Rest and Return

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The summer is winding down and I (along with teachers across the country) am starting to move toward the classroom.

Feeling truly depleted at the end of last school year, I spent the first two weeks of summer break at home. I gardened, slept late, wrote a teeny little bit, read, walked, and cooked.

And then, when I was somewhat revived, my husband and I boarded a jet and headed west. We alit in the land of palms and headed to wide expanses of beach, spread out matching beach towels. and spent hours reading, sleeping, chatting, and staring in awe at the waves and the sky. We wandered inland and wondered at the mountains and the forests then returned to the beaches — some tame and populated, some rugged and bare.

We ate well, slept long, and walked for miles and miles.

We breathed deeply. We laughed. We restored.

When our vacation was over, he reported back to his responsibilities, and I returned to rest.

This past week, I found my way back to my desk and started to consider and prepare for the roles I will carry this fall. It will be my third year at my current school after a long season of physical and mental recovery, and it will be the most challenging yet.

Earlier in this blog, I have elaborated on the fact that many years of pushing too hard and failing to take care of myself or process any emotion had sidelined me from the classroom for several years. In 2020, I felt called back, and because we were in the midst of a pandemic, I had the privilege of easing back in through a year of teaching virtually followed by a year of some in-person and some virtual learning. I was able to get my feet under me with mostly no physical or emotional consequences until the very end of last year when my body started waving warning flags.

Those flags reminded me to fully lean into my summer, and I have. I have put puzzles together, crocheted, and binge-watched. I have rested fully, and now as reminders of all I have committed to start pinging on my phone, I am both exhilarated and anxious. I have added some new roles, and I am wondering if I will truly be able to manage it all.

I know for sure that I can manage the first responsibility, which is the one I have had from my first day at Detroit Leadership Academy. I am the senior ELA teacher, focusing on building skills that will enable my students to experience success after graduation. Our research projects focus on career and college. Our writing includes college essays and resumes. We practice academic reading, writing, discussion, and presenting. The goal is that our students will have the opportunity to choose — college, career, military, or trade school. I love this role — in many ways it is an extension of what I did in my previous classroom position, and I am thankful that I am able to carry those skills forward to support another community of students.

I also know that I can handle the second responsibility which I have had for a year now. I am our school’s Master Teacher. We have instructional coaches in our building who work directly with teachers to improve instructional practices; that is not my role. My role is more to be an exemplar and an encourager. Teachers can pop in my room and ask a question, check out my white board or room arrangement, complain about a policy, vent about a student, or ask for a snack. I love this role, too. Because I’ve been a teacher and a mom across four decades, I have seen some stuff, and not much surprises me. I can typically remain calm and objective, which is what less-experienced teachers often need.

The above two roles are familiar and natural to me, but like many teachers throughout their career, I have been offered some additional responsibilities that will absolutely stretch me in the coming year.

The first of these is one I volunteered for. I will be participating in a year-long educational fellowship wherein I will work with teachers across the state to examine educational policies and practices, do research, and work with lawmakers and constituents to enact change. I am very excited about this opportunity, which will give voice to my passion for educational equity, the key focus of this fellowship.

The second new role is to be our school’s reading interventionist and to bring a new reading program to the building. I will have one period a day with 10 freshmen who have demonstrated reading skills 2-3 years (or more) below grade level. I am being trained this week in strategies that have been demonstrated to decrease/eliminate that gap in 20 weeks of daily instruction. I am fully behind this initiative. In fact, I asked for a reading interventionist after seeing evidence of weak reading among my students. Because of my Lindamood-Bell experience, I am a solid choice (at least initially) for this role, and I know I will love watching my students develop their reading skills.

Even though I am passionate about each of these roles, they are adding up! And I haven’t even told you the last one.

After I had already accepted all of the above positions, and had begun to wrap my mind around what they would each entail, I was approached by our director of human resources and asked if I would take on an uncertified colleague as a student teacher.

Let me pause for effect, because that is what I literally did when I got the call. I sat with the phone to my ear, breathing silently.

I’ve mentioned before that 2/3 of the teachers in our building are uncertified — most, like this friend, are working toward certification. Many, like this friend, will eventually need to do student teaching. If she can’t do the student teaching in our building, she will find a different school to accommodate her, and then we would be down one more teacher.

I know it is not my responsibility, but I am the teacher in the building with the appropriate certification to supervise her, and I have had student teachers before. I believe we will work well together and that the experience will be successful, but it is a large responsibility on top of an already full load.

This is not uncommon for teachers. In fact, I am not unique at all. Teachers manage their classrooms, provide excellent instruction, sit on committees, volunteer for study groups, and support their colleagues. They coach, they work second (or third) jobs, and they also have lives away from school that include myriad challenges and responsibilities.

It’s not uncommon, yet although I am excited to get started in each of these roles, I do have some anxiety. This is the most I have committed to since the 2013-2014 school year — the year that I requested a reduced load because I was suffering with pain, extreme fatigue, and myriad other health issues, the year before I left my classroom for what I thought was the last time.

I’m not the same person I was then. I have learned how to care for my body. I am learning strategies for managing my emotions. I don’t have teenagers at home. I no longer have pets to care for. And still, it’s going to be a lot.

So here I am recommitting to my best practices — I will continue to write, to do yoga, to walk, to rest, to puzzle, to crochet, to read, and to meet with our small group. I will go to my physical therapy, chiropractic, and (now) acupuncture appointments. I will eat the foods that make me feel well and avoid those that don’t. I will limit other commitments.

More importantly, I will pray, and I will trust that God has provided me this next chapter and all the opportunities in it and that He will carry me through it all so that I can be present and fully engaged with those who are counting on me, because they truly are counting on me.

And really they are counting on the One who lives in me — the One who sees each student, each teacher, each parent, the One who knows each of our names, the One who is faithful, the One who is answering before we even use our breath to ask, the only One who can really be counted on

I may continue to feel anxious, but when I do, I will try to remember that He’s got me and all of my responsibilities in the palm of His hand.

The One who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.

I Thessalonians 5:24

A More Pro-Life Vision

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One week ago, the Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, thereby taking away the right to abortion.

So now what? Will the number of abortions performed in this country go down?

History tells us no. However, I can envision a world where it might possibly happen, but much more would be required of Americans than merely one overturned decision.

I can see it now, a woman takes a pregnancy test, which she obtained at no charge from her local pharmacy, and discovers she’s pregnant. She rushes home to tell her family, and they immediately throw a party. They are thrilled! They’ve won the lottery — a new life is coming into the world. The woman doesn’t experience embarrassment or shame. She was fully aware that she might become pregnant since sex was regularly discussed in her home, in her church, and in her school — and not as something to be avoided, but as a natural function of the body, intended for mutual enjoyment, mutual expression of love, and for procreation. She had access to free contraception until she was ready to build a family.

And now that she is ready, everyone celebrates — a baby is coming!

The next move is to make an appointment with an OB/GYN to get the kind of prenatal care only found in the wealthiest country in the world. Regardless of her income, her care costs her nothing — not the immediate supply of prenatal vitamins, not the prenatal testing including bloodwork and imaging, not the monthly wellness checks by her doctor. In fact, even the labor and delivery would come at no cost to this expectant mother. This is very different than in days before the overturn of Roe in June of 2022 when the cost of a typical birth averaged $6,940 — that’s with medical insurance, it would’ve been $13,024 without.

Throughout the pregnancy, the parents participate in free parenting courses in which they learn the developmental stages, a wide variety of safety guidelines, proper nutrition, and other useful information. When they finally arrive in labor and delivery, despite their age, race, or socio-economic status, they are greeted with smiles of congratulation and a room full of taxpayer-sponsored supplies — a year’s worth of diapers, a top-of-the-line car seat, a steady supply of formula (if they so choose), and baby’s first sleeper and blanket. All babies are offered a solid start. All babies are well-fed, protected, and provided for.

Gone are the days when young families took home, along with their newborn, a huge burden of hospital debt and a long shopping list of expensive supplies. Since the country determined to be fully pro-life, it has put its money toward this priority. No family here will scramble to provide necessities that ensure the healthy development of their child.

In fact, the country is so pro-life, that it has established a practice of paid parental leave for both the mother and the father — just twelve weeks each, not as much as Sweden (68 weeks combined) or Japan (52 weeks each), but still a chance to bond as a family and adapt to a new way of life that includes providing for and loving this new child. So, the new mother and father take the first two weeks together with their baby, the mother takes the next ten weeks, then the father takes the following ten weeks. In this way, their newborn receives at-home loving care from its parents for the first twenty-two weeks of life, and his parents continue receiving their pay the whole time. It makes sense in a country that is pro-life to guarantee this strong start for each new life.

Gone are the days, before the overturn of Roe in June of 2022, when parents had to choose between getting their paychecks and staying at home with their newborns. Gone are the tearful goodbyes of new parents leaving their babies before they were ready. These first months are essential for bonding and emotional health, so it has been prioritized.

Since the health and well-being of children is paramount, in fact, child care is one of the most esteemed professions. Charged with the privilege of caring for these precious lives, child care providers are well-paid, highly-trained professionals who receive the new parents’ child with honor. They greet the parents at the door, celebrate the new life, hear the parents’ concerns, and dutifully and lovingly care for that child when the parents finally do return to work. This child care, of course, is fully funded by the same government that supports all pregnancies to reach full term and result in healthy births. Gone are the days when parents forked over 20% of their income (an average of $14, 117 post pandemic) or resorted to less than ideal childcare situations. In this truly pro-life society, all children get the best quality care. In fact, if the parents decide that one of them will stay home with their children, they can receive a tax credit in the amount of what they would have spent on child care. Each family has the opportunity to decide what is best for their child.

School teachers, too, are elevated. They, after all, spend the most time with children of anyone, providing high quality instruction, individualized, of course, to each child’s needs, strengths, and interests, Schools are universally outfitted with the best technology, state-of-the art facilities, up-to-date resources, nutritional and delicious foods for both breakfast and lunch, and unlimited opportunities to explore sports, the arts, science, math, and technology. Children, regardless of their background, race, or economic status, receive the best education available — they are, of course, the future of this great nation and worthy of our best investments.

Gone are the days of stigma associated with people who receive public assistance since everyone receives public assistance. Gone are the days of stigma associated with pregnancy — the days where unwed women who become pregnant were deemed promiscuous for having been “knocked up” and should be ashamed of themselves, especially if they were young, or Black, or poor. Gone are the days when these women were pushed into hiding, believing they had to “get rid of” the pregnancy before people found out — particularly if they were Christian and had been pressured to “stay pure”.

Gone would be sexual assault, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t a pro-life society put every resource imaginable into ensuring the safety of all women and children rather than turning a blind eye to the blatant and subliminal messaging that has historically taught women that they are objects of desire rather than partners in pleasure? In this post-Roe world, where we value all life, would we not dramatically put a stop to any behaviors that devalued or objectified any life?

Gone would be racism, too, would it not? Wouldn’t Black mothers and white mothers receive the same resources? Wouldn’t Latinx and Asian families receive the same medical care? Wouldn’t all children be highly valued, provided for, well-educated, and protected in their communities?

Limiting access to abortions does not, on its own, make a society pro-life. The number of abortions in this country is a symptom, not the cause, of widespread malignancy. The core of the problem is a society that pretends to be good, right, just, even “Christian” while quietly (and sometimes loudly) allowing — even perpetuating — harmful behaviors that are in no way pro-life.

Our society, at its core, is pro-power, pro-money, pro-dominance. If we truly want to be pro-life, we’re going to have to re-assess our priorities and reallocate our funds to match those newly clarified values.

It is possible to reduce the number of abortions performed in this country, but I don’t see it happening simply through the overturn of Roe. I suspect that criminalizing abortion will merely push it into hiding.

True change will not be born out of legislation alone but out of the shifting of paradigms, behaviors, and systems. Are we ready for that kind of transformation?

Search me, God, and know my heart;

    test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,

    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139: 23-24

A Limit Exists

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Eight years ago, I closed up my classroom, thinking I would never go back. I was sidelined due to chronic health issues, and I was headed for the couch. For six years — yes, years — I attended to my recovery, slowly crawling my way back, Then, in the wake of the George Floyd murder, I found the courage to believe I might still be able to make a difference in the lives of kids, and I started applying to high schools in Detroit.

When I took my current teaching position two years ago, it was an experiment. My husband and I, knowing how ill I had been, decided I should give it a full year to see how my body managed the stress. My heart was very willing to provide excellent instruction to historically underserved students, but we had no idea if my body could handle it.

For the first year, my body did just fine. We taught the entire year over Zoom, so the physical toll on my body was actually quite minimal. I would drive to the school in the morning, zoom with students for a little over an hour, stand and stretch, do another hour, go for a lunch time walk, teach one more class, then drive home. On alternating days, I had time for planning and grading. In the world of teaching, this load was light. Compared to other situations during Covid, where teachers had both live children in the classroom and students zooming in from home — my load was extremely light, and I knew it.

At the end of last school year, my husband and I remarked that my body had handled the transition and the new environment well, but it had not been a true test of whether or not I could handle full time teaching. We wouldn’t know that until I taught in-person classes with real, live students.

That is what I have been doing this year. I have driven to Detroit, met my students at my classroom door, and managed their learning, their emotions, their behaviors, their interruptions, their questions, and their concerns, along with my own inside an environment that is mostly consistent but that frequently has unexpected interruptions — a fight among students, a quick transition to virtual instruction, a building in need of repairs, or an immediate shifting of plans due to staffing issues. Much to my students’ dismay, I have taken only one day off this year because I have been healthy and energized, and my passion for bringing high quality education to my students has not waned.

I have written curriculum, contacted parents, attended meetings, collaborated with colleagues, and attended events. I have been stern, silly, serious, and — on occasion– sarcastic. I have fist-bumped, high-fived, hugged, and danced with my students, and for the most part, my body has come along for the ride.

I have been thrilled, in fact, by my stamina, and I have credited this phenomena to the years I have spent learning to care for my body, to the team that keeps me well, to the yoga I practice every morning and the walks I take with my buddy at lunch time, to my dietary choices, to my writing routine, and mostly to the grace of God. I have been riding the wave all year thinking, “Man, I was really ready! I am doing good in the classroom! I am not finding any limits to my ability to be effective here!”

But, friends, it turns out that, contrary to Cady Heron and the laws of math, the limit does indeed exist.

I mean, I knew it did, that’s why my husband and I don’t make excessive plans on the weekends but instead schedule lots of recovery time — time for rest, writing, reading — so that my body can repair. We don’t make a ton of plans – we don’t have a lot of people over, we go out with others only sparingly, and our idea of entertainment is streaming something from the comfort of our own couch. We do this because one thing we have learned since the beginning of this journey is that my body needs loads of rest.

I got plenty of rest all last year when we were teaching virtually. This year, too, since we moved back and forth between in person and virtual instruction at fairly regular intervals, my load was intermittently lightened. My body continued to be fine.

When we returned to school on May 2, after being at home for over a month and began the home stretch, I was operating under the false assumption that I would be able to manage the end of school and all the activities involved in the life of seniors and their teachers without any consequences. In fact, I was so confident that we also fit in dinners out with friends, a couple trips out of town, and a speaking engagement in addition to my teaching responsibilities which included leading a training session, attending prom, being present for a parent meeting, and helping with graduation.

And, as you might have guessed, I discovered that I do indeed have a limit.

What happens when I’ve crossed that limit? The warnings signs are subtle; I get a little snippy with a student, a coworker, or my spouse. I wake up feeling heat radiating beneath my skin, especially around my joints. A nagging pressure forms behind my left eye. I get a headache.

If I notice these warning signs, take a little Motrin, put my feet up, attend to some self-care rituals, and sleep, I can avoid larger consequences. But when you think you are invincible, you aren’t really looking for warning signs. So, you just keep stepping, kicking the occasional butt, taking the occasional name, and then out of nowhere, you overreact to an inconvenience or a miscommunication.You start to cry in the middle of a song or while listening to a sermon. You sleep 10 hours and wake up feeling nauseous, like you’d better not move or you will surely throw up.

And it all comes back — remember that time when you had to leave your career because you kept stepping instead of heeding the warning signs and taking care of yourself? Remember all those months you sat on a couch watching Law and Order because you did not even have enough gas in the tank to meet a friend for lunch? You wanna go back there?

No. I certainly do not.

I was built to teach, and I love working in the environment I have found myself in. I do not want to go back.

So, what’s the answer?

I have just over one week left before my summer break starts — a summer break where I will rest, garden, travel, see family and friends, and do a little bit of school work before I head back next fall. I’ll have a slightly lighter teaching load next year, but I will have a student teacher, I’m participating in a fellowship, and I will be facilitating reading interventions for a small group of students.

Yes, it does indeed sound like a lot.

Is it over my limit?

I don’t think so — not if I remember that there is indeed a limit. Not if I remember to take care of myself. Not if I remember that this privilege can disappear if I am not diligent about maintaining boundaries, taking rest, and lifting up the things I cannot manage to the One who indeed has no limits.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

Matthew 11:28

Learning Cycle

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It seems like just a few minutes ago that I was polishing up my ELA IV syllabus, organizing my classroom, and preparing for the class of 2022 to walk in.

But it wasn’t yesterday.

It was nine months ago.

They had walked in mask-clad and sheepish, unsure of the safety of the setting and the expectations of this middle aged white woman who greeted them too enthusiastically at the door.

For nine months we shared space in room 106 — some only showing up a handful of times before transitioning to our virtual digital-content option; others attending in person at various levels of engagement throughout the year.

We weathered multiple transitions from in-person to virtual instruction, completed two in-person college visits along with several virtual visits, and navigated the college application process. Some re-took the SAT. Some met with an Army recruiter. Some filled out the FAFSA.

In January one finished her credits and moved on to community college, one switched to our online curriculum and started a full-time position with Amazon, and three others transferred to other high schools.

Through the course of the year, one lost a brother, another learned her mother is dying, and one had a baby.

Many held down jobs at WalMart, McDonald’s, Tim Horton’s, Subway, and Wendy’s. One grew the clothing business he started during the pandemic; another got paid to do hair.

Almost everyone applied to at least one college, and many are enrolled for the fall — at Ferris State, Central Michigan, Michigan State, Oakland University, Henry Ford College, and a number of other colleges and trade schools. Some will take a semester or year to work before college, some will jump right into the workforce, and a few will join the military.

They are excited. They are relieved. They are terrified.

On Thursday morning, we greeted our seniors in the cafeteria, provided them with a chicken (wings) and waffles breakfast, and gave them the space they have had on just a few occasions in this building to just hang out and talk. They had submitted the songs for the play list that was bumping out of the speakers, and they intermittently joined in with the words or moved with the music as they hung out in clusters — standing or sitting around tables covered in red.

The principal addressed them — told them how proud she was and urged them to keep going. The class president, the valedictorian, and other students and staff stood up and took their moment at the mic. We watched a video compilation of photos gathered throughout the year and remembered some key moments — Homecoming, Decision Day, Senior Pinning.

And then, the students lined up for one last lap of the halls — the senior clap out. Underclassmen and teachers lined the halls and the seniors celebrated their way down all four halls to the sounds of cheers and the music blaring from the speaker one of them carried.

And then they were gone.

Sure, a few remained finishing finals, turning in missing work, and paying senior dues, but most walked right out the door — free at last.

The following night, at a venue 20 minutes from school, they gathered again, cleaned, polished, styled, and decked out for their senior prom. It was my job to stand at the door and direct them, so I was first to spot them as they rolled up to the door like A-listers dripping in swag, tottering on heels, and striking poses as we all clicked away.

They had a lightness about them — they had made it. They had finished high school despite adversity, despite a pandemic, despite the broken systems that they’d had to navigate, despite poverty, despite educational disparity. They were one short week away from crossing the stage, grabbing their diplomas, and tossing their caps, and it showed.

They filled the dance floor shouting lyrics in unison, applauding the reveal of their prom king and queen, and reveling in this once-in-a-lifetime moment.

They weren’t thinking about the challenges that lie ahead or the disappointments that they had already experienced.

No. For one night they were magic — gleaming, invincible magic.

This week I will sit in my empty classroom in front of my laptop, examining my syllabus and scope and sequence. I’ll be asking myself, how much further can I push this next class, how much more can I give them, in what other ways can I prepare them? What experiences can I provide that will better prepare this next group to step into their future?

I’ll rearrange the desks, re-think my incentives, and ponder my classroom expectations.

I’ll walk away and take some much-needed rest — tending to my garden, my body, my spirit.

Then, in three short months I’ll be standing at my classroom door, too enthusiastic, welcoming in the class of 2023, who might be a little less sheepish, a little less uncertain, but just as deserving of the best that I can give them, just as worthy of feeling for a few brief moments like magic.

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord

Colossians 3:23

A few 18 year olds

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On May 14, 2022, an 18 year old male drove three hours to a grocery store in a Black community with the intention of killing Black people. He killed 10 in the attack that he had been planning for months.

On May 24, an 18 year old male shot his grandmother in the head then drove to an elementary school where he fired shots in the parking lot and inside a fourth grade classroom. Nineteen students and two teachers died in the premeditated massacre.

On May 25 at 8:30 am, three 18 year old males walked into my classroom. With under two weeks remaining of their senior year, the biggest event on their horizon is graduation.

I don’t know why these were the three that showed up on the morning after a deadly school shooting — the kind that makes teachers across the country catch their breath and wonder how can this keep happening?

Why, of the eighteen students on my roster, were these the only three that showed?

When I had woken up that morning, I had been thinking, what can I do today to create a space for my students to speak about these shootings? I had tried to create a space on May 15, but I had rushed it — tried to cram it in to an already full day — and it had not gone the way I might have hoped.

But this particular morning, May 25, was a Wednesday, a day that my first hour is always dedicated to social-emotional learning (SEL), a time when my students and I typically use a curriculum called “Character Strong” to build relationships and explore emotions. We’d been doing so since January, and my students had been demonstrating varying degrees of engagement. They participated in activities like group discussions, watching videos, and journaling, and I felt we were making progress, growing a bit closer.

So as I sat at my desk early that morning, I thought, this is the second-to-last time that we will be together. What if, instead of using the curriculum, I pass out their journals and give them an opportunity to write. Maybe that would create enough space for them to share .

I imagined I would have 4-6 students to start, the same 4-6 that showed up on time most days, and that others would trickle in. I did not imagine that I would have just three 18 year old Black males.

I didn’t imagine that these three would show me that they were on the verge of being men.

I gathered us together. We did a little warm up activity, and then I said, “Ok, guys, it looks like it’s just us today. You may have heard there was a school shooting yesterday.” They confirmed they all had. “And, you are probably aware of the shooting that happened a couple weeks ago in Buffalo, NY.” They were. “It’s a lot guys, and I just wanted to provide some space today for you to process either these shootings or our time together this semester. I am going to put a few prompts on the board. You can choose the one you like, and we’ll all spend about five or so minutes quietly writing.”

I put this on the board:

I sat at my desk with my notebook. They sat at their desks with theirs. We all started to write.

Can you picture the scene? One middle-aged white woman in jeans and a pink “Detroit Kids Matter” t-shirt and three young black men in jeans and hoodies all bent over their desks writing silently in 5 x 7 notebooks.

I paused and watched them — these three 18 year olds — and I felt my throat tighten. These three [out of the 18 that could have been there] were engaging in this activity that I had tossed together at the last minute.

After about 5 minutes, we paused, and I said, “Anyone want to share?”

The first raised his hand and shared that he’d written that 18 year olds need to stay focused on their goals and to surround themselves with people who had their backs.

The second said that 18 year olds need to stay busy — get a job, earn some money, and stay out of trouble.

The third said he’d learned about his emotions during this dedicated class time.

And their teacher got choked up. She saw the poignancy of the moment and she said, “This is why we have created this space guys. We want to provide an opportunity for you to reflect, to think about your goals, and to imagine ways that you can get there. We want you to know that you are loved and seen, that you have a future, and that we have your back.”

They saw their teacher getting emotional, and all three looked her in the eyes and smiled tenderly.

They knew. No matter how messed up the last couple of years have been, no matter that they don’t have a yearbook, or a decent gym, or air conditioning, they know that we love them. They have received the message.

And yet, next week they will walk out of this school into a world where people will drive three hours just to point a gun at their bodies, a world where the senate cannot be bothered to bring gun reform laws to a vote, a world where Detroit Kids have not seen the evidence that they do indeed matter. They will walk into that world less-equipped than they ought to be, with not enough resources or knowledge or scaffolding because systemic racism has perpetuated educational inequity.

They all plan to go to college or trade school — all three of these young Black men — they know it is the way to a better life, but even though we have tried to prepare them, they have no idea what it will really take — the dedication, the perseverance, the kind of digging deep that they have never experienced before.

Nevertheless, they’ll line up in their caps and gowns, their families filling the seats, and I will be the one calling their names, lovingly looking them in the eyes, as our whole team cheers them on their way.

We pray that as they leave they will carry with them the knowledge that they are loved, that they are not alone, and that their lives do indeed matter.

May God protect them, and may we be emboldened to make the kinds of changes that ensure that these 18 year olds and all those that come after them will have a chance at the kind of future we envision for them.

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace.

Romans 14:19

Do Something: Update 2022

On Tuesday, May 24, 2022, an 18 year old carried an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle into a school and fired shots killing 19 children and their teacher before being shot and killed by police. This was the most deadly school shooting since Sandy Hook almost 10 years ago. Following is an update of a post I wrote in response to one of countless other shootings.

On Sunday August 4, 2019, Ohio Governor Mark DeWine addressed a crowd on the same day that a mass shooting killed 9 and left 27 injured. He had just barely begun to speak when someone shouted, “Do something!” Before long, many had joined the chant, “Do something! Do something!”

DeWine was moved to action. Within 48 hours, he had proposed several changes to gun laws including a red flag law and universal background checks; his initiatives also included measures related to education and mental health. He announced his actions saying, “We must do something.”

Now that is what I’m talking about.

The people in that Dayton crowd, along with many others, are done with hand-wringing and weeping. They are tired of thoughts and prayers. They have seen enough bloodshed, and they are demanding change.

“Do Something!” they yell, and I find myself joining their cries, “Do Something! Do Something!”

Last week I wrote about prayer — the lifting up of our burdens to the One who is able to change everything.

I’m not taking that back.

Pray. Keep praying. Never stop praying.

But here’s the thing, we can pray with our breath at the same time that we are doing something.

Yes, we can have dedicated times of solitude, where we go in our prayer closets or lie on our beds and cry out to God. Do that! However, you can also put your prayers into motion. Much like you talk to a friend as you go for a run, drive down the road, or cook a meal, you can continue in conversation with God as you do something about the things you are lifting up to Him.

You can cry, “Do you see this, God? We’ve had 213 mass shootings already in 2022! We’ve had 27 school shootings this year!” while you are demonstrating in front of a governor, or writing a letter to your congressman, or donating money for mental health resources in your community or educational services at your local school or making a choice to vote only for leaders who support and will enact common sense gun legislation.

You can say, “Lord, I’m really worried about the environment, I beg for your mercy and the renewal of our planet,” as you ride on public transportation, use cloth shopping bags, or carry your compost outside.

You can sob, “I’m begging you to heal my broken relationships,” as you encourage the people you encounter every day, as you go to therapy to process your regrets and learn healthier strategies, as you do your best to rebuild relationships.

We can be people of prayer and still do something. We can do more than put on sackcloth and ashes, grieving the loss of a life we once knew. We can speak out and fight for change. We can defend the defenseless, call out the unjust, and offer solutions.

We can engage in conversations about politics — ask the hard questions, admit that we don’t have all the answers, and even change our minds.

We can volunteer in our communities — working with the homeless, tutoring public school kids, or leading clean-up projects.

We can support the people in our neighborhoods — being available, providing resources, mowing lawns, or dropping off flowers or meals.

I don’t know what your gifts are, but even while you are praying, you can do something.

Why should you? Why should you expend any effort? What difference is one person going to make any way? The problems we face are big — almost insurmountable — rampant gun violence, a drug epidemic, a decaying environment, a world-wide sex trafficking network, an immigration crisis, our dysfunctional families, and our own broken hearts.

We could crawl into our beds, cover our heads with blankets, and weep as we cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”

But, friends, while we wait for His return, He is inviting us to do something.

I am not suggesting that you strap on your gear and go about butt-kicking and name-taking. Instead, I am suggesting a mindful, prayerful approach to action.

You and I can consider the items we are continually lifting up in prayer: a family member with health concerns, a strained relationship, personal debt, the environment, racial disparity, and violence against women, for example.

As we lift up these concerns, we can be asking, “What difference can I make? What is one thing that I can do? How can I help?” And we will begin to see opportunities: we can make a phone call to encourage that family member, we can respect the requests of the one who just needs some time and space, we can pay off some bills and move toward financial freedom, we can decide to buy fewer products packaged with plastic, we can vote for proposals that promote equity, or volunteer at a local women’s shelter. We can do something.

We don’t have to do everything, but we can each do something.

Imagine the impact of 10 people consistently choosing to do one thing toward improving a neighborhood, of 100 people dedicated to just one action to decrease homelessness, of 1000 people committed to improving the lives of children living in poverty.

You could be the start of transformational change, if you just decide that you are going to do something.

For the past few years I’ve been looking for something big to do. As I’ve been sorting through the broken pieces of my life, I keep trying to put them together into one redemptive action that will somehow turn my tears into wine. I want to end poverty and violence and heal all the broken hearts. I want a project, a mission, a cause.

And as I lift the broken pieces up in prayer, I hear a still small voice saying, “you don’t need to single-handedly change the world, Kristin, but you can do something. How about you just start with one small thing?”

But there is so much that needs changing!

“Behold, I am making all things new.”

I want to help!

“Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly.”

Ok. I hear you. I’ll start small, but I’ll dream big.

I’m praying that others will pick their one small thing and join me.

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”

Colossians 3:23

**This was written in 2019, before God answered my prayer by placing me in my current classroom and giving me a place where I can do one small thing every day.

Attendance

Click to listen to me read this post.

When I was hired, I was told that one school-wide goal was to improve attendance. As I stood in the hallway, looking at a bulletin board that illustrated the attendance goal of 80%, I remember thinking, “You mean attendance is lower than 80%? Certainly we should be able to improve that.”

I mean, I did get hired in July of 2020, the summer after much of the country was sent home from school, but when I mentioned that, the hiring agent said that attendance had always been a problem — even before Covid.

This was puzzling to me.

Most of the schools I had taught in prior to 2020 had had a few students who struggled with attendance, a few who for whatever reason — chronic illness, anxiety, trauma, family issues — had difficulty getting to school every day, but most of the schools I’d taught in regularly had higher than 90% attendance. Most of my students have come to school, so what is it, I wondered, that keeps 20-30% of kids from coming to this school every day. Certainly those numbers couldn’t be accurate.

But guys, they are accurate.

During my first year, attendance was a struggle. All of my students were at home with not much else to do, and they all had Chromebooks so that they could log in to virtual school, but some had poor wifi, some had the power cut off from time to time, some were in charge of caring for younger children or were needed to provide transportation for parents or other family members. Some were sick. Some just couldn’t will themselves to join online instruction.

When we returned to the building last September, I thought, “now attendance will improve,” but it just hasn’t. Some students stayed home in the beginning of the year because they were still wary of Covid, some got Covid, some had to stay home to care for family members, some had to go to work, and some had been away from school so long, they just didn’t care any more. They just couldn’t find the will to get up and get to school.

All year long, I’ve taken attendance and posted the percentage present on the white board in the front of the room. Surely my efforts to build relationships, to reward hard work, to acknowledge growth, and to celebrate wins would bring students to school. If I posted the percentages we could all watch them rise, and we could celebrate that, too, but they haven’t risen. On a typical day I’ve seen between 67 and 79% attendance. In the course of this entire school year, I’ve had one class period with 100% attendance. That’s one period of one day for this whole school year.

Why so low?

One of the biggest factors is transportation. Our school provides bus transportation, but students might miss the bus if they oversleep or if they aren’t willing to walk to the stop in inclement weather. And, the bus may be their only option; not all of our families have access to a vehicle.

Another factor is family responsibility. I have at least two students who regularly miss sleep or school (or both) because they are caring for younger siblings while a parent is at work, and if that gets in the way of schooling, so be it.

Illness also keeps students away from school. We still have kids testing positive, and we have also had more students coming down with common ailments like colds and flus than we had when everyone was consistently masking.

Work is also a factor. If a student has to choose between going to work to earn money to pay their bills and coming to school, work is going to win almost every time.

But probably one of the biggest factors that keeps my students chronically out of school is trauma. It’s hard for me to know the specific ways that trauma impacts each of my students, but they do give me a glimpse from time to time. I know that one of my students watched her older brother get killed in a drive by shooting a couple of years ago. I have many students who have lost a sibling or parent to illness or violence. I have students who have been sexually assaulted, students who have been or are currently homeless, and students who have witnessed all manner of violence.

Do you think that gets in the way of them coming to school? Of course it does.

Because of this awareness, I am careful not to give students a hard time for missing class. I try to just be genuinely happy to see them whenever they actually do make it.

Recently I had two young men go absolutely MIA. It started during our last virtual stint. They didn’t log in to the zoom room for the entire month. I wasn’t surprised — honestly, if my school would have moved to a virtual platform in the final months of my senior year, I don’t know if I would’ve logged in. Anyway, when we returned to school on May 2, these two young men did not return. Not the first day; not the first week. Not even the second week.

Finally this past week, one showed up on Wednesday and the other on Friday.

In the past — at one of my other schools — I might’ve made a sarcastic comment like, “Nice of you to join us,” or something like that, but not here. Here I see them coming down the hall, I smile, I call them by name, and I say, “It’s so good to see you.”

Then, when I get a moment, I pull them aside, and I say, “So, how are you doing, what’s been going on?”

Both of these young men answered the same way, “I got put out. I had to go live somewhere else. I don’t live close to the bus route, and I don’t have any way to get here.” Two months before graduation, their families put them out. Yeah, they probably broke the rules. They were probably disrespectful. They probably had multiple warnings, but now what are they supposed to do?

They are supposed to pick up starting right now and do their best — even after six weeks of absence. And do you know what? Both of them did.

One of them came to my room over lunch on Friday. He was sitting next to a young woman who had also missed some school. They were listening to Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime on Audible so that they could respond to a discussion post that was worth a test grade.

Both of these students sat listening, looking on the same book together, desks pushed side by side. They listened quietly to the whole chapter, then worked on their posts. The young man finished and headed out. When the young woman finished, she asked, “Can I take this book home?”

“Of course,” I replied.

“Ok, because I won’t be here tomorrow.”

“You won’t be here tomorrow?”

“No. It’s my brother’s funeral.”

I moved closer, “Your brother’s funeral? What happened?”

“He was shot a couple of weeks ago.”

“He was shot?! Have you told anyone else here at school?”

“No.”

“Can I hug you?”

“Yes,” she laughed, “Mrs. Rathje, you can hug me.”

“I’m getting emotional. I am so sorry.”

“Yeah. It’s been a little rough.”

It’s been a little rough. Her dad died during the Covid shut down, and her brother was killed two weeks ago.

Two young men were put out of their houses.

Our entire school moved to virtual two months before graduation.

And Saturday night, a white supremacist drove into a highly segregated area of Buffalo, NY, walked into a grocery store and shot 13 people, eleven of them Black. Ten of those people died.

And that kind of news — like the news of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other senseless Black fatalities — is a trauma for my students who have already in their 17 or 18 years experienced more than their share of trauma. Trauma upon trauma upon trauma.

So, you know, sometimes rolling out of bed first thing in the morning, getting dressed, and walking to the bus isn’t front of mind. The connection between attendance, academic preparedness, and future success can seem irrelevant when you aren’t sure where you are living, if you are safe, or if someone you love is about to be gunned down while they are getting their groceries.

So if you’ve got the will, the resiliency, the wherewithal, the cojones to get to my classroom today, you can be damn sure I’m gonna clap you in, support you, and maybe even give you a hug. I’m gonna do whatever I can to make sure you feel safe, secure, and loved inside my classroom for as long as you are in attendance.

What else can I do?

How long, O Lord, will you look on?

Psalm 35:17a

A Little Help?

As you may have read, I moved my teaching life back into the classroom last week, hoping that my students — the seniors who have been moved back and forth from remote to in-person instruction over and over since March 2020 — would join me there. I planned my classes, rearranged desks that had been moved during the roof repair, opened up windows to let in fresh air (and to lower the boiler-heated room’s temperature to a setting somewhere close to “less-than-suffocating”), and positioned myself at my threshold, mustering all the “we’re back” enthusiasm I could find.

And they came.

Well, some came.

Our students trickled in on Monday, looking around skeptically as though asking, “are we really back? Are we actually going to stay this time?”

I started class by assuring them that yes, we should be back for good this time and by re-setting expectations — again.

“Your phones need to be down; your eyes need to be up. Learning requires engagement — a choosing to attend, to try, to open the mind.”

But for some, it seemed too much.

Take Darren*. Darren has been with me all year. He has not just one class with me, but two. He is in ELA IV, the required class for all seniors, and he is also in 12 Writing, an elective for a handful of seniors who are most likely to move on to a 4-year college.

All year he has struggled — mostly to stay engaged and stay awake. Once he gets started, he is typically able to complete any assignment I give him, but it’s the starting that’s the thing. After all, if he doesn’t start, he can’t finish.

I don’t have a clear picture of what’s going on at Darren’s home, even though I’ve met his mom a couple of times.

I know he loves basketball, even though he’s not on the team.

I know he wants to be an athletic trainer, even though he’s not currently connected to any sports.

I know he’s been accepted to college, even though there’s a seemingly impossible-to-fix issue with his FAFSA, and even though when he walked in last Monday, he was failing ALL — yes, ALL — of his classes.

Why? Because the whole time we were working from home, he didn’t have a charger for his laptop or the $35 to replace it. He couldn’t fix this problem, he had missed four weeks worth of assignments, and he didn’t see a way to climb out of this hole and make it to graduation.

So he walked in to class with his ear buds in, turned up his music, put his head down, and went to sleep.

I tried to wake him — once, twice, three times — but he wasn’t staying up.

Rather than just let him check out, I called our behavior interventionist, who took him for a walk. I’d hoped he’d wake Darren up and bring him back — but I’d lost him for that day.

It was that very day that I had posted my most recent blog, “Under These Circumstances.” While Darren was out walking to wake up, I received a message from a dear friend I’ve known for more than 40 years who said he’d read my blog. He said, “I just sent you [a gift] in memory of my dear friend and high school instructor who passed away on April 3. In his will he asked that his estate be used for progressive social change in America….if that doesn’t describe you and what you do, nothing does.”

My jaw dropped — the amount he’d sent would allow me to incentivize my students for the remainder of this year and into next fall and give me the freedom to help when situations arise, and in my context, they do always seem to arise. I was buoyed by the encouragement and by God’s way of providing for my students, which He has done consistently from the moment I took this position.

On my way home that day, I used these newly gifted resources to stop and restock on snacks, prizes, and a few essentials. As I was paying, I requested a little cash back, just in case.

The next day, Tuesday, Darren came back to my class, and his routine from Monday began to repeat. The headphones went in, his head went down, and he began to fall asleep. We were in the middle of the research paper that would be the major grade for the semester. If he opted out, he would certainly remove all possibility of passing, and I was not about to have it.

“You are not quitting,” I said with my jaw set, “you are too close.”

“It’s no use,” he replied. “There’s no way I can make up all that I missed. I don’t have a charger. There’s no sense in trying.”

“That’s not true. You just have to get started. It’s one step at a time. Just start with what we are doing today. Have you asked about getting a charger?”

“It’s $35. I don’t have that. It’s no sense in getting started. I can’t get caught up.”

That was it for me. I walked to my wallet, got $35 of the cash that had been provided the day before, and said, “Darren, come with me.”

I asked the teacher across the hall to keep an eye on my class, the rest of whom were working on their research, minus the one who had already been sent out because he was throwing up [it’s all part of a day in the life of a teacher, friends].

Darren reluctantly dragged behind my Momma-Ratch-on-a-mission pace as we trekked to the office where we could get a charger. At the door to the office was our vice principal, a great champion of our students. I told him what was going on, enlisted him in my conversation with Darren, and made it clear to him and to Darren that under no circumstances was I going to allow a student who was this close to graduation, who had been accepted to a four-year university, who had a dream to be an athletic trainer, to sleep out the last four weeks of the semester.

That ain’t how Mrs. Rathje works. Not today. Not any day.

The vice principal encouraged Darren, told him we were on his team, and let him know that we would support him every step of the way to graduation. His tone was encouraging and not quite as in-your-face as mine was that morning, Darren seemed to hear us, even if he wasn’t sure he believed us.

The Vice Principal said, “You can still do this; you’ve got to believe me.”

Darren said, “It’s too late; It’s not possible.”

I said, “It is possible. We’ve been down this road many times. We wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true. We’ll believe it for you until you believe it for yourself.”

I glanced at my watch. We’d been in the hallway about five minutes; I knew I had to get back to the others.

“Come on, you’ve got work to do. Let’s get to it.”

Darren shuffled back into the classroom behind me.

Over the next few days, with plenty of prodding and encouragement, he got to work. By the end of the week, Darren was passing ALL –yes ALL — of his classes.

He’d needed us to insist. He’d needed some resources. He’d needed an intervention. He’d needed a village.

Countless Darrens are trying to sleep in classrooms across the country, and they need us. They need us to believe with and for them that it’s not too late. We need to show them with our time, with our money, and with our whole bodies.

Why? Because they’ve seen all kinds of evidence that it’s not going to work out. That there is, in fact, no use.

If I’ve learned anything in my years of teaching, in my years of living, in my years of falling flat on my face, it’s that no one is beyond the point of no return. Restoration is always a possibility, but when we find ourselves deep in a pit, we often need some assistance before we can take the first few steps.

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,

    when it is in your power to act.

Proverbs 3:27

With thanks to all who have prayed for, encouraged, supported, and helped me take my first few steps.

*As always, I have changed the name of this particular student.

Of Passing Laws and Changing Behavior, in 2022

This is an updated version of a post I wrote in 2019.

On Monday, a draft ruling, written by Supreme Court Justice Alito, was leaked to the public. This draft signals an overturn to the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion almost 50 years ago. Since Monday, the American public has been in hot debate about the impact of such a decision.

The reactions can be heard across the nation. One camp is celebrating, believing they’ve won the war. Another is rallying its troops, preparing for the fight of their lives.

And I’m sitting here asking questions.

Do we actually believe overturning Roe will eliminate abortion in our country?

Do laws really have the power to change behavior?

Does the law prohibiting alcohol consumption under the age of 21 stop underage drinking? Did it stop you? Or did it merely force you to find ways to conceal the fact that you were drinking?

I had one of my first drinks around age 15 in a friend’s basement an hour before a school dance. A dozen of us drank too much, piled ourselves into cars driven by those who shouldn’t have been driving, and, by the grace of God, made it to the dance. Things could’ve gone much differently.

Actions pressed into hiding don’t often turn out well.

Prior to Roe v. Wade which legalized abortion up to the age of viability, women got abortions illegally. No official records were kept, obviously, but researchers now estimate that approximately 800,000 illegal abortions were performed annually prior to 1973 (The Guttmacher Institute). Women snuck around corners into dark alleys, paid people who may or may not have had medical expertise, and took risks that often ended their lives or left them permanently unable to bear children. They sought out secret abortions regardless of a law that prohibited them.

Let me stop right here and say that I am not pro-abortion. Actually, I imagine very few people would say that they like abortion — even among the most liberal pro-choice advocates. I am merely questioning whether restrictive legislation will decrease the number of abortions performed in our country. And, even if it does, will it have the greater impact of ‘removing this sin from our land’ as some Evangelicals hope?

Is abortion the greatest sin we’ve got? Or is it human trafficking, or systemic racism, or the prison industrial complex, or drug and alcohol addiction, corporate greed, or sexual assault, or the epidemic of homelessness in this wealthy first world country? Perhaps some of the energy spent on overturning Roe could be diverted to one of the myriad other widespread ills of our land.

But I digress. If we really want to decrease abortions and care for the unborn, is overturning Roe the best way?

Perhaps the answer to decreasing the number of abortions and changing the hearts and behaviors of those who would choose abortion lies instead in changing the culture in which women are pressed into desperate situations — a culture where sexual assault impacts more than 1 in 4 women and where the words of women are often not believed.

What if we could change the culture that was ok with electing a president even after learning that he had bragged about his sexual exploitation of women? a culture that leaves thousands of rape kits in warehouses — untested for years — while perpetrators make more women into victims?

What if we could change a culture that shames women who rely on public assistance into one that provides all women (and men) with resources — for contraceptives, mental health care, medical costs, and child care?

We need to look at such a cultural shift because creating bills and laws that outlaw behavior do not, in and of themselves, eliminate that behavior.

According to the National Institute for Drug Abuse Statistics, 11.7% of Americans over the age of 12 use illegal drugs. Ten million Americans misuse opioids at least once over a 12 month period. The number of overdose deaths increases at an annual rate of 4%.

Laws do not eliminate behavior, they merely push it behind closed doors.

Not only that, laws often position us one against another. They put us in camps, as though we are at war with one another. Haven’t we sorted ourselves as either pro-life or pro-choice, as if this complex issue could be boiled down to either/or?

The problems we face are more complicated than that — abortion is but a symptom of a much larger problem — one that is quite complex. In this country, which was founded on the principle that all [men] were created equal, we have not historically extended liberty to people who were not [white] men. Women [and people of color, and most especially, women of color] in our country have long felt unheard, disrespected, and undervalued. They have long been dismissed, abused, underpaid, and neglected.

Women who have found themselves in desperate situations, have sometimes chosen abortion when the alternative has been shame, condemnation, parental or spousal punishment, physical harm, an inability to provide, or having to raise a child born of assault. Deprived of other forms of agency, women have chosen the most desperate of actions.

The solution to the problem is not merely prohibiting abortion. No, if you want to value life, you have to value all life, and that starts with valuing the lives of women. Seeing women, listening to women, paying women equally, promoting women, electing women, and caring for [all] women.

In this country of wealth, education, and privilege, certainly we can handle complex problems such as this. Surely we have the wherewithal to consider a solution that is multi-faceted and takes into account the welfare of all — the unborn and those who are already living.

It sure looks like the Supreme Court is going to overturn Roe v. Wade. And what will be our response?

Will we continue with our division, holing up in our camps slinging grenades at one another? Or are we willing to do something bigger, something better, something we have the capacity for — to craft a new way forward.

What if we tried coming together, listening to one another, hearing each other’s stories, and working together to find unique and complex solutions? Right now, we are staying in our own lanes, each convinced that he is going the right way, refusing to cross paths, take detours, or share the ride. When we refuse to communicate, when we resist difficult dialogue, we lock ourselves in opposition; we prohibit change.

And don’t we want change? Don’t we all want what is best for our country and the people who live within it? Don’t we want all women, men, and children (born and unborn) to be safe and valued? To be cared for, provided for, nurtured, and loved?

Perhaps we can start by asking ourselves a few questions.

If you stand against abortion, do you also stand with and for women and children? Do you befriend them? even if they don’t look like you? Do you encourage them? how? Do you provide for them? In what way?

If you are pro-choice, what actions are you taking to support and sustain the lives around you? to offer a variety of choices that may or may not include abortion? Are you willing to interact with those who say they are pro-life? Are you willing to sit down over a cup of coffee and have a real conversation? Are you willing to listen openly, without formulating rebuttal in your mind?

I recently had the opportunity to share the room with some recovering alcoholics. I listened carefully to their stories and their conversations, and I learned from them. Do you know what got them to stop drinking? Was it a law? Not typically. Sure some addicts dry up when they are arrested or thrown in jail, but more stop drinking and stay sober when they have, in finding the bottom, looked up to see a support system gathering around them — a bunch of fellow wanderers who are stumbling together toward a better life. They aren’t shaking their fists and pointing fingers at each other. No, they are offering a hand or sharing a ride; they are reaching out, listening, and showing up.

Wouldn’t it be great if the mere passage of laws remedied the ills of a society?

It doesn’t work that way.

We’re much more broken than that, my friends. Pointing fingers, passing judgement, heaping on shame, and throwing people in jail do not fix brokenness.

Brokenness can only be healed in community — in partnership — through love.

Rather than passing more punitive laws, I wonder if we might try a different way — a coming together, a collective sharing of lives, a genuine care for the people around us. A gathering, lifting up, supportive kind of sharing that is willing to walk with people through complex situations and even, dare I say, pass laws and create policies that provide alternate paths, financial support, and an entrance ramp to a different way of life.

Are you willing to give it a try? Where do we start?

Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths.

Psalm 25:4

Under these Circumstances

I am packing my bags and loading up my car — again.

This morning I will drag materials back into the classroom — again.

I’ve been teaching in a Zoom room from our home since March 25 — more than a month — again!

And it’s not because of Covid this time!

My students and I have been in and out of the building multiple times this year. In fact, I can’t even remember how many times we moved to virtual and then returned to the classroom. Sure, it’s been convenient to have the option to move to a Zoom room when Covid numbers are high or staff counts are low. It’s great that we have the technology in place so that we can be flexible, but let me tell you, these students — especially the seniors, who have had to be flexible since March of their sophomore year — have had to bounce back an extraordinary number of times, and their resiliency is waning.

This last move to virtual proved too much for many, and it could have been avoided.

Here’s the thing, though — many of the inequities my students face every.damn.day could be avoided.

Picture if you will, if any school in a predominantly middle or upper class community — dare I say, any typical white community — would tolerate any of the following:

A parking lot with a crater-like gaping hole the size of 3-4 parking spaces that regularly fills with water.

Classrooms heated by a hard-to-control boiler that often reach temperatures upwards of 80 degrees, some of which only have 2-3 working windows that must be propped open to lower the class temperature to an only partially-stifling point.

No air conditioning — so, again with the windows and an elaborate system of fans and cords that create an obstacle course throughout the classroom.

And, until this week, a disintegrating roof. I mean, the materials were literally falling off the sides of the building. When a heavy rain came last summer, the gym floor was covered, wall-to-wall, with more than a quarter inch of water.

What would you do if your child went to school under these conditions? Would you complain? Would you pull them out? Or can you not even imagine such circumstances?

Let me tell, you, friends, these kinds of “circumstances” have been normalized in city schools, predominantly serving students of color, for literal generations. This is not the first time I have worked under such conditions or witnessed them first hand — in Detroit, in St. Louis, and in cities across the country. Such “circumstances” have become so normalized, that the students who attend these schools [and many of the teachers who serve there] can not even imagine any alternative circumstances.

And what does that do to you? What does it do to your sense of safety, security, and self-worth, to day after day, walk into an aging building in disrepair? Do you feel valued, encouraged, celebrated? In that building can you be inspired to learn, to achieve, to hope?

Now, let me tell you, that our building leadership was well aware of the issues of this problem building that we lease from a major religious body in Detroit. They had been asking for roof repair, window repair, etc., etc. I am not privy to the full story, but I do know that we are under contract with a long-term lease and that the people on the other side of that lease required legal pressure to finally agree to get the roof repaired.

I watched the contractors, a whole team of middle aged white men (I am just reporting the facts; I am not making them up) came, climbed up on the roof, measuring tapes in hand, laughing and joking in the middle of our school day. Then, a couple weeks later, we were informed that the lessor of this building had scheduled the roof repair — which from my understanding was like a whole new roof — for Spring Break and the week after. That would be the last week of March and the first week of April.

I don’t know if you’ve been to Michigan, but March and April are very unpredictable when it comes to weather. In those two weeks, we might’ve had rain, snow, sleet, hail, or sunny days in the 70s. It was a coin toss heavily weighted toward inclement weather.

And I bet you can imagine which way that coin landed. It landed the way my students often experience it to land — in a way that would further disadvantage them.

The rain and the snow came and came, and the roofing project stretched out. The students could not be in the building during the project — obviously — so for an entire month they were at home, in their beds, or at their jobs, or caring for their siblings, or fully and completely checked out of the educational process.

And can we blame them?

What would your children do under these circumstances? Would they muscle through? Would they take one for the team? Would they “do what had to be done” because “it is what it is”?

Please do not answer that question unless your child has, since his earliest days, experienced school in a setting like the one I’ve described, where even before Covid, he likely didn’t have a fully-staffed school, or after school programming, or sports, or arts, or any of the things that we (middle class white folk) count on to inspire our kids to love learning, and achievement, and excellence.

We. do. not. know. what this experience is like. We have not lived it.

But I am bearing witness to it — again — and I am angry.

Why?

Because the last month of virtual learning pushed many of my seniors over the edge. They are beyond caring. They may not have all the credits they need to graduate in just five weeks.

Take that in.

Yes, some hung in there. They came to the zoom room. They showed up. They opted in.They worked hard. They finished strong. And their grades show it.

But many didn’t, wouldn’t, or just couldn’t. They might’ve gone to work to earn some money during this time — like one of my students who got a job as a nurse’s aide and did her 40-hour in-person training last week. They might’ve been needed for their families’ needs — like one of my students who cares for her disabled mother and uncle whenever she is at home. They might’ve stayed high the whole.damn.month — like a few of my students have said that they do whenever we go virtual.

I have not one ounce of judgment for them. Instead I am disgusted that we allow this system to continue. That we do not pour resources into our communities of color to show these students — these kids who are created and loved by God — that we, also, love them. That we want to see them learn, thrive, and grow. We want them to have a hope and a future. I want them to see that we are willing to say hard things, to put our money where it matters, and to hold people accountable so that all students — these students — my students — our students — all of our freaking students — can walk into a building in the morning where they feel comfortable, safe, secure, welcome, supported, and encouraged.

That is not too much to ask.

If your children do not, or have not had to learn under the circumstances I’ve described, I am happy for them. No child should have to.

Do you hear me? No child should have to. What, my friends, are you willing to do to make sure that not one more child has to go to school under these circumstances?

For my part, and the part of the dedicated professionals I work with, we will show up tomorrow morning before our kids do. We will stand at the thresholds of our doors. We will welcome the students into our rooms, calling them by name, and not giving them any amount of crap for whatever they chose to do over the last month.

We will re-set expectations, examine the reality of each of their situations, and do whatever we can to encourage, support, guide, and even carry our students across the finish line.

Why? Because we do believe that each of these kids matter, regardless of their zip code, skin color, family income, or educational history. We believe they have a hope and a future.

We cannot continue to do this alone. Teachers are leaving the profession in droves because the system is broken and it won’t continue to be tenable under these circumstances.

Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.

Psalm 82:3

*I encourage you to look in your community for ways that you can let every child know that he or she matters.

**As always, if you want to help support, guide, and carry our students across the finish line, please email me krathje66@gmail.com for my current wish list.

The Comfort of Connection

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I think we can all agree that 2020 was a rough year what with the pandemic, quarantine, isolation, cancelled plans, loss of loved ones, and all. To be honest, 2021 was not a huge improvement. Sure, we got our vaccines and many of us went back to the office and started socializing again, but really, it was an extension of 2020, with more mask wearing, continued social distancing, the Delta variant, etc. So, when 2022 started with Omicron and further shut downs, many of us shrugged and said, “yeah, it is what is, I guess this is life now.” We’ve grown accustomed to one disappointment, one cancellation, one blow after another.

So, we took it in stride when our 13 year old golden retriever started sharply declining in January and continued on that trend through the end of February when we tearfully said goodbye. It was one more loss, one more sadness, in a season of continuous disappointment.

We grieved as though we’d been training for it. We sat in our tears for an entire weekend — luxuriating in loss.

The grieving was healing, I must say, weird as that sounds. Our collective tears were an acknowledgement of the heartache of losing a well-loved pet, but they were perhaps also a deep exhale after holding so much accumulated loss.

And that wasn’t the end of it. We had a couple days to catch our breath, and then, our stove, too, up and died. It had served its owners well for almost 30 years, and it was done. So, we went from grief to responsibility — the hunt for a new appliance that would be economical and reliable. We did our due diligence in the midst of a supply chain backup never mind that we were still slogging through grief and transition 

[Aren’t we all right now slogging through grief and transition?]

So, stove shopping we were doing when a family member reached out asking for the kind of support that requires a quickly purchased flight, an acquisition of pets, and a cross-country drive in a snowstorm. Being so asked, when once we might not have been asked, we did what love empowers us to do: the one became two — one showing up in the flesh, the other managing logistics at home and completing the stove purchase solo.

It’s rich, this life. When you show up, you share tears. You see, you hold, you carry, and something changes.

And so began March, another season of adapting, adjusting, and accommodating cats in a house that had grown familiar with one very special dog.

They were growing on us — the cats — when another family member called needing the kind of support that facilitates a cross-country move with a quick landing at the nest to manage some old business and catch a breath.

And, again, as we made space, there was more seeing, more holding, more carrying, more changing..

All this, of course, in the first three months of 2022 after the “unprecedented” experience of 2020 and 2021. And we find ourselves both filled and depleted. We are buoyed, and we are sunk low.

So, I wasn’t planning on going to the retreat that I have enjoyed most every year since I returned to Michigan — a gathering of more than 100 wives of pastors who have become sisters and friends. I didn’t have the gas in the tank to register, to pack, to coordinate, to plan. But, two days before it was scheduled to begin, I saw something on social media, and I realized what I would be missing if I did not go.

I made a few calls, clicked a few buttons, rearranged some details, packed, and drove North. I wasn’t in the door one minute when two friends called out, “we saved you a seat!” From one to the next I received hugs of welcome, of love, of acceptance, of belonging. I settled in as the singing began and then realized what the topic for the conference was — Very Ordinary Grace — Life in Relationship. For the next few hours, I sat in a room full of women, sharing our experiences of ordinary life. We shed tears of heartache. We confessed our mistakes. We celebrated God’s grace that continuously finds us in our mess and offers forgiveness, healing, and restoration.

I reconnected with friends who I hadn’t seen in months or years, and we offered one another our hugs, our attention, and our care. After two years of isolation, social distancing, and cancelled plans, we were leaning in, embracing, listening, connecting.

Isn’t that what we have been longing for — connection? Aren’t our relationships the richest parts of our lives? Standing with my husband and two daughters around our beloved dog as he goes to his last sleep, weeping tears of love, gratitude, and loss? Answering a FaceTime call from a tearful, fearful family member and assuring them that we will indeed meet their need. Sitting across a table from a loved one, acknowledging their deep hurt, challenging an old pattern, and watching, miraculously as something shifts.

On the heels of two years of isolation and disappointment, three months of losing and gaining [new hope in relationships, two cats, and the stove that was installed just last week], I gathered with a group of women to pause and acknowledge the miraculous God who has sustained us through the unprecedented, empowered us to do the ordinary, and miraculously blessed us in our relationships.

On Sunday morning, I sat in my hotel bed with Brene’ Brown’s Atlas of the Heart and opened to where I had left off –chapter 9, “Places We Go When We Search for Connection.” I had just spent the previous day in the book of Ephesians, examining the messy ways that we connect with those around us and the grace of God to show up in the midst of that mess. I could barely take in Brene’s words because I was stunned by the realization of how God had once again divinely stepped into the circumstances of my life — my messy, messy life — and had provided the grace for us to show up for others when we ourselves were depleted, how He had worked miraculous healing in the midst of our brokenness, and how He had then provided a place among women I trust so that I could pause and realize that He has surrounded me with love, acceptance, and grace. He has shown me once again that I belong.

And it was just the balm I needed, just the peek of sunlight that was able to brighten up a gloomy April weekend after two difficult years. Maybe it’s what we all need in the wake of this long hard season– some connection, some acceptance, some belonging, some grace.

Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another.”

Ephesians 4:32

Providing the Little Things

Click to listen (please ignore the sounds of me wrangling a cat while I read.)

Last fall, when I was prepping my classroom for the return of students who had been learning from home for a year and a half, I had no idea what to expect, but I knew that job one was going to be building relationships and fostering trust. How would I do that? Well, first I wanted to create a space that was inviting, supplied, and intentional so that my students would know I was looking forward to them — that I had prepared for them.

I loaded my bookshelves with classics and young adult fiction in a variety of genres. I arranged my desks to allow social distance for Covid. I put up a few welcoming posters and organized an area in my room where students could go to “chill”. I stopped at Lowe’s and picked up a full-length mirror and mounted it on the wall right inside my classroom, hoping that students would stop by to check their outfits, their hair, their face, and that they might stay to chat.

That was really my goal — the chatting. After talking into an almost silent Zoom room for a whole school year, I was longing for conversation, for bonding, for what my school calls “life-altering relationships”.

In my years as a teacher, I have learned that one way to draw students in is to have what they need — band aids, school supplies, feminine hygiene products, deodorant, and an endless supply of snacks. All teachers know this, of course, but the continual purchase of such items can be costly, and though we are committed to our students, we also have our own bills to pay.

About the time I was getting ready to go back to school, I posted a blog about Critical Race Theory. At the end of that post, I typed a short note inviting my readers to partner with me in loving my students, and boy did you! Just a few weeks after that post, I wrote again about the amazing response I had from long time friends and new acquaintances.

You sent snacks, school supplies, feminine hygiene products, small prizes for my students to earn like chapstick, pop sockets, pens, stickers, hand sanitizers, lotions, and the like. You also sent cash that allowed me to purchase more than 100 composition books, gift cards, and weekly replenishments for my snack supply. Your generosity carried me all the way through February!! What a blessing!

And has it worked? Oh my, has it worked!

It took a little while, but I now have a steady stream of students in and out of my classroom all day every day — seniors that I teach and know, and more recently, underclassmen who dare to pop in and ask, “can I look in your mirror?” or “do you have anything to eat?”

I’ve said it all along, if you feed them, they will come, and boy, do they come.

They show up in the morning when the school-provided breakfast looks less than appetizing — a cold plain bagel and a condiment-sized packet of cream cheese sealed together in a plastic pouch and partnered with an 8oz box of juice.

They come mid-morning when they realize they didn’t get any kind of breakfast because they were running late.

Over lunch, when I’m catching my breath, trying to get a little planning or grading done, or checking email, they come again when they’ve been presented with what they call “prison food” — one of a handful of options that are prepared off-site, packaged, and set out in our gym/cafeteria.

They come after school, hoping to grab something before they climb on the bus.

“Do you have anything to eat Mrs. Rathje?”

I pull out a small basket I keep behind my desk. It usually has a variety of breakfast bars, granola bars, or pop tarts. They take what they want, and sometimes they stick around to chat, to share some news, or to just sit in a desk in a quiet space. When they leave, they usually throw “Thanks, Mrs. Rathje” over their shoulder.

They have let me know their preferences, of course. They’d prefer that I have a suitcase-size bin of Slim Jims at the ready along with a wheelbarrow full of Takis or Flaming Hot Cheetos. “Don’t you have any juice, Mrs. Rathje?” Sometimes, when they have earned a reward, I do bring juice and chips, but for my regular offerings, I try to provide something with a little nutritional value that I can purchase economically.

Since February, each Wednesday morning, the first period of the day is devoted to social-emotional learning. My small first period class spends time developing communication, building relationships, and learning vocabulary to match their emotions. It’s a big ask to get high school seniors to engage in this type of work at 8:15 on a weekday morning in the last few months of their high school careers, so I lure them in with bananas, clementines, apple juice, and some type of breakfast bar. They’ve been showing up, if a little late, eating the snacks I provide, and engaging with this curriculum — breaking into groups, learning each other’s names (surprisingly, some have changed schools so often they don’t know all of their classmates!), and sharing out with the whole class.

Also on Wednesdays, I open the Rathje Store. My students earn raffle tickets — one per completed assignment — and on Wednesdays they can use those tickets to purchase the items I have in my store. One ticket for one Slim Jim, three tickets for a chapstick, 5 tickets for a T-shirt or a knit hat. They can also choose to throw a ticket into the weekly drawing; the winner gets their choice of any available prize.

I also keep a substantial supply of candy that I use for a variety of purposes — to reward students who are not on their phones, to calm the cravings of a desperate teacher who shows up at my door (“Rathje, you got any chocolate?””), or to acknowledge a class that has been particularly on task.

I’ve also got bandaids, Motrin, a huge supply of feminine products that I’ve been using to fill a “take what you need” basket in the ladies’ room, and a tea kettle that’s always ready to pour out when someone is running low on caffeine.

Why do I go to all this trouble? Can’t kids just come to school and learn without all this stuff? Without the snacks, the prizes, the candy, the supplies?

They can, and they’ve had to, but who among us hasn’t found ourselves in a situation where we just needed a little something to eat, a little encouragement when the going is tough, a simple reward for doing the thing you were supposed to do anyway? Doesn’t it make a difference for us when someone thinks about our needs even before we know we have them?

I think it does; in fact, I see the evidence.

One young man comes to my room every single day at lunch after having escaped the lunch room undetected. He doesn’t like much of what is offered there, so he comes to see what I have. I think he hopes I’ll somehow have a slice of pizza or a couple of cheese burgers, but he surveys the items I offer, which don’t vary much from day to day, and grabs something, often suggesting what else I should have on hand. If I engage with him, he’ll stay and talk my whole prep period, but usually, I ask him a question or two then send him on his way. I know I’ll see him in class, and I know he’ll be back tomorrow., just like he knows that I will always be in my room, and I will always have something for him to eat.

It’s a small thing, but it’s not really, is it?

In my experience, an accumulation of small things ends up being a pretty big thing. If my goal was building relationships and fostering trust, I believe you have helped me achieve that this year.

Thank you.

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,

    when it is in your power to act.”

Psalm 3:27

*If you know a teacher in your community, ask them what you can do to help them love their students.

**If you would like to partner with me in loving my Detroit charter school students, you can email me at krathje66@gmail.com for my wish list, Venmo, and CashApp information.

Scenes from Room 106

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After twelve days at home, I headed back to my classroom in Detroit last Monday.

I lugged in snacks and prizes, two laptops, and my lunch, then prepared to meet my students who had been on winter break. Some of our students love breaks — time to sleep, work at their jobs, and scroll on their phones. Others dread breaks — more time in somewhat chaotic or hostile environments, less food security, and less predicability. I try to keep that in mind as I stand at my door watching them walk down the halls. My students, unlike students in other districts, did not go to Cancun or Miami over their break; they likely spent their time in their bedroom, behind the counter of a Subway or a Panera, or in a car with a family member, attending to medical appointments, groceries, or other family responsibilities.

I can’t know or imagine what they experienced on their “winter break”. Instead, I try to keep my eyes and ears open to see and hear what my students are saying [and not saying] to me so that I can respond with care, and “care” can look like a lot of different things.

One of the first to enter my room last Monday was Damon*. Damon has been in two of my classes all year — required senior English class and an elective writing class. He’s not always motivated; in fact, he often falls asleep. My approach with him has been mostly compassionate and firm. At the end of the first semester, after he had procrastinated on the major project for the quarter and asked me in front of the whole class in the Zoom room to walk him through the past three weeks of instruction so that he could finish the work on time, I came down a little more than firm. “Damon, this is not how it works. You can’t opt out of three weeks worth of instruction and then expect me to use class time in one-on-one support to carry you through. This is a habit that I have seen in you that will not fly in college. You’ve got to get it together.” I stopped speaking for just long enough to hear him leave the Zoom meeting. I’d come down a little too hard, even if all I’d said was true. He didn’t return to class that day, and he didn’t turn in the assignment. When he came to class the following week, I pulled him aside, apologized, and urged him to fully opt in moving forward. He mostly has, with intermittent gentle shoulder shoves and admonitions from me.

Last Monday morning, as he met me at my threshold, he said, “Mrs. Rathje, I won’t be here tomorrow. I’m going to Ferris State to register.” I enthusiastically put up my hand for a high five and said, “Way to go, Damon! That’s amazing!” because even though he often struggles to stay engaged even at the high school level, he is believing [and so is his mom] that he can take this next step. Now is not the time for me to tell him how hard it’s going to be, how many supports he’s going to have to reach out for, or how likely it is that he might actually fail this first attempt. Not today– today is for high-fives and encouragement.

Later that same day, I was wrangling my last hour class into some semblance of order so that we could tackle the days’ content. By the time this class starts at 1:20pm, I’ve already had 200 minutes worth of seniors, so I’m running low on gas. This group challenges me. Thy are tired, too. They talk too much, they play too much, they can’t find their seats, and they certainly don’t want to learn about the context in which Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime was written. Nevertheless, I set my expectations and acknowledge those who are following instructions. However, several are still not with me, and then one too many disrespectful comments later, I hit my limit and start in: “This is unacceptable. Your phones need to be down; your eyes need to track me. This is not just for this class. Right now is your opportunity to build muscle for whatever you are facing next. This type of behavior will not be allowed on a job site or in a college classroom. You will be asked — you’ll be told — to leave. Your behavior is disrespectful and childish. You can do better, and I am insisting on better.” The eyes roll, and the derogatory comments leak out quietly, but the room has quieted a bit. I proceed with the lesson. I walk through the notes, instruct my students to open a document in Google classroom, then break them into groups and tell them to get started. I hear James* who sits near the front of the room, say “This internet sucks,” under his breath as he tries to open the document on his phone. Where his laptop is I don’t have the strength to ask right now.

I walk around the room supporting as most work to find contextual information about South Africa, apartheid, Nelson Mandela, and Trevor Noah, when James looks at me beaming, “Mrs. Rathje, guess what I just did?” I am not sure I want to engage since he’s still holding his phone and his answer may include information about high school drama, Tiktok, or something else I don’t care to know about, but he seems so excited that I ask, “What did you do?” He replies, “I just paid my phone bill! Now I don’t have to use this terrible wifi.”

“James!” I say, forgetting any frustration I felt just a few minutes ago, “that’s impressive! You must feel so accomplished. Paying a phone bill is no small thing!”

He replies, “Oh, I been paying my phone bill since I was twelve. That ain’t new.” And that comment reminds me that sometimes my students act childishly perhaps because they’ve handled adult responsibilities way too early. I can still insist they meet my expectations, but I can do so with the knowledge that they are already carrying a lot — much of which I remain unaware.

On Thursday, I handed out Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s memoir about growing up in South Africa during and after apartheid. I directed my students to the opening pages, clicked an arrow on Audible, and we followed along as Trevor Noah began his story. I moved around the room, pointed out where we were, and stopped frequently to direct my students to a reading guide so they could answer questions to check for understanding, We were about half way through the first chapter when I noticed that they were engrossed. I could tell because they turned their pages in unison, laughed at the funny parts, and began to move easily between the book and the reading guide. I was beaming. Though this might seem like a baseline expectation for a classroom full of seniors, in my classroom, it is notable.

Even more notable were the comments as we wrapped up for the day, “This is a good book!” and “I can’t wait to hear what happens next.”

I can’t possibly in 1500 words or less convey to you the complexity of simultaneously holding seniors accountable for being mature and responsible while cheering them on as they navigate the difficult and celebrating when they engage in the ordinary. I can’t describe how full my heart feels when they share themselves with me — their anticipation for a college visit, their pride in paying a bill, their enjoyment of a story. I can’t expect you to understand how blessed I feel to share space with these developing humans. You’ll have to take my word for it.

establish the work of our hands for us— yes, establish the work of our hands.

Psalm 90:17

Goodbye to a good, good boy

He began as a promise.

When we left Michigan in 2004 to move to St. Louis so that my husband could begin his seminary studies, we left our golden retriever Mikey with my brother. She couldn’t live in the on-campus housing we were moving to; she couldn’t come with, so we said goodbye.

We comforted our sobbing children with a promise, “We’ll still get to see her.”

However, not long into our time in St. Louis, Mikey was hit by a car, and we lost her.

So, another promise: “When we finish seminary, we will adopt another golden.”

My husband finished seminary in 2008. We bought a house and moved in, traveled to Michigan for his ordination, took a family vacation, then returned to Missouri, and started looking for a dog. We contacted a golden retriever rescue in the greater St. Louis area and said we were looking for a puppy, preferably a female. They had a female, one of a litter of three, did we want to see them all?

Ok, sure.

When we arrived at the house where the puppies were being fostered, we found wall to wall goldens — in my memory there were about nine! The little blond girl we had come to see was rather rambunctious. She ran around the yard and bossed her brothers, one of whom was blond, the other red. We weren’t sure we were looking for her kind of energy. Instead, we were drawn to two others — an older golden named Bruno who plunked all 80+ pounds of himself on our son’s lap, licked his face and made him laugh and the little red brother who sat at our feet, looking up as though to say, “do you see what I’m dealing with here?’ We visited with the pack of goldens for about half an hour, and when we left, though we hated saying goodbye to Bruno, we knew the red boy would be ours.

A few days later, we picked up our little guy, who was just 4 months old at the time. They had been calling him Irish because he’d been born in March and had a red coat. He was crate trained and house trained, yet he allowed us to cradle him like a baby. We adored him from day one — he was instantly part of the family. It took us a few days, some poster board, and a ranked-choice voting system to settle on the same Chester Murphy.

Ches has been with us ever since. For close to 14 years, he cuddled with us on the couch, barked at the neighbors, ran with us, bore witness to our reality, and embodied unconditional love.

He saw our love for one another and for him, but he also witnessed a struggling family that not too many saw — one that had a lot to learn. In his early years, when he saw miscommunications, hurtful comments, silence, isolation, anger, yelling, sadness, tears, he stood right in the middle of it — watching, unafraid, moving in close.

He seemed to know who needed the most attention at any given moment. When one was assaulted and couldn’t tell the others, he climbed in her bed each night and kept her safe. When another got sick, he moved to her bed and kept watch. When one felt unlovable, he pressed his body in close. When one needed companionship, he willingly joined as they walked or ran for miles and miles. If one had been gone for a season, he met them upon return, tail wagging, ready to run and play. He was consistently loyal, loving, and accepting.

For almost 14 long years.

If you have followed this blog, you know that Chester has been a star from the start, mainly because, I have continued learning from him. When, we packed up and left St. Louis, Chester was teaching me how to feel about it. Since we’ve been back here in Michigan, he’s been by my side, showing me how to rest, reminding me of the importance of routine, and just recently, showing me his resilience when he was injured in a fall.

These last several weeks, he’s been showing us how to care for him. We’ve had to slow down, cancel some plans, adjust our routines, and even rearrange our space so that we could provide what he’s needed in his final days. And when it became obvious that these were indeed the most final of the final days, we gathered his people and watched as he showed us how to say goodbye, lying among us, letting us hold him, encouraging us to cry together, to sit together, to acknowledge, even out loud, all that he’s been through with us.

And now, the house is empty, although I swear, I just heard his toenails clicking on the hardwood floor. I keep looking for him, thinking it’s time to go outside, time to get a treat, time to cuddle up. When I realize, again, that he’s gone, my eyes fill, my throat aches, and I reach for the tissues.

I’m going to be sad for a while — really, really sad. We’ve lost a member of the family who loved us all so well, and we’ll never be the same. He taught us a lot, up to the very end.

Chester, you were a good, good boy.

God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.

Genesis 1:25

Pieces of Quiet

The house is quiet, I’ve brewed some tea, and I am alone with nothing on the schedule.

Why do I never get tired of days like this?

I’ve had so many!

I had a five-day weekend for Thanksgiving followed by two weeks off at Christmas. Then, shortly after returning from that break, we had three snow days in a row! I leaned into the space, read a book, watched movies, and slept long sleeps. We weren’t even back in the classroom for two weeks when this week’s weather brought us home from school for two days of remote learning followed by a four-day weekend.

We’d had plans — again — to get away, to go north, but Chester, our golden retriever who will turn 14 next month, needs an increasing amount of care and attention, and our old ways of having someone come stay for the weekend, don’t quite seem doable.

Having canceled our plans, my husband went to visit his parents, and I volunteered to stay at home with Chester.

Here I am luxuriating in the quiet expanse of time. I didn’t have to pack a bag or traverse the miles, I merely needed to close my laptop and move to rest. I’ve been reading, washing our bedding, baking some gluten-free bread, making soup, and bingeing season two of Love is Blind (I care not, in this blissful state, iffest thou judgest me.)

Last night I had popcorn for dinner then hoisted Chester onto the bed beside me. We slept spine to spine through the long, cold night. Outside the wind whipped the snow, building drifts across the driveway that our neighbor had not so long before blown clean. Nevertheless, we slept snugly and soundly, tucked safely together.

Chester rousted me early for the necessary, and then we returned to our nest to drift back to sleep. We woke later, took another trip outside, and then sat with the first cup of tea, reading in the sun-filled living room,

Image credit

After some yoga, I managed a shower and then layered on leggings and sweaters, bundling myself up. I’m sans makeup, of course, because the only beings who will see me today are Chester and a few neighbors who are growing accustomed to my pajama-clad dog walks. I’m not trying to impress anyone. I am leaning in to rest.

How many times I have written about rest in this space? I’ve shared stories of being on the couch, in the bed, and the general stillness I try to practice now. I’ve told the tales of my soldiering years — the nonstop pace of going and doing and my attempts at being everything for everyone only to find that if I wasn’t taking care of myself, no one would really get me anyway.

I’ve recited the story of how all that motion came to an abrupt stop against my will, and how that ending was the beginning of a deep and thorough healing that is still in the works.

For a long time, I was in intensive care — unemployed and tending only to my healing. Then I was moved to a general ward — where I managed part-time work in addition to a full schedule of doctors, meds, and learning a new intentionality, a way of working rest into my rhythms. For a few years now, I’ve been ambulatory. I am free to move about — even teach in a classroom full time! — as long as I continue to return to my care. And, boy, have I learned to love to return to my care.

Probably the most important piece of my wellness, the piece that is hard for others to fully understand, is a regular insistent return to quiet and rest.

Each day, I start with a now automatic routine of writing, reading, and yoga. This daily beginning with stillness is a reminder that I must oxygenate myself first. I am best for my students, my colleagues, my friends, and my family when I have first checked in with myself and attended to my own emotions, my own body, my own spirit.

Midway through each day, I step away from work, thanks to my reliable work buddy who daily walks about a mile with me. We may talk nonstop or not at all as we join each other in breaking from our work to once again check in with ourselves and to rest from being in charge, on task, and fully engaged.

At the end of the day, I pack up my bags, load them in my vehicle, and drive home. There, I transition to home life by taking a walk or quietly preparing a meal. Again, I find the quiet, the slowing, to be a healing balm.

In the evenings, I join my husband, who is also in need of rest. We share a meal, catch up on the day, watch a show or two, put a few pieces in a puzzle, then move to our bed early, where we again find the quiet, reading before we drift off to sleep.

On weekends we set the expectations bar low. After a week of work interacting with others, we know that our capacity is spent, so we prioritize down time, knowing our bodies, our minds, our spirits need time to heal, to recover, to restore.

It may seem like a lot — all this resting and quiet and down time — but for some reason, I always crave more. Perhaps I’m still recovering from the soldiering years, perhaps I still need the time and space to grieve all that I missed when I was moving so quickly, perhaps this is just a better rhythm of life.

I’m certainly reaping the benefits. After several years of life-limiting pain, fatigue, and bouts of autoimmune flare, I am stable. People who work with me now would hardly suspect that I spent a few years limping around, lying in bed, and lacking the energy to do what now seems routine.

And the benefits aren’t just physical — I have a broader emotional capacity, too. I have the capacity to see my students’ behaviors as messages to me rather than assaults on me. I can find the space to feel regret and sorrow and even pride and joy.

I have the space to consider how others are feeling rather than using all my energy to keep my own feelings in check.

I have the room to apologize, to imagine, to restore, and to dream.

I hardly thought this was possible when I was walking away from my career, when I couldn’t get off the couch, when we were suffering through a devastating family trauma, when we first started praying for healing.

But if I am nothing else, I am a walking testimony to the power God to transform a life, to bring beauty from ashes, to bind up a broken heart.

So, when He says that we can find our rest in Him, I believe Him like I’ve never believed before. When He says I can cease striving, I stop what I am doing and say, “You’re right. My soldiering ways were not meant to sustain me; they were meant to bring me straight to You.”

I celebrate these days — these pieces of quiet. I lean in, gratefully, and find rest for my soul.

Return to your rest, my soul,

    for the Lord has been good to you.”

Psalm 116:7

Coronavirus Diary 34: Teacher [extra] Tired

Last Monday, we re-entered the building after three weeks of virtual instruction. Everyone was glad to be back; smiles and greetings filled the hallways. Students were wearing new outfits, finally able to show off the gifts they’d received for Christmas.

I started each class with a reset of expectations — phones down, masks on, track the teacher — and a preview of the syllabus for the semester. My students were mostly compliant, ready to do the work I had assigned, but they were struggling — to stay off their phones, to stay engaged, to stay awake, to stay quiet.

Me? I was struggling, too — struggling to hold them accountable, struggling to be creative with my calls to engagement, struggling to not get frustrated with a roomful of teenagers who were being so…..so….. teenager-y.

I made it through three one-hundred minute blocks and a lunch break that included getting one-mile’s worth of steps in the hallway with my walking buddy. I had more to do to prepare for the next day’s lessons, but I had no more gas in the tank. I left work promising myself that I would arrive early the next morning to flesh out my plans for the day. I had the big picture, I told myself, surely I could pull the details together before my 10am class. I’d done it many times before.

But when I arrived on Tuesday morning, I was distracted. Our daughter had just announced her engagement on social media, and all her friends and family were liking and commenting. I couldn’t look away. Not only that, weather forecasters were predicting 1-2 FEET of snow over the next 48 hours, and all the building was abuzz with the question that has excited teachers and students for decades — Will we have a snow day tomorrow?

All morning, teachers and students ran scenarios. Certainly we were equipped to go virtual during a snowstorm. Every teacher in the connected world has learned to “switch to remote learning” in a heartbeat. Probably our administrators would want us to do that, I reasoned, in light of all the instructional time we have “missed” over the last two years. That logic didn’t keep wishfulness at bay — the childlike desire for a snow day was strong. Teachers popped their heads in my doorway conspiratorially whispering “heard anything?” Others sent texts, “what do you think we are going to do?”

I couldn’t find my focus, but I haphazardly pulled together my teaching strategy for the class I would meet that day. I was kicking off Black History Month in my writing class by talking about Langston Hughes and the impact he had through his writing. I was trying to show my students the power of writing to make social change. We were going to look at some of Hughes’ poetry and a brief history of his life with the help of a John Green video and then share ways we have seen writing as a tool for social change. It was a good concept, but my haphazard planning made the lesson mediocre. The students, who were still struggling on day two to stay awake, engaged, and off their phones, were quasi-engaged. Somehow we muddled through, but the day will not go down in the books as one of Mrs. Rathje’s most impactful.

At the bell, my students left the room, tossing “do you think we’ll be here tomorrow” over their shoulders. I shrugged, then continued my distracted attempts at getting something — anything — done.

I was trying to settle on which was most important — planning for the next day, long-range planning for the next week, or grading assignments from the day before — when my principal called and asked me to come to her office. She wanted to introduce me to a new staff member. She praised me as being the master teacher who had experience. I would be a good resource, she said. I nodded and smiled, knowing how unproductive and lackluster my day had been so far. I told the new teacher that of course she could come observe me at any time and hit me with whatever questions she had.

I was wishing her well when my principal said, “Rathje, one more thing.”

“Yes?”

“We’re going to have snow days tomorrow, Thursday, and possibly Friday. Don’t tell the kids yet, but take all your stuff home with you in case we decide to go virtual on Friday.”

“Ok!”

Suddenly, I lit up. I was focused. I quick stepped back to my room, prioritized grading for the remainder of the day, and basked in the relief of knowing I would get a couple of days off.

A colleague texted, “Did you hear?”

I replied, “I was just going to text you. I am so glad we are getting a couple days off. I don’t think I realized how tired I am. Are you tired?”

“Oh my gosh!” came the answer, from a teacher over twenty years younger than me. “So tired! I’ve been struggling all day to get something — anything — done.”

“You have?” I said, “me, too! Maybe we’ve underestimated how much this year has taken out of us — the continual switching from in-person to virtual to in-person.”

“Exactly! I am exhausted. I am looking forward to doing nothing.”

And that, I determined, is what I would do for at least part of those two, possibly three, snow days.

I drove home, took the dog out, started dinner, then, coming to terms with what 1-2 FEET of snow might look like, I decided I’d better make a couple preemptive supply runs — the grocery story and the library. If I was going to have the luxury of two or three days at home, I was going to need food and books!

Just as I was pulling back into our driveway, rain started to fall. It rained all night and then the rain turned to snow. The snow continued for two straight days.

I spent those days as a hermit. Clad in sweats, a ponytail, and glasses, I stayed in bed finishing a book, then leisurely moved into yoga. I worked on lesson plans slowly and deliberately to avoid a replay of last week’s less than impressive performance then watched a silly miniseries on Netflix. I tidied the house, did some tax prep that had been taunting me, and sat for hours reading and crocheting. I got caught up — on housework, on school work, on rest.

I hardly spoke a word to anyone. That’s one of the ways I find rest. Our golden retriever, Chester, was never far from my side, and he, too, was content to rest, to stay quiet, to do nothing.

Then, on Thursday night, he needed to head outside. The snow had subsided a bit. One neighbor was out scraping the ice off a vehicle. His dog was wandering from house to house. The Yorkie and Chester chatted, remarking on the depth of the snow while I checked in on another neighbor who lives next door. I smiled at this little neighborhood gathering, acknowledging that perhaps I was finally ready to interact with other humans.

I had to acknowledge the depth of fatigue I had been dragging around with me. Are you feeling it, too? This pandemic has gone on much longer than any of us anticipated, and we are depleted, aren’t we? It took me a hard stop to realize it.

You might not have had the luxury that I have just had — five days to stay at home, to find space to think, to read a whole book, to lose track of time. If you are able to afford such a luxury, I highly recommend it. However, I would venture that most of you need to keep slogging away day after day after day, regardless of how weary you are.

If that’s you, let me just say, be kind to yourself. If your performance has moments of mediocre, if you lack motivation, if you find yourself clicking the ‘like’ button while you are on the clock, cut yourself some slack. We’ve all been through a lot. Many of us are running on fumes. It would be strange if we were all still at peak performance at the end of two years of this madness.

While you are at it, have some grace for those around you, too — for the people who are running behind on deadlines, who never seem to respond to texts, who haven’t reached out to check in for months. They are wiped out, too. Chances are they are doing the best that they can, or they too tired to even do that any more.

The latest numbers give me hope (again) that we are moving into a different reality, but until then, I pray you find some rest, some space, and some peace..

Be kind to one another [and yourself], tenderhearted, forgiving one another [and yourself].”

Ephesians 4:32

Coronavirus Diary #33: Back to School…Again

Since January 6, I have been teaching from the comfort of our home office, wearing yoga pants and T-shirts, 13 year old Chester the golden retriever at my feet. Monday we return to the school building. This is Return to the Building #4, and if I’m going to be honest, I’m losing enthusiasm for all the back and forth.

I don’t disagree with any of the moves to remote or in-person learning that my school has made. In fact, when many schools last year were providing both in-person and remote learning in stereo, my school was strictly virtual, which at that period of the Covid-19 pandemic seemed prudent. Our school serves mostly low income families of color who reside in Detroit, one of the hardest hit communities and populations. Staying remote for the 2020-2021 school year protected not only our staff, but our students. In fact, most of our families were thankful to be remote during that period; most of our staff was, too.

However, our physical safety came at a cost. Many of our students (and students across the nation) suffered academically, emotionally, and socially during that first year and a half of the pandemic, whether they were in school or remote. Some would argue that large swaths of the population aged 18 and under (and many above that age) have suffered a trauma or even PTSD as a result of the pandemic, depending on the individual hardships they faced in terms of finances, food supply, family illness, and death. Being remote for the whole year meant that while our students were struggling through this very difficult time, we had limited access to them and a limited ability to provide supports such as social work, academic accommodations, food, and all the structure that students experience while in the physical school building.

Return #1 Last fall, when we determined to start the year fully in-person, our staff was fully on board. Of course we wanted our students back. We had access to vaccinations, we would all be wearing masks, and we would be taking all other CDC recommended precautions. Please, we said, bring the students back! And, back they came. Of course, they returned as though they’d been learning from home for a year and a half. Some came in loud and unruly. Some came in timidly, avoiding eye contact. Some came in carrying a palpable anxiety that sometimes gushed out in exclamations like, “I can’t be sitting so close to all these people!” We, nevertheless, stayed the course, providing structure, academics, and a return to routine. Day by day, week by week, we could see the students settling in, getting comfortable, returning to more typical teenaged behavior, beginning to engage in classroom activities, beginning to trust that we were “getting back to normal”.

Alas, in October, several staff tested positive — too many staff to cover with substitutes — so we had to move to remote learning for two weeks. We loaded our cars with ancillary screens and materials and changed into sweatpants and baseball caps. We logged into zoom rooms, were greeted by black boxes labelled with student names, and began screen sharing, communicating through the chat feature, and trying to incentivize attendance and participation.

Return #2 When the coast was clear, we lugged all our stuff back to the building and once again greeted our students. It had been a short break, one in which many students opted for a full vacation from academia. At this return, we jumped right back in, and students had to choose whether they were going to make up missed work, or just join the program already in progress. They settled in fairly quickly, but we continued to have a revolving door of students and staff coming and going due to Covid exposure or sickness. Nevertheless, we managed to pull off a Homecoming dance and a spirit week before we were once again sent home in early December.

It’s all become a blur, to tell you the truth. My students were writing college essays, I know that, and I was simultaneously keeping all my teacher plates spinning while also managing a gazillion family December birthdays and preparing for Christmas. To be honest, it was a blessing to be at home — to sleep a half an hour longer in the morning, to not have to drive, to receive packages when they were delivered, and to spend my days with Chester at my feet. Again, many students opted to start their Christmas vacation early, but some logged in each day and completed their assignments on time. All of us were pleased to take a two-week break for the holiday.

Return #3 Around Christmas the Omicron variant of Covid was spreading widely. By New Year’s Day, the buzz among educators was will we go back or not? Detroit Public Schools announced that they would delay their start for a couple of days to assess the situation and prepare a plan. Ann Arbor also delayed and then made a virtual start. It seemed prudent to proceed with caution since the case numbers were growing quickly, however, our leadership made the decision to start in person. Our students, like all students, do best when they are in the building. We had already been virtual for most of December; we really wanted to see if we could make in-person learning work.

We started on Monday with a professional development day. Tuesday was quite cold when we teachers took our stations at our doors, ready to go. Students arrived, but attendance was low. It wasn’t really a surprise. Many of our families had expressed concern about returning given the rise in cases and chose to keep their students at home. We came to school on Wednesday and Thursday, too, and then the decision was made, due to low in-person attendance and a high number of teachers who were calling off due to exposure, positive cases, or their own children needing to learn from home — we would return to virtual instruction that first Friday in January.

Cue the carrying of screens and materials to our cars.

We’ve been virtual for the remainder of January. We finished the first semester in the Zoom Room. Thanks to our incredible attendance team, our overall attendance in this virtual space was high — I’d say over 75% which is remarkable in our context. Engagement, of course, was everywhere across the spectrum. A few students showed up, turned on their cameras, and even unmuted to participate. Others joined faithfully off screen, contributed via the chat, and completed all of their assignments. Some attended sporadically. Some merely logged in and went back to sleep. Some never joined at all.

On Friday, I taught my last class of the semester, finalized my grades, and clicked submit. I loaded my laptop into a bag, prepared new seating charts for semester 2, tidied my home desk from three weeks’ worth of debris, and started wrapping my mind around heading back into the building.

Return #4 I have mixed emotions. I am happy I will get to see my students — the ones who faithfully logged on throughout January and the ones who I haven’t heard a peep out of since December. I’m encouraged that I will get to be with my colleagues — sitting at home alone in front of a screen for three weeks isn’t my idea of community. I am excited for the opportunity we have to finish the school year in person — Please, God, let it be so.

Also, I am tired. I am tired of the transitions. I am tired of the uncertainty. I am tired of re-setting expectations for my students every time we come back to the building — Stow your phones, put your mask over your nose and mouth, bring your laptop charged and ready to go, show up, opt in, work hard, and finish strong.

And, after a month (plus most of December) with our aging Chester, who has recently been on the decline, I am apprehensive about putting him in his crate, walking away, counting on his walker to visit midday, and only seeing him again in the late afternoon.

But overall, I am determined. I am determined, with all my complex emotions, to get up at 5 o’clock tomorrow morning, to prepare for my day, to put on professional clothing, to comb my hair, to warm up my vehicle, to drive twenty-eight miles, to lug my gear back into my classroom, to plug in all my devices, to project my Google slides on the screen, to play a little music, to stand at my door, and to welcome my students back.

I’m guessing they have complicated emotions, too. I’m not sure what they are, but perhaps we’ll start tomorrow with a little space to come together, to share, and to sit in the complexity together.

Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you

Psalm 55:22

An Emotional Legacy

I don’t know about you, but I grew up not knowing how to manage or speak about my emotions.

It’s no one’s fault really.

My parents grew up without much permission to feel their emotions, much less talk about them. It was a symptom of the times, I guess. Their parents, my grandparents, had been born circa World War I and had come of age during the Depression. Their lives were marked by national trauma, but certainly they were not given the space to express their feelings, let alone get therapy or any kind of professional support.

In fact, their parents, my great grandparents, or their parents before them, had experienced trauma of their own, having immigrated from Germany, some by way of Russia, to the US. Imagine what that must’ve been like — traveling by ship across the ocean, not knowing what you would find on the other side! My grandparents were raised by folks who had what it took to take huge risks but who likely didn’t put words to their feelings — the courage they must’ve had, the fear, the excitement, and the exhilaration. And they didn’t likely have the time or wherewithal to explore the devastation they experienced once they were settling and growing their families during the uncertainty of World War I and the Depression, so my grandparents learned from their parents how to survive, how to do without, how to make do; they did not learn how to explore their emotions. They likely tucked them deep inside.

They carried residual trauma and latent emotions into their marriages where they had baby after baby and worked their keisters off to provide house and home and a better life than they had had. They put a meal on the table and clothes on their children’s backs, and for that, those children ought to be grateful. End of story.

My parents, the ones who ought to be grateful, were born circa World War II, another national trauma. My grandmother, my mom’s mom, once showed me the ration books she had kept that allowed her just so much coffee, sugar, and stockings while she was raising small children, wearing a dress and heels, mind you, and keeping her house just so. Having stuffed her own childhood traumas deep inside, she was ill-equipped to provide much empathy or compassion to her own children. Her husband, one of eleven children raised by sugar beet farmers, became a successful salesman who brought home the bacon and often last-minute dinner guests. Little Grandma, as we called her, was responsible for being always ready with a picture-perfect house, an exquisite meal, and well-behaved children. If those children had feelings, they’d better check them at the door. My mother tells stories of high expectations and little tolerance for not rising to meet them.

My dad was one of six children. His father worked for the same company my maternal grandfather worked for. My grandmother stayed home, making homemade lye soap, and attending to the needs of all those open mouths and hands. She, too, had lived through her own childhood traumas, though she never spoke of them. Her clinical depression was so severe that she had endured shock treatments. When I knew her, she was mostly silent, mostly bedridden, with a quiet smile covering God only knows what buried emotions. My dad was the youngest of those six. He tells stories of playing in the neighborhood, of having a paper route, of going off to the Marines, but not too much about his interactions with his parents or siblings. He has been, most of my life, successful, content, and optimistic. I’ve seen little evidence of negative emotions or hurt.

Nevertheless, I suspect that my mom and dad, raised by parents with few emotional tools, endured their own childhood traumas, although they wouldn’t call them that, and likely would deny even now that anything they experienced was “all that bad.”

They married young, of course, and had a houseful of kids. They worked hard to provide for their needs as their parents had done for them and to create a home and family. Alas, generations of trauma were coming home to roost. Ill-equipped to process their latent emotions along with the growing demands of four small children, they managed in their own ways and ultimately divorced.

I was in elementary school when they split, and life as I perceived it — nuclear family, ranch-style house down the street from my school, neighbors I’d know all my life — was disassembled. This was, of course, the largest disruption of my life. We didn’t really talk about it as a family, at least not in my memory. No one knew how. How could they?

Here’s the thing though, whether we talk about it or not, trauma has an impact. We have emotional and physical responses whether we can articulate them or not. I can’t speak for my siblings, but I know I felt all kinds of things. I was stunned with disbelief. I remember telling a classmate “My parents will never get a divorce” just weeks before I found out that they were, in fact, divorcing. I had to figure out what my new reality meant. I remember a conversation with my older sister where I told her that I didn’t have a dad any more. She assured me that I would “always have a dad.”

I had all kinds of feelings for years and years. I could flip from extremely happy to extremely angry in seconds. I could spend whole days brooding. I cried easily, laughed loudly, loved fiercely, and got devastatingly hurt, but I didn’t know what to do with all those emotions.

The message I got from my family and friends was that I needed to quiet down, quit crying so much, and get over it, but no matter how hard I tried, those feelings weren’t going anywhere.

I tried a few coping strategies — drinking, anorexia, and academic overachievement — but those only temporarily numbed the feelings which I would eventually have to take out, examine, and process many years later.

Unfortunately for my children, some of that unpacking is happening now, after they are gone living their lives, trying to find words and expression for their own emotions and their own childhood traumas.

I’m sure I’m not alone — growing up with limited emotional vocabulary to process myriad emotional experiences — but it doesn’t have to be this way. We can, in the midst of our own international crisis find the language and the space to loosen up generations of tamped-down trauma, drag it out into the open, examine it carefully, and give it — finally — some language.

Why would we want to do this? Why would we want to dredge up old hurts, expose old wounds, and revisit decades-old losses? Because in seeing, in speaking, in acknowledging the devastation, there is healing, connection, restoration, and hope.

How do I know? I’ve been on this journey for a while now, and I have found myself coming into wholeness, of being able to feel deeply from a whole menu of emotions — joy, sadness, anger, happiness, sorrow, disappointment, and the like. I’ve been learning Emotions 101 in my fifties, and then recently, a friend suggested I read Brene’ Brown’s Atlas of the Heart, and only two chapters in, I know I’m moving into an advanced course. I’m pulling experiences out of my rucksack again and I’m seeing more complexity, finding deeper understanding, and moving through another wave of grief and recovery.

It’s hard. I’ve been triggered this past couple of weeks. I’ve had some painful flashbacks. I’ve connected some dots that I hadn’t even noticed before. I’ve found myself aching.

But, look, generations have not had the ability to look at individual or collective pain — they’ve not been able to fully grieve. They’ve merely shoved their hurts aside and ‘gotten on’. And we’re the worse for it, aren’t we?

Isn’t it time we tried a different way? Can’t we imagine a richer life for those who come along after us? Wouldn’t it be lovely to start a new legacy?

He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”

Psalm 147:3

Challenging Routines

Click the arrow to listen.

It’s a quiet, cold Sunday morning, and I’m sitting here in our office that is filled with natural light. I’ve brewed a strong cup of tea, and I’m ready to write.

I have had the rhythm for several months now of coming to my blog on Saturday or Sunday morning with an idea — some notes from my morning pages or an idea that’s been floating around in my mind all week long, but today I have nothing.

To be honest, I’m kind of in a covid-fatigue slump.

One day runs into another.

I spend up to 5 hours a day in a zoom room.

To fight utter lethargy, I force myself to go out for a midday walk, no matter how cold it is — and it has been cold. You should see me, I layer pants over leggings, long sleeves over short sleeves, pop a stocking cap on my head, and top it all with a robin’s egg blue parka and some winter walking boots. I put my earbuds in and listen to a podcast while I walk the 1.25 miles down the walking path to the corner and back.

Other highlights of my day include a bowl of oatmeal in the morning, a load or two of laundry some time during the day, some ongoing games of Words With Friends, and some kind of television in the evening.

I check the mail once or twice, and usually what I find is some promotional mail from a casino addressed to the former owner of the house, the weekly grocery fliers, and some kind of bill or statement.

I do yoga and write every morning and listen to my daily Bible reading on the YouVersion app followed by The New York Times The Daily Podcast almost without fail.

Day after day after day looks pretty much the same, and I must not be alone in this because last Sunday our pastor, Gabe Kasper, started a sermon series, Rule of Life , which is an examination of the current rhythms we live in and a challenge to interrogate the impact of those rhythms and perhaps switch them up a little.

Pastor Gabe cited Justin Whitmel Earley, the author of The Common Rule, who said, “We have a common problem. By ignoring the ways habits shape us, we’ve assimilated to a hidden rule of life: The American rule of life. This rigorous program of habits forms us in all the anxiety, depression, consumerism, injustice, and vanity that are so typical in the contemporary American life.”

Well, if that didn’t just stop me in my tracks. What habits have we all formed? What do we do in a typical day? What consumes our time? And how is that activity, that behavior, that habit, that rhythm shaping us?

Now I love a daily rhythm. When our children were little, I actually had a daily schedule. We had a wake up time (you will not get out of your bed before this alarm goes off at 6am), a ‘school’ time (where this teacher/mom provided intentional lessons on letters, numbers, colors, etc.), a play time (“No guys, we can’t play in the back yard at 6am. We will go out at 9), and a break time (everyone to your own spaces — we all need some time alone). Of course once they were in school, that schedule pretty much dictated our days, as work does for me now, but even when I don’t have to be anywhere, it is a rare day that I don’t have some kind of time map laid out and a list of things I want to accomplish, including the morning rhythm that gets me started every day.

But Pastor Gabe wasn’t asking me to examine my to-do list or my wellness routine, he was asking me to consider the ways I fill my time in the spaces around that schedule. How much time do I spend on my phone — yes, I do know that number because the phone tells me every week. How much time do I spend mindlessly watching Netflix or Peacock or AppleTV every night? He was also asking me to check my intentionality. How much time do I spend reaching out to friends and family members? How much time to I spend talking with my husband? How much time do I spend in prayer?

These are good questions — especially two years into Covid when most of us have binged every show on TV, we’ve become overly attached to social media, and — let’s be honest — we’re eating our meals on the couch wearing yoga pants, sweats, or pajamas. We’ve lost whole days, weeks, and months.

Time has become a very ambiguous concept — When did that happen? I don’t know, some time during Covid.

So, this sermon series is tapping me on the shoulder, saying, Hey, I know it’s been a rough go, but I think you’ve got the capacity to switch a couple things up, and you know, I think I’m ready.

Last week’s encouragement was relatively easy. Pastor Gabe asked us to consider adding a few pieces to our routines:

The first piece is daily prayer. This might seem like a no-brainer, but a habit of prayer has been a little squishy for me. I do pray. I find that my morning writing is often a prayer, or it makes its way to prayer. I also am starting to build a habit of praying when I first start to wake in the morning and before I fall asleep at night, but for all the order and structure in my life, prayer is one place that has remained more ad libbed. I’m considering that rule of my life right now as part of this congregational journey.

The second piece is weekly worship. My husband and I already have this as a rule because we love worship. It is a time of peace and healing for us — a time of community and belonging. Since the beginning of Covid, we have at times chosen to worship virtually, and we are thankful to have that option.

The third piece is monthly fasting. Now, since the idea of fasting may produce some anxiety, let me say as a former anorexic, that fasting does not need to be from food. It can be, but since this re-set for me is more about how I spend my time, I am considering a couple options — 24 hours without technology or maybe just social media or possibly 24 hours without my phone. It’ll be a challenge, so I haven’t put anything on the calendar yet, but I am thinking about it. (And now I’ve put it in print, so the likelihood that it will happen just went up a notch.)

Considering change, especially to rhythms that have sustained (or at least distracted) us during a time of crisis, is not easy. It takes intentionality. It takes a desire and a commitment to take a new way even when muscle memory wants to take the familiar route. But what might be the benefits? What might be the pay off? What might we notice if we change a few steps in our daily routine?

This morning, in the second sermon in the series, Pastor Marcus Lane said that following the Rule of Life is not a prerequisite to get to God but an opportunity to be transformed by His grace.

That’s what me might gain, friends, a greater experience of the grace of God and His transformational power.

What might be changed? What might we experience? How powerful is the grace of God?

In my experience it can turn mourning to joy, pain to healing, and despair to hope. It really can.

I might be willing to make a few changes for that. How about you?

discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily training is just slightly beneficial, but godliness is beneficial for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.

I Timothy 4:7-8

Coronavirus Diary #32: We’re Still Here

When I wrote that first Coronavirus Diary in March of 2020, I could’ve never imagined that almost two years later I’d be on the thirty-second installment, yet here we are.

We are tired of it. We are discouraged. We are ready for this mess to be over, but we clearly have a ways to go.

My last coronavirus diary was in September when we were headed back to school, mask-clad yet hopeful that we were returning to some semblance of ‘normal’. My students filed in, grumbling but happy to be together. We re-learned classroom rules — expectations for coexisting in the same space such as arriving on time, sitting in assigned seats, putting our phones away, wearing a mask. When the inevitable happened and someone caught COVID, we followed the CDC’s guidelines for contact tracing and quarantining. Students took turns isolating at home where they could access assignments through Google classroom, if they were so inclined, and then returning to the classroom after two weeks’ time. At the end of October, a high number of staff cases sent us home for two weeks. We returned in mid November, regrouped, and carried on until early December when, once again, we headed home due to a staffing shortage.

Being in the building is better of course. I have had more students in attendance, more students completing assignments, more students dropping in for snacks, more students walking by for a fist bump first thing in the morning.

The school year was beginning to feel a little like ‘normal’. In fact, even with the interruptions for virtual instruction, I got so much into the groove that I began to believe we were truly on our way out of the pandemic — that I had no more coronavirus diaries to write, nothing more to say on the topic. Yet, here we are two years after the first cases were reported, seeing the daily case numbers surge and watching the death count ticker slowly tick-ticking away. Last Friday, we moved back to remote instruction, hunkering down once again in our homes, where we will stay until the end of January.

Over 835,000 Americans have died because of Covid, and this current Omicron surge has us averaging over 600,000 new cases a day. And while word on the street is that Omicron is less severe than previous strains of the virus, it is wildly more contagious — whole school districts are remote, hospitals are at capacity, and the interruption to daily life cannot be ignored.

Guidance on how to behave during this latest wave is confusing, to say the least, but the essentials remain the same:

Source: click here

Some of us read those guidelines and readily do our part; others, for a variety of reasons, have chosen not to get vaccinated, have resisted wearing masks, and have for all intents and purposes returned to life as we once knew it, in those pre-pandemic days.

Is it time for that? Right now? When we are in the middle of a surge of cases?

Don’t our actions, whichever ones we choose, have an impact on not only ourselves, but also on others in our community?

Haven’t we seen the impact of this pandemic and our divided response?

Not only has the virus lingered, but we have, it seems, hunkered down in camps, continuing to point fingers at one another, calling one another names, and blaming one another for the situation that we find ourselves in.

Has that approach been helping? It doesn’t seem to be, neither does pointing blame at governmental leaders, previous or present, who can’t seem to get on the same page either.

We find ourself fussing and fuming at each other, sinking further and further into anger, depression, and hopelessness.

But friends, we are not a people without hope. We have merely momentarily put our hope in the wrong things.

Our hope is not in our personal rights, our own self-righteousness, our rule-following, or our resistance to rules. Our hope is not in the CDC, and it’s not in the Republican or Democratic party. It’s not in Biden or Trump. It’s not in a face mask or a vaccine or a booster.

No, our hope is in God, the Creator of heaven and earth.

Could He not, in the blink of an eye, eradicate Covid from the face of the earth?

He could.

Could He not do this without a vaccine or masks or social distancing?

He could.

Could He also use a pandemic to bring us back to Him?

He could.

Will we let Him?

What would that look like?

Would a return to God look like name-calling, blaming, and judging?

I’m guessing not.

I’ve been struggling with this. In fact, this very blog started out as a rant against those who would not be vaccinated, those who would not wear a mask, those who, in my opinion, seem to be carelessly walking around spreading the virus. I feel angry sometimes because I am trying to do what is right for the sake of my family, my community, and our country, and I feel that not everyone else is doing the same. I blame them. I call them names. I judge them.

“Can’t you see,” I yell, “we are in the middle of a pandemic! And you are only making it worse!”

And what impact does all my yelling, blaming, and judging have? I end up angrier, more discouraged, and feeling like there is no hope.

But, friends, we are not a people without hope.

We are not.

So, I am going to try, really I am, to turn my gaze away from those I’d like to blame and move it toward the One who is able to make all things new.

I am going to stop pointing fingers, calling names, and shouting accusations, and I am going to instead lift my hands to the One who can put an end to the pandemic, can put an end to the divisions, can soften our hearts, and can restore our hope.

He’s managed plagues and famines and wars and all manner of evil that people have inflicted on one another. This pandemic is not too much for Him.

It’s only taken me two years [and 32 coronavirus diaries] to come to this realization; I’m sorry to those of you who got there before me.

Don’t get me wrong — I’d still like ya’all to get vaccinated, wear a mask, and stay away from crowds at least until this latest surge is over, but if you don’t, I’m going to try not to make any assumptions about you. I am going to do my best to love you.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15:13

The Wonder of Why

Each November my husband and I create a Google doc — a list of all the gifts we’d like to purchase in December. We’ve found this necessary because we have seven (yes, 7!) December birthdays in our immediate family. And all the birthday celebrating we do in December culminates, as you may know, in Christmas! For years we have spent Thanksgiving to New Year’s in a whirlwind of activity — purchasing, preparing, sending, and celebrating.

We can get so busy, so caught up in the details of all the festivities, that we can forget the why — the reason we celebrate.

We don’t often lose sight of why we celebrate the birthdays of our loved ones because they are (even if virtually) physically present in our lives, and even in the most difficult of years, we are thankful for that.

However, even with all the garland and bows and carols and gifts, or perhaps because of them, we can lose the wonder of why we are celebrating Christmas.

Why is it that most of the country — much of the world — stops what they are doing every year for at least a full day if not a full week or more? Why is it that retailers organize months’ worth of marketing, staging, and purchasing toward December? Why is it assumed that we will gather with family and friends, exchange gifts, and transform our homes for a month out of every year?

What could it be that aligns us all in a common activity, a common momentum, a common — dare I say — purpose?

It couldn’t be — could it? — the ages old myth-like tale of a woman, some angels, a donkey, a stable, and an infant? Is that story, which has been told and retold in various forms for generations, the why that propels us all toward a seemingly united series of activities — where we dress in red, light our trees, purchase stamps by the roll, bake dozens of sweets, and wrap our carefully chosen gifts in the wee hours of the night?

Is it possible that a centuries old story, one that some of us believe and some of us don’t, has the power to draw our eyes, dictate our spending, and determine our social calendars for weeks at a time. Does that seem odd, especially right now when we have trouble agreeing on most everything? We can’t get on the same page about climate change, gun violence, or even a global pandemic, but we all seem to be willing to purchase an ugly sweater and wear it on a prescribed day.

We give lavishly during this season — to our friends, our coworkers, our families, and even those we do not know. We are generous, we spread good cheer, we even dare to hold on to hope. All of us!

Why?

Is it because a baby was born over two centuries ago?

How could one baby born in a manger change anything?

It makes no sense at all.

Omnipotent, omniscient, eternal God distills Himself into infant form, becomes human, and lives among us? How can one life — one perfect sinless life — atone for all the harm we have inflicted on one another?

It’s simple: He’s the answer to our why.

He’s the only One.

He’s the only One who can heal the sick with His touch, calm the sea with His breath, and save us all with His life.

He’s the only One who is with us in the busyness, in the shopping, in the decorating, in the frantic checking off of tasks. He’s with us — God with us — even when we have lost our recognition of the why.

He, my friends, the baby, Jesus, is the why.

The whole earth rejoices — stars appear, angels sing, kings trek across the land — at His birth. And we long, we groan, we wait for His return.

Because until His return, we will lose sight of the why again and again — we will turn to ourselves and strive to create a perfect Christmas, a perfect experience for our families, a perfect celebration of love.

We will get a glimpse, because He — Jesus — is God with us, but we will not yet fully see the joy, the unity, the peace that He will bring.

Yet, even now, from His fullness — the beautiful fullness embodied in that infant — we have all received grace upon grace. Grace for when we overlook him, for when we get caught up in task completion, for when we have forgotten, or for when we have refused to believe that He is indeed God with us — Emmanuel.

How do we adequately pause — rush to the manger, bow down, and acknowledge the one who makes all things new? We start now, in this moment, putting down our list, lifting our eyes, and adoring the infant born in a manger long ago.

We, like the shepherds, bend our knees. We, like the angels, declare His glory. We, like the kings, bring Him our finest gifts. We, like Mary, ponder this miracle in our hearts.

The God of the universe put on flesh — in the form of an infant — to be with us.

That is our why — that is the reason we celebrate Christmas.

O Come Let Us Adore Him.

Open Wound, an allegory*

Stressed Woman At Home Headache Pain Female Portrait. Beautiful Girl Close  Up Face And Head With Hands Sitting Alone Sad. Drawn With One Line Royalty  Free Cliparts, Vectors, And Stock Illustration. Image
Source
Click arrow to listen.

*allegory, a symbolic fictional narrative that conveys a meaning not explicitly set forth in the narrative

Her wound was open. She sat, sobbing.

It wasn’t the first time. Although it had scabbed over time and again since the injury was first sustained, it could be torn open with the slightest impact, even now, decades later.

She’d been a child when the initial blow had been dealt and her still-young flesh had first been split open. The pain had been stunning — it had shoved her back, and she had sat, a child, weeping on the floor, holding her chest, trying to stop the hemorrhaging.

After she had tired from much sobbing and flailing about, it had subsided — the pain, the bleeding — receding to a dull but ever present ache.

Since then, she had carried it around with her, this bruised and tender flesh,

It was the kind of injury that never fully heals, the experts had said. Even when sustained during the growing years, the body — the heart — could not regenerate enough cells to fully heal the damage that had been done.

The injury would remain, opening up from time to time. Then, new cells would form to stop the bleeding, to cover over the gaping wound. She’d use caution, covering the tender area with a protective layer, shielding it from subsequent blows, learning to avoid danger, developing a keen defensive awareness.

She’d be so careful, so vigilant, that she could even believe the spirit-altering injury might actually be healing. The pain would subside, and she would become hopeful that she would never again shed tears, never again ache, never again sob with the pain or even the memory of the pain.

But then, from out of nowhere — but often from somewhere familiar — a pointed blade would find its way through her armor, past layers of clothing, beneath the dressings, to pierce the flesh. Just like that, the wound would be torn open and she would crumble again, down, down, down, weeping, sobbing, holding her heart, and begging for the pain to stop,

In the early years, not long after the wound had first been dealt, she would, in pain, lash out — swinging and flailing at those closest, begging them to join her in the misery. Over the years, however, she learned this strategy was ineffective — it did not diminish her own hurt, but rather multiplied it. Instead of joining her in her pain, the others turned away, kept their distance, isolating her, piling guilt and regret on top of pain, and leaving those she loved with their own wounds to tend.

Later, as she aged, when certainly, she thought, this decades-old injury had to be fully healed, she could still be brought low by a stray arrow, an unintended blow that nevertheless grazed the tender flesh, re-opening the wound.

It was open now. The middle-aged heart had been hit, and it was laid bare.

Seeping.

Throbbing.

Reminding her of the many years of pain, many years of tears, many years of swallowing feelings past a tightened aching throat.

She lay supine, futilely wiping away an unstoppable deluge of tears, fighting against the years of pain — still not wanting to feel it — still not wanting to admit I’m hit! I’m hurt! I’m bleeding! I’m suffering!

Those standing over her, observing her as she lie bleeding, sobbing, say her wound, her perpetually open wound, informs her compassion, gives her language to comfort others with the comfort she herself has received, but that is little consolation when the tenuous flesh has been recently sliced, when the blood is dripping on the floor, when she is doubled over, trying desperately to silence her own cries.

Nevertheless she hears.

She admits they are right.

Her pain does give her compassion for others.

She sighs in resignation, then does what she has always done.

She rises.

She sits up, dabbing at the now-congealing blood,

taking a sip of cool water,

applying fresh dressings,

washing her face,

combing her hair.

Then, as she examines herself in the mirror, she hears a still small voice, “Do not be afraid; do not discouraged, for I am with you wherever you go.”

“I know,” she says, nodding, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye, “I know.”

And she, carrying the open wound with her, steps back into the land of the living.

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

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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

Click the arrow to hear me read this post.

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

Click the arrow to listen to me read this post.

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

Click the arrow to hear me read this post.

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.

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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, Update 5.19.2022

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Last Saturday night, an 18-year-old white man drove 3 hours to a predominantly black community with the sole intent of killing Black people; he succeeded. He, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, was peacefully detained before he could complete the rest of his plan, killing more Black folks at a neighboring Wal-Mart. The racism that has infected our nation since its inception continues to poison our minds — we are desensitized to this kind of violence and the more insidious systemic racism that plagues us. When the extreme happens, we wring our hands, shrug our shoulders, and go back to what we were doing.

That is not enough.

Here, I am re-posting a blog I wrote about a year ago, imagining a different way. I challenge you to consider what small steps you can take — today — to see, expose, and push back against racist ideas that certainly live deep in your (in my) DNA. We can — slowly and methodically — make change, but it’s going to take all of us.

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 heels 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

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

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.

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

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.