A More Pro-Life Vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Search me, God, and know my heart;

    test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,

    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139: 23-24

A Limit Exists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. I certainly do not.

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

So, what’s the answer?

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

Yes, it does indeed sound like a lot.

Is it over my limit?

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

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

Matthew 11:28

Learning Cycle

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

But it wasn’t yesterday.

It was nine months ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then they were gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colossians 3:23

A few 18 year olds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I put this on the board:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romans 14:19

Do Something: Update 2022

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

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

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

Now that is what I’m talking about.

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

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

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

I’m not taking that back.

Pray. Keep praying. Never stop praying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there is so much that needs changing!

“Behold, I am making all things new.”

I want to help!

“Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly.”

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

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

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

Colossians 3:23

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

Attendance

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

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

This was puzzling to me.

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

But guys, they are accurate.

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

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

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

Why so low?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” I replied.

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

“You won’t be here tomorrow?”

“No. It’s my brother’s funeral.”

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

“He was shot a couple of weeks ago.”

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

“No.”

“Can I hug you?”

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

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

“Yeah. It’s been a little rough.”

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

Two young men were put out of their houses.

Our entire school moved to virtual two months before graduation.

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

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

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

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

What else can I do?

How long, O Lord, will you look on?

Psalm 35:17a

A Little Help?

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

And they came.

Well, some came.

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

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

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

But for some, it seemed too much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darren shuffled back into the classroom behind me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    when it is in your power to act.

Proverbs 3:27

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

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

Of Passing Laws and Changing Behavior, in 2022

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

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

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

And I’m sitting here asking questions.

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

Do laws really have the power to change behavior?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps we can start by asking ourselves a few questions.

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

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

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

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

It doesn’t work that way.

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 25:4

Under these Circumstances

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

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

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

And it’s not because of Covid this time!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And can we blame them?

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

Take that in.

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

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

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

That is not too much to ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 82:3

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

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