Coronavirus Diary #21: Tales told in School

Click the arrow to listen, or read on.

Last Monday morning, I logged into my Zoom room around 8:25am — my senior English class starts at 8:30. I was checking my online grade book for attendance, cuing up my Google slideshow, and verifying that all my other visual aids were loaded and ready to go when my ‘doorbell’ rang and I noticed that Kelvin* was waiting to come in. I clicked the ‘admit’ button and watched my screen to see his window open.

“Good morning, Kelvin, how are you?” I said.

“I’m good,” he answered.

“Nice to see you.”

“Nice to see you, too.”

“Did you have a good weekend?” I asked, hoping that he would engage in conversation with me, trying to build relationship in this virtual space.

“Yeah, it was good. Do you have Ciara* in your class, too?”

“Yes — next hour.”

“She won’t be here today,” he said.

“Oh?” I answered, looking into the screen.

“Yeah, we had our baby this weekend, so she won’t be able to come to class.”

“You did? Congratulations!” I had known that Ciara was expecting, but I had not been aware that Kelvin was, too.

He held up his phone to his Chromebook camera so that I could barely make out a photo of a baby.

“Aw! So sweet! Are Ciara and the baby doing well?”

“Yeah, they’re doing good.”

“That’s great.” I said, and then the doorbell rang, I allowed the next student in, and we were on with the class — one young man, sitting in his bedroom, looking at a photo on his phone and me teaching the group how to present their research by creating a Google slide. Despite the fact that one student’s life changed forever over the weekend, we still have to move forward with the rest of the class.

If we were in a physical space, I’d have probably hunted down Kelvin later in the day — invited him to come have lunch in my room, given him one of the many gifts I have stockpiled for such an occasion, or just patted him on the back and encouraged him to take care of that baby. But we aren’t in a physical space — all I have are the moments that students choose to log in to my Zoom room. That’s it.

Me in my Zoom Room.

Ciara emailed me on Wednesday afternoon.

“I am sorry I have not been in class this week. I had my baby over the weekend, but I want to know what I missed so that I can get caught up.”

“Congratulations, Ciara! I hope you and the baby are doing well. If you are up to coming to class tomorrow morning, I can help you get caught up. Or, you could come to my office hours on Friday afternoon — whichever works better for you. Take care of yourself.”

“Thank you, I will do that.”

And the next morning, at 10:00am, she joined my class.

I’ve been watching Ciara all fall, ever since I called her mom during the first week of class to introduce myself, to let her know what our class would be focusing on, and to make note of the fact that Ciara wasn’t always turning her camera on when she joined the Zoom room. Her mom told me that Ciara was expecting and that she was working long hours at McDonald’s after school, so she often just woke up in the morning, turned on her laptop, and joined the Zoom room from bed. She didn’t want to take the time to get cleaned up, do her hair, and present herself for inspection.

I was stunned, of course. It was September, and although we weren’t yet in the third wave of the pandemic like we are now, the risk was still very real. And yet this young woman was going to work at a McDonald’s every day, seven months pregnant, so that she could earn some money to manage her very real impending responsibilities.

I’ve continued to watch Ciara, as she’s shown up to class, completed her assignments, and joined our virtual college visits every Wednesday. Not only does she join these visits, but she routinely asks college representatives if they offer family housing on their campuses because she is planning to bring her baby with her when she comes to college. This girl has a plan, and she impresses me.

And she’s not the only student who impresses me. My students live in Detroit, are surviving a pandemic, and are facing unprecedented stress and uncertainty, yet they keep showing up.

Some show up intermittently. I talked to a parent of one of my students last week. She’s concerned about her son. He has “changed ever since the pandemic started.” He wants to stay in his room. He doesn’t want to talk. He’s failing his classes.

He’s not alone. Many students — and, let’s be honest, adults — are struggling with depression. Many feel isolated — they are struggling financially, they have struggled with their health, they have lost loved ones, and nothing feels right. Why would they care about school at a time like this?

I asked the parent if she would mind if the school social worker reached out to her, and she answered, “I’m looking for any help I can get.” At my suggestion and her insistence, her son joined my office hours the next day. He and I worked through some assignments, restored his grade to passing, and got to know each other a little. Before he logged off, he said, “Thank you. I appreciate it.”

“It’s my pleasure,” I replied. He has no idea how pleased I am to bear witness to his journey and the journeys of all of my students.

Early this week, one of my students, Kyla*, asked if she could come to my office hours. She didn’t need help, she just wanted to be “in” my Zoom room while she did her work. She asked only a couple quick questions as she sat in my Zoom room for 90 minutes, working on her assignment and chatting with another student she convinced to join her.

On Thursday, Kyla logged into class and said, “Mrs. Rathje, I just want to let you know that we are having a family emergency, so if I need to leave, I will let you know in the chat.”

“Ok, thank you for letting me know. Are you ok?”

“Yes. I’m ok.”

“Alright, just keep me posted.”

“Ok, thank you.”

Near the end of the hour, she private chatted me that she had to go to the hospital to see her mother who sounded like she was in critical condition. I told her thank you for letting me know and that she could reach out if she needed to.

Then on Friday, the last day of school before a week-long break, she joined my office hours again, just to get some work done, like she did before. I chatted with her a bit, to see how she was doing, you know, making small talk.

And that is when I found out that since early in the week, this seventeen year old has been home alone with her two dogs. Her mom has been in intensive care, and she hasn’t been allowed to visit because she’s only 17 and we’re in the middle of a pandemic. She said she’s been taking care of the house and the dogs and that she put up the Christmas tree because Christmas means a lot to her mom and she wanted to do something nice for her.

These are my students — the kind of students who become parents on Saturday and then show up for school on Monday, the kind of kids who go out in the middle of a pandemic to make fast food because they need to earn money, the kind of kids who show up for help when it’s the last thing they want to do, the kind of kids who, while staying home alone because their only parent is in the hospital, find a way to have an adult in the room while they do their homework.

They are the future — these kids. They are building muscle and resiliency that will serve them for years to come, and they need us. They need us to show up five minutes early in a Zoom room, to hold after school office hours, to call their parents when things don’t seem right, and to respond to their emails and give them options for how to manage their responsibilities.

And that’s what I get to do every day — show up and do what I can to encourage these amazing students.

It is truly my pleasure to do so.

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

Proverbs 3:27

*All student names have been changed, of course.

Trying to be Kind

Always try to be kind to each other.

I Thessalonians 5:15

It’s really not hard — being kind.

It’s not.

For some of you, this is not a revelation. You’ve been being kind to others since your kindergarten teacher expected you to share and take turns: “First Johny gets to use the swing, then when he’s done, Susie can have a turn.”

Some of you said, “Oh, I get it!” and you went on to patiently stand in line at the drinking fountain, to raise your hand and speak only when the teacher called on you, to say “Please, may I borrow the stapler,” and “thank you for holding the door,” from that time forward.

You invited people to play kickball at recess, you put your arm around a friend who skinned her knee, you loaned a pencil to the boy who sat next to you, and brought an extra cookie in your lunch bag for a friend.

But some of us — some of us — lost our way.

Sure, we could wait for the swing, but when we got our turn, we stayed swinging a little too long. We didn’t care about those in line behind us and perhaps even found pleasure in making them wait. We blurted out our answers in class, talked over others, and pushed our way to the front of all the lines.

We had the answers, after all. We were strong, and we were right. We knew where we were going and what we were doing; why shouldn’t we lead? Why wouldn’t we speak? Why couldn’t we take charge?

It’s not that we were trying to be mean; we were just not trying to be kind.

We were doing what we knew how to do: answer the questions, get what we needed, take control of the situation.

But we weren’t always kind.

I, for one, confess to sometimes being downright mean. I’ve laughed at the expense of others and taken more than my fair share — of popcorn, of opportunity, of oxygen. I’ve been sarcastic, vindictive, and careless. I’ve shot off my mouth, sent daggers with my eyes, and literally shoved and swatted to get my own way.

When I could’ve — should’ve — been kind.

And when, after years of pushing through, overpowering, and taking more than my fair share, I was knocked down, benched, and sidelined, I sat there stunned, hurting, and unable to continue.

And what did I find? People who were kind. They showed up, called, sent flowers and food, listened, and cried with me.

And do you know what happened? I softened. I slowed. I began to discover myself being kind — finding space and time for others, sliding over, sharing my popcorn, shutting up, and listening.

It’s really not hard.

I find it quite interesting that the last two professional positions I’ve held have been with organizations that prioritize (even demand) kindness.

When I was hired by Lindamood-Bell, I was stunned by the celebratory and kind culture that I found myself working in. (I wrote about it here.) After having spent several months on the bench, luxuriating in the kindness of newly found friends, I found myself working in an environment where I was expected to practice kindness, positivity, and praise.

I’d lost my way through years of soldiering on, fighting my way through, doing what I knew how to do to make myself heard, get what I needed, and take control of the situation, and I was being given an opportunity to find my way back.

And I did find my way back. While working at Lindamood-Bell, my world crumbled apart. My family was in tatters, and I was lying amid the wreckage, wounded and weeping. I would drag myself out of bed, shower and dress, and autopilot my way into work, to find my colleagues cheering and supporting, offering gifts of tea and chocolate, extending a tissue for my tears, and rallying behind me as I healed. They modeled kindness for me and provided the space — and the expectation — for me to share that kindness to my students and coworkers. They helped me find my way back.

And now — now! — I find myself with Equity Education whose entire mission is to extend kindness to those who have been overlooked and marginalized. They do that by using a model called the No-nonsense Nurturer (NNN), which “empowers teachers to establish a positive classroom culture in which all students are set up to succeed.” Before I even entered the classroom, I received hours and hours of training in this framework which was then modeled throughout two solid weeks of collaborative professional development.

The NNN framework sets clear expectations and provides supports for students (and their teachers) to meet those expectations. It provides reinforcement for those who meet the expectations and firm but kind redirection for those who don’t. NNN is not focused on a few students getting what they need and rising to the top; no — its aim is to get 100% of students in every class meeting expectations that will lead to their academic — and later professional — success. It’s not for the few who would talk over the others and push and claw their way to the top. No, it’s for all. And any strategy that is focused on the achievement, the success, the well-being of all, is going to require kindness, patience, and encouragement.

Those who struggle won’t “step up their game” if they are brow-beaten and humiliated, but they will get off the bench and get back in the game when they are shown kindness — when others come beside them, encourage them, provide them tea and chocolate, tissue for their tears, and the practical and emotional support they need to take another swing.

When I was knocked down, no one shook their finger at me and told me that if I’d just tried harder I wouldn’t have ended up in that difficult situation. No one told me it was my own fault or judged me for landing on the couch, doubled over and in distress.

No, they extended kindness.

On Friday, I was in a Zoom Room with two freshmen. One shows up on time every single day with her work done and her questions ready. The other is late every time, has a young cousin raucously playing in the same room, has adults yelling in the background, and often needs me to repeat directions, support his work, and allow him extra time. I could take a hard line approach — I could say, “You’re late! Why isn’t your assignment done? Can’t you find a quieter room to work in? Come on, you need to catch up!” But wouldn’t it be just as easy to say, “I’m so glad you are here. Show me what you have. What do you need? How can I support you?”

Which way do you picture will yield the best results?

See? It’s not hard.

This lesson doesn’t need to stay in the classroom, does it? All around us are people waiting in line, crying on couches, and struggling to find the space to learn and to grow. It’s pretty easy to step aside, to let someone in, to offer a hand, to lend an ear, to encourage, to cheer… to be kind.

You want to go back to the classroom? Now?

I keep hearing this question (even if it’s sometimes left unsaid): Why would I leave a perfectly decent job to go back to the classroom? why now — in the middle of a pandemic?

It’s a great question, and the most honest answer I have is that, if it weren’t for the pandemic, I don’t know if I would be going back to the classroom.

After two and a half years at Lindamood-Bell, I was finally learning all the ropes, and I had finally been granted the opportunity to work with the Lindamood-Bell for Schools program in its partnership with the Fort Smith, Arkansas schools. I’d been learning to use Zoom to join a teacher and her class to provide instructional coaching and in-the-moment changes to instructional plans, and I was loving this collaboration. It was reasonable to expect that if I stayed with the company I would be able to do more of this kind of work, and I was excited about that. Also, I had a solid caseload of students (and their families) who I’d been working with for a couple of years — designing and implementing instruction and even collaborating with the schools these students attended. I was finding a way to use my years of experience and to continue to grow.

The pay was fine, the work was challenging, and my body, which had rebelled in my former life as teacher, administrator, mother, wife, and denier of emotions, seemed to be able to manage the pace and the stress.

I really had no serious intention of pursuing anything different.

And then, in mid-March, it became apparent that we were going to take all of our equipment and materials home and we were going to work remotely until further notice. This was actually fine, too. In fact, Lindamood-Bell, I felt, did a great job of getting us all home, digitizing all of our resources, and providing (ahead of any mandates) additional sick time and vacation time. I probably could’ve continued to work with students remotely — from my home office — indefinitely.

Like everyone, I shifted my lifestyle — wore more comfortable clothing (which I lovingly refer to as my Covid uniform), went for more walks, cooked more meals to eat at home, and watched more television including the daily news reports.

I (like most quarantined humans) watched George Floyd die, and it looked too much like watching Michael Brown dying. I saw Ahmaud Arbery get gunned down, and he looked like people I know. I saw Rayshard Brooks shift from a man who’d fallen asleep in his car, to a man aware that his life was in jeopardy, to a dead man through the lens of someone’s cell phone, and I was horrified by the world we are living in — where in the space of a few weeks we repeatedly bore witness to the senseless killing of black men — black men who didn’t have to die.

Night after night my husband and I watched news reports and protests; every day I saw friends, former students, and my own children, posting on social media and reminding me that this is not new. Senseless deaths, not to mention broad and systemic mistreatment, of people of color happen every day in the United States, and they’ve been happening since the first slaves were dragged off boats onto the shores of this sweet land of liberty and beaten if they did not do the work that their white masters demanded they do.

In many ways, a white police officer kneeling on the neck of a black man, smiling toward the camera, is just one more slave owner demanding that the black man do what he says or pay the price and be punished within the gaze of all the other slaves so that they will know their place and learn to comply.

In this climate I was sitting in my home office every day, meeting with students, doing interventions that enable them to read, chatting with their parents about how they are coping during a pandemic with all the kids at home, trying to get their own work done, and wondering when things will go back to normal.

And I knew that I didn’t want things to go back to normal — not if normal means that some kids get safe schools with excellent resources that set them up for success while other kids (for not fault of their own) get substandard materials, ill-prepared teachers, and less access to a quality education, while white folks who commit crimes often get the benefit of the doubt and minimum sentences and black folks who commit crimes often end up dead or incarcerated far longer than is necessary or humane.

The disparity between schools that are predominantly white and those that are predominantly black is not a new revelation to me — I’ve been aware of these inequities since long before I taught for one measly semester in the St. Louis, Missouri public schools, but somehow being quarantined during Covid, working every day with students who have been given every resource, and then being barraged by data about the inequities (a substantially higher incidence of Covid and deaths related to Covid among people of color, the number of underfunded and understaffed schools in urban centers like Detroit), along with a resurgence of activism, especially among young people including my own children, my coworkers, and many former students, created an atmosphere in which I saw the opportunity I had to step in.

Meanwhile, many teachers are feeling the need to leave the profession because of Covid — they feel they are unsafe in the classroom, that their communities are asking them to risk too much, that they can’t afford to put their loved ones in danger — and I don’t blame them. These are valid concerns. And if you’ve been in the classroom for years or decades and you are already tired, and you feel unappreciated because you are underpaid, under-resourced, and under-valued by your administration, your students’ parents, and your community, then being asked to go into a crowded space for up to eight hours a day, five days a week in the middle of a pandemic just might be the last straw.

So why — why? — would I willingly put my name in the hat?

Because as dark as everything seems right now, I hold onto hope that this just might be the time for major change. Covid-19 might be providing us an opportunity to see — really see — racism, societal inequities, broken systems, and unjust practices. Because we’ve had to shut so many things down, we might be able to see different ways of doing things — ways to incorporate working from home, digital platforms, and content-sharing so that every American kid can have access to all the content and resources that are available in all the best districts. We can begin to imagine scenarios in which one highly qualified teacher in New York City, for example, provides a webinar on the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, which students across the country and around the world can stream at a time that works best for them, submit a reflection to a digital discussion board, and then work collaboratively with other students from different neighborhoods, states, and even countries, to create a YouTube video to link to the original webinar for sharing with countless other students. Imagine how that experience might connect students to one another and impact their view of the world, themselves, and each other!

How might we re-shape education so that the neighborhood you live in, the color of your skin, and your parents’ income doesn’t determine your access to high quality content and educational experiences? Is Covid-19 providing us the space and the perspective to do this?

I think it might be!

Now, do I think I am going to single-handedly change the American educational system. You know I’m gonna try, but realistically, systems that are as established as our school system (or our prisons, or our government) don’t change quickly. In fact, if they have any hope of changing, they need the investment of participants whose voices are unafraid to offer new ideas, to challenge long-held beliefs, and to believe that things can be better.

And I believe they can.

So that’s why I want to go back to the classroom right now in the middle of a global pandemic.

If not now, then when? If not me, then who?

The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.

Psalm 103:6

Note: If you’d like to support my classroom and the work that I will do this year either in that classroom or from my home office, I am currently collecting composition books (one per student to start), highlighters (a set of three — yellow, pink, blue for each student), index cards for vocabulary work, and other classroom supplies. As soon as I get my school-issued email address, I will be posting a link for those who would like to support from a distance. Thank you so much for following me on my journey in this next chapter.

Facing Change

I don’t want to brag or make it seem like I’m an expert on change, but here are the facts:

Before I graduated high school, I had lived in six homes (ok, I only remember four of them). During and after college, I lived in nine locations (counting separate dorms). Since we’ve been married, we’ve had eleven homes. You might call me a moving expert, because I was Marie Kondo-ing way before Marie Kondo was a thing.

I’ve gone to two elementary schools, one middle school, one high school, two colleges for undergrad (transferring after freshman year), and have taken graduate courses at three universities.

Not counting babysitting, I’ve held at least 25, yes twenty-five, jobs in my life, and I’m sure I’m overlooking some gig-work like that one summer that my stepfather got me an “opportunity” handing out samples in the deli of the grocery store that he managed.

I’ve walked into plenty of new situations, and I’ve learned a few things along the way.

First, I always come with the gusto: This is gonna be great! Imagine all the possibilities! Won’t it be fun? I am at that point a glass-hall-full-and-expecting-more kind of girl. I come on full speed and give it my all. (Exhibit A: I’ve already organized and alphabetized my newly-forming classroom library, and I’m not even in my classroom yet.)

Because I come in with so much enthusiasm, I have been known to overlook critical details, such as, I don’t know, the fact that the people in my life are also feeling the shift of change and they might not be as enthusiastic as I am. My daughter recently reminded me that when we uprooted our family and moved to St. Louis, my husband and I full of gusto and optimism, our children were reeling with grief, anger, and fear. They were not thrilled to be clinging tightly to the flying capes of their superhero parents. They just wanted us to stop and hold them, which I will graciously remind myself that we did from time to time, but we were, I’m afraid, quick to resume our flight — to conquer our mission and save the day.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that I quickly adapt to culture and expectations. In a new setting, I will likely watch quietly for a few days or weeks, until I see how “we do things around here,” but once I have the lay of the land, I bring myself to that situation in the truest way that I can. I remember the faculty retreat where I met my coworkers at Lutheran North. We were at a camp about an hour away from the school, all in shorts and tennis shoes. We gathered for the morning in a conference room to “talk business,” but after lunch we made our way to a challenge course complete with a zip line. Since it was my first day or two with this community, I was in that ‘quietly watching’ phase of entry, so when my team (people I’d never met before!) needed to lift me over a chest-high obstacle, I let them, and when they asked me if I would like to climb a rock wall and do the zip line, activities which I would under normal circumstances politely (or not so politely) decline, I said ok, I would do it. I was trying to go with the flow and figure out the culture, so I went out of my comfort zone and wouldn’t you know, I climbed that wall and zipped that line, and I felt great! These early successes, and others like them, gave me confidence to take some other chances with that group that would soon become family. I thrived at Lutheran North, where I became a leader, and my team embraced me in my truest form which is always honest (sometimes to a fault), often loud, and frequently emotional.

I came into my experience at Lindamood-Bell much more quietly. Illness had sucked the confidence out of me, and the intentionally positive and congratulatory environment of the company culture seemed, although very welcoming, quite foreign. The first two weeks I sat in a room with a coworker (who was my first on-the-job bonus kid) learning the programs, quietly taking notes, and reluctantly participating in role plays. The job was very scripted to start, and I was thankful! Because I was still visibly struggling with autoimmune disease, my gusto was suppressed; I was happy to have clear expectations and structure. I wouldn’t have to lead in this position, well, not at first…not until I was much stronger.

Yes, I come in with gusto, I quietly learn the culture, and then I am who I am.

At Lutheran North, my students called me Momma Ratch. Two of my own children were students at the school, and though while they were in my class, they were students first and treated as such, they were also my children, who rode in my vehicle, dropped by my classroom for a snack, needed to be driven home when they were ill or forgot their running shoes, and invited their classmates to our home. My students who were not my children, saw me in my role as teacher and my role as mother. They came to understand that I was imperfect in both roles, but that I continued to show up and try. They could come to my room with difficulty or to share celebration. They could borrow a few dollars or raid my stash of feminine supplies without asking. I had a stockpile of notebooks, folders, pens, and books in my room that I collected each year when students cleaned out their lockers. Anyone in the school knew they could come get what they needed no questions asked. I had firm and high academic and behavioral expectations, but I also learned what I could let go, what I could negotiate, and what really didn’t matter much at all.

At Lindamood-Bell, my coworkers called me Momma K. This probably started because I am the age of the mothers of all of my coworkers. They are almost all in their twenties (the age of my children), and though I didn’t always feel like it, particularly in the beginning, I think they have valued my experience, my perspective, my age. Often, it was me who was asking them for support, for encouragement, for understanding, as I navigated some of the most difficult years of my life. They were mostly oblivious to the grief that I was carrying, but it seeped out in moments of unprofessionalism. I would snap in a moment of frustration or glare at a coworker who told me something I didn’t want to hear. Yet, they, too, accepted me for who I am, and even celebrated me. In fact, the culture of Lindamood-Bell, the clapping, the parties, the dancing and balloons, reminded me of the importance of celebration, of noticing small victories and big ones even (and especially) in the midst of grief and transition. My coworkers dress up in wigs and hot dog costumes on a Wednesday just to make learning more fun. They hide pictures of Guy Fieri inside a closet to surprise you and make you laugh. They help kids set a trap of plastic spiders to scare you when you walk into a room. They cry because you are leaving, but send you off with books for your new classroom, a gluten-free cookie for the road, and a bottle of Malbec for your next celebration.

As I’m gathering my gusto to walk into Detroit Leadership Academy I want to be mindful of those around me who in the midst of Covid-19 and all its uncertainties might not be feeling as enthusiastic as I am; I want to be sure I stop and attend to the needs of others instead of just powering through. I know I’ll take the confidence and flexibility I found at Lutheran North and the kindness and celebration I learned at Lindamood-Bell. I’ll walk in quietly, even though I’ve already stocked my closet with teacher wear and powerful shoes. This is a brand new culture, and I want to see how “we do things around here” before I find the expression of myself that will work best for these kids, these coworkers, this school, this season.

As in every other change I’ve navigated over my fifty-plus years, I know I am going to learn at DLA — I don’t know what yet, but if the lessons I learn are even half as impactful as the lessons I’ve learned at Lutheran North and Lindamood-Bell, I know I’ll be changed forever.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

Joshua 1:9

Note: If you are in or near Ann Arbor and have surplus school supplies: notebooks, pens, folders, index cards, feminine supplies, etc. I would be happy to take them off your hands and put them in my new classroom so that students can come and take what they need no questions asked.

The Choice: Changing Course, pt. 5

For the past two weeks, I’ve been chronicling my decision to leave the position I’ve held for the past two and a half years to go back to the classroom — a move I thought I wouldn’t be able to make again. For the back story, you can read the following posts: Prepared for What’s Next, But Wait There’s More, Ready, and Getting Here.

Let’s see, where did we leave off — oh yes, the decision.

How do you make a decision that will potentially alter the course of your life? When presented with one option that is familiar, safe, and consistent, and two others that, while being exactly what you’ve been asking for, represent the unknown.

First, you pray. And for me, that means writing. I’ve filled a spiral notebook during this process that started sometime after Memorial Day with that conversation with my husband in the kitchen, which prompted applications, which turned into phone calls, which turned into interviews, which turned into offers. As I page through my notebook, I see lists of questions for interviewers (would you describe the culture of the school? what curriculum do you use?), I see brainstorming for how education might be restructured post-Covid (what if we shifted the schedule entirely? more broadly utilized technology? forever adjusted class size?), I see feelings about diving into something new (it’ll be amazing, I’m terrified, what if I can’t manage? what if I thrive?), and I see my processing of everything else I was managing throughout that process — my current students and their needs, a temporary health issue that flared up (of course) in the midst of the added stress, and plans to connect with family and friends. Within all the lines I wrote is a groaning, a pleading: Lord, I lift it up to you. What would you have me do? Will you guide my steps? Will you keep me from taking on too much? Will you show me the right fit? Will you provide for my current students if/when I choose to leave? Will you show me how to balance my love for my family and friends with my love for teaching? Will you show me how to give my best without giving my all?

And as I wrote and prayed, I continued through the process.

The first phone call came quickly — perhaps a day or two after I submitted the first round of applications. I had plugged in my headphones and headed out on my lunchtime walk when my phone began to ring. I looked — it was a Detroit area code. My heart sped up. The questions came — did I know this was an inner city, low income school? Did I feel comfortable teaching in such an environment? What were my salary requirements? In other words, was I sure I wanted an interview? Yes, I was sure.

In the next day or two, I had a preliminary video chat with that school, let’s call it School #1, and an informational session with another agency, let’s call it Agency #1, that places teachers in low income schools in several locations across the country. This non-profit organization obtains grants to fund training on equity, inclusion, and classroom management strategies, which they provide to teachers who are then placed in these schools. I was interested in both School #1 and Agency #1 and signaled my desire to move forward with both.

Soon after, I had a second video interview with School #1, this time with the head of instruction, who was similar to me in age and experience, and who articulated the philosophy of the school and some of the initiatives they were working on. She didn’t mince words, and neither did I. That’s the beauty of being 50-something; I feel the freedom to clearly articulate who I am from the start, because I want to make sure I get a good fit. So when she told me that they are working on rebuilding school culture, I asked what does that look like? how are you setting school climate? do you utilize police or safety officers? what are your priorities in terms of curriculum? how do you view your role in racial justice work?

Maybe that same day, or the day after, I had a preliminary video interview with Agency #1. This was a little different. I was given five minutes to introduce myself, share my journey in education, and communicate why I was interested in this particular agency’s work.

As you can imagine, simply being in this process was clarifying and invigorating. Having to articulate my ideas about education and equity, often with interviewers who were themselves most often people of color, was challenging and affirming. I feel strongly about providing high quality education to all students, but most specifically students who have historically been denied access, and the more I talk about it, the more passionate I feel.

Within a week, School #1 offered me a position teaching freshman English. I was elated! I immediately drafted a list of questions I wanted answered before I accepted the offer and sent them off in an email.

That same day, I got an email from Agency #2, which was hiring for School #2; would I be available for a 15-20 minute interview in the next few days. Of course! The next day on my lunch hour, my phone rang. It was a typical call, “Let me tell you a bit about what we do,” followed by “tell me a little about your journey.” The more we talked, the more kinship I felt. This school follows a “do no harm” model and values “restorative justice”. Its current initiatives are to 1) increase academic achievement, 2) decrease suspensions, and 3) increase attendance. While, as with School #1, 99% of School #2’s students are Black and qualify for free and reduced lunch, and though only 25% of graduating seniors go on to college, this interview was upbeat and full of hope.

I hung up thinking, “I sure hope they hurry up and give me an offer before I have to respond to School #1,” and then my lunch hour was over, and I went back to work.

Over the next few days, I checked my email for responses to the questions I’d sent to School #1 but saw nothing. Then, I got a phone call from School #2, asking me if I could do an in-person interview at the school, socially distanced, of course.

Then, I got a call from School #3, asking if I could do a virtual interview. And, I had an follow-up video interview with Agency #1.

Yes, it was moving very quickly — and it was affirming. Imagine that — not only might I have an opportunity to go back to the classroom, I might even be able to be selective. This privilege was not lost on me.

I did all the interviews, including the in-person interview at School #2, where I met with the hiring agent I had spoken with on the phone and with the principal, who I immediately saw as a champion of kids. Within a week of that interview, at the end of a holiday weekend, I received an offer.

As it turns out, although both offers (from School #1 and School #2) were for freshman English and both offered the exact same salary, the communication I received from School #2, Detroit Leadership Academy (DLA), was far more timely and thorough than what I received from School #1. Not only that, when I toured both schools, I saw evidence at DLA of intentionality that I did not see at School #1. I saw a plan in place to support students in their ownership of their education and their future, and evidence of DLA’s commitment to not only the students but their community as well. In fact, DLA is the school I mentioned in an earlier post that has been providing food not only to their students but to any community member throughout this Covid-19 season.

In the end, the choice was not difficult, even though I interviewed with Agency #3 on the day I accepted DLA’s offer. That same day, I put in my notice at Lindamood-Bell, and the goodbyes began.

Although those goodbyes were tear-filled, I am very excited about this coming school year at DLA, even with all the questions that Covid brings. I’m taking some time right now to rest up, but I’m also gathering supplies and dreaming big dreams of how this choice will change my life in this next chapter.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about that next time.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever.

Ephesians 4:20-21

Getting Here: Changing Course, pt. 4

I started teaching in the fall of 1989 at Lutheran Special Education Ministries (LSEM) in Detroit. I had a degree in Secondary Education with a major in English and a minor in psychology, and I’d taken a couple courses on the exceptional child, but I had no special education certification. I had at one time explored special education as a career, and my first job out of college was working as direct care staff at a group home for teenaged girls with emotional impairments, but I wasn’t really prepared for a self-contained classroom of 10 seventh-graders with diagnosed learning disabilities. I learned a lot from those kiddos; I can only hope they learned a few things from me, too.

I took a few graduate courses at the University of Detroit that year and the next when I moved to a resource room position at Lutheran High School North and Lutheran High School Northwest. And then, though my husband was thriving in a 3rd and 4th grade classroom and I was beginning to gain some skills in special ed, we abruptly changed course when our son, who lived with his mother and stepfather, relocated right before the start of kindergarten. Because we wanted to continue our frequent visits, we relocated, too. I started teaching middle school and high school emotionally impaired and learning disabled students English Language Arts in a residential school, The Manor Foundation.

While there, I took more courses toward special ed certification, this time focusing on emotional impairments. I stayed at the Manor Foundation a year and a half — until our daughter was born — and then I began ten years focusing on one, then two, then three young children at home.

When the youngest started preschool, I started substitute teaching; then when she was preparing to start first grade, I began exploring graduate school.

I landed in Michigan State University’s Critical Studies in the Teaching of English program. Writing had long been my passion — in fact, the whole time I was home with my young children, I had been working on writing projects: submitting small pieces to parenting magazines, writing devotions, songs, and chancel dramas for our church, and even writing all the content for a monthly newsletter for teachers. I felt strongly that I wanted to further explore writing and literature, but I had no idea how this one choice would impact the course of my life.

Through this program, my gaze was turned to African American literature, Native American literature, and the power dynamics that exist in writing, academics, and society. In each of my courses, I began focusing my projects on the ways language is used to assert power and gain access. The reading and writing I did for those courses laid the groundwork for the ways I have continued to grow in my understanding of academic language, home language, and the ways we navigate different settings through our use of language. I began to see the language of the home — whether it be African American Vernacular English, Spanish, or Chinese, or a mixture of many languages — as a strength and the ability to shift from that home language to the language of work or the classroom as an asset — a tool to gain access.

So, when I left MSU and taught first in a community college in Michigan and another in Missouri and began to observe my students who were struggling to make that shift day in and day out, I sought ways to provide supports and encouragement while also validating the strength of the home language. What this looks like is that rather than being the English teacher who corrects students’ grammar, I have become the teacher who instead invites variation in grammar, even trying it out playfully myself, and then modeling for students the times and places where making the shift from one language to another becomes a way to gain access and even power.

Over the next nine and a half years, both at Roosevelt High School and Lutheran North, these ideas that began to form at Michigan State became integral to my classroom. Through my collaborations with other staff members, I began to develop a strength-based approach to teaching literature and composition. My students walked in the door with strengths — their personality, their resiliency, the language that they used to navigate their lives in whatever contexts they found themselves in, and the fact that they had access to education. My job was to help them identify and articulate those strengths which often looked liked reteaching.

Some of my Black students, and some of my White and Hispanic students, reported that they spoke ‘bad English’ and they ‘couldn’t write’. Those messages are debilitating — they don’t provide a place from which to grow. In my classroom, I began to use language such as, “you use different kinds of language in different settings — the language you use gives you access to your community. Do you imagine that the language I use would give me access to your community?” When students pictured me trying to come to their homes or their neighborhoods speaking the way that I do, they could see that I would be at a disadvantage. When I played with their language, using phrases such as “See, what had happened was…” or when I asked my students to teach me slang using the strategies I used to teach ACT vocabulary, they saw me struggle to learn in the same ways that they were struggling to learn Standard English. We were all language learners; we were in this together. Students who said they ‘couldn’t write’, were affirmed by my words, “you are learning how to write.”

I wrote every assignment with them — from prewriting and journaling through revisions and final drafts. When we needed to understand a grammatical rule, we looked it up together. We practiced identifying adjectives, prepositions, and clauses in our own writing, and then we experimented with breaking the rules intentionally — for effect, to make a point, or to show emotion.

This is what gives me life — playing with language, learning how it works, breaking the rules, and showing my students that they have the power to do the same.

I didn’t get it all right. I am sure that I made mistakes such as — in the early days, insisting that my students speak Standard English in my classroom, but why? Isn’t the classroom the place where we are learning the purposes and audiences for which we need to use Standard English? where we gain the tools we need for whatever comes next? As a teacher, do I want to be the keeper of correctness or an agent of access?

I think you already know the answer to that.

I’ve spent a lifetime getting here — building this philosophy by way of special education, writing, graduate school, and hours and days and weeks and months in the classroom with students — students who come to the classroom with inherent value, built-in strength, and learned skills. Each kid I meet matters.

But many many students in Detroit and areas like Detroit, many of whom are Black, many of whom don’t speak Standard English, have received the message loud and clear that the ways that they arrive, the manner in which they dress, or wear their hair, or speak, are inadequate. They don’t match the Standard — a Standard that was created and is maintained by white people in positions of power. They’ve got to learn to match that standard, they’ve been told, or they won’t succeed. No wonder they feel angry, or rebel, or fight like their lives depend on it to deny who they are and take on what they believe will get them out of the spaces they are in. And what does that cost them?

I’m just one middle-aged white woman from Michigan, but if someone is going to give me an opportunity to step into a classroom full of kids, to play with language, to learn, and to break some rules, how can I refuse?

I’ve been preparing for this my whole life.

So, yes, I took a position in Detroit.

Yes, I’m going to be teaching English.

This decision meant saying no to my current coworkers, families, and students, no to another group of kids, and yes to another.

I’m trying to get to that. Maybe next time.

And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

Esther 4:14

Ready, Changing Course, pt. 3

During the twelve weeks that I was working remotely, my husband and I developed some rhythms to break up the monotony. We walked a mile or so every day at lunch time to get away from our desks, we walked again at the end of the day to get our mail and talk about the events of our day, and we tuned in each night to watch the national and local news.

We’ve watched the numbers of Covid-19 cases continue to rise. We’ve watched reports of businesses closing, of economic stress, of overcrowded hospitals. For weeks, we caught the daily White House Task Force briefings, and then, when the eyes of the nation turned to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Brionna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, our eyes turned, too. When we heard the nationwide sound of wailing and protest for the sake of Black lives, we leaned in to listen.

The sound was not new to us. We’d been aware of systemic racial injustice for quite some time — not because we heard it on the national news, but because the trajectory of our lives has given us relationships across racial and socioeconomic lines and we have seen the impact of school inequity, racial profiling in policing, red-lining in real estate, inequities in access to health care and quality food, and racist practices in institutional hiring. We haven’t done much about it, if I am going to be honest, other than bear witness and believe that these systems exist, but we have seen the impact on people that we know and care about.

So when thousands across the country took to the streets carrying signs emblazoned with Black Lives Matter, I Can’t Breathe, and Arrest Brionna’s Killers, we were not horrified. We were not surprised. We were looking for ways to support, ways to ally, ways to join their voices. How could we do otherwise? How can we sit quietly watching repeated senseless acts of violence upon people of color, knowing that these blatant killings and attacks are a symptom of a much more insidious disease. Racism in our country runs deep — it has surreptitiously found its ways into our thought lives as all ideologies do, so that even when we believe ourselves to be free of racism, we make judgements about others because of their language, their skin color, their clothing choices, and their hairstyles. We use people of color as it benefits us (for sports, for entertainment, and to prove ourselves to be non-racist), but we rarely come to their defense or speak up on their behalf.

So right now, when Covid-19 is disproportionately impacting communities of color, specifically because of the impact of inadequate access to healthcare, the wealth and educational gaps that keep people of color in service industries and on the front line, and the pre-existing conditions that disproportionately pervade these communities due to centuries old inequities, when even now people of color have to contend with incidents of injustice like the George Floyd killing, we must be moved to action.

So when my husband and I were standing in the kitchen one night in the middle of the stay at home order and he said, “Are you happy doing what you are doing right now?” I reflexively responded that what I really wanted was to be in a school where I could be part of the dialogue during this time that has potential for unprecedented transformation in the lives of communities of color. I felt ready. After a long journey back to health, I felt we were facing the moment I had been preparing for.

He said, “You’re right. Let’s do it. Toss your name in the hat. Let’s see what happens.”

I said, “Really? Even if it means I have to drive to Detroit?”

“Don’t be bound by geography. Apply broadly, and we’ll cross the next bridge when we get to it.”

Oh. My. Word. You’d have thought he had given me the keys to any car I wanted to drive off the lot! If he thought I was ready, then I knew I actually was ready!

I started combing Indeed and district websites like never before. I applied to positions in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, the Detroit metro area, and beyond. And though I’d been doing this to some degree for years, this time was different. Within a couple days of submitting applications early in the morning, on my lunch hour, and after work, I started getting phone calls and emails.

I was different. I felt different — healthy, strong, and impassioned like never before. While I had believed for quite some time that my career was over, I was beginning to believe that I might just have another round in me. Not only that, the landscape was different. Due to Covid-19, many teachers have been choosing to leave the profession, take a sabbatical, or move into a different sector — away from classrooms, particularly classrooms in hot zones like Detroit. While before I may have been passed over because my Master’s degree and years of experience put me a little higher on the salary schedule, suddenly I was a prime candidate. While many teachers were ill-equipped to manage the unavoidable transition from in-person to online learning, I have been using online platforms to work with students for the last several years!

As the interviews started, I could hear the skepticism in the voices of those questioning me. What is your experience with urban schools? Why are you interested in this position? How would you build classroom culture among students who are 99% Black? 99% of whom receive free or reduced lunch?

I could hear the subtext, “I can see, even over this video interview, that you are a middle aged white woman. Are you sure you are up to this? Do you know what you are getting into?” But guess what, kids, I’ve heard these questions before, and I was ready for them.

What I wasn’t ready for was learning that many of the schools I was applying to had been operating with long-term substitute teachers in core subject areas, because they could not find highly qualified teachers and they had to fill slots. I wasn’t ready to learn that many of the students in these schools did not have devices or internet in their homes when the stay-at-home order began. I wasn’t prepared to realize that because 5,000 people had died in Detroit and a disproportionate number of them were Black, chances are high that the students in these schools have experienced loss above and beyond the loss of their routine, the daily contact with teachers and friends, and life as we once knew it. They’ve likely lost people they love.

However, I was excited to learn that several of the agencies I was interviewing with were working to meet the needs of these students. They were delivering devices and personal hot spots — teachers and administrators getting in their own vehicles and driving to student residences across the Detroit metro. Not only that, all of the schools I interviewed with were still providing food to families — five days a week. One school was providing food not only to their own students’ families, but to anyone in the community who pulled into the parking lot to receive it. They were also working hard to secure more devices for the coming school year and making plans (state-mandated) for how to return to school fully in-person, fully online, and a hybrid option that would allow families to choose.

I met dedicated educators who care about kids — inner city kids, kids of color, kids who matter.

And one of these schools made me an offer.

And then another one did.

And I still had my position at Lindamood-Bell.

I had a decision to make, and it wasn’t going to be easy.

But I was ready. More on that next time.

He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.

Psalm 33:5

But Wait, There’s More, Changing Course, pt. 2

I have a confession to make: I like to apply for jobs. That might be an understatement. Applying for jobs has become sort of a hobby for me. I scroll through postings on Indeed and search school, district, and university websites to see what’s available, then I “throw my hat in the ring.”

Quite often.

I’ve been doing this for years — maybe close to thirty years, on and off, even when I had my most satisfying job ever at Lutheran North in St. Louis. I would burn off a frustrating day or month by applying at a community college or a public school. Typically nothing comes of all this applying, but once, about a year before I left Lutheran North, when I was quite sick with my first extended autoimmune flare, I applied for a job because I thought a different teaching position at a new school, in the city, closer to home, would lighten my load and be more doable in my weakened state. (I obviously was not thinking very clearly at the time.) I went through the interview process and received an offer but came to my senses and turned it down.

Shortly after that decision, my husband got an offer to take the position he has now, which afforded me an opportunity to take an extended break and begin healing.

When I was taking that break, I took applying for jobs to a whole new level. I did force myself to not apply for anything for the first four months, but then I started applying with abandon.

At first I applied for only part-time or gig work because that is what I felt up to. I applied to shelve books at libraries — can you imagine the bliss for an English teacher? I applied to fold towels at a gym — free membership included! I applied to proofread textbooks — I mean, come on — who’s got a better skill set?

While I cast a wide net, I found myself landing in jobs that have uniquely prepared me for what’s next.

I began by proofreading and tutoring which was like taking a course in grammar and MLA/APA style. I bent over ACT and SAT tests for hours with students, showing them patterns and strategies. I was constantly checking rules and then explaining those rules to students. I read and re-read college essays and coached students through AP literature and composition courses.

Then I worked a summer at Lindamood-Bell which gave me a framework and language for verbalizing my mental movie and teaching kids to do the same. It also helped me understand the nature of reading as two processes and how to spot which area was more difficult for a student.

I moved from there to the college classroom which not only let me apply some of my Lindamood-Bell language and skill to literature and composition courses, it also gave me a more realistic picture of university instruction, particularly through the lens of an adjunct instructor. I’d been romanticizing that role for a while, and I needed the reality check.

I worked two summers at the University of Michigan teaching students of means from all over the world how to write college essays. This experience reminded me that kids are kids are kids — whether they are from Manhattan or Turkey or Detroit. However, it also irked me — why should these kids get intense high-quality instruction in the summer when the ones who really need it don’t have access? Why should those who could easily pay for their college education get an extra leg up when it comes to admissions?

The next three summers I flew, along with thousands of other teachers, to score the AP Literature and Composition exam. I read over a thousand essays in the space of a week, each year, and the evidence of disparity in the United States educational system was palpable. Some students had been so well prepared — their analysis was mature and concise, their evidence vivid, their sentence construction well-developed. Other students wrote letters to whoever who end up reading their exams, “I don’t know what I’m doing. My teacher didn’t prepare me for this. We only read one book all semester.” I was reminded that while students who had excellent experiences in elementary and high school would inevitably go on to excellent college experiences, those from ill-equipped districts would not. Not without some kind of miracle.

I worked for another two and a half years at Lindamood-Bell. I went back when I realized that the adjunct instructor life wasn’t for me. Yes, it got me in the classroom, but unlike teaching in a high school, it didn’t allow me to form the kind of long-term relationships with my students that foster trust, growth, and transformation. Besides, it was a lot of work, and I felt isolated from other instructors who were all staying in their lanes, prepping their courses, grading their papers.

Lindamood-Bell was, once again, an excellent experience. This time around I was developed from an instructor into a leader. I took on more and more responsibility, had a caseload of students, and began mentoring other instructors. I was beginning to remember my skill sets — my ability to build strong rapport with students and families, my capacity to shift instructional gears in the moment based on student needs, and my deep empathy for students who struggle. Yet, it continued to eat at me that the students who were receiving this instruction — targeted one-on-one reading interventions — were mostly students of means whose parents could afford the high price tag of such instruction. What about all the kids whose parents could not? Who was helping them?

A couple of years ago, I was up late at night thinking such thoughts along with I just really miss the classroom! and I applied for a high school English position in Detroit. When I got an email asking me for an interview, I was ecstatic, so when I saw my husband at the end of the day, I blurted out, “I got an interview at a school in Detroit!” He looked at me dumbfounded and said, “What?” which is when it dawned on me that I hadn’t brought him along on the journey. He knew, everyone close to me knew, how I felt about inequity in education, but he didn’t know I had applied or that I was even considering the possibility of going back to the classroom. The days when I was so terribly ill were clear in his mind — he’d seen me lying on the floor writhing in pain, he’d watched all the experiments with treatments and medications, he didn’t want to see me go back there. How, he wondered, did I imagine that I could drive to Detroit every morning, teach a whole day, and then drive back home? Why did I think I wouldn’t end up right back in bed? Didn’t I remember the stacks of paper? the long days? the time on my feet?

Oh, yeah, I thought. He’s right. I probably can’t do that. What was I thinking?

But time passed. I continued to heal. I found myself working 40 hours a week at Lindamood-Bell, and though I got tired, I could feel my health beginning to stabilize, my stamina starting to build.

And then Covid happened.

And then George Floyd was killed by police. Ahmaud Arbery was murdered for running and being black. And Breonna Taylor died in her own home in her own bed. And people across the country walked out of their quarantine homes and said, “Enough is Enough.”

I looked at my husband and said, “I want to be part of this. I belong in the classroom. I belong with kids who have been told they don’t matter. I’m ready. I’m strong. I want to try.”

And he said, “You’re right. Let’s do it. Toss your name in the hat. Let’s see what happens.”

So, I tossed my name in some hats, and I can’t wait to tell you what happened.

The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.

Proverbs 16:9

Coronavirus Diary #13: Vantage Point

When I was teaching high school composition, I used to have my students watch the movie Vantage Point (available on Amazon or YouTube), which tells the story of an assassination attempt on the US President as seen from the various vantage points of different characters. The goal of watching this film, which I assigned over Christmas break before the start of the semester, was to get my students thinking about point of view and the reliability of narration. I wanted them to see that depending on where you are standing, the story might look very different.

And isn’t that true right now?

I spoke to my mother this week. She lives in small town Michigan, very far removed from the cities where Covid-19 has run most rampantly. Her county has had 82 total cases and 13 deaths. She is unfamiliar with the impact of systemic racism; her county is 92% white and she has no reason to believe that systemic racism has impacted the few people of color that she knows. Because it’s tucked back from the highway running through town, she rarely considers the Level IV correctional facility which houses over 1000 inmates, most of whom are likely people of color. From her vantage point, not much in life has changed. She feels free to go out of her house to shop in the midst of a global pandemic, even if she does have leukemia and is 78 years old. She’s wearing a mask, after all, well, except for that one time when she went to a graduation open house when she didn’t wear a mask — because, well, nobody was.

My daughter called yesterday. She lives on The Common in Boston, a city where Covid has infected over 13,000 people and claimed the lives of over 900. She woke up yesterday to the sound of police putting up barricades on the sidewalk outside her window. As the day progressed, Black Lives Matter protestors assembled behind the barricades on one side of the street; Blue Lives Matter protestors with the support of white supremacists gathered on the other. In the middle of these two groups police officers in riot gear patrolled back and forth. She called because she was riled up. She had left her building through the back entrance to protect herself from a potential clash of protestors, wearing a mask to protect herself from Covid. From her vantage point, life is full of danger and opportunity. She sees her position of privilege and feels compelled to speak up, speak out, and engage in a dialogue to impact change. She grew up mostly in spaces occupied by people of diverse backgrounds. Her partner is a person of color. She belongs to a church that is made up of people from many nations, many backgrounds, many socioeconomic levels. She works for a government agency that is committed to equity for all citizens of Massachusetts. She is hyper-aware of the realities around her.

Over the past week, I have been preparing to return to the office where I was working before I started to quarantine at the end of March. My company has done extensive work to prepare our environment to meet the requirements of re-entry — creating social distance, requiring and providing masks, ensuring that extra cleaning will be done, and limiting the number of students who will be in the center at any given time. The parents of some of our students really want them to be able to come into the center — they believe instruction will be more effective there. From their vantage point, opening our center is a great idea. However, many of the staff, who have been working remotely for the last three months, sheltering in place, limiting their exposure to others, and watching the trends of communities who have opened ahead of us, do not want to go back to the center. They believe it is unsafe, and they want the opportunity to continue to work remotely, since we’ve been doing so effectively for three months now with great success. From their vantage point, the risk of going back into physical contact is not warranted. They are wiling to lose their jobs rather than take that risk.

Meanwhile, our country is experiencing the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression of the 1920s. Many new college grads are spending their days alternating between applying for jobs and worrying about how they are going to pay their bills. They are taking jobs that have nothing to do with their degrees just to get a paycheck coming in. They are willing to take risks to work in environments that seem unsafe because they need money — that one little stimulus check way back in April has been gone for weeks, if they received it in the first place. From their vantage point, any work is better than no work.

Families are sitting in their cars in long lines to pick up free food because their money is gone. They worry they’ll lose their homes or that they will get Covid and need medical care that they can no longer afford because they lost their health care along with their jobs.

And each day we hear another story of a family and a community who have senselessly lost someone they love due to racial violence. We’ve heard about George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, but there have been many others. It’s not bad enough that these families are trying to manage the physical and financial ramifications of a pandemic, they are also grieving the loss of lives cut short for no good reason.

Most of us cannot imagine processing that kind of trauma on top of already overwhelming stress of all the change that we’ve undergone because of this pandemic. And we likely won’t have to. That kind of shit doesn’t happen in our communities, in our families. And we have this sense that we are invincibile. untouchable.

Yesterday, my daughter was out running in Boston and had her mask down around her neck until she saw someone approaching. At that point, she put her mask on out of respect for the other person, to reduce the risk of unknowingly contaminating him. He saw her put on her mask — he wasn’t wearing one — and he shouted at her angrily, “Really? Really?” as though he was offended by her gesture. From his vantage point, my daughter was protecting herself from him.

This morning in his rural church, my father-in-law who is 80+, was wearing a mask. A fellow congregant — without a mask — approached him and said, “Who are you protecting yourself from?” It was an indictment — didn’t my father-in-law trust the people he went to church with to be free of disease? From that man’s vantage point, my father-in-law’s mask was ridiculous, unnecessary, an affront.

We have difficulty understanding the the actions and words of those who are experiencing life right now from a different vantage point. We don’t understand why a septuagenarian with cancer would go to a social event without a mask, what would cause a white man to shout at a complete stranger for merely pulling on a mask, or why a person with a job would refuse to go to work while countless others are desperately looking for employment.

We don’t understand the kind of history and indoctrination that would lead someone to take the life of another simply because of the color of their skin or what it must feel like to lose everything that you have. We only see the story from our own vantage point.

Unless, unless, we are willing to look at the events from a different point of view. What might happen if we set down our bags full of belief and assumption and took one step to the left or the right and tried to view the world from a different vantage point? Might we be able to understand a person’s desire to move freely inside the community she has known for decades? Might we feel the fear and outrage of someone who can’t comprehend why centuries-long misconceptions about race can’t be finally put away? Might we see the horror of watching a loved one have the oxygen pressed out of him? Might we appreciate both the need for work and the need to feel safe going to work?

Life is very complex. When over 300 million people live inside one country, they can’t all be standing on the same piece of ground — they won’t all have the same vantage point. If we want to come together and build a more perfect union, we’re going to have to walk around a little bit and see how others view things. We’ll have to share our stories and blend them into a more reliable narrative.

Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace.

I Corinthians 13:11

Body Signals, a Re-visit

I wrote this post almost exactly one year ago today — during another season of busy-ness. As I re-visit this post, I am thankful to acknowledge that I have turned down my work intensity just a bit. I haven’t stopped deeply caring for my students, but I am finding ways to care for myself, too, as I do my best for them.

The physical body is uniquely designed to send us messages that help us take care of ourselves. For example, I have a ten year old student who has beautiful long eye lashes. These eye lashes serve to keep dirt out of his eyes, but occasionally one, rather than staying where it belongs, pokes in and causes irritation. His eye begins to water, and my student does everything he can to get that lash out of his eye. Feeling the irritant, the eye signals my student to make eye lash removal a priority.

Similarly, our bodies signal fatigue at the end of a long day, prompting us to go home and get some rest. They signal hunger so that we will be sure to eat foods that fuel our many activities. They tell us when we are cold so that we’ll put on more clothes, and they signal pain when we have an injury.

Most of us respond to these signals. We get sleep when we are tired. We eat when we are hungry. We wear warmer clothes in the winter and tend to injuries when they occur. However, the human body is also able to ignore these signals for short periods of time in order to meet immediate demands, respond to crisis, or push through difficult periods. Soldiers and rescue workers have demonstrated this ability to be highly effective for long periods of time without rest or proper nourishment. However, all of us, after a period of ignoring the body’s signals, must take time to recover, to heal, to restore. If we continue in a chronic state of over-doing, the body has to develop some next-level signals — it begins to demand attention.

Several years ago, my body did just that. After years of trying to power through responsibilities without responding to my body’s physical, spiritual, and emotional signals, I began to develop symptoms: skin rashes, joint pain, extreme fatigue, and eye inflammation. At first, these symptoms side-lined me. They were so insistent that I had to take several months of intentional care and then several years of refined practice to move back into the game. These next-level signals forced me to care for my body after a long period of neglect.

Now that I’m off the bench, I’ve learned that these chronic issues can be kept at bay if I work a moderate number of hours, practice yoga, avoid triggering foods, and get plenty of rest — if I make it a habit to listen to my body’s signals. However, if I fall back into old patterns — working too many hours, ignoring my self-care practices, or eating carelessly — my eye begins to hurt, my skin rashes flare, and occasionally I get knocked down. I find myself on the couch with ice packs and fluids, tending to my body after a period of neglect.

For the past month or so, my sessions with one particular online student have been fraught with technical issues. We lose our internet connection, my screen freezes or her screen freezes, or we experience an irritating lag that makes our communication difficult. When I opened her virtual room last week, it was evident almost immediately that we were going to struggle, so I called our IT department. They started trouble-shooting the session, and it became apparent that other instructors’ sessions were suffering, too. Finally, after many attempted fixes and much frustration, IT recommended that each of us clear the cache on our web browsers. None of us had done that in quite a while, and our chrome books were bogged down. They couldn’t continue to function until we gave them some of the maintenance that they needed. It didn’t take long, just a couple clicks, and the efficiency of our internet was restored.

It seems that our habits of hurriedly moving from student to student had prevented many of us from completely powering down our computers, from doing regular computer maintenance, from clearing our cache. Neglected, our computers stopped working.

Similarly, I’ve been pushing my body lately. We’ve been short on staff since the beginning of the year, and all of us have been working long shifts and managing extra responsibilities. It’s hard on all of us. And while I am making sure that I write and do some yoga every day, I’m not taking time to clear my cache. I’m getting bogged down. I have noticed little glitches — I make a sarcastic remark, I run just a little bit late, or I miss a significant detail. Then all of a sudden, I find myself on my couch — unable to function properly.

So what’s going to change? What have I learned from repeating this cycle over and over again? Sure, some things are outside of our control. We definitely are short-staffed, and since I am in a leadership position, it only makes sense that I would be working all the available hours. So what can change in my attitude about work? That’s a good question.

My husband has a saying, “care, but don’t care” —care for my students and their welfare, but don’t own responsibility for them. Love my students, give them my best, but remember that I can give them my best without giving my all. I’m not good at this. I’m an all-in kind of a girl, but I’m thinking I have to find a way to set my idle a little lower. I want to be present with my students and coworkers without owning their successes so deeply, without feeling each of their struggles so personally.

I think my tendency to overwork and over-care stems from a desire to be needed. I mean, I don’t get up in the morning and say, “Let me go pour my whole life into my students so that they will appreciate and value me.” It’s not that simple. Belief systems run deep; they operate in the subconscious. Perhaps I have this thought deep in my core that if I meet all the needs of my students, I will be worthy and acceptable. And that thought, which stems from insecurity, actually masquerades as superiority they need me, what would they do without me? 

But guess what, the world can keep spinning without me. If I am not able to go to work, students still meet with instructors. Progress is still made.

I’m an important player, but not so important that I can’t take a beat for self-care. I can pause to clear my cache.

I can stop working as though my worth depended on it. Because it doesn’t.

I am valuable, needed, and appreciated, even when I am in yoga pants and an oversized fleece on my couch. Sometimes my body needs that, so I’ll do my best to listen to its signals.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?

Matthew 6:25-26