Time for Refreshing

Chester and I relishing the end of a restful week.
Click the arrow to listen.

A thick blanket of wet snow covers our yard, our driveway, and the playground across the street. It’s almost 7:30 am, but the heavy winter clouds overhead are allowing just a soft gray glow to light the neighborhood. It’s a quiet ending to a quiet week.

In the months leading up to our Thanksgiving break, my husband and I had imagined all kinds of scenarios — flying someplace warm to sit in the sun for a few days, driving across the border to Canada to “flee the country” for the day or even a few hours, dining out, going to a movie, or possibly visiting with family. We scrolled through flight options, investigated Airbnbs, read restaurant menus, and discussed possibilities. We really wanted to get away. I had had a busy fall, but his had been even more taxing. We knew we needed a break and possibly even an escape.

For weeks we ran scenarios and dreamed dreams, but it seems each time we got close to a plan, we ran into a difficulty. Flight costs had skyrocketed, all of our usual caregivers for our aging golden retriever were unavailable, and I had to attend a virtual professional development on Monday and Tuesday, so the escape to a sunnier climate was off the table.

Still, a day trip to Windsor seemed doable, so my husband scouted out some restaurants and began to plan our day, but then we realized we’d need a negative Covid test 72 hours prior to our visit. That wouldn’t be a problem, but then, as we started to investigate a little further, we noticed from the New York Times Covid Map that Michigan was one of the hottest spots in the nation. Would it really be responsible to head across the border, especially since both of us spend our days in a petri dish surrounded by teens and young adults? What might we carry with us?

As we were coming to terms with our reality, my brother reached out. He was hosting Thanksgiving at his house, and he was inviting us to join. My mother and stepfather would be there along with my other brother and his family. That sounded lovely. We were not able to do Thanksgiving or Christmas with family last year. The idea of driving “over the river and through the woods” to enjoy a feast surrounded by loved ones sounded amazing. However, it wasn’t long into our discussion of this possibility when we realized that that, too, would be irresponsible. My mother, although fully vaccinated, has chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), and while she is in remission, her health is still quite compromised. We are fully vaccinated, and even boosted, but we still didn’t feel like it would be wise with the current spike in cases to gather and bring any traces of virus we might be carrying into her midst.

So, it was around last weekend when we determined that we should probably just stay home, roast our own turkey, binge on some Netflix and football, and get some rest. It was disappointing at first, but, as you might have guessed, it turns out it was just what we needed.

On Monday and Tuesday, I had a couple faculty meetings, and then I was afforded the time I needed to write detailed lesson plans for when I return tomorrow. Often that work is squeezed into my prep period or in the before or after school time, so having hours to imagine how my lesson might play out, to design an instructional activity, and to create a detailed rubric was luxuriant.

Between meetings on Monday, I popped a turkey into the oven, then at the end of the work day I threw together a couple of sides, and we welcomed a couple dear friends who already navigate within our work and social bubbles to share it with us. Then, because I didn’t think to send leftovers home with our guests, we ate turkey for the rest of the week — first in the form of reheated leftovers and then in bowl after bowl of yummy soup.

With days at our disposal, and nowhere to be, we were able to manage a car repair, sewing machine servicing, some quick dashes to pick up birthday and Christmas gifts, and a long walk in a county park nearby. We lost track of time, ate when we got hungry, and napped when we felt tired. Every once in a while, I would default to my schedule-checking mindset, “What nights next week do we have plans? Am I all set for teaching on Monday? What do I need to take with me?” and then I would remember that it wasn’t even the weekend yet. I could keep relaxing.

I crocheted, and I mended. We put up and decorated our little Christmas tree. We zoomed and Facetimed with family, and we did a lot of sitting around. I finished one book and started another, and we completed three jigsaw puzzles!

And still we had more time. Time to do yoga, to write, and time to just rest, sipping tea, and gazing out the window into the snowy day. This is what we needed — not a flight to sunny spot, not a run for the border, just some quiet, uncommitted time. We are thankful to have had it because tomorrow we will suit up, grab our bags, and head back into our work.

We are breathing fresh air, our bodies are restored, and we are ready to greet our students and colleagues.

Buckle up, kids, here I come!

I will refresh the weary and satisfy the faint.

Jeremiah 31:25

Teacher Tired

Click the arrow to listen to me read this post.

It was a long first quarter.

We started school on September 7 and went straight through without a break. Outside of a week and a half of virtual instruction due to a high number of Covid cases, we were in the building with our students, following Covid protocols, managing the movements of a few hundred teenagers who are struggling to re-acclimate to the structures of school, and — oh, yeah — trying to provide high quality instruction.

Then, this past week was extra busy.

Monday, I drove home after school to log on to a short informational meeting about a Social-Emotional Learning pilot program we are starting next week. Would I be willing to be a participating instructor? Tuesday, I left school early so that I could be home for an online training from 3:30-5:00. Then, Wednesday, when we see all of our classes on a shortened schedule of seven forty-minute periods, we stayed late for in-person parent-teacher conferences. The school provided pizza and salad at 2pm, then we stationed ourselves at tables in the gym, and met with parents to discuss their students’ progress.

I had arrived at school at 7:30am; I left the building at 6:15 pm.

Thursday, I was up at 5 to do my morning routine, wanting to be in the right headspace before I taught three 100-minute blocks. I arrived at school at my usual 7:30 and was making last-minute preparations in my classroom when I saw my principal at my classroom door.

“Rathje, let me talk to you for a minute,” she said, as she pulled two other colleagues from across the hall to join us. “I just want to let you know,” she said, “that tomorrow we will be virtual. Be sure to take everything you need with you tonight. We won’t be back in the building until after Thanksgiving.”

“That’s amazing!” I blurted, and I kind of surprised myself. I have so loved being back with the students. We have learned more together in one quarter of in-person instruction than we learned in the whole of last year. I know every face and every name. I’m familiar with personalities, quirks, strengths, and challenges. I can anticipate which class is going to be a challenge to keep awake and which class is going to be a challenge to keep in their seats, on-task, and engaged.

If I love it so much, why was I so happy to be going virtual for the last day before the break? Because I was exhausted.

I’m not the only one. Teachers across the country are wiped out. We knew this year would be challenging, but we could not have know what all would be entailed. We knew that we would be re-acclimating students to schedules, to classrooms, to mask-wearing, and to seven-hour school days, but I’m not sure we fully pictured the volatility of emotions we would see in a school full of teenagers who have lived through the multiple traumas of a pandemic — how quick these kids would be to lash out, to cry, to completely check out. We knew in-person teaching, talking through a mask for the full day, would be a different kind of tired, but I, for one, never imagined that we would be short-staffed for the entire first quarter. Could I have guessed that my prep periods would sometimes be used to cover the class of another teacher? that we would fully employ not one but two building substitutes? that other schools would be cold-calling teachers on our staff, enticing them away with signing bonuses, higher pay, and grass that is much, much greener than ours?

Not even a little bit.

And though we started the year hoping and praying that Covid was winding down, officials are now saying that Michigan is in the “fourth surge” of the pandemic that “could last 4-5 months” (Fox 2 Detroit).

Teaching under these circumstances is stressful, and we are tired, folks. Teachers are tired.

So tired, in fact, that Detroit Public Schools have determined to be virtual every Friday in the month of December.

In a special announcement on the district’s website, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the decision was made “after listening and reflecting on the concerns of school-based leaders, teachers, support staff, students, and families regarding the need for mental health relief, rising COVID cases, and time to more thoroughly clean schools.” CBS Detroit.

School leaders are getting creative in order to hear the concerns of teachers and respond so that they can hang on to the ones that they still have. Our school, for example, announced before the school year began that they were issuing retention bonuses to all returning staff — the longer you’ve been on staff, the higher the bonus. Then, last week, they announced a mid-year pay bump for all staff, paid out in two installments over the coming months. Additionally, to discourage absenteeism, our school leaders offered a raffle wherein each teacher receives an entry for each day they attend and those with perfect attendance receive 25 bonus entries. Next week during our two professional development days, three names will be drawn, and winners will receive $100, $40, or $25. To build collegiality and team spirit, our building principal initiated a team-based contest — daily challenges encourage teacher teams to complete tasks, take photos, and share them in our group chat, earning points toward a team prize.

Do teachers need all of this? Yes, we need every bit of it.

Teaching is not easy. For each 100-minute block with my students, I spend at least that much time in intellectual preparation, thinking about behavioral strategies to increase engagement and decrease undesirable behaviors, procuring incentives, meeting with other staff, attending professional development, and myriad other tasks. That’s in a normal year.

This year, we’ve had the added stress of Covid. In the beginning of the year, some students needed daily assurance that it was indeed safe to sit next to peers, masked, for an entire class period, and that we were doing everything we could to stop the spread. Other students (and some staff) needed constant reminders to keep their mask over their nose and mouth throughout the school day. All teachers have had to keep seating charts to enable contact-tracing when students test positive, which has happened continuously since school started. Then, when students are quarantining, teachers have the added load of making sure all assignments are posted online and that students who return to school having done no school work at all get caught back up. And perhaps the most stressful for me have been the almost daily group chats informing staff how many teachers, behaviorists, or administrators will be out for the day, because any time a team is down one man, the rest of the team has a larger load to carry, and sometimes we’ve been down four, or five or six staff members on a single day.

It’s been stressful, to be sure, but let me reiterate that I love my job. I seriously do. I believe that most teachers who are still showing up, still standing, still delivering instruction to their students, and still opening their doors before school or during lunch so that students can drop in desperately love their students. They drive home thinking about how a lesson went well or how it tanked. They lie awake at night creating new strategies for content delivery. They write long blog posts sharing what’s going on so that others will care about their kids, too.

And while certainly the public is aware that teachers have a hard job and that teachers are essential to our communities and society as a whole, it seems that rather than offering support, encouragement, or suggestions that might lighten the load, public discussion about education often misses the point. Before this school year started the public was up in arms about the alleged insidious introduction of Critical Race Theory into the curriculum and whether or not schools had the right to issue mask mandates. These discussions and the enflamed and politically-charged emotion around them did nothing to improve the actual day-to-day experience of teachers, let alone students. The problems in eduction aren’t that easy to solve.

Problems in education are complex and often grow out of inadequate funding, inequitable resources, and societal systems that need to be restructured because they are outdated, ineffective, and designed for an economy, a culture, that no longer exists. Nevertheless, teachers continue to show up to buildings in need of repair, to use materials that are out of date, and to give what they have for children that they care about. And we need them to.

We’ve been moving toward a teacher shortage for years, and Covid has exacerbated the problem. The teachers who are left in classrooms want to be there, but they won’t stay unless they are given what they need — community support, parental cooperation, adequate pay, and the kind of respite that comes from a Friday of virtual learning, a week off at Thanksgiving, and two more at Christmas. Teachers need us to acknowledge that the load is heavier than anyone thought, that continuing to teach and learn in the wake of widespread trauma is taxing, and that we don’t know what in the world we would do if every last teacher woke up tomorrow morning and said, “That’s it. I can’t do this any more.”

I’m not anywhere near that breaking point. I’m still glowing with joy over the fact that I get to be back in the classroom. However, countless teachers are standing on the edge, wondering how many more times they can show up for our kids. If you know teacher, even if he or she seems to be doing just fine, grab them a cup of coffee, a bottle of wine, or a dinner out. Let them know you appreciate the work they are doing. You just might get them through to Christmas.

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

Proverbs 3:27

Health Check

A friend asked me recently, “How are you doing with pain now that you’re back in the classroom?”

I appreciated her asking — it was an acknowledgement that she remembered how far I had come and that my move back to the classroom was not taken without much prayerful consideration regarding the impact such a move could have on my health after the years-long journey I have just taken.

It’s a good time to ask because a) last year wasn’t a real test since the students were learning from a distance and the physical demands were not as great and b) we’re now back in person, and the first quarter will end on Friday.

It’s an important question, too, because this blog started when I had to leave my teaching career due to health issues. I was struggling with pain, fatigue, and issues with my skin and eyes, and I just couldn’t bring quality care and instruction to my students in that condition.

My body, it seems, had gone on strike after years of overwork complicated by a failure to process my emotions or take care of myself. Inflammation was so prevalent in my body that I could feel it– it bubbled into my joints making them hot and stiff, it irritated my skin causing scaliness and itching, it inflamed my eyes sending me time and time again to a specialist for treatment.

Many times I’d landed on the couch or in my bed for days at a time. In the early years of my recovery, I had to lie down several times a day even though I slept 8-10 hours a night. I often found myself limping through the house or lying on the bathroom floor waiting to throw up. I was miserable, and I couldn’t imagine a time when I would be able to return to the rigor of the classroom.

However, over six long years, I learned strategies that began to reduce those symptoms and that have kept me on a path to improved health. Among those strategies is a diet that is rich fruits, vegetables, chicken, rice, and fish, and that avoids gluten, dairy, beans, and corn. I also exercise every day, write every day, and see a therapist, a physical therapist, a chiropractor, and a masseuse. When I do all of these things on a regular schedule, and get plenty of rest, I mostly stay well.

The progress has been slow and incremental, just as my return to working has been.

If you’ve been tracking the saga, you know that I didn’t work at all for six months, then I started by tutoring and proofreading. I moved on to part-time work in an educational agency, then progressed to teaching part-time as a college adjunct instructor. From there, I moved back to the agency and eventually worked full-time in a leadership role, but I still didn’t believe I would ever have the capacity to teach in a classroom full of students, managing their learning, their emotions, and their movements five days a week.

It was at this time, about almost six years into recovery, that Covid hit. We as a nation were knocked down by this highly contagious pandemic, and, as we social distanced from one another, we had some time and space within which other ailments — widespread poverty, systemic racism, educational inequity, and the like — became more evident.

The situation looked familiar to me because I had just lived through something similar — autoimmunity had knocked me down and forced me to take some time and space to recognize that I hadn’t been attending to my mental or physical health or to that of my family. I had to acknowledge that they were suffering, too.

And as I observed our nation’s symptoms in real time, something just clicked. It was like I had been training and preparing for this moment. I was in good shape and ready to step back in the ring, and if I was going to do it — if I was going to put myself out there and see if I still had the juice — I was going to do it in a place where I could turn the dial, be it ever so slightly, by identifying and using strategies that might reduce the impact of poverty, racism, and trauma for students who had been knocked down the hardest.

If you’ve been reading along for the last year, you know that I am intoxicated by the opportunity I’ve been given at Detroit Leadership Academy — I can’t keep my mouth shut about it.

But that didn’t answer my friend’s question, did it? How am I doing with pain now that I am back in the classroom full time?

I’d say I’m doing better than I might’ve hoped for. As I’m writing this, I’m tired, and I’m on the second day of a headache. I’m not surprised. It’s the weekend before the final week of the first quarter. We are still short one staff person, plus we’ve had one out due to Covid for over a week. I’m working in a setting that is rich with trauma and the impacts of trauma, and it shows. The students are tired, and worn, and often quite raw. I see all of this, and it weighs on my heart.

And, if I’ve learned anything through this journey, it’s that emotions are stored in the body. My students’ bodies show it, and my body shows it.

So, yes, I do have some pain — in my heart, but also almost always in my right sacroiliac joint, often in my low back, a little less in my hips and neck, and today in my head, and much to my dismay, my left eye.

That left eye — he’s the lookout — he always lets me know when I have pushed too far, when I need to take a down day, when I need to attend to self-care. Today I think he’s shouting because on top of a long week, I pushed a little further on Friday night, went out to dinner with my husband and a coworker, then travelled through a downpour to an away football game where my students were playing against a team with far greater resources — a well-lit turf field, cheerleaders, a marching band, and stands that were 1/3 full even in the downpour. Our side of the field had about a dozen fans including us. Our guys, after arriving late because the contracted transportation was late picking them up, fought hard, but they were outmatched; the final score was 42-6. The other team was jubilant — they had claimed their victory. Our team was despondent — their hopes were dashed. It felt emblematic of the divide in our country — the inequity of resources and opportunity I see in my work every day and the impact that inequity has on the lived experiences of students like mine. It was hard to watch.

We got home after 10:30, damp and chilled, and I crawled into bed to sleep. Through the night I felt a headache and some nausea. This morning, my body has the hum of inflammation — the heat and a quiet vibration that calls for my attention. Less subtly, my eye is shouting, “For the Love of God, take a break!”

So, I’m spending my morning writing and doing some yoga. Next, I’ll eat a breakfast of non-inflammatory foods, slowly go pick up some groceries, then come home, sit on the couch, and watch some football.

I’ll take the weekend to rest, recover, worship, and see some friends, and by Monday, I should be ready to step back into it again.

It takes vigilance to stay well — everyday attention to self care that puts the oxygen mask on myself before it dares to assist the person next to me. It’s counterintuitive to how I always imagined I was supposed to live — squaring my shoulders, gritting my teeth, muscling through, grinning and bearing it — and it’s a better, richer way.

I have way more gas in my tank, way more capacity to put my work down when students gather in my room like they did on Friday morning — a bunch of seniors huddled around my desk, asking for snacks, chatting, busting on each other, making me laugh.

Pain? Sure, I have pain; my students do, too. Somehow, we’ve landed in the same space, and we are learning how to be together, how to learn from each other, and, on the richest of days, how to laugh with one another.

For this, I am so thankful, and so committed to staying the course and attending to my wellness so that I can keep on showing up for these kids.

He picked me up

And He turned me around

And He placed my feet

On the solid ground

Hallelujah, hallelujah

Corey Asbury, “So Good To Me”

A drink of water

I was so excited last spring when I saw a crew replacing our hallway water fountains at school with filling stations.

As part-camel, I consume a couple quarts of water each day while I’m in the building. I’d been lugging in a large Igloo water jug all year; this would make my daily trek in from the car so much easier.

It made sense, in the times of Covid, that we would do away with traditional water fountains, the likes of which I’d stood in line at in my growing up years. It was the only way we got drinks of water back then, by bending over a shared porcelain bowl and glug-glugging until the person behind us got impatient and we stood up, wiped our dripping mouth on our sleeve, took a big gulp of air, and moved on.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen filling stations pop up everywhere — office buildings, airports, and, of course, schools, but in my little charter school in Detroit, which is on lease from the Archdiocese and in need of myriad repairs, I was surprised to see this improvement. Certainly, it was an expense mandated by Covid — I couldn’t imagine the funds would have been found otherwise.

However it came to be, I happily began to refill my water bottle and gladly left my Igloo at home.

I pictured my students doing the same — bringing a water bottle to school and carrying it with them all day, independently managing their thirst as countless students across the country do without thinking. No such thing happened. The students came, but they brought no bottles. They wanted drinks, but they had nothing to put them in.

“Mrs. Rathje, do you have a cup?”

“A cup?”

“Yeah, so I can go get a drink of water.”

“Oh, right. I guess you can’t get a drink of water unless you have something to put it in.”

The school could hardly let the students go thirsty, but what were we to do? The traditional fountains were gone. We certainly didn’t have a supply of water bottles lying around. Instead, as students became thirsty, they went to the office, asked for a paper cup, filled it at the filling station, and carried it back to class. Day after day after day.

It was a disruption to class and to the office staff, but even more, this paper cup carrying seemed like a step backward. Weren’t the filling stations supposed to be an improvement?

This whole situation really started to bug me, but in a world full of planning, teaching, grading, and managing the movements of hundreds of bodies of teenagers in a building, the water problem was not top priority, never mind Maslow.

We were about four weeks into the school year, four weeks in to the era of the paper cup, when a friend from our St. Louis days reached out to me. He said he’d read my blog and would like to support my students. How could he help? My first response was to say that although I had had a great deal of initial support that had allowed me to purchase snacks and prizes for my students, my supply would certainly need to be replenished in time. My reward system was working, and students were claiming prizes for their hard work, and the word was out — Mrs. Rathje has snacks — and the kids were making a bee-line for my classroom.

However, I had no sooner sent him that message when the water situation popped into my mind. I sent a follow-up: “Another project I’m thinking about starting soon is purchasing re-usable water bottles. We have those refillable water stations, but nobody has a bottle. Right now we are using paper cups. I’ve got 80+ seniors. I’d at least like to get each of them a bottle.”

Before too long, he replied that he’d like to support the water bottle effort and asked how he could get me some cash. As it turns out, he is the pastor of a church called Jacob’s Well. Do you remember Jacob’s well? The place where the Samaritan woman gave Jesus a drink, and He told her that He had water that would forever quench her thirst? (I really can’t make this stuff up.) It seems that Jacob’s Well wanted to make sure my students could get some drinks of water.

Within a day or two he had sent me enough money to purchase water bottles for the whole school. My mind was blown. I wanted to act as quickly as possible to put water bottles in my students hands, and since I was still preoccupied with planning, teaching, grading, and the like, I reached out to a few people who quickly got to work on ordering some pretty sweet water bottles — complete with the school logo — that would arrive within a week! I was telling a friend about this purchase, and she said she wondered if there would be confusion with 300 identical bottles all in the same building. Could she create and fund some custom name labels for the bottles? Before she could change her mind, I supplied her with the names of all of my seniors, and, guys, before I could blink twice, these were in the works.

Front side
Back side

Last week, we had just returned from two weeks of virtual learning due to a high number of Covid cases in our school, and I had brought in some new items to put in the prize bins. I was organizing these prizes Tuesday before I left for the day when one of our custodians said that UPS had just brought me a large delivery — the water bottles!

In my class, each time a student completes an assignment, he earns what I call a Rathje ticket (more on this here); on Wednesdays, students can use their tickets to purchase items in the Rathje Store. I have three bins of prizes that are worth 1, 3, or 5 tickets (almost all of this donated by friends). Additionally, each Wednesday, I hold a drawing; students can put a ticket in a cup, and I draw out the name of one person who can win a prize from the 5-ticket bin.

When my students walked in on Wednesday, tickets in hand, I couldn’t wait to show them that they could get a personalized water bottle for just 3 tickets.

“They have our names on them?”

“Yes!”

“I want one!”

“Me, too!”

It’s not a small thing to have a water bottle of your own, is it? It’s not nothing to be able to fill up your water bottle on the way into the building or in between classes — to take care of a vital need, to do it yourself, to not have to ask someone for a cup for your water every single time you want a drink, to know that this is something that belongs to you.

When people ask me what I mean by educational inequity, I cite examples like this. How can a student focus in class when he has to problem-solve to get a drink of water? And, let me be clear, this issue is not due to an uncaring or irresponsible school administration. I’m working with a very committed team of educators who are working hard each day to provide for our students. If lack of water bottles were the only inequity, it would’ve been handled already, but we’re also trying to ensure that all of our classes have teachers, that every student has a ride to school, that every student has a mask, that students have access to mental health care, winter coats, and all the other things that teenagers need.

Getting a drink of water is so basic, so ordinary, we might overlook the need. Having a water bottle is standard, isn’t it? Don’t we all have several in our homes? Don’t we assume that everyone does?

The fact is that everyone doesn’t. Everyone doesn’t have everything that they need — a water bottle, a warm meal every day, transportation to school, a home with electricity, or access to a quality education. But those of us who do can do something, We can turn the dial on societal inequities — one water bottle, one warm meal, one winter coat, one helping hand at a time. So thank you to my friend who asked how he could help, and thank you, Jacob’s Well, for quenching the thirst of my students.

I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,”

Matthew 25:35

Animal Tales

Click the arrow to hear me read this post.

When we lived in the little house by the river, on the campus where my husband is Dean of Students, we often had encounters with wild life.

Situated right next to the Huron River in Ann Arbor, Concordia is home to many kinds of animals.

Probably most populous are the less-than-desirable Canada geese that invade in spring and occupy until late fall, dropping unsightly bombs all over the campus grounds, causing students, faculty, and guests to acquire a particular gait that enables them to avoid calamity.

More pleasant in terms of fowl was a small flock of turkeys that visited one fall, taking up residence among the students, blending in, perhaps hoping for a short course in the benefits of veganism or nonviolence.

Most impressive in the category of fowl was a hawk who appeared outside our door last spring — huge, majestic, and unable to fly due to a damaged wing. I admired him from my window and watched when animal rescue arrived, wrapped him in a blanket, and took him away for repair.

Beyond birds, we were often visited by various little critters: countless squirrels dropping acorns on our metal roof — ping, ping, ping — moles who built a metropolis under our backyard and garden, opossums who scavenged through our compost pile, and woodchucks, one of whom found his way under an overturned bucket behind our house and scratched and clawed until I mustered the bravery of my husband to go free him.

We loved watching the deer who lived in the woods behind our yard, often venturing onto campus in the early morning, looking for food or exercise. During the pandemic shut-down, when all was desolate, the deer boldly explored central campus in the middle of winter, during broad daylight, searching for leaves, and seeds, and any other vegetation that remained.

We knew we would miss the exposure to animals of such variety when we moved to our mid-20th century neighborhood with its fenced yards and close proximity to I-94 — that we wouldn’t get as many great sightings. However, recently, we have had some close encounters with the animal kingdom, much to our dismay.

It was several weeks ago when my husband excitedly bounded in from his early morning walk.

“Kristin, oh my gosh, I almost got sprayed by a skunk!”

He had been on the sidewalk down the street when, in the morning darkness, he suddenly saw, right in his path, a furry black critter with distinguishing white marks down his back. Both of them stopped dead in their tracks and made eye contact. My husband adeptly turned and ran the other direction in hopes of mitigating the skunk’s fear response. In doing so, he was able to safely return home by an alternate route.

A similar scenario happened not long after. Then, one morning, as he was stepping outside for his morning walk, he spotted the skunk in our driveway! Again, my husband’s quick-footed response saved him from a morning spent showering and applying all manner of concoctions to eliminate that particularly acrid smell. The only consequence he felt was an elevated heart rate.

As days went on, the skunk seemed determined to get to know us better. On two or three occasions, my husband or I took Chester to the back yard for his morning relief and spotted the skunk in the bushes near our house. Panicking, thinking surely Chester would see him, move to investigate, and get sprayed, we whisper-called our nearly deaf doggo, waving our arms, trying to rush him back to the house. Miraculously, we continued to avoid trouble..

However, not wanting to continue standing idly by as this skunk got bolder, perhaps with eyes on taking up habitation in our backyard, we started taking action. We purchased a few solar-powered landscaping lights and placed them near the bushes where the skunk had been seen. My husband started carrying a large flashlight on his dark morning walks, and recently we purchased a motion-detector light for the backyard. We were going to make sure this nocturnal critter was greeted with light whenever he showed up.

We were taking action, but let me tell you, we were still looking both ways whenever we stepped outside after dark, until a few weeks ago, when we thought our worries were over.

I was driving home and was on the final leg of the journey. Several blocks from our house it hit me — the smell of skunk! It was late afternoon, the sun was still in the sky. I surveyed my surroundings and saw, lying in the street, a rather large skunk who had met his demise trying to get to the other side.

I immediately called my husband. “I have some sad news to report to you, dear.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, I am sorry to inform you that our friend, the skunk, is lying in state in the middle of the road. You might slow down at the corner on your drive home tonight and tip your hat in farewell.”

“Ah, yes,” he said, “I shall do that.”

Don’t let our solemn exchange fool you. We were rejoicing! We thought we were out of the woods, so to speak. We thought we had prevailed in this saga of the skunk. But alas, there is more to the story.

This past week, my husband was gone on a business trip, and while I had been teaching virtually due to a Covid outbreak at our school, I had agreed to go in to the building early on Wednesday morning to administer the SAT to a small group of students. I rose at 5am and walked with Chester to the side door for our first stop of the day — the back yard.

I was still rubbing my eyes when I opened the back gate, so it startled me when Chester bolted straight for the bushes at the back of the house. I wondered what he smelled there, but I wasn’t conscious enough to register an answer before he bolted right back out and started rubbing his face in the still-wet grass. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement — a small black critter, about the size of my hand, scurrying along the back of the house, under the fence, and away from us.

I looked back to find Chester still rubbing his face in the grass. I don’t think he had even relieved himself yet, he was so focused on getting rid of whatever was on his face. Still, I didn’t smell an oppressive skunk smell, so I wasn’t sure he had actually been sprayed. Nevertheless I led him back into the house, plunked him right in the bathtub, and started hosing him down and shampooing him before either of us had a chance to realize what was happening.

I washed and washed — his face, his paws, his body, his undercarriage — then I rinsed and rinsed and rinsed. As I became fully awake (and fully drenched), I did indeed smell skunk, but it was not overpowering. Perhaps the little guy who got him did not have the capacity of a full-grown skunk, and for that I was thankful.

I toweled Chester dry, put his leash on him, and walked him just outside our door so that he could do what we had set out to do in the first place. He gladly complied, and then we quickly went back into the house.

Chester watched me sheepishly as I ran through my morning routine, put him in his crate, and hurried off to work. As I drove away, I began to think that perhaps I had become nose-blind. Maybe he smelled much worse than I thought, but I wouldn’t know that until I got away for a while and then came back. I hoped my entire house hadn’t been tainted with the stench; I prayed I wouldn’t have to spend my evening on stink-abatement.

Later, after hours of reading SAT testing instructions, I arrived home, opened the door, and smelled just a trace of skunk, right near the door — right where I had brought Chester in after the encounter. I also smelled a little near his crate, where he had spent most of his day.

I was relieved. We had once again escaped almost entirely unscathed, but clearly, this saga is not over. It seems the skunks are here to stay. And, as long as Chester lives, like most old men, he’ll have to take care of business at five o’clock in the morning. So, I’ll continue to grab the big flashlight, wake myself fully, and step boldly forth to take Chester into the back yard.

And…I’ll keep hoping that the faint smell of skunk at the entry way will dissipate.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

John Rutter

Rose-colored Glasses and Reality

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Since I re-entered the classroom last fall, I think I have been annoying some folks on my staff a bit. At least that’s the vibe I’m starting to pick up. Perhaps I’m a little too positive, a little too gung-hung, a little too happy-clappy.

I’ve not always been this way. I haven’t always interrupted staff meetings to say, “I really appreciate the thoughtfulness the leadership put into this decision,” or “Wow! Thank you so much for this meaningful professional development,” but after being away from the high school classroom for six years, thinking I’d never be back, I came to my little charter school in Detroit carrying an unbridled enthusiasm and wearing a lovely pair of rose-colored glasses.

You can almost hear the other teachers, most of whom have been trudging away in understaffed, under-resourced environments for most of their careers and who had recently closed out a school year that ended in an unanticipated three months of virtual instruction, saying, “Who is this woman? And why is she so happy?”

They didn’t ever say that out loud. In fact, I didn’t have any idea anyone was feeling that way until this fall when one teacher I’m growing closer to subtly implied that perhaps my positivity wasn’t firmly grounded in reality.

How could it be? I had been given a second chance at my career during a world-wide moment when everything was virtual. Reality was hard to get a grip on.

All last school year, I sat in my classroom alone, meeting with students who chose to log in to my Zoom room.Those who didn’t want to be there didn’t show up at all. I didn’t have to navigate noisy crowded hallways; I didn’t have to interact up close with the sometimes volatile emotions of high school students. I didn’t have to clean up messes, make copies on machines that sometimes get jammed, stand in line to use the faculty restroom, or cover a class when another teacher was out sick.

My first year back was a challenge, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t the typical Sisyphean grind that most teachers experience day after day, year after year. I was able to prepare, teach, and grade within the hours of the school day with very few exceptions. The classes I taught were similar to those I had taught in the past, and I was able to use my own materials that I had been developing for years. Other staff who had chosen to work from the building became my friends, joining me for walks on our lunch breaks. Every part of my position seemed tailor-made for me, and I was thrilled to be back!

I got excited every time a student logged into my classroom. The few rare times that we actually had students in the building, I gushed with enthusiasm, handing out gifts and prizes to anyone who crossed my path. I looked forward to faculty meetings and gladly answered the phone when anyone related to school — principal, coworker, parent, or even student — happened to call. I volunteered for opportunities such as a curriculum audit and mindfulness sessions, and I agreed to participate in a program for graduates over the summer.

I have been a cheerleader, literally clapping my hands, shouting “hooray”, and doing celebration dances for students and staff. I know, I know — perhaps it’s been a bit much.

But my colleagues can relax, because lately the rose-colored glasses haven’t been doing the trick. We started this school year in the flesh, and shit has been decidedly real.

I think we were “fully staffed” for four whole days, and that was before school even started. We lost one staff member before the students arrived and another within the second week. Not only did we have two fewer staff than we had planned on for the year, but we had a sudden need for an additional staff member when our freshmen class ended up being one and a half times as large as we thought it would be. Our HR department had just replaced the first two staff members that we lost early in the year and was still trying to find the additional teacher when another staff member resigned on the spot last week.

Why so much turnover? Because most teachers don’t experience what I had the privilege of experiencing last year. Most teachers work hard — very hard — with few, if any, breaks, and they do it for insubstantial pay. Teachers are leaving the profession in droves, and few young people are interested in entering the field. Our nation is experiencing a teacher shortage, which is especially felt in districts like mine where teaching can be even more challenging due to systemic inequities.

So, we’re still down two teachers, and Covid starts picking off first students and then staff. By the middle of last Monday, three key staff members had tested positive. Out of concern for student and staff safety, the decision was made to move to virtual instruction for two weeks. This news was to be communicated to students during the day on Tuesday.

When I walked into the building at 7:30 that morning, I felt wobbly. I think all of us did. We were extra short-staffed, and we all knew we’d be covering an extra class or two. The students, it seemed, were feeling it, too. The halls seemed louder, the classes a little more electric than usual.

About midday, as students got notification of the pending move to online instruction, the questions started coming. Why are we going to virtual? What about Homecoming — the dance is supposed to be this weekend?! The anxiety started building. I know it’s going to last longer than two weeks. I ‘m not coming to virtual class. I can’t do it again.

During the last period of the day, I was subbing for a class in which most of the seniors in the room were already disengaging. I tried, in futility, to get them to complete some of their work, to “get done what you can now before you are at home and don’t have the support.” Another teacher, whose room we were in, brought in a small group of underclassmen who were involved in “some trouble” in another room and needed to be removed. Since the vice principal was already backed up with other behavioral issues, we would have to house them until he had time. The two of us talked with students, answered questions, and tried to keep the atmosphere light until the final bell.

When it finally rang, and the students were dismissed, a handful of us teachers gathered in the hallway for a collective sigh. We hadn’t stood there long when we heard the yell of a staff member saying there was a fight in the parking lot and all of us were needed.

We ran out of the building to find chaos — a small cell of students involved in the actual fight and dozens of students moving about the parking lot instead of getting on their busses. What we had hoped would be a smooth transition to virtual instruction was anything but.

It made sense to me. The whole day had felt tenuous — not enough staff, impending change, and uncertainty about the future. I, a grown adult with years of therapy under my belt, had felt wobbly. How were teenagers, most of whom had experienced trauma after trauma after trauma, supposed to find any ground beneath their feet? How were they supposed to think logically, get on their busses, and go home trusting that we would indeed be back together in a couple short weeks?

The fight was soon dispersed, but not without injury, not without drama, not without the adrenaline and cortisol rush that witnessing chaos produces. Students who had missed their busses were picked up by parents or brought inside to wait for their rides, and staff wandered back to their rooms to hop on a Zoom meeting to discuss the details of Count Day which would coincide with our move to virtual instruction.

When the meeting was over, the same staff member who had gently chided me for my rose-colored glasses stopped by my room and pulled up a chair. We processed what had happened, shared our dismay, and acknowledged the reality within which we function, within which we have chosen to teach, within which we both believe we can make a difference — the messy, unpredictable, and sometimes volatile reality. Then, we loaded our computers into our cars and headed home.

The next day I sat in our home office, logged into my zoom room, and greeted each student who showed up with my overenthusiastic grin. I applauded the students who turned on their cameras, and I literally happy danced when a student told me that she had decided that she was going to go away to college after having resolved some personal issues that she had thought might keep her at home.

I think my happy-clappy self showed up not because I am wearing rose-colored glasses, but because I have fully acknowledged the reality within which my students live and move and have their being. Despite the fact that the challenges are many and varied, I am still a glass-three-quarters-full kind of gal. I think I have to be in order to see a path toward educational equity in spite of what I know to be true, to think that I can make a difference in the lives of my students and their families, and to believe that my experiences have brought me to this place for such a time as this.

The joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Nehemiah 8:10

Road Trip

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My principal called me and my partner, the college access counselor, into her office. We’d received an invitation from Central Michigan University, our charter school’s authorizer, for our seniors to attend a college visit on Wednesday, September 29.

The event was free for our students, but it was only a few weeks away, and we’d have to hustle to pull it together — communicate with students and parents, get permission slips, and coordinate chaperones and transportation.

“What do you guys think? Do you want to take them?”

Almost simultaneously, my colleague and I said, “Absolutely!”

Last year we provided virtual college visits for our students. Each Wednesday, students would log into a zoom room and an admissions rep from a university would pop in and share a presentation, often with slides or a video. We provided incentives for students to show up, turn on their cameras, and ask questions. It was the best we could do, and for some of our students it was enough.

For most, though, it was hard to imagine what college life might be like by merely watching a slide show on the screen of their chromebooks while lying in bed in their pajamas. To be honest, it was very hard a year ago to imagine life beyond the isolation of Covid period.

Last year, virtual visits were the only choice we had. Now that we were being offered an opportunity to actually put our seniors’ feet on a college campus, we couldn’t pass it up. We had to give them a clearer vision of college.

My colleague got busy on a flyer and a permission slip, and our vice principal/athletic director quickly secured us a bus. A few days later, I started meeting with seniors one-on-one.

“You’ve been invited,” I said, “to go on a field trip to Central Michigan University next Wednesday. We’ll leave at 6:45 am and return at 6:45 pm.” I paused after this information each time I said it to allow students a moment to process. Each of the students looked me in the eyes and nodded before I continued. “Here is the agenda. You’ll tour the campus, attend a class, and get a T-shirt. There is no cost for you, but you need to return this permission slip by Monday.”

Each of my students — students who sometimes grumble and complain about school, who often want to sleep or eat in my class, who struggle to stay engaged from time to time — each of these students responded with a measured excitement.

“Ok. Thank you. I’ll bring in the permission slip.”

Over the next couple of days, I heard doubt surface.

“Mrs. Rathje, are we going to have to ride on a yellow school bus?”

“No,” I replied, “we’ll be on a charter bus.”

“What about the lunch? What are they gonna give us — some bologna sandwich and chips?”

“I imagine it will be a regular college dining room meal. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.”

“Why do we have to leave so early?”

“CMU is a couple hours away. The event starts at 10am. We don’t want to miss anything.”

We started with a list of 48 students we were willing to invite — those who, despite Covid, are on track for graduation, have consistent attendance, and are mostly engaged in the journey toward college. Several opted out for various reasons, and we ended up with 31 students and four chaperones on a plain vanilla charter bus.

The students were excited and, I think, a little anxious. The questions kept coming.

Mrs. Rathje, are we all going to stick together all day today?”

“No. We’ll be together for parts of it, but you will each go to the class you signed up for. We’ll be separated for that.”

“What if I don’t like my class? Can I just leave?

“No. You are going to give it a chance. You’re going to stay with your group. You’re going to survive. I promise.”

“Mrs. Rathje, you better be right about the food.”

“Trust me.”

After we left the Detroit metro area, Lansing was virtually the only sign of “city” life amid miles and miles of farm land. The students, on their phones or sleeping, were mostly oblivious, but as we neared Mt. Pleasant, which is not far from my childhood home, I woke them and called their attention to the surroundings.

“If you look out your windows, you’ll see mostly farmland, but in the next few minutes, on your left, you will see the CMU Chippewas’ football stadium.”

They looked out the windows as I continued to narrate.

“On the right you see everything you need within walking distance — restaurants, groceries, a pharmacy. As we turn left here, you are officially on campus.”

The phones were mostly down as students looked out the windows.

We pulled up in front of the Student Activities Center where someone in a maroon and gold shirt was waving us in. Inside, more people in maroon and gold were calling the names of our students, handing out backpacks and T-shirts, and encouraging us to change into them to designate that we were part of the group.

I heard just a little grumbling, “Mrs. Rathje, do I have to wear the shirt?”

“Yes.”

Then compliance. They quickly changed, grabbed a donut or a juice that had been set out for them, and then walked en masse into the basketball arena where the opening session was in progress.

The stands on one side of the gym were filled with students — I’d say about 300 or so — from charter schools across the state. Perhaps 80% or more of those students were Black, and most were from Detroit.

In this opening session, the students learned about the culture of CMU — “Fire up, Chips!” — and some of the programs. Next, we were broken into groups for a campus tour and lunch.

I was proud of our students as they followed our tour guides, asking questions, and checking out the campus, and I was probably as excited as they were when they got to lunch and realized they could pick what they wanted and eat as much as they liked. I got my own lunch and sat down at a table with some young men from our school. They weren’t embarrassed or trying to avoid me as some teenaged boys might do. They spoke to me. They asked me questions. In fact, other students sought me out during that lunch time. They, too, had questions and just wanted to check in. They were relishing a full hour of lunch and the freedom to move about among actual college students.

When I saw some of the students who’d expressed concern about lunch, I asked “How was your food?”

“It was great! You were right, Mrs. Rathje!”

After lunch, we moved into class sessions. We were separated into even smaller groups, and students attended sessions based on their interests. It was fun later to hear students report on their experiences.

“I learned about exercise science. It was about how the muscles work,” one said as he massaged his own bicep.

“We were in the TV station learning about how films are made,” said another.

But my favorite was the one that I read on a reflection assignment completed after the event: “We had to do an egg experiment where we dropped it from a certain height to see if it cracks or not. My egg was the only one that did not crack, and I got a mug for it.” He hadn’t said a word the whole trip home. He had held that little victory to himself.

As we wrapped up at the event, I questioned our students. “Well, what did you think? How was your day? What did you learn?”

I got all kinds of responses.

The understated: “It was alright.

The tired: “It was a lot of walking.”

And the excited: “This is my dream school. I’m applying this month.”

As we walked to our bus, we met up with one of our grads from last year who is currently attending CMU. He shook the hands of some of our seniors who, in the fog of Covid, hadn’t known he had chosen to go to college at all. My colleague and I asked if he would come speak to our students when he is home; we’d like him to share his experience with our seniors. He said he would and added, “going to college has changed the way I think about everything.”

The bus ride home was hot. The air conditioning on our bus quit working as though to remind us that our fantastical day of hope was over. We were headed back to our school in Detroit where we wouldn’t go on tours, have hour-long all-you-can-eat lunches, or be bathed in images of possibility.

However, the next day in class, my students wanted to share with those who had not gone. They didn’t mention the hot ride home, but they wanted to share what they’d seen, what they’d done, and most importantly, what they had eaten.

“Mrs. Rathje, are we going to visit more colleges like that? “

“If it’s up to me, we sure will, but right now let’s get back to our college research. Who is adding CMU to their college comparison chart?”

A few hands in the room went up into the air.

“Excellent. Let’s find out even more than we learned yesterday.”

Perhaps I imagined it, but it seemed to me that my seniors were a little more engaged, a little more motivated, a little more interested in the possibilities of college.

Bring on the next road trip.

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

Cherishing Chester

It was 6 o’clock in the morning, my husband was out of town, and I was in the bathroom toweling off from a shower. I heard a disturbance in the hallway, an unfamiliar sound that I knew had something to do with our 13 year old golden retriever. I heard what I thought was a slipping, a scrambling for traction, a fall, and then silence.

I stepped from the bathroom into our hallway, onto the admittedly ultra-smooth engineered wood flooring, to see Chester standing, quivering, just inside the office door, claws safely secured in the plush carpeting. His eyes met mine as if to say, “Mom! Where were you? Didn’t you see what just happened?”

I looked him over, and urged him to come see me, but he wouldn’t step off the carpet. In fact, when I tried to guide him off, I saw that he was very unsteady on his feet. He could barely stand, let alone walk.

I got dressed and went to the basement where I found a couple hallway runners we had brought over from the other house. They weren’t exactly the decor I was looking for in this house, but they might just help Chester get his footing so that he could get to his water dish and outside one more time before I had to leave for work.

I made a path from the office to the kitchen where the aging rolled linoleum floor provides a little more traction. I guided/supported Chester to the kitchen and out the door where he stumbled and careened to the backyard.

This whole time my brain was in panicky problem-solving mode. Was his hip broken? Golden retrievers have all kinds of hip problems. If it was broken, wouldn’t he be crying? He was quiet, but unsteady. Maybe his hip was displaced. That might explain why he was careening — he really couldn’t walk a straight line.

What could I do? It was the second week of classes. We were (are!) still short-staffed and didn’t have a sub to cover me if I stayed home to take him to the vet. I decided I would have to put him in his crate where he sleeps whenever we leave the house, contact the caregiver who stops by during the day and let her know to take special care today, and phone the vet as soon as they opened.

Driving to work, I was stressed. Because of caring for Chester, I was running later than usual, and he was on my mind. What might the vet say? I imagined worst-case scenarios where I would have to call a family Face-time conference to make a tough decision at the end of a long work day. In all our minds, we know the day will come eventually. We’ve had thirteen amazing years with this nearly perfect pup. We know he can’t live forever, but guys, look at him!

The vet said I could bring him in at 5, and Chester’s caregiver said she would report back as soon as she was with him. I had done what I could. Now I had to compartmentalize my concern about Chester and attend to the three sections of seniors who would be coming to my class over the next several hours.

I taught the first two classes then checked my phone. Our caregiver had just arrived at the house. She acknowledged that Chester was wobbly and that she had to support him while he ate and drank. My heart sank. Surely this is serious; surely the vet will have nothing but bad news for me.

I thanked her for taking such good care of him, and regrouped before my final class stepped into my room.

When that block was over, I packed up my things and hurried to my car. I sped home, changed my clothes, put down some blankets in the back of our vehicle, and carried Chester to the car.

We got to the vet’s office, just a couple miles from our house, and I carried Chester in.

“Hi, this is Chester,” I said. “I’m sorry, I’m so worried that I forgot to bring his collar and leash.”

“Ok,” the receptionist said, “as soon as we have a room ready, we’ll get you in.”

I sat down on a bench with Chester on my lap. The fact that he just sat there, letting me hold him, added to my panic. He is typically very active at the vet — he sniffs and paces and checks out all the other animals — but on this day, he rested quietly on my lap as I worriedly held his lanky body.

When another dog walked in, he couldn’t be bothered even to look over at it.

Gloom descended on me. Why now? Our daughter, who hasn’t see Chester is almost two years, had finally gotten permission to take a few vacation days and fly home. She actually purchased her flight on this very day. Certainly Chester would be ok, and she would be able to see him. Right?

After several minutes of waiting under the weight of my sweet doggo, we were moved into an examination room. I was texting with my husband, giving him the blow-by-blow report.

Our once very fit pup, who in the days when he ran several miles each day with us weighed in at 54 pounds, was now just 44. Gasp. In June he had been 46.

My emotions were right at the top of my throat when the vet, a woman I had never met before, came in. She knelt next to Chester, examining him thoroughly, listening to his heart, feeling the muscles in his legs, and gingerly massaging his hips.

I braced myself for her to say something like, “We are going to need to get an x-ray,” or “His hip is displaced and at this age, it is unlikely we will be able to relocate it,” or “Is there anyone you can call?”

But instead she said, “I think he has probably strained his muscles in this fall. I don’t believe anything is broken. I’d like to give him an additional medicine for pain, have him rest for a few days, and see how he does.”

“Really?” I practically cried. “I love that plan! That’s amazing!”

“Yes,” she said, “If he doesn’t improve in a few days, then we can do an x-ray.”

Relief washed over me. I hugged and kissed sweet Chester, gladly paid for his medicine, and drove him home.

Over the last several days, he has improved bit by bit. Yesterday I was putting on my walking shoes and he got that excited “can I come, too” look in his eyes. “You wanna come?” I asked. He looked me in the eye and did a little foot stomping routine.

“Ok, Buddy, but you’re not going far.”

I put on his collar and leash, and he happily walked down our street. At first he was sniffing and walking a straight line, even prancing a little bit, but before long, he looked up at me and started slowing, so I turned him around and headed back to the house. He’d made it about a quarter mile — not bad for a guy who couldn’t really walk down the hallway a few days earlier.

Last night, he labored to crawl up onto the futon to lie next to me as I watched TV. I put my hand on him and drank it in.

Tomorrow is not promised, so I treasure today.

For from His fullness, we have all received grace upon grace

John 1:16

The Rewards of Learning

I arrived at school Tuesday morning early — well before my 7:50am required arrival time — and the parking lot was already full. Like me, the rest of the staff wanted a jump on the day. They were scurrying around their rooms putting on finishing touches, in the teachers’ lounge making copies, and stationed in the gym to receive any new students planning to register on the first day of school.

Our rosters had been set since the previous week, and teachers had been charged with creating seating charts that would allow for easy Covid tracking should a positive case be identified. I was in my room numbering my desks to correspond with my chart.

The halls were quiet. Unlike other schools where I have taught, this school holds all students in the gym until a bell releases them to their classrooms. Then, students start walking down the hallways, searching for their rooms, while teachers stand positioned at their doorways, greeting students one by one, and allowing them to enter.

It’s all intentional — a way to bring order. A way to establish rhythms. People who have experienced trauma do better when they know what to expect. Routine is very important to the way we do everything in our school.

Once the second bell rings, and all students are in my classroom. I give them a direction to follow — grab a pencil and follow the directions on the screen, for example — while I take attendance. As I begin to mark attendance, I look up and note those who are following my directions, “Jamar is writing his name on his paper. Devon is reading the directions on the screen.” This affirms those who are following through and reminds those who are unclear on the directions of what they are supposed to be doing. When I have finished taking attendance, I walk around the room, confirming that all students are completed, and I give them a class point saying, “One hundred percent of you grabbed a pencil and followed the directions on the screen — that’s a class point.”

On the first day of class, one senior said, “Why are we still getting class points? We are seniors! This is stupid.”

“I’m glad you asked,” I said. “For some of you, the class points may seem stupid. I get it. However, I just want to acknowledge that we have all just been through a lot. For the past 18 months, we’ve been at home, sitting in our beds, logging in to Zoom rooms, or not,”

Some chuckles can be heard around the room.

“…some of you may feel a little uncomfortable being here today,” I continued, “because Covid is still real, and we are sitting fairly close to each other, and there are going to be, when everyone is here, twenty-eight bodies in this class,”

Groans and grumblings replace the chuckles.

“…so even though the points seem dumb, I want to in some way acknowledge that you are here — that you showed up — that you are choosing to opt in to this school year. So, I’m going to give class points. Roll your eyes if you must, but the class with the most points each week will get some kind of prize on Wednesday. It might be a piece of candy, some small prize, listening to music while you work on your assignment, or something else that you all choose. It might be stupid, but that’s what we’re going to do.”

I looked around the room and saw a few blank stares and a few heads nodding. I hadn’t planned it, but I ended up giving the same speech almost every block that day. Before the end of the week, students were watching the tally on the board, telling me, “Shouldn’t we have gotten a class point for that?” and finally, the last hour on Friday, “Hey, don’t give our point to first block! We’re sixth block!”

I think they are on board with the stupid class points.

In fact, they seem to be on board with most everything we are doing. We have had 100% engagement in every activity, every go-around, every assignment. When I told them to write on a sticky note a way in which they committed to respecting others in the class and to stand up and stick it somewhere on the walls of our classroom, they did. When I said to write for five minutes in their journal about the communities they belong to, they did. When I had them complete an online grammar and writing diagnostic which took them close to half an hour, they did it, and, rather than grumbling about how stupid it was, they confessed their feelings of inadequacy and their need to develop their skills.

When I heard their insecurities, I felt compassion.

“Guys, let’s not be too hard on ourselves here. This is just a diagnostic — a tool to tell us where we are. Remember, we have been away from each other for a year and a half! We have not been focusing on grammar and writing. This diagnostic is going to tell us where we need to start so that we can build these skills.”

I was impressed with their ability to honestly look at their scores and to identify the areas where they were proficient and the areas where they were struggling. They verbalized it, too. “I need to work on verb tenses.” or “I need to practice building compound sentences.”

As they finished the diagnostic, I walked around the room, handing out little white raffle tickets I picked up at Office Depot. Every time they complete an assignment, they receive a “Rathje Ticket”. Once a week, I will open the Rathje Store and they can use their tickets to purchase items that I have been stockpiling. One ticket will get them a pen, a lanyard, a trial-sized bottle of hand sanitizer, or a travel pack of tissue. Three tickets can get them a fabric mask, a small bottle of lotion, a snack bar, or a box of tic tacs. Five tickets might get them a collapsible water bottle, a college t-shirt, a pair of sunglasses, or a flash drive. The prizes will vary because most of this loot has been donated or scavenged from somewhere. I don’t have an unlimited budget for such inventory, but I do have a lot of great friends.

The students have been stacking up tickets all week — they’ve gotten tickets for completing assignments, for downloading apps, for logging into websites — and they are trying to find ways of keeping them until the store opens.

“Mrs. Rathje, do you have something for me to keep my tickets in? I don’t want to lose them.”

And they are looking forward to the store opening.

“Mrs. Rathje, I have five tickets. Can I buy something from the store?”

You might be wondering if this is a waste of time, money, and resources. Shouldn’t high school seniors just be able to do whatever you tell them to do? Isn’t the learning reward enough for the hard work they put in?

Your experience might lead you to think so. You might’ve been able to show up to school every day, follow directions, do all your assignments, and be successful without really thinking about it. Your experience, however, may not be the same as the experience my students are having.

I don’t know all of their stories yet, but I do know that during this first week of school, the highest attendance I had in any class was 65%. I know that many students don’t have the resources for school supplies, lunch, or clothing that they want to be seen in. I know that all of these kids have just been made to learn from home for a year and a half. I know they are unfamiliar with being at the school by 8am, with following a bell schedule, with sitting at a desk, with putting a pencil to paper. I know that just showing up each day is, right now, a very heavy lift.

So until it’s not, every kid who does the work of showing up is going to get something tangible — a point on the board, a ticket in her hand — for doing so. I am going to do my best to stay stocked on prizes that are appealing and to stay prepared with activities that are meaningful, relevant, and engaging.

“Everything we do in this classroom,” I tell my students every day, “is to prepare you for whatever you have planned next. I will do my best to prepare and show up for you. I am expecting you to show up and get all that you can so that you will be ready.”

This is not going to be an easy year. We’ve got a lot of work to do under difficult circumstances — making up for missed instructional time, wearing masks, avoiding Covid infections, and having limited resources. My students and I are going to need to celebrate each tiny step along the way.

I don’t know, maybe they will learn enough this year that the learning itself will be a reward, but until we get there, we’re going to need some cheering along the way.

So, wherever you are, start cheering, because we’re making a comeback, baby. Just watch us and see!

Encourage one another and build one another up.

1 Thessalonians 5:11

Coronavirus Diary #31: Back to School Edition

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My phone rang while I was watching TV last Sunday night. It was the director of HR from my school. I’d been in back-to-school professional development meetings the previous week, and she was informing me that I had had close contact with someone who had tested positive for Covid-19. I’d need to get a negative test before I reported for more meetings the next morning.

The students weren’t even back yet. Certainly this didn’t bode well.

Monday morning I got up and drove to a nearby CVS where I purchased two self-administered tests. I climbed back in my vehicle, cracked open a swab, and did what we’ve all learned to do over the last many months. I prepped my sample, set a timer on my phone, and started driving in the general direction of my school. If it was positive, I’d return home; if it was negative, I’d continue on to school.

I was slightly worried, because although I’m vaccinated, so was the person who tested positive. If I had Covid-19, I’d have to stay home for 10 days, and I would miss the first day of school. I didn’t even want to entertain that possibility.

Our students haven’t been in school since March of 2020. The last thing I want them to find on the first day of school is a substitute teacher because I’m out due to Covid.

As I waited for the fifteen minutes to tick away, I consoled myself. Kristin, you weren’t within 3 feet of anyone for over 15 minutes, but then I remembered that I had been in a coaching meeting with my mentor where we had sat desk-to-desk, masked of course, for thirty minutes. It was possible, if she was the positive case, that I had truly been exposed.

But surely since we were both wearing masks and both of us are vaccinated, our risk is very low. And that is what I held onto until the timer went off and I saw that I was indeed negative.

Phew! Thank you, God!

I have a feeling this won’t be the last time this year that I will have to swab and sit. My classroom is set up with 27 desks, and for most of the day, every desk will be full. Each 100 minute period, around 27 seniors will roll into my room, find their assigned seats, and hopefully engage in learning until the dismissal bell rings.

Typically during such a long class (we’re on a block schedule), I would move students into groups, have them working at the board or somehow getting out of their seats to break up that long time period and move around the room.

My classroom

Things have to look a little different in the times of Covid. Each room must have assigned seats and a seating chart printed out and kept in a plastic pocket near the door. If a student or a teacher tests positive for Covid, all students who have been within 3 feet of that student for fifteen minutes or longer will be considered ‘close contacts’. If those within close contact are not vaccinated, they will then quarantine for 10 days, receiving their lessons asynchronously via Google classroom. For this reason, we want to limit the number of close contacts each student has.

Can my students move around the room? Yes, but I need to keep that movement to a minimum. Can they work in small groups? Yes, if I keep those small groups within their already-established close contacts or if the small groups last less than 15 minutes. Can I rearrange my seating chart? Yes, but only at the start of the week because for Covid we trace close contacts two days prior to the onset of symptoms or the positive test, so re-sets need to happen over the weekend.

Are you confused yet? Exactly.

And we’re only, so far, talking about the seating chart!

All students and teachers must wear masks at all times inside the building, except for when they are eating. Breakfast will be served in first hour classrooms, fifteen minutes before class starts. Lunch is served in the lunch room, half of the 300-member student body at a time.

Windows will be open as much as possible, and rooms will be equipped with air filtration systems. All rooms are well-stocked with hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes and will be treated each night with a Clorox Total 360 electrostatic sprayer. Custodians will routinely and endlessly disinfect doorknobs, bathrooms, and other high-traffic areas.

But guys, Covid or not, we are going back to school!

Thursday, all staff started work a little later than usual because we were hosting our Back to School night from 3:30-6:30. As I was driving in to work, I wondered how many of our students would show up to get their schedules, to pick up their school-issued Chromebooks, and to sign up for their bus routes. After 18 months at home, how many would opt in to an in-person learning experience? We had no way of knowing.

However, when I arrived at school at 10am, the place was already buzzing with activity. Teachers were arriving to participate in active shooter training, the trainers were setting up in a classroom, a couple of new teachers were being oriented to their new surroundings, and….and we had parents and students touring the building, filling out registration forms, and preparing to be at school!

After a very weird year — arriving to a silent building each morning, walking to my classroom, and signing into my zoom room — this felt very back-to-school normal. Could it be?

I dared not hope that this buzz could sustain itself throughout the day and into the Back-to-School night. So, I leaned in to our training — active shooter, fire drill, and round three of Covid protocols. I put finishing touches on my classroom, and I printed and copied day one paperwork for my students — boldly making enough copies for everyone on my roster. If I print them, they will come.

As it got closer to 3:00, I ate the lunch I packed, cracked open a can of green tea to re-caffeinate, and started heading to the gym with my colleague to get our assigned roles before the students started showing up. We peeked in the principal’s office on our way. She said, “Please get all the teachers to the gym right now; parents are already arriving!” What? It was only 3:00. We weren’t supposed to start until 3:30!

My colleague and I split up and went down separate hallways to round up teachers, and when we got to the gym, we found clusters of people moving about, trying to get what they needed. We scrambled to each take a station and begin assisting parents.

Our principal directed families to please step back outside the gym, form a line, and wait their turn — we would get to everyone. And for the next three hours, families stood in lines, shuffled forward, got what they came for, and chatted with teachers and administrators.

Yes, everyone wore a mask. Yes, it was difficult to hear one another. Yes, it was a struggle to identify students who claimed they had been in my class last year, but guys, that gym stayed buzzing until after 6pm.

Is it going to be a challenging year? Of course! Are we going to have students and teachers who test positive for Covid or have to quarantine due to exposure? Undoubtedly! Will we be exhausted by protocols on top of instruction on top of adapting to ever-changing circumstances? Without question.

However, the activity in that crowded gym told me that we — teachers, students, and parents — are ready to give in-person instruction a try. So take that, Covid. We are going back to school!

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Joshua 1:9

Supplied, Supported, and [almost] Ready

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T minus eight days until the start of school and I’m like a 10 year old again — so excited!

Sure, Wayne County just announced that due to the recent uptick in Covid-19 cases, all teachers and students in the district will be fully masked throughout the school day.

Yes, a torrential downpour caused a flood in our school gym on Friday.

And, of course, we’re still looking to hire two staff members.

But am I bothered? No! I feel like the little girl whose mom just took her to the mall and bought her a first day of school outfit.

Why? Because I can hear you all cheering me on!

A few weeks ago, at the end of my post about Critical Race Theory, I shared that I had a wish list for my classroom. Several readers asked me to share it, and I have received almost everything on that list! I did not anticipate how much impact this would have on me emotionally! I feel buoyed your thoughtfulness and generosity!

For example, a couple of Lutheran educators from St. Louis, MO, who I have never met before, said they used to teach in Detroit and still have hearts for the kids in that community. They sent a check so that I could purchase 100 composition books!

Stacks of composition books and other supplies.

Each day, my students will spend 10 minutes of their 100 minute block writing in these composition books. I will put a prompt on the board and provide 10 minutes of silence during which I, too, will write. I will then share what I have written, to model, and then allow anyone else to share what they have written. This exercise, which takes a total of 20 precious minutes of class time, is invaluable. It not only builds writing muscle — the ability to put pen to paper for 10 solid minutes — it also exercises the students’ writing voices and, more importantly, cultivates community. When we share our thoughts and our stories with one another, we see one another’s humanity, and we begin to care for one another. This is critical in a classroom of developing writers who will have to share their writing often.

Another item on my wish list was highlighters. I asked for 90 sets of three colors — pink/blue/yellow, or green/orange/yellow. A friend texted that she wanted to purchase all of them, and that day, Amazon delivered a huge box to my door!

Bundles of highlighters.

These highlighters will be used in a couple of ways. For grammar instruction, I will have my students locate nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs, for example, in their journals. They will highlight the word, label it, write a definition in the margin, then add several more examples. We will also use the highlighters to identify sentences, fragments, and run-ons. Later, when we are writing paragraphs and essays, students will identify their thesis and topic sentences in blue/green, their examples in pink/orange, and their explanation/elaboration in yellow.

Another item I asked for was individually wrapped snacks because teenagers are always hungry. They stop by before, during, and after school asking, “Mrs. Rathje, you got anything to eat?” I have always tried to keep something edible in my classroom because if you feed them, they will come. Seeing my request, a friend and a family member each dropped off Costco-sized boxes of granola bars and multi-packs of popcorn. A few other friends sent cash which will help me stay supplied.

My stash of granola bars.

I am not only stocked on snacks, but I was also able to use some of the cash that was donated to purchase large variety packs of candy which I will use as rewards/incentives for completing assignments, arriving on time, and quickly resolving conflict. I also always make sure I have plenty of chocolate to encourage other teachers in the building.

I hauled all this stuff to my classroom including several prizes donated by a family member — McDonald’s gift cards, some pop sockets, chapsticks, and the like — and found designated spaces to store it all. I was feeling pretty good about my supplies, and then, when I got home on Friday, I found a large package on my front porch.

A high school friend, who I don’t think I’ve seen in thirty-seven years, had said she was sending a few things; when I opened the box and laid its contents out on the office floor, I was overwhelmed.

A huge supply of feminine hygiene products.

She had sent boxes and boxes of feminine hygiene products, dozens of trial sized lotions and hand sanitizers, several chapsticks, packages of gum, mints, and granola bars, and some cash, in case I needed anything else. She said she “had some things sitting around just waiting to be used” and that “kids deserve to have the necessities of life…whether their parents can afford it or not.”

They sure do.

This is the family of God, my friends. People from across the country — Wisconsin, Missouri, Minnesota, and Michigan — giving what they have to meet a need. My classroom is now more than well-stocked and ready to receive a group of seniors that haven’t seen the inside of a classroom since March of 2020. As they arrive, I want them to know that I, that we, have been thinking about them, that we have prepared for them, and that we are anticipating their needs before they even walk in the room.

You have helped me do that — you have partnered with me to show my students that they are valuable.

They don’t always get that message, to be sure. And in the last eighteen months, they have lived through more than their fair share of challenges. I know they are going to have some anxiety about coming back after such a long absence, so I’ve created a ‘chill’ spot at one end of my room.

My chill spot.

The chill spot is a place my students can move to if they are feeling anxious, angry, or upset in any way. It has tissue, paper, pens, crayons and colored pencils, coloring sheets, beautiful artwork from @mrjohnsonpaints, and some recommendations for how to regain calm. This idea is not mine; most of the teachers in my building have a chill spot. We operate under the assumption that all of our students have experienced trauma — now more than ever — so we are preparing in advance to make sure they can feel safe.

Providing for student needs — food, safety, school supplies — lays the foundation for learning. Job one is showing students that they matter, and as you have cheered me along, not only with gifts and donations, but also with so many words of encouragement and likes and shares of my blog post, you have agreed with me that they do.

My students matter, and this work matters.

They may come in grumbling and complaining. Why can’t we just stay virtual? Why is this classroom so hot? Why do I have to write in this stupid notebook? They are teenagers after all, and teenagers always grumble during change.

But I’m excited! I’ll put on my first day of school outfit and bounce into my classroom next week, ready to receive them, whether they are grumbling or not.

My enthusiasm may need to carry us for a while, so thanks for cheering me on. I didn’t know how much I need you.

…the Father knows what you need before you ask Him.

Matthew 6:8

P.S. If you know a teacher, send them a little extra love at any time, but especially during that first week of class this year. (A gift card to Starbucks or Target, some chocolate, or some fresh flowers just might make the difference.)

Informed Instruction

Across the country and around the world, countless teachers and students are beginning to return to the classroom. After eighteen months of pandemic, some will be together in the flesh for the first time.

If you listen closely, you can hear the hum of anxiety.

In addition to the usual back-to-school jitters, teachers and students alike are also shouldering Covid 19 fears — do we have to wear a mask? will I get sick? will we return to remote learning? what will it be like to be in the building again? how can I be sure I will be safe?

The seniors who will walk into my classroom in just a few weeks have not been in a classroom since March of 2020 — their sophomore year. They have been zooming into class (or not) from their homes, their cars, and their workplaces for the last eighteen months. Many have rolled over in bed, still wearing pajamas, and logged into class; others haven’t joined online class at all.

So what will I do in the next few weeks to prepare for them — to create a space where they feel comfortable re-entering, where they feel safe, seen, and loved? How will I create a culture inside my classroom where students can trust, engage, and learn?

It’s gonna be a little trickier than usual, to be sure. All of my students live in Detroit, which has been ravaged by Covid. They have all experienced loss — loved ones, friends, a beloved teacher — and most have suffered economically, physically, socially, and emotionally because of Covid. I have to take this into consideration as I prepare for them. Also, 99% of my students are Black, Latino, or Middle Eastern. While the pandemic has changed life for all of us, the impact on communities of color has been disproportionately worse. I have to acknowledge that as I think about how I will create space for grief, for transition, and for learning.

I also have to acknowledge that the impact of racism is an every day reality for my students — their lived experiences are the result of systemic racism. I have to see and admit that my students have had less access to fresh foods, health care, high quality education, and safety. I have to believe that they have been pulled over by the police, followed in a store, or turned down for a job because of their skin color. I have to understand that because of their lived experience, they may not show up in my classroom “ready to learn”.

It’s not because they are less intelligent, or because they are “bad kids”; it’s because many have experienced poverty and most have experienced trauma. In fact, we recognize at our school that all of our students have likely experienced trauma — even before Covid — in the form of homelessness, neglect, abuse, or violence. Knowing this, our whole educational framework revolves around a model of trauma-informed instruction. And, since we know that much of this trauma is rooted in racism or the impact of systemic racism on our community, we also hold as a core value that we are anti-racist. We cannot fully care for our students who have been traumatized by racism if we do not actively work to dismantle racist systems that perpetuate this harm.

Our director of instruction says we need to ask ourselves in each moment, “am I replicating oppression or am I tearing it down?”

All of this, my friends, fits inside the framework of Critical Race Theory. The fact that I believe that my students have experienced loss at a higher rate than white kids, that they are more likely to experience poverty and trauma, that they are more likely to have an incarcerated family member, that they need a different educational approach because of their lived experience, all fits inside the CRT framework.

And how does this paradigm impact my instruction? Immeasurably.

First, the design of my classroom and the structure of our time together is based on the assumption that my students need to feel safe and supported. Our school uses a model called The No-Nonsense Nurturer so that in every classroom, students experience the same expectations, the same language, the same reinforcement as they learn how to be learners. My students can expect when they walk in my classroom, or any classroom in the building, that they will be given clear directions and held to high expectations. The model provides acknowledgement, praise, and rewards for those who are on track and redirection, one-on-one remediation, and further support for those who need it to get on track. Our teachers believe it is critically important that our students opt in to learning, that they earn a high school education, and that they go on to post-secondary education, the military, or work after high school. We believe it is literally a matter of life and death. We already know the trajectory for students of color who do not complete high school, get a job, or go to college — we already know that it doesn’t end well.

We can either replicate the experiences they have had in the past or we can try a different, research-informed practice.

I expect that most of my first week or two will be spent building culture and systems. After eighteen months outside of the classroom, our students (and our teachers) are going to need some time to re-acclimate to the ways of being in the classroom. How do we manage sitting next to each other? How do we function without watching our phones for notifications? How do we contribute to classroom conversations? How do we collaborate? How do we celebrate one another?

And, as we learn those ways of being together, I will slowly begin to integrate content — common core curriculum — using strategies that have high impact for my students. With this group of students, I will start almost immediately with journal writing which is useful not only for building writing muscle but also for developing student voice. Throughout the year, we will incorporate grammar instruction, reading, discussion, and more writing. As I get to know my students and their strengths and weaknesses, I will tailor instruction to best prepare them for what’s next — college, trade school, military, or a career.

I will be supported by a team — our college access counselor and other counseling staff — who will help our students identify their long term goals and explore ways of achieving those goals. Most of our learners, if they so choose, will be first-generation college students, so they need extra supports, and we provide them.

We meet our students where they are, support them as they envision where they might go, and then provide them with the tools they need to take steps toward that goal.

Why?

How can we do otherwise? If we can see with our two eyes that our students need love, support, and a path forward, how can we do anything else than use all the tools we have at our disposal to provide these things? If we know — and friends, we do know — that inequity is a fact in our experience as Americans, that people of color have long been feared, subjugated, controlled, and misrepresented, than it is unconscionable to do anything less than our very best to change this course.

We have replicated oppression in the past — knowingly or unknowingly — we must refuse to do so moving forward.

Our students are counting us. Their very lives depend on those who will stand up and insist on a new way.

The Lord God has told us what is right and what He demands: “See that justice is done, let mercy be your first concern, and humbly obey your God.”

Micah 6:8, Contemporary English Version

*If you would like to partner with me in this work, please request my wish list.

**If you’d like to read more about educational disparity, check out a post I wrote last year: “What World Are We Living In?”

***To learn more about my school, check out this video.

Critical Race Theory in my Classroom

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I was minding my own business, enjoying a summer full of family visits, sleeping in, and reading indiscriminately when not once, not twice, but several times, the words critical race theory or CRT were set in front of me.

How do I as a teacher feel about critical race theory?

or, more recently, If you are a teacher and believe in CRT, then you really need to stop teaching period.

To be honest, I was at first a little baffled. I was unsurprisingly aware of critical race theory because of my background and work as a teacher, but I was unsure why people outside the classroom were talking about it, and even more confused about why were they upset about it.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that Fox news has spent a sizable amount of time (and money) talking about CRT — one source says Fox has mentioned CRT 1300 times since March. What’s their point? Why do they care so much?

You may be asking yourself, “What is critical race theory, anyway?”

I’m glad you asked.

Critical Race Theory “is a theoretical and interpretive mode that examines the appearance of race and racism across dominant cultural modes of expression. In adopting this approach, CRT scholars attempt to understand how victims of systemic racism are affected by cultural perceptions of race and how they are able to represent themselves to counter prejudice” (Purdue Owl).

In simpler terms, CRT is a viewpoint or lens which acknowledges that racism exists not only in personal acts of prejudice but in established systems; it seeks to identify the impact of racism and to do something about it. The work of CRT is done in several contexts — education, sociology, the legal system, etc. Most familiar to me, as a teacher of students, most of whom are people of color, is its use in rhetorical analysis — examining texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird to see how racism impacted not only the action of the story but the telling of the story. In other words, it not only points out that the unjust conviction of Tom Robinson in TKAM was an outgrowth of the racist beliefs of the fictional community of Maycomb, Alabama, but it also examines the fact that the author, Harper Lee, was a wealthy white woman and questions the impact of her race and class on the telling of the story.

The story, you may remember, is told through the eyes of a young white girl, Scout, who learns that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” Critical Race Theory might ask if Harper Lee, Scout, or any white person for that matter, is actually able to do that — to climb into the skin belonging to a person of color and actually experience what they experience.

The main reason why we can’t, CRT would suggest, is because white people are not impacted by the racism that is baked into many systems within which we must function — education, real estate, employment, law and public policy, and the like. Scout can’t understand what Tom Robinson experienced through the legal system because she would’ve been presumed innocent until proven guilty by virtue of her skin color, which is great for her. Unfortunately, Tom Robinson, a black man in mid-twentieth century Alabama did not have that privilege. He was assumed guilty the minute a white girl pointed her finger at him.

Atticus Finch and the Life Lessons of Moral Courage | Heroes: What They Do  & Why We Need Them
Atticus Finch with Tom Robinson

CRT is not only used to examine literary texts, but also to interrogate cultural practices. According to the Purdue OWL, CRT “scholarship traces racism in America through the nation’s legacy of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and recent events.” It looks at historical events and asks how race played a role, how were systems built, and how we got where we are today. Why is it, CRT asks, that a group of mostly Black people demonstrating at the steps of the Capitol are seen as ‘dangerous’ and dispersed by use of tear gas while a group of mostly white people, brandishing weapons and shouting racial epithets, are allowed to invade the US Capitol building during a legislative session with very little immediate consequences or threats to their bodies?

What is it that makes us see a group of Black people as ‘threatening’ and a group of white people as ‘exercising their right to protest’? CRT would say it is the racism that we have been raised with that teaches us that white people are safe and Black people are dangerous. White people are nice; Black people are menacing. These insidious messages are woven into policies that shape our schools, our neighborhoods, our legal system, our health care system, and even our entertainment and business practices. Racism is so deeply embedded in our culture that some of us deny its existence.

We claim, “I am not racist,” while acknowledging that Black students have less funding for education, fewer course options, and are less likely to be prepared for college than white students (UNCF). We say, “I stand for equal opportunities for all,” while knowing that the black unemployment rate has been consistently twice that of the white unemployment rate for almost fifty years (Center for American Progress). We say, “I love all kinds of people,” as we go on attending our all white churches, hanging out with mostly white friend groups, and shopping in predominantly white spaces. We benefit from the systems that keep Black people away from us — away from our schools, away from our jobs, away from our neighborhoods. We don’t like to admit that, because it sounds awful and makes us feel bad, but if we take a look through a lens shaped by critical race theory, it will be very difficult to deny.

So you might ask yourself, why is FOX news spending so much time telling its viewers to keep CRT out of the classroom? What is it afraid of? Is it afraid that our children, if they are taught to use critical race theory will see what we refuse to see? that they will change what we refuse to change? that our experience as white people in America might be transformed?

Might our children and their children actually work toward a more perfect union where all people are seen as equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights? Might our brothers and sisters of color, yes, fellow members of the family of God, more freely and equitably experience life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Fox News can say whatever it wants; I am going to employ any tool necessary to dismantle racism in my classroom. I am going to teach my students to ask all the questions — even the ones that make me uncomfortable. Why? because for my students, it is a literal matter of life or death — prison or freedom — poverty or prosperity — despair or hope.

In the words of my school’s director of academics, “in each moment, I can either replicate oppression or tear it down.” If CRT is a tool I can use to identify racism and tear it down, then let me get to it.

My students are counting on me.

For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Galatians 5:14

**If you would like to partner with me in loving my students, please reach out to me at krathje66@gmail.com and I will share my classroom wishlist.

Chester and I — A Return to Best Practices

Chester woke up with tummy trouble. It was not the first time. He’s always been little sensitive. Even from an early age, he was always a little “eating disordered”. Sometimes he would eat his food; sometimes he wouldn’t. Throughout his thirteen years, he has eaten 70-80% of the meals set out for him. It used to worry us, but eight or nine years in, we accepted it.

When he was younger, he was also a puker. Once a month or so, we would find a disgusting pile on the stairway landing or hear him retching and run him to the door. Usually after he’d emptied himself and slept it off, he’d be fine.

Now that he’s geriatric and since we’ve moved into our new place, his tummy trouble has found a new expression — diarrhea. The first time it happened was a few weeks ago. Chester woke me in the middle of the night, demanding to go outside. Once in the yard, he showed me why he had been so insistent. The next few nights, it was like I had a small child again. I let his belly rest a bit, started a bland diet, and called the vet. By the time of our visit, the issue was resolving, but then it came back in full force.

The vet’s hypothesis? “Sometimes when we go through change, this happens.”

Poor Chester had lived his first six years in one home, his next seven years in another, and now, when he’s thirteen, we are changing his environment again. It was a little overwhelming for all of us, and I had to admit, my body was feeling it, too.

Our bodies are so strong. They perform for us physically — packing and moving boxes, walking up and down the aisles of Lowe’s and Target, and meeting with realtors, contractors, and vendors — while at the same time holding all of our emotions — excitement, stress, joy, and anxiety. They are resilient and adaptable, but after several weeks of ongoing demands, our bodies can become overloaded.

Chester’s been a real trooper — learning to walk up and down stairs again, adapting to a new environment, learning the new rules of where he can go and where he cannot go — but I think his tired body was finally ready for some TLC.

My own body was energized through all of the packing and moving, but a couple weeks into the settling — unpacking boxes, welcoming guests, and making major purchases of furniture, hardware, etc. — I started to feel a familiar hum — inflammation, fatigue, the signs of a flare. Thankfully, my body doesn’t cry out in the same way as Chester’s. Instead, I first notice sassy replies sprinkled with sarcasm. Then, I notice a psoriasis outbreak or a headache. I find myself sleeping 10 hours some nights and 2 hours on others.

Just as Chester was suffering, my body was aching, and I knew I had to start paying attention.

This cross-town relocation took some work, and in order to meet the demands of the move, I had put some of my “best practices” on hold. I wasn’t taking the time each morning to write three pages, really read my Bible, or get in my daily walk. I was surely moving a lot, but I wasn’t connecting with the rhythms that have kept me well. It was time to return.

So, in fits and starts, I have been returning, but I have been distracted. Since Covid restrictions have been loosened, we, like countless others around the globe, have also welcomed guests and traveled quite a bit lately. We’ve been to Ohio, Indiana, Massachusetts, and several points in Michigan. We’ve seen all of our children, our grandchildren, our parents, and several siblings, nieces, and nephews. All of this time with family has been sheer bliss, and we have loved every minute. However, in order to make it all happen, I have been less than consistent with my routine. I’ve fit in some yoga here and there, and I’ve gone on some walks, but I have learned over the past seven years, that if I want to stay healthy, I need to observe my best practices daily.

I was doing a pretty good job last week. I had about seven days running of eating the right foods, doing yoga, going on walks, and writing, and I was starting to feel pretty good. Chester was doing well, too! He was eating his food every time it was set out, he was going on short walks, and he even had a short meet and greet with a neighbor dog.

We were already seeing the pay off of our routine.

We were feeling great when our son, daughter-in-law, and two granddaughters pulled into our driveway last Thursday. We hugged, we played, we chased, and we snuggled. Then, we piled in two cars to go meet more family for a fun-filled beach weekend. Chester was safely secured at home under watchful care, so he would certainly be fine if we were gone for thirty-six hours or so.

What could be better for a body than a couple days on a beach, watching children play, drinking in fresh air, and soaking up sunshine? What difference would it make if we ate a few extra chips, sampled a gluten-rich cookie or two, or splurged on some onion rings? We were laughing and smiling and having the time of our lives.

Exhausted, we pulled back into our driveway late on Saturday night to find that Chester, who’d been fine while we were gone, just couldn’t hold it together until we got to his crate. The stench in the house was evidence of what had happened as he awaited our return. So, instead of falling into my bed to recover from the weekend, I found myself on hands and knees cleaning up feces, carrying soiled blankets to the wash, and lighting candles throughout the house.

Later, as I stood in the shower, I felt my clenched jaw, my burning eyes, and my aching joints. I toweled off, pulled on pajamas, and flopped into bed. Almost immediately, Chester sunk onto his bed beside me. We sighed. We were tired. We couldn’t keep up this pace any more.

We needed a return to our best practices.

This morning, he urged me out of bed and stood near me until I found my way to my desk, carrying a bowl of gluten-free oatmeal and a cup of green tea. When I was adequately positioned, he plunked on his rug at my feet, happy to be back in the routine and looking forward to feeling the benefits.

Later this week, I’m going to welcome my sister who is visiting from out of state. We’re going to spend an evening with friends, and I am going to participate in an event for my recently graduated students. It’ll be fine. It’s not too much. I just need to remember to keep returning to these best practices.

 I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.

3 John 1:2

A time to embrace

It was a weird year to join a school staff. With Covid, all of our back-to-school meetings were virtual. We could see one another’s faces and occasionally hear one another’s voices, but we did not share physical space for those two weeks. Instead, each of us was safely distant from the others, working from our homes.

I wasn’t the only new hire, but I couldn’t be sure, just from looking at my Zoom screen, which staff members were veterans and which ones were rookies. The situation was complicated by the fact that two school staffs had come together for the 2020-2021 school year after one had closed, so even the teachers who had been on staff for three or five or ten years, might have been looking at new faces and wondering where they fit in.

And maybe that dynamic, the fact that none of us felt terribly grounded, created a situation in which no one felt superior; no one felt “new”. Or perhaps we all felt “new” in a way, since we were all learning how to do school online — learning how to use digital platforms for instruction, for behavioral incentives, for managing student work. I can’t know how everyone else was feeling, but from the beginning, I had a sense that we were all in this together. We were all uniting to meet the needs of our students during a pandemic — one that had decimated the community of Detroit in which our school is situated and where all of our students live.

From the beginning of the school year, our focus was to provide high quality instruction in a manner that was safe for our students and for our staff. We took every measure — providing our students with chromebooks and hot spots so that they could safely learn from home, upping the requirements for our all-star custodial staff who sanitized bathrooms and doorknobs on the hour, and allowing staff with health concerns to work from home. If a positive case of Covid was detected, everyone was sent home for two weeks while the building went through a deep clean and while everyone who had even remotely close exposure could get tested and watch for symptoms.

We were so careful, in fact — wearing masks in the building, staying six feet apart, sanitizing surfaces, and holding all meetings via Zoom — that even when a positive case occurred within the building, it was not spread. We were even offered weekly Covid testing every Monday, so when asymptomatic cases were diagnosed, the whole building could go home before any spread could take place.

Our leadership took every precaution to make sure our students and staff remained safe and healthy.

So what a shock it was, as we were all enjoying our summer break, knowing that we finished the year with minimal Covid impact, to receive a message from our principal that one of our coworkers, a well-loved teacher, just forty-four years old, had died very shortly after a cancer diagnosis.

It felt like a punch to the gut. I was stunned. How could this woman, who had volunteered to plan all the senior events (during a pandemic!) so that “our babies” would have a senior pinning, a prom, and an in-person graduation, have died? I had just been on zoom with her a few weeks earlier, discussing teaching strategies and sharing resources. She’d asked early in the year if I would mind talking with her from time to time as she was striving to be the best she could be for our students.

In the group chat where the news of her death had been shared, my colleagues instantly began sharing with one another how they were shocked and devastated. None of us could believe that just as we were planning to be physically with one another in the fall, this woman who leaned into every Zoom room, face fully on the screen, smiling and attentive, would not be with us.

Shortly after we learned of her passing, our principal sent out another note. We would have a candlelight vigil and balloon launch the following week to allow students and staff to grieve. I had heard of this practice just earlier in the year. Two of my former students from St. Louis and one of this year’s seniors all were killed by gun violence within weeks of one another between Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Each of them had been remembered in this way.

Our principal’s note said to bring pink balloons (our colleague’s favorite color) and to come to the school. On that evening, my husband and I cut a family trip short so that we could be there. We pulled up to the building and found the principal and one of the custodians setting up. As we got closer, both of them moved toward us. After a whole school year of giving one another a wide berth, my principal and I instinctively hugged. I turned to the custodian, and we held one another.

It was no longer safe to remain distant.

As each staff member arrived, the hugging continued. Friends who had stepped around one another all year long, were offering comfort in the only way that would do — touch.

And tears.

Tears dripped from our eyes as forty-four candles were lit and balloons were shared. Markers were passed so that we could write tributes on the balloons. One teacher, who also happens to be a police chaplain, offered Scripture, emotional support, a space for sharing memories, and prayer. He told the dozen or more students who had gathered on a weeknight in the middle of summer that whatever they were feeling was ok, that the staff was grieving, too, that we were all shocked. None of us had known she was sick, he said; she hadn’t known long herself. He offered support through our social worker, our counseling resources, and himself. “We are a family,” he said, “and family supports one another through difficult times such as this.”

Our colleague’s mother moved to the middle of our circled bodies and shared that her daughter had loved our students, had talked about them all the time. Even from her hospital bed, she regretted that she was missing prom. We all nodded, knowing this was true, knowing that her heart had been fully with our kids.

As one, we counted to three and released our balloons into the sky. The cluster of bodies on the ground gazed upward, silently, for many long moments, watching the pink balloons lift into the clouds.

And then we lingered. Staff and students spoke to one another, shared memories, and stood closely in the silence. Gradually we began to chat: how is your summer? what have you been up to?

A baby was passed from his mother to students to staff. As though he knew our hearts were hurting, he lay his head our shoulders then lifted his gaze to smile us, instinctively bringing joy to the mourning.

One by one, the gathered began to dissipate, moving to cars, waving goodbyes, holding eye contact a little longer than we might’ve before, promising to see each other soon, knowing that we were connected a little more now than we had been a few hours earlier.

I don’t know how next year will play out. It holds promise for more proximity, more gathering, more sharing, and I hope we get that. It was appropriate to keep our distance for a while to protect one another, but it seems the best way to care for one another now is to come back together.

[There is] a time to refrain from embracing, and a time to embrace.

Ecclesiastes 3: 5 (Order reversed by me.)

Coronavirus Diary #30: Emerging

It’s starting to happen. We’re opening our doors, stepping outside, and actually talking to people — sans mask.

At first it felt a little weird.

We were in the backyard of our new nest (still trying to settle on a name: the garden ranch? the house by the highway?) working in the dirt, plunking seeds in the ground, when first one neighbor then another walked toward the fence, introduced themselves, and stood to talk for a bit.

We were outside of course, where no masks have been required for quite a while, but we weren’t keeping six feet distance. We moved in close — close enough to see eye color. It felt good, but then my husband did something audacious: he breached the fence line, extending his hand to Bob, our backyard neighbor, and Bob, equally audacious, grabbed his hand and shook.

Emboldened by such recklessness, our son, too, walked forth and shook the hand of a man who we had never met. We didn’t know if he was vaccinated, Republican, Democrat, a masker, an anti-masker, or what! Yet, they each grabbed his hand, swapping epitheliels and such. I felt a rush of anxiety, and then I internally shrugged.

The mask mandate had been lifted, after all, for those who had been vaccinated, whether outdoor or indoor, and we had been vaccinated, so I guess hand shaking was the next step.

A few days later, we were walking into Lowe’s when we saw a sign that said, “masks are now optional for guests and employees of Lowe’s,” so we unstrapped our faces, walked in and began to hunt down the items on our list. Several minutes into our quest, my observant husband said, “Hey, I’m noticing that most everyone still has a mask on. Maybe we should, too.” So, with a sense of courtesy and care for others, we strapped them back on.

It’s no big deal, after all. We’ve been wearing masks for over a year. We have dozens in our home, in our car, and at work. It seems almost second nature now to cover our droplet-spewing exhales for the sake of others, but we’re seeing more spaces where we feel free not to.

Weddings, for example. Last weekend, we went to two weddings in one day. At the first, we sat in our car, watching others walk into the church without masks, so we decided to do the same tucking a mask for each of us in a pocket just in case. At the door to the church we saw a sign similar to the one at Lowe’s announcing that masks were not required for the vaccinated, so we dared to walk into the sanctuary naked-faced.

Inside, about 30% of the the guests wore masks. The ceremony commenced with the whole wedding party processing barefaced. Yes, the priest donned a mask before serving communion, but many remained unmasked for the service, even while singing. And the singing! After over a year of virtual church, the rich voices in the extravagant sanctuary felt celestial — a foretaste of things to come.

After the ceremony, as the guests rose to exit, most conservatively covered their faces, and we did, too. We’d tasted the freedom, but we hadn’t lost our minds. That would happen at the next wedding.

We’d received an email the night before that fully-vaccinated folk would not be required to mask at the second wedding. Still, we kept a mask in our pockets as we walked into the large, airy sanctuary. We found our seats and scanned the room. This was the wedding of someone we’ve known for decades, and several of the guests were dear to us. Not one mask was visible to me.

We slid over to let a couple join us. My husband shook a hand and gave a hug. I simply smiled and gushed, “It’s so good to see you!” I looked around and spotted a long-time friend I hadn’t seen in the last few years, then a couple who we love dearly. I wanted to cross the room to greet them, but I committed to the more socially-appropriate action of staying put for the duration of the ceremony.

The wedding was joyous — the joining of two fractured families who had found healing and hope in each other was filled with smiles, tears, and much rejoicing. The people gathered were reminded that God makes all things new — that He takes our brokenness aside and makes it beautiful.

Buoyed by restored hope, the wedding guests excitedly exited the sanctuary, nary a mask in the crowd, and continued to greet one another and comment on the just-witnessed miracle. Among them, my husband and I were chatting with another couple when I spotted, once again, that dear friend I hadn’t seen in years. My feet propelled me to her, and before I knew it, without first asking for permission, I wrapped her in a hug. I was suddenly emotional. Other than my husband, our son who lives locally, and my mother, I had hugged very few people in the last year. Very few indeed. And this friend, who I’ve known for over thirty years of highs and lows and another friend who I would track down moments later and enthusiastically embrace — again without thinking to pause for permission — were dear, dear friends who I might have at one time taken for granted, might have given a quick hug at a wedding reception and then moved on to the drinks, the food, and the dancing. but not now.

I’ve been changed — at least temporarily. As we emerge from almost fifteen months of separation from one another, isolation in our homes, and the alienation of wearing a mask — all for the sake of protecting one another out of love — I have a new perspective.

At times during the pandemic I have felt anxious, not wanting to be around people, feeling wary of moving through crowds, and venturing out only out of necessity to get groceries, see the doctor, or go to work. Even several weeks ago, when we went to church on Easter, after the worship services were over, after most of the people had cleared, I still felt uneasy walking up to the building to receive communion because a dozen or more people were standing outside the building without their masks.

It’s been strange, hasn’t it? To be afraid of getting close, of sharing air? Haven’t we been suspicious of those who came too near, who didn’t mask up, who didn’t seem to take the virus seriously? Or maybe you felt differently. Maybe you thought we’d all gone overboard what with the masks, and the quarantines, and the sanitizer, and such. Maybe you’ve not been isolating and distancing as much as we have. Maybe you don’t feel, like I do, that you are emerging from a bunker where you’ve been hunkered down, missing your people for over a year, but that’s how I feel.

Is the sun shining brighter? Have my friend Pat’s eyes always been that attentive and loving? Has Chris DuPont’s voice always sounded so angelic in a spacious cathedral? Have the hugs of friends like Heidi always been so life-giving and heart-swelling?

I don’t remember, but suddenly I am overwhelmed with emotion just just to see you — all of you.

I know the virus is still here and that it’s going to be here for a while, but right now, in the light of the sun, on these beautiful spring days, I feel free as I emerge from a long, long, hibernation that lasted much, much longer than a winter.

I missed you, my friends. I pray I get to see your face and hug you soon.

Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.

Psalm 31:24

This just might work.

Click above to listen, or read on.

Last week I reminisced about our life in our little house by the river. Today, I share some of the journey to our next nest.

Even before we moved in, we knew we wouldn’t live in the little house by the river forever. It’s university property, after all, and one does not retire in university property.

Not that we are retiring. We’re not even close.

I’m just one year into my journey at Detroit Leadership Academy and have accepted the role of Master Teacher for next year. I will stay in the classroom, teaching English Language Arts to our seniors, working with my colleagues to close the educational equity gap and prepare our students for success in college, trade school, or the work world. This past year has more than affirmed my passion for teaching in Detroit, and I hope for many years of teaching ahead in this next chapter.

Similarly, John is as invested as ever in the students at Concordia. When he moved here eight years ago, he had a sense of what this position held, what his role and responsibilities would be, but now he fully understands how his gifts as an educator, a counselor, and a pastor work together to support college students as they develop into adulthood. He’s part of a strong team of leaders here who are committed to walking with students through both joys and challenges, and he’s excited about continuing in that role.

So why the change? Don’t we love living on campus? We sure do! I’ve written about how much we love it over the years. Even during the pandemic, when the campus was almost vacant, we enjoyed its beauty — the green of summer against the brick structures, the fall leaves beside the peaceful Huron River, the pure white expanses of snow in the open spaces, and always the lilacs, the tulips, and the peonies in the spring. We have loved living and literally walking beside students, faculty, and staff these past years — watching ultimate frisbee from our patio, hearing laughter outside our door, and chatting with members of this community as we move throughout our weeks. We have experienced many unique relationships as a result of living in the little house by the river, and we are sad to be leaving.

Nevertheless, from the beginning, we knew we would one day move out. We weren’t sure when or to where, but from the beginning, we’ve kind of had our eye on Ypsilanti. We love Ann Arbor — its parks, its restaurants, its cool campus scene — but when in Ann Arbor, I’ve always felt a bit like a tourist. I love to explore how beautiful, how smart, how impressive Ann Arbor is — I don’t get tired of it. However, when I visit Ypsilanti, I feel more at home — its edges aren’t polished; it’s not trying to impress anyone. Ypsilanti looks like it’s been through some stuff and lived to tell — and I resonate with that.

So last winter, when we were on month one million of Covid isolation and my husband’s plantar fasciitis got in the way of our long quarantine walks, we started taking drives around Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and their surrounding areas. We talked about what we liked and didn’t like. We discussed our future. We clarified our goals. Then one day, we called our friend who is a realtor and formalized our search.

Over the next few months, we looked at many, many houses. Our realtor’s patience with us allowed us to imagine what we were looking for — what kind of space would suit us in this stage of life and carry us forward into the next. The little house by the river definitely informed that vision. We have been very content in this simple home, and we could picture ourselves in something similar — three bedrooms, perhaps a second bathroom, a garage, and definitely space for a garden. We wanted to be in a community where we could mix with people whose journeys may have been different from ours, where we could build relationships that would challenge and enrich us. Our goal was to stick to a conservative budget so that we could easily pay our mortgage and continue to live our simple life and contribute to causes that matter to us.

This was a tall order in the current real estate market. Interest rates are at an all-time low, and we were not the only ones looking for a house during the pandemic. In fact, the first house we bid on had several other offers, and so did the second house. Buyers right now are offering well over asking price and some are paying fully in cash. In fact, the third house we made an offer on had twenty-six (26!) other offers. The winner paid in cash. We were starting to get discouraged and even said, “It’s fine. Let’s take a break; we don’t need to buy a house right now.”

Then, on a Friday, when I clicked through the latest listings in an email sent by our realtor, I noticed a little three bedroom with a garage in Ypsilanti Township. I pulled it up on Google Maps and thought, “We aren’t going to like it. It’s too close to the highway.” I wasn’t even going to go look, but as I left work that day, I thought, “I’m in the car anyway, and it’s kind of on the way.” I took the exit and drove the path that we had driven to so many others in the area, and then I found myself on a quiet street that was indeed extremely close to the highway, but for some reason didn’t feel like it was. I pulled up in front of a small blue ranch, put the car in park, lowered the windows, and listened.

It was so quiet. Across the street was a playground and what was once an elementary school but is now an alternative education center. The house seemed in good shape, and so did the garage. I drove up and down the street, looking at the other houses on the block.

“Huh,” I thought, “this just might work.”

I texted my husband and our realtor, “I know we just said we were going to take a little break, but I’m sitting in front of this house, and I think it might be worth a look inside.”

Two days later we were standing in the driveway, then we were walking around to the back where we saw the garden — an enormous garden, right at the back of the yard, adjacent to three other yards that also had their gardens right next to the fence. I could immediately see myself leaning on that fence, talking to the neighbors, sharing gardening tips, and passing produce. I saw mature well-cared-for rose bushes and a patio next to the house, where I imagined our Adirondack chairs might fit quite nicely. We walked inside and found a lovely well-lit living room, a small eat-in kitchen, and three small bedrooms on the main floor. Everything had been recently painted, and the flooring had all been replaced. It felt fresh and ready to be lived in. We made our way downstairs to the finished basement where we found a fourth bedroom, a family room, the laundry, and all the makings of a bathroom — toilet, shower, sink — minus the finishing touches of walls and a vanity.

I heard my husband saying, “This might just work”

We guarded our feelings and put in an offer — the fourth offer we had made in a little over a month — and then we waited.

We didn’t have to wait long. By Monday the sellers had accepted our offer, and less than a month later, we have closed on our next nest. We haven’t yet begun to move in, but we’ve already put seeds and seedlings in the garden, and I’ve already leaned on the fence and talked with the neighbors. They like to chat and linger, just like I was hoping they would.

As I’m packing boxes in the little house by the river, I continue to reminisce, but my gaze is starting to move forward. I’m imagining our things living inside their new spaces. I’m picturing us sitting in our living room watching children playing in the park. I’m looking forward to walks in our next neighborhood.

I think this just might work.

You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.

Psalm 145:16

The Trauma of Racism

(Click to hear audio. Please note, text includes several links that I do not refer to in the audio.)

Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all charges last week — he killed George Floyd and will serve time for this crime. As I was listening to the verdicts, I felt “At last — one small step toward justice.” And then I became aware that before the verdict had even been read, a fifteen year old girl in Columbus, Ohio had called the police for help and was instead shot and killed by an officer within moments of his arrival on the scene.

Yes, the girl had a knife.Yes, the scene was chaotic. Still, did a fifteen year old girl have to die?

Is there a way for police officers to arrive at a scene and de-escalate a situation, even after weapons have been drawn?Are law enforcement teams trained in trauma-informed procedures that they might utilize when responding to traumatic situations? Is their goal to control and subdue or de-escalate and restore? How might this scene have played out differently if the goal was restoration? Officers may still have arrived with their hands on their guns — a knife was drawn and visible after all — but might they have found a way, short of death, to separate the young women involved in the altercation? Might they have secured the knife? Could they then have found the space to ask, What happened? We got your call, and we’re here to help. Fill us in. What’s going on?

Might Ma’Khia Bryant have had a chance to say why she was holding that knife, why she was lunging at someone with it? Why she had reached out to the police for support?

Look, law enforcement can’t be easy. I can’t imagine how complicated and stressful — even traumatic — it must be to arrive at a scene where violence is in progress. I have no idea what it feels like to have a gun on one hip and a taser on the other. I can’t fathom the impact of such day in and day out stress on the body.

Researchers, however, have studied trauma and its impact — how cortisol and adrenaline, though crucial in moments of crisis, can wreak havoc on the body during periods of sustained or ongoing trauma — the kind that law officers witness every day. Costello, Wachtel, and Wachtel, three practitioner-researchers in the field of education (The Restorative Practices Handbook) have used such research to inform strategies that have been impactful in mitigating undesirable behavior and restoring problematic relationships. Is it possible that such strategies might be replicated or adapted for use in law enforcement and beyond?

Isn’t it safe to acknowledge at this point that large swaths of the general public have experienced trauma? Research has shown that one out of six women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, one in seven children has experienced child abuse or neglect in the last year, and one out of five students report being bullied in school. Trauma, it seems, is ubiquitous. Yet, even if we are aware of widespread trauma, it may be difficult to measure the pervasiveness of trauma in communities of color where many live with the daily fear of violence, the impact of systemic racism, and what trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem calls “the historical and current traumatic impact of racism on the body.” For generations — for centuries — nonwhites have been subjected to repeated traumas, many of which are recorded in history.

We could go back to colonial days to look at the ways in which Native Americans were traumatized by the colonists who showed up first needing assistance after a long and certainly traumatic sea voyage on the heals of their own traumatic othering experiences in Europe, having been persecuted themselves to the extent that they were willing to board a ship powered only by the wind to travel for months to a land where they hoped to find liberty but certainly no family, no existing structures in which they might live, and God only knows what dangers. Native Americans were at times helpful to the settlers but also subsequently used, dehumanized, brutalized, and all but exterminated in the colonists’ attempts to overcome their own trauma and secure their own livelihood.

In their further attempts to create and attain the American Dream, white Americans engaged in the slave trade by which they participated in or sanctioned the abduction of Africans from their own homes. These Black humans were shackled and chained like animals by white humans, the likes of which they had never seen before, crammed into overcrowded holds of ships, and transported via their own perilous and traumatic months-long journey. Once on North American soil, those who survived the journey were then bought and sold, beaten and abused, raped, and forced to work to secure the prosperity of their owners.

After hundreds of years of this type of existence, when slavery had been outlawed, the trauma persisted in the bodies of both white and Black Americans. The dehumanization — the othering — of Black bodies was hardwired into the fabric of the nation, and it was perpetuated through Jim Crow laws such as segregated schools, restrooms, bus seating, etc., not to mention the racist beliefs that fueled hateful speech, intimidation, lynchings, and the like.

Still today, in 21st century America, we see racist practices that persist in education, health care, criminal justice, housing, etc. Centuries after the colonists arrived on the shores of this continent, the mistreatment of people of color in the pursuit of the white man’s American dream continues to be elemental to this country. Not only Native American and Black, but also Asian and Hispanic blood has been shed; bodies of all kinds of colors have been dehumanized in the making of the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Resmaa Menakem suggests that these many traumas and others like them produced biological responses that continue to live in our bodies — not just Black bodies or brown bodies, but white bodies, too. We all carry the trauma of our collective history in our bodies. All of us have been shaped by the racism of this country. All of us believe and feel things about race as a result of the “historical and current trauma of racism”.

So when a police officer arrives on the scene to find a 15 year old black girl lunging at someone with a knife, he interprets that in his body much differently than he would if he arrived to find a 15 year old white girl lunging at someone with a knife.

Did you see the difference in your mind? I did. And that, my friends, is racism.

And because this racism — this dehumanization — lives in our bodies, in our minds, in our societal ethos, we continue to traumatize one another. And the impact of the trauma multiplies and spreads, a sickness hurting everyone it touches.

When are we going to decide it’s time to deal with this hundreds-years-old disease?

When are we going to create the space in which we can turn to take a different way? When will we take the time to come into a circle, to share openly with one another what happened, what we were thinking, what impact our actions had on one another, and what actions would begin to make things right (Costello, et al)?

Can you imagine the healing that might happen if we were willing, in small pockets across the country, to start this practice — not a one and done act, but an ongoing practice of confession, repentance, and restoration? Wouldn’t we be partnering with God in His work of reconciliation?

Isn’t that the most loving way we could spend our lives?

What does the Lord require of you, but to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Micah 6:8

Come Closer

In the past weeks and months we’ve seen an escalation, it seems, of the gun violence that has been a plague on America since well before the attack at a high school in Columbine, Colorado on April 20, 1999, twenty-two years ago this week. In 2020, during a global pandemic, when many of us were under stay-at-home orders for large chunks of time, the New York Times reports that there were more than 600 shootings in which four or more people were injured or killed. In 2021, the United States has logged 147 such mass shootings and eleven mass murders (in which four or more people were killed) as of April 16th. Just a few days ago, a young man shot and killed eight at a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis before turning the gun on himself. In March, a man killed ten people at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado. A few days earlier, a young man killed eight adults at three spas in Atlanta.

At the same time, incidents of police shooting and killing suspects seem to be increasing. Last Sunday, April 11, Daunte Wright, a 20 year old man, was shot during a traffic stop. On March 29, Adam Toledo, a male teenager, was shot after a brief middle of the night police chase. In total 213 civilians were fatally shot by police in the first three months of 2021 in the United States.

What is happening? As I watch the news from my couch, I find myself yelling: “get rid of semi-automatic weapons!” and “we need free mental health care for all,” as if more mental health care and a few gun laws would make the changes we need in America.

I really wish it were that simple, but what I’m starting to wonder is what if the shootings –these killings — aren’t the problem, but merely symptoms — and as soon as I’ve written the words, I know I’m right.

The problem is much more pervasive than the gun violence we’ve seen over the last weeks, months, and years, and rather than being isolated to some we might call ‘killers’ or ‘terrorists’, ‘thugs’ or ‘criminals’, the problem lives inside all of us. The deadly disease of ‘othering’, or dehumanization, that causes and perpetuates isolation, desperation, and violence has infected all of us, and we spread it through our actions — and our inactions — every day.

Brené Brown in her now-famous Braving the Wilderness describes this disease saying:

Dehumanizing often starts with creating an enemy image. As we take sides, lose trust, and get angrier and angrier, we not only solidify an idea of our enemy, but also start to lose our ability to listen, communicate, and practice even a modicum of empathy.

excerpt found here

Have you seen this? Have you found yourself getting angrier and angrier, losing trust, and being unable to listen to those with whom you don’t agree? Have you found yourself listening for buzzwords that can help you categorize people into the enemy? I have!

Haven’t we even named those who are our enemies? Liberals, conservatives, libtards, Trumpsters, thugs, Karens, maskers, no-maskers, … I don’t have enough space on this page to list all the ways that we label those that we put on the other side or that we ourselves identify with.

Brené Brown explains that we dehumanize others in order to justify our mistreatment of them. If we reduce fellow humans to labels or categories through our language, we create distance between them and ourselves, and we find it easier to sling verbal grenades. Doing harm to these others seems right and appropriate if they are indeed the enemy. I want to shut down those I view as different from me so that my agenda can be furthered. I’m right, after all, and they are clearly so, so wrong.

If I call someone a “liberal”, I take away their personality, their humanity. I decide that they are less than human because they believe ‘socialist ideas’ and will certainly bring our country to ruin if they are left unchecked.

The same thing happens when I label someone a “Trumpster.” In my mind, I’ve consciously or unconsciously demoted their status to subhuman. They are no longer a child of our Creator, how could they be if they are not only ‘conservative but likely racist, homophobic, and hateful toward women’?

In my mind, I justify my ill thoughts toward these “enemies”; I view myself as more righteous, more human. However, such dehumanization not only reduces others to subhuman status, it reduces me, too. It makes me less than what I’m called to be, less than kind, less than gentle, less than compassionate, less than self-controlled. I find myself behaving as one who has no love, no hope, no wisdom, no knowledge of a God who has created and loves all of us. All of us.

Brene’ Brown says, ‘When we desecrate [others’] divinity, we desecrate our own, and we betray our humanity.”

So what is the remedy? Perhaps we will find our way by re-humanizing, re-connecting. And how do we do that?

I am reading a book called The Restorative Practice Handbook by Bob Costello, Joshua Wachtel, and Ted Wachtel. My principal handed me this book last fall when I started working at Detroit Leadership Academy, whose educational framework is grounded in the idea that all of our students have experienced trauma, all of them need restoration, a space into which they might step to find a different way.

And isn’t that what we need? Don’t we need some space in which we might turn around and find our way back to humanity, to compassion, to empathy for other humans whether they are similar to us or very, very different?

The main premise of the book is that when one person has caused harm to another or to the community in general, the goal should be to restore that person to his community through a very simple series of steps. Rather than immediately jumping to consequences or even punishment, Costello et al have spent the past twenty years practicing this restorative process which asks the offender to first describe what happened, what they were thinking at the time, what they’ve been thinking of since, who they think they may have offended, and what they might do to make things right. This simple questioning creates space. It allows the person, the human, to think about what happened, to process their emotions, and to realize that their actions had consequences for others.

The next step is to allow those who were impacted to share what they were thinking when the event occurred, to describe the impact it had on them, and to suggest what might need to happen to make things right. The person(s) who was harmed has a chance to process their emotions, to put their feelings into words, and to be a partner in the process of reconciliation.

These discussions take place inside a circle of those who were involved and other interested parties such as parents or community leaders. The process takes an investment of time and intentionality, but as it has been used inside school and institutional settings, the results have been remarkable. Communication in a caring and supportive environment has allowed the individual to “move past shame…and make things right and restore his relationship with the….community” (74). Crucial to the success of this process is a commitment to “‘separate the deed from the doer’ by acknowledging the intrinsic worth of the person while rejecting the unacceptable behavior” (73). This is counterintuitive. We really want to label others according to their actions, pushing them away from us into convenient boxes and imagining their ‘enemy image’, but where has that gotten us? Further and further apart.

What does this have to do with gun violence? Well, remember I said that gun violence was a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself. The real disease is our habit of dehumanizing others, of hating them, of calling them names, and pitting ourselves against them.

Brené Brown says that “people are hard to hate close up,” and that might be why we push them away. If we pulled ourselves into circles and listened to one another, listened to each other’s stories, heard each other’s hearts, we might find that our preconceived notions were oh so wrong. We might discover that we are more alike than we might have ever imagined. We might find empathy and even love.

It won’t be easy to do this work. Just reading this book over the last several days has forced me to confront all the ways I have been judgmental, punitive, legalistic, and dehumanizing. That has not been fun, but as a good friend said just recently, “I’d rather realize I’ve been an asshole for the last fifty years and work to live differently than to keep being an asshole for the rest of my life and not even know it.”

I’ve been a real asshole to some people. I haven’t been able to separate the deed from the doer. I’ve pushed people away and made judgments about them, cutting off any possibility for relationship or empathy. I’m saddened by that, and I want to do better. And I’m wondering if a few of us trying to do better might make a difference, if a few of us showing love, compassion, and empathy might begin to change the world.

I’m willing to try, and I already know that I will fail in this trying, so I am counting on some of you to keep calling me back, to bring me into the circle, to ask me what happened, what I was thinking, and what needs to happen to make things right. Are you with me?

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, as Christ forgave you.”

Ephesians 4: 32

Coronavirus Diary #29: Flip the Funk

I haven’t written a new blog post in over a month now. It’s not that I haven’t been writing; I have. Each morning, I scrawl three pages in a spiral notebook before I do anything else. I dump the raw ramblings of my mind uncensored on the page in an attempt to clear my mind, see what I’m thinking about, and discover any insights.

Many blog posts have grown out of my morning pages. My chaotic run-on sentences give birth to ideas that I carry to my laptop, explore freely, then rearrange, revise, edit, and publish. I love the process, and I’ve learned so much about myself through writing this way over the last several years. As I’ve written through my health challenges, my grief, my healing, and my celebrations, I have learned to articulate what matters, what hurts, what I love, and what I’d love to change. For almost seven years, I’ve found something to say almost every week. In the beginning, I found something to say almost every single day.

But lately I haven’t had anything I’ve wanted to commit to a public page — nothing I’ve wanted to share, even though I’ve had plenty of thoughts about the pandemic, the almost daily tragic gun violence, the Derek Chauvin trial, education, standardized testing, the beauty of spring, and the joy of Easter. I’ve had plenty of thoughts, but I haven’t been able or willing to pull them into any cohesive package. I haven’t been able to find a theme among the fragments, and I’ve been struggling a little to hold on to hope.

It’s still in my grasp — hope, that is — but I’m having to put a lot of energy into swatting away distractive thoughts while still keeping my fingers wrapped around it.

I started my therapy session last week saying, “I’m struggling, and I don’t exactly know why. I’ve got an undercurrent of negativity — a mixture of worry, regret, and old business– I know it’s there, trying to harass me, but I haven’t wanted to give it my attention. I’m so tired of processing all the time.”

I really want to be happy and hopeful, I explained, and I have every reason to be. Winter has flown away, making way for warmer weather and the breaking forth of new life. Despite Covid-19 and the ever-changing restrictions, I have made it three quarters of the way through my first school year back “in” the classroom after several years away. I have a loving marriage in which both of us continue to heal, grow, and remain committed to each other. We’ve come back from so much hurt and devastation, and we find ourselves enjoying time together, even as we start the second year of Covid restrictions.

I know all of this, and I am thankful, but the harassing thoughts persist — throwing up past failures, parading worries, and waving banners of self-doubt. They’ve quieted a bit in the last few days since I called them out in therapy; they’ve gone back to their corners to sulk, making space for me to see the green buds emerging on the trees in the yard, last year’s lettuce sprouting from the soil, and the rhubarb doubling in size inside of a week.

My therapist asked, “Can you think of what has triggered these thoughts?” and I started by listing the obvious — months and months in front of a computer screen — an introvert surprisingly starving for meaningful physical human contact, the current surge of Covid cases in Michigan specifically focused in the regions where I live and work, and continuing social distance and mask wearing for who knows how long.

I mean, we’ve made progress. Along with 20% of the general population of the United States, I’m fully vaccinated. My husband will be, too, probably by the time you read this. Our parents are all vaccinated and so are several of our kids. I recently returned from a couple of days with my mother after a long time away, and we have plans to see our granddaughters and their parents in just a couple of weeks. Our (vaccinated) son joins us for dinner every few weeks in our home, and we are hopeful to visit our daughters this summer. These things give me hope — and I hold them in my hand, caressing them, willing them to grow into reality.

But last Sunday, we spent our second Easter on our couches, watching the livestream of our church’s worship service. We put on new T-shirts to mark the occasion. After the service was over, we chatted with another couple in a Zoom room then climbed into the car to go to church for in-person communion. When we arrived, several people were standing outside the building, dressed in their Easter finest, having attended the service in-person. Since they were outside, many of them were not wearing masks, and perhaps feeling the joy of doing something resembling ‘normal’, they weren’t keeping six feet of distance from each other either. They were smiling and laughing, chatting like it was just another Sunday. We walked up in our new T-shirts and masks, and as everyone greeted us, I felt myself retreat into my interior, step to the perimeter of the cluster of bodies, and quickly make my way past them. It was overwhelming to be so close to so many bodies, even though we were outside, even though I had on a mask, even though these are people who I know and love.

Will we ever feel normal again?

My therapist assures me I’m not the only one feeling this way. She says that everyone she sees has been struggling a bit more since the one year mark — one year since we had the first case in the US, one year since we started social distancing, one year since we marked our first 10,000 fatalities, one year since we last saw someone we loved.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m joining in the communal grieving, and that grieving has caused remnants of my own grieving to bubble up, and since I have not wanted to give it my attention, I have just been feeling the funk, like I was when I wrote Coronavirus Diary #3 near the beginning of the pandemic when I already felt like we’d been “sheltering at home for a million days”. Who could’ve imagined that we’d still be living restricted lives one year later.

I’m over it. You’re probably over it, too. And, if you’ve read this far, you may be hoping that I’ve got some profound thing to say that will flip your funk. Maybe you’re waiting for me to tell you what I did to make it all better.

Near the end of my session, my therapist said, as I was dabbing at my eyes, “We’ve got to turn this around.” I looked at her face on my laptop screen, doubting her ability to magically wave a wand and make me feel better. And what she said surprised me. She didn’t suggest I take a deep dive to examine all the feelings that were bubbling up. She didn’t tell me to dump out my backpack and examine my hurts and losses one by one. Instead, she said, “I’m not one whose ever going to suggest we deny our feelings, but sometimes we need to give ourselves a break from them. Sometimes we need to give ourselves something positive to think about. Get outside, go for a walk, do something you enjoy.”

Seriously? That’s how I was going to shake this funk? Go for a walk? Shoot, I’ve been going for a walk every day of this pandemic — rain, shine, or even snow. That’s all I needed to do, was to not wallow, not succumb to the negativity that my harassing thoughts were throwing at me, but get outside, dig in the dirt, go for a walk, read a book?

I can do that.

Turns out that my therapist’s ability to offer me grace — a break, some space, an out — was just what I needed to flip out of the funk and into a more functional state. I don’t need to force myself to look at the stuff that I’ve looked at, examined, and analyzed ad nauseam — not all the time and not right now. Instead, I can offer myself some grace, to step outside, examine my rhubarb, search for the peonies that are poking their fingers through the soil and getting ready to burst forth with bouquets of hope.

And hope does not put us to shame.”

Romans 5:5

Seeing Racism

Note: I have included several links in this post, but I am not reading my references to them in the audio version.

I’m reading Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime with my seniors.

I read it the first time myself back in August, when I had just taken my current teaching position at a charter school in Detroit.

Trevor Noah tells his story of being born during Apartheid in South Africa. His very existence was illegal– his father was a white European and his mother was a Black South African — and it was against the law for whites and Blacks to have sex with one another. Because he grew up facing extreme racism and living with few resources, I felt that my students might resonate with his story. I hoped they would find the story engaging and inspiring.

We couldn’t get to it right away, though. All fall we were busy playing catch up. My seniors had not taken the SAT, so we had to do some super fast prep work and bring them all to the building — six feet apart — to take the test in person. We also spent several weeks researching, learning about, and applying to colleges. Many of our students now have acceptances and some are working through the financial aid process. For a school that had fewer than 10% of its seniors go on to college last year, the progress we have made (during a pandemic no less) is remarkable.

Anyway, back to Trevor Noah.

Before the second semester started, I made sure that each of our seniors had a copy of Born a Crime along with a composition book and a set of highlighters. My goal for this semester was to engage these seniors in the types of activities I have used in the college freshman composition courses I’ve taught. I’ve made some adjustments, like adding supports such as guided note-taking and using the Audible version of the book along with the text. I’m also using a pace that is approachable for seniors who are not only logging in to school via Zoom but who are also, due to educational inequity, not familiar with the rigor that seniors in other districts might be.

Some of you may wonder what I mean by ‘educational inequity’.

You can check out these statistics at your leisure, but let me summarize: students of color have been historically and perpetually underserved by the public educational system of the United States. This is a symptom of systemic racism. During slavery, one way of maintaining the hierarchy of the forced labor system was to prohibit slaves from learning to read and write. Later, when Blacks were allowed to go to school, their buildings and materials were intentionally substandard. This inequity was not resolved by Brown vs. the Board of Education–this landmark legislation did not create equity in schools. In fact, in some ways it made the experience of students of color worse. (Check out this podcast for a discussion on how Black educators were disenfranchised and students of color were henceforth educated mostly by white teachers, much to their detriment.) In 2021, African American students are still less likely to have access to college-ready curriculum, are located in schools with less-qualified teachers, and are concentrated in schools with fewer resources. To put it in simple terms, the seniors I teach in Detroit are years behind the seniors in the Ann Arbor schools where I live. Why? The perpetuation of systemic racism. (To read my blog post comparing education in the communities where I live and where I work, click here.)

So, it is with these students, most of whom have been schooled up to this point in the Detroit Public Schools or charter schools in the area, most of whom read below grade level, most of whom will do well to score 800 on the SAT, most of whom have been poorly educated and are ill-prepared to succeed in college — it is with these students that I am reading Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime.

Over the last two weeks as we’ve listened to Noah narrate his story of being hidden by his mother, of the ways she had to sneak around so as not to be caught, my students have been shocked. They can’t believe it would be illegal to have an interracial relationship. One student said, “Can you imagine your mom going to jail just for having you?”

When they learned that a Black person who was involved with a white person would go to jail for five years while the white person was given a slap on the wrist, I asked, “Have you ever seen that kind of inequity in policing in the United States?” When I showed them on the map how Black South Africans were moved onto Homelands far away from the whites who lived in the cities and were later allowed to live in slummy Townships nearer to the cities so that they could provide labor to sustain the lifestyles of the whites, I wondered aloud, “Have you ever seen this kind of segregation in the communities where you live?”

I’ve asked these questions, whose answers seem obvious to me, and my students seem to have no comment. They are tracking the story of Trevor and his mother and their escapades in South Africa, but when I challenge them to connect the racism the Noahs encounter to racism here in America, they remain silent.

Instead, they want to know if there is still racism in South Africa. They want to know if interracial relationships are still against the law.

I’m struggling for ways to talk about how long it takes to change the kind of thinking that would intentionally subjugate whole groups of people for the benefit of another group. I mean, I can tell them that Apartheid was declared a “crime against humanity” in South Africa in 1998, but I have to also add that that decision did about as much to eradicate racism in South Africa as the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did to eradicate racism in the United States.

I’m trying to lead them to make connections themselves instead of giving lectures on the history of racism in America, but I’m getting the feeling that their 17- and 18-year old selves aren’t much more aware of the impact of racism on their lives than my 17- or 18 – year old self was.

Is that possible? Is it possible that my Black students who have grown up in Detroit don’t fully understand the power and impact of racism? Is it possible that they don’t know that their socioeconomic status, their substandard schools, and the incidence of crime and policing in their communities are all a function of systemic racism? Having lived in their communities all of their lives, are they even aware that communities outside of theirs are so different?

I don’t think I was. I was mostly oblivious to racism at their age. I knew that slavery was wrong, but I couldn’t see the systems that were continuing to advantage me, a middle class white girl, over another human, a middle class Black girl. I could call out the hate behind the Holocaust, but I didn’t see the hate that drives inequity in health care or the entertainment industry.

I think I assumed that my students would be acutely aware of racism’s impact on them, but you know, I am starting to think that they are not. And, I’m not sure I –a middle-aged, white woman — should be the one to connect all the dots. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.

My students know their own experience. They know what their schooling has been like. They know that money is tight, and that shit goes down on the street where they live. They know that one of their classmates was killed by gun violence a little over a week ago, but I’m wondering if they know that that doesn’t happen in the lives of most white students in America. I am wondering if they know that they are a few years behind their white peers. I am wondering if they know that they haven’t been adequately prepared for college.

And if they don’t know, they are about to find out that their experience has been very different than the experience of much of white America. And I’m afraid that blow is gonna hit hard.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they know — fully know — all about racism and how it’s held them back. Maybe they’ve been knowing, and they are pissed, and they’ll be damned if they’re gonna talk to some white teacher about it. That’s possible, but I’ve been doing this gig for a minute, and I know how to read a room, even it turns out, a Zoom room.

I don’t think I’m wrong, so what I’m gonna do is to continue to build relationships for as long as I have these seniors. These few short minutes a few times a week, I am going to show up and give them my best. I’m going to read Trevor Noah with them and let them interrogate the racism of another culture, one that is removed and therefore easier to fully see. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll build some muscle that will give them the resiliency to one day interrogate the racism of this culture that has done them so wrong.

Lord, have mercy.

If my people who are called by My name humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sins and will heal their land.

2 Chronicles 7:14

Coronavirus Diary #28: Because They Care

They’re coming! It’s March 1, and today students are coming to the building!

On Friday, as I wrapped up my lesson plans, our support staff were putting up decorations and readying the building to receive students — not all of our students will be here but more than we’ve had in the building in almost a full year.

It’s looked different all over the country, but most American students left school sometime last March and have been experiencing learning in one of several online, socially-distanced, or hybrid learning models since then. My school, which is a charter school in Wayne County, Michigan, the county with the ninth highest number of casualties by Covid, has thus far opted for a fully virtual learning platform with the exception of a handful of special education students who come into the building two days a week.

When, in January, Governor Whitmer announced the goal of offering in-person learning to all Michigan students by March 1, our leadership, having surveyed our parents and staff and considering how best to meet the needs of our over 700 students in grades K-12, decided to offer in-person learning to a limited number of students on both of our campuses (K-8 and high school). At the high school, priority was given to students who have had extreme difficulty engaging with the online platform, particularly seniors who are in danger of not obtaining the needed credits to graduate this June. Starting today, forty-four of our three hundred high school students will be coming to the building; the rest will continue to learn from home.

This is the next in many transitions that school leaders across the country have made, each transition requiring its own set of logistical orchestration. When students moved home, school leadership had to quickly assemble systems for communicating with students and families, to provide structure and guidance for teachers to teach virtually, and to meet state compliance requirements. When fall rolled around and the new school year started, leaders acquired laptops and tablets, hired staff after historic turnovers, and prepared for learning scenarios that they’ve never before imagined. As the school year has rolled on, these leaders have had to respond in the moment, closing buildings due to positive cases, acquiring truckloads of cleaning supplies and PPE, navigating state vaccine roll-outs, and continuing to adapt to changing governmental orders and CDC guidance.

For this transition, my principal has spent the last several weeks working with the leadership team to prioritize who will be in the building, to prepare space that is safe and conducive to learning for the students, to quell the concerns of teachers and support staff, and, in the midst of it all, to oversee the mandatory state count of all students ‘attending’ classes — that all-important process that determines how many state dollars the school will receive to make the magic happen. Not only that, but she took time during our weekly staff meeting to make sure we had fun (yes, we played a Kahoot game in the virtual format), that we were encouraged (yes, we were offered on-the-clock mental health support last week), and that we were celebrated (our principal never fails to give a shout out to staff who are working hard to “take care of [her] babies”).

It’s quite phenomenal what these leaders have managed to accomplish in the midst of a pandemic, many of them having lost loved ones or having been infected by Covid-19 themselves. While many of us have spent longer hours on the couch, watched more Netflix than we’d ever known existed, and tried new recipes, our school leaders, much like our health care workers, have been working around the clock to make sure their “babies” get what they need.

Why? Because they care. They care about students’ education, their physical health, and their emotional health. They have spent their careers — their lives — learning theory and implementing best practices to give their students the best education their budgets can buy (not all budgets being equal, but that’s a topic for a different day).

If they care so much, you ask, why isn’t your school bringing back all 300 kids? Good question. The reason our school is not bringing back all three hundred students is because the leadership team cares so much — for the students, their parents, and the teachers.

Many of our students and their families are not interested in a return to school just yet for a variety of reasons. Many of our families have lost multiple family members during the pandemic — they are afraid of this virus. Many don’t leave home much at all, and if they do, it’s to go to a medical appointment or to work. Many of our students are working one or two jobs. They sometimes log into the Zoom room on their phone while on the clock. Most of our students are low income. They were struggling before the pandemic; now many are in crisis. For many families it’s an all hands on deck type of situation. Giving these families the flexibility of remaining online for the sake of their health and financial concerns is a way of caring.

And the care of the leadership extends to the staff as well. More than once I have heard my principal say that she is concerned for the safety of the children but also of her teachers. While many of us have been vaccinated, some have not, and the risk of spreading the coronavirus and its variants still exists, especially among a population whose families mostly work in front line positions like health care and the service industry. However, it seems that teachers’ mental health has also played a factor in these myriad decisions. While many schools have asked their teachers to both manage online learning and seated instruction (faces on the screen AND bodies in the classroom), trusting that educators, who also care about students and have committed their lives to finding a way to give them what they need and deserve, taxing their physical and mental health with a burden they have not been trained or prepared for, our leadership has not. For the sake of the teachers’ physical, mental, and emotional health, all instruction in our buildings has remained virtual — students and teachers logging into zoom rooms, with all content delivered through Google classroom. While it was a heavy lift to learn how to utilize all the technology involved, teachers have not also had to simultaneously manage students and their developmentally typical behaviors in the classroom.

Even today, as a few dozen students come into the building, they will not be in our classrooms, but they will be sitting six feet apart at tables in the cafeteria, supervised by support staff, and logging into our zoom rooms just as they have been from home since September.

So why bring them in at all, you ask. Another good question.

While students won’t be in my classroom, they will be in the building. This gives them a reprieve from being at home where it could be hard to focus. They likely have other people at home who are working or studying or simply watching the television — all of which can provide a distraction from learning. At school, students will have a designated learning space where they can sit up and learn. We are seeing that many of our students don’t have such a space at home — many log in from their beds or from the floor of their bedroom, neither of which is optimal for learning. In the building, they will have consistent Internet connection. Though we’ve provided hot spots to many of our students, the load of multiple devices inside each home remains high, and many of our students experience disruptions in connection. With us, students will receive breakfast and lunch every day, which may or may not be guaranteed at home during a financial crisis in the middle of a pandemic. And, in the building, teachers and support staff, folks who have committed their lives to ensuring that kids receive an education, will be nearby — watching, listening, assisting, and encouraging. All of this adds us to an increased likelihood for student success.

It’s not safe to have 300 students in the building just yet, but because we care, we’re going to bring in the 44 who just can’t make it work at home. We’re going to give them more — support, proximity, contact — because that is what they need. And, as soon as it’s safe to do so, we’ll bring the rest back, too.

Or, perhaps we’ll bring them back only if that’s what’s best for them, their families, and their teachers. Maybe the pandemic just might teach us that we can do things that we never knew we could do before. Maybe we have the structures in place now to reimagine what school might look like. Maybe it doesn’t have to look the same for everyone.

Is it possible that some kids learn better in the classroom with lots of hands on experience? Can it also be possible that some students learn better at home with the structure and support of their families around them? Could it be that some students might do well to work mostly at home with occasional in-school sessions or that others might do best mostly at school with sporadic seasons of at-home learning?

What about our teachers? Do some thrive in on-line environments? Do others excel in the classroom with all kinds of experiential and kinesthetic practices? Are there others that would pull from both virtual and in-person practices to create an ideal learning environment for students who grow in both spaces? Might we safeguard the ever shrinking pool of teachers if we offered options and provided the supports to ensure success?

Our best leaders are asking these questions — right now, while they are navigating government mandates and guidelines, while they are advocating for their students and their staffs, while they are driving to the homes of students we haven’t seen for a while, while they are hiring — again — in preparation for next year.

They aren’t getting a lot of accolades right now, but they are doing this hard, hard work under the most difficult of circumstances, and still they dare to dream of what is coming next, how they might best adapt in the days that come next.

Why? Because they care, and thank God that they do. Our children — and we — are counting on them.

‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:40

Spiraling and Strolling: Moving through Grief

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Sometimes thoughts of the past can leave me sleepless. All of life has not been picture perfect, and images of brokenness can lead to pain that prevents sleep. For this reason, I often try to avoid lingering on the past, but the other night I intentionally strolled down Memory Lane for a little while. I looked at some old photos and replayed some old film. This is a new strategy for me.

For the past several years, moments of memory have come in unexpected flashes. I can be watching a television sitcom, for example, and see a mother and daughter share a glance or break into laughter. It seems like a benign — even fun — exchange, but it sparks a memory, and I am transported back 5, 10, 15, or even 20 years to a scene where, in a moment of frustration, I snapped at one of my children when I could’ve smiled or even laughed. Later, after the television has been turned off and the lights are out, instead of sleeping, I flail amid images of that moment and others like it swirling on a screen in my mind. Rather than a stroll down Memory Lane, it feels like a free fall between black walls covered in video screens replaying moments of regret, disappointment, and failure.

Once I am in this free fall, I can go for hours. I might see myself driving a carload of kids, for example — my shoulders tensed, trying to get them where they need to go, mentally working out return trips, meals, clothing, and bills. I can feel the stress of responsibility, of course, but mostly I feel sadness and regret — realizing now how brief the moments with our children were and wanting to get some of those moments back for a re-do.

Maybe this sounds familiar. Perhaps all of us mentally cycle through memories, wishing we could go back and redo some of the moments that fill us with regret.

In families like ours that have been impacted by trauma, this experience may be even more intense. Flashes of memory may feel like mini-traumas. In my case, the flashes from the past I see often induce not only regret but also shame for my role in what did and didn’t happen.

Since I’ve made a commitment to only tell my own story, I will stay cloudy on the details, but I have shared before in this blog that our family has been touched by crime, violence, and a season of extreme overwork wherein the stress level in our household could become volatile. While I take responsibility, rightfully, for some of that stress, my brain sometimes gets confused and tries to convince me that I am responsible for all of the trauma, too. It tries to show me moments just before and just after traumatic events and to accuse me of what I could’ve done to make things different. It shows me how I might’ve prevented pain or how I should have been more active in comforting, and it continually points an accusing finger at me, showing me piece after piece of evidence where I failed as a mother, as a wife, and as a friend.

I am transported, for example, to a moment on our front porch where I asked a question but didn’t notice a detail, where I heard a response that I shouldn’t have believed. I tell myself I should have looked more closely, should’ve questioned more. I should’ve seen; I should’ve heard.

Then, I see another image, a midnight drive through the neighborhood to calm a crying teen; I see myself feeling tired, wanting to help, but not knowing what to do. I tell myself I should’ve listened more carefully, should’ve driven further, should’ve called off work the next day.

And from there, I fall to the next image…

When I am free falling through that accusatory slide show, I call it spiraling. I spin through images of moments when I wish I would’ve known more, acted differently, or seen the situation for what it really was. If only I could go back and do it differently, but I can’t, so I continue to spiral from one failed moment to the next.

Recently, as I felt I was nearing the end of a several day stretch of night-time spiraling, having had little sleep, and wanting the cycle to end, my husband, in casual conversation, brought up a topic that I thought might set me back into free fall. I said, “I don’t know if I want to talk about that. I’ve already been spiraling for several days, and I’m really ready to stop.” He was quiet for moment, and then he said, “I think it’s all part of the grieving process.”

I was silent.

It’s part of the grieving process? Going back through all these images and feeling all this regret, this ache, this shame? For the past several years, I’ve been trying to avoid spiraling, if possible, and to endure it when necessary, but if it’s part of the grieving process, I wondered, do I need to lean in and sit with it? Isn’t that what you do with grief? Sit with it?

When something dies — a loved one, a pet, a dream, a hope — it hurts, and the hurt does not go quickly away. No, it takes all kinds of mental and physical work for our minds and bodies to accept loss. We try to deny that it really happened, and we get angry that it did. We yell until we can yell no more, then eventually we cry and sob and groan as we acknowledge the loss to be real.

And, you know, we’ve got to give ourselves space for this. Loss is real — it happens — devastating, bone-crushing loss comes into our lives and we sometimes can’t bear to look at the reality of it all — but when we are ready, we must. We must look at devastation with our eyes wide open. We must see the totality of the pain and allow ourselves and all those impacted the space to grieve — to really, fully grieve.

I’ve been avoiding that full-on look; it’s been too painful to take it all in at once. However, my brain won’t let me rest until I lean in and take a closer look.

The other night, I was lying awake casually spiraling — I was too tired to be frantic, so I wearily submitted to the images that were swirling on the screen of my mind. I lay there and took it in — the accusation, the shame, the regret, and then I finally gave in to sleep.

The next morning, after my alarm jolted me awake, I wondered if it was time to shift to a different way of looking. Was it possible to instead of merely seeing the failures and sinking into shame that I might view the images through eyes of compassion — not only for the members of my family but also for myself?

When I find myself on the front porch, for example, can I acknowledge that I was home, that I was watching, that I was aware, even if I didn’t see the full picture? Can I give myself the grace to say that I was present? Can I acknowledge that to the teen, my questions were terrifying and lies were the only safe response?

When I find myself driving through the neighborhood at midnight, can I thank myself for getting out of bed, for loading a teen in a car, and for driving back and forth to allow the time for tears, even if I didn’t know what they were for? Can I have compassion on the young one who was feeling so much wrenching pain and applaud the strength it took to finally allow me to see the depth of it, even if sharing the cause of such deep hurt was still impossible?

Am I ready to make the shift from spiraling to strolling? Am I willing to slow down and look, really look, at the images? to see not just what’s in the foreground, but to see the background, the edges, and what was happening just outside the frame?

Am I ready to accept grief’s invitation to stroll down Memory Lane, to look at both the wreckage and the beauty, to see the moments of love and tenderness that sit right beside the devastation. Am I willing to see not only my failures but also the moments where I may have done the only right thing I knew to do at the time? Am I willing to believe that two competing realities can exist at the same time?

I think I’m ready to try; I think it’s the next step through this grief.

I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.

Jeremiah 31:13

Coronavirus Diary #27: Heavy

I knew the pandemic was heavy. Way back in April of last year, when I wrote Feeling the Funk, I was aware of the psychological weight of staying at home, isolating from our people, wearing masks, and altering the patterns of our lives. Ten months later, I’ve built up some muscle; I’ve gotten used to lugging around the burden and taking it in stride. Rather than moving in fits and starts, frantically watching the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center Map as the case numbers and fatalities tick up, I have turned my gaze to daily life, kept steadily stepping, and tried to find joy wherever I can — a student who shows up to office hours, our dog neatly snuggled under his newly-crocheted afghan, or a fresh pot of chicken soup.

Yes, I plunk on the couch and watch the news each evening — looking squarely at the carnage, racial injustice, health care inequities, and political corruption we’ve all born witness to in the last months. Then, I detach via Netflix, go to bed, get up the next morning, drive to Detroit, and do my best for my students. I try to keep going and to focus on the the mission rather than what I’m missing. Yes, I watch the news, I know the deaths in the US have climbed to over 485,000. I realize that over 10% of our population has now received at least one dose of vaccine, but I am also aware that a return to anything resembling ‘normal’ is quite a way off. I am aware, but I try to not dwell on it. I try to get up every day, take care of myself, do my job, and find some joy.

So last week, when I logged into my online therapy session and heard myself sharing how thankful I was for my current job in a tone that sounded like I was delivering bad news, I was caught off guard.

I was telling my therapist that I had had an opportunity to be involved in a lived experience conversation with my colleagues — the first, actually, in what we hope to be a long series of group discussions about the varied experiences of the members of the group — what we’ve seen as white, black, male, female, gay, straight humans living in cities, suburbs, and towns. We’re hoping to learn about each other, to break down the walls of assumption and bias, and to further our quest toward equity for our students.

This is exactly the kind of work I’ve been wanting to do, so why did my tone sound so defeated, so depressed. I even remarked, “Wow. I’m making this sound like it’s bad news, when really I am very happy to be doing this work.”

Then my therapist said, “Almost everyone I’ve seen for the last couple of weeks has kind of been in a funk. We just passed the one year mark of when the first case was found in the US, and we don’t see a time when we will ‘get back to normal.'”

And I knew that — I mean, I wrote about it just a few weeks ago (post here), and I was still surprised by the heaviness of it.

The weight of living in this pandemic has been piling on. We are carrying an enormous communal grief — the loss of plans, the loss of livelihood, the loss of community, the loss of routine, and the loss of life. Some of us are feeling it more than others.

Many have experienced the uncommon loss of being separated from a loved one during their last days like my Aunt Margaret who hadn’t seen my uncle for three months when he died of complications of Covid-19. After 71 years of marriage, his last days were alone.

Many while carrying the heaviness of the pandemic, have also been lugging extra burdens such as caring for young children who are suddenly schooling at home, supporting parents with comorbidities who can’t risk going out, being displaced from jobs and struggling financially, or newly navigating the technology that allows working from home.

While the pandemic has been hard for all of us, it has been exponentially harder for people of color. Not only have they suffered and died from Covid-19 at higher rates, they’ve also been harder hit financially and have had to fight against systemic issues such as disparities in health care, education, housing, and employment. And, as always, they continue to experience violence and death at higher rates as a result of such systemic inequities.

As a white girl who, along with my husband, hasn’t missed a paycheck, is employed by an agency I love, and enjoys the highest quality health care my insurance can pay for and our money can buy, I feel the weight of this past year on my shoulders, but certainly not to the extent of those who live in the communities of color that I have worked in.

I was reminded of this over the last few weeks. One of my current students, who lives in Detroit, just missed two weeks of class because a family member with mental illness burned her family’s home to the ground. They’ve been reeling from that trauma and trying to find a new place to live, when finances are tighter than they’ve ever been before. They were already carrying too much; this must feel like more than they can bear. (Here is a GoFundMe if you feel moved to support them.)

Another current student has missed the last three weeks of school because he is in the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound. A teenager with a gunshot wound. How heavy must it be for his parents, who were already managing life as a Black family living in Detroit in the midst of a pandemic, to now also be carrying all of the spoken and unspoken realities they and their son are now facing?

I feel an added heaviness just knowing that these students of mine who I’ve known just a few months are suffering, but what weight must their families and communities be feeling?

I got a taste of what such community pain might feel like this past week. Early last Monday morning, I learned that a former student, a member of the community of students, alumni, teachers, and parents that I was deeply involved with for almost 10 years — a classmate of two of my own children — had been shot and killed, along with her mother, in an act of domestic violence. She was 25, and now she’s gone. This determined young woman often showed up in my classroom after school to ask a question or just to chat. She’d been the first generation in her family to graduate from college, and within the last year or so, had reached out for a letter of recommendation for a position to which she was applying. After news of her death started circulating and I saw all of her classmates and friends posting on social media, I was in shock. How can such a promising young life be over?

Just three days later, I got another taste. Another former student, from that same community, a 30 year old husband and father of three, had died of a previously undiagnosed illness after five days in the hospital on life support. I remember the day he joined my class, having relocated to St. Louis from Chicago. He was a sweet soul, kind and tender. He, too, is now gone. (Here is a GoFundMe if you are interested in helping with funeral expenses and support of his family.)

These things are heavy, and our friends in communities of color have faced them so often that they know how to respond. While I am still sitting here shaking my head and wondering what happened, they’ve reached out to one another, organized GoFundMe campaigns, scheduled balloon releases, found photos of memories to post on social media, written poetry and tributes, and begun the process of mourning.

Me? I’m sitting over here still so stunned that I have no idea why my tone is depressed when I’m sharing good news. I haven’t processed the fact that my already heavy load just got a bit heavier. I haven’t realized that it’s time to put it down, to look squarely at the loss, and to grieve.

So, finally, as I write this, I am grieving — I’m mourning the loss of two young lives who will be sorely missed by their people. I’m grieving the realities of two more who are facing trauma upon trauma. I’m realizing again that the pandemic in itself is heavy and that some of us are carrying so much more.

Be kind to one another, friends. We’re in this for a while. Check in with one another — make a call or send a note.

Reach out to someone. What they are carrying is heavy; perhaps you can lighten their load.

Cast your burden unto Jesus, for He cares for you.

Gospel song.

Changing the World

In July 2020, having been offered a freshman English position at Detroit Leadership Academy, I emailed my enthusiastic acceptance. Within hours, the hiring agent reached back out to see if I would be willing to instead teach senior English. The school had a new initiative called Cougars to College, wherein this senior English course would serve as the vehicle by which all seniors could secure entrance to college. The course had never been taught before, so the person who agreed to teach it would be writing the curriculum, and because the pandemic had interrupted the students’ junior year right at the time that they would’ve been preparing for and then taking the SAT, the first unit would be a crash course in SAT prep. The rest of the first semester, the teacher would be working with the college counselor to help students navigate the college application process.

Just a couple of months earlier, my husband and I had made the decision that I would apply for high school English positions, especially those in schools where race and poverty had historically led to educational disparity. In the wake of racial unrest following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbury, and Breonna Taylor, I felt newly called to this work because I believe that Black lives matter and I wanted to do more than just say that with my mouth.

My interior idealistic 25 year old self wanted to change the world.

I applied widely to schools in Detroit, Ypsilanti, and Ann Arbor and landed with Equity Education, an agency committed to intentionally tearing down racial inequities — they want to change the world, too!

They were asking me to teach seniors about the college application process, even though they didn’t know that in my last high school teaching position I had worked with the counseling department to walk with high school juniors and seniors through researching colleges, writing college essays, doing SAT prep, and writing resumes. They couldn’t have known I was uniquely qualified to design and teach this course — they couldn’t have known this was more than all I had dared to hope for.

But God knew. He knew that I’d been preparing for this position for most of my career. I’d not only taught college writing and AP courses for nine years in St. Louis, I’d also taught freshman writing and developmental composition at the college level. I’d designed curriculum for rigorous dual-credit courses and for more foundational courses for emerging writers, so when they asked, “Would I be willing?” my response was, “Are you kidding? It would be my pleasure.”

Almost immediately, I started planning, preparing, and amassing materials. My coworkers at my previous job had showered me with a library full of adolescent and classic literature. A friend purchased boxes full of highlighters so that I could provide each student with a blue, a yellow, and a pink for analyzing sentences, paragraphs, and essays. Other friends (and my mom, of course) collected school supplies to stock my shelves, and one couple funded my purchase of 100 composition books. My son and I lugged all this stuff to my classroom, and there it sat for an entire semester.

Covid made it impossible for me to distribute these materials before school started. My students were on their side of the Zoom screen in their bedrooms and kitchens; I was on my side teaching from my desk. For the entire first semester, we did everything through Google classroom — every single document was electronic.

And can we just say, thank God for Zoom and Google Classroom which have allowed us to stay connected with our students! For many students, teachers are the only interaction they have outside of their homes — the only change of scenery from an otherwise endless quarantine.

We started the first semester by learning how to use Zoom, Google classroom, Gmail, and the Internet. Many of my students had never had a computer at home before, so the whole first quarter was spent on digital literacy and SAT prep. After the seniors had taken the SAT, we moved onto researching colleges and writing first a college essay and then a resume. By the end of the first semester, many students had been accepted into college, some with substantial scholarships.

Now, full transparency, we also have chronic absenteeism (30-40% of all students) even though an attendance team (and our teachers) are working diligently to get kids in class. Nevertheless, I feel good about the progress we made first semester — virtually and during a pandemic. We have students who are on track to go to college who might not have been without our concerted efforts.

Now, knowing that they are going to college and what they will find there, I feel compelled to spend the second semester preparing them, so a couple of weeks ago, when our seniors came to school to get their senior pictures taken, I was ready for them. Each student received a copy of Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime, a set of highlighters, and a composition book. We are going to read the memoir, not only to learn about Noah’s experience, but also to practice reading, build stamina, and develop critical literacy skills. We are going to use the highlighters to analyze text and to build grammar skills — highlighting topic sentences or prepositional phrases as the situation demands. The composition books — they have the most transformative potential.

Last week we kicked off the second semester, which we started with a syllabus — the first one many of them had seen. I can’t hardly send a group of first-generation college students off to class without working knowledge of how to decode a syllabus.

The second day of class, I prompted my students to take out their composition books. These, I said, would be used every week. We would fill up the pages with writing. They would not be graded on spelling, grammar, or punctuation, but they would receive full credit for simply filling up pages. Any writing, I told them, improves writing, and the more you write, the more your writing will improve. It’s just that simple

I put a few prompts on the screen:

  • This pandemic…
  • Thinking about college…
  • Any topic of your choice.

Then I set a timer for 8 minutes, turned on some instrumental music, and told them to write until I said stop or until they filled a page. And then, my students and I wrote.

As the clock ticked, I checked in: “You should be filling up one page of your composition book…” then, “we are halfway through our time…” and “keep writing, even if you just write the names of the people in your family…” then, “Time’s up. Stop writing.”

I asked a few students to share how that felt. In this virtual space, I honestly didn’t know if anyone would want to share, but they did.

“I loved that; I love writing,” said one.

“To be honest, I didn’t write anything; I just sat here. I couldn’t come up with anything,” said another.

“It was alright,” offered another.

I had them take a picture of the journal with the camera on their phones. (Yes, almost everyone has a cell phone, even though some don’t have reliable wifi.) Then I had them upload their photos to Google classroom.

Later in the day, after my classes, I had time to read…about their disappointment of losing their senior year to the pandemic, of their fears about college, of the conflict they are having with their parents, of the trauma that happened to them as a child, of the chronic illness they are living with.

After a semester of listening to my voice and seeing my face on a screen, some of them trusted me enough to share a piece of themselves through their writing. I wrote back to each and every one — thanking them for sharing, commiserating with their grief, and encouraging their bravery.

Look, I realize I’m not going to close the educational gaps that exist for students of color any time soon. I am not in one virtual school year going to get all my seniors to college or give them all the tools they need to be successful there. In fact, all of my seniors won’t likely graduate on time.

But here’s the thing, if I can get a classroom full of students writing in composition books, sharing their feelings and telling their stories, I might just change the world.

That’s all I really want to do — just change the world.

But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Romans 8:25

**If you would like to help me change the world, I will always and forever be accepting composition books, highlighters, and other school supplies.

I

Coronavirus Diary #26: Needed

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I woke up to the sound of crying. As I gathered consciousness, I realized it was Chester, our twelve-year old golden retriever. He needed me to get up; he was insisting.

I glanced at my clock; it was 5am.

He continued to cry, so I rolled out of bed and took him outside. He needed to go. It was confirmed. And he’d needed me.

I’ve been needed a lot in the last week — the final week of the semester. Some students who had not fully engaged in this semester of virtual learning suddenly needed me to help them with missing assignments, to grade their late work, and to adjust their grades.

I was willing to do all this because we are in unusual times. If you were my student pre-pandemic, I might’ve accepted late work, but I would’ve never given it full credit, and I certainly would’ve given you grief. This semester, however, has been very different.

Some of my students have struggled with technology, many having never had access to a computer at home before, having never used an online interface, having never created or submitted digital documents, and often having unreliable wifi.

Some have struggled with depression. They’ve lost loved ones, their families are struggling financially, and they’re doing their senior year from their bedroom. They haven’t seen their friends, haven’t giggled in the hallways, haven’t gone to a homecoming football game, and haven’t been seen — sitting in classes, walking down halls, playing sports, eating lunch. Instead, they’ve logged into a zoom room to find some cheery middle-aged white woman talkin bout college this and SAT that. How can she possibly know our lives and what we’re going through. How can she sit up in here talkin bout applying to colleges, filling out FAFSAs and turning on cameras. Who does she think she is? She doesn’t know what we need.

I’ve been trying to be available for when they do voice a need. Chester knows when he stands next to my bed and cries, I will certainly stand up and take him outside. In the same way, I want my students to know that they can come to me, and I will do what I can to help them out.

However, after a lifetime in urban schools where teachers often leave after a semester or a year, these students are wary. I knew that walking in; building trust would be job one.

The first step in building trust is consistently showing up, so I’ve done that. Every day, I’ve been on time, used the same routine, and have given consistent messages about assignments, due dates, and goals.

It can feel so rote to me — so robotic — to move through the same motions every hour, hour after hour. We start each class with a gathering — a simple question that invites every student to weigh in, either in the chat box or out loud. Then I share the objectives for the day followed by a two-three question pre-assessment called the Do Now. Next, I share the results of the pre-test on my screen, and together we see what percentage of students knew the answers and what percentage didn’t. After that, we move into instruction which includes modeling and practice followed by me calling on students to check if they are still with me, if they understand, and if they have any questions. Then I give an assignment followed by a two-three question post-test. We take a screen break, then we come back for announcements, questions, and an opportunity for support.

It’s the same every single day, but that’s what my students need — predicability, consistency, routine. And, after five months of doing this every single day, I got a payoff this past week.

On Thursday we had curriculum distribution day. All students were to come to school to get their materials, and seniors were to pose in caps and gowns for their senior pictures. I had invited all of my students to stop by my room, luring them with the promise of prizes — t-shirts, candy, lanyards, and such. Some never made it to the building — they missed the dozen emails and phone calls along with my in-class announcements or their parents couldn’t or wouldn’t bring them — but throughout the day, I had a steady trickle of visitors.

First, my vice-principal dragged in a student who had been MIA for several weeks, until I called her dad and then her mom to let them know that if something didn’t change, she wasn’t going to pass the first semester and she wouldn’t be on track for graduation. The girl walked into my room, and she had to be introduced to me, because even though I’ve talked to her on the phone and she’s been in my zoom room quite often in the last few weeks, she’s never had her camera on. I greeted her, offered her a small prize from my “I had to be introduced to you” table, and encouraged her to keep showing up.

“I had to be introduced to you” Table

She took her prize, nodded her head, and then left. A little while later, she came back, to see if we could work through a couple assignments to bump her over the passing threshold, and we did.

A little later, an enormous mountain of a young man walked in. I recognized him right away. He’d been failing, too, until a couple weeks ago when he showed up in my after school office hours telling me that he wanted to get back on track. He came three days in a row for 90 minutes each day, finishing assignment after assignment. He, too, had moved into the realm of passing. He got to choose a larger item from my “I recognized your face” table.

“I recognized your face” Table

The visits continued. A young man stopped in to tell me that he knew he was going to fail the semester; he’d already talked to our principal and had made a plan for credit recovery. He had lost his uncle, he said, and it had really messed him up.

“I just lost an uncle, too,” I said, “Covid. Yours?”

“No,” he said, “my uncle was shot.”

“Wow. I am so sorry. I can’t imagine how difficult that must be. Are you ok?”

“Yeah. I’m ok.”

“Alright. I hope I’ll be seeing you in class starting next week.”

“You will,” he said, and he made his way out the door.

A little while later, I was standing in the hallway chatting with one student who just wanted to stand and chat when I saw a couple walking toward me — the young man carrying a car seat, the young woman smiling and looking me in the eye.

“The baby!” I said as they walked toward me. These two had shared the birth of their child with me privately in the zoom room, and here they were in the flesh. They brought him close, this perfect little baby with round cheeks and thick curls, and I had to stop myself from instinctively touching him. What a perfect little baby, but his young parents looked weary and newly mature. They are both working fast food jobs, both trying to pass classes, both trying to care for this child.

What did they need from me? I’m not sure, but I let them know I saw them — their togetherness, their situation, their struggle. “You two are doing a lot right now. The best thing I can tell you is to keep showing up, keep doing your best, and keep letting us know how we can support you.”

They couldn’t stay. The baby — the beautiful perfect baby — was starting to fuss. They needed to get him home. After all, he’d waited through their senior pictures, their discussions with the principal, their gathering of supplies. So, they said their goodbyes and went on their way.

It was such a rich day — hearing students call me by name, joking with them in the hallway, giving a couple a hard time for finding a secluded corner. I felt so full as I moved around my classroom, packing up the remaining prizes and recalling all the interchanges I’d had throughout the day. I was smiling and so grateful.

Turns out that seeing my students was just what I had needed.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory!

Ephesians 3:20

**If you’d like to support my ongoing effort to reward my students for showing up and working hard, I welcome all donations of items I can use for prizes. Suggestions include but are not limited to: candy, chapstick, sample size lotion, hand sanitizer, pens, snack bars, etc.

Coronavirus Diary #25 One Year Later

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Last year at this time, we had just begun to hear the word ‘coronavirus’. News outlets were reporting the spread of what they were calling Covid-19 in Wuhan, China, a city we had likely never heard of before — 500 were infected, and 17 had died. The first case had just been documented in the United States.

Those numbers didn’t shock us really. Seventeen? and just one in the US? What’s all the excitement about?

Besides, it’s in China, right? And just one case here? Ok, next story please.

We, in our American invincibility, carried on with our lives, oblivious to how they would so quickly change. We went to work and school with bare-naked faces, for goodness’ sake. We smiled, laughed, talked, and even sang in close proximity to one another. We shook hands and high-fived with abandon. We ate in restaurants, had folks over for dinner, visited friends in the hospital, and even shared rides with one another.

Less than a year ago we could walk into church late, hang up our coat, hug a friend, and squeeze into the one remaining spot in the third pew from the front, patting the shoulder of the person in front of us before leaning in and whispering apologies to the one next to us.

But now — now, the numbers have our attention. Over 415,000 Americans have died. The world wide total is over 2,000,000, and it’s not slowing down. This week’s 7-day average for daily Covid-19 deaths in the US is just shy of 4000, and several new variants have emerged which threaten to be more contagious and possibly more dangerous.

If you don’t yet know someone who has died from Covid-19, you or someone you know has certainly tested positive, and you likely know someone who has been hospitalized for severe symptoms. It’s that prevalent.

In fact, I would guess most of us don’t make it through a day without saying the word ‘covid’ or ‘coronavirus’ or ‘pandemic’. The impact is vast. This microscopic organism has transformed the ways in which humans live their lives around the world.

Almost overnight, it sent us running to our homes, covering our faces, washing our hands, and sanitizing our surfaces. We’ve become adept at navigating the virtual world — at zooming, sending electronic documents, seeing our doctors via telehealth visits, and personalizing our work-from-home spaces.

And, we’ve been doing this for so long that we’ve grown weary.

Haven’t we?

Aren’t we tired of this?

I mean, sure, we’re resourceful. We’re team players. We’re willing to do what it takes because it is what it is, but guys, it’s wearing on me.

When we first received stay-at-home orders, none of us (except maybe epidemiologists, medical professionals, and historians) would’ve believed we’d still be here in 2021. Or at least I never believed that we would or that I wouldn’t be able to visit my parents or see my children in person for such a long time.

I wouldn’t have imagined I could watch so much Netflix, sew so many masks, or create and share so many Google docs for my students to open, complete, and submit in Google classroom.

And I wouldn’t have imagined that by the end of January 2021 we still wouldn’t have an end in sight. How about you?

I felt so hopeful in December when first the Pfizer and then the Moderna vaccines were given emergency use authorization. Then-president Trump’s Project Warp Speed promised to immunize 20 million people before the end of the year, and I believed that soon many Americans (and especially our parents) would have the vaccine and the numbers of cases would start to decrease. But guys, no one had ever done this before — speedily created and approved a vaccine and distributed it widely to the entire American population, and it didn’t go as smoothly as promised. As I write this, we are nearing the end of January and just 12 million Americans have received their first dose and only 1.7 million are fully immunized.

I received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine last week and hope to be fully immunized by mid-February. However, my husband, who is doing front-line work with college students, has yet to be scheduled for his vaccine, and of our six parents — all in their 70s and 80s — only 2 have received their first dose. The rest are on waiting lists.

Nursing home residents who have been hardest hit by the pandemic were supposed to be immunized first, and it seems that some have been. However, my aunt and uncle, both in their nineties and living in separate nursing facilities, have not received vaccines, and for my uncle, it is too late. He contracted Covid-19 toward the end of December and died in the hospital on January 16.

I became further discouraged when efforts to address the pandemic seemed to have almost come to a stop since the November elections. It had felt like our leadership was saying, “Hey, Covid’s not so bad. Do what you want: wear a mask, don’t wear a mask. Use this vaccine, or don’t. China sent us this virus; we’ve done what we can. Take this $600 check; the virus will go away soon.” But this week, shortly after the inauguration, the new administration signed a pile of executive orders including one enacting the Defense Production Act to speed the production and distribution of supplies needed to fight the pandemic and another providing funding to states that will enable them to increase the number of vaccine distribution sites. At last, I thought, someone is taking decisive action that seems to acknowledge the fact that the virus is indeed still here and wreaking havoc at increasing speed.

You know that, right? January saw more deaths than any of the previous months. You might’ve missed it because of all the news about supposed election fraud, an insurrection attempt, and the manhunt for those who participated. You might not have heard that on January 20, inauguration day, the US set a new record for deaths from Covid-19– 4,409 in one day.

Yet as the numbers grow, the cries to return to normalcy get louder. In Michigan, where our Covid infection rates are much lower than they were in November, where our 7-day average for daily deaths due to Covid-19 is just 50, schools have been charged with returning to in-person instruction by March 1, 2021. Of course, the decision to do so is up to local districts, and each school is taking its own approach, but the pressure to return to normal is palpable.

Michigan restaurants are set to open back up to indoor dining at limited capacity starting on February 1. This industry has been hit hard in the past year — many establishments have closed their doors for good after experiencing unprecedented losses in revenue. Those that remain are begging for the opportunity to make a living, and we are longing for the opportunity to order a meal, hear the chatter of others around us, joke with our server, and leave an extra large tip.

We are tired of this. We are tired of staying in, wearing masks, using Zoom, sitting at computers, and standing so far away from each other. We’re missing interaction – the sound of other voices, the movement of bodies around us, the smells of life.

But it’s not over yet, guys. It’s not even showing signs of slowing down.

And even though we’re tired, even though we are longing to be with our people, even though the winter days are cold and dark and lonely, we’ve gotta hang in there.

My principal stopped in to my Zoom room the other day to visit my freshmen. She wanted to cheer their first semester efforts and let them know about a schedule change for the second semester. She told them she’d heard me gushing about them — about their hard work, the progress they’d made, and their consistent attendance. She said, “I know this has been hard, guys, being in a virtual space, working from home. It’s all different, and we’re tired. But even though it’s tough, we persevere.”

Indeed, folks. We’ve been through a lot, and it’s been hard on all of us in different ways, but we’ve got the muscle; we can do this. We can persevere. So, stay at home, wear a mask, wash your hands, and get a vaccine as soon as you can.

We’re going to see the other side of this, but we are not there yet. So, while we persevere, remember to offer yourself grace when you get discouraged or cranky, and be kind to those around you when they get that way, too.

And together, let’s pray that God will intervene and end this mess sooner than we can, because I don’t know about you, but I’m tired.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.

    From where does my help come?

My help comes from the Lord,

    who made heaven and earth.

Psalm 121: 1-2

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

Click the arrow to listen.

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

Click the arrow to listen.

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

What World Are We Living In?, A Re-visit

I wrote and posted this piece just about a year ago, when the death toll from Covid-19 in the US was merely 200,000; now we are closing in on 700,00. A year ago we were waiting on a vaccine, anticipating an election, and hoping for financial assistance from the government. Now, we’ve got a different president, an opportunity to be vaccinated, and many are back to work, but the wide disparities in wealth, in access, in opportunity have not disappeared. I am re-sharing this post today to reflect on what has changed and what has not and to remind myself to continue doing what I can to re-shape the little corner of the world that I live 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

From the Vault: Time Out, a Re-visit

Click to listen.

Many have marked the fact that it has been one year since our lives changed dramatically due to the Covid-19 pandemic. A year. We’ve almost become accustomed to this way of life.

What have we learned during our isolation? What has our ‘time out’ taught us? How are we managing our emotions? Who are our helpers? What lessons will we be carrying forward? How will we allow ourselves to be changed in our next chapter?

March 16, 2020.

On Wednesday, as I was leaving work, I heard a parent ask our center director what our plan was as the coronavirus epidemic became more serious. I kind of shrugged my shoulders and walked out the door. I figured it would all blow over while I was out for a couple of days to help my mom recover from shoulder replacement surgery.

By the time I arrived at my mom’s house two hours later, the NCAA had determined that March Madness would be played without spectators. Before I went to sleep that night, our governor had ordered all Michigan schools closed for three weeks. The next day, all NCAA sports for the rest of the season were cancelled, Disneyland closed, and all of us entered a new reality.

Each day brings more closures, more cancellations, and more restrictions. Most of us have been impacted at work, at school, or at home. Some have had to reconfigure their daily lives for the foreseeable future.

Consider a two-parent family with three school-aged children who regularly rely on day care and school while both parents go to work. When the schools and the day care close indefinitely, what are they to do? What if they are doctors? police officers? paramedics? nurses?

Or consider a single father who counts on his hourly wage to support his small child. What if his place of business closes for the next several weeks? How will he earn money to pay his rent or mortgage? to buy food and diapers?

People in all kinds of unexpected situations are scrambling! What will they do?

Since I’ve been away from my normal life for the last few days, I’ve been able to pause and observe the varied responses of the people I have interacted with in person, over the phone, through email, and on social media.

I’ve been a bit removed.

I haven’t been, like many, scrambling at work trying to determine how to sanitize, shut down, and communicate an action plan. I haven’t had the necessity to trouble-shoot child care or purchase extra groceries or devise a work-at-home strategy.

Many of you have been in the middle of all that, and I applaud you. You are doing the hard things and figuring it out.

I watched one family hire a displaced child care worker to care for their young children who can not go to school or day care for a few weeks. I’ve seen my workplace switch all of our in-person students to an online platform in the space of one 8-hour day, even while they met the immediate instructional needs of all of our students. I saw our church community first adapt our worship gatherings and then shift course to cancel all gatherings and then begin rallying our troops to reach out and meet the needs of those in our city.

You all are showing up, caring for one another, and rising to the occasion.

We can do that — we can rise to this occasion!

While all of this bustling was going on, my mom and I were looking for something to do as she sat in her chair resting and icing. She suggested we watch A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood with Tom Hanks playing Mr. Fred Rogers, beloved children’s television icon. I couldn’t help but be touched as I saw Mr. Rogers’ character teach the journalist who was interviewing him about appropriate ways to express emotion — how to manage fear and anger and sadness.

Aren’t we afraid and angry and sad? We’re angry that the store has run out of the things that we need. We’re afraid to go to work where we might get sick or unknowingly share a virus we might be carrying. We’re afraid of staying home for so long. We’re sad our plans — for trips, gatherings, and celebrations — are being cancelled for who knows how long. And what will we do with all those feelings?

Will we isolate? Will we lash out at those closest to us? Will we find ways to express how we’re feeling? Will we talk it out? write it down? cry?

I see some of you asking the hard questions — is this an overreaction? isn’t the flu even more dangerous than Covid 19? is this just the media’s attempt to whip us into a frenzy? And, I hear you. It does seem extreme.

However, whether we think the recommendations are overblown or not, they have moved beyond recommendations to directives. We’ve been told to create social distance, to avoid gatherings, and to stay at home. Nevertheless, even when the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, and our governmental leaders all say to “shelter in place,” we still have some choices.

We can choose what to do with our feelings about this. We can grumble about how ridiculous all of it is; we can piss and moan and shake our fists in the air. We can push against the communal flow, or we can turn.

And maybe we need to.

It seems to me that for quite some time many of us have found ourselves positioned against one another, pointing fingers and shouting accusations. We’ve argued over everything from healthcare to guns to sexuality to abortion. We’ve gotten really good at converting our fear, our anger, and our sadness into attacks on each other. And how’s that been working out for us?

Do we feel good about the distance we’ve created with all this finger-pointing and name calling? How would we respond to our children acting this way? Would we allow them to continue, or would we give them a time out?

As we are forced to pause our lives in the midst of a political climate that is so emotionally charged, are we being offered a communal time out?

What if this virus, this quarantine, this season is an opportunity for us to check ourselves? What if being stopped dead in our tracks is giving us an opportunity to see that we’ve lost our way? What if we pause inside our homes, look at the people that we love, and decide that we can do better than we’ve been doing? What if we can choose right now to care for others regardless of the differences we’ve had with them in the past?

Mr. Rogers said that his mother responded to scary news by telling him to ‘look for the helpers’. This week I have seen many helpers. I’ve seen you reaching out to one another, being creative, and finding ways to encourage one another. You’re posting cheerful videos, providing suggestions for stay-at-home activities, and cheering one another on. I saw one dear old friend post a video of himself reading The Cat in the Hat and challenging others to post videos of themselves reading their favorite stories.

That’s the kind of people you are — the kind who show up in difficult situations to care for friends, strangers, and even those who tend to annoy you.

While I was cheering my mom on this week — encouraging her to exercise, helping her get dressed, and offering her ice cream cones — the world around was feeling a little chaotic, and still friends brought food, family delivered flowers, and others made phone calls, offered prayers, and provided guidance.

Many were helpers.

I think one way that I’ll deal with stress, fear, disappointment, and anger in the coming weeks is by watching how all of you show up for each other. I’ll be looking for the helpers and learning from them during this time out.

Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.

Psalm 34:14

On and Off the Couch, A Re-visit

As we prepare to pack up our things and move a few miles away from our little house by the river, I am indulging in some reminiscing. This little place has held us and born witness to deep grief and miraculous healing; we have loved our years on this idyllic campus. Watching students transform from intimidated freshmen to courageous seniors has reminded us that life is a continuous series of transformations. We have had our own metamorphosis here. This post, written in October 2019, chronicles some stages of that healing.

Five years ago, when I moved into the little house by the river, I was exhausted and physically ill. For the first time probably since my childhood, I gave myself permission to plop on the couch and be unproductive. I didn’t come to this on my own — my medical team had advised it, and my husband had supported it. I needed some time to let my body recover from years of hard work. I needed to exit crisis mode and hit ‘reset’.

This is no news to you if you’ve read my blog — in fact, one of the reasons I began to write was that I was, for the first time in over thirty years, not going to be working or caring for children. I had no idea what I would do with myself if I didn’t come up with a daily task. And, writing proved, as you might have guessed, one of the means for healing.

The pouring out of thoughts onto a page allows them to be seen and felt. In the seeing and feeling, the healing begins.

The first layer of healing began with time on the couch and a commitment to writing. I spent a lot of time on the couch (and in bed, and in a chair, and on the floor). I drank countless cups of tea and have now written over 400 blog posts in addition to the countless pages that I have written in spiral notebooks and journals in the past few years.

That decision to spend some time on the couch and writing every day laid the foundation for a much more thorough mental and spiritual healing that would follow the initial physical healing. I didn’t know it at the time, but the first six months in the little house by the river was a dress rehearsal for the next several years.

In addition to the physical fatigue and illness that I brought with me to Ann Arbor, our whole family also carried with us some deep wounds from years of dysfunction. Some of that dysfunction was not too atypical — a family doing too much, trying too hard, and overlooking critical moments and emotions in the frenzy of day-to-day living. However, some larger issues were less than typical– eating disorder, depression, alcoholism, and sexual assault. And even writing the words, I realize that though these were devastating, they are not as atypical as I would like to believe.

And I think that’s part of the reason I keep writing about them. Sure, it is hard to admit that our family — the one for which I had high hopes for perfection — suffered in ways that we had never expected, but just as surely, pain happens to everyone. Every one of us suffer.

And so, when, a couple years into life in this house by the river, we looked our pain full in the face and crawled back onto the couch and cried and cried and cried. I didn’t stop writing. I didn’t retreat into my room, as I had in the past, to “close the door and draw the blinds”. I didn’t want to air each of our private pains publicly, but I also didn’t want to hide the fact that we were indeed hurting. I am not sure it was a conscious choice at the time — after all, I was lying on the couch in the fetal position, sobbing; how much clarity could I have? However, I believe I instinctively knew that my recovery was dependent on my writing — writing that was honest and transparent and public.

I didn’t write the details — I guess each of us can fill in our own. We can all find ourselves on the couch, immobilized, hurting, and in need of a re-set.

And I am here to tell you that re-sets happen. People get off couches. They start walking. They begin to smile. They feel hope again.

It doesn’t come quickly. Some people find themselves plunked in a great big sectional sofa for a couple of years or more. In fact, they’ve been there so long that the sofa itself takes on an appearance of grief, anguish, and decay, and they hardly notice. They sink into dilapidation, and it feels like home. So they stay there, watching Netflix night after night after night.

But slowly, gradually, light starts peeking in from behind the blinds, and they start to notice that the couch is visibly tired of performing this service.

It’s served its term.

So they stand up. They start taking walks, dreaming dreams, and envisioning a world where every day isn’t laden with grief. They start picturing places that exist away from the couch — places inhabited by people and experiences and opportunities. Venturing out seems a little daunting at first, so they proceed with caution — a coffee date here, a shopping trip there.

Soon they realize they are meeting in groups outside of their home, not only to gather support to sustain them in their long hours on the couch, but also to share support, love, and friendship. They discover they have energy for a walk before dinner, shopping in the afternoon, and rearranging the furniture.

But that sectional takes up so much space — what with the grief lying all over it, spilling over the edges.

It’s got to go.

It’s all part of the re-set. Room must be made for the new — new experiences, new dreams, new life.

So out it goes.

And just like that, a weight is lifted. A corner is turned. A brightness is felt.

Imagine the possibilities of life away from the couch. A life of dinners at the table, of walking in the park, of meeting up with friends. Of laughter, of joy.

I am here to tell you that re-sets happen.

I am here to tell you that I am off the couch.

Now — if you are at this moment slunk down in the cushions, chest sprinkled with potato chip crumbs, staring at a television playing mindless shows with laugh tracks, I have not one ounce of judgment for you. I only offer this: when you have cried countless tears and lain awake long nights, when you have thought that you will never feel joy again, hold on.

It may be a while, but the light will peek in from behind the blinds, and you, too, will find yourself rising from the couch. You’ll start walking. You’ll find yourself smiling. You will again begin to feel hope.

I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

Jeremiah 31:13

Epilogue: Replacing that sectional was so liberating. My husband and a coworker heaved the pieces into a dumpster, and we made the room ready for a sofa, a loveseat, a chair, and an ottoman. Just in time for the pandemic, we had a fresh space in which to shelter and begin to dream of what changes we would make next. We started by purchasing a new vehicle, then we took a deep breath and started looking at houses. It wasn’t too long before we found a little space full of surprises — an office, a second bathroom, two guest rooms, and an enormous garden — where we can continue to grow.

From the Vault: We are all Learning, a re-visit

I wrote this in October of 2019, in the before timebefore 2020 and its pandemic, its racial unrest, its political polarization. If this is not a wilderness, I’m not sure there is one. I wonder if you agree that this is one more opportunity for our us to grow, to be shaped by the One who loves us, and to turn from our wandering back to Him.

It was an extraordinary day that I’ve been thinking about for a week.

It started when my child called at 7 am to admit a failure at work. Some words had been spouted toward a coworker — the kind that aren’t easily called back. Supervisors had gotten involved and, rather than meting out punishment, had normalized the situation saying something like, “We are all learning. We want to support you as you grow through this.”

As I hung up that phone call, a nurse arrived at my door. I’ve agreed to be part of a study in which I set some goals to improve my health or quality of life, I track my progress, and this nurse follows my path, provides coaching and encouragement, and we see what happens.

Perfectionist that I tend to be — I immediately confessed a few habits that I am ashamed of and stated my intention of eliminating them. The nurse, fellow human that she is, reminded me that we are just setting goals — some days we will meet them, some days we won’t. That’s how life is.

We are all learning. Not one of us has it all together. .

When the nurse left, I started listening to a sermon I’d missed a few days prior. We’ve been in a series on Exodus for several weeks, hearing about the Israelites’ journey through slavery, the plagues God used against Pharoah, and — this week — the miraculous rescue of the Israelites.

They’d been suffering in slavery for four hundred years and just like that, h=He swoops in with shock and awe and delivers them out of slavery.

You have to ask yourself why? Why did He wait so long?

And then, once he had parted the Red Sea and delivered them from the Egyptians, why did He allow them to wander in the wilderness for an additional 40 years? Couldn’t He have spared them so much pain? Didn’t He see their difficulty? Couldn’t He tell they were lost?

And questions like that lead me to ask “why did you let me continue in my soldiering for so. damn. long. Why didn’t you send a messenger much earlier? Wouldn’t you have spared us all so much pain? Didn’t you see the difficulty? Didn’t you see the looming consequences? Couldn’t you tell we were lost?”

And I hear our pastor say, “In the difficulty of the wilderness, God shapes His people…God will place us in difficult circumstances, in challenging situations, in order to shape and form our character…and to strengthen our faith.”

We are all learning. None of us has it all figured out, and God wants to support us as we grow through our wildnerness.

I can see it. I can. I can see how through difficulty my character has been formed. The most desperate of situations have pressed me to make new choices, live differently, and see clearly. They have, indeed, strengthened my faith.

I was lying on the table of my physical therapist the other morning, chatting about some recent developments in the long journey we are on, when she said, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

I’m ready.

As the Israelites stood next to the not-yet-parted Red Sea, the Egyptian army bearing down upon them, Moses said, “Fear not. Stand firm. And see the salvation of the Lord which He will work for you today. The Lord will fight for you; you have only to be silent.”

I have only to be silent.

I was sitting in an instructional meeting at work — me, an educator for the last thirty years — and I found myself being challenged to consider how my tone, my energy, and my language can motivate or demotivate my students. How the nuance of my voice, its inflection, and my message can make or break a lesson. The presenter said that we should use language that is calm, neutral, and assertive to direct our students toward their tasks. We should use messages like, “Read this paragraph, starting here,” in a calm tone, as we point to the page and then wait expectantly. When we give a clear direction and the space to respond, we provide safety — a secure spot for our students to step into.

Safety is everything!

Knowing I am safe, emboldens me to take a chance — to try reading the words or to even make a mistake. If I feel safe, I can try, because I don’t fear judgment or punishment or embarrassment. When I’m given direction from a calm, neutral, assertive voice, I don’t feel bribed, used, or threatened. I feel free.

The nurse from the study did that. She spoke in a calm, neutral voice, offering reassurance as we wrote out my goals. She showed me how to record my progress and scheduled our visits over the next eight weeks during which she will check in and offer support.

I breathe easily; I know I’ll be ok whether I meet my goals or not — whether I walk more, watch less television, or sit on the couch all day.

Moses (perhaps in a calm, neutral voice) said, “Fear not. Stand firm. And see the salvation of the Lord which He will work for you today. The Lord will fight for you; you have only to be silent.” The Israelites bravely stood there; the Red Sea was parted, and they walked through on dry ground to safety. When their pursuers followed, the sea un-parted and swallowed them up.

Now, long story short, the Israelites didn’t immediately apply all the lessons they’d learned from their time in slavery or from this amazing rescue, so they ended up wandering around in the wilderness for an additional 40 years, so that God could continue to shape them and turn their hearts back to Him.

And, coincidentally, after my rescue from the soldiering years, I did not immediately apply all the lessons I learned. Instead I ended up walking through some additional challenges through which God has continued to shape me and turn my heart back to Him.

Just yesterday, our pastor delivered the truth that I’ve been clinging to — the words that let me know I’m safe and that I can step into this learning day after day: “God in His sovereignty is in control of whatever situation I am in.” He, the one who has been with me through the soldiering, through every difficulty, through every rescue, through every lesson, is in control.

He keeps showing up because He wants me to know that He is the Lord my God. He knows I’m just learning, and He wants to support me as I grow through this.

He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.

2 Sam 22:20

Puzzling, a Re-visit

Click the arrow to listen.

I first published this piece in April of 2019, after one episode in a now countless stream of gun violence. I had a puzzle on my table then; I have a puzzle on my table now. Anyone willing to come to the table and sort out the pieces and put an end to this problem? Isn’t it about time we did?

I like working on puzzles — dumping a thousand pieces or so onto a table, finding the border, sorting by color and shape, and beginning to bring order from chaos. I know there’s an image that’s been shattered, and I like the focus and intention it takes to put it back together.

It’s a broken I know how to fix.

Several years ago, I had a puzzle sitting on a small table in our family room. Our teenagers liked to watch television and movies, and, though I didn’t always like what they were watching, I did like being around them, so I would plunk myself down at the puzzle table and listen to the laughter and the commentary. I just liked being where they were.

But even though I was right in the room, bringing insignificant order to meaningless chaos, I was overlooking the broken pieces that had flung themselves on our couches. I was oblivious to the hemorrhaging from a brutal assault; I was ignoring simmering depression; and I was wishing away the striving for perfection. I was not hearing the silent crying and unspoken questions hanging in the room.

I just was just puzzling.

I’ve been sitting at a different puzzle table here in our house by the river — the nest that was emptied, probably too soon, of all the wounded who set off flapping, trying their best to soar.

I’ve been bent over this puzzle since January — sometimes for five minutes, sometimes for five hours — trying to find where each little piece goes.

Puzzling

It’s various shades of gray, black, and white, and the images on each piece are minuscule, so I actually have to examine each one closely, holding it very close to my eyes, so that I can see which way it is oriented and if it has any specific identifying marks. It’s a long process that won’t be rushed.

So I keep on puzzling.

Some might accuse me of trying to escape reality; I prefer to believe that I am embodying metaphor.

What if I approached every problem the way I approach puzzling — what if I dumped the whole mess on the table, examined each piece, and then, without rushing, sorted it all out and found something beautiful.

To be clear, this has not been my traditional approach to problem solving. No, I have often preferred what I call the slam-and-jam method.

Someone presents me with a problem — sick child, malfunctioning computer, or, say, gun violence — and I immediately spout out a list of strategies for solving the problem.

It looks like this:

Adult child: “Mom, I’m sick. My throat hurts, I’m tired, and I have a headache.”

Me: “Zyrtec, Motrin, rest, and fluids.”

Or this:

Co-worker: “Kristin, I keep losing my internet connection with my student.”

Me: “Refresh. If that doesn’t work, re-start. If that doesn’t work, have the student restart. If that doesn’t work, have the student re-set his wifi.”

Or this:

Everyday newscast: “One person was killed and three injured in yet another attack on a synagogue. The accused is said to have used an AR-type assault weapon.”

Me: “Get those damn assault weapons off the street, prohibit violent shooter video games, and provide more access to mental health services.”

Now, I’m not gonna lie. My rapid-fire reactions to these types of problems are pretty accurate and effective most of the time (although the gun violence solution has yet to be tested), but they are really just first-level responses. They are quick fixes. I am the master of quick-fixes — patch ’em up, move ’em out. But here’s the thing, most problems need more than quick fixes. They need a slow deep examination of each piece. They need committed folks pouring over the mess for five minutes or five hours every day…sitting, puzzling, searching, seeing.

Actually, many problems need a quick response — immediate attention– and a longer look. Once the initial crisis is somehow averted, we need to look at causes, repercussions, and long-term solutions.

Like this:

Me: “This is the fourth time you’ve called me not feeling well this month. Are you eating right? getting enough rest? How many days have you had to miss work? Do you think you should see a doctor? attend to more self-care?”

or this:

Me: “It seems you always have tech issues with this student. How much instructional time have we lost? Can we have IT evaluate the situation? Do we need a new computer?”

or this:

Me: “What causes a 19 year old kid to drive to a synagogue and shoot at people? Why did he have an automatic weapon? Why are there so many attacks on faith communities — Jewish, Muslim, Christian — lately? How many lives have been lost to gun violence since Columbine? What damage are these attacks doing to the fabric of our nation where “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Which right is more important — the right to worship in safety or the right to own an automatic weapon? What would it take for Americans to come together and decide that enough is enough? What will it take?”

Sometimes you have to sit with these pieces, move them around on the table, look at them from different angles, and see them in ways that you never saw them before.

I had been working on my black and white puzzle for several months. Actually, I’d been kind of shuffling by it, nudging two or three pieces, and then walking away. I was getting nowhere. Finding little movement, I was beginning to consider tossing it back in the box unfinished. Was it really worth my time and trouble? Certainly I’d never finish this one.

Enter my brother-in-law, Jerry, who, with my sister-in-law, was staying with us for a few days. I jokingly said, as I say to everyone who comes in our home, “bonus points to guests who sit at the puzzle table and put in a few pieces.” He laughed and shook his head, “oh, man, that looks like a tough one.” Then he, like most people do, turned his back to the puzzle and chatted with me while I prepared dinner. Just as I figured, he wouldn’t bite. I was on my own.

A couple hours later, I was sitting in the other room, and Jerry walked in, “Hey, I got a couple pieces put in.”

“You did?” I said, standing and walking to the kitchen. At that point, it was hard to tell if any progress had been made. Two to three pieces out of 1000 do not a dramatic difference make, but Jerry stayed at our house for three days.

He developed a system and brought me in to collaborate. We spent twenty minutes here and twenty minutes there puzzling together. And guess what happened — we began to see progress.

Jerry at the puzzle table.

We sat together, looking at hundreds of black and white pieces, putting them in place, and watching an image slowly appear.

Now, did I craft this metaphor? Did I intentionally select an image of Abraham Lincoln, a great American liberator, to work on during a season of unprecedented gun violence? Did I consider that the black and white pieces might match the attitudes that I and many others have held about race, religion, and guns? Did I imagine the time it would take to sift, and sort, and examine before a coherent image would begin to appear? Did I understand that complicated problems often require collaboration? Did I know in advance that black and white and gray can come together to create something that has complexity and depth?

No.

Sometimes, this stuff is sitting right in front of us, and we don’t recognize it. Sometimes we get so frustrated we want to walk away. Sometimes we need to let others see the mess on our tables (or on our couches) and invite them to help us sort it out, see it in a different way, partner with us in finding solutions.

Are we willing to do that? Are we ready to come together, to work through the complexity, and to find immediate and long-term solutions? Isn’t it about time?

you take brokenness aside and make it beautiful, beautiful.

All Sons and Daughters, “Brokenness Aside”

Loved by God

I wrote this piece in November 2014, very early in my blogging days, when I was still hitting the space bar twice after every period and when I could say all I wanted to say in 800 words or less. I stumbled across it this morning, and I needed to hear what it had to say about putting people in boxes, about judging, about remembering that all of us are loved by God.

I have a bad habit — I’m a labeler. I tend to put people in boxes and sort them — liberal, conservative, Christian, non-Christian, rich, poor, smart, stupid, white, black. It’s very limiting. When I place people in a box marked ‘liberal’, for instance, a whole bunch of stuff gets stuck on them that may or may not have anything to do with them. Same thing happens in the conservative box.

I like to hang out with people in some boxes, but not necessarily those in others. I feel comfortable when tossed in with ‘smart’ people, for example, but somewhat self-conscious when mixing with ‘rich’ people. When I mingle with ‘black’ people I feel cool, but when I mix with ‘white’ people (even though I, myself, am white) I feel boring. I have even created boxes such as ‘too-rich’, ‘too-white’, and ‘extremely conservative’. Those boxes are placed on very high, or very low, shelves so that my access to them is limited. I probably wouldn’t mix with ‘those people’ very well, now, would I?

This bad habit impacts the richness of my life. It keeps me away from many groups of people, from diverse opinions, and from new ways of thinking. It causes me to think that I am better than those who somehow don’t fit in the same boxes that I fit in. It sometimes even makes me feel afraid. I mean, if I have labeled others, certainly they have labeled me. Surely they have put me in a box full of stuff that doesn’t necessarily apply to me. Of course they have judged me.

I hate being labeled. I wish people would just get to know me and value me for the person I am, but it’s kind of hard for them to do that if I’ve already stuck them in a box, passed judgment on them, and shoved them far away from my reach. Isn’t it?

I guess if I want others to get to know the true me I may have to invest in getting to know the true them. After all, not all those I have dumped in the ‘Christian’ box think exactly the way I do, vote the way I do, or even worship the way I do. Not everyone in the ‘stupid’ box is actually ‘stupid’. In fact, probably no one that I have placed in that box is truly ‘stupid’, maybe I’ve put them there simply because they don’t see things the way I do.

Maybe I’m stuck in someone else’s box that they have marked ‘stupid’.

I think I’m going to have to recycle all my boxes. Once out of the boxes, everyone could be free to move around, mingle, and see the deep richness and complexity of God’s creation.We are so diverse, so multifaceted, so surprisingly creative, yet we all have one thing in common — we are created by and loved by God. It seems to me that everything else is irrelevant, don’t you agree? He created each of us. He loves each of us. He doesn’t rate us or sort us based on skin color, political orientation, body shape, or socio-economic status. He looks at His kids and He loves us, even when we actively announce that we under no circumstances love Him.

He doesn’t have a favorite. In fact, He would love it if we all tried to share our toys and get along with one another. He hopes that we will see Him in one another and grow to love one another. He has created us to complement one another and to encourage one another — not to judge one another, not to label one another, not to put one another in boxes.

So what do you say, want to take a trip to the recycling center with me? Want to try a new way — get rid of some boxes, destroy some labels, and have a cup of tea? First cup’s on me.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.

I John 4:7-8

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.

The simple things, A Re-Visit

In July of 2014, I joined my husband in this little house by the river; I wrote this post that very week. Just shy of seven years later, we are going to move our things and ourselves to a different little house nearby. I’ll write more about that in the coming days, but before I do, I’m going to indulge in a little reminiscing; join me if you like.

Yes, we are living on campus.  Don’t worry; I think I am going to love it.  

When my husband moved to Ann Arbor one year ahead of me, in the fall of 2013, and I was still living in St. Louis, the university offered him a house on campus so that he wouldn’t have to purchase a home or rent an apartment before I joined him. It’s a simple little place — three bedrooms, one bath, kitchen/dining on one end, living room on the other. They put fresh paint and carpet throughout and temporarily furnished it for him. 

On our first visit, as my daughter and I walked through the place, I thought to myself, “this could work.” Moments later, she said out loud, “this is horrible.” It could be perspective.  

In St. Louis we owned a large two-story home with a finished basement — three lovely levels of living space that were perfect for a busy family with three teenagers. We loved it at the time that we purchased it, fresh off four years in seminary housing. Our kids each found their own space, and we spread out a bit. It was a lot to maintain, but I was healthy at that point, and we had a crew that could be enlisted to help.

However, over the last two years, as two have moved out and I have begun to deal with the pain and fatigue of autoimmune disease, it has become a challenge to maintain the house and the yard around it. In fact, before my husband was offered this position and we decided to move across the country, we were actually looking for a small place that was all on one level. That’s right  — we were looking for a place just like this!

Even better, the university does all the maintenance, so my husband can focus on his job. They do the yard work. They clear the snow. We get to choose what we spend our energy on. When I arrived on Sunday, I found that my husband had planted a small garden, so we can pick fresh tomatoes! When the movers brought our things yesterday, we discovered that our Adirondack chairs sit perfectly under the overhanging roof on the patio, so I can have my morning coffee outside with a view of this gorgeous campus.  

We were worried that everything wouldn’t fit, or that the things we brought might not work in this new place., but we’ve had surprise after surprise. Our bedroom furniture fits perfectly, even my grandma’s little chair. The guest bedroom houses all our daughters’ things while they are in transition. Our son’s futon fit in the office to provide a spot for overnight guests. I’ve got a reading corner complete with picture books for any children that may visit. And, best of all, my puzzle table found a home just outside the office.

My heavenly Father knew exactly what I needed, before I even asked him (Matthew 6).  This simple home is going to be very easy for me to maintain, so I will have energy to spend on the things that matter — meeting new friends, hanging out with my husband, and being still. 

Epilogue: I don’t think we imagined in 2014 that we would live in our little house by the river for seven years, but it turns out that God knew then what we did not, that He had provided a place of simplicity where we could focus on some deep work that He was preparing to do in us. This little house by the river has been a place of healing — more reminiscing on that later this week.