Not Quite Ready

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

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

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

Not yet.

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

I’m just not ready.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It won’t be long.

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

…in quietness and trust is your strength…”

Isaiah 30:15

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

Rest and Return

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

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

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

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

We breathed deeply. We laughed. We restored.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Thessalonians 5:24

A Limit Exists

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Eight years ago, I closed up my classroom, thinking I would never go back. I was sidelined due to chronic health issues, and I was headed for the couch. For six years — yes, years — I attended to my recovery, slowly crawling my way back, Then, in the wake of the George Floyd murder, I found the courage to believe I might still be able to make a difference in the lives of kids, and I started applying to high schools in Detroit.

When I took my current teaching position two years ago, it was an experiment. My husband and I, knowing how ill I had been, decided I should give it a full year to see how my body managed the stress. My heart was very willing to provide excellent instruction to historically underserved students, but we had no idea if my body could handle it.

For the first year, my body did just fine. We taught the entire year over Zoom, so the physical toll on my body was actually quite minimal. I would drive to the school in the morning, zoom with students for a little over an hour, stand and stretch, do another hour, go for a lunch time walk, teach one more class, then drive home. On alternating days, I had time for planning and grading. In the world of teaching, this load was light. Compared to other situations during Covid, where teachers had both live children in the classroom and students zooming in from home — my load was extremely light, and I knew it.

At the end of last school year, my husband and I remarked that my body had handled the transition and the new environment well, but it had not been a true test of whether or not I could handle full time teaching. We wouldn’t know that until I taught in-person classes with real, live students.

That is what I have been doing this year. I have driven to Detroit, met my students at my classroom door, and managed their learning, their emotions, their behaviors, their interruptions, their questions, and their concerns, along with my own inside an environment that is mostly consistent but that frequently has unexpected interruptions — a fight among students, a quick transition to virtual instruction, a building in need of repairs, or an immediate shifting of plans due to staffing issues. Much to my students’ dismay, I have taken only one day off this year because I have been healthy and energized, and my passion for bringing high quality education to my students has not waned.

I have written curriculum, contacted parents, attended meetings, collaborated with colleagues, and attended events. I have been stern, silly, serious, and — on occasion– sarcastic. I have fist-bumped, high-fived, hugged, and danced with my students, and for the most part, my body has come along for the ride.

I have been thrilled, in fact, by my stamina, and I have credited this phenomena to the years I have spent learning to care for my body, to the team that keeps me well, to the yoga I practice every morning and the walks I take with my buddy at lunch time, to my dietary choices, to my writing routine, and mostly to the grace of God. I have been riding the wave all year thinking, “Man, I was really ready! I am doing good in the classroom! I am not finding any limits to my ability to be effective here!”

But, friends, it turns out that, contrary to Cady Heron and the laws of math, the limit does indeed exist.

I mean, I knew it did, that’s why my husband and I don’t make excessive plans on the weekends but instead schedule lots of recovery time — time for rest, writing, reading — so that my body can repair. We don’t make a ton of plans – we don’t have a lot of people over, we go out with others only sparingly, and our idea of entertainment is streaming something from the comfort of our own couch. We do this because one thing we have learned since the beginning of this journey is that my body needs loads of rest.

I got plenty of rest all last year when we were teaching virtually. This year, too, since we moved back and forth between in person and virtual instruction at fairly regular intervals, my load was intermittently lightened. My body continued to be fine.

When we returned to school on May 2, after being at home for over a month and began the home stretch, I was operating under the false assumption that I would be able to manage the end of school and all the activities involved in the life of seniors and their teachers without any consequences. In fact, I was so confident that we also fit in dinners out with friends, a couple trips out of town, and a speaking engagement in addition to my teaching responsibilities which included leading a training session, attending prom, being present for a parent meeting, and helping with graduation.

And, as you might have guessed, I discovered that I do indeed have a limit.

What happens when I’ve crossed that limit? The warnings signs are subtle; I get a little snippy with a student, a coworker, or my spouse. I wake up feeling heat radiating beneath my skin, especially around my joints. A nagging pressure forms behind my left eye. I get a headache.

If I notice these warning signs, take a little Motrin, put my feet up, attend to some self-care rituals, and sleep, I can avoid larger consequences. But when you think you are invincible, you aren’t really looking for warning signs. So, you just keep stepping, kicking the occasional butt, taking the occasional name, and then out of nowhere, you overreact to an inconvenience or a miscommunication.You start to cry in the middle of a song or while listening to a sermon. You sleep 10 hours and wake up feeling nauseous, like you’d better not move or you will surely throw up.

And it all comes back — remember that time when you had to leave your career because you kept stepping instead of heeding the warning signs and taking care of yourself? Remember all those months you sat on a couch watching Law and Order because you did not even have enough gas in the tank to meet a friend for lunch? You wanna go back there?

No. I certainly do not.

I was built to teach, and I love working in the environment I have found myself in. I do not want to go back.

So, what’s the answer?

I have just over one week left before my summer break starts — a summer break where I will rest, garden, travel, see family and friends, and do a little bit of school work before I head back next fall. I’ll have a slightly lighter teaching load next year, but I will have a student teacher, I’m participating in a fellowship, and I will be facilitating reading interventions for a small group of students.

Yes, it does indeed sound like a lot.

Is it over my limit?

I don’t think so — not if I remember that there is indeed a limit. Not if I remember to take care of myself. Not if I remember that this privilege can disappear if I am not diligent about maintaining boundaries, taking rest, and lifting up the things I cannot manage to the One who indeed has no limits.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

Matthew 11:28

Coronavirus Diary 34: Teacher [extra] Tired

Last Monday, we re-entered the building after three weeks of virtual instruction. Everyone was glad to be back; smiles and greetings filled the hallways. Students were wearing new outfits, finally able to show off the gifts they’d received for Christmas.

I started each class with a reset of expectations — phones down, masks on, track the teacher — and a preview of the syllabus for the semester. My students were mostly compliant, ready to do the work I had assigned, but they were struggling — to stay off their phones, to stay engaged, to stay awake, to stay quiet.

Me? I was struggling, too — struggling to hold them accountable, struggling to be creative with my calls to engagement, struggling to not get frustrated with a roomful of teenagers who were being so…..so….. teenager-y.

I made it through three one-hundred minute blocks and a lunch break that included getting one-mile’s worth of steps in the hallway with my walking buddy. I had more to do to prepare for the next day’s lessons, but I had no more gas in the tank. I left work promising myself that I would arrive early the next morning to flesh out my plans for the day. I had the big picture, I told myself, surely I could pull the details together before my 10am class. I’d done it many times before.

But when I arrived on Tuesday morning, I was distracted. Our daughter had just announced her engagement on social media, and all her friends and family were liking and commenting. I couldn’t look away. Not only that, weather forecasters were predicting 1-2 FEET of snow over the next 48 hours, and all the building was abuzz with the question that has excited teachers and students for decades — Will we have a snow day tomorrow?

All morning, teachers and students ran scenarios. Certainly we were equipped to go virtual during a snowstorm. Every teacher in the connected world has learned to “switch to remote learning” in a heartbeat. Probably our administrators would want us to do that, I reasoned, in light of all the instructional time we have “missed” over the last two years. That logic didn’t keep wishfulness at bay — the childlike desire for a snow day was strong. Teachers popped their heads in my doorway conspiratorially whispering “heard anything?” Others sent texts, “what do you think we are going to do?”

I couldn’t find my focus, but I haphazardly pulled together my teaching strategy for the class I would meet that day. I was kicking off Black History Month in my writing class by talking about Langston Hughes and the impact he had through his writing. I was trying to show my students the power of writing to make social change. We were going to look at some of Hughes’ poetry and a brief history of his life with the help of a John Green video and then share ways we have seen writing as a tool for social change. It was a good concept, but my haphazard planning made the lesson mediocre. The students, who were still struggling on day two to stay awake, engaged, and off their phones, were quasi-engaged. Somehow we muddled through, but the day will not go down in the books as one of Mrs. Rathje’s most impactful.

At the bell, my students left the room, tossing “do you think we’ll be here tomorrow” over their shoulders. I shrugged, then continued my distracted attempts at getting something — anything — done.

I was trying to settle on which was most important — planning for the next day, long-range planning for the next week, or grading assignments from the day before — when my principal called and asked me to come to her office. She wanted to introduce me to a new staff member. She praised me as being the master teacher who had experience. I would be a good resource, she said. I nodded and smiled, knowing how unproductive and lackluster my day had been so far. I told the new teacher that of course she could come observe me at any time and hit me with whatever questions she had.

I was wishing her well when my principal said, “Rathje, one more thing.”

“Yes?”

“We’re going to have snow days tomorrow, Thursday, and possibly Friday. Don’t tell the kids yet, but take all your stuff home with you in case we decide to go virtual on Friday.”

“Ok!”

Suddenly, I lit up. I was focused. I quick stepped back to my room, prioritized grading for the remainder of the day, and basked in the relief of knowing I would get a couple of days off.

A colleague texted, “Did you hear?”

I replied, “I was just going to text you. I am so glad we are getting a couple days off. I don’t think I realized how tired I am. Are you tired?”

“Oh my gosh!” came the answer, from a teacher over twenty years younger than me. “So tired! I’ve been struggling all day to get something — anything — done.”

“You have?” I said, “me, too! Maybe we’ve underestimated how much this year has taken out of us — the continual switching from in-person to virtual to in-person.”

“Exactly! I am exhausted. I am looking forward to doing nothing.”

And that, I determined, is what I would do for at least part of those two, possibly three, snow days.

I drove home, took the dog out, started dinner, then, coming to terms with what 1-2 FEET of snow might look like, I decided I’d better make a couple preemptive supply runs — the grocery story and the library. If I was going to have the luxury of two or three days at home, I was going to need food and books!

Just as I was pulling back into our driveway, rain started to fall. It rained all night and then the rain turned to snow. The snow continued for two straight days.

I spent those days as a hermit. Clad in sweats, a ponytail, and glasses, I stayed in bed finishing a book, then leisurely moved into yoga. I worked on lesson plans slowly and deliberately to avoid a replay of last week’s less than impressive performance then watched a silly miniseries on Netflix. I tidied the house, did some tax prep that had been taunting me, and sat for hours reading and crocheting. I got caught up — on housework, on school work, on rest.

I hardly spoke a word to anyone. That’s one of the ways I find rest. Our golden retriever, Chester, was never far from my side, and he, too, was content to rest, to stay quiet, to do nothing.

Then, on Thursday night, he needed to head outside. The snow had subsided a bit. One neighbor was out scraping the ice off a vehicle. His dog was wandering from house to house. The Yorkie and Chester chatted, remarking on the depth of the snow while I checked in on another neighbor who lives next door. I smiled at this little neighborhood gathering, acknowledging that perhaps I was finally ready to interact with other humans.

I had to acknowledge the depth of fatigue I had been dragging around with me. Are you feeling it, too? This pandemic has gone on much longer than any of us anticipated, and we are depleted, aren’t we? It took me a hard stop to realize it.

You might not have had the luxury that I have just had — five days to stay at home, to find space to think, to read a whole book, to lose track of time. If you are able to afford such a luxury, I highly recommend it. However, I would venture that most of you need to keep slogging away day after day after day, regardless of how weary you are.

If that’s you, let me just say, be kind to yourself. If your performance has moments of mediocre, if you lack motivation, if you find yourself clicking the ‘like’ button while you are on the clock, cut yourself some slack. We’ve all been through a lot. Many of us are running on fumes. It would be strange if we were all still at peak performance at the end of two years of this madness.

While you are at it, have some grace for those around you, too — for the people who are running behind on deadlines, who never seem to respond to texts, who haven’t reached out to check in for months. They are wiped out, too. Chances are they are doing the best that they can, or they too tired to even do that any more.

The latest numbers give me hope (again) that we are moving into a different reality, but until then, I pray you find some rest, some space, and some peace..

Be kind to one another [and yourself], tenderhearted, forgiving one another [and yourself].”

Ephesians 4:32

Health Check

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He picked me up

And He turned me around

And He placed my feet

On the solid ground

Hallelujah, hallelujah

Corey Asbury, “So Good To Me”

Chester and I — A Return to Best Practices

Chester woke up with tummy trouble. It was not the first time. He’s always been little sensitive. Even from an early age, he was always a little “eating disordered”. Sometimes he would eat his food; sometimes he wouldn’t. Throughout his thirteen years, he has eaten 70-80% of the meals set out for him. It used to worry us, but eight or nine years in, we accepted it.

When he was younger, he was also a puker. Once a month or so, we would find a disgusting pile on the stairway landing or hear him retching and run him to the door. Usually after he’d emptied himself and slept it off, he’d be fine.

Now that he’s geriatric and since we’ve moved into our new place, his tummy trouble has found a new expression — diarrhea. The first time it happened was a few weeks ago. Chester woke me in the middle of the night, demanding to go outside. Once in the yard, he showed me why he had been so insistent. The next few nights, it was like I had a small child again. I let his belly rest a bit, started a bland diet, and called the vet. By the time of our visit, the issue was resolving, but then it came back in full force.

The vet’s hypothesis? “Sometimes when we go through change, this happens.”

Poor Chester had lived his first six years in one home, his next seven years in another, and now, when he’s thirteen, we are changing his environment again. It was a little overwhelming for all of us, and I had to admit, my body was feeling it, too.

Our bodies are so strong. They perform for us physically — packing and moving boxes, walking up and down the aisles of Lowe’s and Target, and meeting with realtors, contractors, and vendors — while at the same time holding all of our emotions — excitement, stress, joy, and anxiety. They are resilient and adaptable, but after several weeks of ongoing demands, our bodies can become overloaded.

Chester’s been a real trooper — learning to walk up and down stairs again, adapting to a new environment, learning the new rules of where he can go and where he cannot go — but I think his tired body was finally ready for some TLC.

My own body was energized through all of the packing and moving, but a couple weeks into the settling — unpacking boxes, welcoming guests, and making major purchases of furniture, hardware, etc. — I started to feel a familiar hum — inflammation, fatigue, the signs of a flare. Thankfully, my body doesn’t cry out in the same way as Chester’s. Instead, I first notice sassy replies sprinkled with sarcasm. Then, I notice a psoriasis outbreak or a headache. I find myself sleeping 10 hours some nights and 2 hours on others.

Just as Chester was suffering, my body was aching, and I knew I had to start paying attention.

This cross-town relocation took some work, and in order to meet the demands of the move, I had put some of my “best practices” on hold. I wasn’t taking the time each morning to write three pages, really read my Bible, or get in my daily walk. I was surely moving a lot, but I wasn’t connecting with the rhythms that have kept me well. It was time to return.

So, in fits and starts, I have been returning, but I have been distracted. Since Covid restrictions have been loosened, we, like countless others around the globe, have also welcomed guests and traveled quite a bit lately. We’ve been to Ohio, Indiana, Massachusetts, and several points in Michigan. We’ve seen all of our children, our grandchildren, our parents, and several siblings, nieces, and nephews. All of this time with family has been sheer bliss, and we have loved every minute. However, in order to make it all happen, I have been less than consistent with my routine. I’ve fit in some yoga here and there, and I’ve gone on some walks, but I have learned over the past seven years, that if I want to stay healthy, I need to observe my best practices daily.

I was doing a pretty good job last week. I had about seven days running of eating the right foods, doing yoga, going on walks, and writing, and I was starting to feel pretty good. Chester was doing well, too! He was eating his food every time it was set out, he was going on short walks, and he even had a short meet and greet with a neighbor dog.

We were already seeing the pay off of our routine.

We were feeling great when our son, daughter-in-law, and two granddaughters pulled into our driveway last Thursday. We hugged, we played, we chased, and we snuggled. Then, we piled in two cars to go meet more family for a fun-filled beach weekend. Chester was safely secured at home under watchful care, so he would certainly be fine if we were gone for thirty-six hours or so.

What could be better for a body than a couple days on a beach, watching children play, drinking in fresh air, and soaking up sunshine? What difference would it make if we ate a few extra chips, sampled a gluten-rich cookie or two, or splurged on some onion rings? We were laughing and smiling and having the time of our lives.

Exhausted, we pulled back into our driveway late on Saturday night to find that Chester, who’d been fine while we were gone, just couldn’t hold it together until we got to his crate. The stench in the house was evidence of what had happened as he awaited our return. So, instead of falling into my bed to recover from the weekend, I found myself on hands and knees cleaning up feces, carrying soiled blankets to the wash, and lighting candles throughout the house.

Later, as I stood in the shower, I felt my clenched jaw, my burning eyes, and my aching joints. I toweled off, pulled on pajamas, and flopped into bed. Almost immediately, Chester sunk onto his bed beside me. We sighed. We were tired. We couldn’t keep up this pace any more.

We needed a return to our best practices.

This morning, he urged me out of bed and stood near me until I found my way to my desk, carrying a bowl of gluten-free oatmeal and a cup of green tea. When I was adequately positioned, he plunked on his rug at my feet, happy to be back in the routine and looking forward to feeling the benefits.

Later this week, I’m going to welcome my sister who is visiting from out of state. We’re going to spend an evening with friends, and I am going to participate in an event for my recently graduated students. It’ll be fine. It’s not too much. I just need to remember to keep returning to these best practices.

 I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.

3 John 1:2

Come Closer

In the past weeks and months we’ve seen an escalation, it seems, of the gun violence that has been a plague on America since well before the attack at a high school in Columbine, Colorado on April 20, 1999, twenty-two years ago this week. In 2020, during a global pandemic, when many of us were under stay-at-home orders for large chunks of time, the New York Times reports that there were more than 600 shootings in which four or more people were injured or killed. In 2021, the United States has logged 147 such mass shootings and eleven mass murders (in which four or more people were killed) as of April 16th. Just a few days ago, a young man shot and killed eight at a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis before turning the gun on himself. In March, a man killed ten people at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado. A few days earlier, a young man killed eight adults at three spas in Atlanta.

At the same time, incidents of police shooting and killing suspects seem to be increasing. Last Sunday, April 11, Daunte Wright, a 20 year old man, was shot during a traffic stop. On March 29, Adam Toledo, a male teenager, was shot after a brief middle of the night police chase. In total 213 civilians were fatally shot by police in the first three months of 2021 in the United States.

What is happening? As I watch the news from my couch, I find myself yelling: “get rid of semi-automatic weapons!” and “we need free mental health care for all,” as if more mental health care and a few gun laws would make the changes we need in America.

I really wish it were that simple, but what I’m starting to wonder is what if the shootings –these killings — aren’t the problem, but merely symptoms — and as soon as I’ve written the words, I know I’m right.

The problem is much more pervasive than the gun violence we’ve seen over the last weeks, months, and years, and rather than being isolated to some we might call ‘killers’ or ‘terrorists’, ‘thugs’ or ‘criminals’, the problem lives inside all of us. The deadly disease of ‘othering’, or dehumanization, that causes and perpetuates isolation, desperation, and violence has infected all of us, and we spread it through our actions — and our inactions — every day.

Brené Brown in her now-famous Braving the Wilderness describes this disease saying:

Dehumanizing often starts with creating an enemy image. As we take sides, lose trust, and get angrier and angrier, we not only solidify an idea of our enemy, but also start to lose our ability to listen, communicate, and practice even a modicum of empathy.

excerpt found here

Have you seen this? Have you found yourself getting angrier and angrier, losing trust, and being unable to listen to those with whom you don’t agree? Have you found yourself listening for buzzwords that can help you categorize people into the enemy? I have!

Haven’t we even named those who are our enemies? Liberals, conservatives, libtards, Trumpsters, thugs, Karens, maskers, no-maskers, … I don’t have enough space on this page to list all the ways that we label those that we put on the other side or that we ourselves identify with.

Brené Brown explains that we dehumanize others in order to justify our mistreatment of them. If we reduce fellow humans to labels or categories through our language, we create distance between them and ourselves, and we find it easier to sling verbal grenades. Doing harm to these others seems right and appropriate if they are indeed the enemy. I want to shut down those I view as different from me so that my agenda can be furthered. I’m right, after all, and they are clearly so, so wrong.

If I call someone a “liberal”, I take away their personality, their humanity. I decide that they are less than human because they believe ‘socialist ideas’ and will certainly bring our country to ruin if they are left unchecked.

The same thing happens when I label someone a “Trumpster.” In my mind, I’ve consciously or unconsciously demoted their status to subhuman. They are no longer a child of our Creator, how could they be if they are not only ‘conservative but likely racist, homophobic, and hateful toward women’?

In my mind, I justify my ill thoughts toward these “enemies”; I view myself as more righteous, more human. However, such dehumanization not only reduces others to subhuman status, it reduces me, too. It makes me less than what I’m called to be, less than kind, less than gentle, less than compassionate, less than self-controlled. I find myself behaving as one who has no love, no hope, no wisdom, no knowledge of a God who has created and loves all of us. All of us.

Brene’ Brown says, ‘When we desecrate [others’] divinity, we desecrate our own, and we betray our humanity.”

So what is the remedy? Perhaps we will find our way by re-humanizing, re-connecting. And how do we do that?

I am reading a book called The Restorative Practice Handbook by Bob Costello, Joshua Wachtel, and Ted Wachtel. My principal handed me this book last fall when I started working at Detroit Leadership Academy, whose educational framework is grounded in the idea that all of our students have experienced trauma, all of them need restoration, a space into which they might step to find a different way.

And isn’t that what we need? Don’t we need some space in which we might turn around and find our way back to humanity, to compassion, to empathy for other humans whether they are similar to us or very, very different?

The main premise of the book is that when one person has caused harm to another or to the community in general, the goal should be to restore that person to his community through a very simple series of steps. Rather than immediately jumping to consequences or even punishment, Costello et al have spent the past twenty years practicing this restorative process which asks the offender to first describe what happened, what they were thinking at the time, what they’ve been thinking of since, who they think they may have offended, and what they might do to make things right. This simple questioning creates space. It allows the person, the human, to think about what happened, to process their emotions, and to realize that their actions had consequences for others.

The next step is to allow those who were impacted to share what they were thinking when the event occurred, to describe the impact it had on them, and to suggest what might need to happen to make things right. The person(s) who was harmed has a chance to process their emotions, to put their feelings into words, and to be a partner in the process of reconciliation.

These discussions take place inside a circle of those who were involved and other interested parties such as parents or community leaders. The process takes an investment of time and intentionality, but as it has been used inside school and institutional settings, the results have been remarkable. Communication in a caring and supportive environment has allowed the individual to “move past shame…and make things right and restore his relationship with the….community” (74). Crucial to the success of this process is a commitment to “‘separate the deed from the doer’ by acknowledging the intrinsic worth of the person while rejecting the unacceptable behavior” (73). This is counterintuitive. We really want to label others according to their actions, pushing them away from us into convenient boxes and imagining their ‘enemy image’, but where has that gotten us? Further and further apart.

What does this have to do with gun violence? Well, remember I said that gun violence was a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself. The real disease is our habit of dehumanizing others, of hating them, of calling them names, and pitting ourselves against them.

Brené Brown says that “people are hard to hate close up,” and that might be why we push them away. If we pulled ourselves into circles and listened to one another, listened to each other’s stories, heard each other’s hearts, we might find that our preconceived notions were oh so wrong. We might discover that we are more alike than we might have ever imagined. We might find empathy and even love.

It won’t be easy to do this work. Just reading this book over the last several days has forced me to confront all the ways I have been judgmental, punitive, legalistic, and dehumanizing. That has not been fun, but as a good friend said just recently, “I’d rather realize I’ve been an asshole for the last fifty years and work to live differently than to keep being an asshole for the rest of my life and not even know it.”

I’ve been a real asshole to some people. I haven’t been able to separate the deed from the doer. I’ve pushed people away and made judgments about them, cutting off any possibility for relationship or empathy. I’m saddened by that, and I want to do better. And I’m wondering if a few of us trying to do better might make a difference, if a few of us showing love, compassion, and empathy might begin to change the world.

I’m willing to try, and I already know that I will fail in this trying, so I am counting on some of you to keep calling me back, to bring me into the circle, to ask me what happened, what I was thinking, and what needs to happen to make things right. Are you with me?

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, as Christ forgave you.”

Ephesians 4: 32

Take Care for the Holidays, a Re-visit

Recorded in early morning voice for those who like to listen. Prefer to read? Read on.

As we head into the holidays, let’s gently remember that not everyone in our path is looking forward to reunions. I re-read the words of this blog this morning and remembered writing them through tears last year — we were broken and anticipating feeling all of that brokenness at the holidays. While much healing has happened in the past year, we are still tender enough to remember — and in that remembering, I want to be sure to take care.

Though we may not have admitted it — we are well on our way into the holiday season. It started with emails and phone calls early in October. Who is doing what for Thanksgiving? Who is hosting? Who will travel?

Discussions of Thanksgiving have already turned into talks about Christmas. Where will we meet? Who will gather? When will we worship? What gifts will we buy?

We begin our talking and planning early because holidays matter.

They have been historical points of connection. Even if they haven’t been perfect, they have had meaning. So, each year as we start early to anticipate reunions and traditions, fondly remembering caroling door to door, sledding down snowy hills, eating Christmas cookies, and unwrapping presents on Christmas morning, we are tempted to build expectation that our holiday gatherings will be Norman Rockwell perfection — even if they never have been.

All of this hope and expectation filters into our holiday conversations, which, if they haven’t already, will start this week. You’ll ask or be asked, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” expecting to hear something like, “I am going to my grandmother’s,” or “We host a huge feast every year,” or “I’m getting together with my friends.” These questions seem harmless or even polite, but you may be surprised to learn that they can be emotionally laden (and even triggering) for many among us.

  • For the young man estranged from his family because of differences in beliefs.
  • For the grieving parents whose only child lost the battle to cancer a few months ago.
  • For the recovering addict who isn’t up to managing the annual toast or maneuvering through family drama.
  • For the woman who was molested by a family member every holiday during her childhood.
  • For the newly widowed man who lost the love of his life last summer.
  • For the family who is recovering from years of dysfunction and trying to start new traditions.

They are all around us — these brave souls who are taking great pains to get out of bed every day, who struggle on an average Tuesday to shower, dress, get to work, and feed themselves. Regular days are hard.

Holidays?  Those are next-level difficult.

I was lying on a table last week as one member of my health care team was attending to my body. We entered into the pre-Thanksgiving questioning protocol benignly enough, but before I knew it, there were silent tears and flashes of memory. Holidays do that. They conjure up images of joy and pain — the full tables and the empty places. They invoke feelings of contentment and regret. They raise expectation and anxiety. Cordial exchanges that seem casual on the surface, may trigger an emotional reaction in those among us who are quietly struggling or suffering.

Am I saying that you shouldn’t ask the questions, or that you should veer away from discussions of family and Christmas and tradition and celebration? Not at all.

I’m saying, take care.

I’m saying look people in the eyes. Ask, and then listen. Don’t assume that every person in your world is looking forward to the holidays with joy. Rather, know that for many this is a very difficult time of the year. As you move through your pre-holiday interactions with the people in your life, you may be the only person to see the hard swallow or the averted gaze. You might be the only one to notice the dodged question or the avoidant joke.

And when you do, lean in. That hurting person needs to know that you saw, that you noticed, that you heard.

After I got up off that table last week, my provider and I exchanged a hug. That’s all. No prying. No awkwardness. Just a hug. The tears were seen and acknowledged. That was enough.

Yesterday, I began my search for gifts for the important people in my life. My focus was on the objects, of course. I was trying to find just the right items. A salesperson asked me if I was just looking; I said yes and then continued to browse. She kept talking, wanting to tell me about the sales. My initial reaction was to be annoyed, “Just let me shop; I said I don’t need any help.” I didn’t say it out loud, thankfully. Instead, I stopped, listened, and chatted with her a couple of times. I looked at her eyes. I listened to her voice.

I’m trying to live differently.

I think that’s where it starts, don’t you? If I just pause from churning through my to-do list for a moment, slow my roll a bit, I can see the other people around me. And when I see them, I will begin to notice the ones who just can’t wait to get home to be with their families and the ones who are aching and anxious and wish we would just knock it off with all the angels and bells and Santas already.

And when I notice, I can take care, lean in, and listen a little bit more, and perhaps, these small acts will begin to bring healing.

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.

Romans 12:10