Many, many years ago, you carried me in your womb, labored me into the world, and cradled me in your arms. You took me home to the nest you had …A Mother’s Day Revisit: A letter to my (our) mother(s)
The human capacity for emotion is staggering. How do I know this? I’m staggering.
In the last seventy-two hours I have felt contentment, fatigue, joy, satisfaction, frustration, annoyance, responsibility, discontent, dissatisfaction, love, pride, calm, irritability, anger, happiness, anticipation, gratitude, betrayal, shame, hurt, connectedness, emptiness, gratitude, concern, apathy, hopelessness, and deep sadness. And those are just the ones that come to mind right now.
How did I feel so much in just three days time? Did I go to a wedding? a funeral? a spiritual retreat? Nope. I went to work, came home, went to a graduation party, and came home again.
We can have all kinds of feelings in the midst of our everyday life.
I have known this my whole life. I was, if you remember, labelled “moodiest” in my high school yearbook. That label had all kinds of judgment and shame attached to it, and I felt it. The people who labelled me didn’t know my experience and why I had so much emotion. And I didn’t know yet that my bandwidth for emotional expression was my superpower.
It doesn’t always feel like a superpower, though. It sure didn’t on Friday when I went from the pleasure of watching three LGBTQ+ students participate in an online conference — sitting in my room with one of their advisors, listening to presenters, coloring, and finding a small pocket of safety away from their usual volatile surroundings — to the stress of navigating a chaotic high school hallway back to the quiet contentment of sitting at my desk, planning the details for next week’s instruction, to the frustration of failing to capture the combined attention of nine erratic and impulsive freshmen.
Then, I was faced with the challenge of metabolizing the adrenaline from feeling disrespected in my own space so that I could traverse the once-again chaotic hallways and become an “effective” supervisor of a hundred or so young adolescents on the Friday of a full moon as they remained “contained” in the unimpressive space of an out-of-date gym eating a subpar lunch. I made my way there, as I always do, continuously processing the inequities of my students’ realities — the very ones that contribute to their impulsivity and disrespectful behavior. A coworker and I stood together, quietly venting while intermittently addressing the most egregious behaviors such as vaping — which is prohibited — and running — which the students really need, but which is not tenable in such a small space.
From there, annoyed, I walked — again — through the chaotic hallway, calling out, “head to class, everyone!” I grabbed some supplies from my room and gathered two ninth graders (have I mentioned it was a full moon) from their assigned classes so that we could do a reading intervention where I fluctuated between pride (“nice job!”) and irritability (“put your phone down and look at this page”). I then had to shake off that tension and shift my mind and emotions to the impartial business of grading and then make “non-emotional” phone calls to the parents of the feral freshmen who had disrespected me earlier, saying “please remind your students that we have just six weeks to finish strong.”
I packed up my things for the weekend, and felt less irritated than I imagined as I made an additional phone call to book five hotel rooms for family members who are attending my daughter’s wedding this summer. In fact, I felt a little pleased with myself for finally checking it off my list, and I chatted playfully with my colleague as we shared our ride home. Then I got a little miffed when I discovered that my husband and father-in-law were sitting in our living room, simultaneously wanting me to sit and chat and expecting that at some point we would eat dinner, which I had yet to prepare.
The visit was expected, and I had a plan, but I am always tired on Fridays, and I really wanted to pour a glass of wine, curl up in a blanket, and watch something ridiculously pointless on TV, but I conjured up a meal, did my best to chat for a bit, and then retreated to my puzzle table in the basement where I sat non-communicatively listening to the men chat upstairs.
Of course I couldn’t sleep because I was still mentally processing my ineffectiveness during the one class I had to teach, so I got back up and watched mindless television until I could barely keep myself conscious.
The next morning, I manufactured cheer for my father-in-law as I presented him and my husband with breakfast before running to the store for a few groceries, a gift, and a fistful of Mother’s Day cards then returning home to shower and dress in preparation for my friend’s graduation party. I was feeling satisfied in managing all of these details until I was suddenly and unexpectedly blindsided by a revelation of broken trust and personal betrayal that spiraled me into a dark anger (shielding hurt) that had to somehow be processed or parked so that I could show up for the friend who had overcome multiple obstacles to earn a master’s degree while working full time.
As I drove to her place, I mentally chose to set the new information on the shelf so that I could show up in a room where I knew no one and lend my hands to decorate tables, set out food, and mingle [even more chatting] with strangers. I posed for a photo, ate [and raved] over excellent food, and then [two hours later] repeated my congratulations and headed back home.
Alone, at last, I changed into work clothes, went to my garden, and kneeled in the dirt, determinedly pressing dried seeds from last year’s harvest into the soil, hoping against all probability that God can once again bring life from death, healing from brokenness, trust from betrayal.
How many times can He perform a resurrection?
How many times can the broken be made whole?
I have an insufferable belief in restoration, but I am staggering, friends, and I am very, very tired.
I made my way back to the puzzle, and sat, feeling my hurt and fatigue, and then, one of ours who has been through so much devastation of her own sent a photo — her left hand with a diamond on the ring finger. And I had to admit that God never grows weary of making all things new.
May it ever be so.
[Inhale] I have been restored and upheld, and I will praise you.
For the past few months, I’ve been motoring through — plan, teach, grade then drive home, cook, laundry, sleep– on repeat day after day after day. I’ve been managing to fit in a few pages of scrawl every morning followed by a little bit of yoga and a walk (or two) with my work buddy each day. I’ve cleared the garden to get ready for spring planting, and I’m bracing myself for the onslaught of Spring events that have already positioned themselves on the calendar — senior this and faculty that.
It’s a regular type of busy but I find myself wiped out and a little bit irritable — especially with my students.
I prepare what I think is a home run lesson and my seniors wander into my room, as seniors often do — late, loud, and with little interest in the activity that I have planned. And, rather than doing what excellent teachers do to engage them — demonstrating the relevance of the work or connecting with something they are interested in — I get annoyed that they are being who they are — teenagers on the verge of graduation. And, I show them who I am — a teacher who is tired of the routine and just as ready as they are to be finished.
In the moment, I expect them to bend to my will — I fuss, I stomp, I sling demands, I utter my frustration. And, not shockingly, I am ineffective. Which just makes me more annoyed.
And because I’m motoring along, I don’t take the time to pause, to step away, to reflect. Instead, my frustration bubbles into tantrum, and I walk out of a classroom full of seniors, taking a lap of the building to calm myself down. Other staff step into my abandoned room and berate my students for doing whatever it was that set off “the most experienced teacher in the building”. My stunned students sit silently. I walk back in and do my best to salvage anything that is left of the hour.
It happens to the best of us. We lose our shit because we haven’t acknowledged the warning flags. We haven’t taken a step away. That is why we have to anticipate our need to step away — to schedule it in before our shit has been lost.
Every year for the past eight or nine years, I have met at a hotel with a hundred or so other women (pastors’ wives all) who carve out a few days from their also busy routines to step away, laugh, sing, and pray. Every year in January, when the registration materials come, I question why it’s so important for me to get away with this group of women that I see just once a year. Why do I want to spend the time and money to hole up in a hotel room, to sit at a table, to participate in corny mixer games, to disrupt my routine? I drag my feet, but typically sometime in late February, I remind myself (or one of my friends gives a nudge) that I always come away feeling refreshed, fed, and typically somehow shifted.
Last Friday, the day after I abandoned my classroom, I packed up my things at the end of the day and headed north. After two hours of driving, I dropped my things in my room, put a comb through my hair, and meandered down to our meeting room.
A cannabis dealer was set up outside our space (the display made complete by an 18 inch stuffed phallus). All of us — women aged early 20s to mid 80s — had to traverse the wares to find one another, and perhaps because of that, we met with laughter, disarmed, ready to embrace and lean into relaxation.
Almost immediately during the ice breaker game “two truths and a lie” I found myself blurting out a true confession to a table full of women (some of whom I barely know) that I had recently told a roomful of seniors that they were behaving like assholes. And not one of the pastors’ wives gasped in horror. Instead they laughed. Someone said, “well, they probably were behaving like assholes”. They normalized my frustration. They accepted me.
Throughout the weekend, I found friend after friend — some I have known for decades, others I’d met just once or twice before. In clusters of two or three or ten, we shared our lives with one another — affirming, listening, empathizing, smiling, laughing. We drank coffee and tea as we leaned into scripture. We sipped wine and noshed on cheese and crackers as we laughed late into the night.
I was so relaxed. I wasn’t really anticipating a major shift to happen during this weekend. I was mostly glad that I had the time to connect with friends instead of managing my regular responsibilities. I got myself busy on a project one of the women had brought to share — crocheting plastic grocery bags into sleeping mats to be given to people who are experiencing housing insecurity — and figured I would coast through the Bible study in typical fashion.
Why I thought that, I have no idea, because almost without fail the Bible study portion of this event, which is all of Saturday morning, a little of Saturday afternoon, with a finish on Sunday morning, is where much of what I have been experiencing in my personal life gets clarified.
Our leader, a veteran pastors’ wife, accomplished scholar, and down-to-earth friend, led us into a journey with Peter, disciple of Jesus, who though faithful and passionate, sometimes ignored the warning signs and occasionally lost his shit. We saw him walk on water, then sink. We saw him speaking with Jesus, and then, when the stakes were so high, denying him.
After we had journeyed with Peter, Jesus, and the Disciples all morning, and I had made substantial ground on my crocheting project, our leader asked us to turn to Psalm 51. She led us through lectio divina, a scripture reading practice wherein you read the passage, circle what stands out to you, reflect as you read it again, respond by writing freely about the words you had circled, and then rest in silence for several minutes. I set my crocheting aside and leaned in. I was stunned by what I found. As I moved through the process, and wrote out my thoughts, I remembered the story of my last several years — how God had restored me, upheld me, renewed me, and sustained me. I acknowledged that in spite of that story, I regularly try to return (especially with my students) to my soldiering ways. I try to plan perfection, to demand compliance, and to ensure my own success.
I sat in silence.
Next, our leader taught us a strategy called a “breath prayer”. She urged us to use some of the words from our earlier writing to craft a prayer that we could say in one breath when we are overwhelmed, or stressed, or perhaps, I thought, in moments when I am about to tell a classroom full of students that they are acting like assholes. The words fell immediately on the page: Father, you have restored me and upheld me, and I will praise you.
It seems we were soon packing our things, hugging goodbye, and climbing back in our cars.
And it wasn’t long before I found myself in front of the very group of students who I had grown frustrated with the week before. They weren’t miraculously changed. They were still seniors on the brink of graduation — falling asleep, scrolling on their phones, talking to one another, asking to use the bathroom while I was in the middle of presenting a perfectly prepared lesson.
But I had shifted — not perfectly, not permanently — but I was somehow standing differently in the front of my classroom. I breathed my prayer several times that first day: Father, you have restored me and upheld me, and I will praise you. I stood a little lighter. I spoke a little gentler. And perhaps, just perhaps, a few more students engaged in learning than had done so the week before.
However, later in the week, I was again feeling fatigued and frustrated. I started to hear myself say sarcastically, “You go ahead, stay on your phone while I’m presenting the lesson, just don’t come ask me for support when you’re doing your work.” Yeah, it was another warning flag. Time to get some rest over the weekend. Time to practice my breath prayer. Time to step away.
I think this is why I am insufferably obsessed with restoration — because I keep seeing it over and over again in my life. I lose my shit, God drowns me in his grace, and I am given an opportunity to shift — to find a different way.
And often, the opportunity to shift presents itself when I find the time to step away — to slow down, to gather with people who love me, to reflect on what has been happening, and to realize what really is true.
I did that again today — with the small group my husband and I meet with weekly. We shared the struggles and joys of our week, we acknowledged with amazement all that we have seen each other through, and we reminded one another of the relentless grace and mercy of God.
It’s the refreshing breath I needed so that I could head into this week with the prayer on my lips: I have been restored and upheld, and for that, I will praise Him.
Second Half Living
A couple of years ago, I turned 55.
I imagine when some people hit an age like 55, they begin to think about retirement and the end of their careers, but since I had already been in a long season where I thought my career was over and had recently returned to my profession, I was still energized about teaching, still excited about being in the classroom, and still looking forward to many more years.
That didn’t stop the reality of my age though — the fact that the number 55 is just ten years away from 65, the age when Americans qualify for Medicare.
Ten years sounds like a long time until you glance backward and realize that ten years ago was when I first visited a rheumatologist, when we first considered moving back to Michigan, and when we were starting to say goodbye to St. Louis, to our teenagers, and to the life we had come to know.
It wasn’t that long ago, and ten more years will surely pass quickly.
I think it was out of the recognition of that reality that I jokingly declared 55 to be my halfway point — I was going to live to be 110!
I was finally enjoying life again having learned to manage my chronic illness and having navigated a long season of grief. I was learning so much about myself — what makes me tick, what I like, what I don’t like, how I think, how I believe, what makes me wonder, and what I want to impact. Surely I needed another half a lifetime to further explore what I was learning and to put that learning to good use.
Now, who knows whether I will actually live to be 110 or 85, or 58, but regardless, I am certainly in the second half of life, what Carl Jung and Richard Rohr describe as the phase of “undoing much of what has been accomplished in the first half in order to get at a deeper heart of human life.”
Rohr (and Jung) say that the first half of life is “focussed on the development and enhancement of our Ego and its mind-set: ambitions, plans, competitiveness, judgments about others, looking after oneself, one’s career, one’s family” and mine certainly was! Didn’t you, like me, run from high school to college to marriage to children to parenting and career, making snap decisions to take care of yourself and those that you loved only to come to the screeching realization around 45 or so that many of those decisions, though well-intentioned and possibly even prayerful and consulted upon, were ill-founded, poorly motivated, and simply wrong?
Didn’t you, like me, stand in the wreckage, grieving, wondering how it passed so quickly and why we don’t get a chance at a do-over?
That, according to Rohr, is the kind of devastation that leads to the openness that allows for growth in the second half of life. He says, “The supposed achievements of the first half of life have to fall apart and show themselves to be wanting in some way, or we will not move further.’
Sheesh. Does that make me feel any better? I don’t know.
What it does help me lean into though, is my current reality.
I am, at now 57, learning more and changing more than I believe I have at any other time in my life. I have not only a therapist but also not one, but two, instructional coaches, and a small group that my husband and I meet with weekly. My therapist is helping me unlearn behaviors that are deeply rooted in my childhood — ways of coping that once allowed me to navigate my realities that became patterns that are no longer useful. My instructional coaches help me see how strategies that were effective in the classrooms I served in the 1990s and early 2000s can be modified to meet the needs of the students I have now. Our small group provides a judgment-free space in which to interrogate long-held beliefs, to sit in unanswered complexity, to admit our failures vulnerably, and to be loved unconditionally.
Thirty year old me wouldn’t have received so much input from others. She was busy kicking butts and taking names — doing what she needed to do to look after herself and her family. She “knew” she was right and she didn’t have time for the input of others.
But after all those “right” moves and the “supposed achievements” of that era have fallen apart, I’m in a new position.
I am, as they say, “coachable”.
I was getting ready for an uncomfortable encounter recently, and the anxiety was building as the date grew closer, so I kept bringing up the pending situation with my therapist. Because of my history in similar situations — of feeling unheard, undervalued, and “tolerated”, I had some real emotions, so I couldn’t see clearly. I could no longer define the purpose for the encounter — why was I going to meet with this person if the potential for hurt was so great? My therapist prompted me to think about what I needed from the interaction and reminded me to set my “past baggage at the door” so that it wouldn’t clutter the reality of the current situation. She helped me practice language to express my needs, and even though I had some anxiety throughout the interaction, I was able to manage my expectations and come away feeling content, even though the outcome might not have been exactly what I had pictured.
That’s something, isn’t it?
One of my instructional coaches and I are working on my ability to not let the way my students show up impact how I show up. You would think that after three decades in the classroom, I would have this down — that I would be steady Eddy in the face of student behavior, and for the most part I am. However, these past three years have put me to the test. The students I see today are in some ways very similar to the students I taught back in the fall of 1989. However, in some ways they are very different. They have been through a lot and they show up erratically — late, loud, hungry, irritable, disrespectful, and unconcerned about how their white middle-aged teacher might feel about it. Mostly, I greet them at the door smiling and hopeful and navigate through class with a no-nonsense approach, but guys, I am also a human being who gets tired, who loses her patience, and who falls back on muscle memory. I still have the default switch that flips over to kicking butts and taking names when the going gets tough, and while that might’ve worked in the past, today calls for a different strategy — a calm, sure response rather than a powerful reaction.
That was super easy to type, but much more complicated to execute.
Many of my students enter the classroom unable to leave their “past baggage at the door”.
(How could a teenager know how to do that, when I am still practicing at 57?)
They don’t leave it at the door, but they lug it right in, dripping debris in their path and dumping the entire mess all over my classroom. Picture all the shit of 20 or so teenagers heaped among the desks of my classroom. It’s a little crowded. And smelly. And uncomfortable.
One student shoves another student because she is crowding his space. Another puts her head down because she “just can’t deal” with the chaos. Others try to position themselves in such a way to ignore the heaping stench so that they can opt in to learning, complete their assignment, and move through their day.
My students don’t need me in those moments to shout or demand or ridicule. No, they need me to draw on the coaching that I am receiving and the years of experience I have gained from living my life dragging around a heaping pile of my own.
They need me to be unfazed by the stench. They need me to be prepared and engaging. They need me to have compassion when they “just can’t deal” and they need me to be nonjudgmental so that they can choose, at any moment, to join whatever it is we are doing.
I was having some difficulty with a particular student. We’ll call him Tyler. He comes to school almost every day, but he makes it to my class just once or twice a week. When he does come, he arrives late and loud, making comments that draw all the attention toward him, interrupting my class and disrupting any hope of learning.
I was complaining about this student to my coach and she said, “Make him feel like he is part of the classroom.”
I stared at her with jaw gaping,.
“Use what he has to say to direct him back to the class.”
As I sat staring at her, I realized that I had been falling back on old faithful — trying to get him in line by shaming him, telling him that the reason that he acts out is because he doesn’t know what we are doing, rather than doing everything I could to rope him in so that he would know what we are doing,
And because I’m not still 30, not still sure that I have all the answers to everything, not still consumed with the advancement of my self and my family, I gulped and said, “Wow. You’re right.”
I went on to tell her that this very student had surprised me with his written work and that perhaps I could use it for a model in class. She said, “Don’t do that! He thrives on negative attention, and he will sabotage that attempt! Instead, tell him quietly, privately, that you were impressed with his work. Let him know that you see him, but do it quietly.”
And you know what? I did. And he received my compliment and turned in his assignment on time and lowered his volume just a little bit that day. It was a very little bit of movement in the right direction, but I will take it, because I know that he is still in the first half of life — he is still developing his ego, still looking after himself and his ambitions, and in his context, that is much more challenging than I think I could ever comprehend.
It’s quite a juxtaposition — me in my second half of life spending so much of my day surrounded by the unfiltered, confident bravado of teenagers, but I have to believe we were made for each other — they with their uncensored commentary on my wardrobe choices and teaching strategies followed by their genuine questions about what my prom was like and how I spend my money and me as a spectator in the room watching them navigate love, friendship, and loss as they plan for their future.
I know what’s coming for them — a season of challenge and discovery as they plan for and navigate their way into adulthood and the inevitable realization (at some point) that they’ve gotten a lot of things wrong. Maybe the best thing I can provide for them right now is a normalization of the fact that we make a lot of mistakes but that we can try again. We can learn, we can grow, and more importantly, we can give one another grace along the way. I think that’s what I wish I would’ve liked to have known in the first half of life. It’s what I’m thankful to know now.
for from His fullness, we have all received grace upon grace.”John 1:16
What World do We Live In? Part 2
**I wrote a piece called “What World Are We Living In” in the fall of 2020 when I first started commuting from Ann Arbor to Detroit to teach in a small charter school and began to daily witness the disparity between the two communities. The following post grew out of an experience I had last week in another school district.
Last Wednesday, instead of driving to Detroit first thing in the morning, I drove to Oakland County to participate in a day of professional development along with a dozen other teachers who use the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Intervention. I’ve been using the program for a little over a semester, with great results, but I have been aware that I might not be crossing all my t’s and dotting all my i’s. Having the opportunity to be a fly on the wall of two separate classrooms as other teachers implemented this intervention would hopefully help me see what I’ve been missing.
The beginning of my commute looked largely the same as it does on my daily trip to Detroit — interstate highway merging onto surface streets. However, I noted that while my regular route takes me past fast food, gas stations, minimarts, and older working class neighborhoods, this route into Oakland County took me past Starbucks, Trader Joes, and nicer restaurants before it led me through residential sections with large suburban homes. And then, when I took the final turn, I saw the school where I would begin the day.
It was a sprawling two-story building on a large piece of property surrounded by multiple well-lit and freshly-lined parking lots. I found a spot, grabbed my stuff, and made my way to the guest entrance at the front of the building. I approached a door, pushed a button, and looked into the camera before I was buzzed in to a glass-enclosed foyer.
There, a staff member/gatekeeper looked me over and buzzed me through the second door. She knew why I was there and directed me to room “two-oh-something or other”.
“Which way is that?” I asked.
“Up those stairs and follow the signs.”
I walked up the open carpeted stairway in the expansive atrium to the second floor, also carpeted, and found the group of teachers already in conversation.
They sat in a semicircle in the [also] carpeted classroom. I found a seat in the back of the room in a bar stool height chair next to a tall table. The students had not yet arrived, and the teachers were discussing what was on the agenda for the class this day — one of the final steps of reading a book in the AARI program, mapping the text.
I heard the bell ring in the hallway, and the students started coming in, finding their resources in a strategically placed filing system, then making their way to the table where I was sitting. I relocated myself and began to observe.
Right away I noticed a t I hadn’t been crossing when I looked at the big piece of butcher paper where they had started their text map. My students and I had mapped our own text the day before, and it looked somewhat similar to, if noticeably messier than, the one I was looking at, but there was one big difference — ours was written all in black on white paper. The map in this classroom was color-coded to illustrate its organization — sections of the book written in sequential order were outlined in pink, those written in a compare/contrast format were outlined in green, etc. I mentally thunked my forehead with my palm and said, “the colors! why do I always forget the colors!” And then I noticed the posters hung on the wall in this spacious classroom. At both the front and the back of the room, the teacher had full-color posters representing each of the eight text structures. Oh, I’d like to have those, I thought. If I had full color posters in my classroom instead of the black-and-white print outs I have, I might remember to use the color coding system!
One teacher asked, “Where did you get the posters?”
“Oh, I just printed them on our poster printer!”
Oh, I thought, they have a poster printer.
The class functioned mostly as my class does. The teacher had seven students around the table; one was absent. I have ten on my roster right now; typically one is absent. She used the socratic questioning that I use, and her students engaged as much as mine do, if slightly more politely, but then again, when I had a guest in my room last semester, my students were on their A game, too.
The second building was a literal carbon copy of the first, down to the same double buzzered entryway and carpeted stairs. We gathered in a classroom that “isn’t currently being utilized” where we found flexible seating — restaurant like booths, chairs on wheels at tables, and the one I chose, a rocking pod-like chair, where I noticed I could quietly shift my weight and stay better engaged in the discussion we were having before our second observation. Wow, I thought, I have some students who would benefit from chairs like these.
When the bell rang, we walked down the hall where our second teacher met us at the door and invited us first into her classroom and then across the hall to another room that “isn’t currently being utilized” so that she and her students could map their text.
Like me, she had a projection system where she displayed a slide that she used for her gathering — the time when we engage with our students to set the climate and build community. Her students were seated, much like mine are, around the room at desks. The difference I saw was, again, the carpeted floor, the colorful text-structure posters, and stacks of resources in every corner of the room.
In the room across the hall, we again found flexible seating — bar-height chairs with optional attached desks, lower seats on wheels, and one other form of desk-like seating. Again, full-color posters on the wall illustrating each of the text structures and some key questions to ask during the AARI process.
The students again were on their A-game, and I wondered if that was the case every day, even when they didn’t have a dozen teacher-y observers. I mean, what would get in the way of their learning in an environment like this?
As I drove home, I continued wondering, why do these schools look so different from my school? Why do students in Oakland County walk into a brand spanking new building every morning, pick what kind of chair works best for them, experience the warmth of carpeting, the advantage of full-color visual aids, and, when it’s hot outside, the benefit of air conditioning, while my students just thirty minutes down the road are bussed onto a crumbling parking lot, walk into an aging building with an inadequate gym, some windows that open and some that don’t, no air conditioning, no rooms that “aren’t currently being utilized”, one seating option whether it is appealing or not, and a jillion other obstacles to learning on any given day.
Is it just a case of money?
I spent some time this morning trying to figure out Michigan’s formula for school funding that might explain this disparity — why one child’s experience is so different from another’s when they both reside in the same state. But guys, I don’t understand the model.
It’s complicated and based on per student funding from the state, property taxes, income taxes, and even cigarette taxes! Low-income (and underperforming) districts like mine are supposed to get supplemental funding from the state — which is earmarked, but historically not always allocated. And even when it is allocated, why are most Detroit schools in disrepair, lacking in resources, and understaffed when schools in higher income districts are well maintained, richly resourced, and fully staffed with high quality instructors?
Why do they get the cool rocking pod chairs and my students don’t?
Is it because those students deserve better?
No! All students deserve better! Yet these disparities continue to exist — for going on centuries now.
The simple answer is systemic racism — in education, yes, but also in real estate, in health care, in hiring, in so many sectors of our society. It’s the historical practice of separating those who have from those who don’t to ensure that those who have will always have and those that don’t never will. And the remedy is anything but simple. It begins with recognizing that selfishness and greed have created the structures in our country that enable some to have a lovely experience and to guarantee that others do not.
Now, if you are in the camp that thinks I am completely off base and that the difference in schools is sheer economics and not based in historical racism at all, I ask you why the establishment is so up in arms about our students learning African American history or looking at history through the lens of Critical Race Theory? If there is nothing there to see, why not let our kids take a look for themselves? Maybe you’d like to take a look for yourself. If so, I recommend you check out the 1619 Project* which is available through The New York Times, on Apple podcasts, or in video form on Hulu. And if you still think I’m out of my mind, come spend a day with me at my school. Get to know my students and decide for yourself if you think they deserve more.
Yes, I feel pretty strongly about this.
It probably won’t come as a surprise that my seniors and I just finished learning about systemic inequities in preparation for reading Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, where we see through the lens of his experience the structural racism of Apartheid and how it impacted his childhood experience. We learned terms like unconscious bias, prejudice, racism, and systemic racism, and my students created posters to illustrate disparities in health care, generational wealth, criminal justice, and education.
When I returned to my students on Thursday and we started our class with a review of terms, I saw that not everyone understood that Apartheid was like the systemic racism we see in the US. In order to help them fully make the connection, I asked them to recall examples of where we experience inequities in our community. As they started to list them off, I told them about my experience in the Oakland Schools.
I wondered if it was necessary — to point out the details I had experienced. Would I be rubbing it in their faces?
But then I thought, Don’t they deserve to know what the experience of students 30 minutes away is like? especially as we prepare to read this book? especially since some of them are about to go to college and may study beside some of these very students who are walking carpeted hallways, sitting in rocking pods, and enjoying an air conditioned full-sized gym? (Let alone taking AP classes, music, and other electives we are unable to offer.)
I described what I had seen, and I could see their faces register the reality — the reality that their experience is not equal to the students I observed just 24 hours before.
“This is educational inequity,” I said. “It is one aspect of systemic racism. And why do you suppose it’s not easy to change?”
“Because,” one student answered, “it’s part of so many systems — not just education. And they don’t want it to change.”
“Who doesn’t want it to change?”
“The people in power.”
“Yes.” I gulped. “I suppose you are right. The people in power don’t want it to change.”
Pretty astute observation for a kid from Detroit? No. Kids from Detroit have this down, folks. They understand disparity; it’s the world they live in.
And the people in power can do something to change it. We are the people in power, my friends — people who vote, people in education, people in the church, white people — we can make choices that begin to make a difference for my students and their children and grandchildren. If we do nothing, this pattern will continue for more generations, and we shouldn’t be ok with that.
It’s not enough to fight for what’s best for our kids; we have to do what’s best for all kids.
As we established in my last post, I have “an insufferable belief in restoration.” The first step in restoration is acknowledging that our stuff is broken down, dilapidated, and no longer working, so I’m gonna keep talking about what’s broken to those who have the power and resources to fix it.
I hope you’ll start talking (and doing something) about it, too.
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, When it is in your power to do it.
*The 1619 Project is one of many places to start learning about historical systemic racism in the United States. For a list of other resources check out Harvard’s Racial Justice, Racial Equity, and Antiracism Reading List.
The Art of the No
You know that time during the pandemic, when I was working full-time from home and I was outraged by the killing of George Floyd, and I felt called to go back to the classroom to return to fighting for educational equity? Do you remember how I’d been recovering from a major health crisis for almost six years and I felt I had finally arrived at a place of health that would support my return to this work?
Do you remember the first year — the fully virtual year where I sat in an empty classroom zooming with students I had never met in the flesh, students who may or may not have turned on their cameras to let me see their faces? Do you remember how giddy I was, how energized, how I found the work almost easy because I could get it all done within my scheduled work day and still have some space for self-care — for yoga, and walking, and therapy, and all the stuff I need to do to stay well?
And do you remember how even last year when we “returned” to in-person learning and I got to see my students face to face, I was thrilled? how I had enough steam to still maintain my physical and emotional health, probably because we regularly shifted to virtual learning and I could catch my breath and reset my rhythms from time to time? how it wasn’t until the very end of the year that the fatigue caught up with me and I lost my shit over a small unintentional slight on my students’ graduation day?
And do you remember how I committed last summer to being not only a master teacher, but also a reading interventionist, a cooperating teacher for a colleague who needed to student teach, and a fellow in the Michigan Teacher Leader Collaborative (MTLC)? How I wondered if saying yes to all of these responsibilities was was taking on too much or if I would finally find a limit to what I could do?
Yeah, guys, it appears that I have found that limit. I’m starting to see some warning flags.
However, I can’t always tell that I’m at my limit. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I am on my game. I am an experienced teacher, so I see results. My students are learning and the data reflects that fact. I’m open to coaching because I see its impact on my instructional practices. I’m building relationships both in and out of school — relationships that are mutually impactful.
And the need is there! Each year I get asked to do more, to take on more responsibility, as all effective teachers do. And because we see the need — the students who might benefit from our instruction and the gaps that we might fill — we agree to do it. We fit in one more class, sit on one more committee, and assist with one more project. In a school building, everyone is busy, and there is always more to be done, so we take turns adding more to our to-do list.
And in some ways, it’s affirming. We feel needed and valued and appreciated when our leadership approaches us and says, “You are doing such a great job with all the things you are doing, and we want you to do even more!”
We get celebrated for our accomplishments. We get a pay bump. All is good!
But, guys, humans have limitations, and eventually all that piling on of responsibility, all that added weight, begins to drag a person down and their effectiveness begins to flag. They begin to feel fatigue. They make a sharp comment to a student or a colleague. They begin to wonder if they can sustain the rhythms. They begin to look at other opportunities where they might not have to work quite so hard.
Yet the offers to work even harder keep showing up. Right now I have an opportunity to apply to be a senior fellow for the MTLC. I will likely be asked to add another section of students for the reading intervention I do. I’ve already been slated to work on a committee to discuss our school’s improvement plan. And to be honest, I’d love to do it all. I really would. I am sitting in the heart of the work that I have been called to my entire career. This is what I was created for — to see systemic inequities in education, to bring excellent instructional practices to students who have historically not been well-served but who are highly capable nonetheless, to speak into the policies that perpetuate educational inequities, and to work at the school level to make change a reality. This is it, guys. This is my lane.
And if I want to stay here, in this lane, and continue to impact individual students, I have to have a boundary that allows me to remain healthy. I have to practice the art of the no,
No, I won’t be applying to be a senior fellow in the MTLC.
No, I won’t be adding another section of the reading intervention.
No, I won’t be writing an article for your publication, volunteering at your fundraiser, or teaching during your summer program.
I have to say no sometimes so that I will be able to continue my yes.
Yes, I will still teach seniors at Detroit Leadership Academy.
Yes, I will stay on the Cougars to College/Post-Secondary Plans team.
Yes, I will continue to do one section each semester of the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Intervention.
Yes, I will continue to sit on the leadership team, support the overall success of this school, and participate in visioning and implementing practices that work to eliminate systemic inequities that disadvantage students of color.
The yesses are so important that I have to practice the art of the no. I have to guard my time, my space, my influence so that it has the most sustainable impact in the lane that is most important to me.
I have to practice the art of the no, so that I can say yes to myself, even though that is contrary to much of what I was taught. I need to oxygenate myself first — through yoga, and writing, and reading, and rest, and play — so that I have the health and the energy to say yes to the people that I love — my husband, my children, my grandchildren, my parents, and my friends — and to those that I serve — my students and my colleagues.
This is a learned practice, my friends. I have learned (and am still learning) how to say no because I once too often said yes, sure, of course, I can do that. And I piled on responsibility after responsibility while fully denying the needs of myself, my family, and my friends. I paid a high price with my health and my relationships. And I’m not willing to do that again.
We are not called to be all things to all people. We are called to use our gifts as part of the body, part of the system, part of a mechanism that utilizes the strengths of each individual to benefit the whole. We are called to support one another, and to encourage one another to take rest and to stay well, and to celebrate each of those individual strengths.
My strength, my husband playfully said last week, is “an insufferable belief in restoration”.
I believe in restoration because I am very noticeably being restored — physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally. I don’t take that for granted, and I won’t throw it away. I will practice the art of the no, so that I can carry my “insufferable belief in restoration” into a few little spaces who need someone like me.
What more can a girl hope for?
‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.”2Cor 12:9
Finding my next Crew
This past week flew by! They all do, but last week was especially full. In addition to my regular teaching duties, I was tasked with testing a dozen or so freshmen to select next semester’s cohort for my AARI (Accelerated Adolescent Reading Intervention) class.
I had a spreadsheet of data including the students’ names, attendance record, scores (if available) on last year’s NWEA MAP test, PSAT/Academic Approach scores from this year, and their current grades in English Language Arts. My job was to first select about a dozen students to test, and then to complete those tests before a Friday deadline.
Now, don’t feel sorry for me. I teach all day long (literally 8:30-3:15 with 35 minutes for lunch) on Monday and Thursday, but on Tuesday and Friday, I teach only one 50 minute block. Wednesdays we have a shortened school day that ends at 1:45 with meetings or professional development following that. The large blocks of time on Tuesday and Friday are usually reserved for planning and grading, but this past week, I used almost every one of those spare minutes to assess the group of freshmen that I had identified. Of the twelve I tested, eleven qualified for the program. I can only keep 10. And really, even ten is a number that is larger than I am comfortable with.
The space in the back of my room comfortably seats 8 — the class size I started with last fall. I am going to have to reconfigure that space sometime this week. AARI says the results are consistent with groups up to 10, and my administrators want to impact as many students as possible with this program, but let me tell you, the freshmen class that we have right now, the one straight outta COVID, is a challenge to wrangle. For two years of their adolescence they could do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. We have been working as a team all semester to use systems and procedures to build a culture and to tame all that energy, but let me tell you, these fourteen year olds have a ton of energy. and impulsivity. and immaturity.
I beckon to their better selves, “Class, why are we here?”
Monotone chanting accompanied by eye rolling, “to become better readers.”
“That’s right! And how do we become better readers?”
I turn to write on the board, a small bit of pencil eraser flies across the room. Laughter breaks out. I turn back around, meet their eyes, call them back to order, and begin again — over and over and over.
Yes. I am doing this willingly.
So, anyway, Tuesday morning I started pulling students from their regularly scheduled classes.
I knock on the door, ask a teacher for a student, the teacher calls the student’s name, the student looks at me — who they do not know — and stands, walks towards me, and looks as though to say, “What do you want me for?”
“Hi, I’m Mrs. Rathje. Have you seen me around before?”
“I teach 12th graders, but one hour a day I teach reading to a group of freshmen. How do you feel about reading?”
“Yeah? Do you like reading?”
“Well, I am getting ready to start a new class of freshmen who will meet with me everyday to improve their reading. Is that something you are interested in?”
“Ok, well, I’d like you to come with me for a few minutes to do a couple of activities to see if you would be a good fit. OK?”
We walk to my room, I invite them to take a seat, and I instruct them to start reading lists of words that have been grouped by grade level. Once we have established their familiarity with words and their ability to sound out unfamiliar words, I ask them to read a passage. I started the passage reading for most students at second grade level since I know that most of my students last semester began with an independence level of second to third grade.
Student after student this week complied — not one refused to sit with me and read word lists and passages. In fact, I believe they all gave a good effort to show me their abilities. Of the eleven I tested, seven fell in the ‘instructional’ range at the second grade passage. Three were instructional at the third grade passage. One was instructional at the Primer level — below first grade, and one student surprised me.
Nash* had been on my list all week long, but I didn’t meet with him until mid-morning on Friday. His teachers had informed me that they weren’t sure about his reading but that in class he was “all over the place”, that he had difficulty focusing, and that his grades were abysmal. I had never met the student, so I was curious to find out if reading was the source of the problem.
I found Nash in the back row of the class he was attending. His laptop was open even though the teacher was giving directions and everyone else had their laptops closed. He was deeply engaged in what he was doing, so I walked over to him, touched him on the shoulder, and said, “Would you come with me, please?”
Once we were in the hall, I asked all the same questions. When I asked, “how would you feel about being in a reading class?” he turned to me and said, “Just reading?”
“Yes, we have a small group of students and we work on reading skills every day.”
“I would love a reading class.”
That should’ve been my first clue.
“Great,” I said, “let’s do a couple of activities together and see if you would be a good fit.”
He read every word list I had — from pre-primer to high school level. I think he mispronounced a half a dozen words that he attempted to sound out, but he didn’t see a word he wouldn’t try.
I started the reading portion by giving him a fourth grade passage because even though other students have read far into the word lists, they often haven’t demonstrated comprehension at the same levels.
He easily read the fourth grade passage and answered all the questions, same with the fifth and the sixth. When he got to the Upper Middle School passage about the life cycle of stars, he took a little longer, but he combed the text looking for answers, asked me some of his own clarifying questions, and reasoned aloud about his answer choices. He was deeply engaged with the text and with the process. He was easily “instructional” at that level, so we moved on to the high school passage about cell replication.
This passage was trickier; it was not only longer, but some of the questions referred to captions on illustrations. Nevertheless, he persevered. He kept going back to the text, talking out his reasoning, and then explaining to me why he was giving the answer that he was.
After almost an hour of testing, he was still diving back into the text to verify that his answer was correct. Finally, I said, “Nash, we are going to stop right here because we both have another class in a few minutes, but I have one more question for you. Your name was on a list of students who have difficulty reading. Can you explain to me why your name was on that list?”
He looked at me and smiled innocently.
“You don’t have any difficulty reading. In fact, I would say you are very bright — the kind of bright that not only goes on to college but that often goes to graduate school and might even get a PhD. Do you know what a PhD is?”
“People with PhDs teach at universities. Do you want to go to college?”
“Good. You need to go to college. I see only one problem with that.”
“What do your grades look like?”
“They are terrible.”
“I have trouble focusing.”
We talked about focus for a little while — about how two of my own children also struggle with focus, about how hard it is for a fourteen year old to manage his own distractibility, about the fact that he sees a therapist, and about his huge potential despite this difficulty.
“Look, Nash, you’re not gonna be in my class, but you are going to get sick of talking to me. I am going to be checking up on you because it would be a shame if you continued getting the grades you are getting and you eliminated yourself from some great college opportunities.”
I returned him to his class and returned to my room to teach a class. After that, I reported for lunch room duty where I saw Nash again, in a sea of chaos, plunked down alone at a cafeteria table, scanning something on his computer as his lunch debris accumulated around him. I recognized him right away — the little genius that is navigating his way through this high school experience.
I finished up my testing later Friday afternoon and sent my results to my principal. Over the weekend she affirmed my selections and agreed that the eleventh student, the one who needs the AARI program but who said she would not be willing to work in our small group environment, should be referred to our special education team for some other sort of intervention.
Today and tomorrow, I will communicate that all out to the students I tested, and next Monday I will meet my new crew. Before then, I’ve got to finish up with my current class of seven, give them some parting instructions, and let them know, too, that Momma Rathje will be keeping tabs. When they — and Nash — are seniors, they’ll be back with me, God willing, to finish their high school years strong and launch onto what’s next.
What a pleasure it will be to watch their development between now on then.
*Name changed to maintain confidentiality.
Gem of the Week: Kia*
This is the second in a sporadic series.
I met Kia last September. She had done poorly on last year’s NWEA MAP testing and had been identified, along with seven others from among our incoming freshman class, as being most in need of the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Intervention, the program I had been trained in last summer. (I described what our classroom’s version of AARI looks like in this post.)
I started pulling these eight into my classroom, one by one, to evaluate them by way of the QRI — The Qualitative Reading Inventory. This assessment requires students to first read lists of words sorted by grade level to determine their basic skills of decoding and identifying sight words — the ability to get words off the page. Some of my students read these lists fairly independently up to 6th, 7th, and 8th grade level; a few could barely make it through a second grade list. Once I got a glimpse at their ability to read, I had them read grade-level passages and answer comprehension questions — some that were easy to identify from the text, others that required inference. The majority of the eight freshmen I tested demonstrated the ability to read and comprehend at levels between the third and fifth grade; three were frustrated at first grade level or below.
How do students get to their freshmen year reading only at the first through fifth grade level? I suspect two reasons.
First, my students have grown up in Detroit Public Schools (and the charter schools, like mine, within that district) where they have received inconsistent instruction for a variety of reasons such as low attendance of both students and staff, insufficient funding and resources, and multiple out-of-school factors that impact learning such as housing and food insecurity, domestic disruption, trauma, and other realities that have grown out of centuries of systemic racism.
Second, even in the best of schools in the wealthiest of communities, the data shows COVID’s impact on learning over the last two years. Even students who had mostly face-to-face instruction over the two years of the pandemic have scored lower on standardized tests than expected. Students like mine, who had little to no schooling in the Spring of 2020 due to lack of technology and Internet connectivity, followed by one year of virtual instruction where they had to attempt to log in and focus despite many barriers including poor Internet, other siblings in the home (maybe even in the same room), family responsibilities, and the like, followed by another year of continuous transition between in-person and virtual instruction due to insufficient staffing, high COVID rates, and building issues, have been impacted much more dramatically. And, in addition to not being in school, most of my students report that they read very little or not at all between March 2020 and September 2022. That’s thirty months away from reading
It’s no wonder that when it was Kia’s turn to come into my room, she was a little nervous. She giggled a lot and apologized for missing words but did her best. I found her to be comfortable reading at the third grade level; the fourth grade passage was frustrating.
She has been in my room since September. I should say, she has sometimes been in my room since September. She’s been absent thirty-three times. And, on about a half-dozen occasions when she’s been in my class, she has fallen asleep to the degree that I have been unable to wake her. When she is present and awake, she is either fully engaged and a star participant or is having an emotional meltdown in response to a teasing comment from one of the boys in the class. She has demonstrated very little consistency, staying power, or resiliency.
So, when I pulled her out of class to retest her this past Tuesday, the first day back in the building after a two-week break, I did not have high expectations. I had already tested most of the others who had improved their reading scores by 1-3 grade levels in just one semester! I was hopeful, despite her poor attendance, that she would demonstrate the same growth.
We found a quiet corner of the building, and I asked, “Are you ready for this?”
“I’m nervous,” she replied.
“You’re going to do fine,” I said. “In fact, you’ve been telling me all semester that you don’t need this class. Here is your chance to prove it to me!”
I started her with a fifth grade passage, assuming two years’ worth of growth, and she aced it. We moved to the sixth grade passage. She missed a couple comprehension questions, but still fell in the ‘instructional’ range, so we moved on to the next passage which is labelled “upper middle school”. Again, she missed only a couple questions on a dense passage about the life cycle of stars, so we moved to a high school level passage. The text was two single-spaced pages with illustrations describing the functions of DNA and RNA. It took her a while to respond to the questions, as she had permission, according to QRI instructions, to go back to the text and find the answers, but she found them — enough to fall in the “instructional” range once again.
As I watched her read and then search for answers — her determination to prove that she could do this — I was getting choked up. The others had tried hard, too, but she was clearly on a different level.
When she finished, I said, “Kia, how do you feel?”
“I feel good!”
“Do you know what level you started at in September?”
“You were comfortable at third grade level. Fourth grade level was frustrating.”
“Oh my God!” she said, covering her face in embarrassment.
“Be kind to yourself!” I explained. “We were just coming back after COVID! It was a very difficult time! How much did you read during COVID?”
“Nothing,” she said with a sheepish grin on her face.
“Right! Do you know you just read a complex biology text at the high school level?” I could barely get the words out because my throat was tightening.
“You understood all that stuff about cells and DNA and replication! Everybody can’t do that!”
She looked at me, locking eyes.
“Kia, you could be a nurse!”
“That’s what I want to be!” she smiled broadly.
“You can! You are very bright!”
She started crying, too. We hugged. I passed her a tissue, then I pulled myself together.
“Listen, Kia, I’m gonna be real with you. You have the stuff it takes to be a nurse, but you aren’t going to get there unless something changes. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
“I gotta come to school.”
“Yes, you’ve got to come to school. If you want to get into a nursing program, you need As and Bs from now on, and you have the ability to do that.”
We talked a little bit longer about how I was going to be after her, checking in on her, even after she has left my class when the semester ends in two weeks. Then we walked through the halls telling administrators and teachers about what she had accomplished — we needed to celebrate.
Everyone applauded her, hugged her, congratulated her — she was beaming.
The next day Kia showed up in my room before school asking to borrow a laptop. She’d lost her charger and hers was dead — had been dead for weeks. I loaned her my laptop, and said, “Here’s a charger. You can keep it.”
“Thank you! Now I can get caught up at home!”
She came to my class later that day, sat up straight, answered questions, and smiled broadly.
She dropped by my room the next day to say, “I’m making up all my missing work, Mrs. Rathje, and I’m staying awake in all my classes.”
“Amazing, Kia! Keep going!”
Do I think that Kia’s ability to read improved nine — 9! — grade levels in one semester? No. However, I think that some basic skills that had gone dormant during COVID were re-engaged. I believe Kia’s brain, like many others I see every day, had learned to “sleep” during the trauma and disruption of COVID, and needed to be woken up.
AARI for an hour a day five days a week, despite her absences, was enough to wake her up, and realizing her potential was the cup of coffee that put her in motion.
I tested Kia on Tuesday, and she was still going strong on Friday. I suspect her momentum will fluctuate. She’ll have hard days, she’ll get discouraged, and she’ll be tempted to go back to sleep, if just to get some relief.
She’s gonna need all kinds of encouragement to build the stamina she’ll need to make it all the way to a nursing degree, because all of the obstacles didn’t magically go away. She’s still going to have to get herself up every morning. She’s still going to have to show up. She’s going to have to learn to tune out the voices of adolescent boys who like to get a reaction out of her. She’s going to have to overcome a lot more than what I see on the surface — whatever is going on at home that allowed her to miss thirty-three days of school, whatever reason there is for the fact that she needs glasses and hasn’t had then for the entire first semester, whatever has happened in her life that makes her so tender to break down so easily from everyday jabs of a few adolescent boys.
She’ll leave my class at the end of this semester, but our school is small, and I will make an effort to see her most days — to engage with her and to wave the cup of coffee under her nose, to remind her of the future that is possible for her.
But mostly it’s going to be up to her to do the next hard thing day after day after day. It’s gonna get tiring. And lonely. And the odds are against her.
But with some determination and a few miracles, she just might make it.
May God make her path straight and may He raise up a great cloud of witnesses to cheer her on her way.
I’m happy to be one among the crowd shouting “Keep going! You’re almost there!”
*Name changed for confidentiality.
A String of Miracles
We purchased the gifts and wrapped them. We planned menus, purchased loads and loads of food, and baked ourselves silly. We cleaned the house and made all the beds, and then we waited.
As we sat on the coach, staring at Netflix, the texts started to come in.
“We’re checked in at the hotel! See you in the morning!”
“Our flight just landed!”
“We should be there in an hour!”
And then our family started rolling in — from Ohio, from Massachusetts, from Missouri.
We hugged, we laughed, and we ate.
We puzzled; we played games. We did crafts, watched movies, and traveled to celebrate with even more family.
It sounds like what most families do over the holidays, but I suppose many families, like ours, can get together like this only because of a string of miracles — only because of choosing forgiveness, of going to therapy, and of healing and time and the stubborn belief that things get better.
Didn’t you, too, have the holiday where everyone was yelling at each another?
And the one where no one spoke a word?
And the one where everyone walked out of church sobbing?
And the one where some decided they just. couldn’t. do it — not this year.
And then there was the covid year (or years — who remembers?) where we packed presents into flat rate boxes and stood in line for hours at the post office, hoping our parcels would get there before Easter. The year (or was it two?) where we sat in Zoom rooms with family members, some of us trying not to hog the air time, others trying to endure those who were hogging the air time.
It seems after all those difficult years we might have stopped believing that we could once again be all in one space, laughing, eating, agreeing on what to watch, moving upstairs to open the gifts, and leaning together over a puzzle, snacking on chips and rock candy and cookies.
But we didn’t stop believing — really — did we?
Didn’t we keep hoping for the day when all the therapy would pay off? Didn’t we long for the moment when we all laughed at the same joke, all smiled at the same memory, all managed to load ourselves and our gifts and bags full of food into cars only to discover most of the way there that we had left the main dish warming in the oven and no one lost their shit but we rebounded easily, picking up take out on the way?
Didn’t we imagine it could happen? Didn’t we dream it?
And so I’m sitting here pinching myself, trying to believe that it actually happened. And someone in the Christmas 2022 group chat sends a text checking on someone else who left the festivities feeling subpar. Another sends a pic of a present that broke upon opening, and everyone laughs. More pics are shared, more laughter, and then a commitment to what we will do next year.
They want to do it again next year.
I need a moment to just take that in.
Every family relationship doesn’t get this gift, does it? We don’t all get the moments we prayed for.
Don’t we all have at least one relationship where we do all the initiating? where tender topics are avoided? where our hearts ache with disappointment at the end of each phone call? where we can’t shake the feeling of being unwanted?
In fact, I was sitting in therapy the very day that the last of our family left, on the come down, for sure, and all I managed was, “our Christmas was amazing, but this one relationship over here still sucks and that’s all I can think about.”
And over the hour of belaboring the one less-than-stellar relationship I have spent most of my life bemoaning, my therapist offered suggestions, role-playing, expectation-setting, and the like, and near the end of the session, I began to realize that the beauty we experienced with our family at Christmas didn’t come without the hard work of many — of all of us, really.
I can’t expect this other relationship to magically transform on its own. If I want something different, I’ll need to return — to my knees, to forgiveness, to therapy, to the stubborn belief that things can get better.
It’s risky — even just the hoping for change — because happy endings or even happy moments are not guaranteed. I might experience disappointment — again.
But I might risk hoping, and a series of miracles might just happen. We might laugh at the same joke or smile at the same memory. We might play a game together or lean toward each other over a puzzle. We might agree on a movie. We might enjoy a meal.
And it might be amazing.
Witnessing the string of miracles that led to an amazing Christmas has me thinking that I just might risk hoping again.
[He] is able to do far more than we would ever dare to ask or even dream of”Ephesians 3:20
Like many of you, I’ve been checking off items on my to-do list as I prepare for Christmas. In fact, I’ve got multiple lists! We’ve still got a few gifts to purchase, some homemade gifts to finish, and some food to prepare before holiday gatherings. Each day, I complete a task or two and then revise my list, recalculating to make sure everything will be done “on time”.
And while I’m doing that, I’m insisting that my students attend to their own lists.Yes, we are still in school. Our last day is Thursday, December 22. Between now and then, my seniors will complete an essay, which many of them have not yet started. They’ll write a rough draft, participate in peer review, attend to revisions, and carefully proofread before submitting their final drafts. We’re on a tight schedule, but if we stick to our lists, they [and I] will complete everything right on time.
Sounds like no problem, but we’re all kind of over it, if I’m going to be honest — the getting up in the dark, traveling to school in the cold, filing into the building, taking our places, and trudging through the motions, day after day after day.
And, as though she had her finger on the ho-hum pulse of the collective arm of our community, our instructional coach created a spirit week for this of all weeks — the week that I’ve scheduled down to the minute with very little room for getting off task.
The announcement came on Friday at around 1:30. “Get excited, everyone! Next week is spirit week!”
Monday we’ll have a door decorating competition. Tuesday everyone will enjoy hot chocolate and cookies at lunch. Wednesday will be ugly sweater day, and Thursday, our last day at school before break, will be Holiday Cheer Day, where everyone is encouraged to wear Santa hats, jingle bells, or other holiday items.
My first response on Friday afternoon at 1:30pm, as I was wrapping up the week’s work and preparing for the final push, was a very Scrooge-y “Seriously? One more thing to cram into next week?” and “You really want me to take time out of class on Monday to decorate my classroom door? My students are writing a paper!?!?!”
Then I progressed to, “I don’t even have an ugly Christmas sweater!” and “I need to bring supplies to decorate my door?”
Didn’t she know about my lists and my strategy for getting each item ticked off before Christmas? How was I going to fit MORE to-dos onto my lists?
But this morning, my eyes are turned to our students.
This past week, as we have been preparing to write our personal essays, my students have been sharing scenes from their lives, letting me in just a bit, sharing a peek at the things that have shaped them.
Calvin’s* mother died in 2017, when he was just 13. He said it “messed me up”. He found comfort in eating and ballooned to over 300 pounds. But, last summer, an area gym offered free memberships to teens, so he joined. He and his sister, who he now lives with, stopped eating fast food and started cooking at home, and he has lost over 70 pounds. He wants to keep going; his goal is to look sharp for prom — one of the biggest days in the lives of our students.
Monette*, who started this school year pregnant but gave birth and then lost her young son a few days later, says she wants to write about this experience. She says holding her son was a moment she was proud, and losing him was the biggest hurt of her life.
Hope* engaged in an argument with someone on Twitter who claimed that Breonnna Taylor’s boyfriend was a drug dealer. She searched for evidence to disprove his theory and stayed at it until the original post was deleted.
Kevin’s* enlisting in the Army. He spent last summer training with his recruiters, cutting the weight he gained during Covid. He’s our valedictorian, and his ASVAB score qualifies him for just about any military training he chooses. He’s going through the steps now to ensure that he’ll start boot camp just a couple weeks after graduation.
These seniors of mine stand at the edge of adulthood, where the choices they are making have long-lasting impact. They are showing up each day, working hard, and looking forward to a not-too-distant future where they will be responsible for every aspect of their lives. It’s heavy, and I need to take a moment to acknowledge that.
The weight they are carrying goes beyond checking off items on their Christmas to-do list, beyond choosing which salad they will make for Christmas Eve, beyond what gift to purchase for a colleague. They are engaging with real adult stuff — health, loss, political engagement, and military service — when they have a few fleeting moments left to enjoy being kids.
What will it cost me to allow them a little bit of fun this week? a little bit of encouragement? A little reward for continuing to show up even when they are over it?
And won’t I enjoy it, too? Won’t it be fun seeing my seniors scrambling within the 10 minutes they have been allotted to decorate my classroom door, glancing over their shoulders at the classes across the hall to see what they are doing?
Won’t it be great to see our students sipping cocoa and dunking Christmas cookies?
Won’t it bring some laughs and joy to compare our ugly Christmas sweaters?
And won’t it lighten the mood to hear some jingle bells in the hallway?
Yes, of course, yes.
So, I dragged myself out today, found an ugly sweater that I will try to make uglier before Wednesday. I picked up some supplies for our door decorating contest, and while I was out I bought a chai latte to sip on as my attitude finished adjusting.
I checked some other items off my to-do list, too, and then reminded myself to relax. What gets done, gets done. Christmas is about more than my to-do list. It’s about seeing the people in front me, enjoying the time I have with them, and sharing the joy of a love that offers hope, restoration, and a future.
Once again, my instructional coach gave me just what I needed.
for unto [us] is born this day, a Savior”Luke 2:11
*All names changed, of course.