Glimmers of Brilliance

For the past month or so I have been consuming print as though my life depended on it.  This happens at the end of a semester for all instructors, but particularly for those who teach English, and even more so for those who teach writing.

A couple weeks ago, I stood in the doorway of the office of a seasoned English professor with another colleague.  All of us were bleary-eyed from days and days of reading stacks and stacks of papers.  We were grumbling, of course, because our charges hadn’t heeded every single word that we had breathed over the course of the semester. The nerve!  Hadn’t we told them how to frame a thesis? Hadn’t we told taught them about depth that goes beyond surface observations?  Hadn’t we expected them to sustain an argument? And what had we received for all our labors — a few glimmers of brilliance in a sea of mediocrity.

And isn’t that our life, a few glimmers of brilliance in a sea of mediocrity.

After long days with students, I come home at night and read more.  Recently, I’ve been reading Ann Voskamp and Shauna Niequist. They write in ways that I imagine I might one day write if I keep at it.  They pour their truth onto the page as I do, but they make it so,…so beautiful.  I often have to pause and take a photo of a line or a paragraph because I am so captured by the words themselves — how they are arranged on the page — and also by the image that they conjure in my mind — what they arrange in my head. For Mother’s Day, one of my children sent me a book of essays by David Sedaris — a pioneer in this way of writing that I find myself compelled to follow.  His Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is, in the first few chapters I’ve read, like a home movie that has been painstakingly crafted into vignettes that illustrate the truths that his childhood taught him. And that’s really all I am trying to do here.

My writing is all about finding the glimmers.

I sit down in the morning and I take a look at the film I have captured since the last time I wrote — that image of me standing in the doorway with the two professors, a still of me bent over a stack of papers at my desk, a clip of me in the front of a small lecture hall demonstrating how to integrate a source into a line of text, and a close-up of me lying in bed at night using my phone to snap a photo of a paragraph.  I move these images around on the desktop of my mind in an effort to find some little glimmer of meaning. Why, I ask myself, do I spend so much time with words?

Guys, I spend so. much. time. with words!  I mean, it’s 9:30am and I have already read posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  I’ve played several rounds of Words With Friends.  I’ve given feedback on two essays.  I’ve texted two daughters. And, now, I’m writing.  In a couple of hours I will be in my car listening to a podcast or two, then later today, I will tutor a student in English grammar and writing to help her prepare for the ACT.  After all that, I will curl up in bed and read some more.

Why? Why do I spend so much time with words? Well, of course I have more than one reason.  I love the way words fit together like miniature puzzles; when each piece is put just where it belongs,  an image appears out of nowhere!

eaigm becomes image!

I love that!

I love the way words can be arranged and rearranged in sentences to alter their meaning.

Kids love moms. Moms love kids. Kids moms love.

Isn’t that fun!?

But mostly, I love the way that words manipulate the brain.  Even as I write this, the clips of film are rearranging on my desktop.  I am seeing how the reading I do at night informs what I say to my students in the front of my class. What I say in the front of my class impacts (even if I don’t always see evidence of it) the writing of my students.  The writing of my students inspires my conversations with my colleagues.  The conversations with my colleagues motivate my desire to read and write more.

And the realization that each aspect of my life is somehow connected to every other aspect of my life reminds me to be present in each moment, to keep my camera rolling, to record what I see so that I can later review the tape and see the connections, to not wish any moment away, but to look for the glimmers of brilliance in every great sea of mediocrity.

And that, my friends, is why I spend so much time with words.

Isaiah 45:3

I will give you hidden treasures,
    riches stored in secret places,
so that you may know that I am the Lord,
    the God of Israel, who summons you by name.

 

 

 

 

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Traveling Companions

Every day in Israel has been full of surprises — the beautiful and excellent food, the wide variety of geographical features, the incredible detail of the archeological finds, and today, the leathery knees and elbows of camels.  However, the best surprise I have had is the quality of the group that I am traveling with.

I’ve already mentioned Hela, our guide, a Messianic Jew from New York City; she is rich in knowledge of Israel after extensive training and twenty-two years on the job.  She keeps spewing out facts, answering questions, and throwing in an occasional pun. Oy. Then there’s Dan, a friend and colleague from Ann Arbor; this is his fourth trip to Israel. He started planning this trip about eighteen months ago, brought John into the plan over a year ago, and added me last Spring when the number of students necessitated a third chaperone.

Of course I am thrilled to have my husband and best friend, John, on this trip of a lifetime.  He is very conscientious, not only of me, but of everyone on the trip.  He is so aware of what everyone’s needs are and anticipates how he can best be of service on the trip.  He’s our Johnny on the Spot.  Beyond that, he is fun to be with.  He is always ready to try something new, like float on the frigid deep sea water before breakfast this morning, climb onto the back of a camel with me and ride it across the sand of the Negev, or eat candied mushrooms — I promise you, they were amazing!

But most amazing of all? The students we are traveling with.  I gotta admit that in the days leading up to the trip, I might have had some reservations about traveling to the other side of the world with thirty college students.  I had met almost half of them in Ann Arbor, but the rest were absolute strangers to me.  Not only would I have to co-exist with these people, who, by the way, are aged 19 to 56, but I would be responsible for leading ten of them in small group meetings every evening, keeping track of them throughout the day, and being available for any crises that might arise.  What if we had one (or more!) high maintenance travelers? What if roommate conflicts arose? What if students got lost?  What if they refused to follow the rules?  Well, I thought, we’ll cross those bridges when we come to them.

All of my worries were unfounded.  Seriously, all of them. From the moment we gathered on the morning of January 6, these students have been easy going, friendly, receptive to one another, willing to lend a hand, and genuinely interested in all the information they are being exposed to.  Granted, they are getting a grade for this adventure, but they could still be apathetic.  Many students are, but these kids are engaged. Let me show you what I mean.

Almost every day, they have had to be up, packed, finished with breakfast, and on the bus by or before 8am. They ALWAYS are.  We have not had to wait once for anyone. Several times a day, we stop at a site, Hela says, “bring your Bible and your camera,” and all thirty jump off the bus, follow Hela, and start taking pictures and notes the minute she starts talking.  When she says, “go,” they disperse and milk the site for as much information as they can squeeze out of it.  If Hela says we are staying together, they stay together.  If she says, we are going to eat falafel, they eat falafel.  If she says, “You should order the St. Peter’s fish,” they order the St. Peter’s fish.  I am telling you, they don’t whine, they don’t complain, they don’t wrinkle their noses, they are all in. Always.

And in the evenings, after we have all had dinner and Hela has retired to her room for the evening, the rest of us convene to worship and debrief.  Again, no one has ever been late. Two of our students take turns playing the guitar and leading worship.  Others have volunteered to pray or read Scripture.  After some announcements and singing, we break into groups of ten — the same groups every night — where we share about the experiences of the day, ask questions, and encourage one another.  This all happens at 8pm, twelve hours after they boarded the bus!  And they are still engaged and invested, sharing their hearts and listening to one another.

I know, I know, I sound like I am gushing.  And, yes, I know, I always am bragging about my students; it’s like I think I have better students than anyone else in the world. And, you know, I think I do!!

This morning, when John and I walked down to the beach to float in the Dead Sea, we passed two young men who were working out together, one coaching the other.  We found another girl, sitting alone, practicing the Hebrew alphabet.  In the water, we met up with three students who hadn’t met before this trip, who were floating, laughing, and taking pictures of one another.  While we were in the water, others joined, then Dan walked down to the beach to take our picture for the video he is publishing online most evenings.  Because the water was very cold, John and I left the beach and walked inside the hotel where there is a pool full of filtered, heated Dead Sea water.  In the pool, we joined Dan, some other students, and the last member of our tour, our driver, Elan.

Let me talk about Elan for a minute.  He is a Jewish native of Israel in his fifties. His first language is, of course, Hebrew, but he speaks English rather well, too.  The guy can drive that bus, a fifty-five passenger Mercedes,  in places I wouldn’t drive my car. Today he wound us through hairpin curves from 700+ feet below sea level to 2500 feet above sea level and back again.  He fits that bus through gates, into parking spots, and past busses and truck with inches to spare — I promise I am not exaggerating.  He joins us at dinner and in the pool, cracks jokes, and is quick with a witty response.  Two times he has missed a turn and said, dead pan, “I went a different way to show you the cows.”

If I had to interview and hand-select traveling companions, I couldn’t have compiled a group this magnificent.   They are becoming members of my extended family — people who will matter to me for the rest of my life.  I wasn’t anticipating that; it is a bonus blessing. I am so thankful for these traveling companions.

“walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,

with all humility, bearing with one another in love,

eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Ephesians 4:1-3

 

A Study in Contrasts

We’re back in the states.  After seven days in South Africa, we spent about twenty-four hours traveling to Michigan.  We got home, unpacked our suitcases, started laundry, and tried to re-acclimate ourselves to our former lives before reality struck this morning.

Several hours later, I’ve already taught three sections of students and interacted with a number of people who wondered, “Well, how was your trip?”  I’m really glad they asked, because as I answered people, I began to learn what impact this trip to South Africa has had on me.

It became rather clear early in the journey that our purpose, or at least my purpose, was to be an observer.  This was a new role for me.  Often I am a leader, presenter, director, and planner.  This past week, I was a follower, listener, observer, and receiver. In this role, I was free to take in South African culture, to hear the stories of a variety of people, to let go of responsibility, and to bear witness to the contrast between my life in the United States and the lives of the people I met in South Africa.

First of all, although I often think I need more, I recognize now how much I have in contrast with many of the people I saw.  For example, I complained at the beginning of my semester because the classroom where I teach didn’t come equipped with dry erase markers or an eraser, even though it did come equipped with a computer, projection, and wifi.  I easily purchased a pack of markers and an eraser for less than $5, a textbook was provided to me, and I am paid a fair salary to teach under 25 students in each of my three classes.  In contrast, my colleagues in South Africa have no internet in their classrooms at all — not even dial-up.  They have a few mostly outdated textbooks, worn posters on the walls, drying up markers, and classrooms crammed with up to 40 students — and that was in a kindergarten class!  And guys, despite the fact that they earn very little, they aren’t complaining.  They are teaching and learning.  The instructors are engaging their students.  The students take pride in their work.

Yes, the contrast was palpable.

It was also evident in the ways that I noticed people interacting with one another. Each time people see each other during the day, they greet one another, “Good morning!  How are you?” Even if they have seen each other several times, they still  formally greet one another before they move on in conversation.  This was a challenge for me!  I am known to jump right in with “Hey, did you get my email?” For a week, I practiced acknowledging the person in front of me instead of the task that he or she could perform for me.  The simple practice of speaking a greeting shifted my perspective.  That, plus the fact that I had no real responsibilities, allowed me to see people and listen more carefully than I am typically apt to do.

In fact, I noticed today, here in Michigan, that I was looking at people in the eyes a bit more, listening a little more intently, worrying a little less about getting to the next task on my list.  I hope it lasts.

The third difference I will note today is the energetic spirit I saw in the people of South Africa — particularly the black South Africans.  Apartheid ended a number of years ago, but the differences and division between whites and blacks could not be more obvious. In one week’s time I noticed that black South Africans have less — less status, less power, less money, and less opportunity than the white South Africans.  Yet they do not seem defeated.  Their spirit propels them to walk great distances along red clay paths — rain or shine — to work and to school.  They sit up tall in their classrooms, raise their hands high, and open their mouths to sing as they work, whether their tasks are menial or meaningful. Rather than seeming angry or sad, they exude joy!  Their worship was filled with dancing, clapping, and even marching! They smiled, laughed, and played with one another — despite their seeming disadvantage.  I was struck by this.  I have not experienced the kind of disadvantage that all of them have experienced.  I have led a life of plenty.  I have not gone one day without food, clothing, or shelter in my fifty years of life.  I have had every opportunity for education, employment, and entertainment that I have ever desired.  Yet I am often discouraged, stressed, and even angry about what I don’t have.

So, you know what’s coming, don’t you?  I opened my Bible study today and turned to the reading in Psalm 37.  (I really can’t make this stuff up.) When I read the words, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart,” I pictured my new South African  friends smiling, clapping, and dancing — delighting themselves in the Lord.  They are happy and celebrating the fact that they have Him, regardless of the things that they don’t have.

I can learn a lot from these people.  I think I have begun to.

Psalm 37: 23-24

The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way;

though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong.

 

Grounded

We’re halfway through day three in South Africa, and I am not surprised that my body demanded to be ‘grounded’ today. I mean, we left Ann Arbor less than 90 hours ago and with all we’ve done, you’ll wonder why I didn’t get benched sooner.  I already know the reason why — I have been flying high on adrenaline and intrigue. I have not stopped being amazed since I got here. And, you know, I’m not even upset that I’ve been plunked down on a couch for the day. I am enjoying the time to reflect and process all that we’ve seen and heard. Want to join me?

For forty-eight hours before we left on this trip, I kept telling people, “I’m a bit anxious about being on a plane for fourteen hours straight.” I was worried about claustrophobia mostly, but I was also concerned about the wear and tear on my body.  As it turns out, it wasn’t terrible!  We had a little hiccup in Detroit when I made it easily through the security lines only to see that all the machines had shut down just as my husband’s backpack went into the x-ray machine. Not to worry, within fifteen minutes, someone restored the machine and we were on our way to our gate.

We were also a little concerned that although I had purchased side by side seats for the long leg of the journey our boarding passes had us sitting one behind the other.  We checked with the gate agent in Atlanta, but he said he was unable to help us.  Not to worry, the woman sitting next to me, a nurse on a mission trip, offered her seat to my husband even though she had already wiped it down with disinfectant, unpacked her belongings, and situated herself.

Then, when it was time for take-off and everyone was comfortably seated with their items stowed, the captain informed us of a delay — the baggage compartment wouldn’t lock. We waited and chatted, wondering if we would have to de-plane and reload before we took off. Not to worry, the problem was resolved and we were on our way. I will say that flying coach for fourteen hours is a bit cramped and sleeping is difficult; however, we both did sleep for large chunks of time — even without taking the melatonin we packed. We ate well (they even provided me with all gluten-free trays), we chatted, we read, and we watched three movies each as we crossed the Atlantic.

We arrived in Johannesburg and wondered how we would connect with our friend who was picking us up. We didn’t think our cell phones would work in South Africa. We didn’t know how long it would take to get through customs or how long we would wait for our bags. Once again, not to worry. We waited in line at customs for what seemed like fifteen minutes; our bags arrived in about that much time, too. When we exited the secure area, our friend was right there, waiting to buy us bottled water and tea.

We had arrived unscathed in South Africa.

You would think that after twenty-four hours of travel we would have collapsed.  Not at all. We arrived at our guest house and met our new friends. This couple, retired teachers/administrators from Texas, have volunteered three months of their time to come alongside the teachers here in Middleburg. They are observing, evaluating, coaching, and supporting these teachers. Over glasses of South African red wine, we discovered our shared purpose and kindred spirits.  We chatted late into the evening.

The next morning, (and, yes, we slept that first night — despite our confused body clocks), we made our way to St. Peter Confessional Lutheran Church for its 27th Anniversary Celebration Worship.  I’m pretty sure that this service should have its own dedicated post, but let me summarize here by saying that for three and half hours my eyes were wide and my smile was broad as I witnessed these people singing, dancing, celebrating, and worshiping.

From there, we walked a short distance to the elementary school, which is called St. Peter’s Lutheran College. At this site, we were ushered to VIP seating inside a tent. Many people were acknowledged and recognized, we were entertained by a local jazz/brass ensemble, and then we were fed. I suspect a whole post will be dedicated to the food and beverages we’ve enjoyed, but just know that the red carpet has been rolled out for us — this group of about a dozen Americans who have come to celebrate what God has done and dream about what He has yet to do here.

After the meal, we were entertained by a local group of male dancers and then a group of female dancers. By this time, I will admit, I was utterly exhausted. The festivities were wrapping up, so we headed back to our guest house where I decided to lie down for a few minutes. After a short but intense power nap, I was whisked away to visit our friends, the Bersons.  We enjoyed snacks and more South African wine, played with our soon-to-be five year old “niece”, and were then delivered back to our guest home where we ‘slept the sleep of the dead.’  And that was just day one!

Yesterday, day two, we toured the preschool and the elementary school.  The schools are just several years old and have grown from several dozen students to almost 900 between the two sites. Classrooms are crammed with bodies and very few resources, yet the children are well-behaved and very attentive to their instructors. Classrooms are continuously being built.

We ate lunch, then traveled about an hour to the home of a local naturopath — a doctor who uses nutrition, herbs, and the like to treat maladies. He is partnering with one of St. Peter’s pastors to build a worship location where people can receive not only physical but spiritual healing. Right now, about forty people are worshiping in his home/clinic every Sunday while they plan to build a worship site.

The doctor and his wife joined us for dinner and then we began our journey home. My body was already in distress, but I was drinking in all the details. Over dinner, I heard the stories of a couple from Chicago who are on their third trip to this ministry. I chatted with my husband and a friend from MI as we sat in the back seat of a van. When we arrived back at the guest house, we sat up until late again, sipping great South African wine and sharing our observations and our hearts.

My body cried all night long; it wouldn’t let me sleep. I wasn’t angry or disappointed  but rather apologetic. “Yes, yes, I know.  I have expected so much of you, haven’t I? Shall we stay home today to rest, reflect, and recover?” A resounding yes could be heard throughout Middleburg.

Most of our group traveled today to another site — a location that wants to build an orphanage. They will drive a bit, tour the site, eat lunch, then visit another site. I am sorry to miss these experiences, but I am looking forward to joining the group this evening to hear their stories.

Right now I am drinking in details.  I am filing evidence in folders called ‘juxtaposition’, ‘contentment’, ‘vision’, and ‘commitment.’  I am learning, to be sure, but the fullness of the lessons has not yet been made clear.  I will keep you posted, but right now, I am going to put my feet up and enjoy being grounded.

Psalm 34:8

Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.

Prepared for What’s Next

Concordia University in Ann Arbor has a great tradition. At the end of welcome week activities, on the day before the first day of classes, the community convenes for an opening chapel before students, staff, and faulty head out into the community for a day of service.  Now, I realize that the idea of service is not unique to Concordia; many universities incorporate service into their school year and even into their back-to-school schedule.  Nevertheless, I love the way this day of service sets the tone for the school year and, actually, for life.

This morning, I attended the chapel service where several hundred students, all clad in “Go for the Gold — CUAA Day of Service” t-shirts, gathered to sing and hear the word of God.  Director of Campus Ministry, Randy Duncan, reminded students of the power of service to share the love of Christ with our community, and then the sea of red exited the chapel, boarded busses and left to work at area parks, businesses, and agencies.

Concordia has long been involved in service.  In fact, my husband and I drove by the now-abandoned Maxey Boys’ Training School in nearby Whitmore Lake this week.  At first we didn’t know what we were passing, and then my memory clicked.  Way back in the 1980s, when I attended Concordia, I volunteered with other students to visit the juvenile offenders imprisoned there.  It was just one of several opportunities that Concordia offered at the time for students to step into the surrounding community to connect with people.  I was also involved in visiting psychiatric patients at the Ypsilanti Regional Psychiatric Hospital (also now closed).  Before the days of HIPPA, we students were allowed beyond two locked doors to interact with the patients.  We played games, chatted, and sometimes even held worship services with the residents there.

Service, as I began to learn as a student at Concordia, didn’t just impact the people we served.  It changed me. My husband asked me as we drove by Maxey Boys’ the other day, what impact those experiences had on me.  It didn’t take more than a second for me to respond, “They prepared me for what was next.”  Little did I know when I was a student that my first job out of college would be to work in a group home for emotionally impaired adolescent females.  My experience with the incarcerated young men and with the psychiatric patients informed my ability to treat each of my clients as human beings with stories very different from mine.  I also taught in the former Lutheran School for the Deaf in inner city Detroit.  This white girl from rural Michigan was able to interact with kids from the city because I had be allowed opportunities to interact with individuals of all kinds through my service activities at Concordia. Any ignorant preconceived notions I might have held from the limited experience of my youth had already been challenged. My next teaching job was in a residential treatment facility for emotionally impaired youth. Again, I was exposed to individuals whose experience in life was drastically different from my own, but I was able, because of my previous experiences, to view each student as a life of value — as a person worthy of my time.

Concordia’s service opportunities, like those of other schools, extend throughout the year. Students still get the opportunity to visit residents of nursing homes, to intern at local congregations and hospitals, to volunteer at agencies throughout the Ann Arbor and Detroit communities, and to offer their time and talents in many other ways.

Each experience in life prepares us for what is next.  God is continually lining up opportunities for us so that we will have the knowledge and the tools to step into what He has planned for us down the road.  Today’s Concordia students have no idea what God has in store for their future, but I can guarantee that even the most seemingly insignificant interactions they have with people today will inform their view as they step into tomorrow.

Each of my early experiences shaped me and enabled me to step into the roles God had planned for me.  For ten years, we lived in St. Louis, MO.  While there, I taught in an inner city  public high school and an urban Lutheran School.  My husband and I also had the opportunity to live in the city neighborhood where he pastored a coffee house church.  Each of these experiences was different from anything we had done before,  and yet each utilized the skills and sensitivities we had gained from our past.

And now, God  has allowed us the privilege of coming back to Concordia Ann Arbor to be part of the team that provides opportunities to another generation of students so that they, too, will be prepared for what’s next.  It doesn’t get much better than this.

Galatians 5:13

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.

Moving into the School year

A few minutes ago, I sat down to read my Bible study.  Just as I was getting comfortable, I remembered what my husband said last night, “If we don’t move the car first thing in the morning, you won’t be able to get out of campus when you need to leave at 10:30.”

We live on a college campus.  Our home, a three-bedroom ranch,  is nestled between three residence halls.  One long, narrow driveway enters the east side of campus and winds past a large parking lot and between the buildings to land at our doorway.  We’ve got one way in and one way out.  This is typically not a problem.  Our campus is small, and most cars are required to park in the parking lot.  We’ve usually got a straight shot from our doorway to the highway.

But today is freshman move-in day.

When I leapt out of my seat a few minutes ago to go move the car, I walked outside and noticed that about a dozen student leaders clad in red “Welcome” t-shirts were gathered, waiting the arrival of the first students.  My path was clear, so I drove our little Suze-e Cruze-e straight to the  lot,  slipped in an end slot, and put her in ‘park’.  As I pulled the key from the ignition, I looked up and saw a line of cars snaking down the narrow drive from the entryway.

I was just in the knick of time.

All week, the excitement has been palpable. Our campus pastor embodies enthusiasm.  Even though I haven’t seen him in person since Sunday, I have ‘heard’ him over social media.  He has been posting pictures of dozens of student leaders meeting at his home. He’s been gushing over Twitter about how he and the leaders have prayed over every building on campus, how he witnessed the first class of nursing students gathering at our new North building, and how the campus is primed and ready for our newest students to arrive for a year that’s themed #togethersetapart.

And he’s not the only one who’s excited.  I’ve stopped by the Student Life Office a few times this week and have found bustling activity — the men and women in this office work hard all year, but this is one of their busiest times.  Not only do they make the housing assignments,  train the resident assistants, and coordinate the move-in, but they also plan multiple events for welcome week including meals, evening activities, and a campus-wide service event for Sunday.

The campus, that gets pretty quiet over the summer, is starting to pulse.  I’ve been sitting here now for about half an hour, but I know that when I get up and look out the window, I will see overloaded cars pulled close to residence halls.  Parents will be carrying Rubbermaid containers and laundry baskets and thinking to themselves, “What have we forgotten?”  Students will be bundles of emotion — excitement, fear, enthusiasm, wonder, anxiety — as they meet their roommates and urge their parents to leave, saying, “I’ve got it from here.”

My golden retriever is pacing from one end of our house to the other.  He’s pressing his nose against the glass because it’s just so exciting out there!!

All my life I have loved the start of the school year.  It’s a clean slate waiting to be written on, a blank planner begging to be filled, a new race waiting to be run.  A new school year screams possibility!  For the kids outside my door and the one sitting right here at this laptop, I pray for the fulfillment of dreams, the facing of challenges, and the opportunity to fully embrace what it means to be #togethersetapart.

John 17:21

that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent 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.

Writing

Over the last several weeks I have been thinking about writing and writing instruction.  In a little over a week I will be leading two groups of high school students through a summer course in essay writing.  In the fall I will be teaching three sections of freshmen the fundamentals of writing at the college level.  With these courses in mind, I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I’ve also got Axelrod and Cooper’s Concise Guide to Writing 

I spend a lot of time reading, writing, and talking about writing.  I know it’s not as important to everyone else as it is to me, just like I know that some people care more about balancing their checkbook than I do.  (Like everyone.)  I try not to make every single conversation about writing, but all of my conversations are inextricably linked to my writing process.  It’s like I’m carrying a giant Santa-bag full of words over my shoulder.  In conversations, I am able to off-load some of the words in my sack, but at the same time, the words of others are crawling up the sides and into the mouth of that same sack. They mingle in there, all those words.  They jumble; they bump against each other.  They smooth each other’s edges. They rearrange and form ideas that I hadn’t thought of before.

All that shuffling and processing goes on and on…then I sit down to write, and stuff comes out of my fingers in ways that I had never imagined.  I start picturing, for instance, that my words are kept in a giant Santa-bag, but that other  people carry all of their words, at least the ones that they want to share, in an attractive little Coach bag neatly slung across their body.  I can’t even imagine that!  I am constantly stumbling along, wielding this enormous load of words — they are continually falling out, even when I try to close the top of the bag or shove it in the trunk of my car.

This is why I write. I write to use up some of the words in that bulky sack.  I write to allow the newly formed ideas some space to express themselves.  I write to protect you, my friends, from the fire hose of words that would come streaming out of my mouth uncontrollably if I did not temper the flow by putting 500 to 1000 words on the page in a day.

I teach writing because not everyone is as obsessed about the written word as I am, but almost everyone has to find a way to put their words down in print for one reason or another. Some people, I’ve found, want to improve their writing so that their work emails won’t be misconstrued.  Some have to improve their writing so that they can be admitted into a college or program.  Others are quite proficient in writing in another language but struggle to convey their meaning in English.  And occasionally, a student wanders into my class, stumbling through the door, trying to find a space to cram his extra large Hefty bag full of words.  He looks desperate.  His eyes search my face pleadingly.  I smile knowingly, show him where to sling his bag, pull out a chair, and tell him to start writing it all down.

He’s overwhelmed, of course.  How could he possibly put it all down?  Have I seen that bag?  I nod compassionately and show him my Santa bag sitting outside the window of the classroom — it no longer fits through the door.   He swallows hard, opens a blank notebook, and looks up at me.  I nod and urge him on.  His pen starts moving across the page.  He doesn’t notice the other students filling in the chairs around him.He doesn’t look up when I start class. He doesn’t realize, either, an hour later when they’ve all left to go to their next classes.  He’s still bent over his notebook.

So, I sit down, too.  I open my notebook and pick up where I left off.  We sit there and put our words on paper until they stop streaming out of our pens…or until we are exhausted or famished.

Then quietly we push back from our desks, shove our notebooks into our bags, and notice that they are a bit more manageable to carry.  Our steps are a little lighter.  We nod silently at one another and each go our own way.

For those moments and so many more, I am thankful for writing.

2 Corinthians 12: 4-6

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

still learning, re-visit

after writing about what some of my students are learning on Monday, I re-discovered this post, first written almost three years ago, about the lessons I have learned from my children and my students. re-examined on February 28, 2019

Parenting and teaching have changed me. At one time I was quick to pass judgment on apparent ‘misbehavior’, I often fell prey to either/or reasoning, and I saw most arguments as very black and white. However, through more than two decades of parenting and almost that many years of interacting with students, my firm — almost rigid — beliefs about almost everything have been challenged and re-shaped.

One of the lessons that my kids and students taught me is that there is always more to a situation than first meets the eyes. Let’s say a student walks into my class late, unprepared, and seemingly unengaged. It would be easy to assume that this student is apathetic about my class specifically, and perhaps education in general. However, a closer look might reveal that the student was doing everything he could to get to my class on time, but his parents had their own timetable — they made him take care of a younger sibling all night, they got home from work late in the morning, and then made my student wait while they showered before they brought him to school. My student wanted to complete the homework, but his sibling was demanding. He wanted to be on time, but he had no alternate way to get to class.

Or, let’s say one of my children is snarky, disrespectful, and seemingly bent on opposing every direction I give. I might assume that my role is to demand respect, give firmer demands, and heap on consequences, but a closer look, and some long hours of listening, may uncover some deep pain that the child is afraid, even ashamed, to share with me. Acting out is not the problem; it’s a symptom.

Another lesson I’ve learned from my kids and my students is that there is always a third option. “Mrs. Rathje, should I study education or medicine?”  “Mom, should I run track or play soccer?” “Would it be better if I took this job or if I didn’t work at all?” My answer — “Is there a third option?”  Why not consider a career as a nurse educator? Is there any other sport or activity that seems interesting to you? Is there a different job you could consider? more schooling? service learning?

Too often I have found myself trapped in either/or thinking:

  • Do I want to be a vegetarian or eat meat?
  • Am I a night person or a morning person?
  • Do I like contemporary or traditional worship?
  • Am I conservative or liberal?
  • Should I teach or write?
  • Am I a Spartan or a Wolverine.

Don’t be ridiculous, that last one was just to see if you were still paying attention.

In my earlier life, I found it safest to ‘choose a side’. I was forming my identity, after all. I wanted to find my place. It felt too risky to remain fluid. I wanted the security of saying that I was Lutheran or Republican. I wanted a box to check. I was anti-Disney, pro-Life, for the environment, and against dying my hair.

Here’s the thing: putting myself in those boxes positioned me against those who put themselves in other boxes. If I liked only wheat bread, I might judge someone who only bought white bread. If I only shopped at Kroger, I might look down on someone who only shopped at Wal-Mart. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to listen to why they preferred white bread or Wal-Mart. I knew I was right. No discussion was needed.

My attitude limited me. I unwittingly cut myself off from all kinds of people and experiences.  

Enter my children. And my students. Early on they were willing to listen to whatever I had to say. They were pliable. They wanted to please me. But over time, as they developed minds of their own, they began to question my positions. They began to challenge my opinions.

How dare they? I did not like this at all!! After all, I had been being right for so long. If I allowed myself to think differently, I was admitting that I had been — gasp — wrong!

But not really. That was some more either/or thinking. Here is what I have come to believe: once upon a time I held certain opinions based on what I knew at the time. Over the years, I have had many experiences that have caused me to re-think those positions. Based on what I know now, some of my opinions have changed. That, my friends is called human growth and development.

And here is the most important thing that I have learned. Life is complex. We can hold conflicting truths. I can, for instance, like the story line of The Lion King and still hate the over- commercialization of Disney and its portrayal of female characters. These opinions can co-exist. I can understand the health benefits of whole grains and still appreciate a nice loaf of French white bread. I can appreciate Wal-Mart’s low prices and still object to the business practices of the Waltons. I can eat both meat and vegetables, just vegetables, or choose a third option — vegetarianism on the weekdays and carnivorism on the weekends.

The amazing human mind is capable of far more complexity than we give it credit for. We limit its capacity to grow when we compartmentalize ideology into false dichotomies.

You might think I feel afraid now that I’ve moved outside of my previously confining boxes. Not at all. I find more room to breathe out here.

I’m telling you — a mother can learn a lot from her kids, and a teacher often learns from her students.

It is not only the old who are wise,
    not only the aged who understand what is right.

Job 32:9

A Juror and some witnesses

So I’m at home taking a break between two cultural geography classes for which I was asked to share my experience of serving on a federal jury for a case in which Monsanto was awarded one billion, yes billion, dollars.  The class is examining food security and has been exploring the impact of genetic modifications on our food supply.

You know how these things happen — the instructor was having a casual conversation with my husband who off-handedly mentioned that I had served on this case and the rest is history.

In preparation for meeting with these two classes, I reviewed a couple articles regarding the case. Here’s one. I also watched a video that the instructor had assigned her students to watch. Here’s the video. As I read and watched, I did some reflecting and realized that while I walked into the trial without a lot of knowledge or bias on the topic, I clearly have some now.  I was praying that I wouldn’t let too much of that bias show through to the students, but I am afraid I did.

I enjoyed the conversation with this class of about twenty, but I left feeling a little icky.  Did I say anything that wasn’t true? No.  But did I maintain objectivity or put the best construction on the information that I have? No.

How do I know this?  Because before I started to write today, I took a short detour to read my devotion. Ugh.  I winced when I read the words “no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil full of deadly poison.” I get so carried away when I stand in front of a classroom.  I guess it’s my inner showman or my attention-seeking inner middle child, but I just get super chatty when I have an audience of students. I don’t always filter everything that comes out of my mouth. Ok, ok, I may be over dramatizing — I mean, I didn’t kill anyone.  But I did season my words with cynicism and judgment.

I will acknowledge that judgment has its place in discussions of corporate greed and public health, however, I would feel a little better if I had built a discussion around evidence rather than emotion.

And, as God has designed it, I have a chance to try again — in just over an hour.  So, what will I do the same? What will I do differently?

  • I will still share that I have no regrets about awarding Monsanto the victory in this case.  The defendant, Pioneer Seed Company, knowingly and blatantly used proprietary information — we saw evidence of that in internal emails, videotaped interviews, and genetic data.
  • I will again state the fact that although I knew very little about Monsanto or genetically modified organisms prior to the 2012 trial, I am much more aware now. While I was truthfully unbiased going into the trial, I clearly have some strongly held opinions now.
  • I will share my suspicion that the dramatic increase in autoimmune diseases like the one that I am living with is correlated with the increased presence of GMOs in our food supply, but this time I will cite several studies by the National Institute of Health instead of just saying ‘it’s my suspicion’.  I will also reiterate that although diet is a factor in disease, so are other factors such as environment and genetics.
  • Instead of emphasizing the huge profits that Monsanto makes by dominating the GMO industry or its ironic involvement in both plant-killing endeavors (Round-up, etc.) and ‘fighting the world’s food shortage’, I will challenge the students to ask their own questions and find their own answers.  Who benefits from this science? Are companies like Monsanto really solving the world’s food crisis? Is there actually a food shortage or rather a disproportionate food distribution?  What long-term effects does genetic modification have on our food supply, our health, our economy, our environment?
  • And, I will again give them the permission and the charge to do something! More than anything I want to convey the idea to students that they are change-agents.  They are not prisoners of circumstance.  They have been gifted with intellect and opportunity to step into science, industry, and health in ways that have impact.
  • Further, I will encourage them to inspire change through their spending choices.  We all agreed this morning that it costs more financially to eat healthfully, at least in the short-term.  However, we pay more in the long-term — health-wise, financially, environmentally, and otherwise.  Their dollars have the collective power to inspire change.

Yes, if I am able to do all of that, I will walk away from this afternoon’s class feeling less-than-icky. I will feel like my time was well-spent. It’s gonna be a challenge to keep my tongue in check, but I owe it to these kids who are looking for footsteps to follow in.

Hebrews 12:1

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,