Controlling and Carrying

Since we are on the topic….let’s talk a little bit more about control.  I mean, if I’m gonna scratch the surface, I might as well pry off the scab and take a look at the festering sore underneath, right?

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 myself down to a mere shadow of a human 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.

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 — I know, I know, if you have followed this blog from the beginning, you may be face-palming about right now. Doing, as I implied yesterday, 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. As usual, God spoke directly to me through it; I think reading is the only time I slow down long enough to truly listen.  This is what I heard:

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 silly 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.

Psalm 139:5

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

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.

The Teacher You Need

Perhaps I should finish out this series of blog posts on my ‘threads’ with a post about teaching.

I can’t get away from it.  I am a teacher.  I’ve been teaching since I lined up my 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 people might say I was ‘bossy’. I prefer the term ‘authoritative’.  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 am the warden of 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 my students laugh.  I like to learn about my students.  I like to showcase their strengths.  I like to 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, for some reason, students sometimes need a warden.  They need to know that a limit exists.  They need to understand that they are expected to comply with the teacher’s demands.  They need to know that if they choose not to comply, there will be a consequence.  Not a punishment, necessarily, but a consequence.

Sometimes teenagers need a mom in the classroom.  My “mom” self shows up when a student reveals that his mother is in the hospital, that her dog died this morning, or that he 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.

Occasionally a little Jack Nicholson shows up in my classroom.  You know, Crazy Jack — the guy who looks a little possessed and like he might snap at any moment.  That is not to say that my students push me to the brink of snapping — they sometimes do, but that is not when my “Jack Nicholson” shows up.  No, Jack shows up out of the blue.  He makes comments that keep students wondering if I am losing my mind.  He sometimes says things just 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 the warden showed up on the heels of an Ellen appearance 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.”

I was reading my Bible study a little while ago; 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.

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.

I don’t know that He ever plays Jack Nicholson, but He does keep us wondering sometimes, doesn’t He?

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, Father, Lord.  He is the Teacher who is exactly what we need Him to be.

Matthew 8:18

“Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”

Details, details, details

Today is a detail day — schedule the oil change, get the groceries,  call the university, fold the laundry, etc.  I have lots to do…actually lots to do all week long. 

These details were a bit overwhelming last night when we had just returned from dropping off the baby at college eight hours away.  And, I’m a little irritated at the moment that I can’t just lie around and mope.  Already I am laughing at myself. 

It’s all by God’s design isn’t it?  He knew in advance that I would be a little torn up today — worrying, grieving, overthinking — so he made sure my plate was full for a bit.  It’s all good stuff — family visiting tonight through Friday, an appointment with a specialist, some cooking, some cleaning, and definitely some writing.  

I will find some time in the midst of the details to grieve a little, to wallow a little, to mope a little.  But, I will have to wipe the tears and drag myself out of bed to get a few things done.  

After all, one daughter is still here!  In fact, she greeted us last night when we returned from our trip with a warm dinner and lots of energy!  I couldn’t bring myself to write a grocery list, but she could.  I was overwhelmed at the thought of laundry, but she had it started!  God’s design.  He knew that if they were all gone at once, I would be overcome by loneliness.  He’s easing me into the empty nest.  

My niece is coming to visit tonight, bringing more energy into our home.  Two twenty-one year olds full of possibility and promise — they will take a road trip tomorrow!  What fun! They will leave me here to write, think, rest, and grieve for a couple of days, then they will bring their energy back.  

Do you see that detail?  God was setting up the details ahead of time, taking care of me, knowing exactly what I needed.  He knew I needed to do for a little while and then be for a little while.  He knew I needed people in my house for a while.  He knew what I needed before I even asked.  He’s got August taken care of, so that I can face September.  He’s always looking out for me, and for you. 

The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer;  

my god is my rock, in whom I take refuge,

my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. 

Psalm 18:2