of Death and Resurrection

Nadia* came to my desk the other day. The other students were working on an assignment, and she had a question about something she had missed a few days prior.

“I wasn’t here the day we did this,” she said.

“Yes, I remember. You missed a few days. Is everything OK?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she answered, “first my grandma died and we had all the arrangements for that, then my uncle died.”

“Oh my goodness! I am so sorry! That is a lot of loss all at once. I am impressed that you are working to get caught up. How can I support you?”

It’s not uncommon for us to hear about these kinds of losses. I myself lost a much-loved uncle last month, and many of us lost loved ones during Covid. However, it always shocks me when I learn of the amount of death my students have faced in their young lives.

Bianca* was sitting near my desk this week working on a college application. She was hoping it wouldn’t require a social security number because her mother had been reluctant to share hers with her when we had been getting FSA IDs, the first step in completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) .

“If it’s required, I’m just gonna call my mom and tell her I have to have it,” she said.

.”Does your mom want you to go to college?” I asked.

She shook her head no.

“Hmm. What would she like you to do?”

“She wants me to keep doing hair.”

“That’s right, you do hair. Is that what she does, too?”

“No, she doesn’t work, because my dad was a firefighter who died, so she is taken care of.”

“Oh my!” I said. “When did that happen?”

She held up three fingers and said, “Three years ago.”

“I am so sorry! I had no idea.”

And while we were chatting, her mom texted her the number, and Bianca completed her application.

Working with high school seniors, I see that kind of subtle movement all the time. One week a parent refuses to let their child have her SSN, then suddenly, nonchalantly, she sends it in a text two weeks later. Parents are ready to release when they are ready to release and not a moment sooner.

And it makes sense when you know that the mother and the daughter have already experienced devastating loss.

I’ve been listening to Anderson Cooper’s new podcast, All There Is, which is his examination of his own grief through conversations with others who have also experienced loss. Cooper lost his father to heart disease at age 10, his brother to suicide when he was 21, and his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, just a few years ago. As he navigates the packing up of his mother’s things, he is struck by all the unprocessed grief from the previous losses and how raw the hurt still is.

As I’m listening, I hear his voice crack as he recalls a detail, and my throat tightens, My eyes well up and my chest feels heavy. I have not experienced much physical death among my immediate family and friends, but I have definitely experienced loss — the loss of my parents’ marriage when I was seven, the loss of some dreams for our family that were taken away, some by circumstance, some by error, and some by violence, and the loss of my health and career before I was even 50.

We all experience loss. We all experience death.

Cooper posits, and I agree, that we don’t make enough space for discussions of our losses and the hurts that we carry with us. Instead, we try to pack them up, put them away, and function in a way that seems “normal” when we will never feel “normal” again.

In one of his interviews, Cooper speaks with Stephen Colbert, who lost his father and two brothers in an airplane crash when he was 10. Colbert says it was the worst thing that happened in his life, but he has grown to be grateful for it — not the deaths, of course, but the opening it created in him that has allowed him to see the devastations in the lives of others and the ability to have compassion for them.

I resonate with that. For many years I have said that while my parents’ divorce was — for a long time — the biggest blow to my life, it grew in me an understanding of brokenness that prepared me to marry a man who had been divorced. Having stepparents prepared me to be a stepparent. Having experienced trauma and devastation in our own family has opened a chasm in my heart that has space for the brokenness I see in my students and my friends.

Because I have written about loss, and because my husband and I have explored our losses in depth with our therapists, with each other, and most extensively with a small group of friends who we meet with every week, we were prepared last spring and again this fall, to share our story with a small group of others like us who are in the midst of devastation and who are looking for shreds of hope. We believe, like Anderson Cooper, that we don’t talk about our losses — especially not in polite company, and even less in the church. Especially if those losses involve estrangement, divorce, sexual assault, alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling, or crime.

So when we stand in front of a group of church folk (last spring) or church workers (this fall) and tell our story, we do it as educators. We model — this is how you can be vulnerable and tell your story. We provide safety — you are in a room full of others who also have a story. We give space — take a chance, and share a piece of your story with someone next to you.

And they do.

And the tears flow.

Strangers touch hands and are no longer strangers.

It looks like resurrection.

Theologian and writer Jeff Chu asked in his opening talk at the 2022 Evolving Faith Conference** last weekend, “What does resurrection matter except to those have tasted death?”

What does new life matter, until you thought that life was gone forever?

When you have sobbed on your pillow knowing your family will never be whole again and then you see a connection, you receive an invitation, you embrace someone who has felt the rending of the flesh as deeply as you have and somehow what was dead seems to breathe new life,

Resurrection isn’t witnessed in isolation, is it? I find I see it most in community — in the sharing of stories, of tears, of understanding. I see it in friendships that walk through the valley of the shadow of death together long enough to get to the other side.

This fall I’ve had a student in my class, Monique*. Her attendance has been intermittent — she’s pregnant. When she comes, I greet her without judgment because I don’t know her story.; I only know that she has one. For the past week or more her seat has been empty. She didn’t appear to be full-term, so I didn’t expect that she had had the baby. I expected her to walk back in any morning, just as she had been doing all fall. But yesterday, I was standing in the office when her sister, a recent graduate, walked in. We chatted, and she mentioned that Monique had had the baby, but that the baby “didn’t make it”.

What happens to a seventeen year old heart when it has carried a life, moved through labor, and then experienced such a devastating loss?

I have no idea, but I am hoping to hear Monique’s story, and I am longing for her to experience resurrection.

[He] comforts us in all our trouble so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”

2 Corinthians 1:4

*All student names have been changed, of course.

**Although the Evolving Faith conference is over, you can still register and watch the entire event, which was virtual and recorded.

Not Quite Ready

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I walked into my school this past week. I had some supplies to drop off, and I was in the area, so I popped in.

The place was almost empty, but our custodial crew was there, greeting me with smiles and hugs, the work they’d done all summer evident all around us. The floors gleamed; the walls were freshly painted; and every desk was neatly in place.

As I rolled a supply-laden cart into my classroom, I remained somewhat detached. Although this is where I’ll spend over 40 hours a week starting just a couple weeks from now, the reality of the work — the students and their futures — is still just a little out of view. My heart is not quite ready for the responsibility. It’s not quite ready to hold kids accountable, to inspire, to motivate, to redirect, to teach.

Not yet.

I mean, I’ve written my syllabus. My big-picture plans for the first few weeks are charted out. I have slide decks. I’ve purchased motivators, and I’ve loaded up my Google calendar with deadlines and commitments. I like to be organized well ahead of time, but I’m just not quite ready to stand and deliver content, motherly advice, snacks, admonitions, answers to distracting questions, and continuous positive narration to inspire appropriate student behavior.

I’m just not ready.

Fact is, this big-talking, butt-kicking, name-taking master teacher has just a little more than a teensy bit of anxiety. It’s not suffocating, but it’s humming a little chorus in my mind, especially in the quiet of the night, what if, how about, can you really, have you considered, and the like. I swat it away. I read a book about organized crime in Harlem in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. I play a little Words with Friends, and I try to pretend that I don’t hear. But the chorus is catchy, and I find myself humming along mindlessly throughout the day.

I am not special. I think most teachers have a little anxiety before going back to school. I’m usually able to mask it with bravado — it’s a long-honed skill. Some of us also manage it through busy-ness, like organizing a classroom or preparing detailed plans, but probably, the best thing to do is to name it, as I did — again — yesterday with my therapist. Saying it out loud normalizes it, I guess. My therapist says, “You’re in a very demanding giving profession, and in the past, the demands have caused damage. It makes sense that you would be anxious.”

Oh. Yeah. That’s true, isn’t it? I have incurred some personal damages from this profession, haven’t it? Bravado and busy-ness were band-aids for my anxiety, not balms. They concealed it; they didn’t heal it.

What has been my balm? Quiet, rest, writing, and talking through my emotions. So, I return. I lean in. I announce that I am not quite ready.

I need a few more days of mindlessly weeding a garden while listening to a podcast. I need a few more mornings lazily journaling while sitting in the sun. I need a few more uninterrupted strong cups of tea, maybe one more jigsaw puzzle, a trip or two to see my mom, and just one more mani/pedi without looking at my watch.

And then, maybe then, I’ll be ready for the 5 am alarm, the 30 minute drive in rush hour traffic, the mass of students moving down the hallway, and the continuous grumble of adolescent complaint. I’ll be ready to stand over-enthusiastically (but genuinely) at my doorway, greeting my new seniors (and a few unsuspecting freshmen — God love them.)

They (and I ) have no idea what this school year holds — whether we’ll be able to be in person the whole year, whether Covid or a building issue will send us home, whether we’ll like each other, whether we’ll learn anything at all. And they (like me) might be experiencing a little anxiety. They might not have the 56 years of experience that I have that have taught me how to name it, how to care for myself, and how to create space, so they may need some extra compassion, understanding, and patience from me if they act out, check out, or lash out.

And I’ll have it. I almost always do, now that I have learned to have compassion, understanding, and patience for myself. I will be able to assure them that they belong, that they are safe, that they are loved, and that we have much that we can learn together.

Because here’s the thing — I have yet to meet a group of students I didn’t eventually fall in love with. I have yet to see a school year (and I think this might be the 23rd? — correction 20th in the classroom) where I didn’t learn right along with my students — about the curriculum, sure, but also about myself, about education, about the human experience.

And, part of what I’ve learned about the human experience is that I am not alone — none of us are! While I have been less than ready to look toward the school year, several of you have reached out in the last few weeks with offers of school supplies, snacks, prizes, and cash to support my classroom. I can’t tell you what an encouragement it has been to have you answering before I’ve even gotten around to asking. It has reminded me and my anxiety that we’ll be ok. When I am finally ready to head back to my classroom this year, I will carry your encouragement with me.

It won’t be long.

In just a few days, my adrenaline will kick in — I’ll be zooming around my classroom, arranging desks, making signs, double-checking supplies, and detailing lessons — but not yet. Right now I’m going to lean into another cup of tea, pop one more bowl of popcorn, and binge one more show on Netflix. The school year will be here soon enough.

…in quietness and trust is your strength…”

Isaiah 30:15

If you are able, reach out to a teacher (or school administrator) you know and ask how you can be an encouragement. You’ll be amazed at the impact such an offer might have.

Rest and Return

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The summer is winding down and I (along with teachers across the country) am starting to move toward the classroom.

Feeling truly depleted at the end of last school year, I spent the first two weeks of summer break at home. I gardened, slept late, wrote a teeny little bit, read, walked, and cooked.

And then, when I was somewhat revived, my husband and I boarded a jet and headed west. We alit in the land of palms and headed to wide expanses of beach, spread out matching beach towels. and spent hours reading, sleeping, chatting, and staring in awe at the waves and the sky. We wandered inland and wondered at the mountains and the forests then returned to the beaches — some tame and populated, some rugged and bare.

We ate well, slept long, and walked for miles and miles.

We breathed deeply. We laughed. We restored.

When our vacation was over, he reported back to his responsibilities, and I returned to rest.

This past week, I found my way back to my desk and started to consider and prepare for the roles I will carry this fall. It will be my third year at my current school after a long season of physical and mental recovery, and it will be the most challenging yet.

Earlier in this blog, I have elaborated on the fact that many years of pushing too hard and failing to take care of myself or process any emotion had sidelined me from the classroom for several years. In 2020, I felt called back, and because we were in the midst of a pandemic, I had the privilege of easing back in through a year of teaching virtually followed by a year of some in-person and some virtual learning. I was able to get my feet under me with mostly no physical or emotional consequences until the very end of last year when my body started waving warning flags.

Those flags reminded me to fully lean into my summer, and I have. I have put puzzles together, crocheted, and binge-watched. I have rested fully, and now as reminders of all I have committed to start pinging on my phone, I am both exhilarated and anxious. I have added some new roles, and I am wondering if I will truly be able to manage it all.

I know for sure that I can manage the first responsibility, which is the one I have had from my first day at Detroit Leadership Academy. I am the senior ELA teacher, focusing on building skills that will enable my students to experience success after graduation. Our research projects focus on career and college. Our writing includes college essays and resumes. We practice academic reading, writing, discussion, and presenting. The goal is that our students will have the opportunity to choose — college, career, military, or trade school. I love this role — in many ways it is an extension of what I did in my previous classroom position, and I am thankful that I am able to carry those skills forward to support another community of students.

I also know that I can handle the second responsibility which I have had for a year now. I am our school’s Master Teacher. We have instructional coaches in our building who work directly with teachers to improve instructional practices; that is not my role. My role is more to be an exemplar and an encourager. Teachers can pop in my room and ask a question, check out my white board or room arrangement, complain about a policy, vent about a student, or ask for a snack. I love this role, too. Because I’ve been a teacher and a mom across four decades, I have seen some stuff, and not much surprises me. I can typically remain calm and objective, which is what less-experienced teachers often need.

The above two roles are familiar and natural to me, but like many teachers throughout their career, I have been offered some additional responsibilities that will absolutely stretch me in the coming year.

The first of these is one I volunteered for. I will be participating in a year-long educational fellowship wherein I will work with teachers across the state to examine educational policies and practices, do research, and work with lawmakers and constituents to enact change. I am very excited about this opportunity, which will give voice to my passion for educational equity, the key focus of this fellowship.

The second new role is to be our school’s reading interventionist and to bring a new reading program to the building. I will have one period a day with 10 freshmen who have demonstrated reading skills 2-3 years (or more) below grade level. I am being trained this week in strategies that have been demonstrated to decrease/eliminate that gap in 20 weeks of daily instruction. I am fully behind this initiative. In fact, I asked for a reading interventionist after seeing evidence of weak reading among my students. Because of my Lindamood-Bell experience, I am a solid choice (at least initially) for this role, and I know I will love watching my students develop their reading skills.

Even though I am passionate about each of these roles, they are adding up! And I haven’t even told you the last one.

After I had already accepted all of the above positions, and had begun to wrap my mind around what they would each entail, I was approached by our director of human resources and asked if I would take on an uncertified colleague as a student teacher.

Let me pause for effect, because that is what I literally did when I got the call. I sat with the phone to my ear, breathing silently.

I’ve mentioned before that 2/3 of the teachers in our building are uncertified — most, like this friend, are working toward certification. Many, like this friend, will eventually need to do student teaching. If she can’t do the student teaching in our building, she will find a different school to accommodate her, and then we would be down one more teacher.

I know it is not my responsibility, but I am the teacher in the building with the appropriate certification to supervise her, and I have had student teachers before. I believe we will work well together and that the experience will be successful, but it is a large responsibility on top of an already full load.

This is not uncommon for teachers. In fact, I am not unique at all. Teachers manage their classrooms, provide excellent instruction, sit on committees, volunteer for study groups, and support their colleagues. They coach, they work second (or third) jobs, and they also have lives away from school that include myriad challenges and responsibilities.

It’s not uncommon, yet although I am excited to get started in each of these roles, I do have some anxiety. This is the most I have committed to since the 2013-2014 school year — the year that I requested a reduced load because I was suffering with pain, extreme fatigue, and myriad other health issues, the year before I left my classroom for what I thought was the last time.

I’m not the same person I was then. I have learned how to care for my body. I am learning strategies for managing my emotions. I don’t have teenagers at home. I no longer have pets to care for. And still, it’s going to be a lot.

So here I am recommitting to my best practices — I will continue to write, to do yoga, to walk, to rest, to puzzle, to crochet, to read, and to meet with our small group. I will go to my physical therapy, chiropractic, and (now) acupuncture appointments. I will eat the foods that make me feel well and avoid those that don’t. I will limit other commitments.

More importantly, I will pray, and I will trust that God has provided me this next chapter and all the opportunities in it and that He will carry me through it all so that I can be present and fully engaged with those who are counting on me, because they truly are counting on me.

And really they are counting on the One who lives in me — the One who sees each student, each teacher, each parent, the One who knows each of our names, the One who is faithful, the One who is answering before we even use our breath to ask, the only One who can really be counted on

I may continue to feel anxious, but when I do, I will try to remember that He’s got me and all of my responsibilities in the palm of His hand.

The One who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.

I Thessalonians 5:24

A few 18 year olds

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On May 14, 2022, an 18 year old male drove three hours to a grocery store in a Black community with the intention of killing Black people. He killed 10 in the attack that he had been planning for months.

On May 24, an 18 year old male shot his grandmother in the head then drove to an elementary school where he fired shots in the parking lot and inside a fourth grade classroom. Nineteen students and two teachers died in the premeditated massacre.

On May 25 at 8:30 am, three 18 year old males walked into my classroom. With under two weeks remaining of their senior year, the biggest event on their horizon is graduation.

I don’t know why these were the three that showed up on the morning after a deadly school shooting — the kind that makes teachers across the country catch their breath and wonder how can this keep happening?

Why, of the eighteen students on my roster, were these the only three that showed?

When I had woken up that morning, I had been thinking, what can I do today to create a space for my students to speak about these shootings? I had tried to create a space on May 15, but I had rushed it — tried to cram it in to an already full day — and it had not gone the way I might have hoped.

But this particular morning, May 25, was a Wednesday, a day that my first hour is always dedicated to social-emotional learning (SEL), a time when my students and I typically use a curriculum called “Character Strong” to build relationships and explore emotions. We’d been doing so since January, and my students had been demonstrating varying degrees of engagement. They participated in activities like group discussions, watching videos, and journaling, and I felt we were making progress, growing a bit closer.

So as I sat at my desk early that morning, I thought, this is the second-to-last time that we will be together. What if, instead of using the curriculum, I pass out their journals and give them an opportunity to write. Maybe that would create enough space for them to share .

I imagined I would have 4-6 students to start, the same 4-6 that showed up on time most days, and that others would trickle in. I did not imagine that I would have just three 18 year old Black males.

I didn’t imagine that these three would show me that they were on the verge of being men.

I gathered us together. We did a little warm up activity, and then I said, “Ok, guys, it looks like it’s just us today. You may have heard there was a school shooting yesterday.” They confirmed they all had. “And, you are probably aware of the shooting that happened a couple weeks ago in Buffalo, NY.” They were. “It’s a lot guys, and I just wanted to provide some space today for you to process either these shootings or our time together this semester. I am going to put a few prompts on the board. You can choose the one you like, and we’ll all spend about five or so minutes quietly writing.”

I put this on the board:

I sat at my desk with my notebook. They sat at their desks with theirs. We all started to write.

Can you picture the scene? One middle-aged white woman in jeans and a pink “Detroit Kids Matter” t-shirt and three young black men in jeans and hoodies all bent over their desks writing silently in 5 x 7 notebooks.

I paused and watched them — these three 18 year olds — and I felt my throat tighten. These three [out of the 18 that could have been there] were engaging in this activity that I had tossed together at the last minute.

After about 5 minutes, we paused, and I said, “Anyone want to share?”

The first raised his hand and shared that he’d written that 18 year olds need to stay focused on their goals and to surround themselves with people who had their backs.

The second said that 18 year olds need to stay busy — get a job, earn some money, and stay out of trouble.

The third said he’d learned about his emotions during this dedicated class time.

And their teacher got choked up. She saw the poignancy of the moment and she said, “This is why we have created this space guys. We want to provide an opportunity for you to reflect, to think about your goals, and to imagine ways that you can get there. We want you to know that you are loved and seen, that you have a future, and that we have your back.”

They saw their teacher getting emotional, and all three looked her in the eyes and smiled tenderly.

They knew. No matter how messed up the last couple of years have been, no matter that they don’t have a yearbook, or a decent gym, or air conditioning, they know that we love them. They have received the message.

And yet, next week they will walk out of this school into a world where people will drive three hours just to point a gun at their bodies, a world where the senate cannot be bothered to bring gun reform laws to a vote, a world where Detroit Kids have not seen the evidence that they do indeed matter. They will walk into that world less-equipped than they ought to be, with not enough resources or knowledge or scaffolding because systemic racism has perpetuated educational inequity.

They all plan to go to college or trade school — all three of these young Black men — they know it is the way to a better life, but even though we have tried to prepare them, they have no idea what it will really take — the dedication, the perseverance, the kind of digging deep that they have never experienced before.

Nevertheless, they’ll line up in their caps and gowns, their families filling the seats, and I will be the one calling their names, lovingly looking them in the eyes, as our whole team cheers them on their way.

We pray that as they leave they will carry with them the knowledge that they are loved, that they are not alone, and that their lives do indeed matter.

May God protect them, and may we be emboldened to make the kinds of changes that ensure that these 18 year olds and all those that come after them will have a chance at the kind of future we envision for them.

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace.

Romans 14:19

The Comfort of Connection

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I think we can all agree that 2020 was a rough year what with the pandemic, quarantine, isolation, cancelled plans, loss of loved ones, and all. To be honest, 2021 was not a huge improvement. Sure, we got our vaccines and many of us went back to the office and started socializing again, but really, it was an extension of 2020, with more mask wearing, continued social distancing, the Delta variant, etc. So, when 2022 started with Omicron and further shut downs, many of us shrugged and said, “yeah, it is what is, I guess this is life now.” We’ve grown accustomed to one disappointment, one cancellation, one blow after another.

So, we took it in stride when our 13 year old golden retriever started sharply declining in January and continued on that trend through the end of February when we tearfully said goodbye. It was one more loss, one more sadness, in a season of continuous disappointment.

We grieved as though we’d been training for it. We sat in our tears for an entire weekend — luxuriating in loss.

The grieving was healing, I must say, weird as that sounds. Our collective tears were an acknowledgement of the heartache of losing a well-loved pet, but they were perhaps also a deep exhale after holding so much accumulated loss.

And that wasn’t the end of it. We had a couple days to catch our breath, and then, our stove, too, up and died. It had served its owners well for almost 30 years, and it was done. So, we went from grief to responsibility — the hunt for a new appliance that would be economical and reliable. We did our due diligence in the midst of a supply chain backup never mind that we were still slogging through grief and transition 

[Aren’t we all right now slogging through grief and transition?]

So, stove shopping we were doing when a family member reached out asking for the kind of support that requires a quickly purchased flight, an acquisition of pets, and a cross-country drive in a snowstorm. Being so asked, when once we might not have been asked, we did what love empowers us to do: the one became two — one showing up in the flesh, the other managing logistics at home and completing the stove purchase solo.

It’s rich, this life. When you show up, you share tears. You see, you hold, you carry, and something changes.

And so began March, another season of adapting, adjusting, and accommodating cats in a house that had grown familiar with one very special dog.

They were growing on us — the cats — when another family member called needing the kind of support that facilitates a cross-country move with a quick landing at the nest to manage some old business and catch a breath.

And, again, as we made space, there was more seeing, more holding, more carrying, more changing..

All this, of course, in the first three months of 2022 after the “unprecedented” experience of 2020 and 2021. And we find ourselves both filled and depleted. We are buoyed, and we are sunk low.

So, I wasn’t planning on going to the retreat that I have enjoyed most every year since I returned to Michigan — a gathering of more than 100 wives of pastors who have become sisters and friends. I didn’t have the gas in the tank to register, to pack, to coordinate, to plan. But, two days before it was scheduled to begin, I saw something on social media, and I realized what I would be missing if I did not go.

I made a few calls, clicked a few buttons, rearranged some details, packed, and drove North. I wasn’t in the door one minute when two friends called out, “we saved you a seat!” From one to the next I received hugs of welcome, of love, of acceptance, of belonging. I settled in as the singing began and then realized what the topic for the conference was — Very Ordinary Grace — Life in Relationship. For the next few hours, I sat in a room full of women, sharing our experiences of ordinary life. We shed tears of heartache. We confessed our mistakes. We celebrated God’s grace that continuously finds us in our mess and offers forgiveness, healing, and restoration.

I reconnected with friends who I hadn’t seen in months or years, and we offered one another our hugs, our attention, and our care. After two years of isolation, social distancing, and cancelled plans, we were leaning in, embracing, listening, connecting.

Isn’t that what we have been longing for — connection? Aren’t our relationships the richest parts of our lives? Standing with my husband and two daughters around our beloved dog as he goes to his last sleep, weeping tears of love, gratitude, and loss? Answering a FaceTime call from a tearful, fearful family member and assuring them that we will indeed meet their need. Sitting across a table from a loved one, acknowledging their deep hurt, challenging an old pattern, and watching, miraculously as something shifts.

On the heels of two years of isolation and disappointment, three months of losing and gaining [new hope in relationships, two cats, and the stove that was installed just last week], I gathered with a group of women to pause and acknowledge the miraculous God who has sustained us through the unprecedented, empowered us to do the ordinary, and miraculously blessed us in our relationships.

On Sunday morning, I sat in my hotel bed with Brene’ Brown’s Atlas of the Heart and opened to where I had left off –chapter 9, “Places We Go When We Search for Connection.” I had just spent the previous day in the book of Ephesians, examining the messy ways that we connect with those around us and the grace of God to show up in the midst of that mess. I could barely take in Brene’s words because I was stunned by the realization of how God had once again divinely stepped into the circumstances of my life — my messy, messy life — and had provided the grace for us to show up for others when we ourselves were depleted, how He had worked miraculous healing in the midst of our brokenness, and how He had then provided a place among women I trust so that I could pause and realize that He has surrounded me with love, acceptance, and grace. He has shown me once again that I belong.

And it was just the balm I needed, just the peek of sunlight that was able to brighten up a gloomy April weekend after two difficult years. Maybe it’s what we all need in the wake of this long hard season– some connection, some acceptance, some belonging, some grace.

Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another.”

Ephesians 4:32

An Emotional Legacy

I don’t know about you, but I grew up not knowing how to manage or speak about my emotions.

It’s no one’s fault really.

My parents grew up without much permission to feel their emotions, much less talk about them. It was a symptom of the times, I guess. Their parents, my grandparents, had been born circa World War I and had come of age during the Depression. Their lives were marked by national trauma, but certainly they were not given the space to express their feelings, let alone get therapy or any kind of professional support.

In fact, their parents, my great grandparents, or their parents before them, had experienced trauma of their own, having immigrated from Germany, some by way of Russia, to the US. Imagine what that must’ve been like — traveling by ship across the ocean, not knowing what you would find on the other side! My grandparents were raised by folks who had what it took to take huge risks but who likely didn’t put words to their feelings — the courage they must’ve had, the fear, the excitement, and the exhilaration. And they didn’t likely have the time or wherewithal to explore the devastation they experienced once they were settling and growing their families during the uncertainty of World War I and the Depression, so my grandparents learned from their parents how to survive, how to do without, how to make do; they did not learn how to explore their emotions. They likely tucked them deep inside.

They carried residual trauma and latent emotions into their marriages where they had baby after baby and worked their keisters off to provide house and home and a better life than they had had. They put a meal on the table and clothes on their children’s backs, and for that, those children ought to be grateful. End of story.

My parents, the ones who ought to be grateful, were born circa World War II, another national trauma. My grandmother, my mom’s mom, once showed me the ration books she had kept that allowed her just so much coffee, sugar, and stockings while she was raising small children, wearing a dress and heels, mind you, and keeping her house just so. Having stuffed her own childhood traumas deep inside, she was ill-equipped to provide much empathy or compassion to her own children. Her husband, one of eleven children raised by sugar beet farmers, became a successful salesman who brought home the bacon and often last-minute dinner guests. Little Grandma, as we called her, was responsible for being always ready with a picture-perfect house, an exquisite meal, and well-behaved children. If those children had feelings, they’d better check them at the door. My mother tells stories of high expectations and little tolerance for not rising to meet them.

My dad was one of six children. His father worked for the same company my maternal grandfather worked for. My grandmother stayed home, making homemade lye soap, and attending to the needs of all those open mouths and hands. She, too, had lived through her own childhood traumas, though she never spoke of them. Her clinical depression was so severe that she had endured shock treatments. When I knew her, she was mostly silent, mostly bedridden, with a quiet smile covering God only knows what buried emotions. My dad was the youngest of those six. He tells stories of playing in the neighborhood, of having a paper route, of going off to the Marines, but not too much about his interactions with his parents or siblings. He has been, most of my life, successful, content, and optimistic. I’ve seen little evidence of negative emotions or hurt.

Nevertheless, I suspect that my mom and dad, raised by parents with few emotional tools, endured their own childhood traumas, although they wouldn’t call them that, and likely would deny even now that anything they experienced was “all that bad.”

They married young, of course, and had a houseful of kids. They worked hard to provide for their needs as their parents had done for them and to create a home and family. Alas, generations of trauma were coming home to roost. Ill-equipped to process their latent emotions along with the growing demands of four small children, they managed in their own ways and ultimately divorced.

I was in elementary school when they split, and life as I perceived it — nuclear family, ranch-style house down the street from my school, neighbors I’d know all my life — was disassembled. This was, of course, the largest disruption of my life. We didn’t really talk about it as a family, at least not in my memory. No one knew how. How could they?

Here’s the thing though, whether we talk about it or not, trauma has an impact. We have emotional and physical responses whether we can articulate them or not. I can’t speak for my siblings, but I know I felt all kinds of things. I was stunned with disbelief. I remember telling a classmate “My parents will never get a divorce” just weeks before I found out that they were, in fact, divorcing. I had to figure out what my new reality meant. I remember a conversation with my older sister where I told her that I didn’t have a dad any more. She assured me that I would “always have a dad.”

I had all kinds of feelings for years and years. I could flip from extremely happy to extremely angry in seconds. I could spend whole days brooding. I cried easily, laughed loudly, loved fiercely, and got devastatingly hurt, but I didn’t know what to do with all those emotions.

The message I got from my family and friends was that I needed to quiet down, quit crying so much, and get over it, but no matter how hard I tried, those feelings weren’t going anywhere.

I tried a few coping strategies — drinking, anorexia, and academic overachievement — but those only temporarily numbed the feelings which I would eventually have to take out, examine, and process many years later.

Unfortunately for my children, some of that unpacking is happening now, after they are gone living their lives, trying to find words and expression for their own emotions and their own childhood traumas.

I’m sure I’m not alone — growing up with limited emotional vocabulary to process myriad emotional experiences — but it doesn’t have to be this way. We can, in the midst of our own international crisis find the language and the space to loosen up generations of tamped-down trauma, drag it out into the open, examine it carefully, and give it — finally — some language.

Why would we want to do this? Why would we want to dredge up old hurts, expose old wounds, and revisit decades-old losses? Because in seeing, in speaking, in acknowledging the devastation, there is healing, connection, restoration, and hope.

How do I know? I’ve been on this journey for a while now, and I have found myself coming into wholeness, of being able to feel deeply from a whole menu of emotions — joy, sadness, anger, happiness, sorrow, disappointment, and the like. I’ve been learning Emotions 101 in my fifties, and then recently, a friend suggested I read Brene’ Brown’s Atlas of the Heart, and only two chapters in, I know I’m moving into an advanced course. I’m pulling experiences out of my rucksack again and I’m seeing more complexity, finding deeper understanding, and moving through another wave of grief and recovery.

It’s hard. I’ve been triggered this past couple of weeks. I’ve had some painful flashbacks. I’ve connected some dots that I hadn’t even noticed before. I’ve found myself aching.

But, look, generations have not had the ability to look at individual or collective pain — they’ve not been able to fully grieve. They’ve merely shoved their hurts aside and ‘gotten on’. And we’re the worse for it, aren’t we?

Isn’t it time we tried a different way? Can’t we imagine a richer life for those who come along after us? Wouldn’t it be lovely to start a new legacy?

He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”

Psalm 147:3

Open Wound, an allegory*

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*allegory, a symbolic fictional narrative that conveys a meaning not explicitly set forth in the narrative

Her wound was open. She sat, sobbing.

It wasn’t the first time. Although it had scabbed over time and again since the injury was first sustained, it could be torn open with the slightest impact, even now, decades later.

She’d been a child when the initial blow had been dealt and her still-young flesh had first been split open. The pain had been stunning — it had shoved her back, and she had sat, a child, weeping on the floor, holding her chest, trying to stop the hemorrhaging.

After she had tired from much sobbing and flailing about, it had subsided — the pain, the bleeding — receding to a dull but ever present ache.

Since then, she had carried it around with her, this bruised and tender flesh,

It was the kind of injury that never fully heals, the experts had said. Even when sustained during the growing years, the body — the heart — could not regenerate enough cells to fully heal the damage that had been done.

The injury would remain, opening up from time to time. Then, new cells would form to stop the bleeding, to cover over the gaping wound. She’d use caution, covering the tender area with a protective layer, shielding it from subsequent blows, learning to avoid danger, developing a keen defensive awareness.

She’d be so careful, so vigilant, that she could even believe the spirit-altering injury might actually be healing. The pain would subside, and she would become hopeful that she would never again shed tears, never again ache, never again sob with the pain or even the memory of the pain.

But then, from out of nowhere — but often from somewhere familiar — a pointed blade would find its way through her armor, past layers of clothing, beneath the dressings, to pierce the flesh. Just like that, the wound would be torn open and she would crumble again, down, down, down, weeping, sobbing, holding her heart, and begging for the pain to stop,

In the early years, not long after the wound had first been dealt, she would, in pain, lash out — swinging and flailing at those closest, begging them to join her in the misery. Over the years, however, she learned this strategy was ineffective — it did not diminish her own hurt, but rather multiplied it. Instead of joining her in her pain, the others turned away, kept their distance, isolating her, piling guilt and regret on top of pain, and leaving those she loved with their own wounds to tend.

Later, as she aged, when certainly, she thought, this decades-old injury had to be fully healed, she could still be brought low by a stray arrow, an unintended blow that nevertheless grazed the tender flesh, re-opening the wound.

It was open now. The middle-aged heart had been hit, and it was laid bare.

Seeping.

Throbbing.

Reminding her of the many years of pain, many years of tears, many years of swallowing feelings past a tightened aching throat.

She lay supine, futilely wiping away an unstoppable deluge of tears, fighting against the years of pain — still not wanting to feel it — still not wanting to admit I’m hit! I’m hurt! I’m bleeding! I’m suffering!

Those standing over her, observing her as she lie bleeding, sobbing, say her wound, her perpetually open wound, informs her compassion, gives her language to comfort others with the comfort she herself has received, but that is little consolation when the tenuous flesh has been recently sliced, when the blood is dripping on the floor, when she is doubled over, trying desperately to silence her own cries.

Nevertheless she hears.

She admits they are right.

Her pain does give her compassion for others.

She sighs in resignation, then does what she has always done.

She rises.

She sits up, dabbing at the now-congealing blood,

taking a sip of cool water,

applying fresh dressings,

washing her face,

combing her hair.

Then, as she examines herself in the mirror, she hears a still small voice, “Do not be afraid; do not discouraged, for I am with you wherever you go.”

“I know,” she says, nodding, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye, “I know.”

And she, carrying the open wound with her, steps back into the land of the living.

Teacher Tired

Click the arrow to listen to me read this post.

It was a long first quarter.

We started school on September 7 and went straight through without a break. Outside of a week and a half of virtual instruction due to a high number of Covid cases, we were in the building with our students, following Covid protocols, managing the movements of a few hundred teenagers who are struggling to re-acclimate to the structures of school, and — oh, yeah — trying to provide high quality instruction.

Then, this past week was extra busy.

Monday, I drove home after school to log on to a short informational meeting about a Social-Emotional Learning pilot program we are starting next week. Would I be willing to be a participating instructor? Tuesday, I left school early so that I could be home for an online training from 3:30-5:00. Then, Wednesday, when we see all of our classes on a shortened schedule of seven forty-minute periods, we stayed late for in-person parent-teacher conferences. The school provided pizza and salad at 2pm, then we stationed ourselves at tables in the gym, and met with parents to discuss their students’ progress.

I had arrived at school at 7:30am; I left the building at 6:15 pm.

Thursday, I was up at 5 to do my morning routine, wanting to be in the right headspace before I taught three 100-minute blocks. I arrived at school at my usual 7:30 and was making last-minute preparations in my classroom when I saw my principal at my classroom door.

“Rathje, let me talk to you for a minute,” she said, as she pulled two other colleagues from across the hall to join us. “I just want to let you know,” she said, “that tomorrow we will be virtual. Be sure to take everything you need with you tonight. We won’t be back in the building until after Thanksgiving.”

“That’s amazing!” I blurted, and I kind of surprised myself. I have so loved being back with the students. We have learned more together in one quarter of in-person instruction than we learned in the whole of last year. I know every face and every name. I’m familiar with personalities, quirks, strengths, and challenges. I can anticipate which class is going to be a challenge to keep awake and which class is going to be a challenge to keep in their seats, on-task, and engaged.

If I love it so much, why was I so happy to be going virtual for the last day before the break? Because I was exhausted.

I’m not the only one. Teachers across the country are wiped out. We knew this year would be challenging, but we could not have know what all would be entailed. We knew that we would be re-acclimating students to schedules, to classrooms, to mask-wearing, and to seven-hour school days, but I’m not sure we fully pictured the volatility of emotions we would see in a school full of teenagers who have lived through the multiple traumas of a pandemic — how quick these kids would be to lash out, to cry, to completely check out. We knew in-person teaching, talking through a mask for the full day, would be a different kind of tired, but I, for one, never imagined that we would be short-staffed for the entire first quarter. Could I have guessed that my prep periods would sometimes be used to cover the class of another teacher? that we would fully employ not one but two building substitutes? that other schools would be cold-calling teachers on our staff, enticing them away with signing bonuses, higher pay, and grass that is much, much greener than ours?

Not even a little bit.

And though we started the year hoping and praying that Covid was winding down, officials are now saying that Michigan is in the “fourth surge” of the pandemic that “could last 4-5 months” (Fox 2 Detroit).

Teaching under these circumstances is stressful, and we are tired, folks. Teachers are tired.

So tired, in fact, that Detroit Public Schools have determined to be virtual every Friday in the month of December.

In a special announcement on the district’s website, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the decision was made “after listening and reflecting on the concerns of school-based leaders, teachers, support staff, students, and families regarding the need for mental health relief, rising COVID cases, and time to more thoroughly clean schools.” CBS Detroit.

School leaders are getting creative in order to hear the concerns of teachers and respond so that they can hang on to the ones that they still have. Our school, for example, announced before the school year began that they were issuing retention bonuses to all returning staff — the longer you’ve been on staff, the higher the bonus. Then, last week, they announced a mid-year pay bump for all staff, paid out in two installments over the coming months. Additionally, to discourage absenteeism, our school leaders offered a raffle wherein each teacher receives an entry for each day they attend and those with perfect attendance receive 25 bonus entries. Next week during our two professional development days, three names will be drawn, and winners will receive $100, $40, or $25. To build collegiality and team spirit, our building principal initiated a team-based contest — daily challenges encourage teacher teams to complete tasks, take photos, and share them in our group chat, earning points toward a team prize.

Do teachers need all of this? Yes, we need every bit of it.

Teaching is not easy. For each 100-minute block with my students, I spend at least that much time in intellectual preparation, thinking about behavioral strategies to increase engagement and decrease undesirable behaviors, procuring incentives, meeting with other staff, attending professional development, and myriad other tasks. That’s in a normal year.

This year, we’ve had the added stress of Covid. In the beginning of the year, some students needed daily assurance that it was indeed safe to sit next to peers, masked, for an entire class period, and that we were doing everything we could to stop the spread. Other students (and some staff) needed constant reminders to keep their mask over their nose and mouth throughout the school day. All teachers have had to keep seating charts to enable contact-tracing when students test positive, which has happened continuously since school started. Then, when students are quarantining, teachers have the added load of making sure all assignments are posted online and that students who return to school having done no school work at all get caught back up. And perhaps the most stressful for me have been the almost daily group chats informing staff how many teachers, behaviorists, or administrators will be out for the day, because any time a team is down one man, the rest of the team has a larger load to carry, and sometimes we’ve been down four, or five or six staff members on a single day.

It’s been stressful, to be sure, but let me reiterate that I love my job. I seriously do. I believe that most teachers who are still showing up, still standing, still delivering instruction to their students, and still opening their doors before school or during lunch so that students can drop in desperately love their students. They drive home thinking about how a lesson went well or how it tanked. They lie awake at night creating new strategies for content delivery. They write long blog posts sharing what’s going on so that others will care about their kids, too.

And while certainly the public is aware that teachers have a hard job and that teachers are essential to our communities and society as a whole, it seems that rather than offering support, encouragement, or suggestions that might lighten the load, public discussion about education often misses the point. Before this school year started the public was up in arms about the alleged insidious introduction of Critical Race Theory into the curriculum and whether or not schools had the right to issue mask mandates. These discussions and the enflamed and politically-charged emotion around them did nothing to improve the actual day-to-day experience of teachers, let alone students. The problems in eduction aren’t that easy to solve.

Problems in education are complex and often grow out of inadequate funding, inequitable resources, and societal systems that need to be restructured because they are outdated, ineffective, and designed for an economy, a culture, that no longer exists. Nevertheless, teachers continue to show up to buildings in need of repair, to use materials that are out of date, and to give what they have for children that they care about. And we need them to.

We’ve been moving toward a teacher shortage for years, and Covid has exacerbated the problem. The teachers who are left in classrooms want to be there, but they won’t stay unless they are given what they need — community support, parental cooperation, adequate pay, and the kind of respite that comes from a Friday of virtual learning, a week off at Thanksgiving, and two more at Christmas. Teachers need us to acknowledge that the load is heavier than anyone thought, that continuing to teach and learn in the wake of widespread trauma is taxing, and that we don’t know what in the world we would do if every last teacher woke up tomorrow morning and said, “That’s it. I can’t do this any more.”

I’m not anywhere near that breaking point. I’m still glowing with joy over the fact that I get to be back in the classroom. However, countless teachers are standing on the edge, wondering how many more times they can show up for our kids. If you know teacher, even if he or she seems to be doing just fine, grab them a cup of coffee, a bottle of wine, or a dinner out. Let them know you appreciate the work they are doing. You just might get them through to Christmas.

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due when it is in your power to act.

Proverbs 3:27

Health Check

A friend asked me recently, “How are you doing with pain now that you’re back in the classroom?”

I appreciated her asking — it was an acknowledgement that she remembered how far I had come and that my move back to the classroom was not taken without much prayerful consideration regarding the impact such a move could have on my health after the years-long journey I have just taken.

It’s a good time to ask because a) last year wasn’t a real test since the students were learning from a distance and the physical demands were not as great and b) we’re now back in person, and the first quarter will end on Friday.

It’s an important question, too, because this blog started when I had to leave my teaching career due to health issues. I was struggling with pain, fatigue, and issues with my skin and eyes, and I just couldn’t bring quality care and instruction to my students in that condition.

My body, it seems, had gone on strike after years of overwork complicated by a failure to process my emotions or take care of myself. Inflammation was so prevalent in my body that I could feel it– it bubbled into my joints making them hot and stiff, it irritated my skin causing scaliness and itching, it inflamed my eyes sending me time and time again to a specialist for treatment.

Many times I’d landed on the couch or in my bed for days at a time. In the early years of my recovery, I had to lie down several times a day even though I slept 8-10 hours a night. I often found myself limping through the house or lying on the bathroom floor waiting to throw up. I was miserable, and I couldn’t imagine a time when I would be able to return to the rigor of the classroom.

However, over six long years, I learned strategies that began to reduce those symptoms and that have kept me on a path to improved health. Among those strategies is a diet that is rich fruits, vegetables, chicken, rice, and fish, and that avoids gluten, dairy, beans, and corn. I also exercise every day, write every day, and see a therapist, a physical therapist, a chiropractor, and a masseuse. When I do all of these things on a regular schedule, and get plenty of rest, I mostly stay well.

The progress has been slow and incremental, just as my return to working has been.

If you’ve been tracking the saga, you know that I didn’t work at all for six months, then I started by tutoring and proofreading. I moved on to part-time work in an educational agency, then progressed to teaching part-time as a college adjunct instructor. From there, I moved back to the agency and eventually worked full-time in a leadership role, but I still didn’t believe I would ever have the capacity to teach in a classroom full of students, managing their learning, their emotions, and their movements five days a week.

It was at this time, about almost six years into recovery, that Covid hit. We as a nation were knocked down by this highly contagious pandemic, and, as we social distanced from one another, we had some time and space within which other ailments — widespread poverty, systemic racism, educational inequity, and the like — became more evident.

The situation looked familiar to me because I had just lived through something similar — autoimmunity had knocked me down and forced me to take some time and space to recognize that I hadn’t been attending to my mental or physical health or to that of my family. I had to acknowledge that they were suffering, too.

And as I observed our nation’s symptoms in real time, something just clicked. It was like I had been training and preparing for this moment. I was in good shape and ready to step back in the ring, and if I was going to do it — if I was going to put myself out there and see if I still had the juice — I was going to do it in a place where I could turn the dial, be it ever so slightly, by identifying and using strategies that might reduce the impact of poverty, racism, and trauma for students who had been knocked down the hardest.

If you’ve been reading along for the last year, you know that I am intoxicated by the opportunity I’ve been given at Detroit Leadership Academy — I can’t keep my mouth shut about it.

But that didn’t answer my friend’s question, did it? How am I doing with pain now that I am back in the classroom full time?

I’d say I’m doing better than I might’ve hoped for. As I’m writing this, I’m tired, and I’m on the second day of a headache. I’m not surprised. It’s the weekend before the final week of the first quarter. We are still short one staff person, plus we’ve had one out due to Covid for over a week. I’m working in a setting that is rich with trauma and the impacts of trauma, and it shows. The students are tired, and worn, and often quite raw. I see all of this, and it weighs on my heart.

And, if I’ve learned anything through this journey, it’s that emotions are stored in the body. My students’ bodies show it, and my body shows it.

So, yes, I do have some pain — in my heart, but also almost always in my right sacroiliac joint, often in my low back, a little less in my hips and neck, and today in my head, and much to my dismay, my left eye.

That left eye — he’s the lookout — he always lets me know when I have pushed too far, when I need to take a down day, when I need to attend to self-care. Today I think he’s shouting because on top of a long week, I pushed a little further on Friday night, went out to dinner with my husband and a coworker, then travelled through a downpour to an away football game where my students were playing against a team with far greater resources — a well-lit turf field, cheerleaders, a marching band, and stands that were 1/3 full even in the downpour. Our side of the field had about a dozen fans including us. Our guys, after arriving late because the contracted transportation was late picking them up, fought hard, but they were outmatched; the final score was 42-6. The other team was jubilant — they had claimed their victory. Our team was despondent — their hopes were dashed. It felt emblematic of the divide in our country — the inequity of resources and opportunity I see in my work every day and the impact that inequity has on the lived experiences of students like mine. It was hard to watch.

We got home after 10:30, damp and chilled, and I crawled into bed to sleep. Through the night I felt a headache and some nausea. This morning, my body has the hum of inflammation — the heat and a quiet vibration that calls for my attention. Less subtly, my eye is shouting, “For the Love of God, take a break!”

So, I’m spending my morning writing and doing some yoga. Next, I’ll eat a breakfast of non-inflammatory foods, slowly go pick up some groceries, then come home, sit on the couch, and watch some football.

I’ll take the weekend to rest, recover, worship, and see some friends, and by Monday, I should be ready to step back into it again.

It takes vigilance to stay well — everyday attention to self care that puts the oxygen mask on myself before it dares to assist the person next to me. It’s counterintuitive to how I always imagined I was supposed to live — squaring my shoulders, gritting my teeth, muscling through, grinning and bearing it — and it’s a better, richer way.

I have way more gas in my tank, way more capacity to put my work down when students gather in my room like they did on Friday morning — a bunch of seniors huddled around my desk, asking for snacks, chatting, busting on each other, making me laugh.

Pain? Sure, I have pain; my students do, too. Somehow, we’ve landed in the same space, and we are learning how to be together, how to learn from each other, and, on the richest of days, how to laugh with one another.

For this, I am so thankful, and so committed to staying the course and attending to my wellness so that I can keep on showing up for these kids.

He picked me up

And He turned me around

And He placed my feet

On the solid ground

Hallelujah, hallelujah

Corey Asbury, “So Good To Me”

Supplied, Supported, and [almost] Ready

Click the arrow to listen to me read this post.

T minus eight days until the start of school and I’m like a 10 year old again — so excited!

Sure, Wayne County just announced that due to the recent uptick in Covid-19 cases, all teachers and students in the district will be fully masked throughout the school day.

Yes, a torrential downpour caused a flood in our school gym on Friday.

And, of course, we’re still looking to hire two staff members.

But am I bothered? No! I feel like the little girl whose mom just took her to the mall and bought her a first day of school outfit.

Why? Because I can hear you all cheering me on!

A few weeks ago, at the end of my post about Critical Race Theory, I shared that I had a wish list for my classroom. Several readers asked me to share it, and I have received almost everything on that list! I did not anticipate how much impact this would have on me emotionally! I feel buoyed your thoughtfulness and generosity!

For example, a couple of Lutheran educators from St. Louis, MO, who I have never met before, said they used to teach in Detroit and still have hearts for the kids in that community. They sent a check so that I could purchase 100 composition books!

Stacks of composition books and other supplies.

Each day, my students will spend 10 minutes of their 100 minute block writing in these composition books. I will put a prompt on the board and provide 10 minutes of silence during which I, too, will write. I will then share what I have written, to model, and then allow anyone else to share what they have written. This exercise, which takes a total of 20 precious minutes of class time, is invaluable. It not only builds writing muscle — the ability to put pen to paper for 10 solid minutes — it also exercises the students’ writing voices and, more importantly, cultivates community. When we share our thoughts and our stories with one another, we see one another’s humanity, and we begin to care for one another. This is critical in a classroom of developing writers who will have to share their writing often.

Another item on my wish list was highlighters. I asked for 90 sets of three colors — pink/blue/yellow, or green/orange/yellow. A friend texted that she wanted to purchase all of them, and that day, Amazon delivered a huge box to my door!

Bundles of highlighters.

These highlighters will be used in a couple of ways. For grammar instruction, I will have my students locate nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs, for example, in their journals. They will highlight the word, label it, write a definition in the margin, then add several more examples. We will also use the highlighters to identify sentences, fragments, and run-ons. Later, when we are writing paragraphs and essays, students will identify their thesis and topic sentences in blue/green, their examples in pink/orange, and their explanation/elaboration in yellow.

Another item I asked for was individually wrapped snacks because teenagers are always hungry. They stop by before, during, and after school asking, “Mrs. Rathje, you got anything to eat?” I have always tried to keep something edible in my classroom because if you feed them, they will come. Seeing my request, a friend and a family member each dropped off Costco-sized boxes of granola bars and multi-packs of popcorn. A few other friends sent cash which will help me stay supplied.

My stash of granola bars.

I am not only stocked on snacks, but I was also able to use some of the cash that was donated to purchase large variety packs of candy which I will use as rewards/incentives for completing assignments, arriving on time, and quickly resolving conflict. I also always make sure I have plenty of chocolate to encourage other teachers in the building.

I hauled all this stuff to my classroom including several prizes donated by a family member — McDonald’s gift cards, some pop sockets, chapsticks, and the like — and found designated spaces to store it all. I was feeling pretty good about my supplies, and then, when I got home on Friday, I found a large package on my front porch.

A high school friend, who I don’t think I’ve seen in thirty-seven years, had said she was sending a few things; when I opened the box and laid its contents out on the office floor, I was overwhelmed.

A huge supply of feminine hygiene products.

She had sent boxes and boxes of feminine hygiene products, dozens of trial sized lotions and hand sanitizers, several chapsticks, packages of gum, mints, and granola bars, and some cash, in case I needed anything else. She said she “had some things sitting around just waiting to be used” and that “kids deserve to have the necessities of life…whether their parents can afford it or not.”

They sure do.

This is the family of God, my friends. People from across the country — Wisconsin, Missouri, Minnesota, and Michigan — giving what they have to meet a need. My classroom is now more than well-stocked and ready to receive a group of seniors that haven’t seen the inside of a classroom since March of 2020. As they arrive, I want them to know that I, that we, have been thinking about them, that we have prepared for them, and that we are anticipating their needs before they even walk in the room.

You have helped me do that — you have partnered with me to show my students that they are valuable.

They don’t always get that message, to be sure. And in the last eighteen months, they have lived through more than their fair share of challenges. I know they are going to have some anxiety about coming back after such a long absence, so I’ve created a ‘chill’ spot at one end of my room.

My chill spot.

The chill spot is a place my students can move to if they are feeling anxious, angry, or upset in any way. It has tissue, paper, pens, crayons and colored pencils, coloring sheets, beautiful artwork from @mrjohnsonpaints, and some recommendations for how to regain calm. This idea is not mine; most of the teachers in my building have a chill spot. We operate under the assumption that all of our students have experienced trauma — now more than ever — so we are preparing in advance to make sure they can feel safe.

Providing for student needs — food, safety, school supplies — lays the foundation for learning. Job one is showing students that they matter, and as you have cheered me along, not only with gifts and donations, but also with so many words of encouragement and likes and shares of my blog post, you have agreed with me that they do.

My students matter, and this work matters.

They may come in grumbling and complaining. Why can’t we just stay virtual? Why is this classroom so hot? Why do I have to write in this stupid notebook? They are teenagers after all, and teenagers always grumble during change.

But I’m excited! I’ll put on my first day of school outfit and bounce into my classroom next week, ready to receive them, whether they are grumbling or not.

My enthusiasm may need to carry us for a while, so thanks for cheering me on. I didn’t know how much I need you.

…the Father knows what you need before you ask Him.

Matthew 6:8

P.S. If you know a teacher, send them a little extra love at any time, but especially during that first week of class this year. (A gift card to Starbucks or Target, some chocolate, or some fresh flowers just might make the difference.)