What Words Won’t Do

This August, I’m writing. I’m writing four papers (none of them terribly long), a first novel chapter, whatever bedraggled poems come begging at my door, many, many to-do lists, and now this blog entry. Hello.

Not to bore you by belaboring the obvious, but I love to write. I do not always find it easy and I rarely find it simple, but it has become to me itself a way of loving. When I see something or someone, really see properly, my first instinct is to write, to conjure out of that spot of time the requisite words, then to order and reorder them till they say the true thing and the beloved sits shining before me in verbs and vowels. Words for me, one who struggles to throw away even the most decrepit of old flannel shirts, are a means of well-ordered, small-s salvation. (You see why I’m attached.)

But, to my continual frustration, I have not been able to explain in words the sort of summer it’s really been. I’ve tried to explain: to others, to God, most often to myself. Yet I cannot, no matter my angle of attack, capture the sort of creeping growth crawling through me as of late. If I look at it, try to catch it in the act, it stops.

So I’m endeavoring to settle in and accept that. Just because I can’t articulate in words what I’ve gained in the last few months doesn’t mean I haven’t learned. (I mean sure, if I can’t properly describe such things, then clearly I’ve failed to fulfill the learning objectives as stated in the syllabus, but, lest we forget, life is not an academic exercise. Thank God.)

Though I cannot draw any succinct conclusions, and words are not arriving on their cues, I can offer a few small tokens: pictures and sounds, things you could hold in your hand for a moment or two.

There has been Pomp and Circumstance playing in a big North Carolina sanctuary and me in a soft brown dress and tired eyes stepping into the line of processing faculty as if I’d been there all along, and there has been a week or more of tires on the asphalt of the interstate: spinning round and round and round but also moving forward.

There has been that ferry ride back from Victoria in the afternoon sunshine with my mother in the seat beside me, while I clutched tight a children’s book I’ve never read before, leaning in to its last melancholy pages with every ounce I had, and there has been the trick pilot who dove and danced and generally defied death in the blue sky above English Bay a couple weeks ago, and the looks of dumb, gentle awe on the faces of the watching crowds at Kits Beach.

But most, there has been this intermittent and wandering sound of my keyboard while the traffic hums soft outside, and there has been a jar of bright, fresh-cut, wild-ish flowers bought for $5 from a homemade stand outside a quiet house on 14th Street.

There have been these things.

Promises

This entry is about two entirely separate things. Please do not try to draw any sort of philosophical, metaphysical, or, least of all, theological connection between the two. Failure to comply may result in misery and confusion. (Exceptions will, as always, be made for literary connections.) Thank you for your cooperation. 

Last week I took a class on the Psalms, and all week they felt very near. This is perhaps a bit inevitable when you listen to someone lecture on a single topic for six hours a day, five days in a row, but nevertheless, the intimacy of those ancient poems, even the ones I’d heard and read dozens and dozens of times before, was startling. Then, as I walked home from church the other night, past the large, still houses and moss-grown trees of Shaughnessy, I realized why that might be. 

I’ve always been hyper-conscious of my good fortune in terms of Christian community: I was born to parents who loved the Lord and displayed that well, and have spent literally the entirety of my life up to my neck in Christian education. I’ve always had more Godly potential role models than you can shake a stick at. Many people may assume that the danger of such a saturated environment might be complacency, or a resentment and restlessness that leads to rebellion, and that’s true for some. But I think that my problem, though I’m still overwhelmingly grateful for what I’ve been given, is that I was so aware of God’s grace towards and concern for the little and large worlds around me that I never, for more than isolated split seconds at a time, took a chance to comprehend His grace towards and concern for me.

But the Psalms blow all this out of the water. They’re full of thoughts of the community (and the nations at large), but they’re also brimming with the voices of individual psalmists claiming God’s promises for themselves–promises of justice, of salvation, of forgiveness, of wisdom, of provision, of mercy, and of righteous, shot-through-with-holy-light love, all for the poet and his singular heart. Not once, not twice, but probably dozens of times as I sat in room 100 last week I found myself thinking, “But has this always been true? Has it always been possible to be alone in a room with God in this way without a chorus of other voices? Has Psalm 103 always had those words in it–confidently declaring that he knows us and understands our human dustliness? Has Psalm 139 always announced with such great firmness that the God of the universe holds the author in His own right hand? And why does this make me weep? Has He promised something to me as well?”

But now for something completely different.

Yesterday, for no particularly constructive reason, I thought through my whole history as a writer. What sorts of things I’ve written at various periods in my life and what I learned about writing as I went. For the first four or five years that I wrote, from the ages of about thirteen to seventeen, while I cared that I was good, I didn’t really care about getting better, perhaps because, with some teenage combination of naivete and arrogance, I didn’t know that was possible. And strangely, I find myself enormously grateful for that, because in those formative years I was motivated only by the joy of the thing. In the years since, as I’ve encountered my own limitations and struggled to stretch beyond them, that joy of the thing has perpetually hovered in the periphery of my vision. I have never once ceased to see words as friends. Thus they began, and thus they will remain.

They are my friends even now in graduate school as I have been tying myself in little mental knots trying to prematurely decide on a direction for my final creative project. And, as often happens, I’ve landed back where I began. I’m going to write a novel, a story which is at gut-level far more important to me than the one I wrote as my honors project at Grove City. 

I have a (very new) theory, that when you get a good idea for a piece of fiction, to help it come to fruition you have to hover over it like an egg that needs a mother or a warm incubator to hatch. You trust the mysterious natural process, and eventually something living will burst forth. And as of last week I have an idea, an idea that I’m fairly certain of, so from here on out if you’re trying to find me I’ll be busy hovering. If I am patient and keep a steady hand, one day there will be words on a page to show for it. And that’s a promise.

The Things We Carry

I was just scrolling back through the folder where I keep copies of all these blog entries along with the unfinished little runts that never make it out into the light of public consumption, and found a document from late 2017 titled “The Lost Year and Moving Forward.” The only thing it says is “Feb 22.” Its brevity seems much more melodramatic than it actually is, I promise. What follows is the story I know I meant to tell back then (though I think I have a better ending now).

My sophomore year of college, I began a little journaling exercise in which, each day, I would write two lines about what I had done: who I saw, what was significant, how I felt. I didn’t keep on top of it as I could have, and was often doing two or three days at once, but I liked reading back over and knowing what I had been doing a month or, eventually, a year or more before. My love of writing is many things, but it’s partly always just been a very simple inclination towards record-keeping. I like to mark down and remember. I kept this day journal up for years, but then, in February of 2017 I had worn a bit too thin. I was feeling lost and heavy. I had a just made the decision to come to Regent, but was deferring for a year, so while change was on its way it was still a while down the road. I kept finding myself getting weeks behind in my journaling endeavor, and then struggling with the unsavory task of remembering what now-forgotten stresses last Thursday had held. So I gave up. And wrote in large letters after my last entry, “And then a respite.”

But, with the notable exception of a week roaming in Wales with my family, what followed did not feel like rest. I continued lost and heavy. And now also unrecorded. What I did and experienced each day, good or ill, was no longer stored away in ink, so most of it slipped out of my head at some point or another to be lost in the ether, as if it had no value at all.

And then came the making of the very short document which I mentioned at the beginning. I think I planned to announce to the world that I had wandered but all was not lost, that I was picking the journaling habit back up with great ceremony, exactly a year after I had left off. This felt poetic, and I love trying to force my life into stanzas. But then I didn’t do it. January of 2018, when I wrote this entry, was particularly painful for many people around me, and I spent the rest of my time in Greensboro living in acceptance of the fact that I was standing on a precipice, held only by the steadfast grace of God. All else was clearly tenuous. And my days continued to pass undiarized, uncared-for.

Then, at the end of last summer, I got on a plane with two suitcases and myself. And after I finally made it here to the green and the August smoke, I had a good cry, opened to a fresh page in the long-abandoned journal, and at last began again. And fall semester was that fresh page: smooth and unsullied. I was in a new place, light and empty, no real responsibilities, nothing tied to my heels any longer. Most days, my feet did not touch the ground. But winter term was markedly different. It was in many ways richer, but also more complex and prickly. Somewhere in my short months in Vancouver, I had sunk in to the happy mud of this place and rooted there. So by February, or maybe sooner, I knew that my emotional vacation was over. I carried things now: people and words and hopes and promises. I look over the little journal entries of my time here and I can see how the place has grabbed on, in a thousand little moments burrowing into a thousand different parts of me. Quicker than I had ever planned, I was back to bearing burdens.

A couple weeks ago, when I walked along Cannon Beach in Oregon with my friend Becky, she teased me about my childlike tendency to grab some large piece of driftwood by its end and pull it behind me, like a silent, reliant beast, drawing a long, long line in the sand which stretched back and back through our footprints. But dragging a stick, sharing its weight with the earth for a while, felt very important to me that day, like walking along a stone wall does when you’re a child. I thought of this moment again recently as I was reading a book by my new friend Robert Farrar Capon, in which he talks about picking a huge marsh reed while on a walk and attempting to bring it back for his children:

To grasp it with one hand and use it in your walking only turns you from a king into an apostle; to try to make light of it by holding it upside-down is to become a deacon carrying the inverted crozier at an archbishop’s requiem. Do you see what you have discovered? There is no way of bearing the thing home without becoming an august and sacred figure–without being yourself carried back to Adam, the first King and Priest.

It’s been a busy couple of weeks in which I have at times felt a bit stretched and overcommitted with the responsibilities in which I’ve wrapped myself, but when I read that on the bus on Monday, the disordered cogs inside me seemed to fall into place and tick contentedly. A couple years ago, I stopped recording my days because there was too much to bear, because I was in rebellion against it all. And when I final began to journal again it was because I felt feather-light, unbound. But now, I feel heavy again, and I know that feeling is here to stay. But though I am heavy, I am no longer lost. I am bearing joys and weights on purpose now–the difference is in intent. I must carry my sticks and marsh reeds not as if I am a slave, but as if I am a solemn child, as if I am royalty holding in my hands what is sacred. And at the end of each day I will add them to the growing stores of my journal–a chronicle of the piercing and persistent grace of God.

 

Two Hundred

I wrote my first entry here in October of 2010. I was eighteen years old and I wrote that I was starting this blog “in good faith.” Today I am writing my two hundredth entry, and I write in gratitude. Eight and a half years ago the girl curled on the desk chair by the ground floor window that looked out over Pennsylvania’s blazing autumn colors could not have comprehended.

She could not have comprehended the strangeness of the many precious and painful ebenezers along the way: the hands and the handwriting, the shouting and whispers, the nights weeping and the nights laughing, the holy silence of falling snow under midnight small-town street-lights, the vast emptiness of hands one Thursday morning at eight a.m. as the copier churned industriously behind me, or the steady plod of my own two feet up a green hill in Wales. These things would have baffled her. She could not have borne them.

But mostly she could not have comprehended the way this virtual space has functioned as a room of my own, as perhaps my most constant home of the last decade. Here I can slide words onto a string in complex order and hold them up to see if the light shines through, then try again and again until I get it right. Here I have over and over set myself the funny, laborious task of saying what I mean, of telling the truth both straight and slant. Here I have learned over and over the ever-piercing lesson that I am not alone in my fears or my joys, that there is nothing new under the sun, that there is always some other sheep lost in the same thicket, and more than that, beautiful and wrenching, that “grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough,” and he loves even me. Here, two hundred times over, wielding only a softly blinking cursor against a blank expanse of page, I have grown.

Thank you, little two hundred.

Distractions and Other Gifts

I’m two weeks into my new semester and, like I did in the Fall, I’ve already spent a lot of class-time in Regent’s chapel. Its entire right side is solidly made up of windows which look into the main atrium of the school and out through to the courtyard as well. It’s wall on wall of glass facing out into the slatey Pacific sky. There are blinds, but they’re never closed, and you can see anyone coming in or out of either of the building’s two north entrances while you sit in class.

I watch everyone who comes and goes. I can’t help it. It could be during the long lecture hours on Wednesday morning, or afternoon CTC, or Tuesday morning chapel service itself–everyone who’s ever taught me in that space probably thinks I’m incurably rude. And maybe I am. But watching a young mother with already-full hands and some hefty stroller struggle through the heavy door till someone runs to catch it for her and she mouths her thanks—this is eternally riveting to me. It’s a tiny, gentle drama that never gets old. Both parties go their opposite directions, and I’m left scribbling notes on Christianity and culture and thinking about small, habitual acts of generosity which make doorways sacred. My favorites, though, are the people who come through those doors alone, which are most of them. Sometimes I know their names, occasionally I even know where they’re coming from, but for a flash as they pass through those narrow doors I know them all, every soul. Witnessing those private moments of entrance and exit, ducking in and out of the rain, leaving work behind or heading towards it, concentration or distraction marked upon a forehead—I hear a heartbeat every time. Then, content, I shift my gaze back to a slide about Alexander the Great and the intertestamental period.

On top of all this people-watching I’ve been doing, I have a complaint I’ve been making. It’s the nicest complaint I’ve ever had. I’m in a class this term called Christian Imagination, about the arts, and everytime I try to do the reading for that class I get too excited and have to stop and write. In two weeks’ time I’ve produced three-and-a-quarter poems and four pages of a novel. And now this blog entry. It’s getting out of hand.

So, friends, to cope with these problems, this afternoon I dropped a class just to give myself more space. I’ll get those credits later. When there are people all around me how can I not watch them? And when there are poems all around me how can I not write them?

Something Steady

I’m sitting in a room surrounded by half-unpacked suitcases. Sometimes, I feel as if that’s my constant state, even when I haven’t been travelling. Why is that?

Now that I’m back in Vancouver it feels like it’s properly the new year. The other day I wrote myself a list of things I wanted to accomplish and ways I wanted to grow in 2019. I wasn’t exactly digging deep–one of the entries was “get better at French-braiding”–but much more so than when I left Greensboro and moved here five months ago, I do feel like sitting down and taking stock.

Yesterday (was it only yesterday?) I subbed for the seventh grade humanities class at Caldwell. Around midday I realized that it was easier and more joyful than I had expected it to be. I don’t know why I was surprised by that, though. Especially in retrospect, I tend to focus on my weaknesses as a teacher, and I had them in spades, but I had strengths too. I was good at my job. And even if I never return to it, I’ve been marked by teaching, my heart scuffed all over with funny, seemingly-accidental marks that will not wear away. Those four years changed me. I grew.

I gained confidence, prudence, perspective, a greater ability to think on my feet, and a keen sense of my own limitations. But the greatest thing I learned was Love. I still know very little of it, but simply by necessity, because increasingly I realized there was no other way to view my students, I began to wade into the borderlands of that frighteningly bright place where you see the people around you as Christ sees them. Human faces there are drawn in bold lines, the image of God and the sin that mars it both clearly visible, and you know instinctively, without thoughts of either discouragement or heroism, that Love is the only power, the only recourse, the only cure. Plenty of times, certainly, I’ve tucked my tail between my legs and retreated back to the shadowlands of my own easy criticisms and lazy assumptions, but I had just enough lessons there that I can attest to this: that land is the only way through. As one of my grandma’s favorite little books was called: Love or Die.

I learned all of that without planning to. And now that I am in a new place and new season, what will I learn here? I find it very easy to ask that question with blissful, blind anticipation and then sit still, doing nothing, waiting for the answer to drop down out of the heavens into my lap. In fact, I do that far too often on this blog. And certainly, there are many things I can’t and am not meant to predict. God is sovereign and I am not. But at times the “I don’t like being in charge” part of my personality stretches to excess, and I fail to even take charge of myself.

When I first moved here one of the things I said quietly to myself (and probably wrote on some piece of paper somewhere) was that I wanted to grow in holiness, which often runs shallow in me. And that’s not exactly a minute task. So I am realizing that nearly half a year in perhaps it is time that I begin, that I stop floating and wandering and hoping I get somewhere, but start to walk in as straight of a line as I can manage, going somewhere on purpose. The Lord will be there all along the way. It’s not as if I’ll need to wait for him to catch up–he’s well ahead, Alice.

To that end I’m about halfway through a book about holiness. (Who knew I could be so practical?) And, as icing for my new goal-oriented self, I’ve set myself a very manageable little writing target for 2019: draft two full chapters of the new novel I’ve just started poking at. Oh, the terror and the joy!

So there. I’ve sat and I’ve taken stock and, by God’s grace, perhaps even made progress. Now to my gaping suitcases.

 

Theology, Apple Sorting, and Starting at the Beginning

Apparently I’m into long titles again like I was when I was fifteen. It’s cool–don’t worry about it.

This past weekend was the second weekend of the food course I’m in and we spent Saturday afternoon at a little local harvest festival. For a while I ended up at a work station sorting apples that would be good for eating all winter long from the apples that were already bruised and marked and would be pressed into cider. At first it was just me and an older man. He sorted away and I tried to keep up. But after a few minutes a young boy came up who was maybe ten or eleven. My companion explained to him what we were doing, that when he found a nice one he should set it into the box carefully, but that he was welcome to toss all the bad apples into their cider bin as hard as he could. And so he did, with evident joy. He really put his shoulder into it, throwing each warped apple in overhand, thunck thunck thunck, but each time he found a good one he cradled it gently in his palm and laid it in the box like a sleeping baby. Then we returned to the thunck thunck thunck. I laughed and wondered if I should tell him how much I admired his confidence.

On the official permit from the Canadian government that’s stapled into my passport, it says that I’m here at this place, in this country, to study theology. But I haven’t talked much about that yet. And not just on here, I haven’t talked much about that at all, anywhere.

Everyone else seems to have come to Regent with hard theological questions or with some driving desire to grow and learn, but I came theologically content. I’ve been too busy questioning most everything else in the past year or two to question my Lord. So my engagement in most of my classes, both external and internal, has been minimal. Sometimes I do have thoughts–appreciation will wash over me in Old Testament, or some unnameable frustration will creep into my shoulders while I’m reading for the food course–but the last thing I want to do is share them. I don’t want to say anything till I’ve really thought it through, and thinking it through seems to take much longer with God than it did with poetry or stories.

So I do the readings. I write brief response papers. I study. I talk to new friends about anything except the course material. But term papers are creeping up and I’m realizing that my days of relieved passivity are over. The time is coming when I will have to attempt to prove something: prove something about God, his church, his world. The idea of doing this still seems laughable.

I mean, I’ve written plenty of papers. I’ve made arguments before. But usually this meant I would pick up a piece of literature, read it carefully–backwards and forwards, up and down– and then I’d express an opinion. I’d engage with the critics, sure, but mostly that was a polite nod to companions in reading. The real content of my paper came from the text itself. The reason I argued that Katherine in Taming of the Shrew was a product of her environment and that Petruchio actually offered her release from her role as resident hellion was not because of anything Shakespeare said, or Liz Taylor did, or anything that happened in the sixteenth century. I argued that because of Kate herself, and what I saw in the text, and what I knew about being human. I wasn’t trying to give some definitive answer–I was just talking about personhood, and relationships, and the way it sometimes feels to be alive.

But theology is different. There is an answer here. They call theology the queen of the sciences, so decisions we make have an impact, on ourselves at the very least. This is serious business. My moving to Vancouver was in many ways a move away from responsibility. Studenthood, I thought, is freeing thing. I didn’t comprehend that I’d simply be switching from making pronouncements on the writing ability of the fifteen-year-old in front of me to making pronouncements on the state of the universe itself. I’m probably making up mountains where really there are only molehills to surmount, but still. I’ve been feeling a bit daunted today about my step forward into this next big thing.

A few years ago I taught a particularly high energy (and sometimes unmanageable) group of juniors. It was a big class, filling every seat I had and there were lots of long legs and loud voices and excuses and bold questions. They made me laugh sometimes, but they also wore me out and reminded me of my own inadequacies. One day as I walked around the room at the beginning of class, wading through low levels of chaos to pass back an assignment, wondering to myself how I would cope, one of the boys looked up at me quizzically as I passed him. “Miss Hodgkins, did you just say ‘Lord, help’?”

I bit my lip. “Yes. Yes, I did.” Lord, help.

Bus Prelude and Fugue

I had intended to come home today and write a blog entry about what it’s like to be on the receiving end of things rather than the giving end, but that will wait. I want to tell you about the bus instead.

There is a boy who often rides the 25 home the same time as me, mid-afternoon. Really, there are lots of kids on around that time, but there’s one in particular. He’s maybe thirteen or fourteen, and the moment you see him you somehow know you’ve seen him before. He’s some version of who you once were and maybe who you still are inside sometimes. He walks stiff-legged and barrel-chested in his shorts and tennis shoes, and he can’t help but swing his bag against other passengers’ knees as he lowers it. When more teenagers get on at each school we pass, they look at him narrowly, loath to take the empty seat next to him. Once a group of kids tried to load themselves on at the back door of the bus instead of the front, and he rushed from his seat and lectured them back off to the correct entrance in a voice like a foghorn. But between these occasional polemics and his frequent moves from one seat to another, he stacks two thick volumes of Bach on his lap, flips one open, and then leans forward onto his arms and reads the sheet music. He reads the notes like he’s starved for them. Always. I don’t think he’ll ever get his fill. Sometimes he hums.

This afternoon he was in fine form, switching seats several times within the space of a few stops, the precious Bach cradled in one arm. One moment he sat directly next to me, and then turned and deafeningly informed me that he was going to move to the other side of the bus. I said okay.

A stop or two later a woman and a little blonde boy got on and sat on either side of me. They began having a conversation about how the bus worked: when the bus driver stopped and when he didn’t, when passengers got on and when they didn’t. He spoke in English: young, pointed questions, and she answered them entirely in fast, unself-conscious Spanish. They went gently back and forth and up and down, in complete harmony with one another, as we passed through the dappled sunlight. The bus was quiet except for their conversation, and I was enchanted. I thought that I could write a poem about the music they were making.

I reached into my bag for my journal to make a note and then a loud voice said, “Are you speaking Spanish?” My friend with the Bach had made one more move, to the other side of the woman. She said that she was. “I’m learning Spanish.” He held up his book. “Vientiquatro Preludios y Fugas. It’s my favorite.”

He announced his birthday in Spanish, and then repeated it more slowly and translated to English as if she might not have understood. She nodded patiently. He clearly cared enormously about his pronunciation.

He asked the little boy how old he was, and when he said five, the older boy repeated back, “Cinco!” loud and staccato. The little guy tucked his chin into his neck and giggled with delight: this stranger on the bus knew their secret language.

The boy with the Bach asked the woman where she was from. She told him Mexico. “Oh, I’ve heard Mexicans speak excellent Spanish.” She smiled and pulled the cord for the next stop.

As the bus sung to a halt and she and her little charge stood and moved towards the back door, the three of them called out to each other, more than once, “Adios!” The small voice, the gentle voice, and the rough one all overlapped and found friendly resonances.

When bus doors had closed and the sound had faded and everything had gone back to its hum of regularity, I sat very still but a little bit dizzy and warm, still clutching my journal in one hand.

Thoughts from This Christmastime

I know that it is time to write here because it has been more than a month since I wrote here last. That is reason enough in itself. If we pile on the significant facts that it is almost Christmas, and that I am, for the time being, off of work, the argument that I should sit down and write a blog entry becomes very, very convincing.

So at about noon, I opened a document and fussed around with all the phrases that have been running around my brain for the last few weeks, but none of them seemed to have much to say for themselves. They were tired, like I am. And then I started googling “Christmas writing prompts,” hoping the internet would save me. After a few abysmal minutes of that, I gave up and have spent about a quarter of an hour staring at the screen, wondering why the often-confident voice in my head is so quiet.

Perhaps it’s because I’m meant to listen for now.

I am meant to listen to the clock ticking.

I am meant to listen to the front door of my building squeak as my neighbor goes in and out.

I am meant to listen to the poetry read aloud.

I am meant to listen to the hiss and bubble of the chili in my crockpot when I stir it.

I am meant to listen when George Bailey shouts in exultation, “My mouth’s bleeding, Bert! My mouth’s bleeding!”

I am meant to listen to the sound of my sock feet padding on the wood floor.

And I am meant to listen to the heavenly refrain that’s been repeating my head, soft and sleepy, like waves on the shore, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests!”

 

Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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