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.

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Creativity

Just under two years ago, as I said goodbye to teaching in St. Louis so that I could move to Michigan with my husband, I imagined that I would take four to six months to rest and recover and then I would find a job and get back to some kind of ‘normal’ life.  My limited view couldn’t see what God had planned for me.  I couldn’t imagine how He would allow me to experiment with different types and levels of employment so that I could see for myself what would be fulfilling, draining, energizing, depleting… I couldn’t envision a life where I would have so much freedom to learn and grow.  I couldn’t see how He could provide for us financially, so He had to show me.

In the past two years I have worked for Reuters as an election agent, tutored students in English, writing, reading, study skills and test preparation, participated in intensive reading and writing instruction, edited everything from a young adult novel to a Master’s thesis on cancer-treating drugs, scored standardized math assessments, and taught college-level writing and literature courses.

And though that sounds like a lot, I’ve had the luxury of making new friends, participating in a regular Bible study, joining a new church family, working out consistently at a local gym, reading dozens of books, visiting family across the state, exploring Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti with my husband, and providing a refuge for my daughters as they navigated some difficult life situations.  Not only that, I’ve had time to experiment with medical strategies — discarding some, embracing others — to find ways to feel better both physically and emotionally.

Much of that journey has been chronicled in this blog. I think I started writing imagining that I would arrive at a destination — that I would someday get to “The Next Chapter.” However, I think the theme of this chapter is learning to live in the process, to trust that God knows what is coming next and He is preparing me for it. I’m learning to not look too far ahead, but to enjoy each moment.

This morning, I was supposed to be doing some online scoring, but ETS contacted me and said that due to reduced volume, I was not needed and would still receive half of my pay for the morning.  So, I stayed in bed reading a great book a little longer than usual.  I got up, straightened the kitchen, made my tea, and picked up my old faithful devotional, Whispers of Hope by Beth Moore.  After having set it down for a while to study Hosea and Breathe, I turned to the first page to start my third journey through this book.

Was I surprised that the message applied directly to my life? Not really.  I’m starting to expect it.  I no longer get stunned when I see a message like this: “What God is doing in your life right now may not make sense to you, but it’s not because He’s nonsensical.  It’s because He’s creative…In His wisdom God knew [His creation] was good because He knew what was coming next.  He knows what’s coming next for you…Give God room to be completely creative.”

Two years ago, I had no idea what was coming next.  It was pure obedience (plus exhaustion and a touch of desperation) to move here with no plan. Granted, He had made it quite obvious that we should take this leap of faith by providing a position that was custom-crafted for my husband in Michigan, which we both call home, but still, for a chronic planner and do-er, it was a totally new experience.

What God was doing in our lives did not make sense to me, but it wasn’t because He was nonsensical.  It was because He had a creative response to my self-destructive soldiering ways. He had information that was beyond my scope.  He knew what was coming next. And in my exhaustion, I was willing to allow him the room to be completely creative.

Guess how creative He is — He’s giving me the opportunity to teach high school students from across the country and around the world this summer at the University of Michigan. I’ll get to speak into their writing process and, hopefully, into their lives.  He’s allowing me to lead three sections of writing at Concordia in the fall — a three-minute walk from my kitchen to my classroom. And – gasp – He’s orchestrated an opportunity for my husband and me to chaperone a group of students to Israel for two weeks in January!

Could I have imagined all of that two short years ago? Not in a million years.  I was picturing myself shelving books at the public library. Not that that would’ve been a bad gig; perhaps that’ll be the next Next Chapter.  For now, I’m pretty content in this chapter and grateful to its Author.

Jeremiah 29:11

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord

“plans to prosper you and not to harm you,

plans to give you a hope and a future.”

 

 

 

Sharing oxygen

Did you ever think about how many you share oxygen with during the week? Some weeks the number is higher than others.  This has been one of those weeks!

On Sunday we were with my in-laws in the Thumb of Michigan.  We worshipped with them at their little Lutheran church. In that small space we shared oxygen with about a hundred people — among them were a former college classmate, two additional relatives, and a young woman who is looking for her first job after college.

On Monday I got to share oxygen with an eye doctor who is doing his fellowship at the University of Michigan, a nurse, and a cornea specialist.  Then, I was able to share food and laughter with several of my husband’s coworkers.

Tuesday I had the blessing of inhaling hope at my physical therapist’s office, exhaling stress at the gym, and then breathing calmly over a table at a library where I leaned in with two students — a woman from Romania who is studying to become a nurse and a man from China who is an automotive engineer.

Wednesday the sweet aroma of my Bible study battalion filled me up before I headed to meet three more students — all children of Indian professionals, eagerly breathing and learning with me.

Thursday, back at the gym, I panted and sweat among many I do not know. Then, I was refreshed by sharing space with my chiropractor and his office manager before I headed to meet another student — a  Chinese man who shared the aroma of my tea and his goals for improving his English.

This morning, my dog and I are sharing space and oxygen.  We are snuggled in together on the futon. He’s been patient with me as I have read my Bible study, chatted on Facebook, and responded to emails.  He knows that in a while I will leave him so that I can sit beside two more students this afternoon — an International college student and an American high school student.

Then tomorrow I will be surrounded again at the gym before I share space, ideas, and air with, first, a Jamaican woman and , then, an Indian young man.

Many times throughout the week, my husband and I have sat side-by-side, often exhausted after very full days, breathing deeply, drinking in each other’s quiet company.

I’ve shared a lot of oxygen this week.   And in all of my encounters, I have not had one single conflict.  I have not felt betrayed. I have not been abused.  I have not been taken advantage of.  I have not been intimidated or afraid. Rather, I have been encouraged, inspired, enriched, and blessed.

It’s worth noticing, don’t you think? It’s worth reporting on a life so blessed.

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

Psalm 150:6