December Inventory

I have a little brown paper Moleskine journal that’s gone with me almost everywhere this semester. When I first got to Vancouver I titled it on the inside cover: “Bus Poems: From Between and For Between.” And a couple months later, I wrote a Chesterton quote on the front: “The greatest of poems is an inventory.”

I ended up only writing one poem about the bus, but from the most recent nearly-illegible scribblings in the notebook, I can at least give you an incomplete, three-part inventory of the last few days. Whether it will manage to perform like a poem for you, I don’t know, but living it has felt like meter and rhyme.

First, my semester at Regent ended in a great rushing swell of rain and essay exams, both of which I sort of enjoy. On Friday night I went to a celebratory Christmas potluck where there was lots of good food and more and more fond faces kept coming in through the door. I talked and laughed and drank wine and, as occasionally happens, transformed like a butterfly into something resembling an extrovert. One friend told me I looked so happy, another said she felt like I’d been at Regent forever, and then another looked at a wet spot where I’d been sitting and asked if I had peed a little, so that brought me back down to earth. (I hadn’t, to clarify.) When I left around ten o’clock so I could still catch the bus at a reasonable hour, for a moment or two I had a hard time finding my boots in the piles amassed around the coat rack. I stood still and took a deep breath, overwhelmed by all the shoes and the feet and the beating hearts and the laughing hands. Then I laced up my ancient, salt-stained Timberlands and walked warm into the cold.

Then, on Saturday evening, my plane touched down on American soil and I felt like crying, though I’ve never even been in Dallas before and it was only a short layover. I’ve only used my phone while on Wifi since I moved to Canada, and as we taxied into our gate and I turned off airplane mode for the first time in four months, I felt as if trumpets should be sounding somewhere. Keeping my phone on airplane mode, using it pretty much only at home and at school, has felt symbolic. A classmate from China asked me a couple months ago what I thought of the word “foreigner,” and I said that, so long as it was not cruelly meant, I actually liked it, because it accurately described my state. And the little airplane icon in the top corner of my screen has served the same purpose: marked me as a wanderer, an outsider, far-from-home. Because of that little symbol, from the get-go I knew I was not obligated to know the way, the words, all the answers. Yet, in the four steady months that that tiny sign of transience glowed there, I have, without even noticing, learned quite a few small lessons about belonging—belonging not because I have made myself a place, but because a place has been made for me, not because I know the way, the words, all the answers, but because I was lost and now am found.

And finally, last night, a few hours after getting back into town straight from a wedding in Texas, I went to Caldwell’s upper school Christmas concert. From the time I was a teenager, this yearly concert has been important to me, has placed a warm finger on some exposed part of my sternum, and two weeks ago when I told a friend in Vancouver that it was one of the first things I was going to get to do when I got home, I found myself in tears at just the thought. But when I arrived there last night, instead of weeping in gratitude, my heart simply short-circuited and then noiselessly imploded, again and again. I slid in right before it began and sat next to Leslie, who I hadn’t seen since June, back when everything was different for both of us (but mostly for her). We listened to the first couple of songs arm-in-arm, holding tight as we could till our shoulders went a bit numb. Look at all their little faces, I whispered giddily when the high school choir got up on the risers. And after that final Hallelujah Chorus, I began to hug people and call it good. Canada’s good. So good. It’s good to see you. So good. Over and over, on and on. I had expected to be overwhelmed with gratitude at God’s faithfulness to me in giving me so many precious souls in so many places, so many heaps of Blundstone boots in so many foyers, but when I got in bed that night, still thinking of the sweet coworkers I’d seen and the dozens of little faces, I realized I was grateful for something more. I am grateful for his faithfulness to each of them. Because he has been faithful and continues to be. I am certain of it. I saw it with my own eyes. He is faithful to the once deafeningly anxious boy who enthusiastically echoed my own So good when I asked about his school year and faithful to the tough, smart girl who grimaced and told me that her first semester of college was “an adjustment,” faithful to the kid who used to sneer and now seems to mainly smile and faithful to the tired friends whose faces are fresh with the loss of those who loved them best. He has been intimately present with each of these people, has placed a warm finger on exposed skin, has invited them in where they belong.

Morning by morning new mercies I see


I have been thinking about trying to write more. Not write on here, but push myself and write the things that are hard for me to write, like short stories. (It’s a little funny that short stories have become the most frightening form for me, considering that’s where I started as a teenager.) So I was thinking the other morning that I should write what I know. It is not the only writing advice, but it is tried and true and good for quelling fear. I looked out over my sophomores who were working on their journal entries with kind-of-sort-of-maybe diligence, and I thought, But how do you write fiction about that? Those kids are real and personal and ever mutable. They’re wonderfully, painfully individual. My everyday experience as a teacher is shaped by each one of them, and though my words can accomplish something, I am not fool enough to think they can capture all of who my students are in a single plot arc.

But there is one way to give you an in to the day-in and the day-out, I think, and that’s to tell you about my classroom.

My room number is 208, but I’m always getting confused and telling people it’s 210. It’s the room where I took Geometry and Precalculus when I was thirteen and fifteen, so it knows my tears and worries of old. It has green carpet and one green wall and two windows with curtains that, like so many other things, I inherited from a teacher before me. The walls are littered with maps and colorful student projects, and a lot of things in my room are broken. Notable items include a three-legged table, a chair separated from its seat, and a pencil sharpener with a crank that’s inconveniently missing its handle.

In fact, back in December when I injudiciously allowed my precious freshmen to decorate my room for Christmas and the whole scene turned into a magnificent catastrophe, I made a “Broken Things” list on the board, to which a few students joyously contributed.

The list was, perhaps, a bit hyperbolic, but there is no denying my students are very comfortable in my room. They tell me so themselves and sometimes I am frustrated. All of my current students are at least fifteen years old, which is quite old enough to understand that when they make a mess, someone, somewhere, must eventually clean up after them. And yet at the end of a long day as I pick up debris off the floor, I will remark bitterly to anyone in earshot (or very often no one at all) that my classroom is probably the world’s largest trashcan. (Though I do get a lot of nice free mechanical pencils.)

Other frustrations include the fact that space is at a premium and so aside from the previously mentioned broken items, my fairly small room houses two teacher desks, ten student tables, twenty student chairs, various and sundry cabinets, shelves, and storage towers, and whole lot of moving bodies and foot traffic.

So the familiar running patter of instructions in my classroom includes: Get out of my window, stop leaning back in your chair, get out from behind Ms. Gillespie’s desk, whoever that water bottle belongs to needs to put it away so I don’t see it again, don’t sit on that table it has three legs, yes I know my stool is shaky but it’s mine not yours, STOP leaning back in your chair, take your bag off your desk, no projectiles in my room no I don’t care what it is or why, get your hands off each other, put the scissors away, shut the door for me, put my table back where it goes, do you understand that every time you lean back in your chair like that I picture your skull crushed on the floor and your blood and brains splattered across my carpet?

Clearly I say a lot of words every day, and sometimes, like my teenagers, I complain just to hear the comfortable sound of my own voice, but the strange fact remains: most of those “broken things” have been in bad shape since around October, and I have yet to put in a help ticket to the trusty facilities team. And it’s not because I’ve forgotten.

I suppose the silly secret is that I’m a Romantic. I think of my classroom as a living thing, an organism, a place of life. I secretly like that it has wounds, that it shows signs of my students’ sometimes-misguided exuberance. I am grateful to find that the space where I breathe and sit and sigh and dream and talk and spin my energy out like thread for at least eight or nine hours every weekday actually feels lived in.  It reminds me that quite a few souls are constantly in and out of my door and that things happen there every day. I must continue to make sure those things are valuable.

A Brief Note of Appreciation

I’m writing this because my mom suggested it a while back, but also because I mean it. (I always mean it.)

Week before last, over Thanksgiving break, I got together with a bunch of high school classmates. Since I work at my alma mater a friend wanted to reminisce about our teachers, and he began enthusiastically with “Of course, Mrs. Liebmann was always a champion.”

I’ve been processing this. I think of her now as a friend, and don’t always take the time to remember her as a teacher. Freshman year we spent long hours over creative art projects and she read to us, not just picture books like I do now at storytime, but whole chapter books, stories of people lost and found. I was in her small group and she prayed and prayed and prayed over us. She taught us all through our tenth grade year about the age of exploration and the promise of the new world  while her hair fell out from chemo. (She announced that it was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, but that it was “not Alice’s fault.”) And senior year she listened patiently in Apologetics as we haltingly expressed our fears and hopes about the strange caverns in our souls. We talked one day about the things we were absolutely sure of. She said that the one thing she knew beyond any doubt, even at her most lost, was that God is. God is and He is and He is. So that was, for me, a place to begin.

Yes, she was a champion. I look back now with a much fuller picture, but I see that even then she was always fighting for something. Fighting for justice, fighting for our innocence, fighting for our hope, fighting to lead us to understanding, fighting for us to comprehend beauty and joy. Most of all though, I think she fought for wisdom. Ours, but also her own. She was constantly searching to know what was good and true, because what was good and true was all that was worth living for. Proverbs 4:7: “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” She fought to know and serve her God better, and we watched with ringside seats.

So I am writing this because I know I do not say thank you enough and I think people get tired and they forget. They forget that God uses their obedience to him in ways both large and small.

So know this, Leslie: I owe more than I can express to your steadfast teaching, and as the layers of my old stubbornness wear away I have only learned more. But the web spreads much wider than that. For years you’ve championed Wisdom daily at the front of your classroom, for hundreds of kids, and because of you she has made triumphant inroads into those hundreds of hearts. You’ve left tracks, friend. I see them.

A Different Kind of Studenthood

This may take a while to write, but as I’m beginning, I’m sitting in a room full of freshmen who are writing an in-class essay. There’s a hum of heavy breathing and pencils on paper and turning of pages as they refer to notes in their books. It seems both familiar and distant.

I have been teaching for a year and a half and still it still catches me unawares sometimes that I’m no longer a student. That I’m no longer passing papers down the row, or digging my binder out of my backpack, or throwing caution to the north wind when an essay prompt is set in front of me. The sun is not slanting through the window in the back corner and warming my back, like it is for the kid who sits by the wall. I am up front driving and pulling and pushing. Sometimes my shoulders hurt at the end of the day from the weight of it.

In the moments when it does get calm, though, calm in the midst of the hourly storm, sometimes I remember myself in high school. I liked it. I was a good kid. I cried a lot but I was happy. I was generally sweet and smart. The best things I did were read and write. Also once I gave twenty dollars to a friend just because she needed it. That was the highlight of my good-doing.

I was sensitive. I used to take in every little thing, feel every motion around me, bend with all my weight. I remember laughing and screaming and crying. I remember really, really caring that people saw me laugh. (I did not care if they saw me cry.) Funny. All of my memories are so loud, even though most of the people I went to high school with probably remember me as quiet.

For the past week or so, I have been feeling stabs of envy toward my students. I wish I was still free to ride the waves of my feelings, wallow in my stinging misery, let wild, self-conscious joy overtake me. When I was a teenager, I was very certain the world was mine. It felt lived in. On selfish days, on narrow days, I look at those loud kids I love, and I want the world back.

This is ludicrous, of course. I have re-written this paragraph five or six times in an attempt to tell you why. I have tried to lead into it several ways, but now I will just give up and tell you. God is bigger now than he was back then. Not always closer or easier or clearer, in fact, sometimes just the opposite, but larger and greater and stronger and more, oh yes. How could I ever return to a diminutive God?

That is not all. I “see the choices a bit more clearly.” When I was sixteen and seventeen, I was only just beginning to believe that failure existed. Now I am at what seems to be the designated age for coming to terms with failure. As is, I think, usual, I am finding failures in myself in droves and having to decide each by each, with every failure that rises out of my gut, whether I will fight it or kneel to it. These are the options. Or they would be the options if I served a God who would fit in my pocket.

But because I do not, there is grace. Because I do not, I may give my failures away. Acknowledge them as my bastard offspring and offer them up for destruction to a God who is very large and getting larger by the second. A God who will break me and change me and shape me as the sun warms the back of the tired, nervous kid who sits by the wall.



This school-year began hard. At the end of the first day of school, I walked down the hall to a co-worker’s classroom and sat on a desk and cried. I told her that it wasn’t my students (and it wasn’t), but it was me. I wasn’t sure I was made to do this. I didn’t have enough ability or energy, or perhaps most of all, enough love. I looked at my students and I looked at the teachers around me and I thought that maybe inside of my ribcage, instead of a muscular heart, pumping and giving, that maybe I only had sand. I did not seem to be enough.

And then my grandma died and my sister moved to London within days of one another, and things got oh-so-busy. So busy that I have not written here for over a month, even though I’ve wanted to. By way of an update: I have cried a little, been angry a few times, and laughed more than maybe I should. I have learned what it is to be unexpectedly encouraged through supportive parents and writing poems and silly games at the end of class and getting to act in a play again.

I’m reading through The Jesus Storybook Bible with a couple students, (which is a different story for a different day,) and a few weeks ago while reading about the battle of Jericho, I came across a line that stopped me and held me still: “So it was that God’s people entered their new home. And they didn’t have to fight to get in — they only had to walk.” So maybe my heart need not be a muscular hero, because there already is One. Maybe I am not always called to be a soldier “on the front lines of humanity,” but just a child who walks faithfully after my God. Of course I am not enough. I was never intended to be.

And I don’t know if God meant me for teaching, but right now, he certainly means teaching for me. High-schoolers can be uniquely bitter and uniquely joyful, often within the same hour. Last weekend I went to a regional one-act competition with Caldwell’s drama department. It’s funny to see what happens when you put about three hundred theatre kids in an auditorium for hours on end. They eat it up, they find friends, they get loud, they glow. More than once, in the forty-minute breaks between shows, sixty or seventy of them would congregate down front to play a game called Pony-something-or-other (or maybe it was Something-something-Pony?) They stood in a huge circle and clapped and chanted and danced with each other. They turned exuberant and pink and out-of-breath. I sat curled in my hard seat and watched and laughed and said “absolutely not” over and over whenever our kids bothered me to join them. To watch them dance is to be warm and to be still and to know.

First Year Teaching and Unpaid Debt

I’ve been making notes for this entry since last October. At first I was going to wait a few years to actually say this stuff to the internet-at-large, but I can’t help myself: here we go.

I planned to write a long list of advice for first year teachers, like the one I wrote a year ago when I finished college. But I discovered within about two days of becoming a faculty member alongside wonderful people who wanted to see me succeed, that for every piece of advice there is an equal and opposite piece of advice. So basically, even with the best support system in the world (which, including my parents and former teachers and friends who are a phone call away, I may well have had) you’re going to have to figure it out on your own in the moment, or you’re never going to figure it out at all. And that’s absolutely okay. So that’s what I have to say about that.

But if not advice, what? I guess just a rambling reflection, which is mostly what I do on here anyway. I have grown and changed this year perhaps more than I have in all four years of college. Every day that I have taught, without fail, I have felt both very young and very old. A while back, at play rehearsal I turned to a coworker and said, “There’s five years between me and them, and ten years between me and you, but I feel so much closer in experience to you.” “Yup.” she said. “Weird.” I said. And yet I cry at Caldwell choir concerts, because they inevitably make me feel seventeen again, and while there is something precious about that feeling, it is not quite comfortable either. But being in-between is most of what life is, so this is absolutely okay too.

Looking back I think I went through most of first semester in a bit of shock. I remember one day in September when Lisa came around to take attendance, I told her with a mix of bravado and desperation that they were all present, though I hadn’t even bothered to count them, much less look at my roster. I would doggedly stay up late into the night, making powerpoints and organizing notes, feeling my heart turn to heavy iron whenever a new email appeared unexpectedly in my school inbox. On the rare occasions that I was in a context other than Caldwell, I still couldn’t manage to talk about anything other than school and my students, no matter if my listeners were interested. (Still not great at that, but I’m getting better. I’m becoming more normal again.) Here is a somewhat-exact excerpt of notes I kept for myself throughout that first semester:

Sixteen-year-olds are adorable.

Sixteen-year-olds are little turds who don’t know that teachers have feelings.

At least I haven’t cried in front of students yet. That’s a victory.

I love being observed. It’s the freaking best. It makes me feel safe.

Almost-literal blind exhaustion sometimes hits while driving home.

I stay up late because I want time to myself before I go in the next morning.

It is so hard to get up in the morning. SO hard.

Why does my life have so many binder clips in it now?

Is it going to be like this all year?

IMPORTANT: That day sixth period worked quietly. 11/6. Let it be remembered. [Note: I actually wrote a poem about this day. It’s called “An Ode to My Students’ Silence.”]

But I survived. And stayed marginally sane to boot. I kept in touch with friends who were also first-year-teaching, because the front of a classroom can be a starkly lonely place. It is good to feel as if you’re in the trenches alongside someone else (and now that I’ve briefly taught World War One, that’s an especially vivid metaphor). I watched all of Boy Meets World, and though I remain doubtful that it’s really very kosher to regularly assign essays on a whim at the end of class just because the topic pertains to an issue in your favorite students’ lives, I was reminded that even in the world of nineties sitcoms, it is still possible to be a truly fine teacher and that doing so doesn’t center around making your students happy. And then late one Sunday night in November, when I felt just awful, I found this:


I’m not typically a big charts and stages person, but this is absolute it-gets-better gospel truth. Believe it, cause it’s real. By December, according my notes at the time, I had “all warm fuzzy advent feelings after seeing them sing and getting gifts from them and having them treat me like a real human being and not just a grade machine.” Things were looking up. I was going to be okay and so were they.

In fact, there are a few students to whom I wish I could write individual thank you notes for encouragement they didn’t even know they gave. Highschoolers can cause more pain than they know–but their kindnesses, even unintentional and very small kindnesses, can bring so much joy. The times a student has gone out of his or her way to actually make my day better, I have usually cried (though not in front of them.) And it was a fairly normal but unexpected thing one single student did way back in early December that made me decide not to up and quit when I was feeling a bit desperate.

Really perhaps the thing I have learned most thoroughly this year is the thank you note thing: the value of appreciation and expressing gratitude. When I was a sophomore in college I wrote Dr. Brown a thank you note once and she made a huge deal out of it in front of the rest of the students, and said that sometimes she felt like Christ healing the ten lepers with only one coming back to say thank you. I thought this story was hilarious–I adored Dr. Brown, but she was comparing herself to Jesus, for goodness sake–and would tell it over and over to my English major friends. I no longer think it’s funny. I know exactly what she meant. When you teach and you care that you do it well, you are fighting on the front lines of humanity. You’re teaching the human mind to reach its potential, holding out the world in your hands, trying to get the faces in front of you to comprehend it, to feel their own smallness. There’s so much pressure to get it right, but when you do get it right, often nobody notices, and this is discouraging. To give more than you take, that is what every good teacher does, but no mere mortal can give out of a dry well. We all need water.

So, knowing that, and knowing what I know now especially, I want to shyly and belatedly be grateful to the people who taught me. I didn’t know what it took, and even if I had, I’m not sure I could have understood.  Thank you. Thank you for what you did for me: for crying with me, for laughing with and at me, for graciously thinking it was endearing when I told you bluntly that your class was “not my happy place,” for reading picture books aloud, for letting me run to your room in tears when I first discovered Billy Collins, for handing me that mysterious and wonderful envelope before the New York trip, for letting me sit on a desk during your planning period and just talk and talk and talk. And thank you for what you did for all of us: for heavy worry, for long patience, for giving us the best of what you loved, for volunteering to be Atlas with the world on his shoulders and believing it to be worth the trouble, for finally entrusting each of us to Jesus when it was all that you could do.

I see it a bit more clearly now. Second semester, when my responsibilities began to pick up pace, and when my heart learned to hold on anyway and smile in the wind, I started to care less about what my students thought of me and more about the students themselves. And I didn’t know that in a job in which I was supposed to be the helper, I would routinely feel so helpless to really love them well. So unable and weak. They need so much charity and compassion and help. I know this because I need this things too. I know this because, in our need and inability, we are the same.

Despite all of the doing and learning and trying, the appreciation and the lack thereof, I am discovering a secret which probably most teachers who’ve gone before me know. Education, when you really try to do it right, is debt. An extensive and painfully shining web of unpaid and often unacknowledged debt. We’re all bound and knotted together by it. We give and are given to over and over again, then march off triumphantly into the sunset, as if our spoils are our own, while the ropes of debt tug at our heels. Some days I can’t keep straight who is demanding restitution from whom. There is a colossal owing, and we, none of us, can possibly pay it back. And this, I think, is where education all goes bad or is hatched, where we begin to ceaselessly demand the pound of flesh from one another, or relinquish ourselves to the waist-high waters of grace.

This has been a long and meandering entry, but really there is one reason I have written it: I am preaching to myself. I am saying: “Alice, you feel as if you’ve worked hard and given much, but what you have given is that which was first given you. Your deficits are deep and wide, but they have been filled by a love that is deeper and wider. Your debts have been cancelled by the great Forgiver of debt, the Payment himself. Forgive your debtors as your debts have been forgiven. Look at the world and look at the hands that hold it and remember that you are small. See that your Lord is large and great. Love with liberty and with joy.”

Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be. Let that grace now, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.

Two Weeks

I am a first year teacher, and all year I’ve struggled with how to write on this blog–how to tell the truth, but tell it slant. There have been discarded entries (which I never had in the past) and few which did not really come out how I intended them to. There has also been a lot of staring at the blank page. I want so much to give a clear picture though, because writing helps me understand. The past two weeks have been strange and full and often strangely, fully good, and I want to tell you about them, but even these 336 hours have seemed to contain a lifetime.

I went to play practice for hours every afternoon and night and decorated the set with my favorite books stacked along the back wall.

As part of their prank, the seniors built a ball pit in the room I teach in. So I taught about Imperialism for a few minutes, but then I let my students sit in it and play with all the bright colors, while they wrote letters to someone they were thankful for. And I got to wear a princess crown all that day.

We prayed together during the junior girls’ Bible study and as a faculty at lunch one day–for those who are sick and those who are scared. (Those people are sometimes us.)

Lauren Robinson and I both graded all 44 senior thesis papers in a week and a half. I sat on the floor behind her desk on Wednesday afternoon madly calculating final grades, while the freshmen giggled their way through speech presentations. Late that night the two of us painted the rock, barefoot, with Paul Simon on full volume in her truck. They all passed.

My front tire got slashed by some unknown enemy.

I went down to the gym for a few minutes to watch the juniors and seniors have their last dance lesson. I was charmed by what a good time most of them seemed to be having, but was also deeply grateful that I was no longer out there on the floor.

I ate brunch with Sarah Moon, and we talked about things that were not students and teaching, and it all felt very surreal.

I averaged about four hours of sleep each night.

Students brought me food and Starbucks unbidden and I didn’t know what to do with myself.

It briefly seemed as if my social security number had been stolen by someone in Vermont, and I laughed very hard and happily at the prospect of someone wanting my identity. (It turned out to be a clerical error.)

I got tired of giving critical notes to the students at the end of rehearsal, and just decided they were all cute and could act however they wanted. (Thank God for multiple directors.) Instead, I wandered around Target and Walmart trying to find all the shades of foundation that our supply boxes were running out of and wished I knew something, anything about make-up.

While walking back in from letting my chaotic sixth period do their reading questions outside, I tripped and dropped my large stack of grading all down the stairs. I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I sat down and just looked pathetically back at my students, and they picked it all up in a stunned silence.

I watched our pride and joy, You Can’t Take It With You, from the audience each night and it was still funny every time, even when the fireworks didn’t go off. I laughed and I grinned and sometimes I felt very, very sleepy

And then I turned twenty-three, which is simultaneously much older and much younger than I feel.


Sometimes, in these past two weeks, I have felt blessed and unaccountably successful. At other times, I have wanted to find a small, cozy hole, crawl into it until we reach July, and then bring the calendar to a full stop, preferably for quite some time. But after oversleeping this morning and then cleaning the bathroom while listening to Andrew Peterson, I feel smaller, more on kilter, as if I can fit comfortably into my skin again–I think I had been leaking out of it for a while.

When I write I try to organize and find meaning between all the little things, but it is not always easy. Sometimes I must be content to believe that the truth is somewhere between “Life is pain, highness,” and “Love is all we have left in this world, Grandpa.” I must trust, trust, trust, that my God knows the substance of all this: the bungled works cited pages, the loudly laughing teenagers, the spray paint that took days to wear out of the creases of my fingernails, the chai tea lattes on my desk. He knows what all these little shadows mean.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

The Here and Now

All through college I heard so much about the importance of place, of the dirt beneath your feet, of opening your eyes as wide as they’ll go and looking watchfully at the walls and horizons which surround you. And now I’m back in Greensboro, probably for good. Back in the muggy air that hugs me, sleeping in my childhood bedroom, getting up each morning and driving to the place I could drive to in my sleep. I love security, so in my eyes, all of this is very good.

But time is place too, in a sense. A place I can’t return to. I lie in bed at night, and remember that there is no big sister on the other side of the room to keep me awake talking endlessly about her day. I now meet friends for drinks on the same corner to which I used to walk to pick up ginger ale when my mom had the flu.

During teacher workweek at Caldwell, I sat in almost the exact same spot in the lunchroom where I used to pour chocolate milk all over my pizza to impress the other second graders. My new desk is in the back corner of a classroom which I routinely bathed with tears over Geometry and Precalc. And I remember standing up near the whiteboard there during play practice one day and teaching ourselves how to use chopsticks, with whiteboard markers. I can look out the doorway into the hall and see the locker I stood next to hyperventilating when my friend was rushed to the hospital at the end of one school day.

The room I teach in is the same one in which, during my freshman year, I used to sit in the back corner during class, with a messy spiral notebook, the smudged pencil which was the beginning of my first novella. When I stand to face my students I stand in almost the exact spot where, on the night of my senior prank we put a little tub of baby chicks. I remember curling up on the hard floor with my sweater a few yards away and trying to sleep, while they cheeped softly for hours.

Sometimes I feel a little like Ebenezer Scrooge standing and watching the jumbled ghosts of my past. Don’t take the metaphor too hard, though. Because while those shadows play there are very real people in front of me with their own, quite solid pencils and spiral notebooks in their hands. And behind me there are completely tangible whiteboard markers that I really ought to be using.

And so I teach and I think about the shadows and the reality and the way this reality will soon fade into shadows. And then I think about the great reality, which is this: God is faithful. God is faithful to have brought me back to place in which I cannot ignore His perpetual goodness to me. I grew up in here and every corner is marked and scuffed by my fears and aches. I look at them and I see Him. In the memories of my hardheadedness, I see His patience, of my cruelty, His sacrifice, of my pains, no matter how small, His abundant and overflowing grace. I see His faithfulness in each place and each time, in each here and each now.

And so tomorrow, I continue to teach history. Not my history, thank God, but His. Always His.




Anyone who knows me well knows that this entry has always been inevitable, and the last few weeks have provided me with the perfect opportunity to write it at long last. Over Grove City’s intersession I did a two week internship at my dear old alma mater, and what follows is a “reflective essay” I turned in yesterday to the people at Grove City. Beware—it’s long. I have lots of thoughts…

I started at Caldwell in the fall of 1997, almost sixteen years ago. My connection with the school is older than that of all of the administration, and most of the faculty. I remember when each building was built, when each modular disappeared. I have cried in almost every room on the second story of the Smith Building, and I know the name of every Caldwell graduate before me. My name is written in sharpie in an undisclosed location on school property. I think it says something idiotic next to it like, “Class of 2010—Lifer.” So it’s nearly impossible to distance myself from these boys with the t-shirts under their polos and the girls whose shirts won’t stay tucked into their skorts, who straighten their hair and clip in a big navy bow. But perhaps distance would be more of a hindrance than a help just now.

Caldwell’s strength has always been closeness. They call themselves (or should I say we call ourselves?) a community school. Teachers and administration love their students, and with sometimes-necessary encouragement from the faculty, the students love each other. This has not changed, and I pray it never will. I stepped in for Mrs. Upper when she had a family crisis, was reminded en masse by my math teachers of the silly things I used to write on my test when I couldn’t do the work, and, best of all, I got to be with Mrs. Liebmann when she got the call saying that, for the fifth year in a row, her scans are clear. She does not have cancer.

Because of these people, Caldwell has never suffered for kind hands and free hugs, but what has always been a struggle, I think, is excellence. Particularly at the end of my high school career, I got quite a fair number of A’s that I knew, even at the time, I had not earned, and in the past two weeks, I witnessed, on occasion, some pretty dismal student work. Soft grades overflow from the teachers’ kind hearts and pens, and what’s missing is a desire not simply for the happiness of the student, but a desire that they be good, and generous, and wise. They will find it hard to become men and women who live in God’s grace if they feel entitled to kindness.

The key to excellence in Caldwell’s case may simply be revitalizing their classical foundation. The Sayers essay is an Appendix in the school handbook, and still required reading, I think, for new families. The tenants of a classical school have come and gone in the time I have known and loved this school, but they are raising their head again. A little manifesto entitled “Standards of Excellence” is posted in nearly every room in the Rhetoric school, including, oddly enough, the staff bathrooms. When I was in high school, Latin wasn’t offered above eighth grade, but now it’s on the curriculum straight through graduation, for those who want it, a move of which Dorothy Sayers would approve. Also, in the years, since I’ve left they’ve played around with a humanities program in the Dialectic and Rhetoric school, which currently means that the history, literature, Bible, rhetoric, and writing teachers all collaborate to a great degree. Aside from the almighty senior thesis, which has been around for a while, Rhetoric students now have a regular oral component to their humanities exams. I am also pleased to announce, that, though I never noticed it much in my time there as a student, the Trivium is quite alive and fairly well.

I didn’t spend a huge amount of time in the grammar school, but when I did, it was oddly refreshing. I read a Jan Brett book called The Hat to three groups of kindergarteners and three groups of first graders. They were enthralled by the pictures and several insisted on counting the empty clothespins on the clothesline with each new page, and reporting back. They are indeed Sayers’ little Poll-parrots. I only wish I’d known their names so that when I needed one of them to turn around and stop talking I could’ve said something more than “Honey. Honey. HONEY.” I also got to read with some fourth graders, and for reasons unknown, the teacher, who is a good friend, gave me all boys. They listened well, were bright, and every single one of them was eager to read aloud. I wonder when it is that boys stop publically caring about school, stop raising their hands when a question is asked.

I only got to be in the dialectic school for one afternoon. Elspeth Glasgow, Grove City grad extraordinaire, had me in to help lead a discussion her seventh graders were having on whether or not Abraham was lying when he said Sarah was his sister. The half of the class I had always had at least three or four hands wiggling in the air at once. None of them seemed the least shy about contradicting each other. We talked about the difference between lies and deceit, and they gave some fairly impressive examples of falsehoods and evasive language. Occasionally, I could see their native “pertness” giving way to real intelligence and thoughtfulness.

I spent most of my two weeks in the Rhetoric school, and the majority of that time in Mrs. Liebmann’s room, which got me very familiar with the freshmen and the juniors. One momentous day I took score for six back-to-back exam review games and learned everyone’s names pretty thoroughly, I hope that in some small way this helped me blend in with the community Mr. Greer is working so hard to further in the Rhetoric school. The first day of exams the administration brought in a popcorn machine for a snack between periods. And for the second day, Mr. Greer bought fifteen boxes of brownie mix and some eggs and asked the teachers to take them home and make a couple batches. You know what? They did. Happily. But then again, these are the people who plan on chaperoning a “Rhetoric Retreat” this Thursday and Friday, who are going to share cabins with these students, watch them do the polar bear plunge, and oversee the making of bubble gum sculptures. God help and bless them.

This is supposed to be what Sayers calls the poetic stage, but so many of them are not there yet, or have certainly not arrived there with a vision or purpose. I suppose that’s the teacher’s job to give. Mrs Liebmann’s method of encouragement in this area is to require commonplace books. They have to copy twenty or thirty quotes which they like each week, and write a short response to one of them. I got to grade a couple batches of these, and I found them more interesting and touching than I expected. One boy whom I had watch cut up in class began, “This is a quote from my sister’s calendar” and proceeded to write in earnest about the ways his own classmates spread sunshine and cheer. Multiple girls poured out their worries about friends and image and fear. The exercise is clearly a good place to begin in self-expression. The students have to ask themselves, “If I am to be this sort of person, whose shoulders ought I stand on? Which words will I hold most dear? I think this is true and good and beautiful, but why?”

One of Caldwell’s most beloved programs in past several years is the choral program, presided over by Mrs. Twigg. I sat in on both concert choir and Caldwell Singers, the auditioned group, and sang along. I had forgotten what hard work it is. I have no idea how I had enough energy to do that three times a week in high school. Halfway through concert choir I stopped singing and just watched. I looked around at the kids and wondered if they knew it made them a better person. I wondered if they knew what they were saying when they called a song beautiful. I wondered how often this evident patience and hard work extended beyond their harmony. But I supposed that even if, like me, they had to wait a few years for all the benefits of art to begin to manifest themselves, the risers and the filing cabinets of sheet music would not be in vain.

This last stage of the trivium is the hardest, I am sure. You are suddenly accountable for more than your work or even what you say, but for yourself. All of a sudden you must be a self who is worth being and expressing. Other people require it of you and, more frighteningly, you find you require it of yourself. It is easier for many of them to simply not try, or look as if they don’t care. A group of ninth graders I had told me that yes, of course they had read for the discussion that day, but it had been before Christmas so they didn’t remember any of it. I told them that was just as good as not reading at all. They were missing the point on purpose. They are old enough to know that living by the letter of the law alone will not suffice. One of the reasons I found the lower schools so refreshing, is that I did not really have to try to get the kids’ attention. They were told to listen and engage, and so they did. The rhetoric kids, however, make you work for it, and I need plenty of practice and patience. In The Seven Laws of Teaching Gregory lists ways of “kindling and maintaining” attention, which I am far from internalizing.

But they are missing so very much when they don’t heed both their teachers and their text. I observed a class of juniors who were having a very solemn discussion on “To His Coy Mistress.” I was just sitting in the corner, and didn’t think I ought to monopolize the conversation, but as I listened them discuss the speaker’s worldview, and the logical syllogisms of his argument, which are all well and good, I wanted to say, “You guys. This is funny. Isn’t this funny? Just a little bit? He’s got an in-joke with the audience, and he’s all pleased with himself and thinks she’s going to fall for it, and we’re laughing right back because we know she probably won’t.” I didn’t say anything, though. Perhaps I should have. Perhaps they need more help to see these things than I think.

My actual experiences at the front of the classroom were sometimes challenging. Of all of Gregory’s seven laws I struggle the most with the language of teaching. I am at college right now, where I am always trying to sound smarter and more elevated, but in front of high school kids it is really only imperative that they understand, not that I seem brilliant. I got along fairly well most of the time with the three periods of ninth graders I had. They are friendly and patient, though I was momentarily stumped for correct words when a girl innocently asked me to explain what a brothel was. Leading the senior’s Great Divorce discussions was harder. Mr. Greer was sitting right there and those kids were freshmen when I was a senior. Some of them are friends. It was hard to be Socratic and bright, to ask the right questions even when there are so many kind faces eager to give a helpful answer.

The most encouraging results I saw were, predictably, not results inspired by my teaching. I watched Marie Conner give an excellent explanation of the Hays Code and Mrs. Liebmann give a lecture I know she loves on Romanesque and Gothic architecture. I could see that they grasped not only the facts, but the awe, the unbelievable scope. The real proof of learning was evident in the oral exams I sat through. I sat in on one section each of ninth, tenth, and eleventh grades, most of whom were proficient in varying degrees. About a week beforehand the kids are given the list of twenty-some questions, and on the day of reckoning they have to pick one out of a hat, take notes and marshal their thoughts for five minutes, then sit attentively through the rest of their classmates’ 3-5 minutes speeches. Waiting their turn was the hardest, I think. They are still kids. It all serves not only as an assessment, a benchmark, but it fulfills Gregory’s law of “review and application.” Of course, not everything stated with certainty from the front of the classroom that day was quite right. Apparently, though I was not there for it, one student claimed the Africans brought over jazz in the early nineteenth century, and as for what I did witness, particularly with one of my favorite plays, I often had to resist the urge to run up and help and correct and explain. One student, whose family both Caldwell and I know of old, got up, did a very good job, and in the midst of his talk made a crack about “a classically-trained scholar like myself.” I know he was mostly joking, lightening the exam-day mood, but I wonder what else that meant to him. I’m sure he could explain the trivium in his sleep, because he’s been through it himself, but what else does he know? I’m curious. Maybe I should have asked.

Perhaps my most useful activity in the past few weeks, though it was small in retrospect, was the grading I did. I graded a set of non-AP essays on Huck Finn. I could tell who had tried and who could have tried harder. I graded a set of poetry annotation assignments, a whole slew of vocab quizzes, and bits and pieces of different humanities exams. It is clear that I am hard, perhaps too hard. Mrs. K got calls from parents complaining about the strict grading of the poetry assignments, but if she doesn’t mind then neither do I. I am young and new, and I heard that we are all like this. We grow out of it. But I hope I never grow out of a commitment to excellence, to giving feedback, encouragement, and challenges. I hope never to take the easy way out. I hope to treat language with care, and teach my students that it is imperative they do the same.

I wanted to work with senior thesis while I was there and didn’t get a chance, because the kids haven’t really started on it. Thesis was my favorite part of senior year. Huge paper, oral defense, study what you love: glory, glory, glory. I did, however, get to sit in on a writing curriculum meeting. Michael Hicks, one of those early Caldwell grads whose name I’ve known forever, was hired over the summer to teach writing, but right before school started he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. So while he underwent treatments all semester, Debbie Holcombe, the mother of one of the ninth graders, stepped in. The meeting was a passing of the torch now that he is recovering. They both clearly cared a great deal that these students wrote well, that they knew lots of words and used them to say things worth saying. They desired a deep connection between meaning and language. They discussed, what is, in fact, one of Sayers’ main points, the desperate need for logical progression in student thinking. These kids took logic back in the day, but they have not yet learnt to apply it.

Many Caldwell students have, in fact, been living on what Sayers calls “educational capital” for a long time. They are nice kids with nice parents, but unless we and they work, and work hard, for something more, niceness will be worse than worthless. It will be the lie which keeps them from Grace. I want desperately for these kids to be excellent, good, reverent. But how do we get from here to there? I know very little of what is, I’m sure, the ponderous answer to that question, but I know that we must teach them, and in turn ourselves, that we are not made to be our own gods. We can plan, and take action, but we must take great care not to live upon what Lewis calls the “fixed land.” We must simply get up into each morning as it is given us, teach, learn, and worship without ceasing. If only my school does that faithfully, academic excellence and every other good thing will follow as it ought.