Receiving, Retreating, and Other Non-Contributions

The last summer I spent with my grandparents, right after I finished undergrad, is perhaps the one I remember most vividly. I came to Missouri in May and stayed straight through most of June, and one of the most painful moments was this: a sweet man from church came over one day and mowed the acre of front lawn, without pretense. I could have done it, of course, but he meant it as a gesture of kindness towards these good people for whom he had so much respect and affection.

My grandma didn’t see it that way, however. That afternoon in the kitchen she let loose to me about how unhappy she was. He had not asked, she said. Why would he do that? Why would he just show up? They didn’t need his help. In frustration, she repeated herself several times, more sharply with each go round. (To be fair to both of them, he may well have talked to her beforehand, and more than once, but her memory was slipping and slipping already.)

An hour or two later, as I sat up in my room reading, she climbed the stairs, the only time she did so all summer, and stood in my doorway on the verge of tears. She stood in my doorway, and with a tempest rising in her well-tested and stretched soul, she apologized to me. She said she knew she shouldn’t have spoken like that. She knew he probably meant well. But it was so hard. It was just so hard, Alice.

I sat on my bed, keenly aware of my dirty laundry scattered over the bright blue carpet and of my position as tenth of her nineteen grandchildren, middlest of the middling, and said in a near whisper, “Grandma, sometimes it’s good to accept help from other people.”

“But we’re the ones who help!” she said.

“I know,” I told her. “But sometimes that changes.”

Her world was spinning upside down.

I, too, want to contribute. When you are able to be the one who helps, you know you’re on solid ground, that something’s going right for you. To be the giver is reassuring. In my four years of teaching, I became a contributor. I was patient and I was reliable and I answered emails promptly. My desk was a mess, but my webpage was always up-to-date with homework assignments. I lent my students more paper and pencils than I should have when they came to class unprepared. I was comforted by my own regularity, and so, sometimes, were the kids. When they came in chaotic, I would be calm. All of us could count on that. Most of all, as a friend who’s still teaching said to me recently, I don’t know what I would do if people weren’t asking me questions all day. Miss Hodgkins, Miss Hodgkins, Miss Hodgkins

I’ve been asked plenty of questions here too, but they’re harder ones. Beyond Where are you from? and What program are you in? I keep getting, Why are you here? Have you found your people yet? What’s been the hardest thing? What do you find lifegiving? My most honest answers thus far have been: I don’t know, Maybe–I was hoping it might be you?, Answering these questions, and What?

Partly by birthright, and partly by dint of having taught teenagers, I have a slightly overdeveloped sense of the absurd, so all this makes me want to laugh. And of course, as I’ve had others here warn me, if you look someone straight in the eye as you answer, you also might cry. It happens. I’ve done it. (No surprise.) But laughter and tears aren’t bad options, and people are pretty forbearing. In fact almost everyone here is out-and-out pastoral (with good reason–it is theology school.) And as they speak to a first year, especially one who sometimes unwittingly gives off the impression of fragility, they are kind.

And this is the crux of the matter: people are kind. Not kind because they love me or appreciate me or need me or enjoy me. They are kind out of their own God-given goodness. Though I am technically the focus of these check-in conversations, I am not the motivating factor. God’s grace, active and moving, is all.

I was the one who helped, but sometimes that changes.

So suffice to say, my world, like my grandmother’s, is spinning upside down. In a million other ways I will never surpass her legacy: her hospitality, her faithfulness, her work ethic, her pie crust, but I can take a lesson with her here at least. So I am relearning, for the thousandth time, how one accepts grace with humility.

I had reasons for moving and coming to this school, but most of the time I don’t remember them anymore, and when I do, they don’t seem very important. Out of the first five weekends of this term I will have spent four of them away on various retreats and course outings. It is occasionally exhausting to spend such concentrated time with new people, but I am becoming sure of one thing: I am grateful to be here. I thought I intended this move, that I planned and orchestrated it, but in truth, the Lord did. I am here because he set me here. He intended this. I am meant to know this place, to know these people, but mostly, to know him.

Happiness is not everything, but I am happy.

Heartland

Last Friday, I got home from what turned out to be a whirlwind tour of the American midwest. I was gone for only about a week and a half and in that time managed Dayton (sort of), Chicago, the Iron Range, Minneapolis, Madison, and Indianapolis (kind of).

We drove a lot. I drove a lot. On the days when it wasn’t just me in the car, and I had a back up driver roster one or more family members deep, I spent a lot of time staring at my dad’s big road atlas. I’ve always done this. From the time I was probably seven or eight I spent a lot of time on family trips leaning forward from the cramped back seat of our little minivan and asking for the atlas. It was the way we all avoided “Are we there yet?” Look–here–see for yourself–then you tell me.

For me this habit grew into a love of knowing where I am, of placing myself. I look at the map of where I am, where I’m headed, where I came from, and I trace the blue interstates that connect them like arteries, but once I’ve done that, I still don’t put the atlas down. I’ve learned to go farther afield. And this time around, beginning with British Columbia, of course, I ran my fingers over Canada: the heavy pockets of civilization in the south, thinning out into the stark ranges of the north. (Did you know that not only does Nunavut have no road access in from other provinces, but there is no reliable system of roads between its towns and settlements? Most of it is above the timber line, and you have no choice but to fly in.)

Looking at Canada for very long scared me, though. In a month and a half I am moving to the other side of a notably large continent. The bed I will be sleeping in is just under three thousand miles from the one I’m sleeping in now. I checked. And all that space scares me.

But of course the land that lies between is not just some unknowable, disembodied thing. I can know it–I do know it.

Last Thursday I left friends in Madison to head towards more friends (and my sister) just north of Indianapolis. I spent the first hour or so winding around on back roads in southern Wisconsin, and then glanced down at my phone and realized I had it set on “avoid tolls.” (Despite all my talk about the atlas, Google Maps is just easier when I’m alone.) But I didn’t mind. I accepted my fate even though it would take more gas and more time and once or twice included a gravel road. It was a hot day and the sky was very blue and the cornfields were very green.  For that first stretch, I rarely saw another car and drove on highways with letters for names. The houses and shining metal outbuildings I passed seemed settled in the soil, basking in the sun.

A few times recently I’ve found myself fancifully telling some patient listener that the British countryside (particularly what we walked through in Wales last summer) is the landscape of my soul. But as I drove those summer midwest roads I kept thinking of the commercials I used to see when my Missouri grandma would turn on the news as she cooked dinner, commercials for regional chains like Menards, boomingly announcing their home as America’s Heartland, and I know this seems silly, but for me it is. The midwest is the land of my heart. (I don’t know what this makes North Carolina–the land of my skin, the largest organ, the place I surround myself with? But I digress…)

Of course, the vast majority of my time in the midwest was spent in north central Missouri when my grandparents were still alive, and at no point on this trip did I set foot on its poor-cousin-of-Iowa soil. Instead I wandered through states which I mostly don’t know very well for themselves. But it all felt familiar.

Outside of Dayton my mom and Mary and I took a walk near our hotel and when everything dissolved to rain, we cut back through the parking lot single file, along one curb after another like children, our umbrellas held out for balance under the wide grey sky.

In Chicago we walked around U of C, trying to find the room where my parents first met. We never did find it, which perhaps made poetic sense, because it was called the Nonesuch Room.

The highways we drove were sporadically flanked with those monstrous, calm white windmills, and chains like Culver’s and A&W’s where my grandpa liked to stop to have a chocolate malted for dinner. I had never been down these particular roads before, but they tasted like home and my heart beat to the rhythm of tires on asphalt.

Of course I don’t mean to idealize the Midwest too much. After all, it was at a rest stop in Kansas when I was ten or eleven that I saw a Wanted poster for a sex offender who had escaped from state prison in the area, and then barely slept for the next few nights because I was fearfully processing the existence of human evil, perhaps for the first time. I could still give you a description of the tattoo on his chest. But the presence of wickedness does not negate the perseverance of good, and the heart beats on, yearning–sometimes self-consciously–for redemption.

After I walked out of my classroom for the last time in early June, I went downstairs with my last boxful of papers and books and told my friend that I felt a bit naked. I was leaving behind the teacher, the Miss Hodgkins, in the corner on the floor, and was stepping back out as only Alice. That’s how I left for the Midwest, stripped and small. The original point of the trip was my cousin’s wedding up way north of Duluth and the first night we got there, Mary and I went to the last evening campfire program of teen camp. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, and we stayed for the whole thing as dusk slowly set in. Along with lots of laborious prize-giving for verses memorized and games won, we sang worship songs, and one in particular, which is notably not a favorite, stuck to my ribs. Every chorus ended with the line “Look to the sky!” And when I looked to the sky my uncomfortable nakedness and exposure, my unsteady weakness made sense. I fit, a small child in an immense and well-worn palm. I was at peace. The next night, I danced barefoot in the grass alongside my siblings and cousins because Joe and Becky were married and the sky was great above us.

I am still anxious when I think of August when I will get on a plane alone and spend a day suspended in the air between two places, but if I look down at those first flyover states I will see a place that has the power to make me calm. A place of ice cream and gravel, of dry bones and rich soil, of green-brown openness fading grey in the twilight, where they look their dead hard in the face before they bury them. It’s a place I know as well as my own breathing, that’s as close to me as the thumping chambers of my own heart.

Die before you die. There is no chance after.

An Open Letter to My Students

Dear Kids, Past and Present,

I started making notes for this letter in January of 2017, when I was first thinking seriously about leaving for grad school. So I’ve had a year and a half to work on it and there’s no excuse, but I’m still at a bit of a loss. Over and over throughout the past four years, with increasing frequency, you have broken my little heart and then mended it with your own unrestrained laughter and sincerity. I am tired, but somehow bigger, for it.

I have sometimes told people that if I’d known how hard teaching was going to be, I never would have done it. But I’m grateful I didn’t know. I’m grateful I went in blind, not fully comprehending that I would be teaching people, 317 young, mutable, full-of-life people, who would walk into my classroom and sit in front of me, bearing the image of God in bright colors, even on the days you were least aware of it and most resistant to it.

Here are the things I never told you (or didn’t tell you enough):

-Your value is immeasurable. But though it’s immeasurable, it is weighty. Sometimes when I am teaching, I feel it. Especially when you are quiet. I have sometimes simply stopped and sat still so I could listen as you worked. (I wrote a poem about this once. It’s called “An Ode to My Students’ Silence.”)

-I almost always took a stack of tests home with me over Christmas break, because I knew I would miss you, and seeing your handwriting would help.

-The greatest gift you have given me is joy. Your moods, of course, were not always consistent, but I have lost count of the days when your affection and energy overwhelmed me, when your effervescence dragged me out of some little slough of despond and made me grateful. You are funny when you mean to be and funny when you don’t.

-Earlier this year, Mrs. Johnson gave me a plant, and a week or two after setting it on the windowsill of my classroom, I noticed that someone had ripped one of the wide, flat leaves down the middle, but then done the due-diligence of fixing it back up with scotch tape. Every time I saw it I laughed, but I also found it weirdly moving, because this is all I have ever wanted from any of you: to take responsibility for your actions, to do your best with the resources that you have.

-Some of you never liked school: not in first grade, not now. That’s okay. Go to trade school, work with your hands, make good things well. This is far more important than most people are willing to admit.

-Your life does not begin when you turn eighteen, or when you go to college, or when you get your first real job. It is already going on and has been for some time. Your life is the here and the now. So, as Gandalf says, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

-Teaching you has humbled me, and taught me about love.

I love you, and I will continue to pray for you.

Miss Hodgkins

 

May Joys

May is not a month I have ever associated with peace. It is a month of chaos and sugar and absences and red ink up to our eyeballs and holding on for dear life. And this May at school has included some mysterious deathly malady which has occasionally affected not only most of the copiers, but the AC system as well. We’re on our last rope, our last thread.

And yet.

Yesterday I went to Raleigh with some friends. We went to the NC Art Museum and then to dinner at some very cool place called Brewery Bhavana. I knew it was cool because I felt too old and too young for it at the same time, but I still enjoyed myself anyway.

The reason we went to the art museum in the first place was to see a special exhibit called “You Are Here.” The pieces were all supposed to be interactive, and in some way associated with light, color, and sound. (Again–too old and too young at the same time.)

My favorite was a big white room with forty speakers set up in a circle, playing a fifteen minute piece of sacred choral music on loop. And that was it. If you sat on one of the benches in the middle of the room, you could close your eyes and be lifted, as you heard the voices blending and building and melding into one another.

Or you could get up and walk slowly around the room from speaker to speaker, each of which was playing a different individual voice. Once, as I was doing this, the entire piece took a two beat rest, and then the three deep voices which were closest to my head at that moment swung solidly back in. I almost jumped with joy. I felt surrounded, unaccountably loved, known, as if my dear friends were leading the way. My friend Lauren whispered to me, It’s like heaven!

I wish May were that room, that I could walk up to each voice in the peace of a big white space, and listen to its separate resonance and contribution, over and over, that I could take my soft time with each word, each need, each demand for attention. I wish I could parse the million colors and faces swirling in my vision all day long, give each one its due in care, at long last.

But I can’t. I’ll have all the time and more for that in eternity.

But just for now, in these last two weeks as a teacher, I must sit in the middle of it all, close my eyes and be lifted.

Prayer and The New Code

Back in November I mentioned that I’ve been doing a project in which I interview women around me about their faith. The idea is to collect a mass of quiet stories about God’s goodness towards individual people, the kind of solid testaments to his grace which usually only your family and close friends end up knowing in full. I have a series of seventeen questions I came up with, and a few times after I’ve turned off the microphone at the end of an interview, one of the women I’ve spoken to has kindly asked me if I would, at some point, share my seventeen answers. In response, I’ve hemmed and hawed and gotten embarrassed, because the simple truth is I know that they’re hard questions. And I have satisfactory answers for very few of them.

But God does not need me to be satisfactory. He is satisfactory enough. He simply wants me to be willing. And the question I’ve been thinking of a lot in the last few days is #7: Who taught you to pray? In response, most people have mentioned a parent or sunday school teacher. A few have interpreted it more directly and simply told me that ultimately, the Holy Spirit taught them. Both of these perspectives make sense to me, but this is one of the questions I’ve felt most reticent about because I have always considered myself a bad pray-er, ever since I was a girl.

I was shy to begin with, and talking about spiritual things particularly galled me. Any time one of my parents, or any adult for that matter, tried to talk to me about a personal relationship with Jesus I would burst into tears, which I know was disheartening and perplexing. The whole thing, the enormity and seriousness of God, felt too big for my words, too big for my understanding, so I hid my face in my hands. I grew out of that as I got older, but I still struggled to pray. Like many people, I avoided doing it aloud in public, and had trouble concentrating when I tried on my own. Writing poetry helped, but only when I had the discipline to keep up with it. When others mentioned prayer I felt lethargic and ashamed.

And then came this year. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve cried this week alone. I do know it included three times on Monday at work. And three times last night while I was over at my parents’ house to belatedly celebrate my birthday with my family. I’ve always been a crier, but recently it’s reached a level that’s less human and more sink faucet. Last night my roommate came home at about 11:30 to find me crying because the fire alarm had gone off when I was heating up water on the stove, and I had just spent five minutes struggling to get the living room window open to create a cross-draft and air the apartment out. I was inconsolable.

I’m okay. Really, I am. I’m just finding it hard to leave. It’s hard to leave my family and my job and my students and my friends and all the sidewalks that I know. When I made the decision to go all the way to Vancouver for grad school I thought that going away so far would require the most amount of trust, but it turns out that it’s the leaving that’s the cliff’s edge. Every time someone talks long term plans now, I’m not a part of it. I don’t have a dog in the fight for any decisions at school for next year. I’m not sure about making it to fall weddings. I only have answers for short term questions. Yesterday I erased a penis which had been pencilled onto a desk in my classroom, and felt nonsensically pleased for having found a tangible, helpful task I could still satisfactorily complete in the little time I have left at Caldwell.

All that to say, increasingly over the last few months, I have met problem after problem which I have absolutely no power to combat. My hands and my mind and my energies feel achingly useless, and so at long last, in little dribbles and eddys, I’ve begun to pray, because it’s the only thing left. So that’s my answer to question #7: this year has taught me how to pray. Feeling small has taught me.

Prayer means to bring the thing that doesn’t fit in your hands and give it to the Lord. It means to bring the awe and the exhaustion and the love and the broken, blighted organs that continue to pump irregularly in our chests and the chests of those around us, to lay them out in the blinding light at the feet of the King, and leave them there. And then to come back again and again, at all hours, with more and more and more, piling them there for him to take, the only things we have to give by way of offering.

It’s a relief to no longer hide from prayer, but to hide in it. I can bring the things too big for my words or too big for my understanding to One who is larger still.

Light and Momentary Afflictions

This writing thing works best, I think, when I tell the truth and show the rips in the fabric.

Late one night in early December of my first year of teaching I decided I was going to quit at the end of the semester. I was exhausted. The pushback I was receiving from some students and parents at the time felt like too much for my thin shoulders. There had been too many nights when, finally putting away my grading or lecture notes at two a.m., I had lain in bed, cried fat, angry tears, and wondered to myself what sadomasochist had dreamed up teaching as a profession. This experiment was over. I was calling it.

So the next day I went into work with grim determination that these trudging days were numbered. I think it was a Tuesday. That afternoon a smart, articulate student who had often liked to challenge me in class came up and asked me if I could help him with something. Would I look over the rough draft of his junior thesis? He knew it had a long way to go and he wanted extra feedback. He posed the question as if, though the assignment wasn’t for my class, I might know something about it, as if my opinion were worth listening to. So I said yes, and read the paper. It was clear and readable, but he hadn’t really addressed the opposition at all and made some unfounded statements, so I covered it in red. He came back in a couple days later and sat next to my desk, and we talked through my comments. He accepted all of them and thanked me profusely.

I think his asking for my help was, at least in part, a conscious act of kindness. He treated me as if I had something of value to offer, and so I changed my mind. I didn’t quit. I gave the experiment another try.

I stayed, and year by year things got easier. The work got simpler and faster, and I got to know my students better. I carried their weights and worries more heavily and mine more lightly. I still cried often, but gradually I laughed more and more. My feet grew to suit the ground where they stood.

When I leave Caldwell in a few months it will feel as if I am slicing the hundreds of nerves that connect me to the place. It’s a happier and more logically accurate metaphor to say that I’m leaving behind something I’ve built, but that doesn’t account for the hurt I know I will feel, because I already do.

Yesterday I sat down and graded the personal statements my sophomores turned in last week. They responded to one of three prompts: a prompt about failure, a prompt about challenging an idea, and a prompt about a moment of transition. And as I read their various experiences, often little but sometimes big, I was reminded how much personal growth necessarily involves discomfort. It involves inconvenience and sometimes pain to come into something new, as well as to leave something old. Being born and dying are both famously uncomfortable.

So the beginning of this chapter was marked by tears, and by all indications the end may be too. But though my worries and insecurities may show up as markers and half-rubbed-out stains all through the last four years, they do not define my time teaching. These years have been characterized by unasked-for grace: grace offered to me by my family, by my friends, by my colleagues, by my bosses, by my students and even their parents, but most especially by my God, who has said time and time again, “Yes, I intend for you to be here–I am here with you. Now take another step forward, and another, and another…” until I walk right off the page, on to the next unknown.

Holy Ground

Once when I was in college, a friend went to pray before a meal and got much more eloquent than all of us expected. I remember he said that every day, every moment, every place we go, God has been there first. I still think of this often. I have never pushed too hard at its theology, for fear it would leak, but ultimately I think it would hold true. He is in all these places and he knows all these things.

So here we are in February, and the Lord has been here first.

I’m getting over a cold right now. (I say “getting over” more hopefully than truthfully. Yesterday a senior girl who I no longer teach said hi to me in the hall, and when I responded, she immediately said, “You sound sick.”) It began with a little sore throat late one Saturday, and turned into a runny nose by midday on Sunday. On Monday my head was so stuffed up that I couldn’t hear very well, and I walked down the halls at work pleased with how quiet everything was during class change. If someone spoke to me directly I could understand and respond, but all the other words which leak from students’ mouths between-times had turned into a soft, indecipherable buzz. A simple bout of congestion had blunted the sharp edges of my world, and I was content. By that night my voice sounded like someone dying very gradually of strangulation, but dying happily, because I thought I sounded funny, and kept laughing a lot. I even tried singing in the bath. (Some days it’s easy to keep yourself entertained.)

So for the last week or so my voice has flickered in and out as I teach, and some days I have needed to escape to the bathroom every hour, on the hour, to blow my nose somewhat violently. At home I have gone through an entire roll of toilet paper stationed by my bed, because who actually buys boxes of tissues in their twenties? (Or am I just behind everyone else?) Several people have urged me to get tested for the flu, but I keep promising: it’s just a cold. It’s really just a cold. On Friday, I went to dinner at the home of a couple from church, and within fifteen minutes of meeting most of the people in the room, while we were thanking God for the food, I descended into a coughing fit. I escaped to the bathroom as my gag reflex began to engage, and for a brief, sad moment I considered the possibility that I may soon see pieces of my own lungs floating in the toilet bowl of these nice strangers. Then my roommate, whom I had come with, brought me a glass of water, and told me that she had assured everyone that I was okay so quickly that they probably now thought she was an awful, callous person. I said, no, of course, obviously I would have said the same thing: it’s just a cold. (And it really is.)

One of the ways I know it’s not the flu is that I had the energy to finally get my oil changed on Wednesday. Big deal. I went to one of those express places, where you don’t even have to get out of your car and they do the whole job in ten minutes. Now, I know these employees are trained up to be especially charming and chatty and use your name at the beginning of every sentence they say to you (Alice, Alice, Alice), but the mechanic helping me, whose name was Javier, he was more than friendly. He was all in. He was maybe twenty-two, excited to see a Calvin and Hobbes book among the junk in back seat, and when he asked what I did for a living and found out I was a high school teacher, he stopped what he was doing and stood by the kiosk telling stories with great enthusiasm about all the times he had skipped class as a teenager. (Once he dressed up in a female friend’s clothes and hid in the girls’ bathroom! But his crowning achievement had of course been the time he’d snuck out of ISS and ended up hiding behind a door [the logistics were vague here] as he listened to the teacher standing a few feet away tell some administrator via walkie talkie that she had looked for him everywhere but just couldn’t seem to find him…a moment of supreme victory.) He kept assuring me that I must not have any students quite like him. I smiled and privately began to count the number of familiar faces which had already popped into my head with the same kind of grin and the same tendency to wander the halls.

After Javier finally changed my oil (I think), and I had paid, he asked what subjects I taught. When he heard that one of them was writing, some light turned on inside of him. I had thought he’d been warm before, but now he was glowing. He said he liked to write poetry and told me about the fantasy novel he was working on and how hard it was to get it finished. I said that I could sympathize. The oil change took more than the promised ten minutes, but I wasn’t in a hurry. Also, I learned things. Not sure what, but, you know, things.

And last night, because this cold was still hanging on with a death grip, and because I knew it would be raining, I planned what I would wear today: a pea-soup colored sweater which I think is from Goodwill,  a denim jumper with white flowers embroidered on (which my mom likes to remind me is actually maternity, because she wore it while pregnant with me,) along with black lace tights and sparkly black rain booties, both of which are new (a big step for me). This is not at all a fashion blog and it’s not as if I have a picture of myself to show, but I wanted to tell you because I look like my college self today. And for a Wednesday in February, that’s a-okay.

Maybe my telling these stories has been boring, and I haven’t been able to make a good essay out of them. I don’t know. But that doesn’t change the truth of the matter: that God has been all these places and in all these things, so mundane or not, they are holy ground, and it behooves me to treat them as such.

In Exodus God makes Moses take off his sandals when faced with His glory manifest in a bush set on fire. The bush is impressively burning with supernatural flames which do not consume, but up until this point in its life, the bush has just been a bush. But perhaps no less holy.

Have Hope

This week I told my students news I’ve been sitting on for a little while: next year, I’m not returning to teach because I’m going to graduate school in Vancouver, a city in some other country facing out over some other ocean. Some of them were calm when I told them, and some were less-so. Two fell out of their chairs. A few announced they could no longer do the assigned work for the day because of their great grief. I laughed. But my hands shook through the first two classes I had to tell. I am sad. I’m as sure that this is the right decision as I’m sure of my own right hand, but nothing can quite assuage the child-like sorrow I feel over leaving people and places I love.

However, my moving to another place and another life is the least of these things.

My sister told me this afternoon that everything feels heavy right now. This season has been one in which I’ve learned the weight of the world, and this week that weight has been not only burdensome but loud. All the pain in my peripheral vision, the groanings of the created beings around me, are making themselves known in cacophony.

I have been thinking of the Yeats poem I love which says: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” I grieve for the things I see that are lost, many beyond repair. He’s right: the things on which we rely will be shattered, and we can’t buy back past innocence for ourselves or for those we love.

I love that poem because it is completely true, but I also love it because it is completely short-sighted. I’m not disputing the obvious brilliance of W.B. Yeats, but human bitterness often assures that our long-distance vision is effectively nil. Things lost may be beyond repair, but they are not beyond redemption and rebirth. The things we rely on will eventually crumble beneath us, so that we may land at last on the Rock, the only one who can, in fact, buy back not only our innocence, but ourselves entire, and bring us into eternity. Yeats tells the truth, but only the first page of it.

One of my fellow teachers, a kind, kind man who was my English teacher himself back in the day, told me yesterday that I needed to write a book, because I had something to say. I hesitantly agreed, and perhaps what I have to say begins with this: I am hopeful.

Once I would have told you that I am hopeful because my students are sweet and bright and growing up into good people. I would have told you that I am hopeful because my family and my friends, they love me and make me happy. I would have told you that I am hopeful because God had given me far more comforts and blessings than I deserve. I would have told you that I am hopeful because spring comes every year.

But now, though my fears are bigger, because my fears are bigger, so are my hopes. They are stronger than they once were. Now I am hopeful because no matter where my students end up, they have a God who loves them each like the hundredth sheep. Now I am hopeful because that same faithful God loves me and has given me others to pass that love on to, in sinful fits and starts. Now I am hopeful because that love is so real that God saw fit to manifest it in his own bleeding, gasping Son on a cross. Now I am hopeful because I serve a God who dreamed up spring, who has pronounced that life can spring forth from the deadest death, that Yeats’ “blood-dimmed tide” will be followed by the clearest dawn.

Lighting the Turtle

Last night I was searching through the depths of my school google drive for something and stumbled upon a mid-year self-evaluation I had completed during my first year of teaching. The young woman who was me almost three years ago came across as sweet and hopeful. She said that she was learning to teach and slowly getting better, that her students seemed to at least be learning something, that she was grateful for the support of the teachers around her, and that she loved her students. She italicized it. She loved them.

I’ve found myself able to be actively grateful for a couple things the last week or two. The first is that God is in control and I am not. I have been holding my hands open recently because if I tried to clamp them tight around my own plans and power, there would be nothing to grasp onto but air. I am reliant on the grace of God. The second thing I am grateful for is the manner in which God has shown me this grace: I’m grateful for my students.

They haven’t been perfect in the last few weeks, but they know that. I haven’t been perfect, and I know that too. Regardless, whenever they’ve walked into my classroom over the last few days, I’ve found it easier to breathe deep. I know that their coming will distract me and cheer me. They’re unwitting bearers of perspective and sometimes even joy. Also, I love them.

This afternoon in fourth period, after I passed out a reading from Frederick Douglass, the boy who sits directly in front of my desk looked up and asked, “Miss Hodgkins, are you going to light the turtle?” On my desk is a turtle candle holder, a gift from a student right around the same time the earlier Alice wrote that self-eval. I remember him telling me cheerfully that I could use it to help calm everybody down. It’s heavy polished stone, with a brightly painted back, and just enough room in the middle of his shell to hold a small tea light. The turtle is a familiar sight to all the souls who like to wander up to my desk between classes and fiddle with its contents. It’s a presence in my classroom, so I’ve been asked to light it many times before, but I’ve always said no. (I say no a lot.)

But today I said yes. Or rather, I looked back at the asking student for a moment, and then I dug into the glass jar on my desk, and pulled out the little blue Bic lighter that lives there. (Note that the lighter mysteriously appeared in my classroom a couple months ago. It’s not originally mine.) The kids cheered softly as I lit the dusty wick. I smiled. (I smile a lot too.)

The turtle burned for the rest of the afternoon. A few of the girls announced that it was the “eternal flame.” A student in fifth period magnanimously promised to buy me a lavender scented candle. At the beginning of sixth period several boys took turns trying to blow it out from a distance, until I stood a folder around it to protect it. After the final bell rang, I walked out into the hall and almost laughed, because the boy who’d originally given me the candle, long-graduated, was standing there with a friend, home from college. I was well-satisfied. I love them.

On Slow Learning

If you have ever owned
a tortoise, you already know
how difficult paper training can be
for some pets.

Even if you get so far
as to instill in your tortoise
the value of achieving the paper
there remains one obstacle—
your tortoise’s intrinsic sloth.

Even a well-intentioned tortoise
may find himself, in his journeys
to be painfully far from the mark.

Failing, your tortoise may shy away
for weeks within his shell,
utterly ashamed, or looking up with tiny,
wet eyes might offer an honest shrug.
Forgive him.

-Scott Cairns

A Very Small Story (with a Moral)

This morning I came into my classroom, made tea, and sat down with a senior to help her with her thesis topic. The chairs were up on tables for the floor to be cleaned the night before, so we just took two down, because that was all we needed.

Part-way through our meeting, a sophomore boy who’s in the elective that meets first hour in my room came in to leave his things there. I said hello, and went back to my conversation. Five or ten minutes later, when the senior girl left, armed (I hope) with revision ideas, I looked up and saw that all the chairs were down. “Did you do that?” I asked him. He shrugged and said yes. I thanked him and he disappeared back out into the hall.

Not only do they clean the floors on Monday, but on Tuesday night as well. Usually I try to remember to ask the kids in my last hour to put them up, but they were very invested in the review game we were playing today, so I let class run right up to the bell, and by the time I remembered about the chairs, the room had cleared out. I began to put them up alone, one by one, silently berating myself for not asking for help when I had it available to me.

Then I looked up to see that two of my juniors were still left packing their things, and two more who I didn’t even have today had wandered in for unknown reasons. Without my requesting help, or the kids even asking if I needed it, they all began to put chairs on tables, juggling their book-bags and binders. The job was done in ten seconds, and by the time I thanked them, they were all already out my door again. They didn’t acknowledge their own kindness.

This is a very small thing, smaller than small, but I haven’t really stopped thinking about it since. I was even distracted from grading freshman papers tonight because I was remembering.

I think there are two reasons that it had such weight for me. First, I am tired, and I have had a hard week or two. Kindness means most when you need it most.

But more than that, help was offered to me so freely, without expectation of anything in return, not even gratitude or recognition. I love my students, and they are often sweet and pleasant, but this reflexive willingness to immediately and unassumingly fill whatever inauspicious need is placed in front of them–this is rare, both among teenagers and among people in general. To see such a virtue active and growing in them moves me more than they can know. When my students are able to step out into the world as that kind of salt and light, they’ll certainly have far surpassed everything I have to teach them, regardless of what they know about comma placement or the cotton gin.

God is good.