Since probably mid-elementary school, I’ve been shy. My teachers described me that way then, and generally, I would describe myself that way now, though I’ve managed to enter the adult world semi-successfully at this point.

And when I was a freshman in high school, right at the peak of my self-consciousness about the way I looked and walked and talked and thought, a senior boy started waving at me. I don’t remember when or why, but suddenly, whenever I passed him in the small hallways of my high school, he would wave insistently, obviously wanting a response. At first, I refused to give him one, because I assumed that I was being made fun of, that I was the brunt of some mysterious joke.

As a high school teacher now, this makes me realize how little I really understood the people around me, because teenagers’ meanness tends to be somehow simultaneously more obvious and more subtle than this–it doesn’t usually take the middle way–but this fear of some potential mockery I wouldn’t understand dictated the way I behaved with peers outside my own social circle for a very long time. In fact, I probably didn’t entirely outgrow it until my early twenties. A close friend once lightly called me “ice queen,” and it cut surprisingly deep. But I realize now the name was warranted: I used to stiffen, and behave terse or even rude, sometimes outright ignoring innocent and friendly overtures. I figured if I just kept walking and didn’t engage, I wouldn’t get hurt.

But this guy kept on waving. It went on for weeks, multiple times a day, whenever our paths crossed. I couldn’t understand it: since it was a small school, he probably knew my name, but he was confident, cool, unnervingly older. What could he want from me? Finally, with my stomach rising up into my throat like a balloon, I took what felt like a very great risk, and waved back. And he didn’t make some insulting gesture as if he’d caught me in his trap, he didn’t turn to a friend and snicker (in fact, I think he was alone), instead he jumped and he cheered aloud. And in the days that followed he kept waving, even more enthusiastically than before. Pink-faced, I would raise a hand in response. Sometimes he would ask how my day was going. Occasionally a friend would notice the interaction, and I would shrug and whisper, I don’t know

Gradually I accepted these uncomfortable moments in my day as simply part of my lot in life, and continued for months to dutifully wave, much to his delight. At the end of the year, instead of just saying hello, he began to badger me everytime he saw me to sign his senior journal, which was laid out with all the others on a table in the upstairs hallway (one of many adorable Caldwell traditions). The first few times I ignored the request. I figured he didn’t really mean it. But he kept asking and asking. So finally I did. I know some great war must have gone on inside me between my shyness and confusion over the whole situation and my innate desire to be original and witty in writing, but I have no actual memory of what I wrote. What I do know is that he must have demanded my yearbook to sign in return, because here’s what it says on the second-to-last page: “Dear Alice, Even though we don’t talk that much I still consider you a best friend. I’ll miss your waves.”

The combination of complete understatement and complete falsehood in the first sentence broke through to me, and I think I laughed when I read it. Somewhere in the swirling chaos of my fifteen-year-old thoughts, I finally understood that I had, for months, been the recipient of an ongoing act of pure and joyful kindness. The last line he wrote was the simple truth.


Mary and I flew to Vancouver on Saturday to visit for a few days and the sun was rising as we came over Wisconsin. Snow sat in the creases of the mountains, and as we descended into Minneapolis, the new yellow sun shooting through clumps of bare trees turned their brown bones a glowing orange-gold like momentary stained glass. And everyone at Regent, where I’ll be in school next year, really likes singing the doxology: before meals, before class, probably under their breath as they ride the city bus.

I am moving very far away in August, and the little girl who was frightened to wave has left the stifling shell of her paralysis behind in the dusty past. I am thankful for her, but more than that I am thankful for the bright figures dotted throughout my memory, who have waved and shouted and jumped up and down to lure me out of my shell, into courage and sometimes even light.


School is done and so is our post-planning workweek. I don’t think I genuinely believed the last day of school had happened until about three or four days after it had. I am mind-weary. Teaching fills you up to overflowing, but it also makes you forget almost everything you ever learned. (This is ironic, but, happily, so are most things.)

The other day, going through papers at home, I came across something I wrote when I was seventeen. In it I had quoted a line from T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral: “Darkness declares the glory of light.”

I used to love that line when I was a teenager. I would quote it aloud and in my writing. I may even have transcribed it onto various whiteboards around school, because that’s the sort of kid I was: obsessed with words and more starry-eyed than was necessary. Reading it again startled me. Though I used to be so fixated on those words, somehow I hadn’t thought of them for years, and I was arrested by their truth. How had I forgotten? What superfluous worries had edged them out of my consciousness for so many years?

A couple nights later I took a short walk by myself. It was not really dark yet, only fading into gray, but there were fireflies coming out anyway. I thought of the line again: Darkness declares the glory of light. All sin and evil is just good that has been twisted and marred. Nothing bad is original material. So the existence of any wrong means that there once existed, and if you believe the promises of the God I serve, still exists, an opposite and more powerful right. So all darkness, in this or any world, inevitably, though unwillingly, testifies to the existence and the power of righteousness. We identify a shadow only by perceiving the light around its edges. That’s what Eliot meant.

As I continued to walk, alone in the June evening, a small voice asked politely if I still believed it to be true. The darkness you understood when you were in high school was tiny compared to the darkness you know of now, it said. Has the light really grown in proportion?

Hesitantly, I tested it. I summoned the creeping, long-fingered spectre of my anxious fear, which did not exist at all when I was a seventeen, or certainly not with the size and power it does now, and asked what particular light it declared. What was the opposite of fear? I resisted the immediate urge to shout “Boldness!” which can sometimes be foolishness, or even “Courage!” for which fear is actually a prerequisite. I wanted more than that. I stared into the deep trees leading down to the arboretum, lit by the shy lightning bugs, and realized: peace. The existence of fear declares the glory of peace.

Peace never seemed to me to be a very important virtue. It is, as some of my students would say, vague, and usually brings up visions of Miss America contestants expressing their hopes for the world at large, or automatic signatures on emails from hipster Christian college students. But maybe it is hard to express, because, like humility, it cannot be showy. You can impress others with your love and joy and kindness and courage and perseverance and patience, but peace is simply not an outward action. In fact, I think peace may be invisible. The only two people who will ever really truly know if you are at peace are you and the God who made you.

Peace is the state of being right with God. You can have all this world, but give me Jesus. To be at peace is to be able to unreservedly worship, to enter the state for which we were made.

So though teaching makes me forget and heavy shadows loom larger with each passing year, I am learning and learning still. I am learning that peace is the virtue for which I have long been thirsty without knowing it, and I am learning, like Lucy Pevensie does, that Aslan grows larger with each passing second. Not only has the light I can see grown in proportion to the darkness around me, but it will eventually obliterate that darkness and surpass it, far into eternity.

All things exist only in Thy light, and Thy glory is declared even in that which denies Thee; the darkness declares the glory of light.

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.


Three Memories for the Mid-Way Point

My junior year of high school we took U.S. History. One day at lunch, part-way through the year, I found a classmate crying in the hallway. She told me she had failed the last few history tests and she was too intimidated to ask the teacher and she was just so, so lost. We were not particularly friends, but I politely offered to help and I remember being surprised when she was eager to take me up on it. So she came over a couple nights later and we sat at my dining room table and ate brownies and talked about tariffs. After we got our next test back, she wrote me a profusely sweet little note, “ALICE! Thank you so, so much for helping me! I got an 84!” An 84, I thought, That’s good? I would hate an 84. And every time I remember that I thought that, I am ashamed. I want to go back and grab my sixteen-year-old self by the lapels of her worn-out uniform sweater and shake her. I want to tell her that in six years’ time she will not remember a single one of her own silly test grades but she will remember that beautiful, hard-won B-. She will remember the smiley-faces that were drawn all over that note, and she will be humbled by them.

This Christmas my family flew up to Minnesota, and en route we had what became an eight-hour layover in the Atlanta airport. We sat and we sat and I watched the people. There were a lot of servicemen and women–lots of Marines especially–some hurrying to catch a flight and some just waiting. As one after another went by and I hoped for each one that he was going home, I realized that though the women in uniform looked like women, the men mostly looked like boys. I did the math in my head, and realized that most of them were probably closer in age to my students than they were to me. Then they looked very young indeed. In the midst of all of that sitting and watching, I wrote this in my prayer journal, about my students: “I must keep repeating my mantra from earlier in the year, before I cared about them so much: You love them far more than I ever will and You do it better. There is nothing I can break down that You cannot build back up and stronger. I will trust in Your love for them.”

My sophomore year of college was my hardest. Everything looked very grey to me and I felt grainy and sad. If you have been reading this blog long enough you may remember. That March, at the tail end of my spring break, my mom and George came up to visit me. I remember running out into the ice and snow to meet them when the car pulled up. My mom got out to hug me, and then she said, “Oh, I brought you something.” She leaned into the car and turned back around holding a mason jar full of bright yellow daffodils from home. Just last night I remembered all this rather suddenly and for reasons I still cannot articulate, I cried while remembering. The snow, and the slate-colored sky, and the weary brick of my dorm building, and then my mother’s familiar hands, holding daffodils which she had carried over nearly five hundred miles of highway.