention was good — I stand by that. We believe that life begins at conception, and to turn our backs on the unborn seemed unconscionable. But, just like the ideologies around feminism that my family and community held in my childhood, this belief — that voting for candidates who claimed to be pro-life was an imperative of our Christian faith — needed to be interrogated.

For one, just because a political candidate says he or she stands for something, does not mean that policy will be impacted. Some would wave a banner high just to get a vote.

Also, platforms can be misleading. A candidate may say she is pro-life when talking about abortion, but if she is also pro-NRA, is she actually pro-life? If she believes that American citizens have the right to own semi-automatic weapons, the likes of which have been used in many mass shootings in recent years, is she really concerned about the value of life? Many pro-life politicians have failed in recent months to enact legislation to provide life-sustaining relief to those who have been financially devastated by the pandemic and who are desperate for housing, food, and medical care.

What is our definition of pro-life, anyway?

And then there’s the actual issue of abortion.

I was nine months pregnant with my first daughter, when my in-laws joined us at our place to celebrate Thanksgiving. I sat across the table from my father-in-law, digesting turkey and potatoes, when the topic of abortion came up. I was poised for a fight, to stand firmly on my belief that abortion was wrong, but then he complicated the issue for me. He said, “It’s great to want to stop abortion, but once we protect that unborn child, who will be willing to provide for it? Who will care for the mother? Who’s going to fund that? Are we ready to really be pro-life?”

That conversation has stuck with me for almost 28 years. For many of those years, we continued our one-issue voting strategy, believing ourselves to be right.

But here’s the thing with believing you’re right — you often discover that you are wrong.

You might firmly instill in your children the belief that abortion is wrong, that they should save sex for marriage, and that sexual purity is highly valued by the family and the church, and leave no room for scenarios that you never would have expected.

You might discover that someone you love has been sexually assaulted and is afraid to let you know because you might not value them as much — you might find them broken.

Will they come to you? Will they trust you to have compassion? Will they believe that you love them more than your firmly held beliefs? Or will they feel alone?

You might discover that someone you love has had an abortion. Will they feel judged by you (and by God)? Will they find acceptance and grace?

What is our goal as Christians who vote pro-life? If Roe v. Wade is overturned, will the gospel of Christ be advanced? If in trying to achieve that goal, we find ourselves name-calling and shaming those around us, have we demonstrated the love of Christ, whose name we bear?

Is outlawing abortion the only way to value life? Or is it merely relegating the practice to secrecy where it will be unregulated, dangerous, and further demonized?

For most of my life, I have tried to get it right, but what if I admitted that I’ve gotten so much wrong? What if I acknowledged that I am sorely in need of grace?

What if rather than teaching my children that they’d better get it all right, I ensured them that I’d be with them when it inevitably goes wrong.

Several elections back, I stopped being a one-issue candidate. I found myself taking a long look at the complexity of our society, seeing all of its brokenness, examining the faulty options set in front of me, having complicated discussions with people who matter to me, weighing the options thoroughly, and voting as though I cared not only for the unborn, not only for myself, but also for those who have repeatedly and historically been overlooked, mistreated, marginalized, and forgotten.

I can no longer vote for a candidate who waves the pro-life flag with one hand while using the other to give the finger to millions of already-born humans who long for equality, justice, and a chance to breathe freely.

More than one issue is at stake in this election.

I plan to vote as though I know that.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

What World Are We Living In?

Each morning at 7am, I lug my lunch and laptop-crammed tote bag to my car, leave our home on a beautiful college campus in affluent Ann Arbor, and begin my journey to a different world thirty-five miles due east. I travel through a few small bedroom communities thick with half-million dollar homes and thriving school districts and take my exit into a community populated by run-down rental properties and struggling schools.

Each day on my commute I view the reality of disparity in our country.

In the community where I live, people regularly drop over $100 for dinner without batting an eye. Filling a grocery cart aisle by aisle, paying little attention to price tags and discounts, is just another Saturday morning.

In the community where I work, families count on the fact that they can pick up free food two times a week at the school — without it, they won’t make ends meet.

In the community where I live and others like it across the country, kids get their first Smart Phone around age 10, grow up playing games and watching movies on an iPad, and have access to one or more computers in the home. They are digital natives, able to easily navigate the internet, digital platforms, the Google suite, and spaces that I am sure I know nothing about. Some are social media pros — they have their own YouTube channels, have a thousand followers on Instagram, and are regularly exploring and even creating new media. They have a strong Internet connection, and if that should happen to fail, no problem — they have a personal HotSpot on their phone,

In the community where I work, most teenagers have some kind of cell phone. (Although one did admit to me this week that his flip phone would not be able to download the app I had displayed on the shared Zoom screen.) However, of the over 100 students I have met in the last two weeks, very few have had little more than limited access to computers. How do I know? Because they have difficulty copying and pasting a URL, they struggle to navigate their way to the six different Zoom rooms in which they find their teachers and their classmates. Google Classroom, Google Drive, Chat Box, and navigation bar are new vocabulary words. Their Internet service is spotty, and they get kicked off sometimes in the middle of class. HotSpot? What’s a HotSpot?

The kids in the community where I live have their own bedroom where they have set up a virtual learning space with the support of their parents. They have a desk, a MacBook and Airpods, an iPhone, a comfortable chair, and possibly even a printer. They can close the door to shut out distractions and then open the door to walk out to a fully-stocked kitchen complete with convenient snacks.

The kids in the community where I work often share a bedroom with a sibling, often one (or more) who they are charged with helping to connect to their virtual learning. As far as I can tell, the bed is the only piece of furniture in the room, and I often see two people sitting or lying in that bed, still in pajamas, sometimes looking at the screen, sometimes not.

When I say, “The expectation is that your camera will be on and I will be able to see your face,” I am asking a lot. Many have not had their hair cut in quite some time, and it’s a personal — even a cultural — matter of pride to look fresh if you’re gonna be seen. But in the times of Covid, when people may not have had work or a paycheck in six months, haircuts aren’t really a priority.

When I say, “I recommend that you find a space where you can sit up, minimize distractions, and fully engage in your learning,” I see students look back at me as if to say, “What world are you living in, lady?”

Indeed, what world am I living in?

What world am I living in where the richest most well-resourced country allows this kind of disparity? Where affluent — mostly white — folks in suits sit in a chamber and determine to send just ONE relief check in six months knowing that for most families that money was spent long before it was received? Where, with an election less than 50 days away — 50 days that families who are struggling beyond what we have ever experienced will have to find food for their families, gas for their vehicles (if they have them), and money to keep the power on — the suits refuse to come to an agreement over how to help our citizens who don’t have don’t have two homes, three cars, a time share in Florida, and a 401K.

What world am I living in where this story — the story of inequity that impacts not only education but health and lifespan and civil liberties — isn’t the number one headline, the number one problem, we are trying to solve every. damn. day.

Instead, in the midst of a global pandemic, where almost 200,000 Americans have died, many from communities like the one I work in every day, some people are still debating whether this pandemic is serious — or even real! Our president, who could be signing executive action to help the most vulnerable among us, spends his time and energy gathering large groups of supporters, flouting local laws prohibiting such gatherings, refusing to mandate that attendees wear masks, and spreading misinformation about the danger of Covid-19 and the timeline for a vaccine. And — and!– he stands on national television belittling those who would challenge his approach — calling them names and mocking them.

Is this real life?

What world am I living in where the nation’s leaders, instead of rushing to find solutions that will help those most in need, sit in climate-controlled rooms, six feet apart, freshly coiffed and smartly dressed, debating the political impact of an aid package? where in the moments following the death of one of our most loved Supreme Court Justices, a politically-charged debate about when and how to select her replacement reestablishes the political divide between us?

What kind of world am I living in?

I’m living in a world where I can do something, and so are you.

So what are we going to do? Are we going to stay in our comfortable communities sipping $5 coffees, debating the efficacy of masks, and throwing shade at the ‘other side’ from the safety of our Facebook and Instagram pages? Are we going to reduce our agency to a meme-fest bent on self-gratification and self-aggrandizement? Or are we going to take a long critical look at the world we are living in and decide if this is the best that we can do?

Is the best that we have a position where we consider our own lives to the exclusion of the lives of others?

I believe we are better than this.

The kids in the community where I live and those in the community where I work are counting on us. They need us to be better than this.

And we can be; we can change course at any time.

We can re-shape this world that we live in.

We can open our hearts, our minds, our hands. We can stop clinging so fiercely to our own ideals, our own ‘sides’, our own resources. We can love our neighbor — even the one we don’t agree with — as ourselves and determine to do all that we can for the least of these. Then we might be pleased with the world we find ourselves living in.

I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.’

Matthew 25:36

Zooming in Detroit: Week One

One of the school-wide practices at my new school is that every student, every period, completes a ‘Do Now’ at the beginning of each class. A ‘Do Now’ is a quick in-the-moment assessment of whether or not the student has already mastered or partially mastered the intended goal for the day.

For example, on Monday, each of my students will use their new school-issued laptops to learn how to navigate to Google Classroom — that is my goal for the day. Monday, before we get started with our lesson, each of my classes will start with a Do Now that will be completed in a Google form. It will look something like this

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-1.png

The form actually has about three questions: one that will review the lesson from last week, the one above, and a question that requires students to enter their first and last names. The students complete the form and submit it, and then I show them their results on my shared screen in the Zoom room.

Together, we will see if the students are familiar with Google Classroom or not, and how specific my instruction needs to be for them to be able to navigate to Google classroom, find an assignment, complete it, and submit it.

Learning how to get to Google Classroom doesn’t really sound tricky to most of us, but many of my students have just in the past week opened their first Gmail account, just had their first experience with Zoom, and just learned how to open a Google doc, make a copy of it, fill it in, download it, and email it to me as an attachment.

If you find this seems heavy with tech-lingo, imagine how they feel. Up until the Covid-19 quarantine, the students at my school were completing all of their assignments with pen and paper. The school has a computer lab, yes, but it had mostly been used by students who are working on credit recovery — making up courses that they failed but still need to pass in order to graduate. Because of this and other logistical factors, other students had limited opportunities to utilize the computer lab.

So, while some of my students found it quite simple to do what I was asking them to, others had to be walked through step by step, and several needed the steps modeled multiple times. Most of these juniors and seniors have never before Covid-19 utilized online learning, the Google suite, or — quite frankly — email. This, my friends, is what we call scarcity of resources — one aspect of educational inequity.

But I digress.

These students who six months ago were completing all of their assignments in the classroom with paper and pen are now in their homes logging into Zoom rooms — three classes per day — and learning not only the course content, but also all the language that supports digital literacy. Some of my students are learning how to copy and paste a link into their navigation bar just like you and I had to learn when we first started working on the Internet. I spent the whole of last week helping students ensure that they were logged into only their school-issued Gmail account, that they understood the expectations for participation and engagement in Zoom classes, and that they were able to navigate all the pieces we will use this year — Google forms and docs, Gmail, Zoom, etc.

And all the while, some of them were also babysitting younger siblings, taking phone calls from their doctors, trying to get their family members to give them a quiet space, figuring out how they are going to get to work after class, communicating with teachers that they will be out all next week because they are getting their wisdom teeth removed, and asking anyone who will listen how long we are going to have to do school this way.

Just in order to “show up” for school this past week, my students had to pick up equipment from the building, get familiar with a new device, find space in their homes from which to work, and read and understand their schedule which is housed on another website which they have to log in to and navigate. This schedule — one that was difficult to create in the first place because the school switched from a traditional six-period-a-day format to a block schedule — was found to have errors in it such as an imbalance in classes (i.e. one of mine had 47 students in it and another had zero). So, in order to show up this week, my students (and all their teachers) will have to view and understand a new version of that schedule and adjust to the resulting changes.

For me that means that one of my classes has a completely new roster — I will lose all of the students I had in the class last week and meet a whole new group tomorrow.

And this is how it goes when not only the students are learning new structures, new formats, and new technology, but the staff is learning, too. Glitches are going to happen. Connections are going to be lost. People are going to be in the wrong virtual place at the wrong time. And it’s going to be frustrating.

Students are figuring out — in the moment — how to enable their browser to access their microphone and their camera. Teachers are learning how to eject rogue disrupters who somehow gained access to their Zoom rooms while simultaneously learning the names and faces of the students who should actually be there, some of which are — despite the school’s best efforts to get them a computer — working from a phone which won’t allow them to turn on their camera.

It’s a lot.

Nevertheless, the students I saw on Thursday and Friday showed up, worked through all the difficulties, and found a way to do everything I was asking them to do. Some of them finished quickly; some of them took more time. Before they left my Zoom room, I gave them an “Exit Ticket.” The Exit Ticket, like the Do Now, is a quick in-the-moment assessment of whether or not the student achieved the stated goal of that class period.

One question on the exit ticket asked for the student’s name, one asked if they were able to complete the task, the last question was this:

One week in, how do you imagine they responded?

Many clicked “It’s fine,” which I imagine hearing with a note of “it is what it is.” About just as many clicked, “Ugh! I wish we were at school.” But you know, only a few despite all the technological challenges we faced last week, noted frustration with technology, and a few even clicked “It’s great! I love working from home!”

I have about 130 students. I have to believe that each of their stories are different — each of them is overcoming a different set of obstacles just to show up. Because of this, I feel an obligation to be prepared, to bring my best, to demonstrate empathy, and to provide support for their learning so that each of these students who dared to show up, will leave with a plan to do it again the next day.

And when they show up the next day, I’ll put a link to the Do Now in the chat box, and we’ll get started.

Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.

Proverbs 16:3

Giving less than 100%

The first day of school is tomorrow! I’m excited — so excited! — but I am also grounding myself with intention. For the first time in my life, I am planning to give less than 100%.

Don’t get me wrong — I’ve written lesson plans and have had them reviewed. I’ve organized my classroom — putting up posters and alphabetizing my classroom library. I’ve prepared Google slides and have read through them aloud. I’ve planned my scope and sequence for the first quarter and have already analyzed the interim assessment. However, when it comes to the day to day interaction with students — my output is going to look much different this year. I’ll be giving less than 100%.

The last time I was a classroom teacher, I gave so much of myself to my classroom and my students, that I forgot to take care of myself and I failed to fully take care of my family. My classroom got the best hours of my day, and my family got the scraps that were left.

It’s got to look different this time.

In my previous chapter, I launched out of bed at 5:30, hit the shower, dressed, and was in the kitchen prepping dinner and nudging teens to breakfast by 6:00. I’m sure my eyes scanned what my kids were wearing and what they were carrying as they piled into my car so that I could drop one at another school and drag the other two with me. I’m sure we talked through check-lists and after school activities in the car as I simultaneously scanned my mind for any lingering tasks I needed to complete before my students started trickling into my room.

Once I pulled into my parking space, my mind, fueled by the first cup of coffee I had sipped greedily on the drive, was fully engaged in the day’s instruction. What did I need to pull up on my screen? Did anything need to be printed? Was there a student I needed to speak to? Was a parent already waiting to meet with me?

I launched out of the car, grabbing bags full of papers, lunch, and a change of clothes, climbed two flights of stairs, unlocked my classroom door, and began the perpetual motion of the day — straightening desks, erasing and writing messages on the white board, wiping down surfaces, checking displays, and moving stacks of paper — so many stacks of paper.

In my classroom, students entered knowing that I would expect their engagement, their participation, and at least feigned interest in whatever essay we were writing, poem we were analyzing, or story we were reading. I loved the content I was teaching — composition, poetry, literature — and I operated under the assumption that if I threw all my passion into my teaching, that love I have for the content would spill over onto my students.

However, along with all my passion, I threw all my energy, all my resources, all my emotions, all of my self into the hours of the school day, and then when the bell rang at the end of the day, I didn’t sit down and take a rest. No — I found another gear and kept going. In the early days, I accompanied two of my children to cross country practice, ran their drills with them — all of their drills — and then drove them home. I finished preparing dinner for the family, washed dishes, showered, did laundry, responded to needs and demands, and sometimes even did more school work.

I don’t think there was ever a day that I didn’t make sure everyone had their physical needs met for the next day, but I am quite sure that I routinely missed checking in with their emotional needs — seeing the hurts they experienced throughout the day, stopping in my tracks to give them a hug, or taking the time to just sit in their presence and be. I know I missed doing all of that.

Sure, I got up early on Saturdays, went for run, drove to the outdoor market to buy fresh produce, picked up enough groceries to feed a small army of teenagers, and made sure the house was picked up, vacuumed, and wiped down, but did I, on those packed Saturdays, parent my children? come beside them in their own personal struggles? help them access their emotions? or did I merely model how to power through?

I’ve had to come to terms with the harsh reality that what my children ultimately saw from watching their mom power through for 10 years in a high school classroom was that she couldn’t sustain it. She was a tough old bird, and she kept that pace going strong for about 9 of those years, but that last year? Whew! That last year’s performance was strictly mediocre. Very average. Just so-so.

The body can only take so much powering through. And when it has had enough, it will shut right down on you. My most important students, the ones who lived in my house with me, learned that lesson right along with me. They learned that when you power through and fail to attend to your emotional and spiritual health, when you try by the force of your own will to do all the things for all the people, you miss some of the most precious parts of life — the face to face, nose-to-nose, cheek-to-cheek moments that give life meaning.

For the past six years, I have been sitting with that reality and tending to my body and to my emotions — intentional every day tending in the form of yoga, writing, therapy, massage, walking, talking, and sitting with all of the joy, hurt, pain, love, anger, sadness, and happiness that life has brought because of and in spite of my actions.

I have experienced so. much. healing.

And so, though my children all now live in their own homes and I have lost my in-person chance to model a better way for them, I am going into the classroom this time with re-set expectations for myself and for my students. I will be doing things differently.

I’ve been practicing a phrase that describes my new approach: giving my best without giving my all. I’m not sure exactly what it will look like, because this mindset is new to me, but I am picturing a me that is more present, that walks a little more slowly, who leaves her stack of papers on her desk when she walks away at the end of a long day, who decides in the moment that we aren’t going to finish the lesson as planned.

Will my students still know that I am passionate about writing, about reading, about poetry, about literature? I hope so, but more importantly, I hope that they see me demonstrate compassion, balance, flexibility, integrity, and kindness. I hope that I am able, in the moment, to say, “It seems we are all a little overwhelmed right now, how about we just pause for a minute and breathe?”

I never allowed myself that space in the last chapter. I never gave myself a moment to recognize that I was overwhelmed. I never took the opportunity to take a long calming breath. I kept on pushing, giving my best and giving my all.

And it showed — maybe not always to my coworkers or the students in my classroom, but it was definitely evident to my family. I was overtaxed and in denial, so I was often detached, preoccupied, reactive, and short-tempered with the people I care about most.

I’m planning to do it differently this time. Even in the season of Covid-19 where all of my students will be online, where I have to create a Google slide show for every class I teach, where I will be training my students to move from Zoom to Google classroom, to a short story, to Khan Academy, to a physical book right in front of them. Now, more than ever, it’s important that we take a breath, check in with one another, and allow ourselves to be mediocre, average, and downright so-so — even on our journey to excellence.

Because true excellence is recognizing your strengths AND your weaknesses; it’s knowing when to work hard AND when to walk away; it’s knowing when to push through AND when to sit down.

It’s knowing that it’s probably best to give less than 100%.

He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

2 Cor 12:9

Back-to-School, 2020 Teacher Edition

Each morning last week, I opened my laptop and clicked on a zoom link to join the team at my new school. In some ways this Summer Summit, the name my school gives to back-to-school teacher inservice training, is reminiscent of many other trainings I have attended. I’ve been learning about the school’s culture and procedures, getting familiar with faculty and staff names and faces, and examining curricula, assessments, behavior management plans, the master schedule, and school-wide protocols — all the regular details of back to school preparation.

However, in some ways it’s very different due to the added layer of preparing for teaching in the era of Covid-19. I’ve learned how to meet with kids virtually through Zoom, how to deliver and receive content digitally through Google classroom, how to maintain online investment and engagement and build relationships with kids who I’ll see only on a screen, and how to stay safe in the school building where I’ll be working while students work from home.

And, this year, I have one more layer that I keep trying to look at, assess, and interrogate — my deeply rooted racism. I know it’s there, and I’m trying to call it out and deal with it as much as I can.

The first time I saw it last week was when I noticed myself chiming in to provide answers during instructional sections — I knew the answers, so why shouldn’t I unmute myself? But then I heard a small voice saying, Hey, Kristin, why don’t you pause a minute and see if someone else would like to speak? I took a moment to recognize that as a white woman, I’ve had all kinds of opportunities to speak — in fact, I’ve been the leader at several back to school trainings like this — my voice has been heard plenty. How can I learn, in this setting where half or more of the staff members are people of color, to close my mouth and listen to the voices of people who have been in the setting longer, know the community better, and who might have something to teach me?

This realization may have been sparked by the fact that I recently started listening to the Podcast Nice White Parents. It’s a story of the history of “well-intentioned” white parents who have attempted to integrate black schools in New York City and who have often done so by plowing in, demanding their voices be heard, and failing to acknowledge the culture and values of the people of color who were in the school first. Instead, they have come in waving money and shouting loudly about what should be done with it, silencing those who’d been just fine thankyouverymuch before the white people showed up. I’ve been cringing through these episodes, seeing my own well-intentioned-ness in the rearview mirror.

Midway through last week’s training one of the leaders inside a small group of a dozen of us, posed a sharing question to check in on how we are doing and how we are managing stress. It was the day after a 17 year old white boy in Kenosha, Wisconsin shot and killed two protestors in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake on Sunday, but when I was called on to respond, Kenosha was not at the front of my mind. I said that I was doing well, happy to be part of the team, and managing my stress by taking long walks with my husband. I then sat and listened as the Black men and women in the group took their turns, mentioned their grief and fear in light of recent events, and their passion for caring for our students, 99% of whom are Black. I felt conspicuous. Of course I am there for these students, too, but my privilege, my racism, was exposed in that moment. I could easily share, untouched by the impact of such racial violence. Though I had just the night before been horrified as I watched the video of the shooting on national news, my feelings of injustice — no matter how strong they are — can in no way compare to the lived realities of many of my new coworkers, and I’ve got to acknowledge that.

I’ll be supported in the interrogation and dismantling of my own racism because the school’s mission is explicitly anti-racist. All week long I heard the refrain of ensuring access, closing the achievement gap, and providing resources to ensure that our students have everything they need to succeed. I completed an hours-long course on strategies and language to use to convey the importance of education to my students and the imperative for 100% participation and 100% success.

And not only did I hear the refrain, I saw the practices enacted in our professional development. Staff members were provided scaffolding and support as they learned to function virtually through Zoom. We were given step-by-step instructions and modeling in the use of Google Classroom. We were given breaks away from the screen and incentives like gift cards and fun games that encouraged us to participate. Every instructional practice I will be expected to use — from the technology, to lesson planning, to behavior management — was modeled for me.

I’ve been walked through how to set behavioral expectations, how to use Google Forms to create informal assessments that I will use every single class period (as will everyone else on the team), how to use Google Slides to guide my students through each lesson, how to use my language to encourage my students to show up, opt in, work hard, finish strong, and reflect. We’ve played games, we’ve had hard conversations, we’ve laughed, and we’ve worked!

Why so intense? Because it matters that we get it right — lives are at stake. Whole futures weigh in the balance. Over 300 of our high schoolers have been at home since March, with varying levels of support and resources. Many of them live in poverty in communities that are under-resourced. Many have been fighting to survive in ways that I am sure I will never fully understand. Because we want to provide them with opportunities and access, we are committed to giving high-quality instruction. Because we want them to be able to use their voices and to have choices to pursue education, to obtain employment, to follow their dreams, and to live their fullest lives, we have high expectations for engagement and achievement.

And if I have high expectations for my students, I must also have high expectations for myself. If I expect them to learn and grow, I must be willing to learn and grow, too. If I want them to invest in their education, I must first demonstrate my willingness to invest.

So, I listen to podcasts that make me cringe. I lean into learning about all the technology and all the evidence-based practices. I commit to learning the culture of the school and conforming to the way they do things around here. I acknowledge that I have deeply imbedded racist beliefs, I call them out when I see them, and I invite others to call out the ones I don’t see.

When we were broken into our departments to analyze assessments and do lesson planning, I was thrilled to see that my two English department colleagues are Black women. They will be my guides, my mentors, my supports. I have a lot to learn, and I am thankful for the posture of willingness they have greeted me with. They are sharing resources, answering my questions, taking my phone calls, and welcoming me aboard. The highlight of my week was the end of one of our departmental sessions when the team leader looked into her camera and said, “We have got a dope squad!” Guys, I’m part of a dope squad!

I want to be very mindful of the privilege I’ve been given here — the opportunity, after believing my career was over, to use my gifts of writing and teaching in a community that is committed to social justice and the dismantling of racist systems, working side by side with highly qualified people of color. I could never have dreamt it was possible, but I am thankful, and I am ready.

I’ll put in this hard work; this is what I was built for.

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord.

Colossians 3:23

P.S. Many of you have offered support as I step into this work. So many of you have said you are praying for me and will continue to do so. I can’t tell you what that means to me. I will continue to take donations of surplus school supplies (I will never say no to all the surplus paper, folders, pens, highlighters that you have piled up at your house). I will always take book donations — particularly books that feature people of color and memoirs. Additionally, I learned this week that our school offers student incentives for showing up and working hard. I would love to have a stock pile of prizes for my students — I’m thinking small items like college logo cups, stickers, pencils, pens, etc. — think all those freebies you get wherever you go — or gift cards to Target, McDonald’s, etc. in small denominations such as $5 or less (free drink, etc.). I am open to suggestions, too! Thank you for all the support you have given me so far.

Coronavirus Diary 16: Back to School Edition

Can you hear that? Can you hear the subtle hum? It’s the thrum of collective anxiety coursing through the nervous systems of every teacher, parent, and student who has already or who is about to start the school year either in person, online, or in some kind of hybrid format. The theme of the song? Uncertainty.

Never before have we approached a school year in such a “wait and see” posture. Schools and districts that have chosen to open in person have plans in place “just in case” a student or many students, a teacher or many teachers, a school or many schools get infected with Covid-19 mandating a move to partially or fully remote instruction. Schools that have chosen to open virtually have committed to several weeks or months of online instruction with plans in place to move to partial or full in-person models as soon as possible.

Teachers, students, and parents are facing the uncertainty about where they will do instruction this year.

Some schools have provided their teachers with training on using Zoom rooms, Google classroom, and myriad online instructional tools. Some have done this well and thoroughly, some have taken a more haphazard approach, and others have told their teachers to “figure it out”. Some teachers are very proficient with Internet technology, some manage just fine, and some have avoided using technology for as long as possible and have no idea what a URL is. While most students in middle- and upper-class communities have been raised with a device in their hands, many in lower-income communities are learning to access technology for academic purposes for the very first time. Whether they are technological novices or pros, they’ll be “doing school” much differently than ever before.

Teachers, students, and parents are facing uncertainty about how they will do instruction this year.

Some schools started the year early, to get in as much instruction as possible before another potential stay-at-home order. Some schools have students coming to school on alternate days to space out the number of bodies in classrooms. Some schools are having shorter instructional days to allow for added cleaning in buildings or to allow for time away from computer screens if students are learning from home.

Teachers, students, and parents are facing uncertainly about when they will do instruction this year.

Teachers are wondering about how we will build relationships, how we will have enough time together to get to know one another, when we will find time to share stories and tell all the corny teacher jokes that are critical to every classroom. We’re wondering where to pick up in the curriculum, knowing that our students’ learning was disrupted way back in March and that individual students managed that disruption and the virtual learning that followed much differently from one another. We’re wondering how to allow students the time and space to process trauma — the trauma of leaving school in the middle of the year, the trauma of losing a friend or loved one, the trauma of being continuously at home with a family that may or may not have fared well in the face of a global pandemic, the resulting economic crisis, and the concurring racial unrest.

We’re wondering how we’ll manage to reach students who we may only see in the gallery view of our Zoom rooms, how well we’ll adapt to distributing and collecting assignments via Google classroom, and how efficient we’ll be at transitioning from task to task, student to student, class to class, from in-person to online learning, or vice-versa.

Parents are wondering how safe their kids will be at school, how long they will stay there, and how they will manage to juggle all their responsibilities — again! — if their students are moved home. They are wondering if they’ll be able to keep their jobs — or find a job, if they’ll be allowed to work at home, if they’ll be able to find child care, and if they’ll have enough money to pay for it. They’re trying to explain the unexplainable and answer the unanswerable for their children who are also feeling the stress of the uncertain.

These children wonder who their teacher will be, when they will talk to their friends, if they’ll be able to have recess, and how they will eat their lunch. They are worried that they’ll have to keep learning at home, that they won’t understand the assignments, and that they’ll have have to sit in front of the computer for all of their lessons. They are asking when they’ll get to go to practice, will they have to wear their masks, and why they can only go to school on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Where? When? How? Why?

All of the answers are, “Well, let’s wait and see.”

It’s so uncomfortable to live amid so much uncertainty when we’ve been following the same rhythms and patterns for so long. We just want to go back to ‘normal’ — to do things “the way we’ve always done them” — and to be beyond all this Covid-19 nonsense.

But we’re not there yet. We’re here, in the midst of a global pandemic, where we do things differently than we’ve ever done them before.

We wash our hands more, we wear masks, we stay home, we do family Zoom meetings, we send packages in the mail to loved ones we wish we could see in person. We stand further apart, we ask more questions, we decline more invitations. We become accustomed to the phrase, “we’ll have to wait and see.”

So dear friends, dear teachers, dear parents, dear students, I’m sorry that this is where we find ourselves, but alas, here we are. So, since we’re all in this together, can we find inside ourselves, under the hum of uncertainty, a way to extend a virtual hand of support — a cheering on, a forgiving smile, a gracious response? Can we find a way to see one another’s uncertainty with understanding and compassion? Can we hear one another’s worries, share our frustrations, and commit to being kind to one another in the midst of uncertainty?

Can we, as teachers, be patient with one another as we learn all the things, even if the fog of our Covid brains requires us to hear the instructions multiple times? Can we be gentle with our students who may not know how to submit an assignment online, answer an email, or right click on a hyperlink?

Can we, as parents, be supportive of our teachers and administrators who are trying very hard to meet the educational, social, and safety needs of our children and their teachers? Can we be respectful with our questions, offer our assistance, and send a note of encouragement? Can we remember that our kids are managing uncertainty, too, and that they may not always regulate their anxiety, their fears, their frustration, their anger? Can we give them an extra measure of grace as they navigate the “wait and see”?

Can we, as students, show up and do our best to attend to our teachers and let them know when we are getting lost or don’t know what to do next? Can we be patient when the technology doesn’t work right, when our teachers seem flustered, and when our parents are at their wits’ end? Can we try to communicate when we ourselves are at our wits’ end?

It’s gonna take all of us doing our best, assuming the best, and overlooking the less-than-best. We’re doing a lot here — trying to focus on the tasks in front of us while trying to drown out that insufferable hum of uncertainty. If we have any hope of success, it’s gonna be because we all leaned in to the uncertainty, saw it for what it is, and accepted the fact that we’ll have to do what we can and wait and see.

We can do this — together — we can do this.

Be kind to one another, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.

Ephesians 4:32

Reality Setting In

I drove to Detroit yesterday, walked into a building I’ve only been in twice before, went to a room to see someone I’ve never met, to check out a laptop that’s different than any I’ve ever worked on before.

And reality started to sink in — this is all gonna be new.

I was struggling to type my name on a non-Mac keyboard when the principal walked in and greeted me. She’s a six-foot tall Black woman with red-orange hair, an air of confidence, and a gentle smile. I was so happy to see her. She wondered if I’d seen my room yet, and when I said I had not, she offered to take me there.

As we walked, she shared that Detroit Public School teachers were striking over safety concerns regarding in-person instruction. She (and I) understood the teachers’ concerns and also the reality a strike might mean for students across Detroit who’ve been out of school since March, who’ve missed the stability and routine that school can bring. We shared our compassion for teachers who have not been equipped with the time to plan, the tools they will need, or the training to use those tools in order to effectively teach remotely. Our understanding of a system in need of funding, reform, and repair remained unsaid as we walked down a newly polished hall and found my room.

“My name’s on the door!” I gushed.

“Yes.”

As I walked into the room, I saw the neatly arranged desks, the fresh green wall, a box fan near the front of the room, “Do I get to keep the fan?”

“Yes.”

“Do I get to keep the books?”

“Yes.”

“How about these supplies?”

“Everything in here stays.”

“It looks great!” I practically shouted as I took in all the shelving, the Smart Board, the white board, and the tape, stapler, and other supplies behind my desk area.

I began to picture myself working in this room, knowing that it would be me, alone, at least for the first quarter. All of our students will be remote — from their homes — on tablets and laptops that the school has been acquiring through the generosity of community partners, grants, and purchases. They’ll be able to come to the school to pick up supplies and food, which the school will continue to provide, but they will learn from home. I, on the other hand, will be in this bright classroom four days a week, and working from home on Wednesdays when my students will have assignments to complete, books to read, and journals to write while I meet with my colleagues, hold office hours, grade student work, and write lesson plans.

We left the room and she showed me who would be my hall neighbors — a new math teacher, a social studies teacher, and a master English teacher right next door to me, for ease in collaboration. The computer lab and several computer carts are a few steps away. I could picture myself moving down the hallway to the lab with my students, dropping into the classroom next door to ask a couple of questions, and moving back to my room for instruction. I had to keep editing my mental movie, which kept auto-populating all of the hallways, classrooms, and desks with students. I had to keep reminding myself that this year was going to be different.

I’m going to be in my classroom, in front of my laptop, greeting my students, providing instruction, responding to questions, and — hopefully — making a difference.

When I was offered this position, I agreed to teach freshman English, but on the day I accepted the offer, I was asked if I’d at all be interested in teaching seniors (Yes!) who need to be prepared for college (Yes!) who haven’t taken the SAT and need some preparation (Yes!), even if I have to help write the course (Are you kidding me, Yes!).

Then, last week, I was told that I would also have a section of freshmen (Let me at ’em!) and a section of just SAT prep, an elective, presumably for juniors (Hooray for juniors!). When I left Lutheran North, I had one section of freshmen along with juniors and seniors. This feels like home.

So, I’ve been dabbling in curriculum and reading Common Core Standards while also taking an online course called The No-Nonsense Nurturer, which all teachers at Detroit Leadership Academy (and many other schools across the country) take. Its focus is on setting the classroom climate for high expectations and academic achievement in communities that have historically been marginalized. The training is solid — through it I’m recognizing some of my tendencies toward enabling students because of my inherent biases, and I am also being affirmed in some of the strategies I’ve used in the past to build relationships that motivate students to excel. Taking this course is helping me shift from where I’ve been to where I will be.

And in all this preparation, though I am elated and so excited, I am starting to feel the hum of anxiety — am I really ready? can I really develop this new course in time? can I actually learn to go with the flow? will I really be able to make a difference in the lives of these students?

Yesterday, when I picked up my laptop, I also got a lanyard with keys, and a staff T-shirt emblazoned with the name of the organization that houses Detroit Leadership Academy — Equity Education. It’s just a black T with one word on the front, but that one word is a reminder of why I am taking this step — back to the classroom, back to the city, back to students who might not know that they matter.

I’m ready to put that shirt on — I’m ready to suit up! I’m a little nervous, a tiny bit terrified, but I am ready. I’m stepping into this role knowing that I might not get it all perfect, but I am going to show up each day for the sake of these students, for the sake of their futures, for the sake of equity, and, as I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, for the sake of myself. I know I’ve been prepared for this moment, and I am thrilled to step into it.

Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

Joshua 1: 9

Disruption and Transformation

My oldest granddaughter is starting kindergarten this week, and as we were celebrating this milestone over the weekend, I started thinking about the year I started kindergarten. I couldn’t wait to go to school, to meet new friends, to sit at a desk, and to raise my hand to speak (ok, let’s be honest, I never fully mastered that part).

Just as my mother and father had done when they were five, I got up early in the morning, ate my breakfast, brushed my teeth, and walked down the street to my neighborhood elementary school, where I greeted my teacher, Mrs. Cole (bless her heart), and met those who would become some of my lifelong friends.

From that point on, most of the years of my life, I have looked forward to the start of school. I’ve bought new pencils and pens, picked out the coolest lunchbox I could find, and selected my first day of school outfit days in advance. I went to school from 8am to 3pm Monday through Friday until I went off to college, where I continued on much the same calendar. I took breaks at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Spring Break, and then enjoyed a long summer before I started the cycle all over again.

You could probably say the same, because we’ve been doing school this way since time immemorial.

Much has come to depend on this system. Parents count on the fact that their kids are going to school: it provides a place for kids to go while parents are at work, one or even two meals a day, and even transportation to and from school.

Schools provide social, cultural, and practical education. It’s in school that kids learn to share and take their turn, to appreciate music and the arts, and to follow processes like writing proposals and submitting applications. Our society depends on schools to prepare children to become members of society. It has for centuries by now.

And, for the most part, it’s been doing it the same way for all those years. Children have been starting kindergarten at age five since the 1870s (see a history of kindergarten here). Since long before that time, children across the country have gone to school Monday through Friday, from 8 to 3, or in many cases much longer with breakfast or before care tacked on early and sports, extracurriculars, or after care added at the end of the day.

Teachers arrive early and stay late, often working 10 or more hours a day, day after day, month after month, nine months out of the year. Year after year after year.

Until a pandemic arrives and disrupts that system.

Disruptions can freak us out — We panic, we stress, we yell at our friends and neighbors, we point fingers, and we demand that things go back to normal.

However, sometimes disruption can show us a better way.

If you’ve been following my blog since its inception, you will know that it was born out of disruption. After years and years of celebrating the start of the school year, a disruption pulled me out of that rhythm. Chronic illness, and the acute nature of its beginnings, forced me into quarantine — not a literal quarantine, but it might as well have been, because I was no longer able to be in the classroom, to rub elbows with my community, or to share space and oxygen with the students and colleagues that I had loved so deeply.

And it freaked me out. I cried. I grieved. I yelled at my family and friends. I spent long days and weeks on my bed wishing that things would go back to normal, but the disruption showed me a better way.

When I was forced out of the cycle that had felt like home for over 40 years, I had to take a long look at the time that was available to me, the resources I had at my disposal, the abilities I still had, and the goals I was trying to achieve. How, I wondered, could I still be involved in education with my new limitations?

And isn’t that where we are now? We’ve been forced out of a cycle that has provided structure for our society for well over two hundred years. We are freaking out. We’ve been freaking out. Parents who’ve been stuck at home trying to work while parenting their children and attending to their educational needs, are rightfully overwhelmed. They have not been prepared for this. They’ve been prepared, as all of us have, to send our kids to school. Now some, of course, have chosen to prepare themselves to school their children at home — and these folks right now, are certainly at an advantage. The rest of the country — and much of the world — has been thrown off balance by this curve ball.

And we’re reeling — when will we go back to normal?

Some are pressing the issue of going back to normal right this very minute, “The kids need to be in school!” And I get it. If we go back to school, we think, everything will feel right again. Wouldn’t it be great to be packing lunches, waving to our kids as they get on their busses, going to football games on Friday night, and bending over the kitchen table every night trying to complete school projects (ok, maybe not that one)?

But what if, what if, this disruption could show us a better way. What if we took a long look at the time and the spaces that are available to us, the resources we have at our disposal, the abilities we still have, and the goals we are trying to achieve? How can we still be involved in education with our current limitations?

Some are figuring this out right now, folks. Never before have students of all income levels had access to personal electronic devices, but community members are stepping up, donating, and making sure that all of our kids have a laptop or tablet they can work from. Never before has there been such a global push for equity in terms of Internet technology, but right now, many teachers are receiving training on Google Classroom, Zoom, and other methods of digitizing their content and delivering materials to students who will not be physically with them. Likewise, students from all kinds of backgrounds, will begin to navigate digital spaces like they never have before.

Could this be a leveling of one end of the playing field?

What if educators, who find themselves sitting around the scrap heap of their disrupted plans and schedules, were right now thinking and preparing to do things a different way? What if, in fact, they’ve been begging for this opportunity for years? What if they have been longing for more professional development, more support from their communities, and more resources, and this disruption was the catalyst for change?

You might think I sound like Pollyanna, unless you remember that just six years ago, I walked out of a classroom, convinced that I’d never go back, that I spent that summer and much of the fall in bed with pain and inflammation or in the bathroom throwing up, and that the last six years have been a slow healing and restructuring of my life, and that in that healing and restructuring I’ve discovered new strengths, new possibilities, new ways of thinking, and a new sense of hope.

I’m living proof that disruption can been an opportunity for restoration, rebirth, and ingenuity.

If you are so stressed by this disruption right now and can’t see a way that the coming days will work, I get that. If you are lying on your bed in pain, or shaking your fist in rage, I feel that. If you are hungry for hope, for change, for rebirth, I’m just saying, believe that it can happen.

I’m believing for you right now. Many of you have believed for me over the last six years, even when I didn’t believe for myself.

Transformation often comes in the midst of hopelessness — watch for it. I know I am.

How can I do anything else when I’m looking at this 5 year old beauty curiously examining wildflowers on a Sunday afternoon, knowing that she’s heading to kindergarten on Tuesday.

The whole world is ahead of her, and I have to be full of hope.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

Romans 15:13

“Both Sides”, one more time for the people in the back — Next Chapter

I wrote this piece last summer, and I ran it as a ‘re-visit’ in January, but as we head into the Democratic and Republican conventions over the next two weeks, perhaps we can take a moment to remember that although the US is largely a two-party system, the complexity of beliefs and political viewpoints in […]

“Both Sides”, one more time for the people in the back — Next Chapter

You want to go back to the classroom? Now?

I keep hearing this question (even if it’s sometimes left unsaid): Why would I leave a perfectly decent job to go back to the classroom? why now — in the middle of a pandemic?

It’s a great question, and the most honest answer I have is that, if it weren’t for the pandemic, I don’t know if I would be going back to the classroom.

After two and a half years at Lindamood-Bell, I was finally learning all the ropes, and I had finally been granted the opportunity to work with the Lindamood-Bell for Schools program in its partnership with the Fort Smith, Arkansas schools. I’d been learning to use Zoom to join a teacher and her class to provide instructional coaching and in-the-moment changes to instructional plans, and I was loving this collaboration. It was reasonable to expect that if I stayed with the company I would be able to do more of this kind of work, and I was excited about that. Also, I had a solid caseload of students (and their families) who I’d been working with for a couple of years — designing and implementing instruction and even collaborating with the schools these students attended. I was finding a way to use my years of experience and to continue to grow.

The pay was fine, the work was challenging, and my body, which had rebelled in my former life as teacher, administrator, mother, wife, and denier of emotions, seemed to be able to manage the pace and the stress.

I really had no serious intention of pursuing anything different.

And then, in mid-March, it became apparent that we were going to take all of our equipment and materials home and we were going to work remotely until further notice. This was actually fine, too. In fact, Lindamood-Bell, I felt, did a great job of getting us all home, digitizing all of our resources, and providing (ahead of any mandates) additional sick time and vacation time. I probably could’ve continued to work with students remotely — from my home office — indefinitely.

Like everyone, I shifted my lifestyle — wore more comfortable clothing (which I lovingly refer to as my Covid uniform), went for more walks, cooked more meals to eat at home, and watched more television including the daily news reports.

I (like most quarantined humans) watched George Floyd die, and it looked too much like watching Michael Brown dying. I saw Ahmaud Arbery get gunned down, and he looked like people I know. I saw Rayshard Brooks shift from a man who’d fallen asleep in his car, to a man aware that his life was in jeopardy, to a dead man through the lens of someone’s cell phone, and I was horrified by the world we are living in — where in the space of a few weeks we repeatedly bore witness to the senseless killing of black men — black men who didn’t have to die.

Night after night my husband and I watched news reports and protests; every day I saw friends, former students, and my own children, posting on social media and reminding me that this is not new. Senseless deaths, not to mention broad and systemic mistreatment, of people of color happen every day in the United States, and they’ve been happening since the first slaves were dragged off boats onto the shores of this sweet land of liberty and beaten if they did not do the work that their white masters demanded they do.

In many ways, a white police officer kneeling on the neck of a black man, smiling toward the camera, is just one more slave owner demanding that the black man do what he says or pay the price and be punished within the gaze of all the other slaves so that they will know their place and learn to comply.

In this climate I was sitting in my home office every day, meeting with students, doing interventions that enable them to read, chatting with their parents about how they are coping during a pandemic with all the kids at home, trying to get their own work done, and wondering when things will go back to normal.

And I knew that I didn’t want things to go back to normal — not if normal means that some kids get safe schools with excellent resources that set them up for success while other kids (for not fault of their own) get substandard materials, ill-prepared teachers, and less access to a quality education, while white folks who commit crimes often get the benefit of the doubt and minimum sentences and black folks who commit crimes often end up dead or incarcerated far longer than is necessary or humane.

The disparity between schools that are predominantly white and those that are predominantly black is not a new revelation to me — I’ve been aware of these inequities since long before I taught for one measly semester in the St. Louis, Missouri public schools, but somehow being quarantined during Covid, working every day with students who have been given every resource, and then being barraged by data about the inequities (a substantially higher incidence of Covid and deaths related to Covid among people of color, the number of underfunded and understaffed schools in urban centers like Detroit), along with a resurgence of activism, especially among young people including my own children, my coworkers, and many former students, created an atmosphere in which I saw the opportunity I had to step in.

Meanwhile, many teachers are feeling the need to leave the profession because of Covid — they feel they are unsafe in the classroom, that their communities are asking them to risk too much, that they can’t afford to put their loved ones in danger — and I don’t blame them. These are valid concerns. And if you’ve been in the classroom for years or decades and you are already tired, and you feel unappreciated because you are underpaid, under-resourced, and under-valued by your administration, your students’ parents, and your community, then being asked to go into a crowded space for up to eight hours a day, five days a week in the middle of a pandemic just might be the last straw.

So why — why? — would I willingly put my name in the hat?

Because as dark as everything seems right now, I hold onto hope that this just might be the time for major change. Covid-19 might be providing us an opportunity to see — really see — racism, societal inequities, broken systems, and unjust practices. Because we’ve had to shut so many things down, we might be able to see different ways of doing things — ways to incorporate working from home, digital platforms, and content-sharing so that every American kid can have access to all the content and resources that are available in all the best districts. We can begin to imagine scenarios in which one highly qualified teacher in New York City, for example, provides a webinar on the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, which students across the country and around the world can stream at a time that works best for them, submit a reflection to a digital discussion board, and then work collaboratively with other students from different neighborhoods, states, and even countries, to create a YouTube video to link to the original webinar for sharing with countless other students. Imagine how that experience might connect students to one another and impact their view of the world, themselves, and each other!

How might we re-shape education so that the neighborhood you live in, the color of your skin, and your parents’ income doesn’t determine your access to high quality content and educational experiences? Is Covid-19 providing us the space and the perspective to do this?

I think it might be!

Now, do I think I am going to single-handedly change the American educational system. You know I’m gonna try, but realistically, systems that are as established as our school system (or our prisons, or our government) don’t change quickly. In fact, if they have any hope of changing, they need the investment of participants whose voices are unafraid to offer new ideas, to challenge long-held beliefs, and to believe that things can be better.

And I believe they can.

So that’s why I want to go back to the classroom right now in the middle of a global pandemic.

If not now, then when? If not me, then who?

The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.

Psalm 103:6

Note: If you’d like to support my classroom and the work that I will do this year either in that classroom or from my home office, I am currently collecting composition books (one per student to start), highlighters (a set of three — yellow, pink, blue for each student), index cards for vocabulary work, and other classroom supplies. As soon as I get my school-issued email address, I will be posting a link for those who would like to support from a distance. Thank you so much for following me on my journey in this next chapter.

Facing Change

I don’t want to brag or make it seem like I’m an expert on change, but here are the facts:

Before I graduated high school, I had lived in six homes (ok, I only remember four of them). During and after college, I lived in nine locations (counting separate dorms). Since we’ve been married, we’ve had eleven homes. You might call me a moving expert, because I was Marie Kondo-ing way before Marie Kondo was a thing.

I’ve gone to two elementary schools, one middle school, one high school, two colleges for undergrad (transferring after freshman year), and have taken graduate courses at three universities.

Not counting babysitting, I’ve held at least 25, yes twenty-five, jobs in my life, and I’m sure I’m overlooking some gig-work like that one summer that my stepfather got me an “opportunity” handing out samples in the deli of the grocery store that he managed.

I’ve walked into plenty of new situations, and I’ve learned a few things along the way.

First, I always come with the gusto: This is gonna be great! Imagine all the possibilities! Won’t it be fun? I am at that point a glass-hall-full-and-expecting-more kind of girl. I come on full speed and give it my all. (Exhibit A: I’ve already organized and alphabetized my newly-forming classroom library, and I’m not even in my classroom yet.)

Because I come in with so much enthusiasm, I have been known to overlook critical details, such as, I don’t know, the fact that the people in my life are also feeling the shift of change and they might not be as enthusiastic as I am. My daughter recently reminded me that when we uprooted our family and moved to St. Louis, my husband and I full of gusto and optimism, our children were reeling with grief, anger, and fear. They were not thrilled to be clinging tightly to the flying capes of their superhero parents. They just wanted us to stop and hold them, which I will graciously remind myself that we did from time to time, but we were, I’m afraid, quick to resume our flight — to conquer our mission and save the day.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that I quickly adapt to culture and expectations. In a new setting, I will likely watch quietly for a few days or weeks, until I see how “we do things around here,” but once I have the lay of the land, I bring myself to that situation in the truest way that I can. I remember the faculty retreat where I met my coworkers at Lutheran North. We were at a camp about an hour away from the school, all in shorts and tennis shoes. We gathered for the morning in a conference room to “talk business,” but after lunch we made our way to a challenge course complete with a zip line. Since it was my first day or two with this community, I was in that ‘quietly watching’ phase of entry, so when my team (people I’d never met before!) needed to lift me over a chest-high obstacle, I let them, and when they asked me if I would like to climb a rock wall and do the zip line, activities which I would under normal circumstances politely (or not so politely) decline, I said ok, I would do it. I was trying to go with the flow and figure out the culture, so I went out of my comfort zone and wouldn’t you know, I climbed that wall and zipped that line, and I felt great! These early successes, and others like them, gave me confidence to take some other chances with that group that would soon become family. I thrived at Lutheran North, where I became a leader, and my team embraced me in my truest form which is always honest (sometimes to a fault), often loud, and frequently emotional.

I came into my experience at Lindamood-Bell much more quietly. Illness had sucked the confidence out of me, and the intentionally positive and congratulatory environment of the company culture seemed, although very welcoming, quite foreign. The first two weeks I sat in a room with a coworker (who was my first on-the-job bonus kid) learning the programs, quietly taking notes, and reluctantly participating in role plays. The job was very scripted to start, and I was thankful! Because I was still visibly struggling with autoimmune disease, my gusto was suppressed; I was happy to have clear expectations and structure. I wouldn’t have to lead in this position, well, not at first…not until I was much stronger.

Yes, I come in with gusto, I quietly learn the culture, and then I am who I am.

At Lutheran North, my students called me Momma Ratch. Two of my own children were students at the school, and though while they were in my class, they were students first and treated as such, they were also my children, who rode in my vehicle, dropped by my classroom for a snack, needed to be driven home when they were ill or forgot their running shoes, and invited their classmates to our home. My students who were not my children, saw me in my role as teacher and my role as mother. They came to understand that I was imperfect in both roles, but that I continued to show up and try. They could come to my room with difficulty or to share celebration. They could borrow a few dollars or raid my stash of feminine supplies without asking. I had a stockpile of notebooks, folders, pens, and books in my room that I collected each year when students cleaned out their lockers. Anyone in the school knew they could come get what they needed no questions asked. I had firm and high academic and behavioral expectations, but I also learned what I could let go, what I could negotiate, and what really didn’t matter much at all.

At Lindamood-Bell, my coworkers called me Momma K. This probably started because I am the age of the mothers of all of my coworkers. They are almost all in their twenties (the age of my children), and though I didn’t always feel like it, particularly in the beginning, I think they have valued my experience, my perspective, my age. Often, it was me who was asking them for support, for encouragement, for understanding, as I navigated some of the most difficult years of my life. They were mostly oblivious to the grief that I was carrying, but it seeped out in moments of unprofessionalism. I would snap in a moment of frustration or glare at a coworker who told me something I didn’t want to hear. Yet, they, too, accepted me for who I am, and even celebrated me. In fact, the culture of Lindamood-Bell, the clapping, the parties, the dancing and balloons, reminded me of the importance of celebration, of noticing small victories and big ones even (and especially) in the midst of grief and transition. My coworkers dress up in wigs and hot dog costumes on a Wednesday just to make learning more fun. They hide pictures of Guy Fieri inside a closet to surprise you and make you laugh. They help kids set a trap of plastic spiders to scare you when you walk into a room. They cry because you are leaving, but send you off with books for your new classroom, a gluten-free cookie for the road, and a bottle of Malbec for your next celebration.

As I’m gathering my gusto to walk into Detroit Leadership Academy I want to be mindful of those around me who in the midst of Covid-19 and all its uncertainties might not be feeling as enthusiastic as I am; I want to be sure I stop and attend to the needs of others instead of just powering through. I know I’ll take the confidence and flexibility I found at Lutheran North and the kindness and celebration I learned at Lindamood-Bell. I’ll walk in quietly, even though I’ve already stocked my closet with teacher wear and powerful shoes. This is a brand new culture, and I want to see how “we do things around here” before I find the expression of myself that will work best for these kids, these coworkers, this school, this season.

As in every other change I’ve navigated over my fifty-plus years, I know I am going to learn at DLA — I don’t know what yet, but if the lessons I learn are even half as impactful as the lessons I’ve learned at Lutheran North and Lindamood-Bell, I know I’ll be changed forever.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

Joshua 1:9

Note: If you are in or near Ann Arbor and have surplus school supplies: notebooks, pens, folders, index cards, feminine supplies, etc. I would be happy to take them off your hands and put them in my new classroom so that students can come and take what they need no questions asked.

The Choice: Changing Course, pt. 5

For the past two weeks, I’ve been chronicling my decision to leave the position I’ve held for the past two and a half years to go back to the classroom — a move I thought I wouldn’t be able to make again. For the back story, you can read the following posts: Prepared for What’s Next, But Wait There’s More, Ready, and Getting Here.

Let’s see, where did we leave off — oh yes, the decision.

How do you make a decision that will potentially alter the course of your life? When presented with one option that is familiar, safe, and consistent, and two others that, while being exactly what you’ve been asking for, represent the unknown.

First, you pray. And for me, that means writing. I’ve filled a spiral notebook during this process that started sometime after Memorial Day with that conversation with my husband in the kitchen, which prompted applications, which turned into phone calls, which turned into interviews, which turned into offers. As I page through my notebook, I see lists of questions for interviewers (would you describe the culture of the school? what curriculum do you use?), I see brainstorming for how education might be restructured post-Covid (what if we shifted the schedule entirely? more broadly utilized technology? forever adjusted class size?), I see feelings about diving into something new (it’ll be amazing, I’m terrified, what if I can’t manage? what if I thrive?), and I see my processing of everything else I was managing throughout that process — my current students and their needs, a temporary health issue that flared up (of course) in the midst of the added stress, and plans to connect with family and friends. Within all the lines I wrote is a groaning, a pleading: Lord, I lift it up to you. What would you have me do? Will you guide my steps? Will you keep me from taking on too much? Will you show me the right fit? Will you provide for my current students if/when I choose to leave? Will you show me how to balance my love for my family and friends with my love for teaching? Will you show me how to give my best without giving my all?

And as I wrote and prayed, I continued through the process.

The first phone call came quickly — perhaps a day or two after I submitted the first round of applications. I had plugged in my headphones and headed out on my lunchtime walk when my phone began to ring. I looked — it was a Detroit area code. My heart sped up. The questions came — did I know this was an inner city, low income school? Did I feel comfortable teaching in such an environment? What were my salary requirements? In other words, was I sure I wanted an interview? Yes, I was sure.

In the next day or two, I had a preliminary video chat with that school, let’s call it School #1, and an informational session with another agency, let’s call it Agency #1, that places teachers in low income schools in several locations across the country. This non-profit organization obtains grants to fund training on equity, inclusion, and classroom management strategies, which they provide to teachers who are then placed in these schools. I was interested in both School #1 and Agency #1 and signaled my desire to move forward with both.

Soon after, I had a second video interview with School #1, this time with the head of instruction, who was similar to me in age and experience, and who articulated the philosophy of the school and some of the initiatives they were working on. She didn’t mince words, and neither did I. That’s the beauty of being 50-something; I feel the freedom to clearly articulate who I am from the start, because I want to make sure I get a good fit. So when she told me that they are working on rebuilding school culture, I asked what does that look like? how are you setting school climate? do you utilize police or safety officers? what are your priorities in terms of curriculum? how do you view your role in racial justice work?

Maybe that same day, or the day after, I had a preliminary video interview with Agency #1. This was a little different. I was given five minutes to introduce myself, share my journey in education, and communicate why I was interested in this particular agency’s work.

As you can imagine, simply being in this process was clarifying and invigorating. Having to articulate my ideas about education and equity, often with interviewers who were themselves most often people of color, was challenging and affirming. I feel strongly about providing high quality education to all students, but most specifically students who have historically been denied access, and the more I talk about it, the more passionate I feel.

Within a week, School #1 offered me a position teaching freshman English. I was elated! I immediately drafted a list of questions I wanted answered before I accepted the offer and sent them off in an email.

That same day, I got an email from Agency #2, which was hiring for School #2; would I be available for a 15-20 minute interview in the next few days. Of course! The next day on my lunch hour, my phone rang. It was a typical call, “Let me tell you a bit about what we do,” followed by “tell me a little about your journey.” The more we talked, the more kinship I felt. This school follows a “do no harm” model and values “restorative justice”. Its current initiatives are to 1) increase academic achievement, 2) decrease suspensions, and 3) increase attendance. While, as with School #1, 99% of School #2’s students are Black and qualify for free and reduced lunch, and though only 25% of graduating seniors go on to college, this interview was upbeat and full of hope.

I hung up thinking, “I sure hope they hurry up and give me an offer before I have to respond to School #1,” and then my lunch hour was over, and I went back to work.

Over the next few days, I checked my email for responses to the questions I’d sent to School #1 but saw nothing. Then, I got a phone call from School #2, asking me if I could do an in-person interview at the school, socially distanced, of course.

Then, I got a call from School #3, asking if I could do a virtual interview. And, I had an follow-up video interview with Agency #1.

Yes, it was moving very quickly — and it was affirming. Imagine that — not only might I have an opportunity to go back to the classroom, I might even be able to be selective. This privilege was not lost on me.

I did all the interviews, including the in-person interview at School #2, where I met with the hiring agent I had spoken with on the phone and with the principal, who I immediately saw as a champion of kids. Within a week of that interview, at the end of a holiday weekend, I received an offer.

As it turns out, although both offers (from School #1 and School #2) were for freshman English and both offered the exact same salary, the communication I received from School #2, Detroit Leadership Academy (DLA), was far more timely and thorough than what I received from School #1. Not only that, when I toured both schools, I saw evidence at DLA of intentionality that I did not see at School #1. I saw a plan in place to support students in their ownership of their education and their future, and evidence of DLA’s commitment to not only the students but their community as well. In fact, DLA is the school I mentioned in an earlier post that has been providing food not only to their students but to any community member throughout this Covid-19 season.

In the end, the choice was not difficult, even though I interviewed with Agency #3 on the day I accepted DLA’s offer. That same day, I put in my notice at Lindamood-Bell, and the goodbyes began.

Although those goodbyes were tear-filled, I am very excited about this coming school year at DLA, even with all the questions that Covid brings. I’m taking some time right now to rest up, but I’m also gathering supplies and dreaming big dreams of how this choice will change my life in this next chapter.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about that next time.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever.

Ephesians 4:20-21

Getting Here: Changing Course, pt. 4

I started teaching in the fall of 1989 at Lutheran Special Education Ministries (LSEM) in Detroit. I had a degree in Secondary Education with a major in English and a minor in psychology, and I’d taken a couple courses on the exceptional child, but I had no special education certification. I had at one time explored special education as a career, and my first job out of college was working as direct care staff at a group home for teenaged girls with emotional impairments, but I wasn’t really prepared for a self-contained classroom of 10 seventh-graders with diagnosed learning disabilities. I learned a lot from those kiddos; I can only hope they learned a few things from me, too.

I took a few graduate courses at the University of Detroit that year and the next when I moved to a resource room position at Lutheran High School North and Lutheran High School Northwest. And then, though my husband was thriving in a 3rd and 4th grade classroom and I was beginning to gain some skills in special ed, we abruptly changed course when our son, who lived with his mother and stepfather, relocated right before the start of kindergarten. Because we wanted to continue our frequent visits, we relocated, too. I started teaching middle school and high school emotionally impaired and learning disabled students English Language Arts in a residential school, The Manor Foundation.

While there, I took more courses toward special ed certification, this time focusing on emotional impairments. I stayed at the Manor Foundation a year and a half — until our daughter was born — and then I began ten years focusing on one, then two, then three young children at home.

When the youngest started preschool, I started substitute teaching; then when she was preparing to start first grade, I began exploring graduate school.

I landed in Michigan State University’s Critical Studies in the Teaching of English program. Writing had long been my passion — in fact, the whole time I was home with my young children, I had been working on writing projects: submitting small pieces to parenting magazines, writing devotions, songs, and chancel dramas for our church, and even writing all the content for a monthly newsletter for teachers. I felt strongly that I wanted to further explore writing and literature, but I had no idea how this one choice would impact the course of my life.

Through this program, my gaze was turned to African American literature, Native American literature, and the power dynamics that exist in writing, academics, and society. In each of my courses, I began focusing my projects on the ways language is used to assert power and gain access. The reading and writing I did for those courses laid the groundwork for the ways I have continued to grow in my understanding of academic language, home language, and the ways we navigate different settings through our use of language. I began to see the language of the home — whether it be African American Vernacular English, Spanish, or Chinese, or a mixture of many languages — as a strength and the ability to shift from that home language to the language of work or the classroom as an asset — a tool to gain access.

So, when I left MSU and taught first in a community college in Michigan and another in Missouri and began to observe my students who were struggling to make that shift day in and day out, I sought ways to provide supports and encouragement while also validating the strength of the home language. What this looks like is that rather than being the English teacher who corrects students’ grammar, I have become the teacher who instead invites variation in grammar, even trying it out playfully myself, and then modeling for students the times and places where making the shift from one language to another becomes a way to gain access and even power.

Over the next nine and a half years, both at Roosevelt High School and Lutheran North, these ideas that began to form at Michigan State became integral to my classroom. Through my collaborations with other staff members, I began to develop a strength-based approach to teaching literature and composition. My students walked in the door with strengths — their personality, their resiliency, the language that they used to navigate their lives in whatever contexts they found themselves in, and the fact that they had access to education. My job was to help them identify and articulate those strengths which often looked liked reteaching.

Some of my Black students, and some of my White and Hispanic students, reported that they spoke ‘bad English’ and they ‘couldn’t write’. Those messages are debilitating — they don’t provide a place from which to grow. In my classroom, I began to use language such as, “you use different kinds of language in different settings — the language you use gives you access to your community. Do you imagine that the language I use would give me access to your community?” When students pictured me trying to come to their homes or their neighborhoods speaking the way that I do, they could see that I would be at a disadvantage. When I played with their language, using phrases such as “See, what had happened was…” or when I asked my students to teach me slang using the strategies I used to teach ACT vocabulary, they saw me struggle to learn in the same ways that they were struggling to learn Standard English. We were all language learners; we were in this together. Students who said they ‘couldn’t write’, were affirmed by my words, “you are learning how to write.”

I wrote every assignment with them — from prewriting and journaling through revisions and final drafts. When we needed to understand a grammatical rule, we looked it up together. We practiced identifying adjectives, prepositions, and clauses in our own writing, and then we experimented with breaking the rules intentionally — for effect, to make a point, or to show emotion.

This is what gives me life — playing with language, learning how it works, breaking the rules, and showing my students that they have the power to do the same.

I didn’t get it all right. I am sure that I made mistakes such as — in the early days, insisting that my students speak Standard English in my classroom, but why? Isn’t the classroom the place where we are learning the purposes and audiences for which we need to use Standard English? where we gain the tools we need for whatever comes next? As a teacher, do I want to be the keeper of correctness or an agent of access?

I think you already know the answer to that.

I’ve spent a lifetime getting here — building this philosophy by way of special education, writing, graduate school, and hours and days and weeks and months in the classroom with students — students who come to the classroom with inherent value, built-in strength, and learned skills. Each kid I meet matters.

But many many students in Detroit and areas like Detroit, many of whom are Black, many of whom don’t speak Standard English, have received the message loud and clear that the ways that they arrive, the manner in which they dress, or wear their hair, or speak, are inadequate. They don’t match the Standard — a Standard that was created and is maintained by white people in positions of power. They’ve got to learn to match that standard, they’ve been told, or they won’t succeed. No wonder they feel angry, or rebel, or fight like their lives depend on it to deny who they are and take on what they believe will get them out of the spaces they are in. And what does that cost them?

I’m just one middle-aged white woman from Michigan, but if someone is going to give me an opportunity to step into a classroom full of kids, to play with language, to learn, and to break some rules, how can I refuse?

I’ve been preparing for this my whole life.

So, yes, I took a position in Detroit.

Yes, I’m going to be teaching English.

This decision meant saying no to my current coworkers, families, and students, no to another group of kids, and yes to another.

I’m trying to get to that. Maybe next time.

And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

Esther 4:14

Ready, Changing Course, pt. 3

During the twelve weeks that I was working remotely, my husband and I developed some rhythms to break up the monotony. We walked a mile or so every day at lunch time to get away from our desks, we walked again at the end of the day to get our mail and talk about the events of our day, and we tuned in each night to watch the national and local news.

We’ve watched the numbers of Covid-19 cases continue to rise. We’ve watched reports of businesses closing, of economic stress, of overcrowded hospitals. For weeks, we caught the daily White House Task Force briefings, and then, when the eyes of the nation turned to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Brionna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, our eyes turned, too. When we heard the nationwide sound of wailing and protest for the sake of Black lives, we leaned in to listen.

The sound was not new to us. We’d been aware of systemic racial injustice for quite some time — not because we heard it on the national news, but because the trajectory of our lives has given us relationships across racial and socioeconomic lines and we have seen the impact of school inequity, racial profiling in policing, red-lining in real estate, inequities in access to health care and quality food, and racist practices in institutional hiring. We haven’t done much about it, if I am going to be honest, other than bear witness and believe that these systems exist, but we have seen the impact on people that we know and care about.

So when thousands across the country took to the streets carrying signs emblazoned with Black Lives Matter, I Can’t Breathe, and Arrest Brionna’s Killers, we were not horrified. We were not surprised. We were looking for ways to support, ways to ally, ways to join their voices. How could we do otherwise? How can we sit quietly watching repeated senseless acts of violence upon people of color, knowing that these blatant killings and attacks are a symptom of a much more insidious disease. Racism in our country runs deep — it has surreptitiously found its ways into our thought lives as all ideologies do, so that even when we believe ourselves to be free of racism, we make judgements about others because of their language, their skin color, their clothing choices, and their hairstyles. We use people of color as it benefits us (for sports, for entertainment, and to prove ourselves to be non-racist), but we rarely come to their defense or speak up on their behalf.

So right now, when Covid-19 is disproportionately impacting communities of color, specifically because of the impact of inadequate access to healthcare, the wealth and educational gaps that keep people of color in service industries and on the front line, and the pre-existing conditions that disproportionately pervade these communities due to centuries old inequities, when even now people of color have to contend with incidents of injustice like the George Floyd killing, we must be moved to action.

So when my husband and I were standing in the kitchen one night in the middle of the stay at home order and he said, “Are you happy doing what you are doing right now?” I reflexively responded that what I really wanted was to be in a school where I could be part of the dialogue during this time that has potential for unprecedented transformation in the lives of communities of color. I felt ready. After a long journey back to health, I felt we were facing the moment I had been preparing for.

He said, “You’re right. Let’s do it. Toss your name in the hat. Let’s see what happens.”

I said, “Really? Even if it means I have to drive to Detroit?”

“Don’t be bound by geography. Apply broadly, and we’ll cross the next bridge when we get to it.”

Oh. My. Word. You’d have thought he had given me the keys to any car I wanted to drive off the lot! If he thought I was ready, then I knew I actually was ready!

I started combing Indeed and district websites like never before. I applied to positions in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, the Detroit metro area, and beyond. And though I’d been doing this to some degree for years, this time was different. Within a couple days of submitting applications early in the morning, on my lunch hour, and after work, I started getting phone calls and emails.

I was different. I felt different — healthy, strong, and impassioned like never before. While I had believed for quite some time that my career was over, I was beginning to believe that I might just have another round in me. Not only that, the landscape was different. Due to Covid-19, many teachers have been choosing to leave the profession, take a sabbatical, or move into a different sector — away from classrooms, particularly classrooms in hot zones like Detroit. While before I may have been passed over because my Master’s degree and years of experience put me a little higher on the salary schedule, suddenly I was a prime candidate. While many teachers were ill-equipped to manage the unavoidable transition from in-person to online learning, I have been using online platforms to work with students for the last several years!

As the interviews started, I could hear the skepticism in the voices of those questioning me. What is your experience with urban schools? Why are you interested in this position? How would you build classroom culture among students who are 99% Black? 99% of whom receive free or reduced lunch?

I could hear the subtext, “I can see, even over this video interview, that you are a middle aged white woman. Are you sure you are up to this? Do you know what you are getting into?” But guess what, kids, I’ve heard these questions before, and I was ready for them.

What I wasn’t ready for was learning that many of the schools I was applying to had been operating with long-term substitute teachers in core subject areas, because they could not find highly qualified teachers and they had to fill slots. I wasn’t ready to learn that many of the students in these schools did not have devices or internet in their homes when the stay-at-home order began. I wasn’t prepared to realize that because 5,000 people had died in Detroit and a disproportionate number of them were Black, chances are high that the students in these schools have experienced loss above and beyond the loss of their routine, the daily contact with teachers and friends, and life as we once knew it. They’ve likely lost people they love.

However, I was excited to learn that several of the agencies I was interviewing with were working to meet the needs of these students. They were delivering devices and personal hot spots — teachers and administrators getting in their own vehicles and driving to student residences across the Detroit metro. Not only that, all of the schools I interviewed with were still providing food to families — five days a week. One school was providing food not only to their own students’ families, but to anyone in the community who pulled into the parking lot to receive it. They were also working hard to secure more devices for the coming school year and making plans (state-mandated) for how to return to school fully in-person, fully online, and a hybrid option that would allow families to choose.

I met dedicated educators who care about kids — inner city kids, kids of color, kids who matter.

And one of these schools made me an offer.

And then another one did.

And I still had my position at Lindamood-Bell.

I had a decision to make, and it wasn’t going to be easy.

But I was ready. More on that next time.

He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.

Psalm 33:5

But Wait, There’s More, Changing Course, pt. 2

I have a confession to make: I like to apply for jobs. That might be an understatement. Applying for jobs has become sort of a hobby for me. I scroll through postings on Indeed and search school, district, and university websites to see what’s available, then I “throw my hat in the ring.”

Quite often.

I’ve been doing this for years — maybe close to thirty years, on and off, even when I had my most satisfying job ever at Lutheran North in St. Louis. I would burn off a frustrating day or month by applying at a community college or a public school. Typically nothing comes of all this applying, but once, about a year before I left Lutheran North, when I was quite sick with my first extended autoimmune flare, I applied for a job because I thought a different teaching position at a new school, in the city, closer to home, would lighten my load and be more doable in my weakened state. (I obviously was not thinking very clearly at the time.) I went through the interview process and received an offer but came to my senses and turned it down.

Shortly after that decision, my husband got an offer to take the position he has now, which afforded me an opportunity to take an extended break and begin healing.

When I was taking that break, I took applying for jobs to a whole new level. I did force myself to not apply for anything for the first four months, but then I started applying with abandon.

At first I applied for only part-time or gig work because that is what I felt up to. I applied to shelve books at libraries — can you imagine the bliss for an English teacher? I applied to fold towels at a gym — free membership included! I applied to proofread textbooks — I mean, come on — who’s got a better skill set?

While I cast a wide net, I found myself landing in jobs that have uniquely prepared me for what’s next.

I began by proofreading and tutoring which was like taking a course in grammar and MLA/APA style. I bent over ACT and SAT tests for hours with students, showing them patterns and strategies. I was constantly checking rules and then explaining those rules to students. I read and re-read college essays and coached students through AP literature and composition courses.

Then I worked a summer at Lindamood-Bell which gave me a framework and language for verbalizing my mental movie and teaching kids to do the same. It also helped me understand the nature of reading as two processes and how to spot which area was more difficult for a student.

I moved from there to the college classroom which not only let me apply some of my Lindamood-Bell language and skill to literature and composition courses, it also gave me a more realistic picture of university instruction, particularly through the lens of an adjunct instructor. I’d been romanticizing that role for a while, and I needed the reality check.

I worked two summers at the University of Michigan teaching students of means from all over the world how to write college essays. This experience reminded me that kids are kids are kids — whether they are from Manhattan or Turkey or Detroit. However, it also irked me — why should these kids get intense high-quality instruction in the summer when the ones who really need it don’t have access? Why should those who could easily pay for their college education get an extra leg up when it comes to admissions?

The next three summers I flew, along with thousands of other teachers, to score the AP Literature and Composition exam. I read over a thousand essays in the space of a week, each year, and the evidence of disparity in the United States educational system was palpable. Some students had been so well prepared — their analysis was mature and concise, their evidence vivid, their sentence construction well-developed. Other students wrote letters to whoever who end up reading their exams, “I don’t know what I’m doing. My teacher didn’t prepare me for this. We only read one book all semester.” I was reminded that while students who had excellent experiences in elementary and high school would inevitably go on to excellent college experiences, those from ill-equipped districts would not. Not without some kind of miracle.

I worked for another two and a half years at Lindamood-Bell. I went back when I realized that the adjunct instructor life wasn’t for me. Yes, it got me in the classroom, but unlike teaching in a high school, it didn’t allow me to form the kind of long-term relationships with my students that foster trust, growth, and transformation. Besides, it was a lot of work, and I felt isolated from other instructors who were all staying in their lanes, prepping their courses, grading their papers.

Lindamood-Bell was, once again, an excellent experience. This time around I was developed from an instructor into a leader. I took on more and more responsibility, had a caseload of students, and began mentoring other instructors. I was beginning to remember my skill sets — my ability to build strong rapport with students and families, my capacity to shift instructional gears in the moment based on student needs, and my deep empathy for students who struggle. Yet, it continued to eat at me that the students who were receiving this instruction — targeted one-on-one reading interventions — were mostly students of means whose parents could afford the high price tag of such instruction. What about all the kids whose parents could not? Who was helping them?

A couple of years ago, I was up late at night thinking such thoughts along with I just really miss the classroom! and I applied for a high school English position in Detroit. When I got an email asking me for an interview, I was ecstatic, so when I saw my husband at the end of the day, I blurted out, “I got an interview at a school in Detroit!” He looked at me dumbfounded and said, “What?” which is when it dawned on me that I hadn’t brought him along on the journey. He knew, everyone close to me knew, how I felt about inequity in education, but he didn’t know I had applied or that I was even considering the possibility of going back to the classroom. The days when I was so terribly ill were clear in his mind — he’d seen me lying on the floor writhing in pain, he’d watched all the experiments with treatments and medications, he didn’t want to see me go back there. How, he wondered, did I imagine that I could drive to Detroit every morning, teach a whole day, and then drive back home? Why did I think I wouldn’t end up right back in bed? Didn’t I remember the stacks of paper? the long days? the time on my feet?

Oh, yeah, I thought. He’s right. I probably can’t do that. What was I thinking?

But time passed. I continued to heal. I found myself working 40 hours a week at Lindamood-Bell, and though I got tired, I could feel my health beginning to stabilize, my stamina starting to build.

And then Covid happened.

And then George Floyd was killed by police. Ahmaud Arbery was murdered for running and being black. And Breonna Taylor died in her own home in her own bed. And people across the country walked out of their quarantine homes and said, “Enough is Enough.”

I looked at my husband and said, “I want to be part of this. I belong in the classroom. I belong with kids who have been told they don’t matter. I’m ready. I’m strong. I want to try.”

And he said, “You’re right. Let’s do it. Toss your name in the hat. Let’s see what happens.”

So, I tossed my name in some hats, and I can’t wait to tell you what happened.

The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.

Proverbs 16:9

Prepared for What’s Next, Changing Course, pt.1

Six years ago this week, I said goodbye to my classroom in St. Louis. I was depleted and sick, and I was certain that I would never have a classroom again.

I’d been struggling with joint pain, systemic inflammation, and fatigue for a year and half — I had difficulty making it through a school day, let alone driving home at night. When I arrived home, I would plunk on the couch or in my bed and accomplish little else until I had to drag myself back to school the next day.

It was a difficult time. Our family had long been experiencing trauma that began with a drastic change in lifestyle caused by a geographical relocation during which my husband went to grad school and I began teaching full time. Our children entered a totally new culture with inadequate support from their parents who were doing their best to fill the demands of the new roles they had assumed. In the years after that major change, our family felt the first hand effects of bullying, social class disparity, eating disorder, depression, anxiety, and sexual assault. All the while, I just kept producing lesson plans, grading papers, and bringing my best to the classroom day after day after day.

Finally my body had had enough. If I wouldn’t sit down of my own free will and assess the damages, mourn the losses, and begin to soothe the hurts, my body would simply crash. And crash it did.

And when, in the midst of that crash, my husband took a new position in Michigan, my medical team suggested that rather than jump right into something else, I should take six months to rest.

Rest. Period.

So I did. I came here to his little house by the river near the end of a beautiful Michigan summer. I took long walks in the park, read books, watched too much TV, put together puzzles, organized and re-organized, and rested.

I didn’t prepare any lessons or grade any papers, but I did begin to write. It was during that period, six years ago, that I began this blog. In the beginning, I wrote every single day as though my life depended on it. In some ways, it did. I had to reacquaint myself with my internal life, had to start hearing my voice, had to start listening to what was happening in my innermost places.

I wrote about my illness, I wrote about coming back to Michigan, I wrote about loss. Many of my posts were a reflection of a renewed commitment to my faith journey, which had also been relegated to survival mode during what I’ve come to call the soldiering years.

It was my writing that started the healing, and through it I chronicled the other steps I began to take — exercise, dietary changes, building community, therapy, and myriad medical and peri-medical approaches like yoga, massage, and homeopathy. I wrote about the ups and the downs — the days when I felt strong and the days that I crashed. I’ve written about victories and grief, sorrows and joy.

And all the while I’ve been healing, and I’ve been preparing for what’s next.

I’ve often told my children and my students that all of life is preparing you for what’s next. Crawling prepares us for walking; school (at least in theory) prepares us for work. Warm-ups prepare you for exercise; practicing scales prepares you to make music. All of life’s experiences are preparing us for the experiences that are yet to come.

Before we moved to St. Louis, I completed my Master’s degree in English education which prepared me to take the position I held at Lutheran North for nine years. Before I met my husband, who had experienced divorce, I had had my own experience as a child of divorce which gave me empathy and prepared me for my role as a stepmother. God has a way of weaving our life experiences together, like a Master teacher, layering lesson upon lesson so that we are always equipped for what comes next.

* * *

It about killed me to wait six months to find a job, and I will confess that at about month four or five, I took a proofreading job for a guy working on his master’s in education. His research resonated with my heart for equity, and I loved speaking into his ideas. The feedback I got from that small job gave me the confidence to promote myself as a private tutor where I supported students who struggled with English — reading, writing, speaking.

Many of these students were English Language Learners or were raised in two-language homes, so they needed support with the nuances of English grammar. In order to meet their needs, I became much stronger in my ability to articulate the rules of sentence composition, the parts of speech, and the role of punctuation. This came in very handy when I found myself teaching a developmental composition course at Concordia University — a part-time gig — where I helped freshmen become more comfortable with writing paragraphs and essays.

After I’d been tutoring for a while, I randomly found a job posting on Craigslist to be a ‘tutor’ at Lindamood-Bell. That ‘tutoring’ position tutored me. It allowed me to start part-time while I continued to experiment with treatments for what was once called psoriatic arthritis but which I now refer to as ‘unspecified autoimmunity’. It gave me opportunities for advancement when I felt (and even when I didn’t feel) that I was ready. It challenged me, it stretched me, and it reminded me of the mettle within me that carried me through nine years of teaching high school juniors and seniors. By meeting with students one-on-one, by utilizing a variety of online materials and platforms, by writing instructional plans, by following instructional design, by mentoring other instructors, and by supporting my colleagues, I have been prepared for what’s next.

While I was tutoring, then teaching at the university, then working at Lindamood-Bell, my health slowly improved. As is chronicled in this blog, I have found the best health I’ve experienced in years through specific dietary choices, daily yoga and walking, weekly visits alternating between chiropractic care and physical therapy, monthly Hellerwork appointments, and twice yearly pain injections. I’m healthy, strong, and ready for what’s next.

This whole past six years has been preparing me for what’s next — first the pause, then the dabbling in tutoring and adjunct instruction, then a full-time job with ever-increasing responsibility.

So what’s next?

Could it be that God is planning to use everything I’ve been learning over this six year period of healing and growth in a position that is focused on educational equity — my long-time passion? Is God that good?

He’s that good; it’s almost as if He’d had it planned the whole time.

I’ll tell you more about that in my next blog post.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Jeremiah 29:11

Coronavirus Diary 15: Wearing a Mask

I’ve been back in the office for two weeks now. I’d been working from my office in our little house by the river for almost three months when our company determined that we should be back in our physical space, so I packed up all my materials — laptop, auxiliary screen, student files, and other materials, and lugged them to my car, drove them across town, hauled them up two flights of stairs, and started to acclimate.

The first couple of days were especially stressful. I don’t know if it was the daily screening paperwork that I had to fill out every morning, the taking of my temperature, the putting away of all those materials (which I still haven’t finished), the spontaneously self-generating list of regular tasks that didn’t pause for a second as I learned all the new protocols, or the fact that I now have to wear a mask.

Of course I’ve been wearing a mask for months. It started in the early days when the only time I left our home was to go to the grocery store. I made a few masks following a simple pattern and using some leftover fabric I had here at home. Our church was making them for a local hospital, and since I have a sewing machine and we suddenly had lots of time on our hands, I began to mass produce them along with a small group of women.

On my weekly treks out, I not only donned a mask, but I wore latex gloves. I carefully procured my groceries, following arrows on the floor and being careful to keep six feet away from others. Back in my car, I would remove the mask and gloves, sanitize my hands, and then drive home where my husband would receive and wash all the items I purchased while I stripped and headed straight to the shower. In fact, we’ve kept this routine all these months. We’ve developed quite a system.

We’ve adopted these behaviors to stay safe — to keep ourselves from getting sick.

In those early days, I probably wore the mask for a grand total of 3-5 hours per week, but now that I’m back in the office, I am supposed to wear it for 8 hours a day!

I get it. Mask wearing is very important. The data shows us that our chances of spreading or contracting Covid-19 are greatly reduced by social distancing and wearing a mask.

So, I’m wearing one, but let me just say that it is challenging!

Probably the biggest reason I find face mask wearing challenging at work is that it covers my face and most of my facial expressions. I am an educator, and right now I see most of my students online. Working with students virtually has its own challenges, not least of which is the ability to communicate clearly. Since all the students can see of me is from the torso up, I am continually checking to be sure that I am centered on the screen, that my student can hear me clearly, and that I am allowing appropriate time to hear his or her response. I rely heavily on facial expression and hand gestures such as “thumbs up” and “high five” to communicate encouragement. Now that I am in the center and required to wear a mask, I lose my smile and the student’s ability to use the visual support of watching my mouth to understand what I am saying. (You’d be surprised how much we rely on this.)

My employer has done a pretty decent job of separating staff members from one another. I am sharing a room with one coworker, but we have a divider between our work spaces and we give each other a wide berth when we are coming and going. Additionally, we each wear a mask for most of the day. However, we have both determined that we will remove our masks when working with our most severe/youngest students for whom the mask seems a distraction or hindrance to instruction.

I am fine with this because my coworker and I have a strong relationship and we are both communicating about the ways in which we are continuing to limit our exposure to others outside of work — avoiding social gatherings, and wearing our masks when in public spaces such as grocery stores, doctor appointments and the like. We trust one another to act responsibly and out of concern for one another, so we feel comfortable several times a day removing our masks to work with these students.

I also dash outside once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and over my lunch hour to take off the mask and breathe some fresh air because I am just tired of wearing it! It fogs up my glasses, makes me feel hot, and smashes my hairstyle.

Wearing a face mask is annoying, but I am going to keep wearing one.

Why? Because in my county 37 new cases were reported yesterday. Michigan’s seven-day average is 508. The United States’ rate of infection and cumulative death count still far outpaces any country, even adjusted for population, and though people are still arguing about whether Covid-19 can be transmitted by people who are asymptomatic (or pre-symptomatic), each day we learn of more people who were infected because they gathered in large groups and chose not to wear masks.

Over 135,000 people have died in United States in the last few months, and we have been given a few simple instructions for diminishing further spread and death: 1) We should wash our hands, 2) we should stay away from people, and 3) we should wear a mask.

It’s really not a big ask.

Is it annoying? Yes.

Would I prefer not to? Yes.

But am I willing to take one for the team and do my best to stop the further spread of the coronavirus while thousands of medical staff are doing their best to keep people alive while wearing not only a mask, but often a shield, and all manner of PPE? while thousands of researchers, clad in hazmat suits, are working around the clock to find a vaccine, a treatment, a cure? Yes.

I’m willing to be a little annoyed — a little uncomfortable — for the sake of keeping myself and others safe. And what if wearing a mask turns out to be ineffective? I won’t mind, because at the very least, my choice to wear a mask signals to those around me that I am willing to care for them, to keep any possible infection to myself, and to join a united effort against this pandemic.

I think that’s worth something.

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

Romans 12:18

Coronavirus Diary 14: Privilege

It’s a beautiful Michigan summer morning, and as I sit behind our home with a view of the woods — thick with bunnies and squirrels and deer and such — I can almost ignore the fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, that thousands continue to protest racial violence and inequity across the nation.

I made myself a cup of tea and walked right outside, mindless of the fact that over 2 million in our nation are incarcerated — over 500,000 of whom who have not yet been convicted but are merely awaiting trial (Prison Policy Initiative) — and can’t escape their cells, let alone take a leisurely stroll out the door to enjoy some fresh air.

Back here, next to my lush garden from which I pick lettuce and kale each evening for my dinner salad, I can forget that 1 in 5 households with children aged 12 and under are experiencing food insecurity right now (Brookings).

Sitting in my air conditioned home by the river in the middle of a summer heat wave, I can forget that latest estimates (prior to Covid-19) suggest over 8,000 people were homeless in Michigan alone (United States Interagency Council on Homelessness) with well over half a million nation-wide.

This is what privilege looks like: me, sitting in my backyard on a Sunday morning, having the time to type words on my MacBook Air, listening to the birds, admiring my garden, virtually immune to harm.

Privilege looks like a refrigerator and freezer full of more food than my husband and I can eat in a week, a stockpile of pantry items, and enough toilet paper for the next two months.

Privilege looks like both of us having jobs that we enjoy doing, never having missed a day due to the pandemic, never having missed a paycheck.

Privilege looks like closets and drawers full of clothing and the ability to donate the items we are tired of, that no longer fit, that have a stain we can’t remove, that we never liked in the first place.

Privilege looks like discussions over whether or not we want to run out and pick up a gas grill one day this week, if it’s time we purchased a new car, if we want to get dinner from a restaurant or make it here at home.

Privilege looks like both of us having all the medications we need, the insurance to cover the majority of our medical costs, and high quality practitioners who we are able to see often the same day we call.

Privilege looks like watching Hamilton on Disney + on Friday night, scrolling through home improvement shows on TLC on Saturday afternoon, and bingeing on Netflix on Sunday night.

Privilege looks like a quick stop at Whole Foods on the way home from church, a dash into the library to grab the books I reserved online, and a Zoom call with the family.

Why do I have all of this privilege? Why am I so fortunate? I haven’t made all the right choices. I haven’t utilized all of my resources. I haven’t done my best and worked my hardest.

Sure, I went to school. I got good grades. I’ve pursued jobs in my field. I’ve been a mostly honest, law-abiding citizen. However, I have broken speeding laws, I’ve lied to my friends, I’ve parked in no parking zones, I’ve used work time for personal business, I’ve yelled at my kids and spanked them too hard. I’ve shot off my mouth more times than I care to admit — sometimes at authority, my bosses, my coworkers. And yet, I have a pretty comfortable life.

My missteps have not cost me my privilege. The system works for me. I have the presumption of innocence. I have the benefit of the doubt.

I’m a middle-aged white woman in America, and people assume things about me — that I can be trusted, that I’m reasonable, that I’m responsible.

Not everyone gets that. That’s why it’s a privilege.

And because I have privilege, I have a responsibility to speak up for those who do not.

And not just speak up, but act up — write blogs, upset family and friends with my questions and comments, step into awkward work situations, give money to those who need it, and protest. If I can do more, if my privilege affords me the opportunity to be an agent of change, a worker for justice, I’ve got to do that, too.

Why? Because it’s the right thing to do. And further, it doesn’t cost me my privilege. It costs some time, some comfort, and likely some money, but it doesn’t take away my ability to enjoy my backyard, to move freely in society, to live and breathe without fear that my life will be unexpectedly cut short due to racial violence.

Rather, speaking up — and acting up — for the sake of equity, for the sake of someone else having an opportunity to sit in the cool breeze of a summer morning, sipping tea and watching bunnies frolic in the grass, for the sake of another human being feeding her children and expecting that they will all live into adulthood, that — that just might make me more fully human.

How can I do otherwise?

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,

    for the rights of all who are destitute.

Proverbs 31:8

Coronavirus Diary #12: Taking Risks

We’re still here. We’re sitting in the midst of 2020, continuing to daily discover the elements of this new reality, and starting to take some risks.

I met a friend at a park yesterday, to share a cup of coffee, to chat, to get to know one another a little better, and to discuss challenges and opportunities we have encountered in writing and in education. I walked up to find her sitting at a picnic table, mask in hand. I’d left my mask in the car, absentmindedly. We agreed to situate ourselves at a table “six feet apart” which feels awkward. We find ourselves willing to taking a risk to sit in that awkwardness in order to be together, to build relationship, to share life.

My husband and I were in a similar situation last week when we met with the members of our community group outside. We hadn’t physically been together since early March, and we were excited to see one another, but what would’ve have been hugs turned into awkward negotiations of space as we gathered around a picnic table to chat and catch up. We all agreed to take some measured risk, to share space, to hear one another’s voices in person, to build community.

Yesterday morning, after my meet-up at the park, I was driving to my first Hellerwork appointment since March 24, when I passed a large group of people gathering to walk to mark the celebration of Juneteenth and to acknowledge that though we’ve come a long way from the days of slavery, we have a long way yet to go before people of color experience equity in America. I saw many, most wearing masks, walking in groups of two or five or eight, carrying signs, wearing T-shirts with messages of unity and support. They were willing to take a risk — to come outside and gather during a pandemic — for the sake of racial equity.

https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2020/06/hundreds-gather-in-ann-arbor-to-celebrate-juneteenth-march-against-racism.html

On Friday night, my husband and I watched Just Mercy (streaming for free right now), a story that horrified me when I read the book several years ago, but doubly horrified me at this watching as I got a deeper realization of the hatred and harm that has been inflicted on Black bodies over the course of our nation’s history and that is still happening right now. We risked feeling uncomfortable on a Friday night, when we could’ve chosen yet another comedy or feel-good drama — either of which might’ve distracted us from this current reality. We took this risk to acknowledge the truth of our nation’s history and to realize the value of celebrating Juneteenth.

I walked into my practitioner’s office on Saturday wearing a mask; she was wearing one, too. In order to treat me, she has to be up close and personal, touching my body, sharing my space. She manipulates my fascia, kneads my muscles, coerces my IT band, and tries to convince my SI joint that it can indeed function according to design. She’s taking a risk to care for me, and I’m thankful. I’m taking a risk to see her, to allow her to get back to work after three months at home, and she’s thankful.

I head from that appointment to the pharmacy to pick up a medication that keeps my ocular herpes in check, to pick up a birthday and a graduation card, and to purchase more immune support tablets. The pharmacist is behind a sheet of plastic, but she takes the items I have touched, scans them, and hands me my bag. She’s taking a risk to support my health. I’m taking a risk, too. We both wear our masks; our eyes meet. I thank her; she thanks me.

From there I walk next door to the grocery store. I get two of every item on the list, check the stock and price of toilet paper (even though we now — finally — have a two-month supply at home), and stand on the X that keeps me 6 feet away from the next person in line for the cashier. I give the person ahead of me plenty of room to make his purchases and then move forward when it’s my turn. I swipe my card, place my bags back in the cart, and then take the receipt that is handed to me, knowing it has been touched by other human hands. Those hands have taken a risk to serve me, and I have taken a risk to be served.

Every day right now, it seems, comes with a level of risk I had not been aware of before. It’s a risk to buy groceries, get gas, see the doctor, or visit a friend. Activities that were previously mundane and performed without much thought now take a measured intentional approach, which I am willing to take for the things that I need.

Am I willing to take risks for others, too?

Am I willing to speak out against injustice? Am I willing to say — and post — that Black lives matter? Am I willing to walk in a protest? Am I willing to challenge the misconceptions of others? Am I willing to risk friendships with people who disagree with me?

Am I willing to point out the audacity of a president who encouraged thousands of people to gather on his behalf — to sit side by side in an enclosed space — not six feet apart around an outdoor picnic table? Am I willing to be outraged at the language he used to threaten those who might protest such a gathering?

Am I willing to risk examining my own beliefs, my own thoughts, my own choices? Am I willing to see my own prejudice? My own selfishness? My own fears? My own mistakes?

I want to be willing. I want you to be willing. I want us to be willing.

It’s scary, knowing the risk of danger, of infection, of change, of progress.

We step out carefully, wearing our masks, looking in one another’s eyes, keeping a safe distance, listening carefully, examining our hearts, interrogating our motives, and willing to exchange the ways we have known for a way that will ensure the safety, livelihood, and freedom of others.

It might be uncomfortable to do things differently — maybe even a little bit risky — but as one Black life after another is cut down before our very eyes, as they have been being cut down for hundreds of years, the risk of staying silent, of continuing in the path we have been on, is greater still.

I’m ready — are you ready — to start taking some risks.

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.

Isaiah 1:17

Coronavirus Diary #11: Do Black Lives Matter?

Since the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, “Black Lives Matter” has been the rally cry of all those who seek equity for people of color. Some who are seemingly unfamiliar with America’s history of systemic racism, who minimize its impact, or who openly oppose broad cultural change often answer this cry with “All Lives Matter”. Right now, these battling cries are resounding, the latest shouting match between two sides dug into opposing positions, unwilling to budge.

This is happening, of course, in the midst of a global pandemic, where I find myself in the seat of privilege, safety, and comfort. I’m not feeling threatened or oppressed: I’ve continued to work from home; I have a solid health care plan; I’ve remained untouched by Covid-19 and by racial inequities.

I’ve been sitting here for almost six years now in an idyllic little house by a quiet little river. I’ve got acres of campus to roam, someone else to mow the lawn and repair the broken faucet, and I have little to no concern for my safety. I came here hoping to heal after years of soldiering — fighting my own internal battles, injuring others unintentionally, and sustaining my own soul-impacting wounds.

As I’ve healed, I have realized that although the soldiering years were tough on me and those I love most dearly, they were also some of the richest years of my life, mainly because they were lived largely in spaces of cultural intersection where my world view was challenged and expanded.

Shortly after we moved to St. Louis in 2004, I took a position teaching at Roosevelt High School. This enormous structure in the central part of the city was built almost a century earlier (1923) and was intended for the overflow of white students from two nearby high schools. By the time I walked in the doors, the once-majestic building was in poor repair and all but a few white students had begun learning their lessons in other, cleaner, brighter spaces.

At Roosevelt, most of my students were Black and Hispanic — born into a centuries old system in which they had limited access to cleaner, brighter spaces and from which they would emerge successful only by some mystery combination of hard work, miracle, and chance. They walked into my classroom exhausted from the struggle against poverty and the public gaze of suspicion, to find me — a thirty-something white woman in khakis — handing out overused and outdated textbooks and insisting that they engage in stories of American literature. I mean, I’m not insensitive. I saw the irony of teaching early American stories written by white men, many of whom owned slaves and engineered the system that would keep nonwhites in their places, of having my students read how Frederick Douglass gave his bread to poor white children so they’d teach him how to read, of showing my students how to analyze MLK’s dream of white children and black children playing together as they themselves sat in a school that was almost completely Black. I saw the irony, and I was uncomfortable.

The very structure they walked into every day, the materials they used, and the constantly revolving staff gave my students one message loud and clear: their Black lives did not matter.

I was there only a semester, not nearly enough time to build relationships founded on trust that might’ve led to educational transformation. I was one more teacher who left them to go work with students who were better resourced.

I, too, unwittingly, affirmed that their Black lives did not matter.

And, just as the principal who hired me away from Roosevelt promised, within the school that was well cared for, supplied with high quality materials, and staffed with well-qualified and committed professionals, I was able to build relationships with my students in classrooms that were a mixture of black and white. I was able to build trust and foster safety in my classroom. I was able to point out the irony in documents like the United States Constitution that declared all men to be free and equal, as long as they were indeed men, had white skin, and owned property; I was able to examine with my students the deep generational grief in the writing of Native Americans and Black Americans who had been denied their freedoms — their livelihoods — for the sake of free white men; we were able to interrogate the voices of white writers who seemed oblivious to the lived realities of their ‘darker brothers’; and we were able to dialogue about how our lives fit into the American story.

I was able to communicate — at least I hope I was — that these Black lives mattered.

When health challenges and a relocation took me away from those students, that community, that mission — I landed here in a nest of comfort, safety, and security.

I needed it. I really did. I’ve spent the last six years getting my health on track, experimenting with different ways of continuing my teaching career, of connecting with students through their reading, their writing, and their thinking. I’ve explored ways that I could continue the work of hearing, respecting, and valuing the lives of Black students, and yet, in this critical moment in our nation’s history — a moment that seems full of promise for change — I find myself working mostly with white children of means, whose parents can afford the one-on-one instruction that my company provides.

It doesn’t feel right.

Yes, I was able for a short time last spring, to Zoom into classrooms in another state, to provide remediation for students of color who were several years behind grade level, but it was just not the same as the day in and day out relationship-based journey that I was once able to take with a room full of students. Those students challenged me. They changed me. They won’t leave me.

I see them on social media — business leaders, heads of school, social workers, doctors, nurses, government workers, entrepreneurs, and educators — living testaments of what can happen when a student believes that their life — their Black life — matters.

They are having hard conversations right now — they are taking to the streets — they are raising their voices. They are shouting “Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!” because they have too often seen their brothers, their sisters, and their friends on the ground, a knee in their backs or on their necks saying, “I can’t breathe.”

They, too, have found themselves in spaces occupied and controlled by whiteness where they felt they could not breathe.

I’m having a hard time sitting here in my safety, in my comfort, in my privilege right now, knowing that I care about Black lives, knowing that I know how to communicate that, knowing that I have what it takes to educate, to advocate for, and to elevate the voices of Black lives.

Because here’s the thing, all lives can’t matter until all Black lives matter.

When all Black students — even those at schools like Roosevelt — have the resources, the committed and well-compensated educators, the clean, bright spaces, and the opportunities to succeed without a miracle; when all Black students are educated with respect; when all students regardless of income, Zip code, or race, are given access to accurate histories, equitable opportunities, and even reparative measures to make up for all the time that has been lost; when all Black students have the opportunity and the supports to graduate from high school and even college and the freedom from worrying if they will be unjustly pulled over, arrested, or killed by police, then you might be able to convince me that all lives matter.

Until then, I’m gonna be looking for opportunities to walk beside and join the cries of those who are shouting as though their lives depended on it, “Black lives matter!”

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and the needy.

Proverbs 31:8-9

If you are interested in learning more about school inequity in America, check out this resource list published by Teach for America.

If you would like to read more about the Black Lives Matter movement, click here.

If you’d like to dig deeper into the history of racism in America, check out the New York TimesAnti-Racist Reading List.

How are you doing? A Re-visit

On Monday I wrote about all the anxiety around going Back to School. Way back in March, the day before we in Michigan were ordered to stay home, I wrote this piece. It’s interesting to look back five months to see how we were feeling then, and to remind myself that we’re still here, still struggling, still in need of others checking in on us.

Now that it’s become more obvious that we are actually doing this — social distancing at a minimum and possibly even sheltering in place or quantining…

Now that you’ve purchased groceries and supplies with a different mindset than you’ve likely ever had before…

Now that your daily life has been transformed and you’re working from home, working under extremely stressful circumstances, or not working at all…

Now that you’ve been physically separated indefinitely from loved ones — the aged, those who live far away, or those who you don’t dare risk exposing to something you might be carrying around…

Now that schools are closed and you’re feverishly preparing lessons to deliver virtually or you’re exhaustedly managing all your responsibilities while also navigating your children’s schooling or you’re finishing your own coursework from home…

Now that restaurants and bars can only provide take out…

And — gasp — now that hair salons have been ordered to close…

How are you doing?

Are you experiencing unexpected emotions? Are you afraid you’ll get sick or, worse, that someone you love — someone who is at risk — might get sick? Are you worried about finances — is your job insecure or has it already been eliminated? Are you disappointed that your plans — graduations, vacations, weddings — will likely be postponed or cancelled? Are you angry that this is happening right now and to this extreme?

I’m right there with you. I’ve been riding an emotional roller coaster and trying to find my we can do this attitude — and sometimes I can, but I’ve also found myself more defensive and snarly and volatile.

My husband asked me the other day if I was washing my hands after touching the laundry and my thickly sarcastic response almost left a mark, “No, dear, I’m actually not washing my hands seventy-five times a day.”

This is a lot, guys. In a matter of just a couple of weeks we have moved from business as usual to a starkly different reality. We’re all dealing with a lot — relocation, disappointment, financial stress, and possibly illness — and most of it is out of our control. It makes sense that we might be having some feelings about it all.

And what are we to do with all of these feelings?

If I’ve learned anything in the last several years, it’s that we do well to feel them — feel them all. Then talk about them, write about them, paint them, create them, notice them — feel them.

It’s not shameful to have feelings — it’s human.

Last week, I watched A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and one of the most significant scenes for me was when Mr. Rogers visited the bedside of his friend’s dying father. The family was gathered, aware of the reality, but nobody was able to speak it. Mr. Rogers, in his characteristic style, remarked that often people don’t like to talk about death — they consider it unmentionable. He then said, “Death is human. Anything that is human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable is manageable.”

If you are having all kinds of emotions right now, that is human. And I am willing to bet that you know some other humans who are also having all kinds of emotions. We are not alone in our feelings right now. In fact, my pastor said this morning (his sermon is here) that “all of us are feeling isolated together”. Now is a very rare moment — a moment of world wide shared experience. A moment where many are reaching out and actually sharing the experience.

And during this time, we can mention the mentionable — we can speak about our fears, our worries, our disappointments, and our anger. These are all human responses, and they are mentionable.

When we are willing to mention them to one another, we might be surprised to find that they are manageable.

In the moments after I realized how harshly I had responded to my husband’s reasonable question yesterday, I quickly backpedaled, sputtering a few more comments in an attempt to recover, and finally saying, “We’re all doing our best right now.”

We are all doing our best to manage the manageable.

And we are bearing witness to one another — watching one another do our best. We see teachers practically moving mountains to deliver content in ways that they’ve never done before; we see our friends and celebrities popping up on social media reading stories, playing music, and posting encouragement; we see health care workers going in to work, putting themselves at risk to provide care; we see our spiritual leaders delivering God’s word through live streams, Instagram stories, and YouTube videos; we see grocery store staff scrambling to keep shelves stocked, offer delivery services, and provide sheltered hours for those at risk; we see one another stepping up and doing our literal very best.

So guys, when we have some feelings and they spill out onto one another — in rude comments, in unfiltered facial expressions, in clippy tones — let’s do our best to check in with one another. Instead of reacting, let’s pause, let’s ask one another how we’re doing, and let’s provide some space to share our feelings.

Over the past few days, I’ve found myself on the phone more than usual — talking with my parents, my children, and my friends. I’ve even joined several video chat platforms to participate in our small group Bible study, to watch our granddaughters jump into a pile of pillows, and tonight to catch up with a group of friends. I need the connection right now, probably because I’m having so many feelings.

I need to know that my people are ok. I want to hear how they are feeling. I want to tell them how I’m feeling.

This is time is unprecedented. It’s unsettling. We need each other, so let’s keep asking one another how we’re doing.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

I Thessalonians 5:11

Close Contact, a re-visit.

On Monday, I asked if you were willing to take some risks for the sake of others (post here). I’ve asked this before. In February, after the Super Bowl, I asked if you’d be willing to enter into dialogue about what in our culture perpetuates sexual violence (post here). In March of 2018, I wondered if you’d be willing to spend time in community, to be vulnerable and open to the change that can happen there (post here). Today, I’m reposting this piece that I wrote one month — one month — before we went inside to protect ourselves from a pandemic. In this post, I explore what we have to gain from looking at the ways we have hurt one another and committing to do the hard work of healing those hurts. I was writing on a more personal/community level, but it seems that this type of work — this coming together, this commitment to vulnerability, this openness to change — is needed on a societal level right now. It’s gonna be hard, but if we are willing to take the risk, we just might experience a new kind of freedom.

Adapted in days of Covid: As we continue to distance ourselves from others, by working from home, by wearing masks, by keeping six feet away from one another, we long for the days when we could be up close and personal — when we could drop by one another’s homes, sit side by side in a movie theater, shake hands, and hug. Living in close contact with those we care about can have a positive impact on us. It lifts our spirits, it connects us to our humanity, it gives our lives meaning.

However, spending time in close proximity to others does come with risk — and not just the risk of disease. The moments we spend with others — our family, our community — are not often picture perfect; frequently they are characterized by friction, collision, and pain.

In fact, when I look back on the mental movie of my life, I can see the people I love most standing nearby as I have yelled, thrown things, and slammed doors; they’ve born witness as I’ve lain wounded, cried, and struggled to get back up. What impact must these moments have had on the bystanders? I am sure they have left marks on the people I love most. And when I sit with that truth, my body aches.

But, here’s the thing: we can’t avoid leaving marks on the people we love the most.

We. are. broken.

All of us.

And when broken people come close to one another, we hurt one another.

Hurt people hurt people.

And all of us — from time to time — are hurting.

I remember one particularly difficult morning during the soldiering years when our whole family was headed to join a gathering of friends for a meal. Everyone else was ready and waiting, but I was upset about something — probably a larger internal issue — and I couldn’t get comfortable with the way I looked. I closed the bathroom door, tore everything out of the cabinets, and began violently cleaning and rearranging as I cried. I was hurting so badly, but I didn’t know why, and I didn’t know how I could pull on a face that would not expose my pain for public viewing. My husband and my children — all in middle and high school by this time — could certainly hear me wailing and slamming as they watched the clock, knowing we were going to be late. When finally I emerged, tears wiped, make-up applied, and silent, they watched cautiously as I climbed in the car. We all rode quietly to the event, where I took a deep breath, got out of the car, and engaged appropriately (or at least more appropriately) with those who had gathered.

What impact did that make? How did I affect my children and my husband, all of whom were also hurting during this period, by processing in this way — behind closed doors — and then presenting a different face to those who were one step removed? What was I teaching them about pain? About emotion? About friendship? About community?

Of course many experience bigger hurts than my emotional melt down. When families and communities experience accidents, trauma, or disaster, all feel the blows and carry the resulting injuries. If one member of the family is injured in a car accident, everyone’s life gets bumped out of its rhythm — all those who care stop what they are doing, show up on the scene, rally to help, and adjust their schedules until further notice. When one person is the victim of a crime, all in the vicinity feel the violation — they experience fear, anger, grief, agony — sometimes for years after the fact. When someone in the family loses their house to fire or their livelihood is destroyed by hurricane, the impact can be felt by the children, the parents, and the whole community who might see the course of their lives redirected for decades in the wake of such devastation.

Not every hurt is remarkable, of course, some impacts go virtually unnoticed. Others are among the everyday bumps and bruises incurred with close contact.

The other morning, my husband of almost thirty years was driving me to work on one of the coldest mornings of the year. We were chatting matter-of-factly as he drove when something he said struck a cord and I felt defensive. I heard myself respond directly, and soon I knew my reply was sharper than I’d intended when I heard his tone change, too. Before we knew it, we were both feeling agitated and exchanging charged comments. We arrived at the office building where I work, said our goodbyes, and both tried to proceed into our days carrying the bumps and bruises from that conversation.

Now, because we’ve been married for almost thirty years and because we’ve done the heavy lifting that has taught us how to repair, he texted me within moments and I texted back. We both acknowledged our part in the conflict and agreed to table our discussion until later. We’d both felt the pain of contact, but we were willing to back up, reassess, and try a different approach that wouldn’t cause damage.

When you are willing, you can experience growth and change in your relationships with others. Over time, having experienced many collisions and close calls, you can learn how to navigate more safely, how to give each other a wide berth, how to forgive missteps and even outright hurtfulness.

In fact, if you are going to stay in relationships with people, you are going to have to learn how to consider one another, how to forgive one another, and how to give one another chance after chance after chance, because when we live in close proximity, we bump into each other, and sometimes it hurts.

It can be painful to think about the impact that our choices, patterns, and words have had on those closest to us. We want so badly to get it all right, but we never will. So, we trudge on, doing what we can.

We don’t have to — we don’t have to keep trying, keep trudging. We have options.

We could avoid this hurt altogether. We could choose to live as individuals — insulating ourselves from others so that we don’t hurt them and so that they don’t hurt us — but what would we lose in so doing?

We would lose the opportunity to love, to learn, to grow. We would lose the opportunity to forgive and be forgiven. We would lose the chance to laugh together, to share experiences, and to weep with one another.

This morning at church, right before I witnessed my friend and her husband give bread and wine to her aging father, right before I saw them, along with our pastor, envelop him in a hug and pray for him, I heard these words:

…what if our true selves are made from the materials of our communal life?

Where is there some “self” which has not been communally created? By cutting

back our attachments and commitments, the self shrinks rather than grows.”

Stanley Hauerwas

In my closest relationships I have experienced the deepest pain, and I have felt the fullest joy. Knowing I will continue to experience both the pain and the joy, I will not cut back my attachments; I will not shrink into myself. I will open my arms and embrace the brokenness that is inherent to all relationships, because our truest selves are indeed made from the materials of our communal life.

“Be kind to one another — tenderhearted, forgiving one another — even as God, for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.”

Ephesians 4:32

Finding Common Ground, a re-visit

On Monday, I posted a piece about wearing a face mask during this pandemic. Who could have predicted at the start of this year that such a topic would be polarizing? A simple piece of fabric across the face has come to represent a political position rather than an attempt to stop the spread of disease. We could’ve seen it coming. The piece that follows was written in January of this year, long after many of us had taken our political positions, formed teams, sunk in our heels, and declared war on one another. How long will we allow this go on? How long before we are willing to find some common ground?

January 2020 is the start of a new year and a new decade. It is also a leap year, and, in case you hadn’t noticed, an election year.

It’s been pretty hard not to notice, what with the numerous debates, countless political ads, and the twenty-four hour news cycle.

And, for me, talk of the election and all things political has seeped into daily discourse, family gatherings (much to my mother’s dismay), and, most notably, my social media feeds.

I am happy to say that I have a pretty diverse online community; I’m quite sure it includes representatives from the far right, the moderate right, the moderate left, the far left, and people who claim to not care about politics at all. I don’t block people, even when their posts piss me off, because I want to hear divergent views. I don’t want to live in an echo chamber, so I sometimes see, as I scroll, posts that encourage me, posts that confuse me, posts that irritate me, and posts that make me want to reply in a way that I would likely regret later.

Recently, I saw a post from a friend who said it was all the [insert specific political party]’s fault that [fill in current political issue] was happening. I saw that another friend of mine had replied, so I scrolled on. That friend said that, no, it was actually the [insert opposing party]’s fault because “look at all this evidence”. And so it ensued — a virtual exchange between representatives of two different parties. Now, I will say, that these two individuals, both intelligent and well-read, were able to isolate some key issues and continue their exchange beyond the typical name calling and finger-pointing, but neither granted any space to the other; no allowances were made. Both stood firm in their convictions, unwilling to budge.

When I saw this conversation, I wanted so badly to step in and ally myself with one of the speakers. I placed my cursor over the “write a comment” space, started to type, then, in a moment of sudden good judgment, hit the backspace button and closed the lid on my laptop. (I would like to here record this adult-like behavior since I don’t always make such sound-minded choices.)

I considered those two friends over the next few days. They have known each other for decades. They have fond memories together, but they, at least in this post, had positioned themselves against each other and were unable to find common ground.

I wonder what would’ve happened if they had had the same conversation across the table from one another, over a sandwich and a coffee, looking into one another’s eyes. Would they would have been able to cede some of their firmly-held ground or been willing to step across the line into one another’s territory if only to look around?

It’s hard to know.

Another friend posted about a family gathering at Christmas where a [insert family member here] had come in spouting rhetoric from [insert political figure here], inciting an argument. Both parties continued to engage, firmly arguing their own positions, until one asked the other to leave. They couldn’t be in the same house together — on Christmas — because of their differing political views.

I don’t think these are isolated incidents. Scenes like these are becoming common. It seems that we have allowed ourselves to be drawn into these opposing factions that position us one against the other, heels dug in, fingers pointing. And where do we picture it will end? Do any of us believe — truly believe — that we can shout “the other side” into submission, that we can prove our “rightness” and their “wrong-ness”? Do we think that one side will ever “win”?

Because guys, I’m not seeing anyone winning right now. I’m seeing a lot of anger and posturing, name-calling and accusing, and all kinds of refusal to find a place where we can come together.

And isn’t that what we want? Don’t we want to come together in the United States of America? Don’t we want to live in a “more perfect union”? Don’t we want to embody e pluribus unum, ‘out of many, one’?

Can we accomplish that through finger-pointing, name-calling, and accusation? Not in my experience. I imagine that the longer we glare across the line, attaching blame to those on the other side, the further we get entrenched in our positions, the less willing we are to change.

And change doesn’t have to mean surrender — for anyone! If we could find, in the space between us, just enough room to set up a table, if we could invite one another to sit down, we just might have a beginning.

Of course, we’d have to shift our approach. Instead of trying to cram our own beliefs and opinions down the throats of the others, we’d have to agree to ask one another questions and listen to the responses.

For example, when one side says, “We need to do more to fight climate change,” we could respond by saying, “Oh? Tell me more about that. What kinds of ideas do you have?”

When someone says, “I don’t want anyone to take away my right to own a gun,” we could ask, “Really? Tell me why?”

If someone says, “Women have the right to do what they want with their bodies,” we can say, “I can see you are passionate about this. What’s your story?”

When another says, “We have to do what’s best for this country,” we can say, “What do you picture that looking like?”

What might happen? What kinds of conversations could we have if we just opened up some space and agreed to step inside of it, leaving our need to be right and our firmly held convictions behind?

Might we be able to see that we are indeed united on many issues — caring for our parents, providing for our children, reaching out to those in need? Could we be surprised to find that everyone on that other side doesn’t meet all our preconceived notions? Is it possible that in the space we find ourselves standing, we might see new possibilities that we’d never before imagined?

I’m just saying, it might be worth a try. Of course, we might decide that it feels safer to stay in our own yards, fists clenched, jaws set, unwilling to compromise the beliefs we hold so dear.

What were they again — those beliefs you hold so dear? What were the causes you were willing to fight with an old friend about? What issues kept you away from the Christmas gathering? What might you gain by clinging so tightly to them?

It could be a really long year if we stay in our trenches flinging grenades at one another.

Can’t we find enough common ground to stand together on? Can’t we reconcile with one another? Don’t we have enough grace for that?

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

Romans 12:18

Celebrating Freedom? a re-visit

I wrote this piece last year on the Fourth of July, when one of the biggest concerns of our nation was the fact that children were being held in detention centers at the border. As of June 8, 2020, according this New York Times article, 124 children were still in being held in our country’s three family detention centers. A federal judge has ordered that they all be released by July 17 due to the danger of the coronavirus running rampant through these centers. These children won’t be able to celebrate this weekend. They are not alone — many Americans are still waiting for true freedom. As we celebrate differently this year, may we also think differently. What are we willing to do to ensure liberty and justice for all?

Donned in red, white, and blue many of us this weekend will find our way to picnics and gatherings; we’ll light sparklers and watch fireworks. It’s a national holiday to celebrate independence — freedom from tyranny, freedom to vote, and freedom to speak our minds.

What a privilege we have to live in a country that is free — that for hundreds of years has been a destination for those fleeing oppression, longing for liberty, hoping for a better life.

So, it seems a bit ironic to me that as we celebrate our freedom, hundreds of children whose parents dared to walk a road toward what they hoped would be a better life, are held in crowded rooms, clutching tinfoil blankets, unsure of when they will see their families again.

It seems impossible that in the land of the free and the home of the brave, children going to school, families attending church, or friends going to a concert can be gunned down in moments by an assailant with a semi-automatic weapon; that kindergartners learn how to Run, Hide, or Fight; and that whole webpages, programs, and organizations exist for the sole purpose of training people how to respond in the event of a violent attack.

One hundred fifty-six years after the end of slavery and fifty-five years after the Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, African Americans are 75% more likely to face a charge carrying a mandatory minimum sentence than white offenders committing the same crime (University of Michigan School of Law), Muslims are subject to travel restrictions and hate crimes, and women receive 80% of the pay men receive for comparable jobs (AAUW). Injustice persists for Native Americans, Hispanics, Jews, and members of the LGBTQ community.

Aren’t all men (and women and children) created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights?

In the United States, where someone is sexually assaulted every 92 seconds and 1 out of 6 women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (RAINN), where 84% of women and 43% of men experience sexual harassment in the workplace (NPR), who, I ask, is free?

Is this what our ancestors fought for? Is this their more perfect union?

Did they fight to give us the freedom to lock up children away from their families?

Did they consider only white Christian men to be created equal? not people of color, women, or children? Do we?

Did they ensure the right to bear arms so citizens could freely gun down innocents as they live their daily lives?

Did they include among our unalienable rights the freedom to take the innocence and safety of others?

Is that what freedom looks like?

Or can we do better? Is it possible to live in a society where all can experience the same freedoms? Or is that simply an American dream?

As we light our grills and watch our fireworks, can we pause to consider the high price that was paid for American freedom and the high price that some are still paying? Can we think about what we’d be willing to sacrifice to offer safe haven to the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free?

Can’t we find a way to provide life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all inside our borders? Wouldn’t doing so ensure domestic tranquility? provide for the common defense? promote the general welfare? ensure the blessings of liberty?

Wasn’t that the hope in creating one nation, under God — the God who created all men, women, and children, who loves all people?

The God who commanded that we not only “love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, and minds” but also “love our neighbor as ourselves”? The God who, when asked “who is my neighbor?” told a story of mercy to strangers and perceived enemies (Luke 10:25-37)?

The God who told us to “seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17)?

The God who requires us “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8)?

Aren’t we free to do just that?

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”

Galatians 5:1

“Both Sides”, one more time for the people in the back

I wrote this piece last summer, and I ran it as a ‘re-visit’ in January, but as we head into the Democratic and Republican conventions over the next two weeks, perhaps we can take a moment to remember that although the US is largely a two-party system, the complexity of beliefs and political viewpoints in this country is vast. Would you be willing to challenge yourself to lay aside assumptions and create some space for discussions with people you might have previously assumed were on the other side?

The other day, a news reporter said that people on both sides of the immigration debate were upset by a recent decision. Senators from both sides of the aisle are contemplating impeachment, and both sides of the abortion debate are reeling from recent legislation. This language might lead us to the conclusion that many of our issues are binary — pro or con, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, black or white.

But isn’t most of life more complicated than that?

Is it even possible to break the US population, which today is 331,002,651 strong, into “both sides”? Can we neatly fit three hundred million people into two (or even three!) groups that would be able to agree on a political stance, an ideological framework, a common belief system? To me it seems unlikely — I can’t even get consensus on what to put on a pizza.

Yet spurred on by this type of rhetoric and our own human nature, we continue with this binary thinking — this either/or mentality — that puts us one against the other, fingers pointing, heels dug in, and shouting. We have assumed a posture of opposition, and in my experience, opposing forces with no intention of bending can do little less that push against one another and cause damage.

Is that what we’re aiming for?

My coworkers and I were recently discussing strategies for shifting a student who is resistant to instruction. This is an important discussion where I work because most of our students have experienced failure after failure in the classroom, and we are asking them to do the thing that is most difficult for them, usually for several hours a day, five days every week. It makes sense that they start out resistant and often return to that resistant stance over and over again. It’s pretty easy to spot. Just this week I saw a little boy, lower lip hanging, eyes brimming, sitting across from an instructor, refusing to engage with the questioning that is at the core of our programs.

What’s an instructor to do?

Will yelling at this child inspire him to engage? “Tommy! You’ve got to do this instruction! You don’t know how to read! We’ve got to do this right now!” No. That just leads to more resistance.

How about guilt? “Tommy, your parents are paying a lot of money for your instruction. Right now you are wasting their money and wasting my time.” Effective? Hardly.

Begging? “Please, Tommy, please, will you read this word?” No; at best this is a short-term solution.

What I’ve noticed throughout my years of teaching is that relationship has to come first. The student needs to see that you like her, care about her, and want to have fun with her. She needs to see that you are willing to get in the trenches with her, that you care about what she has to say, that you are invested in the process, and that you are willing to be flexible.

Time and time again, I have seen a student on the first day of instruction, convinced that he will never improve his ability to read, sink into a chair, turn his eyes down, and prepare himself to resist. Just as many times, I have seen a well-trained instructor start by building rapport, explaining the steps simply and carefully, then setting the climate for teamwork and fun. Slowly, the student sees that he is not alone, that he can take a chance, that he can begin to believe differently. Maybe, just maybe, he really can learn how to read!

If we can create a space for our students to step into, if we can show them the possibility of a world in which they can, with our support, learn how to read, then they will more likely be willing to shift from their position of resistance to a position of cooperation.

What if we took that approach when speaking to people on the “other sides” of the discussions that we are having. What if we started by building rapport (which would require that we stop shouting)? What if we explained our positions simply and carefully (which might require that we think through the complexity of those positions and understand our own reasons for our beliefs)? What if we set a climate for peaceful, even fun, conversation (which might require that we refrain from blaming, oversimplifying, and name-calling)?

Could we, in this way, create a space for people to step into, where they might imagine not binary discussions that tend toward polarization, but complex discussions that can envision creative alternative solutions?

I’ve recently been part of a study of Ecclesiastes, a book of wisdom literature, which was specifically written to teach people to live wise lives. The study defines a “wise life” as one that makes right decisions because it’s willing to ask the right kinds of questions. If one is truly pursuing wisdom, she has to ask these questions with open ears, an open heart, and an open mind. She has to be open to the possibility that she might be wrong.

Gulp.

What would that look like?

What would it look like if all the sides were committed to making the right kinds of decisions because they considered the right kinds of questions? What would it look like if all the sides entered the conversation with open ears, open hearts, and open minds? What would it look like if all of the sides were open to the possibility that they might be wrong?

Would we approach one another with humility? Would we ask one another to help us understand the reasons behind our positions? Would we listen carefully without mentally forming rebuttal? Would we pause and think before we replied or asked for further clarification?

Would we first build rapport?

(Hi, my name is Kristin, I am happy to be having this conversation with you today. How are you?)

Would we explain our positions, after having considered our own reasons?

(I come from a Christian perspective, and my life experiences have complicated some of my earlier held positions on political matters. I am wondering if you would be willing to step into that complexity with me.)

Would we set a climate for peaceful, even fun, conversation?

(Would you join me for a cup of tea and maybe lunch. I am not expecting any solutions; I am just wanting to toss around some ideas. Maybe when we’re done being serious, we could get some ice cream or see a movie.)

What might shift if we created such spaces? if we created an environment where folks didn’t have to cling so tightly to positions that they may not even fully understand or agree with? if we could stop pointing fingers, look into the eyes of the person sitting across the table from us, and see their humanity?

It certainly wouldn’t be as simple as having two sides. That’s true.

Is it worth the time and energy to admit that we might be more complex than that?

Are we brave enough to try a different way?

Are we willing to make right decisions because we have considered the right questions?

Are we willing to stop believing that we are merely both sides?

It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise

    than to hear the song of fools.”

Ecclesiastes 7:5

Of passing laws and changing behavior, a Re-visit

In Monday’s post, I shared my journey away from being a one-issue voter. In this post, which I wrote in May of 2019, I explore how effective laws are at changing behavior.

This year eight states have passed laws limiting access to abortion; Alabama passed a law this week directly prohibiting abortion except when the mother’s life is at risk or the baby has no chance to survive.

As the news is reported, the reactions can be heard across the nation. One camp is celebrating, believing these battles are signs they’ve won the war. Another is rallying its troops, preparing for the fight of their lives.

And I’m sitting here asking if we’re doing it all wrong.

Will passing these laws eliminate abortion in our country?

Do laws change behavior?

Does the law prohibiting alcohol consumption under the age of 21 stop underage drinking? Did it stop you? Or did it merely force you to find ways to conceal the fact that you were drinking?

I had one of my first drinks around age 15 in a friend’s basement an hour before a school dance. A dozen of us drank too much, piled ourselves into cars driven by those who shouldn’t have been driving, and, by the grace of God, made it to the dance. Things could’ve gone much differently.

Actions pressed into hiding don’t often turn out well.

Prior to Roe v. Wade which legalized abortion up to the age of viability, women got abortions illegally. No official records were kept, obviously, but researchers now estimate that approximately 800,000 illegal abortions were performed annually prior to 1973 (The Guttmacher Institute). Women snuck around corners into dark alleys, paid people who may or may not have had medical expertise, and took risks that often ended their lives or left them permanently unable to bear children. They sought out secret abortions regardless of a law that prohibited them.

Let me stop right here and say that I am not pro-abortion. Actually, I imagine very few people would say that they like abortion — even among the most liberal pro-choice advocates. However, I am questioning whether restrictive legislation will decrease the number of abortions performed in our country.

I am wondering if the answer to decreasing the number of abortions and changing the hearts and behaviors of those who would choose abortion lies instead in changing the culture in which women are pressed into desperate situations — a culture where sexual impropriety is the norm and where the words of women are often not believed.

What if we could change the culture that recently elected a president who has bragged about his sexual exploitation of women? a culture that leaves thousands of rape kits in warehouses — untested for years — while perpetrators make more women into victims? What if we could change a culture that shames women who rely on public assistance into one that provides all women (and men) with resources — for contraceptives, mental health, medical costs, and child care?

We need to look at such a cultural shift because creating bills and laws that outlaw behavior do not, in and of themselves, eliminate that behavior.

In a country where it is illegal to buy, sell, or use illicit drugs, we have one of the biggest opioid epidemics in history. In 2017, 47,600 people died from an opioid overdose in the United States alone — where heroin is illegal and prescription opioids are supposedly regulated (Centers for Disease Control). In 2017, 2.2 million Americans admitted to using cocaine monthly; 473,000 admitted to using crack monthly (Delphi Health Group). The last time I checked, both cocaine and crack were prohibited in the U.S.

Laws do not eliminate behavior, they merely push it behind closed doors.

Not only that, laws often position us one against another. They put us in camps, as though we are at war with one another. Haven’t we sorted ourselves as either pro-life or pro-choice, as if this complex issue could be boiled down to either/or?

The problems we face are more complicated than that — abortion is but a symptom of a much larger problem. One that is quite complex. In this country, which was founded on the principle that all [men] were created equal, we have not historically extended liberty to people who were not [white] men. Women (and people of color, and most especially, women of color) in our country have long felt unheard, disrespected, and undervalued. They have long been dismissed, abused, underpaid, and neglected.

Women who have found themselves in desperate situations, have sometimes chosen abortion when the alternative has been shame, condemnation, parental or spousal punishment, physical harm, an inability to provide, or having to raise a child born of assault. Deprived of other forms of agency, women have chosen the most desperate of actions — abortion.

The solution to the problem is not merely prohibiting abortion. No, if you want to value life, you have to value all life, and that starts with valuing the lives of women. Seeing women, listening to women, paying women equally, promoting women, electing women, and most important of all — caring for women.

In this country of wealth, education, and privilege, certainly we can handle complex problems such as this. Surely we have the wherewithal to consider a solution that is multi-faceted and takes into account the welfare of all — the unborn and those who are already living.

So, instead of pouring time and money into overturning Roe v. Wade, a law that has been affirmed as constitutional, what if we tried a different approach? What if we tried to change our culture by coming together, listening to one another, hearing each other’s stories, and working together to find unique and complex solutions? Right now, we are staying in our own lanes, each convinced that he is going the right way, refusing to cross paths, take detours, or share the ride. When we refuse to communicate, when we resist difficult dialogue, we lock ourselves in opposition; we prohibit change.

And don’t we want change? Don’t we all want what is best for our country and the people who live within it? Don’t we want all women, men, and children (born and unborn) to be safe and valued?

I don’t have the answers, but I do have plenty of questions.

If you stand against abortion, do you also stand with and for women and children? Do you befriend them? even if they don’t look like you? Do you encourage them? how? Do you provide for them? In what way?

If you are pro-choice, what actions are you taking to support and sustain the lives around you? to offer a variety of choices that may or may not include abortion? Are you willing to interact with those who say they are pro-life? Are you willing to sit down over a cup of coffee and have a real conversation? Are you willing to listen openly, without formulating rebuttal in your mind?

I recently had the opportunity to share the room with some recovering alcoholics. I listened carefully to their stories and their conversations, and I learned from them. Do you know what got them to stop drinking? Was it a law? Not typically. Sure some addicts dry up when they are arrested or thrown in jail, but more stop drinking and stay sober when they have, in finding the bottom, looked up to see a support system gathering around them — a bunch of fellow wanderers who are stumbling together toward a better life. They aren’t shaking their fists and pointing fingers at each other. No, they are lending a hand or sharing a ride; they are reaching out, listening, and showing up.

Wouldn’t it be great if the mere passage of laws remedied the ills of a society?

It doesn’t work that way.

We’re much more broken than that, my friends. Pointing fingers, passing judgement, heaping on shame, and throwing people in jail do not fix brokenness.

Brokenness can only be healed in community — in partnership — through love.

Rather than passing more punitive laws, I wonder if we might try a different way — a coming together, a collective sharing of lives, a genuine care for the people around us. A gathering, lifting up, supportive kind of sharing that is willing to walk with people through complex situations and even, dare I say, pass laws and policies that provide alternate paths, financial support, and an entrance ramp to a different way of life.

Are you willing to give it a try? Where do we start?

Show me your ways,  O Lord, teach me your paths.

Psalm 25:4

Blessed at the DMV, a re-visit

On Monday I wrote about privilege; this post from December 2014 — way back near the start of this chapter — talks about privilege, too. Throughout my life I have considered myself to be blessed — to have abundance because of the generosity of God. I will render to God the praise that is God’s, but I will also acknowledge that I have privilege because I am white and Christian in a country that has historically benefitted white Christian people at the expense of others.

I am writing late today, and as I sit at my desk, the sun is setting over the river. I can see it right out my window.  It. is. gorgeous.

Today was a pretty bleak day weather-wise — cold and gray –and the task on the to-do list was also pretty bleak: a trip to the Secretary of State’s office — the DMV.

If you ever want to feel like you don’t live in a free, democratic society, go to the DMV. It’s one of the few places where I feel like I am a pawn. I stood in line to get a number to mark my place in line — no kidding. Then, I sat with that number for over an hour. Of course I made it out with what I came for. I didn’t have to bribe an employee or bring in a chicken or anything like that, but I sure did feel like I was in a prisoner to the system.

I wasn’t alone. Everyone there was complaining — Why does this take so long? I have been here for two hours already! I really had to pay $30 for this piece of paper? 

It’s a glimpse at what people around the world have to go through every single day. A glimpse, not a clear look. Let’s be honest — we’ve got it pretty good. Most Americans have running water, a toilet, a refrigerator, heat, probably air conditioning, and if you are reading this, I will bet that you have access to the Internet. We’ve got so many clothes we can’t decide what to wear to the gym. And, yes, many of us have memberships to gyms. We have dozens, if not hundreds of channels on our televisions. We have the resources to purchase Christmas presents for our families, our coworkers, our friends, and our spouses. We can drive, in our cars, to the nearest pharmacy and pick up a remedy for anything that ails us along with a gallon of milk, a bag of chips, and a pack of cigarettes if we wish.

I really have no right to complain about the DMV. It’s a pain — yes. I’ve been there three times since I moved to Ann Arbor four months ago — I am starting to recognize the employees. I have to dedicate a morning or an afternoon each time I go there, but it’s the only place I go where this is the case. The only place.

Even when I go to the University of Michigan for health care, I am seen in a reasonable amount of time by some of the top physicians in the nation, if not the world. I go to the Post Office and pay a small fee and my package is shipped anywhere I like. I drop by the library and borrow books, DVDs, and CDs, for free! I travel easily by highway or airline. I am free to get an education, to hold a job, and to vote.

Many in the world do not enjoy most of the privileges that we enjoy. We forget that. We forget that 38% of the world does not have access to adequate sanitation, half of the citizens of the world live on $6 a day, 24% of the people in the world have no electricity, 47% of the people in the world do not have a reliable or adequate food supply (If the World Were a Village, 2011).

I have much to be thankful for — I ate plenty all day long, I drove my car to Bible study where I was free to practice my religion, I came home to a warm house, I went out to the DMV, then came back home to sit at my computer, write whatever I feel like writing, and look out my window at the sun setting over the river. I am blessed — and privileged.

Freely you have received; freely give.

Matthew 10:8

Uncle Louie and Aunt Margaret, a re-visit with much love

I wrote this post over six years ago, shortly after I’d moved back to Michigan. I was so excited to be back around extended family, and I had taken a trip to visit with some of them. I’m dusting it off today, because yesterday, my Uncle Louis died at the age of 92, on a Covid unit in a hospital. He was one of the sweetest men I have ever known.

I have been on a little excursion. I travelled to my childhood home on Saturday and have had one great moment after the other since.

It started with dinner on Saturday with my parents and my brothers followed by worship on Sunday with the whole family. After church, my niece and I saw a movie. I’ve eaten well, slept famously, and have had many walks down memory lane.

This morning was particularly special. I drove about an hour to visit my aunt and uncle — my father’s older brother and his wife. My godparents, Uncle Louie and Aunt Margaret, are the most precious of gems.

They have showed up for everything. Everything. My baptism. My confirmation. My birthdays. My wedding. My grandparents’ funerals — my mother’s parents, not just my father’s. None of this probably seems astounding, but let me tell you why it is.

My parents were divorced in the 1970s. Divorce was not very common back then, particularly not among ‘church folk’. In those days, when divorce happened, it was fairly common for the mother to get sole custody of the children and the father to fade into the background, sending financial support and visiting occasionally. This was way before shared custody.

To complicate matters, my parents divorced around the same time that my dad was relocating to take a new job several hours away.

My three siblings and I stayed with my mother, as was the usual course of events, while my dad moved. While I am thankful that during my childhood and adolescence we had the stability of one household and the ongoing involvement of the relatives on my mother’s side, I have been sad over the years because of the diminished relationship with my dad and his side of the family.

We saw my dad, but because he was several hours away, those visits were infrequent. We usually stayed with him in the summer for a week or two, talked on the phone regularly, and saw him around the holidays. Sometimes, when he came to Michigan , he would take us to see my grandmother, his mother, who for most of my childhood lived a nursing home, but of his five siblings, usually the only one we visited was my Uncle Louie, and his dear wife, Aunt Margaret.

Whenever we stopped by their house, Uncle Louie would pull out a cardboard box of toys that they kept just for our visits, and Aunt Margaret would magically produce some kind of sweet — cookies, cake, or maybe some donuts. They wanted to hear what we had to say. Aunt Margaret asked all the questions; Uncle Louis was pretty quiet, until he spoke in his soft bass voice. Whatever he said, he said with a smile and sparkling eyes.

Sometimes they told stories about their snowmobiling adventures, my Uncle Louie’s job as a postal worker, or my Aunt Margaret’s love for hand-painted china, but the best story they told was their love story. When they shared their ‘scandalous’ beginning, they both looked mischievous as they took turns in the telling, as though it were a scripted piece they’d been telling over and over for years.

The love story of Louie and Margaret began with a one-month courtship that quickly escalated one night right before they were both supposed to punch in for their second shifts at the factory where they worked. They were sitting in the car when Aunt Margaret suggested that they drive to Indiana instead of going to work. In Indiana, she said, right across the state line, they could get married the next day, without the waiting period required in Michigan. Uncle Louie, apparently no longer concerned about his factory shift, turned the car back on, drove home to borrow $20 from his mother, stopped to pick up two witnesses, and headed to Indiana. They changed into their wedding clothes in a cornfield and were married by the justice of the peace the next morning. They stayed married for 71 years.

They were always together, those two. They took lots of drives looking for antiques and visiting family. They had just one son who was a bit older than we were — he, his wife, and their three children were the lights of their lives, but they had space enough for all of us, too. Three out of four of us were their godchildren, although my Aunt Margaret always said, “I alway include your brother in all my prayers, too.” They took their role seriously, and weren’t going to drop off because of a divorce.

Instead, Uncle Louie and Aunt Margaret regularly drove an hour to come see us at our mom’s house. They said, “Your mom is still our sister; you are still our family.” It may not sound that remarkable now, but, believe me, it was very unconventional at the time.

They came to every birthday party and special event. They always hugged my mother when they came and when they left. They modeled for me how to treat family, even in the midst of brokenness. I never saw judgment or distance from them — just love.

When I grew up and had a family of my own, they would then drive two hours just to drop by and say ‘hello.’ Their big yellow Oldsmobile would pull into our driveway, and I would say, “What? You drove all this way?” They always hugged us — Uncle Louie with his big compression hugs — and said, “I love you.” Aunt Margaret wrote long letters and would share news from my dad’s side of the family, including family history that I didn’t know much about. I always felt loved and treasured by my godparents; I have been so thankful to have them.

As my husband and I have faced divorce and other brokenness in our own extended family, we have often referred to the example that Uncle Louie and Aunt Margaret set. While it is heart-wrenching to watch family members experience pain, it has given me some measure of comfort to know my role. My job is to show love, to give hugs, and to communicate belongingness, just like Uncle Louie and Aunt Margaret have done for me.

Of the many things in my life I am thankful for, Uncle Louie and Aunt Margaret are near the top of the list. I told them that this morning and reminded them of the special lesson they taught me.

since God loved us, so also we ought to love one another

1 John 4:11

postscript January 17, 2021: In the summer of 2018, my Uncle Louis fell in the yard, breaking his hip. He never returned home after that. He went from a hospital to a nursing home where he lived out the rest of his days, separated from the love of his life. It was a hard hit that came not too long after the death of their only son from cancer. My heart has ached these last two years watching these two gems finish their days apart, especially since Covid kept Aunt Margaret from sitting next to Uncle Louis for his last ten months. When he was admitted to the hospital a little over a week ago, Aunt Margaret said, I just wish I could hold his hand. Now I know she’s just longing to be with him again.