A time to embrace

It was a weird year to join a school staff. With Covid, all of our back-to-school meetings were virtual. We could see one another’s faces and occasionally hear one another’s voices, but we did not share physical space for those two weeks. Instead, each of us was safely distant from the others, working from our homes.

I wasn’t the only new hire, but I couldn’t be sure, just from looking at my Zoom screen, which staff members were veterans and which ones were rookies. The situation was complicated by the fact that two school staffs had come together for the 2020-2021 school year after one had closed, so even the teachers who had been on staff for three or five or ten years, might have been looking at new faces and wondering where they fit in.

And maybe that dynamic, the fact that none of us felt terribly grounded, created a situation in which no one felt superior; no one felt “new”. Or perhaps we all felt “new” in a way, since we were all learning how to do school online — learning how to use digital platforms for instruction, for behavioral incentives, for managing student work. I can’t know how everyone else was feeling, but from the beginning, I had a sense that we were all in this together. We were all uniting to meet the needs of our students during a pandemic — one that had decimated the community of Detroit in which our school is situated and where all of our students live.

From the beginning of the school year, our focus was to provide high quality instruction in a manner that was safe for our students and for our staff. We took every measure — providing our students with chromebooks and hot spots so that they could safely learn from home, upping the requirements for our all-star custodial staff who sanitized bathrooms and doorknobs on the hour, and allowing staff with health concerns to work from home. If a positive case of Covid was detected, everyone was sent home for two weeks while the building went through a deep clean and while everyone who had even remotely close exposure could get tested and watch for symptoms.

We were so careful, in fact — wearing masks in the building, staying six feet apart, sanitizing surfaces, and holding all meetings via Zoom — that even when a positive case occurred within the building, it was not spread. We were even offered weekly Covid testing every Monday, so when asymptomatic cases were diagnosed, the whole building could go home before any spread could take place.

Our leadership took every precaution to make sure our students and staff remained safe and healthy.

So what a shock it was, as we were all enjoying our summer break, knowing that we finished the year with minimal Covid impact, to receive a message from our principal that one of our coworkers, a well-loved teacher, just forty-four years old, had died very shortly after a cancer diagnosis.

It felt like a punch to the gut. I was stunned. How could this woman, who had volunteered to plan all the senior events (during a pandemic!) so that “our babies” would have a senior pinning, a prom, and an in-person graduation, have died? I had just been on zoom with her a few weeks earlier, discussing teaching strategies and sharing resources. She’d asked early in the year if I would mind talking with her from time to time as she was striving to be the best she could be for our students.

In the group chat where the news of her death had been shared, my colleagues instantly began sharing with one another how they were shocked and devastated. None of us could believe that just as we were planning to be physically with one another in the fall, this woman who leaned into every Zoom room, face fully on the screen, smiling and attentive, would not be with us.

Shortly after we learned of her passing, our principal sent out another note. We would have a candlelight vigil and balloon launch the following week to allow students and staff to grieve. I had heard of this practice just earlier in the year. Two of my former students from St. Louis and one of this year’s seniors all were killed by gun violence within weeks of one another between Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Each of them had been remembered in this way.

Our principal’s note said to bring pink balloons (our colleague’s favorite color) and to come to the school. On that evening, my husband and I cut a family trip short so that we could be there. We pulled up to the building and found the principal and one of the custodians setting up. As we got closer, both of them moved toward us. After a whole school year of giving one another a wide berth, my principal and I instinctively hugged. I turned to the custodian, and we held one another.

It was no longer safe to remain distant.

As each staff member arrived, the hugging continued. Friends who had stepped around one another all year long, were offering comfort in the only way that would do — touch.

And tears.

Tears dripped from our eyes as forty-four candles were lit and balloons were shared. Markers were passed so that we could write tributes on the balloons. One teacher, who also happens to be a police chaplain, offered Scripture, emotional support, a space for sharing memories, and prayer. He told the dozen or more students who had gathered on a weeknight in the middle of summer that whatever they were feeling was ok, that the staff was grieving, too, that we were all shocked. None of us had known she was sick, he said; she hadn’t known long herself. He offered support through our social worker, our counseling resources, and himself. “We are a family,” he said, “and family supports one another through difficult times such as this.”

Our colleague’s mother moved to the middle of our circled bodies and shared that her daughter had loved our students, had talked about them all the time. Even from her hospital bed, she regretted that she was missing prom. We all nodded, knowing this was true, knowing that her heart had been fully with our kids.

As one, we counted to three and released our balloons into the sky. The cluster of bodies on the ground gazed upward, silently, for many long moments, watching the pink balloons lift into the clouds.

And then we lingered. Staff and students spoke to one another, shared memories, and stood closely in the silence. Gradually we began to chat: how is your summer? what have you been up to?

A baby was passed from his mother to students to staff. As though he knew our hearts were hurting, he lay his head our shoulders then lifted his gaze to smile us, instinctively bringing joy to the mourning.

One by one, the gathered began to dissipate, moving to cars, waving goodbyes, holding eye contact a little longer than we might’ve before, promising to see each other soon, knowing that we were connected a little more now than we had been a few hours earlier.

I don’t know how next year will play out. It holds promise for more proximity, more gathering, more sharing, and I hope we get that. It was appropriate to keep our distance for a while to protect one another, but it seems the best way to care for one another now is to come back together.

[There is] a time to refrain from embracing, and a time to embrace.

Ecclesiastes 3: 5 (Order reversed by me.)

This just might work.

Click above to listen, or read on.

Last week I reminisced about our life in our little house by the river. Today, I share some of the journey to our next nest.

Even before we moved in, we knew we wouldn’t live in the little house by the river forever. It’s university property, after all, and one does not retire in university property.

Not that we are retiring. We’re not even close.

I’m just one year into my journey at Detroit Leadership Academy and have accepted the role of Master Teacher for next year. I will stay in the classroom, teaching English Language Arts to our seniors, working with my colleagues to close the educational equity gap and prepare our students for success in college, trade school, or the work world. This past year has more than affirmed my passion for teaching in Detroit, and I hope for many years of teaching ahead in this next chapter.

Similarly, John is as invested as ever in the students at Concordia. When he moved here eight years ago, he had a sense of what this position held, what his role and responsibilities would be, but now he fully understands how his gifts as an educator, a counselor, and a pastor work together to support college students as they develop into adulthood. He’s part of a strong team of leaders here who are committed to walking with students through both joys and challenges, and he’s excited about continuing in that role.

So why the change? Don’t we love living on campus? We sure do! I’ve written about how much we love it over the years. Even during the pandemic, when the campus was almost vacant, we enjoyed its beauty — the green of summer against the brick structures, the fall leaves beside the peaceful Huron River, the pure white expanses of snow in the open spaces, and always the lilacs, the tulips, and the peonies in the spring. We have loved living and literally walking beside students, faculty, and staff these past years — watching ultimate frisbee from our patio, hearing laughter outside our door, and chatting with members of this community as we move throughout our weeks. We have experienced many unique relationships as a result of living in the little house by the river, and we are sad to be leaving.

Nevertheless, from the beginning, we knew we would one day move out. We weren’t sure when or to where, but from the beginning, we’ve kind of had our eye on Ypsilanti. We love Ann Arbor — its parks, its restaurants, its cool campus scene — but when in Ann Arbor, I’ve always felt a bit like a tourist. I love to explore how beautiful, how smart, how impressive Ann Arbor is — I don’t get tired of it. However, when I visit Ypsilanti, I feel more at home — its edges aren’t polished; it’s not trying to impress anyone. Ypsilanti looks like it’s been through some stuff and lived to tell — and I resonate with that.

So last winter, when we were on month one million of Covid isolation and my husband’s plantar fasciitis got in the way of our long quarantine walks, we started taking drives around Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and their surrounding areas. We talked about what we liked and didn’t like. We discussed our future. We clarified our goals. Then one day, we called our friend who is a realtor and formalized our search.

Over the next few months, we looked at many, many houses. Our realtor’s patience with us allowed us to imagine what we were looking for — what kind of space would suit us in this stage of life and carry us forward into the next. The little house by the river definitely informed that vision. We have been very content in this simple home, and we could picture ourselves in something similar — three bedrooms, perhaps a second bathroom, a garage, and definitely space for a garden. We wanted to be in a community where we could mix with people whose journeys may have been different from ours, where we could build relationships that would challenge and enrich us. Our goal was to stick to a conservative budget so that we could easily pay our mortgage and continue to live our simple life and contribute to causes that matter to us.

This was a tall order in the current real estate market. Interest rates are at an all-time low, and we were not the only ones looking for a house during the pandemic. In fact, the first house we bid on had several other offers, and so did the second house. Buyers right now are offering well over asking price and some are paying fully in cash. In fact, the third house we made an offer on had twenty-six (26!) other offers. The winner paid in cash. We were starting to get discouraged and even said, “It’s fine. Let’s take a break; we don’t need to buy a house right now.”

Then, on a Friday, when I clicked through the latest listings in an email sent by our realtor, I noticed a little three bedroom with a garage in Ypsilanti Township. I pulled it up on Google Maps and thought, “We aren’t going to like it. It’s too close to the highway.” I wasn’t even going to go look, but as I left work that day, I thought, “I’m in the car anyway, and it’s kind of on the way.” I took the exit and drove the path that we had driven to so many others in the area, and then I found myself on a quiet street that was indeed extremely close to the highway, but for some reason didn’t feel like it was. I pulled up in front of a small blue ranch, put the car in park, lowered the windows, and listened.

It was so quiet. Across the street was a playground and what was once an elementary school but is now an alternative education center. The house seemed in good shape, and so did the garage. I drove up and down the street, looking at the other houses on the block.

“Huh,” I thought, “this just might work.”

I texted my husband and our realtor, “I know we just said we were going to take a little break, but I’m sitting in front of this house, and I think it might be worth a look inside.”

Two days later we were standing in the driveway, then we were walking around to the back where we saw the garden — an enormous garden, right at the back of the yard, adjacent to three other yards that also had their gardens right next to the fence. I could immediately see myself leaning on that fence, talking to the neighbors, sharing gardening tips, and passing produce. I saw mature well-cared-for rose bushes and a patio next to the house, where I imagined our Adirondack chairs might fit quite nicely. We walked inside and found a lovely well-lit living room, a small eat-in kitchen, and three small bedrooms on the main floor. Everything had been recently painted, and the flooring had all been replaced. It felt fresh and ready to be lived in. We made our way downstairs to the finished basement where we found a fourth bedroom, a family room, the laundry, and all the makings of a bathroom — toilet, shower, sink — minus the finishing touches of walls and a vanity.

I heard my husband saying, “This might just work”

We guarded our feelings and put in an offer — the fourth offer we had made in a little over a month — and then we waited.

We didn’t have to wait long. By Monday the sellers had accepted our offer, and less than a month later, we have closed on our next nest. We haven’t yet begun to move in, but we’ve already put seeds and seedlings in the garden, and I’ve already leaned on the fence and talked with the neighbors. They like to chat and linger, just like I was hoping they would.

As I’m packing boxes in the little house by the river, I continue to reminisce, but my gaze is starting to move forward. I’m imagining our things living inside their new spaces. I’m picturing us sitting in our living room watching children playing in the park. I’m looking forward to walks in our next neighborhood.

I think this just might work.

You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.

Psalm 145:16

Come Closer

In the past weeks and months we’ve seen an escalation, it seems, of the gun violence that has been a plague on America since well before the attack at a high school in Columbine, Colorado on April 20, 1999, twenty-two years ago this week. In 2020, during a global pandemic, when many of us were under stay-at-home orders for large chunks of time, the New York Times reports that there were more than 600 shootings in which four or more people were injured or killed. In 2021, the United States has logged 147 such mass shootings and eleven mass murders (in which four or more people were killed) as of April 16th. Just a few days ago, a young man shot and killed eight at a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis before turning the gun on himself. In March, a man killed ten people at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado. A few days earlier, a young man killed eight adults at three spas in Atlanta.

At the same time, incidents of police shooting and killing suspects seem to be increasing. Last Sunday, April 11, Daunte Wright, a 20 year old man, was shot during a traffic stop. On March 29, Adam Toledo, a male teenager, was shot after a brief middle of the night police chase. In total 213 civilians were fatally shot by police in the first three months of 2021 in the United States.

What is happening? As I watch the news from my couch, I find myself yelling: “get rid of semi-automatic weapons!” and “we need free mental health care for all,” as if more mental health care and a few gun laws would make the changes we need in America.

I really wish it were that simple, but what I’m starting to wonder is what if the shootings –these killings — aren’t the problem, but merely symptoms — and as soon as I’ve written the words, I know I’m right.

The problem is much more pervasive than the gun violence we’ve seen over the last weeks, months, and years, and rather than being isolated to some we might call ‘killers’ or ‘terrorists’, ‘thugs’ or ‘criminals’, the problem lives inside all of us. The deadly disease of ‘othering’, or dehumanization, that causes and perpetuates isolation, desperation, and violence has infected all of us, and we spread it through our actions — and our inactions — every day.

Brené Brown in her now-famous Braving the Wilderness describes this disease saying:

Dehumanizing often starts with creating an enemy image. As we take sides, lose trust, and get angrier and angrier, we not only solidify an idea of our enemy, but also start to lose our ability to listen, communicate, and practice even a modicum of empathy.

excerpt found here

Have you seen this? Have you found yourself getting angrier and angrier, losing trust, and being unable to listen to those with whom you don’t agree? Have you found yourself listening for buzzwords that can help you categorize people into the enemy? I have!

Haven’t we even named those who are our enemies? Liberals, conservatives, libtards, Trumpsters, thugs, Karens, maskers, no-maskers, … I don’t have enough space on this page to list all the ways that we label those that we put on the other side or that we ourselves identify with.

Brené Brown explains that we dehumanize others in order to justify our mistreatment of them. If we reduce fellow humans to labels or categories through our language, we create distance between them and ourselves, and we find it easier to sling verbal grenades. Doing harm to these others seems right and appropriate if they are indeed the enemy. I want to shut down those I view as different from me so that my agenda can be furthered. I’m right, after all, and they are clearly so, so wrong.

If I call someone a “liberal”, I take away their personality, their humanity. I decide that they are less than human because they believe ‘socialist ideas’ and will certainly bring our country to ruin if they are left unchecked.

The same thing happens when I label someone a “Trumpster.” In my mind, I’ve consciously or unconsciously demoted their status to subhuman. They are no longer a child of our Creator, how could they be if they are not only ‘conservative but likely racist, homophobic, and hateful toward women’?

In my mind, I justify my ill thoughts toward these “enemies”; I view myself as more righteous, more human. However, such dehumanization not only reduces others to subhuman status, it reduces me, too. It makes me less than what I’m called to be, less than kind, less than gentle, less than compassionate, less than self-controlled. I find myself behaving as one who has no love, no hope, no wisdom, no knowledge of a God who has created and loves all of us. All of us.

Brene’ Brown says, ‘When we desecrate [others’] divinity, we desecrate our own, and we betray our humanity.”

So what is the remedy? Perhaps we will find our way by re-humanizing, re-connecting. And how do we do that?

I am reading a book called The Restorative Practice Handbook by Bob Costello, Joshua Wachtel, and Ted Wachtel. My principal handed me this book last fall when I started working at Detroit Leadership Academy, whose educational framework is grounded in the idea that all of our students have experienced trauma, all of them need restoration, a space into which they might step to find a different way.

And isn’t that what we need? Don’t we need some space in which we might turn around and find our way back to humanity, to compassion, to empathy for other humans whether they are similar to us or very, very different?

The main premise of the book is that when one person has caused harm to another or to the community in general, the goal should be to restore that person to his community through a very simple series of steps. Rather than immediately jumping to consequences or even punishment, Costello et al have spent the past twenty years practicing this restorative process which asks the offender to first describe what happened, what they were thinking at the time, what they’ve been thinking of since, who they think they may have offended, and what they might do to make things right. This simple questioning creates space. It allows the person, the human, to think about what happened, to process their emotions, and to realize that their actions had consequences for others.

The next step is to allow those who were impacted to share what they were thinking when the event occurred, to describe the impact it had on them, and to suggest what might need to happen to make things right. The person(s) who was harmed has a chance to process their emotions, to put their feelings into words, and to be a partner in the process of reconciliation.

These discussions take place inside a circle of those who were involved and other interested parties such as parents or community leaders. The process takes an investment of time and intentionality, but as it has been used inside school and institutional settings, the results have been remarkable. Communication in a caring and supportive environment has allowed the individual to “move past shame…and make things right and restore his relationship with the….community” (74). Crucial to the success of this process is a commitment to “‘separate the deed from the doer’ by acknowledging the intrinsic worth of the person while rejecting the unacceptable behavior” (73). This is counterintuitive. We really want to label others according to their actions, pushing them away from us into convenient boxes and imagining their ‘enemy image’, but where has that gotten us? Further and further apart.

What does this have to do with gun violence? Well, remember I said that gun violence was a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself. The real disease is our habit of dehumanizing others, of hating them, of calling them names, and pitting ourselves against them.

Brené Brown says that “people are hard to hate close up,” and that might be why we push them away. If we pulled ourselves into circles and listened to one another, listened to each other’s stories, heard each other’s hearts, we might find that our preconceived notions were oh so wrong. We might discover that we are more alike than we might have ever imagined. We might find empathy and even love.

It won’t be easy to do this work. Just reading this book over the last several days has forced me to confront all the ways I have been judgmental, punitive, legalistic, and dehumanizing. That has not been fun, but as a good friend said just recently, “I’d rather realize I’ve been an asshole for the last fifty years and work to live differently than to keep being an asshole for the rest of my life and not even know it.”

I’ve been a real asshole to some people. I haven’t been able to separate the deed from the doer. I’ve pushed people away and made judgments about them, cutting off any possibility for relationship or empathy. I’m saddened by that, and I want to do better. And I’m wondering if a few of us trying to do better might make a difference, if a few of us showing love, compassion, and empathy might begin to change the world.

I’m willing to try, and I already know that I will fail in this trying, so I am counting on some of you to keep calling me back, to bring me into the circle, to ask me what happened, what I was thinking, and what needs to happen to make things right. Are you with me?

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, as Christ forgave you.”

Ephesians 4: 32

Seeing Racism

Note: I have included several links in this post, but I am not reading my references to them in the audio version.

I’m reading Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime with my seniors.

I read it the first time myself back in August, when I had just taken my current teaching position at a charter school in Detroit.

Trevor Noah tells his story of being born during Apartheid in South Africa. His very existence was illegal– his father was a white European and his mother was a Black South African — and it was against the law for whites and Blacks to have sex with one another. Because he grew up facing extreme racism and living with few resources, I felt that my students might resonate with his story. I hoped they would find the story engaging and inspiring.

We couldn’t get to it right away, though. All fall we were busy playing catch up. My seniors had not taken the SAT, so we had to do some super fast prep work and bring them all to the building — six feet apart — to take the test in person. We also spent several weeks researching, learning about, and applying to colleges. Many of our students now have acceptances and some are working through the financial aid process. For a school that had fewer than 10% of its seniors go on to college last year, the progress we have made (during a pandemic no less) is remarkable.

Anyway, back to Trevor Noah.

Before the second semester started, I made sure that each of our seniors had a copy of Born a Crime along with a composition book and a set of highlighters. My goal for this semester was to engage these seniors in the types of activities I have used in the college freshman composition courses I’ve taught. I’ve made some adjustments, like adding supports such as guided note-taking and using the Audible version of the book along with the text. I’m also using a pace that is approachable for seniors who are not only logging in to school via Zoom but who are also, due to educational inequity, not familiar with the rigor that seniors in other districts might be.

Some of you may wonder what I mean by ‘educational inequity’.

You can check out these statistics at your leisure, but let me summarize: students of color have been historically and perpetually underserved by the public educational system of the United States. This is a symptom of systemic racism. During slavery, one way of maintaining the hierarchy of the forced labor system was to prohibit slaves from learning to read and write. Later, when Blacks were allowed to go to school, their buildings and materials were intentionally substandard. This inequity was not resolved by Brown vs. the Board of Education–this landmark legislation did not create equity in schools. In fact, in some ways it made the experience of students of color worse. (Check out this podcast for a discussion on how Black educators were disenfranchised and students of color were henceforth educated mostly by white teachers, much to their detriment.) In 2021, African American students are still less likely to have access to college-ready curriculum, are located in schools with less-qualified teachers, and are concentrated in schools with fewer resources. To put it in simple terms, the seniors I teach in Detroit are years behind the seniors in the Ann Arbor schools where I live. Why? The perpetuation of systemic racism. (To read my blog post comparing education in the communities where I live and where I work, click here.)

So, it is with these students, most of whom have been schooled up to this point in the Detroit Public Schools or charter schools in the area, most of whom read below grade level, most of whom will do well to score 800 on the SAT, most of whom have been poorly educated and are ill-prepared to succeed in college — it is with these students that I am reading Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime.

Over the last two weeks as we’ve listened to Noah narrate his story of being hidden by his mother, of the ways she had to sneak around so as not to be caught, my students have been shocked. They can’t believe it would be illegal to have an interracial relationship. One student said, “Can you imagine your mom going to jail just for having you?”

When they learned that a Black person who was involved with a white person would go to jail for five years while the white person was given a slap on the wrist, I asked, “Have you ever seen that kind of inequity in policing in the United States?” When I showed them on the map how Black South Africans were moved onto Homelands far away from the whites who lived in the cities and were later allowed to live in slummy Townships nearer to the cities so that they could provide labor to sustain the lifestyles of the whites, I wondered aloud, “Have you ever seen this kind of segregation in the communities where you live?”

I’ve asked these questions, whose answers seem obvious to me, and my students seem to have no comment. They are tracking the story of Trevor and his mother and their escapades in South Africa, but when I challenge them to connect the racism the Noahs encounter to racism here in America, they remain silent.

Instead, they want to know if there is still racism in South Africa. They want to know if interracial relationships are still against the law.

I’m struggling for ways to talk about how long it takes to change the kind of thinking that would intentionally subjugate whole groups of people for the benefit of another group. I mean, I can tell them that Apartheid was declared a “crime against humanity” in South Africa in 1998, but I have to also add that that decision did about as much to eradicate racism in South Africa as the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did to eradicate racism in the United States.

I’m trying to lead them to make connections themselves instead of giving lectures on the history of racism in America, but I’m getting the feeling that their 17- and 18-year old selves aren’t much more aware of the impact of racism on their lives than my 17- or 18 – year old self was.

Is that possible? Is it possible that my Black students who have grown up in Detroit don’t fully understand the power and impact of racism? Is it possible that they don’t know that their socioeconomic status, their substandard schools, and the incidence of crime and policing in their communities are all a function of systemic racism? Having lived in their communities all of their lives, are they even aware that communities outside of theirs are so different?

I don’t think I was. I was mostly oblivious to racism at their age. I knew that slavery was wrong, but I couldn’t see the systems that were continuing to advantage me, a middle class white girl, over another human, a middle class Black girl. I could call out the hate behind the Holocaust, but I didn’t see the hate that drives inequity in health care or the entertainment industry.

I think I assumed that my students would be acutely aware of racism’s impact on them, but you know, I am starting to think that they are not. And, I’m not sure I –a middle-aged, white woman — should be the one to connect all the dots. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.

My students know their own experience. They know what their schooling has been like. They know that money is tight, and that shit goes down on the street where they live. They know that one of their classmates was killed by gun violence a little over a week ago, but I’m wondering if they know that that doesn’t happen in the lives of most white students in America. I am wondering if they know that they are a few years behind their white peers. I am wondering if they know that they haven’t been adequately prepared for college.

And if they don’t know, they are about to find out that their experience has been very different than the experience of much of white America. And I’m afraid that blow is gonna hit hard.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they know — fully know — all about racism and how it’s held them back. Maybe they’ve been knowing, and they are pissed, and they’ll be damned if they’re gonna talk to some white teacher about it. That’s possible, but I’ve been doing this gig for a minute, and I know how to read a room, even it turns out, a Zoom room.

I don’t think I’m wrong, so what I’m gonna do is to continue to build relationships for as long as I have these seniors. These few short minutes a few times a week, I am going to show up and give them my best. I’m going to read Trevor Noah with them and let them interrogate the racism of another culture, one that is removed and therefore easier to fully see. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll build some muscle that will give them the resiliency to one day interrogate the racism of this culture that has done them so wrong.

Lord, have mercy.

If my people who are called by My name humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sins and will heal their land.

2 Chronicles 7:14

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

Coronavirus Diary #27: Heavy

I knew the pandemic was heavy. Way back in April of last year, when I wrote Feeling the Funk, I was aware of the psychological weight of staying at home, isolating from our people, wearing masks, and altering the patterns of our lives. Ten months later, I’ve built up some muscle; I’ve gotten used to lugging around the burden and taking it in stride. Rather than moving in fits and starts, frantically watching the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center Map as the case numbers and fatalities tick up, I have turned my gaze to daily life, kept steadily stepping, and tried to find joy wherever I can — a student who shows up to office hours, our dog neatly snuggled under his newly-crocheted afghan, or a fresh pot of chicken soup.

Yes, I plunk on the couch and watch the news each evening — looking squarely at the carnage, racial injustice, health care inequities, and political corruption we’ve all born witness to in the last months. Then, I detach via Netflix, go to bed, get up the next morning, drive to Detroit, and do my best for my students. I try to keep going and to focus on the the mission rather than what I’m missing. Yes, I watch the news, I know the deaths in the US have climbed to over 485,000. I realize that over 10% of our population has now received at least one dose of vaccine, but I am also aware that a return to anything resembling ‘normal’ is quite a way off. I am aware, but I try to not dwell on it. I try to get up every day, take care of myself, do my job, and find some joy.

So last week, when I logged into my online therapy session and heard myself sharing how thankful I was for my current job in a tone that sounded like I was delivering bad news, I was caught off guard.

I was telling my therapist that I had had an opportunity to be involved in a lived experience conversation with my colleagues — the first, actually, in what we hope to be a long series of group discussions about the varied experiences of the members of the group — what we’ve seen as white, black, male, female, gay, straight humans living in cities, suburbs, and towns. We’re hoping to learn about each other, to break down the walls of assumption and bias, and to further our quest toward equity for our students.

This is exactly the kind of work I’ve been wanting to do, so why did my tone sound so defeated, so depressed. I even remarked, “Wow. I’m making this sound like it’s bad news, when really I am very happy to be doing this work.”

Then my therapist said, “Almost everyone I’ve seen for the last couple of weeks has kind of been in a funk. We just passed the one year mark of when the first case was found in the US, and we don’t see a time when we will ‘get back to normal.'”

And I knew that — I mean, I wrote about it just a few weeks ago (post here), and I was still surprised by the heaviness of it.

The weight of living in this pandemic has been piling on. We are carrying an enormous communal grief — the loss of plans, the loss of livelihood, the loss of community, the loss of routine, and the loss of life. Some of us are feeling it more than others.

Many have experienced the uncommon loss of being separated from a loved one during their last days like my Aunt Margaret who hadn’t seen my uncle for three months when he died of complications of Covid-19. After 71 years of marriage, his last days were alone.

Many while carrying the heaviness of the pandemic, have also been lugging extra burdens such as caring for young children who are suddenly schooling at home, supporting parents with comorbidities who can’t risk going out, being displaced from jobs and struggling financially, or newly navigating the technology that allows working from home.

While the pandemic has been hard for all of us, it has been exponentially harder for people of color. Not only have they suffered and died from Covid-19 at higher rates, they’ve also been harder hit financially and have had to fight against systemic issues such as disparities in health care, education, housing, and employment. And, as always, they continue to experience violence and death at higher rates as a result of such systemic inequities.

As a white girl who, along with my husband, hasn’t missed a paycheck, is employed by an agency I love, and enjoys the highest quality health care my insurance can pay for and our money can buy, I feel the weight of this past year on my shoulders, but certainly not to the extent of those who live in the communities of color that I have worked in.

I was reminded of this over the last few weeks. One of my current students, who lives in Detroit, just missed two weeks of class because a family member with mental illness burned her family’s home to the ground. They’ve been reeling from that trauma and trying to find a new place to live, when finances are tighter than they’ve ever been before. They were already carrying too much; this must feel like more than they can bear. (Here is a GoFundMe if you feel moved to support them.)

Another current student has missed the last three weeks of school because he is in the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound. A teenager with a gunshot wound. How heavy must it be for his parents, who were already managing life as a Black family living in Detroit in the midst of a pandemic, to now also be carrying all of the spoken and unspoken realities they and their son are now facing?

I feel an added heaviness just knowing that these students of mine who I’ve known just a few months are suffering, but what weight must their families and communities be feeling?

I got a taste of what such community pain might feel like this past week. Early last Monday morning, I learned that a former student, a member of the community of students, alumni, teachers, and parents that I was deeply involved with for almost 10 years — a classmate of two of my own children — had been shot and killed, along with her mother, in an act of domestic violence. She was 25, and now she’s gone. This determined young woman often showed up in my classroom after school to ask a question or just to chat. She’d been the first generation in her family to graduate from college, and within the last year or so, had reached out for a letter of recommendation for a position to which she was applying. After news of her death started circulating and I saw all of her classmates and friends posting on social media, I was in shock. How can such a promising young life be over?

Just three days later, I got another taste. Another former student, from that same community, a 30 year old husband and father of three, had died of a previously undiagnosed illness after five days in the hospital on life support. I remember the day he joined my class, having relocated to St. Louis from Chicago. He was a sweet soul, kind and tender. He, too, is now gone. (Here is a GoFundMe if you are interested in helping with funeral expenses and support of his family.)

These things are heavy, and our friends in communities of color have faced them so often that they know how to respond. While I am still sitting here shaking my head and wondering what happened, they’ve reached out to one another, organized GoFundMe campaigns, scheduled balloon releases, found photos of memories to post on social media, written poetry and tributes, and begun the process of mourning.

Me? I’m sitting over here still so stunned that I have no idea why my tone is depressed when I’m sharing good news. I haven’t processed the fact that my already heavy load just got a bit heavier. I haven’t realized that it’s time to put it down, to look squarely at the loss, and to grieve.

So, finally, as I write this, I am grieving — I’m mourning the loss of two young lives who will be sorely missed by their people. I’m grieving the realities of two more who are facing trauma upon trauma. I’m realizing again that the pandemic in itself is heavy and that some of us are carrying so much more.

Be kind to one another, friends. We’re in this for a while. Check in with one another — make a call or send a note.

Reach out to someone. What they are carrying is heavy; perhaps you can lighten their load.

Cast your burden unto Jesus, for He cares for you.

Gospel song.

Coronavirus Diary #26: Needed

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I woke up to the sound of crying. As I gathered consciousness, I realized it was Chester, our twelve-year old golden retriever. He needed me to get up; he was insisting.

I glanced at my clock; it was 5am.

He continued to cry, so I rolled out of bed and took him outside. He needed to go. It was confirmed. And he’d needed me.

I’ve been needed a lot in the last week — the final week of the semester. Some students who had not fully engaged in this semester of virtual learning suddenly needed me to help them with missing assignments, to grade their late work, and to adjust their grades.

I was willing to do all this because we are in unusual times. If you were my student pre-pandemic, I might’ve accepted late work, but I would’ve never given it full credit, and I certainly would’ve given you grief. This semester, however, has been very different.

Some of my students have struggled with technology, many having never had access to a computer at home before, having never used an online interface, having never created or submitted digital documents, and often having unreliable wifi.

Some have struggled with depression. They’ve lost loved ones, their families are struggling financially, and they’re doing their senior year from their bedroom. They haven’t seen their friends, haven’t giggled in the hallways, haven’t gone to a homecoming football game, and haven’t been seen — sitting in classes, walking down halls, playing sports, eating lunch. Instead, they’ve logged into a zoom room to find some cheery middle-aged white woman talkin bout college this and SAT that. How can she possibly know our lives and what we’re going through. How can she sit up in here talkin bout applying to colleges, filling out FAFSAs and turning on cameras. Who does she think she is? She doesn’t know what we need.

I’ve been trying to be available for when they do voice a need. Chester knows when he stands next to my bed and cries, I will certainly stand up and take him outside. In the same way, I want my students to know that they can come to me, and I will do what I can to help them out.

However, after a lifetime in urban schools where teachers often leave after a semester or a year, these students are wary. I knew that walking in; building trust would be job one.

The first step in building trust is consistently showing up, so I’ve done that. Every day, I’ve been on time, used the same routine, and have given consistent messages about assignments, due dates, and goals.

It can feel so rote to me — so robotic — to move through the same motions every hour, hour after hour. We start each class with a gathering — a simple question that invites every student to weigh in, either in the chat box or out loud. Then I share the objectives for the day followed by a two-three question pre-assessment called the Do Now. Next, I share the results of the pre-test on my screen, and together we see what percentage of students knew the answers and what percentage didn’t. After that, we move into instruction which includes modeling and practice followed by me calling on students to check if they are still with me, if they understand, and if they have any questions. Then I give an assignment followed by a two-three question post-test. We take a screen break, then we come back for announcements, questions, and an opportunity for support.

It’s the same every single day, but that’s what my students need — predicability, consistency, routine. And, after five months of doing this every single day, I got a payoff this past week.

On Thursday we had curriculum distribution day. All students were to come to school to get their materials, and seniors were to pose in caps and gowns for their senior pictures. I had invited all of my students to stop by my room, luring them with the promise of prizes — t-shirts, candy, lanyards, and such. Some never made it to the building — they missed the dozen emails and phone calls along with my in-class announcements or their parents couldn’t or wouldn’t bring them — but throughout the day, I had a steady trickle of visitors.

First, my vice-principal dragged in a student who had been MIA for several weeks, until I called her dad and then her mom to let them know that if something didn’t change, she wasn’t going to pass the first semester and she wouldn’t be on track for graduation. The girl walked into my room, and she had to be introduced to me, because even though I’ve talked to her on the phone and she’s been in my zoom room quite often in the last few weeks, she’s never had her camera on. I greeted her, offered her a small prize from my “I had to be introduced to you” table, and encouraged her to keep showing up.

“I had to be introduced to you” Table

She took her prize, nodded her head, and then left. A little while later, she came back, to see if we could work through a couple assignments to bump her over the passing threshold, and we did.

A little later, an enormous mountain of a young man walked in. I recognized him right away. He’d been failing, too, until a couple weeks ago when he showed up in my after school office hours telling me that he wanted to get back on track. He came three days in a row for 90 minutes each day, finishing assignment after assignment. He, too, had moved into the realm of passing. He got to choose a larger item from my “I recognized your face” table.

“I recognized your face” Table

The visits continued. A young man stopped in to tell me that he knew he was going to fail the semester; he’d already talked to our principal and had made a plan for credit recovery. He had lost his uncle, he said, and it had really messed him up.

“I just lost an uncle, too,” I said, “Covid. Yours?”

“No,” he said, “my uncle was shot.”

“Wow. I am so sorry. I can’t imagine how difficult that must be. Are you ok?”

“Yeah. I’m ok.”

“Alright. I hope I’ll be seeing you in class starting next week.”

“You will,” he said, and he made his way out the door.

A little while later, I was standing in the hallway chatting with one student who just wanted to stand and chat when I saw a couple walking toward me — the young man carrying a car seat, the young woman smiling and looking me in the eye.

“The baby!” I said as they walked toward me. These two had shared the birth of their child with me privately in the zoom room, and here they were in the flesh. They brought him close, this perfect little baby with round cheeks and thick curls, and I had to stop myself from instinctively touching him. What a perfect little baby, but his young parents looked weary and newly mature. They are both working fast food jobs, both trying to pass classes, both trying to care for this child.

What did they need from me? I’m not sure, but I let them know I saw them — their togetherness, their situation, their struggle. “You two are doing a lot right now. The best thing I can tell you is to keep showing up, keep doing your best, and keep letting us know how we can support you.”

They couldn’t stay. The baby — the beautiful perfect baby — was starting to fuss. They needed to get him home. After all, he’d waited through their senior pictures, their discussions with the principal, their gathering of supplies. So, they said their goodbyes and went on their way.

It was such a rich day — hearing students call me by name, joking with them in the hallway, giving a couple a hard time for finding a secluded corner. I felt so full as I moved around my classroom, packing up the remaining prizes and recalling all the interchanges I’d had throughout the day. I was smiling and so grateful.

Turns out that seeing my students was just what I had needed.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory!

Ephesians 3:20

**If you’d like to support my ongoing effort to reward my students for showing up and working hard, I welcome all donations of items I can use for prizes. Suggestions include but are not limited to: candy, chapstick, sample size lotion, hand sanitizer, pens, snack bars, etc.

Coronavirus Diary #25 One Year Later

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Last year at this time, we had just begun to hear the word ‘coronavirus’. News outlets were reporting the spread of what they were calling Covid-19 in Wuhan, China, a city we had likely never heard of before — 500 were infected, and 17 had died. The first case had just been documented in the United States.

Those numbers didn’t shock us really. Seventeen? and just one in the US? What’s all the excitement about?

Besides, it’s in China, right? And just one case here? Ok, next story please.

We, in our American invincibility, carried on with our lives, oblivious to how they would so quickly change. We went to work and school with bare-naked faces, for goodness’ sake. We smiled, laughed, talked, and even sang in close proximity to one another. We shook hands and high-fived with abandon. We ate in restaurants, had folks over for dinner, visited friends in the hospital, and even shared rides with one another.

Less than a year ago we could walk into church late, hang up our coat, hug a friend, and squeeze into the one remaining spot in the third pew from the front, patting the shoulder of the person in front of us before leaning in and whispering apologies to the one next to us.

But now — now, the numbers have our attention. Over 415,000 Americans have died. The world wide total is over 2,000,000, and it’s not slowing down. This week’s 7-day average for daily Covid-19 deaths in the US is just shy of 4000, and several new variants have emerged which threaten to be more contagious and possibly more dangerous.

If you don’t yet know someone who has died from Covid-19, you or someone you know has certainly tested positive, and you likely know someone who has been hospitalized for severe symptoms. It’s that prevalent.

In fact, I would guess most of us don’t make it through a day without saying the word ‘covid’ or ‘coronavirus’ or ‘pandemic’. The impact is vast. This microscopic organism has transformed the ways in which humans live their lives around the world.

Almost overnight, it sent us running to our homes, covering our faces, washing our hands, and sanitizing our surfaces. We’ve become adept at navigating the virtual world — at zooming, sending electronic documents, seeing our doctors via telehealth visits, and personalizing our work-from-home spaces.

And, we’ve been doing this for so long that we’ve grown weary.

Haven’t we?

Aren’t we tired of this?

I mean, sure, we’re resourceful. We’re team players. We’re willing to do what it takes because it is what it is, but guys, it’s wearing on me.

When we first received stay-at-home orders, none of us (except maybe epidemiologists, medical professionals, and historians) would’ve believed we’d still be here in 2021. Or at least I never believed that we would or that I wouldn’t be able to visit my parents or see my children in person for such a long time.

I wouldn’t have imagined I could watch so much Netflix, sew so many masks, or create and share so many Google docs for my students to open, complete, and submit in Google classroom.

And I wouldn’t have imagined that by the end of January 2021 we still wouldn’t have an end in sight. How about you?

I felt so hopeful in December when first the Pfizer and then the Moderna vaccines were given emergency use authorization. Then-president Trump’s Project Warp Speed promised to immunize 20 million people before the end of the year, and I believed that soon many Americans (and especially our parents) would have the vaccine and the numbers of cases would start to decrease. But guys, no one had ever done this before — speedily created and approved a vaccine and distributed it widely to the entire American population, and it didn’t go as smoothly as promised. As I write this, we are nearing the end of January and just 12 million Americans have received their first dose and only 1.7 million are fully immunized.

I received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine last week and hope to be fully immunized by mid-February. However, my husband, who is doing front-line work with college students, has yet to be scheduled for his vaccine, and of our six parents — all in their 70s and 80s — only 2 have received their first dose. The rest are on waiting lists.

Nursing home residents who have been hardest hit by the pandemic were supposed to be immunized first, and it seems that some have been. However, my aunt and uncle, both in their nineties and living in separate nursing facilities, have not received vaccines, and for my uncle, it is too late. He contracted Covid-19 toward the end of December and died in the hospital on January 16.

I became further discouraged when efforts to address the pandemic seemed to have almost come to a stop since the November elections. It had felt like our leadership was saying, “Hey, Covid’s not so bad. Do what you want: wear a mask, don’t wear a mask. Use this vaccine, or don’t. China sent us this virus; we’ve done what we can. Take this $600 check; the virus will go away soon.” But this week, shortly after the inauguration, the new administration signed a pile of executive orders including one enacting the Defense Production Act to speed the production and distribution of supplies needed to fight the pandemic and another providing funding to states that will enable them to increase the number of vaccine distribution sites. At last, I thought, someone is taking decisive action that seems to acknowledge the fact that the virus is indeed still here and wreaking havoc at increasing speed.

You know that, right? January saw more deaths than any of the previous months. You might’ve missed it because of all the news about supposed election fraud, an insurrection attempt, and the manhunt for those who participated. You might not have heard that on January 20, inauguration day, the US set a new record for deaths from Covid-19– 4,409 in one day.

Yet as the numbers grow, the cries to return to normalcy get louder. In Michigan, where our Covid infection rates are much lower than they were in November, where our 7-day average for daily deaths due to Covid-19 is just 50, schools have been charged with returning to in-person instruction by March 1, 2021. Of course, the decision to do so is up to local districts, and each school is taking its own approach, but the pressure to return to normal is palpable.

Michigan restaurants are set to open back up to indoor dining at limited capacity starting on February 1. This industry has been hit hard in the past year — many establishments have closed their doors for good after experiencing unprecedented losses in revenue. Those that remain are begging for the opportunity to make a living, and we are longing for the opportunity to order a meal, hear the chatter of others around us, joke with our server, and leave an extra large tip.

We are tired of this. We are tired of staying in, wearing masks, using Zoom, sitting at computers, and standing so far away from each other. We’re missing interaction – the sound of other voices, the movement of bodies around us, the smells of life.

But it’s not over yet, guys. It’s not even showing signs of slowing down.

And even though we’re tired, even though we are longing to be with our people, even though the winter days are cold and dark and lonely, we’ve gotta hang in there.

My principal stopped in to my Zoom room the other day to visit my freshmen. She wanted to cheer their first semester efforts and let them know about a schedule change for the second semester. She told them she’d heard me gushing about them — about their hard work, the progress they’d made, and their consistent attendance. She said, “I know this has been hard, guys, being in a virtual space, working from home. It’s all different, and we’re tired. But even though it’s tough, we persevere.”

Indeed, folks. We’ve been through a lot, and it’s been hard on all of us in different ways, but we’ve got the muscle; we can do this. We can persevere. So, stay at home, wear a mask, wash your hands, and get a vaccine as soon as you can.

We’re going to see the other side of this, but we are not there yet. So, while we persevere, remember to offer yourself grace when you get discouraged or cranky, and be kind to those around you when they get that way, too.

And together, let’s pray that God will intervene and end this mess sooner than we can, because I don’t know about you, but I’m tired.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.

    From where does my help come?

My help comes from the Lord,

    who made heaven and earth.

Psalm 121: 1-2

Teacher Tales: A Voice from the Past

Last week, a piece came on the local news during the sports segment: Steve Yzerman, general manager of the Detroit Red Wings had named Dylan Larkin the new team captain. As I sat on the couch watching, my brain transported me back to my first classroom, near 7 Mile and Van Dyke in Detroit. It was 1989. I saw a smiling seventh grade boy sitting in the front row, center seat, wearing an oversized Yzerman jersey.

“What’s the name on the back of your jersey?” I asked.

“Yzerman, Miss Kolb,” he answered, “you don’t know who Steve Yzerman is?”

“I’m not much of a hockey fan.”

“You gotta watch the Red Wings, Miss Kolb! You’ll love it!”

This happens sometimes. My brain, crammed with thirty some years of parenting and teaching, transports me back in time and I remember a moment. I think of a student and wonder where he is or how she is doing.

In fact, being back in Detroit, thirty years after that hockey conversation and just sixteen miles southwest of that classroom, has made me think of the students in that first class more than once. It was a self-contained classroom of ten students with specific learning needs — some had learning disabilities, some had attention deficit disorder, and some, now that I think about it, were likely just behind their peers due to systemic inequities which were and have been prevalent in urban public schools.

I was fresh out of college with the degree and credentials to teach high school English, but I’d always been drawn to special ed, had always been a champion of the underdog.

Plus, I needed a job.

After graduating in December, I’d found my first gig on the afternoon shift at a group home for teenaged girls who had been court-ordered away from their families. My role was to help with homework, supervise chores and personal hygiene, and chaperone our girls on social outings. I’d had to learn physical management — how to protect myself and others in the event of a physical conflict — how to use a behavior modification system wherein our girls got rewarded for doing the right thing and penalized for missteps. They could use any points they earned for rewards and privileges.

That position taught me a lot, and I loved it, but it wasn’t teaching. So, when, by some miracle of the extensive network that is the Lutheran community, I had a conversation with a principal who was looking for a teacher for his special education seventh grade classroom, I agreed to start grad school and to try to teach these students.

Twenty-three year old me, piled all my stuff into my Dodge Colt and headed for Detroit. With a paper map unfolded on the seat next to me, I followed street by street until I got to the school where I would not only teach, but where I would live, in a small apartment in a large facility that once housed a residential school for the deaf.

Detroit Day School for the Deaf - Wikipedia

Each morning, I donned running clothes and ran the perimeter of the campus grounds that were secured by an eight-foot tall chain-link fence. After a shower and breakfast, I would walk down a network of hallways and up a couple flights of stairs to my classroom.

I taught reading, spelling, math, social studies, science, and physical education, writing lesson plans in pencil in an old school lesson plan book and doing my best to follow along in the textbooks that I’d been given.

Did I know what I was doing? No. This was definitely a fake-it-til-you-make-it situation.

My memories of that year come in flashes — students with high top fades and baggy jeans joking around in the back of my classroom, me writing math problems on a chalk board, our whole group sneaking out for impromptu recess on warm days in the Spring.

The biggest adventure of the year resulted from a reading competition sponsored by Pizza Hut. Each of my students had earned a personal pan pizza, so in all my first-year teacher ambition, I decided to pack them all up in a fifteen passenger van and take them on a field trip. It probably would’ve been adequate to take them to a local Pizza Hut, but instead, I drove them from Detroit to Ann Arbor so that they could attend chapel at Concordia University, my alma mater, and then go to the Ann Arbor Hands On Museum. We ended our day at Pizza Hut, eating our free lunch before heading back to school.

Can’t you just picture 23 year old me, toting ten kids around Ann Arbor? Where in the world did I park? I don’t remember being stressed or ruffled though, not until we got stuck in a traffic jam and returned to school long past pickup time. I figured the parents would be irate, but in my memory, they were unfazed. They gathered their children, thanked me for the field trip, and headed on their way.

There’s something about the students in your first ever class — you love them with a kind of love reserved especially for them. I’ve often thought about those students, but because I moved to a different school in the northern suburbs the next year, long before social media and email, I lost touch.

Several years later, I ran into a former colleague who told me that one of my students from that first class had been shot and killed, and my chest hurt as though I’d lost one of my own. He’d been so bright, so full of personality, so full of promise.

I’ve lost others, too. One of the girls from the group home was struck in the head during a fight after she’d returned home. The brain injury left her in a coma, and she died a few months later. Another student who I met when I worked at a residential treatment facility took her own life — long before she turned twenty. A couple of weeks ago, I got a text from my former principal in St. Louis, one of our grads had been shot and killed between Christmas and New Year’s. He was 32 and a father.

I don’t like to hear these stories, but they are the ones that usually make their way to me.

Because I’ve taught in many different locations, I don’t get former students showing up in my classroom after five or ten years to say, “I was in the area, so I thought I’d drop by.” I did, of course, while I was still in St. Louis. It’s one of the sweetest experiences ever — to see that your students have grown up, achieved some goals, and they want to tell you about it. I follow many of my St. Louis students on social media. I love to see what they are doing — running their own businesses, getting their PhDs, going into teaching, and raising their families.

But the students I had before the rise of the social media — the ones from my first few classrooms — I often wonder where they are, what they are doing, and even if they are still alive.

So when I got to work Friday morning, and saw that I had a message request on Facebook messenger, I was stunned to see that it was from the young man in the Yzerman jersey, the one I had just been wondering about!

“I was reaching out…you used to be my teacher,” he started.

“Oh my goodness! I was just thinking of you the other night when I saw Izerman select his new captain!” I couldn’t type my response quickly enough. I couldn’t believe I was actually hearing from this student!

Guys, he’s a grown man — of course — with a wife and kids. He’s a police officer, and he’s stayed in touch with many of the students who shared that classroom with me all those years ago!

We messaged back and forth for a little bit, and now we’re Facebook friends. I feel like he just dropped by my classroom saying, “I was in the neighborhood.” One of my first-year kiddos, letting me know that he’s ok.

We need this kind of touch right now, don’t we, friends. We need person to person connection — remembering a teacher from a zillion years ago and sending a note just to say hi. We’re spending so much time at home on our couches, isolated from one another and watching our nation split in two on an international stage; we need to remember that we love each other one at a time.

We can decide to hate huge masses of people who seem to stand for things we disagree with, but it’s pretty hard to hate someone you shared a classroom with or someone who remembers you from way back when you ate pizza and laughed together.

It may be a challenging week with the inauguration, more demonstrations, an apparent vaccine shortage, and the ongoing pandemic. I wonder if we might all reach out and say hey to someone we haven’t seen in a while — an old friend, a former teacher, or the neighbor lady who always used to wave when you got home in the afternoon.

It just might make their whole day/week/month. It just might help turn the dial.

Much love to you, KH. Thanks for looking me up.

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.

I Thessalonians 5:11

The Camera’s View

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The camera can’t catch everything.

Over the weekend, a friend sent me a photo to show me how she was spending her evening. In her shot, I could see the television screen and a Piston’s game in progress; I could see her polished toes propped up in front of her, but I couldn’t see her face or who she was watching with. She showed me what she wanted me to see — just a slice of the whole.

Media cameras give us a slice, too. They use selected images and create a neatly packaged narrative to create a story about what’s happening in the world, and while a picture paints a thousand words, actual stories with all their nuances, often take thousands of words to write.

Although we’ve been watching news of Covid-19 for 10 months and we’ve seen images of sickness and death every, we have not seen the true devastation caused by this disease. The screens in our living rooms can’t show us the pain of the 375,000 families who’ve lost loved ones since March. They can’t convey the stress, the weariness, the weight that our health care workers have been carrying. They can’t transport the heaviness of heart of those who are lifting bodies into refrigerated storage units because the morgues are full.

The camera gives a glimpse, but it’s can’t convey the whole.

Last Spring, along with shots of the empty streets of downtown Manhattan and the long lines of people waiting for food, the camera also held its focus for over eight minutes as a police officer kneeled on the neck of a man while officers stood by watching him die. It turned its gaze to another man out for an afternoon jog and watched as he was chased down by men in trucks, assaulted, and killed in the middle of the street. Not long after, the camera found in its frame a man taking the last steps of his life moments before a police officer shot seven bullets into his back severing his spinal cord and rendering him paralyzed.

It showed us these moments when everything changed, but it hasn’t shown us the ongoing impact in the lives of the people who loved those men.

It hasn’t shown us the grieving families — how they struggle to face another day in their forever-altered reality, knowing that those who inflicted violence on their loved ones get to keep right on living, some not facing any consequences at all. The camera hasn’t focused on that.

Throughout the pandemic, we have watched scenes of citizens responding to circumstances that seem unjust. We’ve seen outraged masses demonstrating against police brutality and others infuriated at orders to stay at home and wear a mask. The cameras have marched along, capturing images, and creating narratives.

And this week cameras were in the crowd as the leader of the free world — a man who has never experienced police brutality or had to stand in a line to get food, who has never been forced to stay at home or wear a mask — stood on the mall in Washington, DC, dressed in a fine suit and freshly coiffed, and spoke to thousands who adore him, who view him as the answer to society’s ills, who believe him to be a man of God and a fighter for the people. Cameras recored as he spoke to these people who had travelled across the country at his bidding, paying with their own hard-earned money, or charging flights and hotel rooms on credit cards they may or may not be able to pay back. They were dressed as warriors and carrying weapons; they brought strategies and tactics and stood there ready when he told them to march. The President of the United States said “you can’t be weak” but you must “save our democracy.” And, after listening to him decry our nation for over an hour, these thousands of citizens followed his orders and marched. The camera caught them screaming war cries, pushing police out of the way, breaking windows, climbing walls, destroying property, and terrifying the nation.

Not long after, the camera showed most of them walking away without consequence — not with knees on their necks, not with bullets in their backs, not chased down by vehicles and killed in the street.

And since Wednesday, as we’ve heard cries for justice, for impeachment, for accountability and watched the tapes of that attack played and replayed, we’ve been tempted to shake our fists at our screens, shouting at the ineptitude of the local and federal governments that respond unequally to the actions of black and white bodies, at the corruption of politicians, and at the devastating division in our country. And certainly, we are justified to do so, but all of our shouting and fist-shaking will not, of itself, cause transformation.

However, if we dare, we might turn away from the camera and its limited gaze to see that the issues plaguing the United States are both national and local. They are both political and personal. The same divisions we saw through a camera lens last week, and that we have been seeing for the last several years, are present in our own communities, in our own friend groups, in our own families, and in our own selves. We are a nation — a people — infected with selfishness, pride, racism, and self-righteousness.

And, as our pastor, Marcus Lane, said this morning, “We cannot confront evil in the world without confronting it in ourselves.” No, we sure can’t.

We will not change as a culture until we, as individuals, take intentional steps toward change — toward self-examination, confession, repentance, and walking in a new way. It’s going to take a collective effort to turn the dial, and to right our course.

We’re going to have to step away from our screens and the limited view of life that they display. We’re going to have to take a broader view, putting down our finger-pointing judgmental attitudes and extending not only consequences but grace to those who’ve gotten it wrong, including ourselves. We’re going to have to open up space so that as those around us try to change course, they will find the room to do so.

Look, we are all guilty here. We are all complicit — we’ve all contributed to this very tragic narrative.

We can no longer deny that much of what the camera shows us not only illustrates but perpetuates systemic racism and the privilege of the few. We saw with our own eyes that among the insurrectionists, who were mostly white, were those who carried Confederate flags and wore t-shirts emblazoned with anti-Semitic and racist messages. It is nauseating to see such hatred so blatantly on display — right on the cameras –but really, that’s where it should be, out where we can see it, because for too long it has been carried surreptitiously inside our hearts.

I’ve been idly watching this narrative for too long.

I feel compelled to take an inward look to face the evil within myself so that I will be better equipped to call it out in our world and to give the camera something new to look at. We’ve got to right this ship, friends. We’ve got to change the trajectory of our story.

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts. See if there is any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!

Psalm 139:23-24