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

Christmas (Promised)

I’ve always been one of those purists who doesn’t want to see any Christmas decorations or hear any Christmas songs or eat anything that tastes like peppermint or cinnamon until after Thanksgiving, because there’s a schoolmarm living on my shoulder who says that we must keep the season unto itself so that it will remain precious and unspoilt.

But this year I’m throwing that out the window. Maybe it’s because my mom has been texting me potential dates for the Christmas party they’re throwing this year, or maybe it’s because the books sitting next to me on the couch right now are Thomas Cahill’s The Gift of the Jews, Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk, and Malcolm Guite’s Waiting on the Word, all of which sound like promises. But more likely the reason that my roommate and I took a detour the other night in Harris Teeter to prowl around for chocolate advent calendars is that in the last few months, and even especially in the last few weeks, I have been learning how little control I have over my own life and any goodness that comes from it, and how every neat little security structure I have set up will eventually fail me, sometimes in a spectacular fashion. But when I think of Christmas coming in forty-three days, I feel peaceful in a way that cannot possibly make sense to the outside world.

The advent of Christmas means the advent of a Savior, a Savior who will fulfill everything the prophecies foretold and see this thing through to the bitter, wine-on-a-pike end, all the way through to the blinding new life on the other side. So I’ve had a change of heart, like Scrooge, because it is more and more wonderfully apparently that Jesus is not only a rock, but the only solid one, and I want to try to “keep Christmas all the year” to remind myself.

Something else I’m doing this fall, besides learning hard lessons that I thought I already knew, is interviewing women about their faith. The first question I have been asking right off the bat is “Tell me your favorite Bible story.” So that’s how I’m going to keep Christmas today. I’m going to tell you the story.

It begins with a scared girl who is trusting, trusting and a good man with her who is trusting, trusting. The two of them are headed on a trip away from home to obey the law of the land, and then in a strange barn on the old hay with the smell of manure there is pain and terror and blood and then a crying baby, alongside the sleepy animals.

And an angel comes, but not to Joseph and Mary, to some tired shepherds on a nearby hillside. The angel announces joy to the shepherds, that the newborn in the feeding trough has come to save them, that this is God’s plan and they are the first the hear news of this One who bears peace and goodwill into the world. The angel brings a whole singing host with him. So the shepherds hurry to worship, and then they hurry to tell the story as far and wide as they can.

And there is a star too, a big, bright one, but not for Joseph and Mary. Instead the star is for men in the East who follow it to travel far and risk their lives to give the tiny King the worship that they somehow know they owe him.

And the scared girl who trusted gathers and treasures all these things in her heart. And so do we, because this is the promise of things to come.

Oh, joyful and triumphant, come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

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.

An Anniversary of Evil and Hope

I’m teaching freshman writing this semester. I have kids who are a full decade younger than I am.

For the end of the week, I pulled out an editorial about 9-11 that I knew Sonya had loved to teach, then found a couple more good ones and printed them all off. I mentioned to my mom that I was going to do something about the attacks, and she said I should show them some of the news footage.

So I went home that night and found a video on youtube that was about ten minutes long, which showed the main events of the morning from the vantage point of all the major news outlets. I listened to the confusion and fear of the broadcasters and realized that I had never actually seen the live footage before. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in my fourth grade classroom. When I went home that afternoon, my parents hadn’t exactly turned on the tv and suggested I watch.

The next day my first period came in, full of life and sort of antsy. I told them they were going to write about 9-11, and took a poll. Most of them weren’t even alive. The ones who were were only a few months old. A couple boys told me proudly that they were born just days after the attacks.

And then I started the video. We watched Flight 175 crash into the second tower again and again, exploding into that black and orange cloud of fire that, to most of our soft minds, looks like CGI. After a few minutes, I glanced out at my students, who were leaning forward against their desks. Their faces were still and white and they looked as if they had swallowed poison. My own stomach suddenly hurt. They’re fourteen. I thought. They’re children. What am I doing? I shouldn’t have. No. I turned back to the footage as one of the reporters was saying, “And now the south tower is…it’s falling apart. There’s no other way to describe it.” Where it had stood, there was a thick, awful column of smoke, as tall as the tower itself had been, but containing nothing living.

When the video finished, the room was very quiet. I told them to read the three editorials (which you can find here, here, and here) and I put an assignment up on the screen for them to write an editorial of their own.

For the rest of the period (and the two periods after that), I sat at my desk and read my students’ journal entries about last night’s volleyball game, and how high school has a lot more homework than they expected. And they sat at their desks and read and wrote about fear and pain. I looked up at them a few times. Christ Jesus makes all things new, and sometimes I think our grief over wicked things must be made new too. I watched it made new in their faces.

The assignment isn’t due until Monday, but some of them turned them into me already and I read them this weekend. Most of them were angry, the boys especially. They talked a lot about cowardice. They used words like slime and sick and evil and monsters. They said that watching the footage made them tear up or gave them goosebumps. They said they didn’t understand and they wanted revenge.

But that’s not all they said. They talked about bravery and they talked about sacrifice. They had quite a lot to say about justice. Several of them talked about healing. They said that pain was pain, but in that moment, for a while at least, it brought us together on our knees. America woke up and remembered itself. One very-nearly quoted Maya Angelou: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” My students, who remember none of this, saw death and wrote about hope.

I am thankful.

The Smallest Joys

This is going to be mundane. I’m excited.

First, you have to understand that I don’t spend much money. This is partly because I don’t have much and partly because I don’t need much, but also, and perhaps most importantly, because I have very, very good sales resistance. I usually walk into stores with a very definite list of what I need, and often I walk out with less than that. In fact just last week, I went to one specific store to buy one specific thing, looked at it for a while, decided that I didn’t want it after all, and went contently back home with nothing. I’ve never learned to be a good consumer.

So everytime I go to the Farmer’s Market out on I-40 I stare wistfully at the stalls of gorgeous bright flowers and tell whoever I’m with that really the only reason I want to get married one day is for an excuse to buy buckets and buckets of those things to fill a church with. Usually my companion tells me practically that since they’re only ten dollars, and typically my paycheck is more than that, I should go ahead and buy some now if I like them so much. I never listen.

But last weekend I threw a little bridal shower for a friend and, feeling a little giddy, I headed out to the Farmer’s Market with Karen, and walked away with a bunch of the much-desired flowers cradled in my arms like an infant. Since the bride was leaving town two days after the shower, I kept them and the most hardy of them are still sitting on my kitchen table, shining out the last vestiges of their glory.

Then on Tuesday I went to run an errand for a friend before I had a hair appointment and realized I had some extra time, so, perhaps feeling the afterglow of the marvelous floral purchase, I decided to wander around a little bit. I went to Barnes and Noble, where I bought myself a just-for-fun book, and then to Schiffman’s, where I had my ring cleaned, and then I took myself to lunch and read in the car. Granted, at both Barnes and Noble and Panera, I used gift cards, the book I bought was from the clearance table, and jewelry cleaning is an entirely complimentary service, so I didn’t technically spend a cent on myself all day (even, incidentally, at the hair appointment.) Yet as I stood there in Schiffman’s waiting for my ring, smiling into glowing glass cases at the silver and gold, and politely deflecting the saleslady’s attempts to get me to start a “wishlist” (ha!), I felt a warm, creeping joy, and decided that no matter how puny and silly it might seem to anyone else, I was having my own personal girl’s day out. I felt incredibly frivolous and also heavenly.

Most of the time, especially since fully entering the adult world two years ago, I try to go into every situation and do what should be done. I buy what I should buy, I go where I should go, I say what I should say. I live by the word “should.” Should is a very important word. Should makes the world go round.

But should is not the only word. Perhaps, at times, I need to keep an eye out for places and moments where should has nothing to do with it, where the only real operator on the scene is small, bright joy. And, if you’ll excuse me for applying theology to something as silly and ephemeral as consumerism, I think Jesus died so that “should” would no longer have to be my master. He died so that he, the Light of the world, the Lily of the Valley, could be my master instead.

I’ve worn my grandmother’s ring nearly every day since my senior year of high school, and in that time, I’ve only had it cleaned twice. Now when I look at it, it sparkles. And it makes me happier than I ever knew it could.

Jesus’ Love

I spend a lot of time thinking about Jesus’ love. I think about how much he loves my students, and how I need to love them like he does. I think about how often I fail to love them like he does, about how when I fail he remains faithful, faithful, faithful to them. But with all that thought, I forget that he loves me too. Jesus’ love is for me.

He does not care about my filthy-rags good works and good words. He loves the heart of the matter, the heart of me. He died for that heart. He died so that he could hold that heart in his hands and whisper inexorable love through the rot to its core.

Or sometimes he speaks louder than a whisper. In an entry from more than two years ago, during my senior year of college I wrote, “When I am silent, He shouts and it hurts. Those pipes and those bright figures in glass will not remain always still. The ‘great sloth heart’ is moving.” Last week was that kind of week, and oh, I thank God for it.

I MCed thesis presentations two nights last week. I was so nervous about it that I actually lost my appetite for about two days, but then one by one I stood face to face with eight students before they stepped on stage. They fiddled nervously with their printed speeches, and without asking I could tell that their mouths were dry and their palms were sweaty. I got to look them in the eye and tell them that in forty minutes, they would have done the impossible. And then I got to step up on stage with them, and, sometimes haltingly, pray before those assembled. And forty minutes later when we applauded, their shoulders would drop, they would take their first deep breath in two hours, and you could see in their eyes that the color had come back into the world, but brighter than ever before, because each had just slain a giant. I stood tall and proud and forgetful of my fear.

Also, on Thursday, two of my classes of juniors turned in an assignment to me in which they had to compare themselves to one of the foreign missionaries we studied. I asked them to answer honestly about their interests, their personalities, their characters, even their spiritual resources. I have only begun to grade them, but this is perhaps my favorite assignment I have ever given. I do not know if it has academic value, in fact, I doubt that it does, but almost every single child has sat quietly with his or her soul for at least a moment (a feat for some of them) and then, in some small way, laid it out on the page before me. I am moved by the shy willingness of many of them to look themselves in the eye.

Really, I think most teenagers want two things. They want to be seen. Even the quiet ones want to be seen, even the ones who push you away want to be seen and want to be known. They want to be seen and they want to be loved. To be loved is to be taken in and named and accepted. For some of them almost everything they do and say is based on these two deeply felt desires. I try my best to follow through when I see it in their eyes. And I often, often fail.

As we get older (and, of course, I am my only firsthand experience of getting older) we gain confidence and weight and complexity of thought, and those intense desires for recognition and love get pushed down and fed less. For most of us, this makes us easier to live with, both for ourselves and for others. But I also think it’s a shame. Because desires, like Wisdom on the street corner, call out loudly for fulfillment. And the fulfillment at the end of the road, the voice that always and forever seeks to answer those calls, is Jesus.

Because Jesus sees and knows, oh he knows all about it. And more than that, despite that, through that, because of that, he loves. He is Love, bleeding and victorious. Those things my students want? They can have them. They were made for those things, and so were you and I. Christ makes us clean and he takes us home. Rejoice.

Thursday’s Children

This is going to be one of those entries where I sit down with my computer, get keyboard happy, and draw tenuous connections between lots of largely unrelated things. But that’s not so bad. It means I’ve been thinking lately.

I turn twenty-four on Sunday, and I’ve been remembering that old nursery rhyme I learned growing up about the day you’re born on.

Monday’s child is fair of face,

Tuesday’s child is full of grace,

Wednesday’s child is full of woe,

Thursday’s child has far to go,

Friday’s child is loving and giving,

Saturday’s child must work for a living,

But the child is born on the Sabbath day

Is bonny and blithe, good and gay.

If we’re getting technical, I’m supposed to be Friday’s child, loving and giving, but I seem to find myself continually in Thursday. I am never enough. Never strong enough, tough enough, brave enough, far enough. Always coming in three steps (or three miles) behind where all my “shoulds” tell me I ought to be. Of course, this has been a hard week at school, not terrible, but full and heavy, so I know I am not alone in this. As Leslie said on Tuesday, “All the news seems to be bad news.”

And last weekend I read Matthew 8, and I wondered. It tells the story of Jesus casting out a legion of demons into a herd of pigs. “And He said to them, ‘Go.’ So when they had come out, they went into the herd of swine. And suddenly the whole herd of swine ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and perished in the water.” When the people in the town hear what has happened, what lengths Christ has gone to to heal two possessed men, they come out to meet him en masse and beg him to leave them alone and never come back.

And I wondered, because I could see the people’s point. They are deeply unsettled by this man who speaks only one syllable, yet who looms over the whole story. He destroys their whole livelihood, sends it racing over a cliff, just to make clean the minds and souls of two outsiders living literally on the edge of death. I sat reading, Thursday’s worn child, asking why he would send away the things which support us, the things which get us closer to far enough. The herd of swine was the daily provision these people had for simply getting to the next step, keeping themselves from falling too far behind. Why let evil destroy it? I was annoyed.

But then, this past Saturday, I went to the funeral of a friend’s uncle who had died suddenly. He was a few months younger than my mom and this was very sad and a little bit frightening, but more than that, throughout the whole service, I was struck by joy. Every person who spoke, though grieved, seemed full of the joy that comes with knowing Jesus, joy that the man they loved was now in his presence. I had met him only once or twice, but found myself so moved by the whole proceeding and it was not until a day or two ago that I realized why.

I look around at all of us and think how far we have to go. The light is a long way down the path we walk, and we know that we are lagging and weak, and our hard-bought income has gone crashing into the sea.

But perhaps we should open our eyes, because he is here before us. Alive even on a Thursday.

The demons are cast out but we, we are not. We are brought in. Love himself died so that you would not have to lose heart on those endless roads of self-sanctification. So turn home to the hands that made you and you will find a good, good Father running to meet you. In the light of his day, you will not care about the pigs.

Heavenly feet pound the earth,

Stones and soil shake,

The mud on my eyes cracks and crumbles,

The shape of you grows,

And fire wraps round your shoulders like love.

Violent Graces

A few weeks ago I had a brief conversation with my friend Abbie about the nature of God’s grace, whether it is violent or gentle. To be honest, we didn’t really get into it–we were really talking more about Christian writers and who each of us tended to gravitate towards–but I have been thinking about violence ever since.

I have been thinking about what Marilynne Robinson calls Flannery O’ Connor’s “appalling imagination” and about how that imagination is pretty nearly reflective of the contents of the human heart. I have been thinking about Jacob wrestling with God all night, how he demands a blessing, and how, as the sun rises, he walks away with a limp. And I have been thinking of a Man dying naked and alone of asphyxiation on a wooden cross and knowing it was love.

Throughout human history, many of our truest examples of promise and mercy are red with blood. I believe that violence is usually ugly, and very often wicked and repugnant. The school shooting this week? I do not believe that it was grace. I believe that it was evil. I also believe that God can bring grace out of that situation, but even that is not what I’m talking about.

What I am talking about is our hearts, those hearts meeting God in a dark alley. Coming around a corner and finding the light of light, very God of very God standing there, right where we least expected him. He stands and he offers goodness and grace, but those meetings are so often violent because sinful people like you and me will naturally rebel against goodness. He is gargantuan and clear and bright. We are dusty and crumbling. The light is too brilliant, and it burns us clean and refines us, strips the rot out of our souls. The flames rise higher and higher around us, and we are not consumed.

But isn’t God gentle? Doesn’t he care for the orphan and the widow and the sparrow? Can’t his changes in our hearts be soft and his love be sweet? Perhaps Jacob did walk away with a limp, but didn’t the lepers leap for joy, and run? Christ bid the little children to come to him. I know he meant it.

I am going back to the basics here (I’ve been doing that a lot lately, for my own benefit), but God made us and God loves us. He knows the caverns of our hearts. He knows whether they need soft light or a sharp blaze. He knows how to mold with strong, sure hands. He both pays the fee and does the labor to make us whole, so he knows every part of the job.

I am making a muddy-eyed conclusion, as I usually do, but I think that for most of us children of God, our relationship with the Lord’s grace will be like that of Paul. He goes towards Damascus with murder in his heart, and is knocked down and blinded by the light. Then as he lies in the darkness, God sends Ananias as a bearer of grace to pray for him and baptize him. He gains new sight and a new name. When he leaves that place, everything is different. This is most of our stories, told again and again and again. It is the story of our daily lives. We learn love slow.

“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.”

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:

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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.

Thankfuls about Teaching

I have just spent all afternoon grading a test on American Democracy and the West, and I am tired.

But on Friday, after my last class, during the peace of a seventh period planning hour, I was sorting through paper and books and I thought to myself, “Oh, I like my job.” Please note: that is the first time that thought has ever “risen unbidden,” in my mind, as they say. That is the first time this year that I have been able to be thankful for my circumstances without prompting.

Not that prompting is a bad thing. A prompting to be grateful is the conscience. A prompting to be grateful is the Holy Spirit. But when, every once in a while, thankfulness arises easily (as it should) then that is grace and I will celebrate.

So here I am, a few days later, trying with all my little might to catch the tail-end of that spontaneous gratitude. I am going to tell you what I love about teaching.

I am thankful for my students. I am thankful for the students who ask questions, especially those questions that begin with something other than “What do we need to know about…” or “Did we go over…” I am thankful for the students who take responsibility for their actions and attitudes. I am thankful for the students whose hands shoot up like air-propelled rockets during class discussion. I am thankful most of all, perhaps, for the students who work so hard that, no matter the final grade, I can feel the sheer effort and earnestness radiating off each page they write for me. I hope they know that I love them, and sometimes even admire them.

I am thankful for the people I teach with. I am thankful for their advice and trust and constant, present support. I am thankful for the pumpkin-shaped basket full of candy in the workroom. I am thankful to sit on roll-y chairs around a big table and eat lunch with them each day. Last week, when there was an open mic hour in forum to for students to thank the teachers, I wanted so badly to get in line with the rest of the kids who were waiting to speak. I am grateful for the sanity these men and women bring. But most of all I am grateful for—more than grateful for, awed by—their steadfast compassion and prayers both for my students and myself. I ceased to be their pupil years ago, but they are still teaching me so much.

And I am thankful for teaching itself. At its best, teaching is a little bit like writing in real-time. (I guess, at its worst, it’s like that too. Like a really poorly organized essay that doesn’t have a thesis statement or even a prompt…) I am thankful for test-writing, which I have quickly discovered is the secret glory of teaching. I am thankful to be pushed to study and then communicate history which I know is shaping me as I watch it shape my students. Stories, especially those that really happened, have the powerful effect of washing over in waves and re-shaping the clay of my soul.

At the core, I suppose I am most thankful to be part of something which is so much bigger than I. In the grand scheme of the educations of these forty-five people, I am the least important facet. Certainly for now, they rely on me, and because of that, as the apostle James says, I’ll be held to a higher standard, so I must give my utmost and beyond. But the responsibility for their minds and the “weight of their glory,” as Lewis would call it does not end with me. I am thankful that though the calling before me may sometimes feel like a burden laid upon my back, we are never asked to carry a burden any farther than Golgotha. At the foot of the Savior, we may drop our weights and duties, for they were His to begin with, and we may worship with empty hands.