Teacher Tales: A Voice from the Past

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

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

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

“I’m not much of a hockey fan.”

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

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

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

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

Plus, I needed a job.

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

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

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

Detroit Day School for the Deaf - Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Thessalonians 5:11

The Camera’s View

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The camera can’t catch everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 139:23-24

Intending for Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am no longer that person.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colossians 3:23 NLT

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