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 when 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.
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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

Parenting and teaching have changed me.  At one time I was a very black and white thinker.  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 shaped. I am not the person I once was, nor do I want to be.

One of the lessons that I have learned 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 stay up to 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 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 to all of the above, “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 comforting 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 who I was and that I was right.  No discussion needed.

Yeah, it limited me.  I 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.  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 taught me.  So, 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.  Every belief is multi-faceted.  I can, for instance, like the story line of The Lion King and still hate the over commercialization of Disney, or, for that matter, 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 enjoy both meat and vegetables or choose to be a strict vegetarian, but only on the weekdays.

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.

And that, my friends, the mother learned from her children; the teacher learned from her students.

 

Job 32:9

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

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,

Marvel with me

No wallowing today. Period. I declare this a day of marvel.  Want to marvel with me?

First, I got out of bed after only 40 minutes of wakefulness today!  Woo-hoo!  And what did I find after I had maneuvered from horizontal to vertical?  A fresh blanket of snow reflecting a beautiful sunny day.

Second, having gone to bed without a lesson prepared for my 1pm class today, I woke to purposefulness, started with the end in mind, and prepared a process-oriented lesson that will allow my students some practice in critical analysis.

Third, while I was preparing this lesson, I heard from a couple of former students. One young man who I spent several years trying to convince of his giftedness shared a link to his recent appearance on an AOL sponsored webcast in which he brilliantly articulated the power of technology as a platform for young black voices (Here’s his link.); similarly a  young woman who was in my first high school class in Missouri shared her Christian maturity via social media. I get to know these brilliant young people!

Fourth, I found a forgotten gift card I received for Christmas and purchased two new pillows online.

Fifth, I discovered that a savings bond that we received as a wedding gift over twenty-five years ago will more than cover the cost of passports for me and my husband.

Six, I was offered a position teaching composition to high school students in a summer program at the University of Michigan.

Seven, I get to teach college students in just a couple of hours.

Eight, I get to work with two middle school students later today.

Nine, when I sat down to write, I first read a blog post by another former student. She reminded me that although I am prone to wander, my wandering never satisfies. Here’s her blog.

I read my devotion this morning and it reminded me that just as I have been blessed with following in the footsteps of many faithful believers, I am granted an opportunity to leave some footprints of my own.  I’d hate to spend all of those footprints on the path to wallowing.  So, I’m taking the opportunity, once again, to turn.

My life is rich. I am blessed. I’m just going to marvel at that today. Hope you’ll join me.

Psalm 71:17

Since my youth, God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.

syllabus shock

A new semester started today at Concordia University.  Students are roaming the campus with the stunned look of disbelief on their faces.  I kept my class short — about twenty-five minutes.  I introduced myself, handed out my syllabus, got an introductory feel for who is in my class, then excused them to go sort out their new realities.  Some of those students said they had had four classes today!  Four classes equals four syllabi and innumerable deadlines and assignments to consider.

The first day often serves as a warning — beware! I am going to expect a lot of you!  In fact, I informed my students that we will have our first quiz and our first in-class writing response on Wednesday.  We aren’t wasting any time.  We are jumping in with both feet.  By this time next week they will have already read Sandra Cisneros, Jamaica Kincaid, Kate Chopin, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne!  They will have already got in the habit of identifying author, time period, genre, and literary devices, and they will be taking some stabs at author’s intent and strategy.

Or they won’t have gotten in the habit…in that case, they might already be overwhelmed by this time next week. In fact, many of them were overwhelmed already today.  They don’t know how they are going to pay for their books.  They are on academic probation because they didn’t get in the swing of things last semester, and they are worried that this is the first day of a repeat performance.

And those are just the school-related worries.  When I stood in front of twenty-eight students today, I am sure I did not fully grasp the combined weight of concern that they dragged in with them — family issues, friendship conflicts, relationship woes, health concerns, and any number of internal conflicts.  And here I am, ever the jokester, making light of all the additional responsibility I am heaping on top of them.

Earlier today, way before my class, I attended the first chapel service of the semester.  As per usual I don’t remember all of what was said, but I do remember an admonition that Pastor Ryan Peterson gave to the students.  He said, “I want to challenge you to attend chapel everyday…to engage with this community…to connect with the Word of God…because there will never be a better use of your time than that.”

I am praying right now that the students heard that message, not because it’s a good thing to do to go to church.  Not because anyone will be taking attendance.  Not because someone is going to judge them if they don’t go to chapel.  No.  I am praying that they will hear his words of love — the invitation to enjoy the privilege of engaging with community and to feel the strength that comes from the Word of God.

Why? Because it will keep things in perspective.  The overwhelming tide of assignments, finances, and responsibilities can make us think that we are drowning.  When we believe we are drowning, we flail about, we yell for help, we try to swim for the shore, and we exhaust ourselves with all that trying.  But the Truth is that we are not indeed drowning.  Yes, it can get a bit stormy and bleak.  In fact it can get downright scary.  And, if you’re going it alone, it’s really easy to forget that you are sitting in the palm of His hand.

Have no fear, little flock, for your Father has happily given you His Kingdom. 

Luke 12: 32

The Teacher You Need, re-visit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When we need mercy — He has it in abundance.

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

Teacher I will follow you wherever you go.

Matthew 8:18