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.

The Comfort of Connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ephesians 4:32

Providing the Little Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

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

    when it is in your power to act.”

Psalm 3:27

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

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

Scenes from Room 106

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 90:17