Friday, August 23, 2013

You'll End Up In Jail

“You’re fat.”

“You’re worthless.”

“You’ll end up in jail just like your father.”

This week my freshmen and I talked about the power of words for both good and evil, and I asked them to respond to the quote, “Words break no bones, but they do break hearts.” And, let me tell you, there are some 15 year olds out there with broken hearts.

I expected my kids to have some experience with word-wounds, but I had not anticipated the depth of what they would share. They wrote of parents constantly belittling them and peers teasing mercilessly. They wrote of hearing that they are good for nothing and have no hope for a bright future. They wrote of words they had said themselves and regretted instantly…

They wrote, and my heart ached.

I remember being their age and in their shoes, and I remember words from those days. I remember words and looks and rebuffs and sideways glances, and I remember the tears I shed. But even now, decades removed, I am hurt by those very same things. Your heart doesn’t have to be young to be tender, and you don’t have to be in school to be rejected. We all know the power that others can have over us.

We know their power, but we forget ours.

“The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21).

Every word we utter will yield some sort of power – will show some sort of fruit – and whether it is positive or negative, bitter or sweet, is completely dependent on us. We get to choose.

I so badly want for my students to hear uplifting and encouraging words, but I also need for them to understand that regardless of what they hear, they are responsible for what they speak. I want that for all of us, actually.

Without a renewal of my mind and a prayer for the Holy Spirit to tame my tongue, I will wield a weapon every time I open my mouth. We each know the conditions that make us vulnerable to the torch of the tongue. For me, it’s being tired and stretched too thin, but we must also know that we are without excuse because we have been told that it is an issue of life and death. We cannot take what we say lightly. Others are standing at the ends of our words, and their lives may depend on the way we speak to them. We can cause permanent damage and inflict never-forgotten pain, or we can build up and encourage.

Lord, tame our tongues.

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Sunday, August 18, 2013

For My Students

I am a teacher, and tonight – the night before school starts back – the honest to goodness truth is that right now I could not care less about how much English literature my students learn from me this year. 

After an encounter today with someone who just wasn’t very nice, it occurred to me that I would rather every student fail the End of Course exam if, in exchange, they could learn to be good people who do everything in their power to make this world better. I know far too many well-educated people who only make this world more difficult for others and leave hurt in their wake. What good is it to know lots of information if you don’t know how to love? 

Tonight, my lessons are planned and tomorrow I will teach English, but I will fail as a person and disciple of Jesus if I forget what really matters. So students, this is what I really want you to know.

I want you to know that what you do and say to others really matters. I can remember something unkind said to me over 20 years ago, and I still have a scar from the wounds of his words. You may think you’re being funny, but to the butt of your joke, it’s not a laugh. It’s a wound. And some wounds never heal.

I want you to be responsible for the choices that you make. I lose patience when you won’t bring a pencil to class, but it’s not just about the pencil. It’s about your choice to waste an education that people in the same world as you don’t have the chance to receive. Yours is free. Don’t take it for granted.

I want you to know that you must take time to chill. Yes, education is important, but so is enjoying life. I agonized as a student over every single point, and I nearly had an ulcer before graduation. Life wasn’t fun for me then, and at the end of the day, I was miserable. Don’t be like me.

I want you not to be a victim. Yes, your life at home may be a nightmare. You might come to school without a pencil because there is no one who cares enough to buy you one. Life is hard, and you deserve some help. But you cannot use the hardship as an excuse not to succeed. Work harder than everyone else and you will have a life unlike everyone else. You play a role in the future you will live.

I want you to be kind. To everyone. I know that girl may dress funny and use too-big words, and I get it that that guy just moved here from somewhere strange. But they – like you – need a friend and a place to sit at lunch. Do you want to eat by yourself? Of course not. So don’t let anyone else have to sit alone.

I want you to know that I’m here for you. Stop laughing. I really am. I could make way more money and get far more respect doing something else. (For the record, just in the past week I was called a “glorified baby-sitter” among some other choice names. Some people think teaching is a joke.) I’m hard on you because I know you can do better, and I ride your case because I’m imagining something great for you. If I start to get on your nerves, which is almost guaranteed, try to remember that I see something in you that you haven’t seen in yourself yet.

I want you to know that I want great things for you, but greatness doesn’t always include a college education or a six figure salary. Greatness means giving of yourself and loving on others. What is your passion? What makes you feel alive? Do that! Others may think you’ve lost your mind and are wasting your talents, but if you feel you’re supposed to, then do. I will be your greatest cheerleader.

I want you to read great books. And here’s the catch no English teacher wants to admit… What is great to you might be horrible to me. And that’s ok. Reading takes you where you can’t always go yourself, and it teaches you what you didn’t know you didn’t know. Yesterday a book took me to South Sudan where children were kidnapped and forced to become soldiers. The book wasn’t – and won’t become – a classic, and it’s not on any approved reading list. Who cares? Read what you like and toss what you don’t. Life’s too short to read terrible books.

I want you to learn who you are. You’ll experiment, and you’ll learn in stages. But don’t pretend and don’t force it. You were made a certain way and for a certain reason. Do everything in your power to discover who and what that is.

I want so much for you, and so little of it has to do with my class. I want you to truly live, not just exist, and I want you to thrive in your own unique way. I want you to feel joy and to bring it to others. I want you, 30 years from now, to know that you are doing exactly what you are meant to do. I want you to be a great you – even if you don’t make an A in my class.

Monday, August 12, 2013

What No One Can Tell You About Being a Parent

I glanced in the rearview mirror today, and her shining eyes in the very back seat brought a lump into my throat.

She is six now, heading to 1st grade, and I don’t know where the time went. I swear it was just yesterday that I brought her home in a preemie outfit that swallowed her whole.

In the seat in front of her, big brother sits, his face losing baby fat as fast as he’s losing baby teeth.

They are both big kids now, riding big kid bikes and reading chapter books, leaving me to shake my head and ask the age-old question, “Where did the time go?”

It’s just one of the things no one can make you understand about being a parent.

They can’t explain to you that seeing your wrinkly, red newborn for the first time will make your heart feel as if it will explode from the love that suddenly appears.

They don’t tell you that the second time is just like the first.

They can’t tell you that you will panic the first time they sleep through the night, though you begged for it for weeks (or months – they don’t tell you that either).

No one tells you how bad explosive diapers and projectile vomiting really are, and they don’t explain that it is physically possible for your son to pee in his own mouth.

They don’t tell you that the tooth fairy will need to come on the night you have no cash, and you’ll be forced to ask Grandma to deliver a dollar on the sly.

They don’t tell you that you become a raging bull the first time someone is unkind to your child, and that you will have zero hesitation about putting some hurting on a three year old.

No one prepares you for the agony that is potty training.

They don’t tell you that you will memorize, verbatim, Good Night Moon and Elmo Loves You and Green Eggs and Ham and Little Toot (not kidding here – it’s about Toot the Tugboat) and that when you lie down at night you will hear, looping in your head, the theme song from Little Einsteins.

No one tells you that when your son is seven you will drive by the park that was his childhood, and you’ll cry for the day when he and his first friend pretended to be monsters.

You cannot be prepared for walking your baby into school and facing the reality that you have to leave without him.

You would never believe that you’ll have to scoop poop out of the tub with a plastic cup.

They don’t tell you that you will drive 30 minutes out of your way to go back and retrieve a smelly, tattered stuffed animal that is your only hope for a peaceful night.

You can’t guess that you will stand in the doorway of her room, watching her chest rise and fall, wondering what you did to deserve that child.

No one tells you that years after diapers are only a memory, you will still have a brand preference that you purchase for baby showers, and that your preferences are gender-specific.

No one tells you that you will repeatedly inhale the scent of your baby’s head, closing your eyes as you try to memorize it.

You don’t know that seeing his newborn rompers will bring tears to your eyes and that you will hug them to your chest to remember how small he once was.

You can’t imagine that the baby you once carried will turn into a hilarious, vivacious child whose company you prefer over that of some adults.

They don’t tell you that you will second-guess yourself daily, replaying decisions you made and words you said and time you spent.

You can’t know that the home-movies you are making now will rip your heart to shreds in a few years as you laugh and cry and marvel at the changes in your children.

You don’t know, but you can’t know.
They don’t explain, but they can’t explain.

Being a parent is simply an indescribable experience – we have a picture of what it will be, and the vast majority of the time, we are wrong. But we are wrong because we underestimate it. We simply have not learned how deep love can go, and we cannot know how we will transform.

The birth of a child also brings the birth of a new person – a parent.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Why Teaching Is So Doggone Hard

It’s almost here, fellow teachers. 

Like it or not, we will wake up Monday morning much earlier than our summer sleep schedules are accustomed to, and we will walk back into the buildings we simultaneously love and fear. The newly waxed floors will look foreign without any tossed away papers and all used-up pencils, and the bare bulletin boards will mock us as we remember the cute ideas we saw on Pinterest.

We will make multiple trips from the car to our rooms, carrying bags filled with the magic we are convinced will make this year the best. We will stand surveying our rooms, hands on hips, as we envision a space that inspires and welcomes.

The plans will have to wait, though, as we sit through multiple meetings where we team-build and common-core learn and technology policy question… And don’t forget lunch-plans make, as this is the week – the only week – where we are allowed to leave for the sacred lunch.

Our non-teacher friends will roll eyes as we mention ‘heading back to work,’ and they will make snide comments about us having the whole summer off. We will roll eyes back as we mutter, “You just don’t get it.” And, bless their hearts, they don’t.

They don’t get that being a teacher – a good teacher – is like being a performer onstage for eight hours a day, five days a week who has also had to write the script, create the scenery, memorize each role, and research the backstory. 

It means dealing with hecklers in the crowd whom security cannot remove and then being responsible for said hecklers mastering the nuances of the play she is performing. It means changing the script in the middle of the performance because audience members are nodding off, and doing so with zero funds because she spent her allocation stocking up on Kleenex and hand sanitizer.

It means not being able to go to the bathroom when she needs to, but racing to beat the other teachers before the tardy bell rings. 

It means having her performance observed and critiqued by those who only see just a part, and receiving blame if the audience doesn’t rush to join her onstage.

It means so much more than any non-teacher can understand.

It means feeling like you have more children than you actually delivered, crying at their troubles and celebrating their victories. It means noticing the child who has no brand new supplies and no way of getting what the list requires. 

It means sinking into your chair as the final bell rings, asking yourself if you can make it another day. It means arriving earlier the next morning to ensure that you can.

Being a teacher is hard. But it’s good.

Do me a favor, ok? If you’re not a teacher and you see one in the next few days wearing a look of panic – tell her thank you. Tell her thanks for cramming 365 days worth of knowledge into 180 (fewer if you count the interruptions and standardized tests). Say thank you for her being “on” every day when she steps in front of your child, leaving her own exhaustion, troubles, and worries at home. Let her know you appreciate the fact that she cannot just leave her work at work, but brings it (and thoughts of your child) home with her.

I guarantee she doesn’t hear ‘thanks’ nearly enough. You might even make her cry.