Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Blessings and Curses

Sometimes we inadvertently reveal in our speech what is really hidden in our hearts. 

Case in point: today on Christian radio, I listened to a woman talk about how, as a schoolteacher, God has blessed her this year with a good class. A teacher myself, I understand the 'blessing' of a good class, but as a word person, I started thinking about what she really meant. Her well-behaved class is easier to manage and teach than an unruly one, so she ultimately sees it as good. Good, for most people who call themselves Christians, is equivalent to blessing. Good = blessing. Good = easy? Good = what we desire? Good = the life we want? If God blesses us with 'good' things, does that mean He curses us with bad? 

From a whole lot of Scripture and a whole lot of personal experience, I can tell you unequivocally that God does not curse us who are His children. He does not send us the "bad" as the opposite of the blessing. In actuality, the 'bad' often is - or leads to - the blessing itself.

The hard situations of life - the challenging times, the difficult people, the situations we can't change or fix - these are not the opposites of blessings. These are not curses, though they may feel to be. They are exhibitions of His favor that we can't yet see as blessings because our timelines are immediate and His favor extends into the unseen.

When I look back to the times I felt 'cursed,' I remember desperately wanting God to intervene with blessing. I remember begging for favor and yearning to know why He allowed such hardship for His child. I didn't see any of it as good, easy, or what I desired. Now, though? I see. Now, I understand that the initial hardship led to the eventual good. The immediate pain allowed for the ultimate joy. The 'curse' of the time made way for the 'blessing' to come.

None of this is to say that difficulties are enjoyable. We shouldn't wish for them, and I know firsthand that it's nearly impossible to count them as joy. But in the midst of them, they become bearable when we remember - and believe - that anything that comes into our lives has met with approval from our Maker. He allowed it, has seen it to the end, and will use it for our good. We can rest in the knowledge that what feels like a curse now is simply a blessing that remains unseen. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Imagined No

I never imagined the response I would get to a simple question posed on social media. I simply asked, "What do you think keeps people from doing what they would love to do and being who/what they'd love to be?" Apparently I struck a nerve - people sent me their responses electronically and told me their stories in person, and I was relieved because of what I felt was confirmed in their answers.

I am not alone.


"Obligations and responsibilities."

"Definitely money."

"Guilt for putting themselves first."


"Fear of failing."

"Fear of the unknown."

"Fear--of failure, ridicule, looking like a fool."

"Fear of not knowing they would be able to succeed in what they love..."

"Fear of failure or fear of success."

Over and over, the word "fear" was repeated in nearly every answer. Fear of failing, fear of what other people will say and think, fear of how life might change... Even the fear of success. I was blown away at the fact that so many of us want something else - might even feel called to something more - but stay where we are in spite of the feeling that we're not supposed to be there. Our fear, its many shapes and sizes, paralyzes us. We remain where because of the fear that anything else will be a colossal failure.

Certainly there are responsible reasons why we deny ourselves and our longings. Having a family requires money to buy things like food, so sometimes a paycheck takes precedence over a dream. Plus, we need insurance, don't we? And dreams require a significant time investment. Then some of us over-spiritualize and assume that we are not good Christians if we are not content in the current. We think there's no way Jesus would want us to step out of the situation we're in. After all, he put us there, right? So we don't go, don't change, don't allow ourselves to believe that the dream deep inside is really from God. We convince ourselves that we are simply selfish and that pursuing the more - whatever it is - is an act that is wrong.

Sometimes we use our responsibilities as our excuses.

Sometimes there is comfort in the fear because at least it is familiar.

I've begun to see that we live in the disappointment of an imagined "no" to a question we're afraid to ask.

That imagined and presumed "no" is the reason we don't take risks. 'Am I supposed to take this leap of faith, Lord?' 'Is this dream I've had since I was a little girl your true calling on my life?' 'Will I finally be content if I pursue this crazy dream?'

We imagine the worst, assuming that "no" is inevitable. We call it "responsibility" and "taking care of obligations" when sometimes it's really just fear and excuse-making and - this is my greatest fear - we miss why we were created. When we deny our callings and just call it being selfless, we are denying this world of the gifts that only we have to offer. We are not doing what is noble; we are doing what is comfortable. We are not taking the path God set before us; we are taking the path of least resistance.

When we assume the answer is "no" before we ever ask the question - we are limiting the life we were created to live. We call it many things, but sometimes it's just being faithless. It's time we call it what it is.

I am not giving you carte blanche to do whatever you want; I am giving you permission to do whatever you're supposed to. Can the misery of pretending that you're fine in the place you are in be enough to move you out? Can the nagging feeling that there has to be more for you be what allows you to search for it? Can my urging you that your dream is your calling be what it takes to move you from complacency to complete abandonment?

It is not selfish to be what God called you to be. Rather, friend, it is selfish to deny the world of the beauty that you will bring when you are who you were created to be.

May we all believe that today.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

To Those Kids I Taught My First Year...

Dear Students,

I met you guys 13 years ago this August. You were 12 - not quite little children, but not quite young adults, that awkward stage now known as the "tween years." I was barely 21, a new college graduate with a head full of knowledge and a heart full of uncertainty. On the day we met, I was more nervous than I had ever been before. I had spent weeks shopping for and decorating our classroom, and to this day, I can remember exactly what it looked like. I remember the bulletin boards I painstakingly decorated and the curtains I hung in the windows. I had pored over the textbook, carefully choosing the stories I would teach and the projects you would complete. My lesson plans for those first weeks were impeccable, and my welcome letter to you was thoughtful and full of my hopes for our year together. In short, I thought I was ready for you. In fact, I have never been more wrong. Because, even though I was a magna cum laude graduate with a degree in Secondary Education who had aced the Praxis exam and received great feedback on my student teaching, I was not prepared. I had no idea what I was really doing, and I had no idea just what was really expected of me as your teacher.

You're 25 now, perhaps college graduates with families of your own, and you might not even remember your 7th grade Language Arts teacher at Dutch Fork Middle, but if you do, this is what I want to say to you.

I am so sorry.

I feel now like I failed you.

It wasn't on purpose, and I didn't exactly realize it at the time, but now as an experienced teacher, I know the mistakes I made and the many ways I didn't give you what you needed. I saw you as students, but I forgot that you were people. I focused on the content, and I didn't consider your character. My priority was your performance, but I excluded your needs. Will you - can you? - please forgive me? I hope I didn't derail your education and make you despise school. I made it all about the academics - and regardless of what politicians, Common Core standards, and high-stakes testing say - it isn't. School isn't just about what you learn, but who you become. And I did nothing to help you become what you were meant to be.

I am so sorry.

That first year, I did not have kids of my own yet, and as a result, I didn't know how kids work. Sure, I had studied theories about child development and I had been lectured to about Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but I didn't understand you. I never stopped to think about your home life and how it affected what you did in my room. I never considered that some of you were hurting or that you couldn't learn because your bellies were hungry. I was so naive, and I assumed that some of you weren't learning because you just weren't trying. Now I know that maybe you couldn't.

To you, sweet red-headed M, the first autistic child I ever taught, I beg your forgiveness. I had zero experience with autism, and you suffered as a result. I did not know what to do to help you. I felt helpless and scared. I pray that you are successful now anyway.

And you, little C.B. Your anger is what I remember all these years later. I never tried to understand where it came from, and I only added to it by staying on your case. I don't know where you are now, but I'm hoping that you encountered a teacher who knew and therefore cared more than I did.

G.H. - I heard that you brought a gun to school after I taught you. Thankfully, you didn't do anything with it, but I want you to know that I have questioned myself often about what I could have done to turn your life around when you were 12. It haunts me sometimes that I didn't try harder for you. I know I don't deserve the blame for the choices you made, but I wonder if I could have intervened back when you were in my care.

To all of you, the now-adults I will always picture as the then-children: goodness, do I wish I could have that year with you back. I would put down the legal pad of information I taught myself the day before I taught you, and we would just talk. I would ask about your dreams and tell you that they could come true. I would tell you about myself - the person, not the teacher. I would encourage you in your failures, not berate you for your lack of effort. I would care about your after-school activities, knowing that for some of you, they meant everything. I would be your safe place, because I know now that some of you didn't have one.

I haven't seen most of you since you were in the 7th grade, but I want you to know that my failures with you then have been the cause of some of my successes today. Anything good I do in my classroom today is because of the bad I did in yours then.

You might not remember me, but I will never forget you. You, my first students, deserve my apologies, but you also deserve my thanks. You changed me, and every student I encounter now benefits because of how you affected me. Wherever you are now and whatever you are doing, know that I'm thinking of you. I'm wishing you success, and I'm sending you "I'm sorry" all these years later. Learn from me now the hardest lesson I've ever learned myself - that the places where we fail and the times when we feel inadequate can also serve as the greatest stepping stones to finding where and what we need to be.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Girls, Girls, Girls

Each day as I drive down a certain highway in my hometown, I see a sign advertising in bold black letters, "Girls! Girls! Girls!" As I watched a pseudo-news program on television last night, it featured 'the sexiest Halloween costumes for women' and showed a video-gone-viral of a young woman receiving over 100 catcalls just walking down the street. When I opened up CNN's website just now, the featured headline read, "Women Sold, Raped, Enslaved by ISIS."

No matter where I look, it looks really bad to be a female.

Maybe it's because I'm the mother of a little girl who is rapidly growing older, or maybe it's just because I am growing older myself, but day by day I am increasingly saddened at just what it means to be a female in 2014. Sure, we have the right to vote, and yes, the glass ceiling has begun to crack and shatter, but in many ways it still dangerous and/or a liability to be a female.

Every day at the high school where I teach, I see young ladies violating the dress code and displaying their bodies in a way that makes me cringe. Their tops are low-cut, their shorts are unbelievably short, and their skinny jeans are impossibly skinny. Those 15 year old girls probably don't understand, but the way they display their bodies says a lot about the way they feel. And the feeling that most of them seem to feel is this: "I am my appearance. My self is my looks." Maybe, for some of them, they just dress like their friends, but maybe, just maybe, they have learned that even in 2014,  in much of the world, a young lady is the sum of her parts. And those parts need to be shown.

I am not - hear me, please - blaming these girls. I am blaming us - our society. We collectively have allowed females to be 'less-than.' We have reduced them to parts and demanded that those parts appear a certain way. We have caused a girl's worth to be dependent on so many things other than who she really is - the person inside with a heart and intelligence.

I have realized that in many ways, and in many places, girls are a commodity. They are still treated as though they are inferior to males, and they still are fighting for equality. I know that I, personally, have felt this way. I have felt 'less-than' simply because I am a female, and I have been told that I cannot do what males can do - even though I am more qualified and would likely do quite well.

When will this end, and how? I wish I knew. The scary thing is I'm not convinced that it will. Seeing females merely as sex objects and pawns in a man's world has become so ingrained in our culture that a perspective shift will not come easily. Especially as long as we females who know better don't do better. If we continue to allow ourselves to be demeaned and discriminated against, nothing will change. If we don't fight for ourselves - and our daughters - no one will.

I want to be able to tell my little girl that she can do anything - and mean it. I don't want there to be businesses in my hometown where men can pay - in any capacity - for women and their services. I don't want her gender to essentially be a disability that prevents her from achieving her dreams. I want her to see a world that so far hasn't existed: a world where being a female is more positive than negative.

Image courtesy of http://www.lettherebeneon.com/?page_id=892

Friday, October 24, 2014

I Never Don't Feel Guilty

It's 2:47 on a Friday, this one being a teacher workday. I am sitting down, in my recliner, at home. As we speak, there are still a bunch of teachers at my school logging hours, planning for next week and doing the myriads of unending tasks that teachers have to do. But I'm not there. I'm home.

We were given permission to leave today at 2:15 since we spent an evening at school a few weeks ago for Open House. I had permission to leave - yet I feel guilty. This, my friends, is the real life of a teacher. We never don't feel guilty about something.

I feel guilty because I was the only person walking out the door at 2:15. The parking lot was still full, and my own to-do list wasn't finished. My supply cabinet really needed to be reorganized, and the nonfiction unit I'm doing soon still needs some work. My bookshelves are dusty, and I should have emailed that parent. Ugh - yep. I probably should have stayed later.

But I didn't. I chose to come home to my elementary-school-aged children and spend some time with them. (I'm a rebel, aren't I?) I chose to try to turn my school brain off for a little while and not be driven mad by the ever-increasing demands placed on me - us - including the new requirements we learned about in the meeting this morning. I chose to go out for lunch with my friends, and I chose to leave today as soon as I could. And I'm trying to be ok with that.

But you know why it's hard to be ok with that? Because teachers are constantly judged, and the criticism is loud and stinging. We are judged by parents - "My child has never made a C before, so you must be the problem." We are judged by other teachers - "Ew, I never teach that story. The kids think it's so boring." We are judged by administrators - "Mrs. X was at school even though she was sick. Let's all try to be like Mrs. X." And please don't forget the community - "Kids today can't read and write. I just don't know what's going on in that school." From every direction, teachers are judged, but the harshest judgments are those that come from ourselves.

Yes, we teachers know that we have a million eyes on us. We know that there is nothing more important than influencing the life of a child, so the million eyes have a right to be on us. That's fair. But the brightest spotlight we feel is the one we turn on ourselves. On the whole, teachers are a group of perfectionists. You might not be able to tell by looking at some of our desks, but we want to do things right. We want to be on the cutting edge of research and technology, and we want to be the teacher that a high school senior remembers fondly. We feel like crying when a lesson bombs, and we hurt when our kids just can't get it. We have file cabinets full of old lessons, but we create new ones every year so they'll be just right. We look in others' classrooms as we walk down the halls, and we feel insufficient because of what we see. We peek at the study guide left in the copier, and we groan inwardly when we realize ours is not nearly as good.

We are constantly judged - but the worst judgments are our own. They bring a guilt that feels inescapable. On a daily basis, I might feel badly about any (or all) of the following:
* I can't get to school before 7:15 because of having to take my own kids to school. That teacher gets here every morning at 6:30 when the building opens.
* I forgot to make these copies yesterday afternoon, so now I have 46 seconds before the bell rings to get them run off.
* That bulletin board has been up since August. It really needs to be changed.
* The 72 essays I collected three days ago haven't been graded, and both kids and parents are checking Parent Portal to see if the grades are there. They aren't.
* Having to say, "We don't have enough time to finish this story in class, so you guys will have to finish it on your own tonight. I know - I'm sorry. But there's not enough time."
* That student from 4th period last year was arrested last night.
* The technology I was awarded through a grant is probably wonderful - but I haven't had enough time to learn to use it well yet.
* Student X doesn't have access to the internet at home, and no one in his family was willing to take him to the library. His paper, therefore, isn't typed. Which was a requirement.
* I forgot to show the school news. Again.
* This poetry packet I need to copy is 15 pages. I know that's a lot of paper, but the poems in our textbook are really bad...

It just goes on and on. In the course of one class, I feel so inadequate to meet the demands of every student. There are kids with learning disabilities, kids who barely speak English, kids whose baby sister is fighting cancer, kids who have no high school graduates in their families, kids who have no books on a bookshelf at home, kids who did not get enough to eat today, kids who cannot afford the supplies they come without, kids with struggles I can tell are there but cannot figure out... The education system has evolved to hold teachers accountable for students and their performances, and believe me, we feel accountable. I feel responsible for things I cannot change and cannot control, and it leads to a feeling of all-consuming guilt most days. We teachers never don't feel guilty.

Part of learning to be a teacher is learning to live with the guilt. It's understanding that at the end of the day, if we've done all we can do - academically and otherwise - then we can go home and be satisfied with our day's work. It's realizing that we can't change everything for a child. It's understanding that no matter how hard we work - or how late we stay - there will always be someone doing more or working later. Part of being a good teacher is going in your classroom, closing the door, teaching your heart out, and then going home to recharge. Part of being a good teacher is getting out of the school and being just you. Even with a little guilt following you as you leave.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Joy Is Coming

Single moms, I woke up this morning thinking of you.

There's no reason why other than that the Holy Spirit reminded me I was once one of you, and there's no one who understands who hasn't actually been there.

So as I was drying my hair and simultaneously trying to get my children ready, I thought of you and prayed. I closed my eyes and was transported to the hardest days of my life - the years I spent as an all-alone mom, a woman who was working and mothering and exhausted in a way that cannot be explained in words. I teared up as I recalled the nights I spent wide-awake because my overtired brain could not stop thinking. I prayed on your behalf, asking our God to give you real physical rest and to relieve the burden that is weighing on you most.

I am no longer one of you, but in some ways, I feel like I always will be. I know just how you feel, and I want to tell you today that you are not forgotten. I know how alone you feel and how worried you are. I understand the helplessness you feel when there's just not enough of you and the effort you give falls just a little short. I remember always trying to be enough and never feeling like I was. Today - whether it's a good day or one of those where you didn't want to get out of bed - today, I'm telling you that you are not forgotten. You are not alone, and your God will never leave you.

You, single moms, are rock stars. You do it all because you have no other choice, and because you do it all so well, no one knows just how hard it is. No one knows the constant pit in your stomach, the pulse-increasing worries that overtake you even in the calmest of moments. No one knows the nights you're awake until wee hours because the house must be cleaned, the laundry washed, the lunches made, and the bills paid. No one knows because your complaints stay inside - you stuff your hardships down and just forge ahead. You, ladies, who are forging ahead - you do it out of love for those babies of yours, and I'm telling you that your work done out of love will never be in vain. Never, even if it feels like it.

I'm crying as I type because, dear sister, I know. So often, that's what I needed to hear in those hardest of times, so that's what I'm saying to you today. I know. Our situations might be different, the ways we became single very different, but I know your heart, and I know your fears. I wish I could say I know your future and could tell you that everything will change soon, but all I know for sure is that even in the midst of your hardest of times, if you seek the Lord, He will be found. Though your situation may not change, your perspective can.

Can I tell you what I know now that I'm on the other side? Those hardest of times were necessary.
I hated them, yes. I agonized through the years when I felt abandoned and forsaken, and I pleaded with God to deliver me from those times. He did, eventually, and my lips will never stop praising Him for what He delivered me from and what He delivered me to, but those times? I needed them

Those times taught me true faith and gave me a testimony that God is indeed who He says He is. Those times taught me that circumstances don't define us - and they don't determine our worth. Do I want to go back? Absolutely not. But would I rewrite my history to exclude those hardest of times? No. I wouldn't do that either. Those times made me who I needed to be. That's what I know, and that's why I'm thankful.

I never understood the verse that says, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance" (James 1:2-3.) How can a trial be joyous? The trial isn't. That's not what it says. The joy is not in the trial; the joy is in what the trial produces. The joy is in who you become and what you learn and how your faith becomes authentic because it survives the trial intact and stronger.

The joy comes, friends.

The joy comes because God remains.

You, single moms? You are not forgotten. And joy is coming.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Free Fridays and Ketchup Days

Now that we're back in the swing of school and I feel like I've gotten to know my 9th graders well, there are some things I have encountered that disturb me. A lot. (One of which is the way they all use the word 'alot.' It's two words, people. A. Lot. But I digress.)

I pride myself on being a tough teacher. If a student makes an A in my class, it's because he or she has earned it. I don't give A's just for showing up - students earn A's when they complete and master assignments. What disturbs me, this semester more than any other, perhaps, is how many of my students expect those A's just for showing up. The first few quizzes, tests, and homework assignments threw them for the proverbial loop. There were many grades far below par, and there were many confused students and parents. There was a confused teacher, too. If the answers aren't right, then I must mark them wrong, right? If the assignment is only halfway completed, then it cannot earn more than a 50 percent, right?

Yes, my expectations are high, and no, I don't apologize for it. But what has been on my mind lately is simply this: are my expectations really that much higher than my students have known? Is completing an assignment fully and accurately really such an anomaly? Have attempts without mastery been acceptable in the past?

Don't get me wrong - I know that high school is a whole new ballgame for kids. The pace is faster, the classes are longer, and the load is heavier. Understandable. But the expectations - shouldn't they be similar? The demand for responsibility - shouldn't it be comparable?

A friend of mine teaches across the hall from me, and she had a student ask if they got to have "Free Friday." Her response: "I'm sorry - what? You get free Saturday and Sunday. We have work to do."

Free Friday? Is there really such a thing? Are there teachers somewhere who have fewer standards  to teach and lower expectations from their administration? How can this exist?

My mind is always blown when I give back the first test, students see a low grade, and the question is posed, "When can I retake this?" I try very hard to control myself when I answer, "Never. You didn't take the notes, you failed to turn in the homework, and you didn't come in for extra help." I sincerely don't understand, and I need someone to explain this one to me. Is retaking tests standard practice now? Is getting a second chance when you did zero work the first time somehow helping children succeed? I would argue vehemently that giving multiple chances after initial laziness only perpetuates laziness. Why should a child study or work hard the first time if there's going to be a second? (Of course, there is a difference for a child with a diagnosed learning disability. That's a very different conversation.)


Likewise, "Ketchup" Days leave me dazed and confused as well - at least for high school. My students have 5 days after an excused absence to make up any work missed. After 5 days, the missing work becomes a zero, and they are not given the opportunity to "ketchup" no matter how cute the graphic on a red folder is. After 5 days, we have moved light years ahead, and failure to complete missed work becomes a responsibility issue. I fear we are teaching learned helplessness. My take on the issue is very black and white - the missing work was in the folder, you knew the procedure, so your failure to complete the work is a you problem. Case closed.

We are doing students - future adults - no favors by giving them a zillion chances to complete work well and completely. We are teaching them no life skills when we allow them to get away with anything less than the best they can give.

I'm going to make this into a poster to hang in my classroom!

The best thing happened during a conversation the other day with a student. She shared with me that she had fun in last year's class. The teacher was cool and let them use their phones all the time, but now she realizes how little she actually learned and how far behind she is as a result. She wishes her teacher had taught and demanded more. Isn't that the point of education? To teach people what they didn't even know they didn't know?

I desperately want to be remembered by my students as someone who challenged them daily, teaching them how to think deeply and act responsibly. I want them to look back on freshman English and think, "Man. I really earned that A."

Saturday, August 9, 2014

You Have Seen

Dear Jennie,

Today you're well-rested, having just returned from a relaxing getaway with your incredible husband. The new school year is looming and you're feeling a little stressed, beginning to make lists of all that must be done. But the stress you're feeling now is nothing compared to how you'll feel next Sunday night, when you know that 75 students will be entering your classroom the next day expecting great things of you. The stress will be even greater as you begin to prepare them for the high-stakes testing that will determine so much of their future - and yours. The anxiety will mount, the exhaustion will set in, and around February of this year, you'll begin to grumble. So I'm writing to you now, before all of it starts, to remind you that the stress, anxiety, and exhaustion are all a privilege. Really, they are.

You see, Jennie, how have you forgotten? You've traveled to other countries where education isn't a given. You have seen with your own eyes children carrying their own chairs to a makeshift classroom in a tin building well over 100 degrees.

You have seen their kitchen, empty but for a few small bags of beans and a jug of oil. You have heard the school leaders say that the kerosene is almost gone and there is no money for more.

You have listened to lessons being taught in another language to children who have to pay to be there.

You have snuggled with a student who had never seen you before but held on for dear life.

You have seen the reality that education will be their only way out.

You have seen students smiling just at the chance to be at school. You have seen classrooms that are not Pinterest-inspired but are instead - and more importantly - freedom-providing.

So, Jennie, when education in America seems overwhelming both to you as a teacher and to your children as students, remember that it's education in America! It is not held under a bridge, it is not dangerous for your daughter to attend, and it is not financially impossible. 

Is it perfect? Of course not. But compared to what you've seen and where you've been, Jennie, it's a dream come true. A dream that even today, non-American children are chasing by illegally riding trains into this country. A dream that today, in 2014, little girls around the world don't have to opportunity to pursue. A dream that today, most people take for granted. Don't be one of them, Jennie. Don't be a grumbler. Don't fall into the trap that only complains about education in America. Be a part of making it better. And be a person who remembers just how incredible it really is.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

You Think You Love Her Now

My side of the family is in a sweet baby frenzy right now, with my younger sister having just delivered her very own 8 lb 14 oz daughter. Born in the wee hours of the morning, sweet Emma has enchanted us all and ended a 7 year baby drought. We are all awash in pacifiers and swaddling and worries of when she last pooped. Babies make us crazy, don't they? (Side note - those 8 lbs 14 oz and my sister's tale of delivery made me thankful for my own unexpected C-sections. They weren't what I wanted, but neither is pushing out an 8 lb 14 oz baby, thank you very much! She's my new hero.)

As I've seen us all fall head over heels in love with this brand new person, it has occurred to me that the love we first feel when we see our newborns is nothing compared with the love that develops as we get to know them as people. The love we feel when we hear our newborns cry and when we nestle them for the first time is powerful and automatic, a connection so strong that we would immediately fight to the death for them. We think that we are as in love with them as we will ever be, but we are wrong. We think we love them now, but that love intensifies and changes as they do.

So I'd like to say to my baby sister as she is loving on her baby, you think you love her now, but just wait.

Just wait until that helpless newborn smiles at you for the first time (and not from gas.) Wait until she locks eyes with you and smiles that toothless grin because she knows that it's you. Just wait. You think you love her now.

Wait until she cries for you and cannot - will not - be soothed by anyone else. Wait until only Mommy will suffice. Your heart will swell knowing that she really does know her Mommy. Wait and see.

Wait until she reaches out with her fat-roll ridden arms, saying, "Carry you, Mommy," needing the safe arms of her mother. You think you love her now.

Just wait until she says in that squeaky 2-year old voice, "I wuv you, too." You will melt every time you hear it and secretly hope that she never learns to pronounce her L's.

Wait until you walk her into the first day of kindergarten, her hair in pigtails and your heart in your throat. Wait until you walk back to your car, crying the ugly cry because she's so big and you're so sad and you know nothing will ever be the same. Wait until she runs back into your arms and tells you about her friends and shows you her papers. You think you love her now. Just wait.

Wait until she begins to hide notes for you written in her own handwriting. "I love Mommy" painstakingly penned in crayon is more priceless than any Picasso in a museum. Wait until you pull out the shoe box containing all of her notes and have tears rolling down your cheeks because you remember feeling her kick in your belly. Wait and see.

Wait until you watch her do something she really fears for the first time, like riding a big-girl bike or diving into a pool. When she falls and fears but tries it again, your pride in her tenacity will add another dimension to your love for her. You think you love her now.

Wait until you're sick or have a headache and she shows genuine concern, asking, "Are you okay, Mommy?" Your love for her big heart will overwhelm you, and you will have faith that she'll be an amazing woman one day. You just think you love her now.

Wait until she begins to say her own prayers, saying things like, "I'm thankful for all of that, God, but mostly for you." You think you love her now.

Wait until her baby teeth fall out and too-large teeth grow in and her legs are long and gangly. You will wonder where your baby went, but you'll catch a glimpse when you least expect it, and it will make you catch your breath. Just wait.

Just wait until she confesses a fear to you, that she won't get a reward M&M in computer lab because she's not the first to finish her work. Your own tears will well and you'll want to fight over M&Ms and you will love her so fiercely it hurts. You think you love her now.

We think we love them now, but the truth is that we will love them more - and differently - tomorrow. A mother's love for her child is a dynamic, always-evolving, never-lessening creature. It is a love that no one can prepare you for, and it is a love that transcends even horrible-birth stories. It is a love from God himself, and it is a love only surpassed by Him. We just think we love them now.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Deep Thoughts on Food Network

So today's deep thoughts about Food Network are 100% percent indicative of the fact that school is out and I'm at home and I have wayyyy too much television-watching time on my hands.


We shall begin with Giada De Laurentiis. My immediate thought every time her shows come on is, "For real?" She's a doggone chef who cooks all the time, yet she has the figure of a fashion model. She weighs like 82 pounds and smiles with those perfectly white teeth, and I am (understandably) inherently distrustful. I like my chefs to have the figure of Barefoot Contessa or pre-scandal Paula Deen. I need to know that they eat what they cook and that if I were to somehow begin cooking the way they do, I would blow up and am therefore justified in my less-than-Food-Network-worthy culinary prowess. It makes me think she's a wizard or something. Plus, "Giada at Home" contains views of the ocean through her window. Unfair.

Barefoot Contessa. Ina Garten. Whatever you call her, she is a character. She says things like, "I suppose you could always use a store-bought chicken stock, but it's just so easy to kill and roast a free-range chicken from your farm and use produce from your own garden. Home-grown basil has a freshness that stores just can't duplicate." Well, then. I couldn't agree more. Plus, she laughs. A lot. If you've never noticed, just listen when her friends mosey on over to her palatial abode in the Hamptons. She laughs a strange amount.

Ree Drummond. I think we could be friends, but I would need to see her not smiling just once to know that she's the real deal. Seriously - she smiles the whole show. Still, I like her. She uses the blasphemous store-bought ingredients and makes things like Monster Cookies, so she can't be too bad. Plus, we could hang out at the lodge while the kids round up the cattle.

Guy Fieri. While his bleached porcupine hair is a bit jolting at first, I adore "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives." He is hilarious, and he's pudgy. The two most important qualities in a TV chef. Plus, I just got back from a cruise that served his burgers, and they were unbelievable. Super melty cheese and donkey sauce. Yum yum. Which makes me think of yum-o, which makes me think of Rachael Ray.

In a paradoxical predicament, I am highly annoyed by her, yet always watch her. Why is this? Is it because her 30 minute meals seem accessible even if they would cost a million dollars to actually make? Is it because she could talk the paint off a wall? Perhaps it's her stories about her Sicilian mother and her excessive use of EVOO. The mystery of her appeal remains.

I would like to address the hidden hilarity of my watching Food Network shows at all. I don't like to cook. Not even a little bit. And eating isn't something I love too much, either. I am not a foodie, and I do not have a discriminating palate. I could eat cereal three meals a day. I guess I like living vicariously through people who have mastered the stress of having side items finish cooking at the same time. Tears me up every time. Last night, my rolls finished just as the pork chops did and I felt they should award me a show. Maybe the hours of watching Food Network are starting to pay off after all.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Reflections on a Sabbatical

I needed a break from the world.

Life was chaotic, I was overwhelmed, and the constant barrage of perfect pictures of everyone else's world was about to do me in. So I did the 21st century version of squirreling myself away from society for a while - I logged off.

I didn't blog; I didn't read blogs. I swore off Facebook, and I shunned Twitter. I gave myself a time-out from the nonstop updates that stole my minutes and brought out my envy.

It was glorious.

And now that I've allowed myself some social media again, I almost wish I hadn't. Perhaps it's just my personality type, but I've come to realize how few contributions social media actually make for me personally.

Sure, I can see what people I went to high school with are up to (and goodness gracious, that's more than I needed to know), and I can learn quickly who just got engaged or took a pregnancy test, and yes, I don't know how we lived without knowing who was at the gym or seeing a picture of their meals, but truly - does the information we're obsessed with posting and fanatical about reading enrich our lives? Does it make us better people, or does it just make us voyeurs? Does it make us more satisfied, or does it just make us compare?

I know what it does for me, and it often isn't pretty.

Now, I'm not saying that social media can't be useful. Certainly it can. It promotes some good causes, reconnects old friends, and (sometimes) encourages us. But if we were to draw up a list of pros and cons, I'm afraid the cons would win every time - at least for me. And in an age where time is so limited and people are already so disconnected, allowing social media to consume such a large part of our lives is unproductive and isolating. And I don't think anyone can argue that it doesn't consume a lot of time. Nearly everyone I know checks their social media multiple times a day. Don't believe me? Go to any restaurant and just watch the people dining. They can't eat an entire meal without checking who has updated Facebook or taking selfies to show the world they were on a date (enough already!). We no longer know how to be; we must also do.

What it all boils down to for me is this quote from Roosevelt - "Comparison is the thief of joy." Every single time I get on social media - and maybe it's just me - I compare what I say/do/look like/wear/write with everyone else. I don't want to, and goodness knows I don't try to, but it just happens. Most people post the highlights of their lives (although we all have those 'friends' who post the negatives that should really remain private), so seeing the highlights can wrongly make us believe that their lives are all highlights. News flash - they aren't. Social media has become, for many, just the grown-up way of bragging about the good and concealing the bad.

My sabbatical revealed to me that I can live without Facebook. Twitter isn't a necessity, and even though I enjoy keeping up with strangers' lives via blogs, I don't have to. I did not suffer in the least from not knowing the ins and outs of others' days. I managed just fine without poring over entries of 140 characters. I spent more time reading and less time with my nose buried in my phone. Life felt calmer, and I honestly felt less anxiety. Maybe it was imagined and just a placebo effect, or maybe there was really a connection. Whatever the case, I learned something valuable. Less computer, more living. You should try it sometime.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

An Olympic-Sized Dream

As a teacher, this is how I envision myself.

I'd like to think that, like an Olympic torch bearer, I am beckoning all hopefuls to follow the flame as I dutifully lead them to the place of dream-realization.

Unfortunately, this is a more realistic picture.

When I went into this profession, I honestly believed that I would be the teacher to make a difference. I would inspire adolescents to love learning, and they would look back on their education and hallowedly speak my name as The One who made all the difference.

Nobody told me that the reality would be slightly different, with me admonishing the same 14 year old three days in a row for failing to bring a pencil, or that I would slump in my chair at the final bell wondering just why I thought I was cut out for this. Nobody explained that the kid in all black would cry out for attention in ways I had never seen. Nobody said that my heart would break when my student's mother died while he was in my class.

Teaching, in case you don't know, is not always leading a charge with a flame. It is pulling your charges towards a pinprick of light. It is not always inspiring; it is often excruciating.

So often, when the classroom clears and all that's left are long-forgotten, tooth-marked pencils, I feel defeated. More often than not, I leave the space where I thought I would make miracles and feel like I've just made a mess.

Today was one of those days. I know I explained the same concept 452 times in 452 ways, then had 452 questions from 452 students. It was (she says hyperbolically) exhausting. I looked back at the beautiful but now ragged lesson plan book, questioning where I made the mistake. Should there have been more differentiation? Would a group activity have been more effective? Surely there was a video that could have been a help.

The fault, I always assume, is my own.

This job gets hard when we forget that we're dealing with people. People who have free will, varying interests, and unpredictable behavior. People who can't always see that the now of a classroom affects the future of a life.

I so badly want to be Hilary Swank in "Freedom Writers" or Michelle Pfeiffer in "Dangerous Minds." I want to be Matthew Perry in "The Ron Clark Story." I want to change the course of lives and know that what I'm doing matters.

But the reality most days for teachers is that we're the tortoise in ye old parable. We plod on, ever so slowly, gaining what appears to be very little ground. We march forward despite feeling that we're losing this race. But maybe, just maybe, one day we'll look up and realize that we did win after all. Maybe we won't have turned a 15 year old aspiring dropout into the next Maya Angelou, but maybe we will have reminded a cynical youth that not all adults are out to get him. And we need to see that as a win.

I fail as a teacher when perfection is my aim. There really is no perfect lesson, just as there are no perfect students. There will be no perfect days. Heck - I can't even make a perfect bulletin board. Perfect is preposterous. Progress is attainable. Progress should be our goal. 

When I look back at the hard days, the ones that left my lip quivering and my confidence dashed, they will be rendered meaningless unless I look for the small progress. And even on those hardest of hard days, there was some. There was the student who never speaks in class, but who sent a tender-hearted email asking if my daughter was feeling better. There was a colleague who thanked me for being firm but fair. There was the quiet English language learner who scored higher on the quiz than many native speakers. There was the tough school-hater who raised his hand instead of blurting out.

Even on the days when I feel like a failure, there is progress. There is someone closer to the light today than he was yesterday. There is someone who was welcomed and nurtured, even if my classroom was the only place it happened.

With so much talk of high stakes testing and standards being raised, I'm afraid that we might be forgetting the most important standards. The human ones. The ones that teach kids they matter. The ones that listen instead of lecture. The ones that believe that even the kid on your last nerve can become something great.

The best moments in room D-122 come when the lesson plan is pushed aside and my students become people. When I hear of their fears and frustrations with the system. When they are given a voice and allowed to use it in a place of safety. When they ask legitimate questions and I have to consider my own wrongness. The best moments come when we share life, not just a classroom.

The question plaguing me in all of my life right now is this: "What If?" And I must consider it for my students as well as myself. What if school were not about grades and papers but about preparation for hard times? What if every child knew he had an advocate who would walk through the fire for him? What if we relaxed rigid standards and raised serious expectations? What if we allowed interest to inform instruction?

I wish I had the answer to cure our education system's woes. I don't - because it's not simple. The best cure I have is for us to continue to care. When the bureaucrats ask us to see it all as black and white, right and wrong, I will fight for those kids in gray areas. When the policy makers who have never taught a class decide that standardization is the answer, I will close my door and do what's best for my kids. When the statisticians look at scores as the only indication of what's learned, I will look at the character of the students in my charge. When the government wants to pay me based on students' performance, I will fight like - well, you know.

For as long as I teach, I will continue to lead them to a light. No matter how small it may appear. No matter how imperfect I feel.

For as long as I teach, I will trust my gut and teach how I believe is best. I will do what I can to touch the heart as well as to teach the brain. 

For as long as I teach, I will remember why I started. And it had nothing to do with test scores.

I will lead them to a light. Even if it's not Olympic-sized.

Photo Credits:

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Recipe for Disaster

Just in case you ever want to ruin the morning of a perfectly good snow day, all you have to do is this:

1. Wake your seven year old daughter (who went to bed later than she should have the previous night) and inform her that she has a dentist appointment.

2. Attempt to dress said seven year old daughter as she thrashes about and wails, "But I just wanna go back to sleeeeeppp!"

3. Then wake your eight year old son and tell him he has to tag along to the dentist - repeating what you said one more time, louder, so he can hear you over the dramatic protests from the room across the hall.

4. Drive to the dentist, through the snow, wishing you were back home in your warm bed.

5. Pretend to be happy at the dentist's office when the receptionist asks you to update paperwork. Think, "It's not personal. Insurance requirements. Grin and bear it."

6. Enthusiastically usher your increasingly-nervous daughter to the back where the poor hygienist is waiting and has no idea what she is about to face.

7. Hold your precious second-born as tears well up in her eyes at the announcement that all six-year molars are in and "it's time for sealants."

8. Half-lead, half-drag her to the even backer-back, because sealants apparently require a different hygienist and room.

9. Drape your body across that daughter and physically hold her down as the poor, unsuspecting hygienist begins to wish she had called in sick..

10. Ask the Lord why he gave an octopus eight arms and a mother just two because dear Jesus this physical restraint would be a whole lot easier with another hand or four.

11. Look up at the hygienist with a look of pity and pleading as the strongest seven year old you've ever met renders you powerless in matters of restraint.

12. Send that dear, precious, stubborn, and dramatic daughter to the bathroom to get herself together and dry those tears because Mommy has had enough and you are NOT making another appointment to do this another day!

13. Compose yourself as the hygienist goes to get reinforcements. Conclude that you will never go to the dentist again. Decide that teeth are highly overrated.

14. Smile as a snuffling girl tentatively makes her way back to the torturous chair. Speak soothing words of encouragement like, "It's not going to hurt at all. Mommy had this done when she was a little girl! All she's going to do is paint your teeth with princess paint."

15. Realize that your words are not making one iota of difference.

16. Attempt restraint one more time.

17. Give up. Listen as the dentist and hygienist say, "We'll just try this another day. It's not worth her having such a bad experience at the dentist."

18. Think, but don't say, "Her?! What about me?!'

19. Walk, defeated, to the check-out counter.

20. Accept the appointment card for another appointment that you swore you would not make. Load both children back in the car and curse anyone who says that snow days are fun.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Our Own Worst Enemies

This is not a feminist post. Yes, I believe that women should be paid the same as men for performing the same jobs. I believe women should become more interested in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields (and I just spent nearly an entire class period talking with my 9th graders about this issue). I would love to see a female become President, and I would readily admit that many women I know are much more intellectual than many men I know. But a feminist? I wouldn't lump myself in that category.

I believe that if a woman wants to forego a career and remain home with her children, then not only can she, but she should. I would without hesitation say that the greatest part of my own life takes place after the hours I am paid, when I am home with my children. I am forever grateful for the women in previous generations who have made it possible for me to participate as a first-rate citizen in society doing things like, oh - I don't know, voting and getting a job. A feminist, though? Probably not.

That being said, I'd like to take a minute to share my thoughts on a disturbing trend via celebrities in our culture. What is it, you ask? Simply this. The depiction of women as nothing more than sexual objects to be flaunted, dissected, and plastered on every screen available. It's so disheartening. The worst part, though, is that many are doing it to themselves. For attention. And ratings. And record sales.

Case in point - Beyonce at the Grammys. (Allow me to say right here that I did not watch this awards show. I was probably reading a book or grading papers or doing some other nerdy thing that I, in typical Jennie fashion, would do on a Sunday night. However. I have seen numerous replays and articles and dissertations on the subject since then, hence my incredible amount of knowledge on the event. Ahem.)

Beyonce is an incredibly talented and incredibly beautiful woman. She is the type of woman who makes awkward females like me resolve to take singing lessons and do more lunges. She's just pretty awesome. But instead of using her talent to leverage more respect and prestige for the females of the world, she chose to flaunt around in black lingerie, nothing left to the imagination, while her husband sang a song making light of an incident of domestic abuse. Why? For the ratings? For the shock value? I feel like her actions (and those of many other celebs who just want attention) are undoing the hard work it took for the women of previous generations to garner equality and respect for women. We are, it seems, sliding back down the slope towards sexual objects, and it scares me for the world my seven year old daughter will live in.

I saw an interview with Beyonce where she explained where the idea came from for the performance. A strip club. She said that she was with her husband at this strip club and wished that she could do that for her man. Well, then. My thoughts are that she could have - at home. In private. Not in a music video, and certainly not on a stage. She says that she doesn't "at all have any shame about being sexual." To that, I say good. You shouldn't. God make us as sexual beings - but that sexuality is to be shared with a spouse, not with the world on an awards show.

(For the sake of argument, let me say that I am not, as a Christian, condemning Beyonce for acting like an unbeliever. That is to be expected. If she does not follow Christ, then I will not hold her to Christ's standards. My concern is with her actions as a female in 2014 and the implications for our society as a whole.)

I don't want to slam Beyonce but to question why she - and other females - feel that being intelligent and articulate and talented is not enough. I'm sure in their field it's partially because of the pressure. Looks and weight and hairstyles are constantly critiqued. Joan Rivers will torment you mercilessly on her show if your red carpet look is not flawless. I get that. It must be incredibly difficult.

I guess my point here is that we females are our own worst enemies. We want equality and respect and opportunity - but then some of us sabotage it all to get a guy's attention or a greater rating or higher sales. And it's not just celebrities. I know of a female who is quite intelligent and successful, but turns into a silly coquette whenever she is around men. It drives me nuts. I just want women to be ok with being intelligent. Why do we feel the need to overcompensate for our intellect with tight clothing and high-pitched giggles and batting eyelashes? As my Mama has been known to say, I will knock my daughter into next week if I ever catch her acting like that. If we want to be respected, we must act worthy of respect.

Celebrity or commoner, we women need to metaphorically link arms and remind this world that we are more than just pretty faces. Our worth is not just found in the swing of our hips and the clothing we fill out. We are talented. We are smart. And we will not stand for the trend of degradation that is so prevalent today.

Friday, January 31, 2014

When Will I Learn?

If someone tells you something over 900 times, it stands to reason that failing to believe it means you are remarkably in denial, you are being lied to, or you are ridiculously stubborn. I'm putting myself in the first and third categories because I know my husband is not a liar.

For at least the past 20 years, I have struggled every single day with a thorn in my flesh that I desperately wish I could pluck out. I'm bringing it up here today not to glorify the struggle or to give Satan satisfaction in the battles he has won, but simply to encourage those of you who are facing similar lifelong battles. I want you to know that you are not alone. Your deepest insecurities have likely become a deeply ingrained part of yourself, but I want - need - to remind you that they are not your identity. It can be shameful as a follower of Christ to war so with the flesh, so today I'm issuing a call to other women to fight the battle, verbalize the struggle, and give Christ the credit rather than Satan the shame.

My thorn? I have not once in the past 20 years ever been truly satisfied with the way I look. There have been times that were better than others, times when I did Insanity like a madwoman and had a flat stomach and looked pretty good, but I still wasn't content. There's always something I wish I could change. It's so hard to admit this superficial, unspiritual, un-Christlike struggle that plagues me, but I'm doing it anyway. I could list a thousand reasons why I dislike my body, but the details don't matter. If you're a female, chances are high that you have your own list anyway and can relate exactly.

Since I met my husband, he has told me (or shown me) at least once a day (so approximately 900 times) that he loves the way I look, is attracted to me, and doesn't want me to change a thing. I'll see from the corner of my eye him looking at me, and when I ask what he's doing, he says, "Just checking you out." He touches me when he walks past in the hall, pinches my rear end when I'm cooking in the kitchen, brushes the hair back from my cheek and kisses my forehead. I KNOW that he loves me - and my body. If the man who loves me also loves the way I look, why can I not be secure? Why do I agonize so much about every hair being in place, every muscle being toned, every outfit being perfectly coordinated? I wish I knew, and I wish I could turn off the switch that makes it all matter so much.

There are those who will blame me and say it's because I don't read the Bible enough, don't take Jesus my strongholds to destroy, don't pray and fast... The fault is my own. Perhaps they are right. I would argue, however, that they aren't. You see, even in the times I am closest to the heart of Christ, when the air I breathe is the Word of God and the Holy Spirit dwells richly within me, even in those times - I have struggled. Being close to Christ does not eradicate our struggles, and those who say it does are sadly deceived. Nowhere in God's Word to us does it say, "Come to me and I will solve all of your problems." Rather, it says things like, "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). It says, "Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear" (Matt. 6:25). This may seem obvious, but I think He tells us not to worry about these things because He knows that in our flesh we will.

Your thorn may look different than mine. You may wrestle with debilitating fear or grapple with memories of your sinful past.You may lie awake at night worrying about money, praying for a spouse, or agonizing over leaving a job. I don't know what your lifelong struggle is, but I can almost guarantee that you have one. We all have weaknesses - some immense, ongoing, and brutally incapacitating. We are not always doomed to face them for a lifetime, but sometimes we are. I cannot begin to explain why, sometimes, God does not deliver us from these struggles. The only answer I have is that the struggle is necessary for us to see Him most clearly. He tells us that His power is "made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9). If we were strong, we would not see His power. When we are weak, we do.

Please don't misunderstand. I am not advocating that you remain helpless and resign yourself to a lifetime of feeling inferior and 'less than.' I am also not saying that you should look to your thorn as your gateway to God. That is not the point. Fight with everything in you to defeat Satan at his mind games and to gain control of the thoughts you think. Beg your Savior to deliver you from what hurts. But, if He doesn't, don't see it as an excuse to live without power. Don't assume that you cannot be used if you struggle daily. Don't believe that God loves you less because you have to fight more. See it all as God's method of increasing your reliance on Him.

Friends, this life is hard, and I'm convinced that it's harder for those of us trying to live for and through Jesus. It's harder because the world that is our home really isn't. The details that consume our days aren't the reality of our forever. The hardships that we wrestle with often take our focus from our God-given purpose.

Whatever the struggle, no matter the intensity, allow it to turn you to Christ. Demand that it show you His heart. Beg Him to show Himself in it. He is faithful, and your weakness will showcase His strength - and His love.

I am linking up today at http://christianmommyblogger.com/fellowship-fridays-7-2/

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Throwback Thursday!

When it's cold outside, school has been cancelled, and you've banished the kids to their respective rooms for some much needed alone time, there's only one thing to do. (After you've eaten everything not nailed down, of course.) Look through old pictures. I did that today, and the saying about days going by slowly but years flying by came to mind. It's so true, especially when you have kids.

I could not believe that the chubby cheeked babies on my screen are the same big kids I can now trust enough to send to their rooms alone. It's also amazing that I have forgotten so quickly the things that used to fill our days and the chaos that those two could cause!

How was I able to forget so quickly the drudgery that was strollers? Having kids 15 months apart meant that for several years, my trunk space was filled with strollers - double strollers, umbrella strollers, jogging strollers. Thank you, Jesus, that my children are now self-propelled.

This picture cracks me up because Will is hugging her, but has the warning hand on her cheek in the event she starts something. His face looks sweet, but his hand is saying, "I mean it. No closer."

These were the days that getting a decent picture was a crap shoot - I could absolutely not count on both of them smiling simultaneously. Now, it's easy. Then? Not so much.

 Oh my word, how I love these two. Even though I'm about to have to stop typing to referee the WWE wrestling match currently taking place in the den. Ahhh, the joys of motherhood.