Coronavirus Diary #28: Because They Care

They’re coming! It’s March 1, and today students are coming to the building!

On Friday, as I wrapped up my lesson plans, our support staff were putting up decorations and readying the building to receive students — not all of our students will be here but more than we’ve had in the building in almost a full year.

It’s looked different all over the country, but most American students left school sometime last March and have been experiencing learning in one of several online, socially-distanced, or hybrid learning models since then. My school, which is a charter school in Wayne County, Michigan, the county with the ninth highest number of casualties by Covid, has thus far opted for a fully virtual learning platform with the exception of a handful of special education students who come into the building two days a week.

When, in January, Governor Whitmer announced the goal of offering in-person learning to all Michigan students by March 1, our leadership, having surveyed our parents and staff and considering how best to meet the needs of our over 700 students in grades K-12, decided to offer in-person learning to a limited number of students on both of our campuses (K-8 and high school). At the high school, priority was given to students who have had extreme difficulty engaging with the online platform, particularly seniors who are in danger of not obtaining the needed credits to graduate this June. Starting today, forty-four of our three hundred high school students will be coming to the building; the rest will continue to learn from home.

This is the next in many transitions that school leaders across the country have made, each transition requiring its own set of logistical orchestration. When students moved home, school leadership had to quickly assemble systems for communicating with students and families, to provide structure and guidance for teachers to teach virtually, and to meet state compliance requirements. When fall rolled around and the new school year started, leaders acquired laptops and tablets, hired staff after historic turnovers, and prepared for learning scenarios that they’ve never before imagined. As the school year has rolled on, these leaders have had to respond in the moment, closing buildings due to positive cases, acquiring truckloads of cleaning supplies and PPE, navigating state vaccine roll-outs, and continuing to adapt to changing governmental orders and CDC guidance.

For this transition, my principal has spent the last several weeks working with the leadership team to prioritize who will be in the building, to prepare space that is safe and conducive to learning for the students, to quell the concerns of teachers and support staff, and, in the midst of it all, to oversee the mandatory state count of all students ‘attending’ classes — that all-important process that determines how many state dollars the school will receive to make the magic happen. Not only that, but she took time during our weekly staff meeting to make sure we had fun (yes, we played a Kahoot game in the virtual format), that we were encouraged (yes, we were offered on-the-clock mental health support last week), and that we were celebrated (our principal never fails to give a shout out to staff who are working hard to “take care of [her] babies”).

It’s quite phenomenal what these leaders have managed to accomplish in the midst of a pandemic, many of them having lost loved ones or having been infected by Covid-19 themselves. While many of us have spent longer hours on the couch, watched more Netflix than we’d ever known existed, and tried new recipes, our school leaders, much like our health care workers, have been working around the clock to make sure their “babies” get what they need.

Why? Because they care. They care about students’ education, their physical health, and their emotional health. They have spent their careers — their lives — learning theory and implementing best practices to give their students the best education their budgets can buy (not all budgets being equal, but that’s a topic for a different day).

If they care so much, you ask, why isn’t your school bringing back all 300 kids? Good question. The reason our school is not bringing back all three hundred students is because the leadership team cares so much — for the students, their parents, and the teachers.

Many of our students and their families are not interested in a return to school just yet for a variety of reasons. Many of our families have lost multiple family members during the pandemic — they are afraid of this virus. Many don’t leave home much at all, and if they do, it’s to go to a medical appointment or to work. Many of our students are working one or two jobs. They sometimes log into the Zoom room on their phone while on the clock. Most of our students are low income. They were struggling before the pandemic; now many are in crisis. For many families it’s an all hands on deck type of situation. Giving these families the flexibility of remaining online for the sake of their health and financial concerns is a way of caring.

And the care of the leadership extends to the staff as well. More than once I have heard my principal say that she is concerned for the safety of the children but also of her teachers. While many of us have been vaccinated, some have not, and the risk of spreading the coronavirus and its variants still exists, especially among a population whose families mostly work in front line positions like health care and the service industry. However, it seems that teachers’ mental health has also played a factor in these myriad decisions. While many schools have asked their teachers to both manage online learning and seated instruction (faces on the screen AND bodies in the classroom), trusting that educators, who also care about students and have committed their lives to finding a way to give them what they need and deserve, taxing their physical and mental health with a burden they have not been trained or prepared for, our leadership has not. For the sake of the teachers’ physical, mental, and emotional health, all instruction in our buildings has remained virtual — students and teachers logging into zoom rooms, with all content delivered through Google classroom. While it was a heavy lift to learn how to utilize all the technology involved, teachers have not also had to simultaneously manage students and their developmentally typical behaviors in the classroom.

Even today, as a few dozen students come into the building, they will not be in our classrooms, but they will be sitting six feet apart at tables in the cafeteria, supervised by support staff, and logging into our zoom rooms just as they have been from home since September.

So why bring them in at all, you ask. Another good question.

While students won’t be in my classroom, they will be in the building. This gives them a reprieve from being at home where it could be hard to focus. They likely have other people at home who are working or studying or simply watching the television — all of which can provide a distraction from learning. At school, students will have a designated learning space where they can sit up and learn. We are seeing that many of our students don’t have such a space at home — many log in from their beds or from the floor of their bedroom, neither of which is optimal for learning. In the building, they will have consistent Internet connection. Though we’ve provided hot spots to many of our students, the load of multiple devices inside each home remains high, and many of our students experience disruptions in connection. With us, students will receive breakfast and lunch every day, which may or may not be guaranteed at home during a financial crisis in the middle of a pandemic. And, in the building, teachers and support staff, folks who have committed their lives to ensuring that kids receive an education, will be nearby — watching, listening, assisting, and encouraging. All of this adds us to an increased likelihood for student success.

It’s not safe to have 300 students in the building just yet, but because we care, we’re going to bring in the 44 who just can’t make it work at home. We’re going to give them more — support, proximity, contact — because that is what they need. And, as soon as it’s safe to do so, we’ll bring the rest back, too.

Or, perhaps we’ll bring them back only if that’s what’s best for them, their families, and their teachers. Maybe the pandemic just might teach us that we can do things that we never knew we could do before. Maybe we have the structures in place now to reimagine what school might look like. Maybe it doesn’t have to look the same for everyone.

Is it possible that some kids learn better in the classroom with lots of hands on experience? Can it also be possible that some students learn better at home with the structure and support of their families around them? Could it be that some students might do well to work mostly at home with occasional in-school sessions or that others might do best mostly at school with sporadic seasons of at-home learning?

What about our teachers? Do some thrive in on-line environments? Do others excel in the classroom with all kinds of experiential and kinesthetic practices? Are there others that would pull from both virtual and in-person practices to create an ideal learning environment for students who grow in both spaces? Might we safeguard the ever shrinking pool of teachers if we offered options and provided the supports to ensure success?

Our best leaders are asking these questions — right now, while they are navigating government mandates and guidelines, while they are advocating for their students and their staffs, while they are driving to the homes of students we haven’t seen for a while, while they are hiring — again — in preparation for next year.

They aren’t getting a lot of accolades right now, but they are doing this hard, hard work under the most difficult of circumstances, and still they dare to dream of what is coming next, how they might best adapt in the days that come next.

Why? Because they care, and thank God that they do. Our children — and we — are counting on them.

‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:40

Spiraling and Strolling: Moving through Grief

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Sometimes thoughts of the past can leave me sleepless. All of life has not been picture perfect, and images of brokenness can lead to pain that prevents sleep. For this reason, I often try to avoid lingering on the past, but the other night I intentionally strolled down Memory Lane for a little while. I looked at some old photos and replayed some old film. This is a new strategy for me.

For the past several years, moments of memory have come in unexpected flashes. I can be watching a television sitcom, for example, and see a mother and daughter share a glance or break into laughter. It seems like a benign — even fun — exchange, but it sparks a memory, and I am transported back 5, 10, 15, or even 20 years to a scene where, in a moment of frustration, I snapped at one of my children when I could’ve smiled or even laughed. Later, after the television has been turned off and the lights are out, instead of sleeping, I flail amid images of that moment and others like it swirling on a screen in my mind. Rather than a stroll down Memory Lane, it feels like a free fall between black walls covered in video screens replaying moments of regret, disappointment, and failure.

Once I am in this free fall, I can go for hours. I might see myself driving a carload of kids, for example — my shoulders tensed, trying to get them where they need to go, mentally working out return trips, meals, clothing, and bills. I can feel the stress of responsibility, of course, but mostly I feel sadness and regret — realizing now how brief the moments with our children were and wanting to get some of those moments back for a re-do.

Maybe this sounds familiar. Perhaps all of us mentally cycle through memories, wishing we could go back and redo some of the moments that fill us with regret.

In families like ours that have been impacted by trauma, this experience may be even more intense. Flashes of memory may feel like mini-traumas. In my case, the flashes from the past I see often induce not only regret but also shame for my role in what did and didn’t happen.

Since I’ve made a commitment to only tell my own story, I will stay cloudy on the details, but I have shared before in this blog that our family has been touched by crime, violence, and a season of extreme overwork wherein the stress level in our household could become volatile. While I take responsibility, rightfully, for some of that stress, my brain sometimes gets confused and tries to convince me that I am responsible for all of the trauma, too. It tries to show me moments just before and just after traumatic events and to accuse me of what I could’ve done to make things different. It shows me how I might’ve prevented pain or how I should have been more active in comforting, and it continually points an accusing finger at me, showing me piece after piece of evidence where I failed as a mother, as a wife, and as a friend.

I am transported, for example, to a moment on our front porch where I asked a question but didn’t notice a detail, where I heard a response that I shouldn’t have believed. I tell myself I should have looked more closely, should’ve questioned more. I should’ve seen; I should’ve heard.

Then, I see another image, a midnight drive through the neighborhood to calm a crying teen; I see myself feeling tired, wanting to help, but not knowing what to do. I tell myself I should’ve listened more carefully, should’ve driven further, should’ve called off work the next day.

And from there, I fall to the next image…

When I am free falling through that accusatory slide show, I call it spiraling. I spin through images of moments when I wish I would’ve known more, acted differently, or seen the situation for what it really was. If only I could go back and do it differently, but I can’t, so I continue to spiral from one failed moment to the next.

Recently, as I felt I was nearing the end of a several day stretch of night-time spiraling, having had little sleep, and wanting the cycle to end, my husband, in casual conversation, brought up a topic that I thought might set me back into free fall. I said, “I don’t know if I want to talk about that. I’ve already been spiraling for several days, and I’m really ready to stop.” He was quiet for moment, and then he said, “I think it’s all part of the grieving process.”

I was silent.

It’s part of the grieving process? Going back through all these images and feeling all this regret, this ache, this shame? For the past several years, I’ve been trying to avoid spiraling, if possible, and to endure it when necessary, but if it’s part of the grieving process, I wondered, do I need to lean in and sit with it? Isn’t that what you do with grief? Sit with it?

When something dies — a loved one, a pet, a dream, a hope — it hurts, and the hurt does not go quickly away. No, it takes all kinds of mental and physical work for our minds and bodies to accept loss. We try to deny that it really happened, and we get angry that it did. We yell until we can yell no more, then eventually we cry and sob and groan as we acknowledge the loss to be real.

And, you know, we’ve got to give ourselves space for this. Loss is real — it happens — devastating, bone-crushing loss comes into our lives and we sometimes can’t bear to look at the reality of it all — but when we are ready, we must. We must look at devastation with our eyes wide open. We must see the totality of the pain and allow ourselves and all those impacted the space to grieve — to really, fully grieve.

I’ve been avoiding that full-on look; it’s been too painful to take it all in at once. However, my brain won’t let me rest until I lean in and take a closer look.

The other night, I was lying awake casually spiraling — I was too tired to be frantic, so I wearily submitted to the images that were swirling on the screen of my mind. I lay there and took it in — the accusation, the shame, the regret, and then I finally gave in to sleep.

The next morning, after my alarm jolted me awake, I wondered if it was time to shift to a different way of looking. Was it possible to instead of merely seeing the failures and sinking into shame that I might view the images through eyes of compassion — not only for the members of my family but also for myself?

When I find myself on the front porch, for example, can I acknowledge that I was home, that I was watching, that I was aware, even if I didn’t see the full picture? Can I give myself the grace to say that I was present? Can I acknowledge that to the teen, my questions were terrifying and lies were the only safe response?

When I find myself driving through the neighborhood at midnight, can I thank myself for getting out of bed, for loading a teen in a car, and for driving back and forth to allow the time for tears, even if I didn’t know what they were for? Can I have compassion on the young one who was feeling so much wrenching pain and applaud the strength it took to finally allow me to see the depth of it, even if sharing the cause of such deep hurt was still impossible?

Am I ready to make the shift from spiraling to strolling? Am I willing to slow down and look, really look, at the images? to see not just what’s in the foreground, but to see the background, the edges, and what was happening just outside the frame?

Am I ready to accept grief’s invitation to stroll down Memory Lane, to look at both the wreckage and the beauty, to see the moments of love and tenderness that sit right beside the devastation. Am I willing to see not only my failures but also the moments where I may have done the only right thing I knew to do at the time? Am I willing to believe that two competing realities can exist at the same time?

I think I’m ready to try; I think it’s the next step through this grief.

I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.

Jeremiah 31:13

Missing the Magical, Longing for the Actual

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When I was a very little girl, Christmas was full and magical. It began with learning our parts for the Christmas Eve program at church. For weeks we would rehearse our lines, “and there were shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night,” and our songs, “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.”

Mrs. Hollenbeck would herd us into the sanctuary, organize us on the steps of the chancel, and direct us to speak more loudly, “so they could hear us in the back.”

Then, on Christmas Eve, donned in our Christmas best, hair combed and inspected by our mother, my brothers, sister, and I would pile into the car and head to the church.

The place would be crawling with people decked out in their finest — all the men in suits, the ladies with lipstick and stockings and heels. We children would be corralled in the basement, lined up, and given last minute instructions before processing up the stairs, into the sanctuary, and down the aisle to the front of the church. Our families beamed at us as we sang and told the Christmas story of stars and shepherds and sheep and a swaddled baby.

After every line had been said and “Silent Night” had been sung (with the last verse a cappella, of course) we would recess down the aisle to the back of the church where the ushers waited with brown lunch bags filled with roasted peanuts, a fresh Florida orange, and several pieces of candy.

Bundled up in our coats and hats and hugging our precious loot, we were transported home, where we were snuggled into our beds, said our prayers. and went to sleep in anticipation of more magic on Christmas morning.

When we woke, we would rush to the tree to find piles of presents, then before we knew it, we were dressed and loaded back into the car for the drive to my grandparents.

After an hour of watching the familiar landscape and ticking off all the familiar milestones, I would bolt from the back seat and run to the door where my grandpa was waiting with a huge smile and open arms. Right past him, in the kitchen, was my grandmother in a dress and heels, a Christmas apron tied around her waist. She was smiling, too, and ready for her hug, even if she had been up since before dawn making a Christmas feast and setting tables with linen, candles, china, and silver.

The food was the stuff of legends — roasted lamb, beef, ham, and/or turkey, homemade rolls, mashed potatoes with gravy, dressing, salads, and sides, all served family style and passed round the table from person to person. Just when you thought you couldn’t eat one more bite, grandma brought out pie and coffee, even though we’d been nibbling all day on sumptuous Christmas cookies that had been placed among the decorations throughout the house.

Full beyond full, we would roll into the living room and gather around the rotating tree that sat in a musical tree stand brought from Germany who knows when. More than 20 of us — the extended family and any additional guests that Grandpa had invited to join us for the day — received gifts selected individually and with care.

After all the packages were opened and all the paper tossed away, we children ran off to play in the basement, the men moved to the den to watch the football game, and the women assembled in the kitchen to pack up leftovers and tend to a mountain of dishes. Grandma would stand at the sink and wash, the rest stood close by, towels in hand, chatting as they wiped and carefully stacked each dish.

Then magically, just as the sun was starting to set and the kids were starting to bicker, the food would reappear again. Leftover potatoes were transformed into potato pancakes and drizzled with gravy. Meats would be warmed and salads set out, and we would eat — impossibly — again.

Then, full of food and joy and love, we would stand in line to each receive a signature grandpa handshake and loads and loads of hugs before we were piled once again into the car for the ride home. I remember pressing my cheek against the car window, gazing out at the stars, and feeling my dad reach his hand around the seat to pat me on the leg.

Of course, that was a million years ago, and certainly, not all of my Christmases since then have been so magical. Some have been disappointing like the time we excitedly drove from Missouri to Michigan for three family Christmases and then drove back, all five of us sick with the stomach flu. Others have been thick with the heartache of family brokenness — loved ones sitting in the same room unable or unwilling to speak to each other, leaving early or angry or both. In fact, even the Christmases at my grandparents’ house that I remember so fondly often ended with my dad carrying me to the car as I cried tears of fatigue and frustration.

This year, as our grown children are far-flung across the country and our parents are close enough to drive to but too dear to risk the chance of a Covid infection, we have made the choice to follow the CDC’s recommendation to not travel, to not visit, to stay at home, and stay safe.

We won’t have a Christmas Eve program at the church. We’ll stream a pre-recorded worship service on our television as we sit together on our couch. Sure, we might sing “Joy to the World,” but we won’t hear the voices of the family sitting behind us or stand in the sanctuary chatting and laughing afterward with our friends and their children who’ve all gathered for the annual celebration.

Our people will open the presents that have been delivered by the United States Postal Service in the safety of their own homes, not sitting near our tree. We’ll likely Zoom and chat for a while, but we won’t have hugs or secret handshakes or extra cups of coffee and pieces of pie. We won’t pile into the living room together to watch a movie, or hockey, or football. We won’t sit around a puzzle or pour over old pictures or play Scrabble or banana-grams or Uno.

Our little house by the river won’t be crowded by people piled on top of each other and taking turns with one little bathroom. We won’t share homemade cinnamon rolls or a roasted turkey (although you know I’m going to make one), and we won’t hear the laughter as our granddaughters run through our house in their flouncy nightgowns.

We won’t see our parents or our siblings or our nieces and nephews — we won’t get a classic photo on my mom’s couch or gather with my in-laws at a Bob Evans. I won’t hug my godmother and godfather; in fact, now that they are living in separate nursing homes, they won’t be able to hug one other either.

I know we’ve made the right choice, but as December 25th gets closer, I am feeling nostalgic and fighting melancholy. I so long to be with the people we love — to hear familiar voices, smell familiar smells — to share space and time with those we love the most, even if it’s not magical, or memorable, or perfect, or impressive.

But we can’t. Not this year.

So, I’m going to schedule some Zoom meetings, put a turkey in the oven, turn on some Christmas music, and start a new puzzle. It won’t be what I’m longing for, but it’ll have to do until it’s safe to travel the miles, to meet fact to face, to embrace one another, to share the couch and a meal and some laughs.

And once we do get to share physical space again, I think I am going to view it differently. I don’t think I’ll care if it’s magical; I think I’ll simply be grateful — so, so grateful — for our gathering to be actual.

May the Lord watch between us while we are apart from one another.

Genesis 31:49

Coronavirus Diary 16: Back to School Edition

Can you hear that? Can you hear the subtle hum? It’s the thrum of collective anxiety coursing through the nervous systems of every teacher, parent, and student who has already or who is about to start the school year either in person, online, or in some kind of hybrid format. The theme of the song? Uncertainty.

Never before have we approached a school year in such a “wait and see” posture. Schools and districts that have chosen to open in person have plans in place “just in case” a student or many students, a teacher or many teachers, a school or many schools get infected with Covid-19 mandating a move to partially or fully remote instruction. Schools that have chosen to open virtually have committed to several weeks or months of online instruction with plans in place to move to partial or full in-person models as soon as possible.

Teachers, students, and parents are facing the uncertainty about where they will do instruction this year.

Some schools have provided their teachers with training on using Zoom rooms, Google classroom, and myriad online instructional tools. Some have done this well and thoroughly, some have taken a more haphazard approach, and others have told their teachers to “figure it out”. Some teachers are very proficient with Internet technology, some manage just fine, and some have avoided using technology for as long as possible and have no idea what a URL is. While most students in middle- and upper-class communities have been raised with a device in their hands, many in lower-income communities are learning to access technology for academic purposes for the very first time. Whether they are technological novices or pros, they’ll be “doing school” much differently than ever before.

Teachers, students, and parents are facing uncertainty about how they will do instruction this year.

Some schools started the year early, to get in as much instruction as possible before another potential stay-at-home order. Some schools have students coming to school on alternate days to space out the number of bodies in classrooms. Some schools are having shorter instructional days to allow for added cleaning in buildings or to allow for time away from computer screens if students are learning from home.

Teachers, students, and parents are facing uncertainly about when they will do instruction this year.

Teachers are wondering about how we will build relationships, how we will have enough time together to get to know one another, when we will find time to share stories and tell all the corny teacher jokes that are critical to every classroom. We’re wondering where to pick up in the curriculum, knowing that our students’ learning was disrupted way back in March and that individual students managed that disruption and the virtual learning that followed much differently from one another. We’re wondering how to allow students the time and space to process trauma — the trauma of leaving school in the middle of the year, the trauma of losing a friend or loved one, the trauma of being continuously at home with a family that may or may not have fared well in the face of a global pandemic, the resulting economic crisis, and the concurring racial unrest.

We’re wondering how we’ll manage to reach students who we may only see in the gallery view of our Zoom rooms, how well we’ll adapt to distributing and collecting assignments via Google classroom, and how efficient we’ll be at transitioning from task to task, student to student, class to class, from in-person to online learning, or vice-versa.

Parents are wondering how safe their kids will be at school, how long they will stay there, and how they will manage to juggle all their responsibilities — again! — if their students are moved home. They are wondering if they’ll be able to keep their jobs — or find a job, if they’ll be allowed to work at home, if they’ll be able to find child care, and if they’ll have enough money to pay for it. They’re trying to explain the unexplainable and answer the unanswerable for their children who are also feeling the stress of the uncertain.

These children wonder who their teacher will be, when they will talk to their friends, if they’ll be able to have recess, and how they will eat their lunch. They are worried that they’ll have to keep learning at home, that they won’t understand the assignments, and that they’ll have have to sit in front of the computer for all of their lessons. They are asking when they’ll get to go to practice, will they have to wear their masks, and why they can only go to school on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Where? When? How? Why?

All of the answers are, “Well, let’s wait and see.”

It’s so uncomfortable to live amid so much uncertainty when we’ve been following the same rhythms and patterns for so long. We just want to go back to ‘normal’ — to do things “the way we’ve always done them” — and to be beyond all this Covid-19 nonsense.

But we’re not there yet. We’re here, in the midst of a global pandemic, where we do things differently than we’ve ever done them before.

We wash our hands more, we wear masks, we stay home, we do family Zoom meetings, we send packages in the mail to loved ones we wish we could see in person. We stand further apart, we ask more questions, we decline more invitations. We become accustomed to the phrase, “we’ll have to wait and see.”

So dear friends, dear teachers, dear parents, dear students, I’m sorry that this is where we find ourselves, but alas, here we are. So, since we’re all in this together, can we find inside ourselves, under the hum of uncertainty, a way to extend a virtual hand of support — a cheering on, a forgiving smile, a gracious response? Can we find a way to see one another’s uncertainty with understanding and compassion? Can we hear one another’s worries, share our frustrations, and commit to being kind to one another in the midst of uncertainty?

Can we, as teachers, be patient with one another as we learn all the things, even if the fog of our Covid brains requires us to hear the instructions multiple times? Can we be gentle with our students who may not know how to submit an assignment online, answer an email, or right click on a hyperlink?

Can we, as parents, be supportive of our teachers and administrators who are trying very hard to meet the educational, social, and safety needs of our children and their teachers? Can we be respectful with our questions, offer our assistance, and send a note of encouragement? Can we remember that our kids are managing uncertainty, too, and that they may not always regulate their anxiety, their fears, their frustration, their anger? Can we give them an extra measure of grace as they navigate the “wait and see”?

Can we, as students, show up and do our best to attend to our teachers and let them know when we are getting lost or don’t know what to do next? Can we be patient when the technology doesn’t work right, when our teachers seem flustered, and when our parents are at their wits’ end? Can we try to communicate when we ourselves are at our wits’ end?

It’s gonna take all of us doing our best, assuming the best, and overlooking the less-than-best. We’re doing a lot here — trying to focus on the tasks in front of us while trying to drown out that insufferable hum of uncertainty. If we have any hope of success, it’s gonna be because we all leaned in to the uncertainty, saw it for what it is, and accepted the fact that we’ll have to do what we can and wait and see.

We can do this — together — we can do this.

Be kind to one another, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.

Ephesians 4:32

Surprise! Re-visit

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It’s Sunday morning, and I already know that my work schedule is so packed this week that I won’t have time to write a new post. I’m a little anxious — how will I make it through? will I get sick? will I become irritable? I’ve not even stepped into the week, and my adrenaline is already flowing. In an attempt to calm myself down, I found this post from March 2018. It reminds me that while I am bracing myself for a stressful week, I just might be pleasantly surprised.

Today I was getting ready to do a lesson with one of my students when our office manager informed me that one of my coworkers had gone home sick. Would I mind combining two students’ instruction — one, a nine-year-old doing language arts and one, an eleven-year-old who had a math assessment to finish? Two students at once might not sound like a lot, but both of these students have specific learning needs and both typically receive one-on-one instruction. I answered that I would be happy to combine them while thinking to myself, “well, this could get interesting”.

It is for good reason that most of our students receive one-on-one instruction. They have all struggled in school and have the scars to show for it — low self-esteem, a tendency toward frustration, and the constant and desperate need for encouragement.  How was I going to juggle their needs? No way to find out but to step into it.

I was almost immediately surprised. “Hey you two,” I said, “Why don’t we find a space with a large table so that we have plenty of room?” “Yeah!” they said almost in unison.  While a change in routine or venue can sometimes signal distraction or disruption, they surprised me by rallying and seeing this as an opportunity. They helped me gather all their supplies — laptops, files, paper, etc — and we relocated so swiftly that I barely had time to register the change.

Still, I was cautious. I wondered if we would get anything done at all. Both of these students tend to need a lot of direction and re-direction; I pictured an hour plunked between them, dividing my time between getting each of them back on task and squeezing in little spurts of instruction. 

Again, I was surprised. The eleven-year-old almost immediately located the online assessment that he had to complete and announced that he could do most of it on his own. The nine-year-old found herself a “special pen” to work with and then, looking at her ‘classmate’, decided to find him one, too. “What a good idea!”  I said. Her classmate received the pen, said “Thank you!” and got right to work.

While I guided the nine-year-old through her lesson, the eleven-year-old worked diligently on adding and subtracting fractions. He politely asked me once if he had reduced the fraction as far as it could go. After I checked his answer and said,  “yes, good job,” I turned back to the other student. She looked at him and added her own “good job!”  When the older student heard me tell the younger student, “You got it,” he chimed in with “Way to go!”

Guys, I did not script this. They were genuinely delighted for one another. He watched her jump up and down when she heard two target words in a song that I played. She waited patiently when he and I worked through a more difficult problem together. They even teamed up to good-naturedly poke fun at my singing ability! I praised them and rewarded them for their cooperative spirits and strong work ethics, but I truly believe that the opportunity to work side-by-side was a reward in itself.

The three of us were elbow to elbow smiling at one another at a table buried under two laptops, paper, pens, scissors, and scraps. I said, “Hey, guys, I think we should do this more often.  What do you think?”

“Yes!” they agreed, in unison.

If you are not a teacher, you might not know that school doesn’t always go like this.  Classmates aren’t always encouraging toward one another. They certainly don’t always celebrate the small accomplishments of students with learning differences. In fact, it is often the opposite. Students who struggle often have the added discouragement of being teased by their peers and even, I’m sorry to say, their teachers.

Not today.

Today was a sweet surprise.  Perhaps these two who have struggled so much have learned the value of being kind. I learned a little myself.

Surprise!

Isaiah 11:6

“a child will lead them”

I just checked my schedule for the day — seven hours of my day will be spent in one-on-one instruction with students, for one hour I’ll meet with a small group online, and for one hour I’ll score the writing of online students. It’s gonna be a full day, but I’m going to try to enjoy the ride. Who knows? I just might get surprised.

Controlling and Carrying, revisit

This post, first written in June of 2017 and polished a bit in March 2019, reminds me of one of the most powerful life lessons I continue to learn.

I began trying to control my life at a very early age. At the risk of making this a confessional, let me just say that I routinely lied, falsely (and sometimes accurately) implicated my brothers, and physically overpowered my friends to get what I wanted. And that was all by the time I was in elementary school! As I grew older and learned what was socially acceptable, I found other methods such as emotional outbursts, dramatic power plays, and sly slips of the hand to orchestrate my life. My college years brought more maturity.  I learned that I could not control my environment, my peers, or my family, so I controlled my body through anorexia.

You would think that therapy and recovery would’ve exposed the truth that I am not in charge of my own life either, but I am either a slow learner or a control savant. I have devised many ways to create an illusion of control.  In fact, once I had children of my own, I was sure to create a rigid daily schedule to ensure that their lives were under control. I was going to make sure that they were safe and secure. No harm would come to them under my watch. We prayed together. We memorized scripture verses. I only let them watch PBS.  We ate dinner together every evening. They went to church every Sunday and often several times during the week. I was going to do this parenting thing right. My kids would be perfect, you know?

I couldn’t control everything, though, as I’m sure you can imagine. They didn’t stay safe and secure. Harm did come to them. Heart-breaking harm.

Many sleepless nights I have cried over my failed attempts at controlling my life; many more I have cried over my realization that I could not prevent my children from being hurt. And where has it led me?  Literally to my knees.

For many years now, when I have found myself facing the stark realization of my own powerlessness in the lives of my children, I call to mind an image that gives me great peace. I picture a cupped hand with my child nestled safely inside. I imagine that cupped hand held close to an all-powerful chest much like I might hold a newborn chick or kitten. The hand is strong and able to lift my child out of harm’s way, and sometimes, when harm determinedly finds its way inside of that hand, two compassionate eyes are bearing witness — they are seeing and knowing and caring in ways that I am unable to see, to know, to care.  This image of the One who does have control gives me peace in those moments when I am able to acknowledge that I have none

Photo of original artwork by Mike Lorenz, St. Louis, MO.

But there are many moments when I am not able to acknowledge that. Most of the moments, actually. Most of my moments I am filling with doing. Doing gives me an illusion of control. It calms my anxiety. It makes me feel like everything is going to be ok if I just get my house clean, if I just meet one more student, if I complete one more task.

But that is a lie. Everything is not going to be ok. 

Last night, when I finally admitted that I had done enough for the day and I finally lay down in my bed, I picked up Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way.  This is what I read:

Suffering asks us to bear under that which is ultimately not under our control, which proves to us we have no control.  And maybe that’s too much for us in our autonomous, do-it-yourself culture to bear.  Maybe more than we can’t stand physical suffering, we can’t stand not feeling in control (171). 

It’s silly when she puts it like that, isn’t it? And if I admit that trying to be in control is silly, then I have to admit that much of my life has been one big futile exercise. That’s embarrassing. And humiliating. And heartbreaking.

But it’s true.

However, it is also true that regardless of my foolish attempts, I, too, have been sitting in that all-powerful hand. I have been kept out of harm’s way many, many times. And, when harm has found me, One has born witness with compassion, forgiveness, and love. I am His child, after all. He has ordered my world.  He has hemmed me in on all sides. And He will continue to carry me.

You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.

Psalm 139:5

Students of the Months

So it’s been a while, guys. If you’re my friend on Facebook, you may think I haven’t been writing simply because I’ve been putting together a particularly difficult 1000 piece puzzle.  That’s not really the reason.  The puzzle is my forced stillness in the midst of a pretty crazy summer lifestyle.

In addition to visiting family in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio this summer, I have also had the opportunity to work with quite a few students.  While some of my regulars from the school year take the summer off, a handful have continued their lessons.  I have a Korean brother and sister who are transferring from a public school to a fairly rigorous private school this fall.  We are sharpening skills to ease the transition.  I have an Indian brother and sister who are entirely bi-lingual and whose parents choose to have regular English lessons to ensure that their English skills for academic purposes rival those of their native-speaking peers. I have a Romanian woman whom I’ve been working with for eighteen months now — we’ve done everything from grammar to pronunciation to reading to writing to nursing school assignments to spelling. I work with a young man, also bilingual, who has challenges in comprehension.  He and I work on vocabulary, test prep, and life skills including interviewing for jobs.  These ‘regulars’ are officially adopted into my heart and have become part of my the larger body I call “my kids”, but they aren’t my only students.

For a willing teacher, the summer also provides some temporary liaisons — opportunities for just a ‘touch’.  This summer I chose to be part of a program called Summer Discovery .  In this program, students from across the country and around the world, move to a university campus for 2-5 weeks to live in a dorm, experience campus life, interact with other students, and take some classes.  They don’t all take English.  In fact, of the hundreds of students who are attending the program at the University of Michigan, here in Ann Arbor, only 18 have chosen to take my “Essay Writing Workshop”.  I mean, they had over forty options — including  architectural design, business management, exploring medicine, sports management, and even a cooking class at Zingerman’s!   So, you can probably imagine that the seven students I had during the first three weeks of Summer Discovery and the eleven students I am working with during the last two weeks are pretty serious about improving their writing.  Most of them have one thing on their minds — completing and even perfecting the college essay that they will use in the admissions process this fall.

Although they have that goal in common, in many ways they are quite diverse.  I have met a competitive horse back rider from Chicago, one boy and one girl from Manhattan, a Japanese boy who happens to actually live in Switzerland, a Chinese boy who goes to high school in Korea, two IB school students — one from Turkey, one from Memphis, a poet from Southern California, a hippie from New Hampshire, and a bantam-weight Korean-American defensive lineman from Kansas City.

Our task?  Each needs to identify a dominant characteristic that he or she wants to convey through the college essay.  One chose ‘hard-working’, one chose ’empathetic’, one chose ‘creative’, etc.  Once each student has determined which characteristic to convey, he or she then has the job of creating a written ‘highlight tape’ in the form of a college essay that just happens to respond to one of five prompts required by the Common App.  Easy? Nope.  Possible? Absolutely.

Today, as part of our class, I invited students to read their first completed essay out loud to the class.  Keep in mind that we have read many models, we have examined the prompts, we have brainstormed and pre-written together, we have drafted, we have participated in peer review, and we have had opportunity for revisions.  Also keep in mind that ALL of these kids are high achievers.  They are planning on attending selective universities.  They have high expectations of themselves.  I just wanted them to read out loud the 500-650 words on the page in front of them.  I had a few volunteers, but most were reluctant.

I pulled out all the stops — I gushed over volunteers.  I gave specific praise.  I offered targeted tips to those who had taken the risk to read out loud.  And then the classic Rathje showed up, “I LOVE reading your essays.  On Monday you walked in eleven strangers that I would get to interact with for ten days, but as I read your writing, I get the inside view!  I get to see who you really are!”

I don’t know if they care, but I LOVE doing this!!  I love the privilege of meeting students from different backgrounds.  I love hearing their stories — of growing up in a family where everyone is taller than 5’10”, of organizing a fund-raiser to benefit children with autism, of interviewing Kevin Durant for a school newspaper, of the challenges of having one Arabic and one Jewish parent, of growing up in Puerto Rico where half of the classes are in English and half are in Spanish, of  experiencing prejudice, health issues, language barriers, and success.  Their stories, though very different from one another, remind me of what is common among humanity — the desire to be seen, the desire to be heard, the desire to be accepted, the desire to be loved.

For a teenager, these desires can feel like desperation.  Imagine the courage it takes to travel to a place you have never been, to live there for several weeks, to put yourself onto a piece of paper, and then to read it out loud in front of people you’ve known for just a short while.  For any of us that would daunting.  For a teenager, it can be terrifying.  Yet today, five students out of my eleven dared to expose themselves, because of that, they had an opportunity to be seen and to be heard, and quite possibly the opportunity to be accepted and loved.

Ephesians 4:32

Be kind and compassionate to one another.

You can learn a lot from a toddler

You can learn a lot from a toddler.

We spent last weekend with our sweet grand daughter.  As many grandparents will attest, there is nothing quite like the love one feels for a grandchild.  People had been telling me this for years, but it took gazing upon our own grandchild to give me the full picture.  In the fifteen or so months since she was born, I have spent a lot of time just observing her. I’m starting to compile a list of lessons that this wee one is teaching me.

  • Play is important.  And it’s fun!  I’ve spent so many hours of my life being serious; I have sometimes forgotten to play.  Not this little girl!  She makes everything into play — eating blueberries, getting her diaper changed, taking a bath, riding in the car, and waiting in line at a restaurant.  If she has a spare second, she’s playing peek-a-boo, chase-me,  let’s-knock-it-down, splash your Oma, or anything that will make her, and me, laugh.
  • Fun is contagious.  Every time this little one giggles, I giggle.  If she makes a silly face, I make a silly face.  I can’t hep myself.  She draws me in.  She walks right up to me, hands me a book, leans toward me with a smile, and I’ve just gotta smile back.  I don’t think I was serious for a single second all weekend, unless you count that moment when she face-planted at the mall.  At that moment she taught me another lesson.
  • If you’re hurting, you just gotta cry. In my almost fifty years of life, I have stuffed a lot of emotions.  I have concealed fear, subdued laughter, and swallowed pain.  Not my little girl; nope. When she feels something, she shows it.  When she face-planted, she cried loud and hard — the kind of crying that loses its breath and gets silent.  It was legitimate.  She bruised the very fleshy part over her cheek bone.  She hit hard. When she cried, no one tried to silence her; we let her cry.  We had seen the injury.  We felt her pain.  And she taught us another lesson.
  • When you’re really hurting, Dad is the safest place to turn.  Opa swooped her off the floor and rushed her right to her daddy who engulfed her in his extra-strong arms so that she could bury her face in his extra-large shoulder and wail.  He just held her and held her while she cried.  He kept her safe and secure while Mom checked out the injury, Opa found us a place to sit down, and Oma got some ice.  When the pain ebbed a bit, and Dad placed her in a booster seat at a table, her tear-filled eyes watched him as she drank her drink and ate her fries.  When he stood to get some ketchup, her eyes followed him to the restaurant counter and back.  She checked that we were all still sitting near her, but she didn’t smile until he was headed back toward her. It wasn’t long before she regained her composure and reminded us of another lesson.
  • When you fall down, you gotta get back up.  After the spill and the fries, our girl cautiously entered the children’s area, observed what the big kids were doing, and then tried out some of the toys herself.  Mom showed her how to push the buttons that lit up.  She ran from one end of the play area to the other. She looked up at the towering climbing apparatus and then showed us another important lesson.
  • You’ve gotta know your limitations.  She was clearly impressed by the kids who were climbing higher than their parents’ heads, but she recognized that she didn’t have the means, or perhaps the courage, to go where they were going.  She walked under the looming structure, but when she realized that none of her people had gone with her, she turned around and walked back out.  No one had told her she couldn’t go in there, she just knew that if we weren’t going with her, she wasn’t going to do it alone.  In fact, at that point, she’d had enough of the play area and was ready to go walking for a bit.
  • Exploring is interesting.  Our girl was happy to ride in the stroller as long as we were moving and changing her scenery.  We walked through the crowded mall and she had plenty to look at, but when we went into a store and the stroller stopped moving, she voiced her protest.  And there’s our next lesson.
  • Let your concerns be known.  This little girl does not shy away from communicating.  When she is ready to move, she makes some noise.  When she’s hungry, she goes to the kitchen cupboard where her snacks are stored.  When she wants up, she reaches; when she wants down, she leans.  When she’s happy, she talks and laughs. When she’s sad, she cries.  But my favorite of all is her way of communicating when she’s just tuckered out.  She goes to her Daddy, the keeper of all things safe, and gives the signal.
  • Because when you need a recharge, you go to Daddy.  She stands near him.  She rubs her eyes.  She might try to climb up in his lap.  Since he’s her dad, he recognizes the signals.  He lifts her up and holds her close.  She puts her head on his shoulder and just submits to his embrace.  She doesn’t necessarily sleep; often she just soaks up his love for five or ten minutes.   He holds her, enjoying this mutual love fest.  If she falls asleep, he lets her. If a brief charge is all that’s needed, he smiles, kisses her head, and lets her back down to go play and explore some more.

I probably don’t have to spell it out for you.  You’re smarter than that. You can see what I saw, can’t you?  You can learn from a toddler, too.

    and a little child will lead them.

Isaiah 11:6

The Teacher You Need, re-visit

I’ve been teaching since I lined up my childhood friends in chairs or desks in any garage or basement we were allowed to play in and ‘taught’ them the lesson of the day.

Some might say I was ‘bossy’. I prefer the term ‘influential’.  I had to start practicing early to hone the skills I would need to manage a classroom of teenagers and convince them that yes, they would write a three-page paper on the use of dashes in Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

Now that is not to say that I became “the boss” in the classroom.  I can be. I will be if I need to be.

I prefer to be the Ellen DeGeneres of the classroom. I like to make students laugh. I like to learn about them. I like to showcase their strengths and celebrate them. That’s my sweet-spot. Kids need a little “Ellen” in their lives. They need someone to be happy to see them, to dance with them, and to applaud them.

However, students also sometimes need a boss. They need to know that a limit exists. They need to understand that they are expected to comply with the teacher’s expectations. They need to know that if they choose not to comply, there will be a consequence. Not a punishment, necessarily, but a consequence.

Other times, kids need a mom in the classroom. My “mom” self shows up when a student reveals that her mother is in the hospital, that his dog died this morning, or that she hasn’t eaten since yesterday. The mom of the classroom has snacks in her desk, a shoulder to cry on, and the ability to grant an extension on any assignment. The mom oozes grace.

I have been known, on rare occasions, to turn a little Jack Nicholson in my classroom. I cock my eyebrow, quietly walk past a mildly misbehaving adolescent, and crush a hornet on the window sill with my bare hand. “Jack” shows up out of the blue. He makes off-the-wall comments to get a reaction.  He keeps class interesting.

I guess I developed a cast of personas to keep my students engaged, to keep them on task, and to help them feel loved. I wasn’t trying to do this; it just happened.

Sometimes when I was teaching in a high school classroom, “the boss” would show up to re-gain control on the heels of an “Ellen” appearance gone-rogue, and my students would say, “Mrs. Rathje, what’s wrong? Are you mad?” I would reply, “No, I’m not mad. I’m just willing to be whatever teacher you need me to be today.”

Recently I was reading how God used Hosea to announce that He he had had enough. He was going to punish His people, have no compassion on them, and refuse to acknowledge them (Hosea 1).  Yikes! Why so harsh? How could God do that to his own people?

Because He was willing to be whatever His people needed Him to be.

Sometimes we go rogue. We forget that God is God, and we are not.

When we need a line, a barrier, a boundary — He will provide it.

When we need affirmation, celebration, applause — He will give it.

When we need mercy — He has it in abundance.

Why does He do all these things?  Because He loves us, knows way more than us, and understands the consequences of us going our own way.  He is Creator, Redeemer, Friend, Lord. He is the Teacher who is exactly what we need Him to be.

Teacher I will follow you wherever you go.

Matthew 8:18

Grandparenting, revisit

We’ve had two consecutive weekends of family reunion. This past Saturday, July 27 2019, my mother and her brothers gathered with their children and grandchildren. As we talked and laughed, I remembered my grandparents, the patriarchs of this crew, and the impact they had on me, so I re-share this post from March 2015 — my thoughts on grandparenting.

I have so many memories of my grandparents. I was blessed to have a great-grandmother until I was twenty-four, and grandparents until I was in my forties. Growing up, these three were central to my life. They were at every birthday and major celebration, and we often visited them since they lived just an hour away. Time with my grandparents was a highlight of my childhood; I eagerly looked forward to every visit.

Now, when my husband and I are anticipating a visit with our own grandchildren, I can clearly remember countless hours spent with my nose pressed against a window waiting for visits with my grandparents.

My husband asked me once, “Do you remember why you wanted to see them so badly?” Without hesitation I responded, “They were always happy to see me!” And that is the truth. Every time we visited our grandparents, they gushed; their faces lit up; and they hugged us exclaiming how much we’d grown — even if they’d seen us just a couple weeks earlier.

My great grandmother, who lived to be 95, would always meet us at the door smiling through the window with her sparkly eyes as she watched us climb from the car. She laughed as she hugged as at the door and welcomed us to come in, take off our coats, and have something to eat.  On special occasions, like Christmas Eve or Mother’s Day, the WHOLE family would visit her — that meant twenty or more people all squished into her small living room — on couches, chairs, stools, and the floor — listening to her share stories of days long past. I don’t ever remember being bored. I remember feeling enveloped in love. And I remember her sour cream cookies — oh, man, such melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness.

My grandpa and grandma’s house was about five minutes away from my great grandmother’s. As a young girl I learned to recognize the signs that we were getting close — we crossed the draw bridge over the Saginaw River, drove past the huge houses on Center Avenue, then turned at the gas station on Pine Street. The anticipation built as we drove the last four blocks, and I could hardly wait to burst out of the car and run to the door to ring the bell. My little grandma (we called her that because, well, she was little, but also to distinguish her from ‘great’ grandma) was often already standing at the door, an apron tied around her waist. She dressed better than anyone I knew –color-coordinated and accessorized in classic styles– and was always cooking something fabulous for us. She would open the door, and right behind her would be grandpa. Grandma would give us a kiss and a squish, then we would get the same from grandpa. Whenever my grandparents hugged me, I felt like they had had their noses pressed against the glass waiting for me to get there.

I’ve seen my mother and father do the same thing with my kids.

My mother always fills the fridge and the candy dishes in anticipation of our visits. She has the beds freshly made and something special set on a table for each one — a set of towels, a photo album, a pair of earrings. She hugs each grandchild and listens to every little detail that they are willing to share. She watches at the window waiting for the grandkids get there and is always sad when they leave.

When we travel to see my dad, I always give a call as we leave our house. It has never been less than a four hour drive, but when I say, “We’re leaving now,” he says, “I’ll be watching out the window for you.” It doesn’t matter how long it takes us to get there, he is always standing in the door when we drive in. He laughs his soft laugh as he envelops each grandkid in his arms like he’s been waiting his whole life for that hug.

That’s what grandparents do — they love their grandkids like it is their sole created purpose. It’s innate — a grandparent does not need to be taught this behavior.

We were driving to Cincinnati to see our little muffin when she was just an infant, and I was watching the GPS from the time we pulled out of our driveway. The original ETA was projected shortly before 5pm, but the GPS didn’t know about the rush hour traffic in Dayton. We got stalled for a bit, and when the traffic started moving, I began to text our son updates: “We should be to you in 30 minutes.” “20.” “10.”

He replied, “Come right in, the door is open.”

He didn’t have to tell us twice. We burst through that door to find our sweet girl sleeping on his chest. We sniffed her, touched her, held her, hugged her. No script needed.

For almost forty-eight hours we took turns holding that little girl, talking to her, smiling at her, loving on her. We didn’t need a guidebook, a demonstration, or practice. We knew exactly what to do.

Driving away at the end of our visit, we were already thinking about how soon we could plan to get back. Since then, we take every opportunity to clear the calendar, load up the car, and drive to our girls — to see them, hug them, chase them, and just love them.

Grandparent love is possibly the purest form of love on the planet — it doesn’t expect or demand, it doesn’t judge or condemn, it just loves with no strings attached. It anticipates arrivals, waiting at the window, noses pressed against the glass.

Grandchildren are the crown of the aged.”

Proverbs 17:6