Questions From Under A Table

Each spring, the juniors at BFA end the year by writing college essays, personal statements that answer one or both of two broad questions: “What has made you who you are?” and “What do you care most deeply about?” Every few years, I feel inspired to write an essay of my own to share with them, both as an example of the style (“This is how you write for strangers instead of your teacher!”) and to model the importance of continuing to reflect this way into adulthood. This was one of the two that I wrote this year.

Today seems like the day to share it.

I’ve always heard that looking at a situation from a new perspective can be enlightening, so I’m on floor, under a table in my journalism class, which I teach at an international school in Germany. Arms folded on a chair, I see only my students’ feet, scrunched up under computer desks repurposed as shelters. How normal this is, hiding under tables and listening to a school holding its breath while principals test the doors.

Some students ask me later if it was a drill, those who didn’t hear a few days ago that a practice lockdown was imminent. Sweet and naïve, they actually thought a genuine threat would go away after five minutes of silence. Most knew better, of course, students who’ve lived all over the world, weathering bombings and witnessing revolutions, who’d quickly recognize the sound of shelling or gunshots. They know that real lockdowns last a while.

Though I don’t share their experiences, I know it, too. I’ve been practicing lockdowns for ages, both as a student and a teacher, ever since a morning in April, nineteen years ago, when two boys in trench coats opened fire on the halls of Columbine High School. I was fourteen and several states away when it happened, but ever since then I’ve understood that the schools I love could become hell on earth with just a few shots.

I have always loved school, not just the learning—which years of home schooling proved could happen in a bedroom as well as anywhere—but discovery in community. I love it enough to keep showing up, now twelve years after my own graduation, day after day, to keep learning alongside that revolving crowd of laughter, questions, stress and brilliance known as high school students.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 probably did more to shape America as a nation, but it is the school shootings that have shaped me–as a student, teacher and now a parent. I’ve lost count of them now, but certain images still haunt the undersides of tables and desks. I see Sandy Hook Elementary, whose unthinkable attack virtually guarantees that my two-year-old daughter will practice lockdowns in just a few years. I see professors and teachers who literally gave their lives to protect their students, holding doors shut and pulling kids out of the way of bullets.

As I hide under the table and remember other teachers hiding under other tables, choosing between their own safety and the students they love, I know in my soul that this shouldn’t be normal. I shouldn’t have had dreams in which my schools were under attack, or spent the first four years of my career wondering which of my students could be armed, knowing that statistically, at least some of them were. School shouldn’t be like this, and no matter how sad I am, I can’t stop asking how we got here. 

I ask where the guns came from in the first place, and why there are so many of them. I ask who or what taught the shooters that this violence would provide any solution to their problems. I ask every question, because the answers are so important. I acknowledge normal, but never, ever accept it. Yes, we can pray to God to heal a broken kid, and a broken system, and a broken nation, but if God could use me to protect these students I love, possibly with my own life, God can also use me to ask questions that need asking, seeking answers that—like these young people, just feet at the moment—are too important to give up on.

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One Step Ahead

My students learned what this is this week. They were impressed and intimidated.

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Joshua 1:9

“Just remember, it’s not scary.

The juniors giggle nervously, fidgeting with blank-screened phones and tapping pencils on their blue journals, open to pages filled with questions. At the beginning of class, I asked them to write down as many questions that they could think of about the college application process, and about 20 minutes into it, five seniors appeared with answers.

Or at least some answers. These seniors were students of mine in Honors American Literature last year, so they arrive with smiles of nostalgia, remembering that twelve months ago they were the nervous ones, the juniors slogging through the quirky mystery of our practice college admission essay, trying to make sense of their lives and learn how to explain themselves to strangers. Today, they’re the experts, returning to a class they liked to rest on the pleasant laurels of having one more year of experience than their friends. One year, it turns out, is plenty for now.

The students of Black Forest Academy, when they graduate, remind me the old song lyric, shouted to the patrons of the bar in “Closing Time:” You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here. With parents still serving overseas, many don’t have one place in North America that they call home, but unless they navigate the labyrinth of applying to European universities, for the most part they return to the place of their citizenship for college, a “return” that is sometimes as foreign as studying abroad would have been for me as a seventeen-year-old. I think of how many of my peers stayed in the greater Seattle area upon graduation, how I could look across the Ship Canal from my dorm room and spy the roof of my high school up the hill in Ballard. There is none of that here, and the juniors know it. No matter what happens, the odds are high that they’ll be moving away from Kandern, from Germany, and probably from Europe in just over a year.

The seniors tell about how they decided to apply where they did, and what eventually pulled them to one place or another. They discuss wanting to have family close by, or specific regions that have always intrigued them. One young woman was drawn by a specific program at her chosen college, which she settled on “despite” the fact that her older brother goes there, too. Many mention financial aid packages being a deciding factor, and stressed the importance of researching scholarships for international students, missionary kids, pastors’ kids, and almost every other sub-category you could imagine. The juniors are mesmerized, interrupting only long enough to ask follow-up questions or for helpful websites to be spelled out for them.

Towards the end of the presentation, I ask the visitors to think of one thing that they wish someone had told them a year ago about this process. With something between a laugh and a shrug–the gesture of someone who is tired and excited and satisfied with a busy year almost finished–one student replies:

“Just remember, it’s not scary. When I was a junior I thought that applying to college was this big, scary adult thing, and I was dreading it. But it had to be done, so I did it. And it really wasn’t that bad. It was… just normal. So don’t be too scared. Work on it, prepare, research, stress just enough, but don’t be scared.”

How important, I think to myself, how important it is to have someone just a few steps ahead of us. Growth and change are always intimidating, I realize, thinking about the milestones that used to stand in the way of being a “real adult”–milestones like driving or getting married–and the milestones that still do. There are Big, Scary Adult Steps ahead of us now, too, like buying a car and trying to find somewhere to live in the greater Seattle area. Steps like having a second child, and learning what it means to parent two kids at once with some measure of grace and wisdom (not to mention sanity).

In the midst of these steps, I am immeasurably thankful for the people a few months or years ahead of me, the ones who tell me, “You can do this. God will be there,” and then encourage me to just start, already.

My juniors are almost grown up, by many definitions. This week, it’s been truly delightful to listen to their stories, hearing them discuss how their interesting lives have shaped them into interesting people, and trying to imagine where these fascinating folks will be in a year or so. It’s hard to leave without seeing it happen, honestly, but I always knew it would be hard. And anyway, today my job isn’t to say goodbye to them, but to prepare them to say goodbye to this place, to this chapter of their lives. Today the best I can do is open the door for the one-step-ahead seniors, and let their encouragement do the work.

The Crucible: Classic & Current

You must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, now, a precise time—we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God’s grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not light will surely praise it.

Arthur Miller, from The Crucible, Act III 

The murmured words of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible mingle with the lazy creek as I tiptoe between reading knots of students, their heads bent over their copies of the 1953 play, their voices alternating between animation and monotone. My largest class, they’re also paradoxically shy about reading aloud as a group, so in a concession to their reserve I’ve let them split up into smaller fragments today, tiny groupings in which they feel safer being dramatic. It’s Friday afternoon, almost hot, and we’re reading outside. Pretty standard good-day material.

The play sounds a bit like a broken record this way (a phrase that two of my students recently pretended not to recognize, much to a colleague’s chagrin). As all of the groups are at slightly different points in Act III, I often hear the same words repeated three or four times; different tones from different voices, but the same familiar lines. I heard it last week, too, when the other junior English class was reading Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun, again outside. That time, they were far away, but it didn’t matter. Then, as now, I know the lines that go between. Whether the words are mumbled or shouted, spoken with an accent (real or assumed) or intoned agonizingly slowly, I’ve heard them before. Many, many times.

In an effort to help students learn more reflectively, a few years ago I began asking why we read the books we read. My English class consists of six main texts, and five of them are exactly what you’d expect. Only Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer, came out within my lifetime, let alone theirs. These books are, well, old. Yes, they’re classics, but why? Why is is that these are the same books that your parents, perhaps even your grandparents, read in American Literature class? Haven’t any books been written since then? Weren’t they any good?

I recently told my students I’ve read this play twenty times, and really that’s an underestimation, not an exaggeration. “Don’t you get tired of it?” they’ll ask. “No,” I reply. “It’s different each time.”

One of my students is doing a presentation that compares the panic outlined in The Crucible with the racial profiling of Muslims that escalated dramatically in the months following 9/11. Those attacks hadn’t happened yet when I first read this play, in October 2000, when I was fifteen years old. I have changed, but so has the world, and each new year brings new resonance to this old play about an even older event.

Later this week, we’ll discuss why reading The Crucible is relevant today. My students will mention police shootings and “alternative facts,” the fears that led to Brexit and travel bans, and the general divisiveness of our age. They’ll echo Judge Danforth’s words above, haunting words that cast prejudice in the light of a godly crusade, specifically noting his “with us or against us” attitude.

Considering the famed optimism of the nation it represents, the canon of American literature isn’t particularly cheerful. This year, we’ve gone from the prejudice of Puritan Boston to the racism of pre-Civil War South, to the hollow glitter of 1920s New York to the hopeless agony of Depression-era California. I love these books, works of art that reveal heartbreaking truths about our culture.

Still, I wish they weren’t still so relevant. I wish very much that I could ask this question–How is The Crucible still relevant today?–and have fourteen teenagers laugh at me. That play about witches? About a tormented community? About how fear makes people do crazy things? That kind of thing doesn’t happen now. Let’s read something more current.

It’s the conclusion we keep coming back to, my students and I: We read these books because they still matter. We read these books because their authors didn’t just tell a story; they tapped into basic truths at the heart of the world, truths that span time and space.

We read them because relating these books, at most a few centuries old, helps us to read an even older and far more important text. Through the classics, we remember that stories tell truth, not just their own, the historical truths that are so valuable in Scripture, but truth for today, truth that keeps mattering as long as we’re human, created in God’s image and longing for redemption.

On Labels

Student journalists assembling our school newspaper in time for this semester’s first Distribution Day!

We’re putting the finishing touches on our latest issue of the BFA Chronicle newspaper, admiring a photo of Fiddler on the Roof cast members in the Arts section when one reporter looks up at me suddenly.

“You play violin?”

She phrases it as a question, but since this student journalist is also herself a member of the Fiddler cast, I know it’s not. We’ve been in half a dozen rehearsals together, and I’ve seen her squinting across the stage at me, as if trying to decipher if, indeed, it’s really me playing that instrument with the little pit orchestra.

“I do,” I reply with a nod. “I mean, not terribly well, but I do.” For a moment, the room is abuzz with chatter, the journalists suddenly curious and interested in this fascinating new tidbit about their teacher. It’s a senior editor who calls it to an abrupt halt.

“Yes! She’s a teacher and she does other things. Shocking!”

I laugh, and the students get back to work, which may have been Senior Editor’s intention in the first place, but the moment sticks with me.

Later, I’ll discuss labels with the ninth graders in my Advisory group. We meet twice weekly, the ninth graders and I, focusing our time on a variety of topics and activities designed to help them grow smoothly from uncertain middle schoolers to confident, autonomous high school students. After a brief video, our conversation brings us back to labelling, its uses and danger, especially in relationship to gossip.

Knowing that the defensive ninth graders are unlikely to incriminate themselves by listing harmful labels they apply to others, I begin by asking them how even positive labels could have unintended consequences. “I mean, you’re missionary kids,” I remind them. “That’s not a mean label. If anything, it’s a good one, but still. Do you always like to be ‘the MK’?”

They do not. The ninth graders erupt with tales of being asked to recite random Bible verses from memory, or speak languages that they’ve never really learned. “It’s like people only know this one thing about me,” one of them comments. “I’m more than just that one thing.”

In some ways, I think that young people are better at recognizing the consequences of labels than adults are. Or rather, they resent the labels more. I look around my school and see students that are sculptors and soccer players, graphic artists and members of the Model UN. High school is a time when we encourage kids to try things out, to see what they like and what they’re good at. At the risk of falling into cliche, it’s a time to “find yourself.”

Adults, on the other hand, seem to cling to our labels. How ardently I resisted being labeled as a teacher at 21! It’s with equal passion, though, that I claim the title now. Once we find something we love, we sink into it with abandon. This is who I am. I’ve found myself!

Except, just like the ninth graders, we’re more than one thing.

I recently listened to a sermon from our church in Seattle in which the pastor spoke of the “latent gifts” of the shepherd boy, David. Certainly he loved being a shepherd, and was very good at it. It’s probable he never expected much more for his life. God knew differently, saw the gifts of faith and leadership that would make him one of Israel’s greatest kings. David could have shut his eyes to it, crying, “I’m a shepherd! Leave me alone!” but he was aware that he probably didn’t know himself, his capabilities, as well as God did. So he listened, and learned something new.

I love people who live this way. Rooted in Christ as their only static identity, they pursue various callings and gifts in various seasons. My sister majored first in theater, then in Global Development Studies, and now owns a bakery in Seattle. My mother studied outdoor recreation in college, then went on to be a mother and later a bookkeeper for three decades, before using the last few years to become a volunteer snowshoe guide with the U.S. Forest Service.

I’ll soon shed the label of “teacher,” at least for a while. And though at times that feels painful, a stripping-away of this role I’ve loved so much, for so long, I’m inspired by the ninth graders. We’re not just one thing. We belong to Christ, who knows us best, and sees what we cannot, the king inside the shepherd, the violinist behind the teacher.

The Civilly Disobedient

Is it ever right–ethically or morally–to break the law? Explain why or why not.

-Honors American Literature journal question, Monday

It’s always a good day when I get to stand on a chair.

I sense that the students understand this, also, even as they mutter about being hustled, a few minutes into class, from their comfortable plastic chairs to the space at the back of the room. This space, perhaps 25 feet wide and six feet deep, is magic. It’s the floor we sit on, in a narrow oval, to read scary stories, and the back-of-class stage for all manner of skits and roll-plays. Today, it’s the ground for Would You Rather: Lawbreaker Edition.

At the beginning of class, I asked them to write for a few minutes about the question above. Is it ever right to break the law? They wrote, dutifully, and now they’re standing just as dutifully in the back of the room, while I direct them from my chair perch on high.

“OK,” I begin. “You have to pick a side. This is the question you wrote about. Is it ever right to break the law? Yes,” I motion to the door side, “Or no?” I motion to the windows. Mostly they shuffle to the door, a few students opting to stand in the hall outside to express their extreme comfort with law-breaking. A few misunderstand, citing times when obeying the law is just fine.

“I didn’t say ‘Is it always right to break the law,'” I remind them. “I said ‘ever.’ That’s important. Obviously we mostly obey the law, right?”

My students nod. “Now. Would you rather not pay your taxes,” window, “Or plot to overthrow the government?” door. The students laugh, mostly opting to not pay their taxes because “…you know, I’d rather have my money than… not have it.”

We’ll be reading Henry David Thoreau’s “On The Duty Of Civil Disobedience” in a few minutes, the author’s treatise regarding why he, among other forms of passive protest, refused to pay a poll tax that would fund the Mexican-American War. As I read through a few more scenarios involving various laws broken through civil disobedience over the years, I begin to think I may have lost them, my international students. They didn’t know that interracial marriage was illegal in America the early 20th century, and don’t have a solid grasp on the concept of draft-dodging. It all feels very theoretical in this safe little classroom in Germany. We’d disobey the laws you think we should, they seem to say, but we’re not super sure why.

Then I reach the second-to-last question.

“Would you rather hold a secret worship service in a country where it’s illegal, or smuggle Bibles into a country where they’re illegal?”

Suddenly, they’re all questions, of which the most common, and loudest, is “What if we’ve done both?”

Sometimes, in the busyness of writing and rewriting papers, reading classic literature and pacing ourselves through bell-ordained school days, I forget that our students at Black Forest Academy are rather extraordinary. All teenagers are extraordinary, of course, because they are odd and clever and creative, because they’re heroically weathering one of the more difficult seasons of human life, because in spite of it all most of them remain optimistic about the future and their roles in it. But these teenagers, our students, are something else entirely.

I forget that some of their very lives are founded on acts of civil disobedience, large and small. I forget the risks associated with some of this work, for which deportation–permanent exile from the places they call home–is sometimes a light potential consequence. I forget that Paul’s preaching and imprisonments, which I read in the early morning alongside many other “Bible stories” are the real models on which they base their ministry. If you’re not supposed to preach Christ, do it anyway. If you’re put in prison, keep preaching. God’s law always comes first.

When we reach the last question, asking them to choose between participating in the Underground Railroad in the 19th century or the Resistance in Germany in the 20th century, my students rebel. “Both!” they cry. “How could we possibly choose between those?”

In a few years, my students will be in college, perhaps away from the law-breaking part of their lives. But as I listen to them today, I’m inspired by their nonconformity, the way they’re able to evaluate both laws and cultural norms in light of the truth of Christ. They’ll go back to America, doubtless to be amazed at the “stands” their peers choose to make, or perhaps the lack of them. I can only hope that the students who confidently tell me that they can’t choose between an illegal worship service and an illegal Bible will continue to value both in places where worship and Scripture are less illegal than simply forgotten. Their civil disobedience might not break any laws, but it will continue to remind them, and those around them, of the extraordinary lives they’ve lived, and the extraordinary God they serve.

Of Exile {In The Library}

Speaking on faith and vocation for BFA Chapel
Photo: BFA Communications

Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.’

Jeremiah 29:5-7

After thinking about exile all week in preparation for my Chapel talk, it makes me smile a bit when I realize that I’m speaking in the Library. Today’s Chapel consists of six faculty members offering seminars on the intersection of our vocation and our faith, so students have some choices to make. As we have few large rooms on our campus, and I’m the English-teaching lover of books, to the Library I go. This means that I’m precisely the farthest away from the Auditorium, where the students have gathered for worship, and that they’ll need to really commit to walking up a bunch of stairs to get here. But that’s fine; I’m not the biggest fan of large crowds, anyway.

I’m speaking on Jeremiah 29 today, expanding on the story of the prophet’s letter to the Israelite exiles in Babylon. It’s not a new chapter to me, having encountered its oft-excerpted eleventh verse as a seventh grader at North Seattle Christian School almost two decades ago. We mulled over those words, back then, zooming in on the “prosper” and the “future,” because those seemed most relevant to us when we were twelve. God must want us to be rich, right? That’s cool. Let’s play basketball, prep for the spelling bee, check on our Tomagotchi pets; God’s got this covered. Starting way back then we lost the context, the story, the bigger picture into which God promises this future, and the wholehearted seeking God asks in return. As a professional teacher of books, I’m a huge fan of context, so today is a bit of a storytelling day.

Despite the cliche factor, I picked this passage for a reason, not for the promises at the end of the letter, but for the commands at the beginning, which have both comforted and haunted me at several points in my young adulthood. Since the speaking prompt had to do with vocation, I’ve chosen too speak not about literature, which I do pretty much constantly, but about teaching as a profession, specifically my first two years of it. I tell them that I almost quit multiple times during my first two years, and my sweet students, the ones who trudged all the way up the stairs to hear me, scoff. “No really,” I said. “It was hard.”

For a while, we’re in a different school, with a younger Ms. (rather than Mrs.) Dahlstrom. I tell them about the library conference room where I taught remedial reading to students who had failed the state reading exam, some of whom weren’t literate in any language, let alone at a tenth-grade level in English. I tell them about the fall I taught 180 ninth graders, and the period that had 30 ninth-grade boys, two ninth-grade girls, and a tenth-grade mother-to-be in her last trimester. Though I’m careful to distinguish my loneliness and discouragement from the suffering of geographic refugees, both ancient and modern, I tell them that for me, then, this was a sort of exile. That I would have seriously considered giving it all up for a quiet office and a pair of nice tall shoes, if not for the words of Jeremiah 29, a small piece of God’s insistent voice of calling on my life.

“‘Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce,'” I read aloud to the assembled students and faculty in the Library. “This is a long-term arrangement. Gardens take time; houses take time. Also, families take time. Look what else he asks them to do!”

I keep reading the passage, telling them of my crestfallenness, in those bone-tired first years as a teacher, at realizing that God had called me, specifically, to Seattle and to my classroom and to the individual students I taught. I could go work for a magazine, keep my clothes clean and hands un-markered, but it wouldn’t change the calling. Instead, God had planned for the calling to change me. That was the hope, the future.

Sometimes we get to choose the “end” of the stories we tell about ourselves. Today, I choose not to take the story all the way to Germany, to the fruition of one of the fantasies that I spun for myself in the difficult years. Because that particular exile ended two years sooner. It ended when Ingraham High School became home, when in its welfare, in this city in which I’d been placed for that season, I found welfare. Yes, eventually I moved on, but I left that school happy, satisfied enough that I knew I was leaving home, a part of my heart, behind in Seattle.

I know that for some of our students, the exile is geographic, far closer to the Israelites than I’ve ever been. Though Kandern has its charms, they’re not where they’d like to be. For others, like for me, it’s more complex, dissatisfaction with situations and circumstances still (and perhaps always) beyond their control. “I told a story about a while ago,” I tell them, “But that wasn’t my last exile. The point isn’t always to leave exile. Sometimes the point, like Jeremiah reminded the Israelites, is to meet God there. Because God is everywhere. If you seek me you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart. Exile is a great place for seeking, for looking around and paying attention to what God wants you to be doing here.”

We reset the chairs and tables in the Library with our last few minutes before the bell rings for lunch. I chat with the students, most of them ones I’ve taught or know some other way, and the teachers, most of them friends, who made the trek up the stairs. I think about how this has become every bit as much home as Ingraham ever was, perhaps even more, how I’ve literally settled down, set up a house if not built one (Keeping a basil plant alive is the same as planting a garden, right?), married and started a family in this place. It once seemed like the far corner of the world, and now it’s the center of it. I leave the Library asking God to reveal my places of exile, which clearly don’t include this cozy village I call home, knowing that He’s there, too, in the shadowy corners of my heart, asking me to lean in, to listen, to keep learning.

To Inform & Entertain: Inside a School Newspaper

An early sample issue of the BFA Chronicle. (No, our newspaper isn’t published in Latin.)

  • Effects of both Hurricanes in the US
  • Protests in France>> labour reforms and worker’s rights
  • North Korea
  • SHORT election follow-up
  • Healthcare in US
  • Iran Deal
  • Net Neutrality
  • DRM being added to HTML standardization
  • Healthcare
  • Kneeling nat’l anthem
  • 500 anniversary reformation
  • Earthquakes
  • Climate Change (hurricanes, wildfires)
  • Refugee crisis: What is it? Why?

BFA Chronicle October world news article idea list (chosen stories underlined)

“But wait. What was their least favorite article?”

Six young journalists squint at the projected results from a survey of their peers, given out along with their practice issue–we called it a “soft open”–of the rebooted BFA Chronicle. The survey asked students to evaluate the quality of the issue’s articles and visual elements, and also to comment more abstractly on the purpose and mission of a school newspaper.

According to the jagged-edged bar graph on the screen, 94% of students polled believe that we should be covering school news. My students spend a few minutes discussing the counterpart of this statistic, the sobering majority of those surveyed who suggested that world news didn’t belong in our pages, before they remember that I’d asked the focus group for their favorite and least favorite articles.

“I’m not showing you that part,” I demur, keeping my finger poised over my laptop to protect the information.

“But why?”

“I just… don’t want to,” I reply with a shrug. “None of it was personal, though. It was all about the topics. So, if the favorite articles were about the new schedule, advisory and the middle school moving to campus, then the least favorites were probably… what?”

“German election,” someone says.

“And Myanmar,” someone else adds.

“Exactly.” The two articles had focused on matters that the students had decided were important for their peers to know about: the September 24 German federal election and the refugee–and probable ethnic cleansing–crisis among the Rohingya people of Myanmar.

The journalists, especially the ones who’d worked on the articles in question, nod stoically, faces wrinkled into thoughtful frowns. I’d expected frustration or even outrage from my passionate, informed, news-reading journalism students, so their mild reaction surprises me.

“OK, so how can we use this information for the future? What do we do with these results?”

“More world news!” a journalist jokes. “All world news!”

We laugh, but spend a few minutes considering our position, a remarkably similar one to media everywhere. There are entertaining stories and important stories, and often the two don’t come together. It’s a weighty task, not just for teenagers for for any of us, looking past Top 10 Cupcakes in Seattle to get to the the city council’s meeting on affordable housing, or scrolling over photos Beyonce’s twins to find out how Puerto Rico is faring in the wake of the hurricane.

Even more complicating, the stories that are important for an adult living in America, like U.S. tax reform, have very little relevance to teenage expats and international students. Our focus, the journalists decide, needs to be on issues that either affect students directly, or are so hugely critical to the whole world that they just have to know about them.

We finish class looking at the list of article possibilities for October. “With these issues–relevance, importance, timeliness–in mind, which three are we going to write about?”

Two students practically shout “North Korea!” at the same time, then back off graciously, each insisting that the other write it. In the end, they settle that the sophomore will research whatever is most current in the North Korea story, while the senior returns to write a follow-up to the unpopular story about the election.

“Because… it’s important. I just need some space to explain why.”

I smile, remembering the many times I’ve used the same justification for the less-glamorous aspects of my classes. Walden is important. Thesis statements are important. Properly citing research sources is important.

Without knowing it, these journalists have become teachers, taking it upon themselves to explain the world to their classmates. Listening to them argue over who “gets” to write about North Korea, I’m paradoxically hopeful. Though the story is sure to be grim, behind it there is a fifteen-year-old who knows that these matters will shape the future, and cares enough to explain it in terms that his peers will understand.

For the rest of the class, the students dive into local news reporting with the same alacrity and skill. They claim stories about where to get the best food in Kandern, features on the upcoming class trips or winter sports, and editorials about Halloween and whether it’s OK to say “no” if you’re asked to Christmas Banquet. (Spoiler: It’s OK.) They know this community well, in all its variety of moving pieces, and are excited to spend the semester writing about–and for–it.

As long as they can keep writing about German politics, too.

 

A Chronicle of Longing

A very happy Last Day of Class from Black Forest Academy. For me, there are still two weeks of work left: two exams, two ceramics critiques, a debate, a graduation ceremony, and a few days of staff meetings and moving the Middle School. This makes our final day a little anticlimactic compared to the homework-burning, door-slamming squeals on grey June days of my youth. Still, we mark this day with a high-toned discussion of literature and life and, as usual, a letter. I’ll miss these kids a lot.

8 June 2017

My dear Juniors,

As I write this, you’re busily composing your thoughts on Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Contrary to the title of our last novel, this classroom is extremely quiet, and I know your many of your minds are already drifting incredibly far away, to the distant corners of the earth to which you’ll find yourselves scattered in a week or so. Only exams (and this one essay you’re writing) stand between you and the vast kaleidoscope of summer vacation. Congratulations on a job well done.

I began this year with both a warning and an exhortation, that this class would challenge you, but that you grow if you were willing to take some risks. And, Class of 2018, you proved to be risk-takers in the best sense of the word. Not only united by your love of Hamilton, you share a thirst for intellectual adventure. This class wasn’t an easy one, and I’m sure at some point you wondered why you’d put yourself here. Just showing up each day—with open eyes, ears, minds and hearts—is a tremendous accomplishment, and I want to thank you for the investment that each of you brought to Honors American Literature. I can’t imagine this class without even one of you in it, and we all know that I have a pretty superb imagination.

American literature as a whole is a chronicle of longing. Hester longed for love, Huck for adventure, Gastby for the unrepeatable past, George and Lennie for home, John Proctor for redemption and Oskar for his father. Many of these desires come from an admirable place, the very human search for love, relationship and belonging, and most of them remain unfulfilled in the pages of our books. This wasn’t a year of happy endings.

As you prepare to enter your last year of high school, in many ways the summit of childhood, I know that you, too, have longings. Perhaps you won’t raft down the Rhine River, come back and buy the biggest house in Kandern to impress your lost love, or meet every Herr und Frau Schwarz in Basel in search of some indefinable truth, but I know that wherever you go, you want to love, to be known, and to belong. And while I don’t have the power to write a happier ending for you than for our characters, I can remind you that we have something that they don’t have (other than physical existence beyond the pages of a book). In Christ, our longings find a home. We don’t necessarily have a guarantee for where we’ll live next, who we’ll meet there or how it will all turn out. But if we show up, knowing that our first desire is for Him, we won’t be disappointed.

So keep showing up. Keep asking questions. Keep learning with your eyes open. Keep longing. Know that no matter what the next chapters of your life look like, whether the shared one of senior year or the divergent ones that come after, you’ll be infinitely better off than a character from classic American literature, chasing your better dreams from a firmer foundation.

Thank you, dear students, for a wonderful year. I’ll miss you lots in August (and possibly before then), so please wave at me, tell me about your plans, and generally keep making me proud to know you.

Love,

Mrs. Kristi Dahlstrom

The Teachers of JB 11

A talented BFA Ceramics teacher, throwing mugs in the sunshine.

It’s a hot day, a last sort of school day. Really, it’s the second-to-last day we’re working with wet clay in Ceramics 3, where I’ve been filling in for a colleague on maternity leave for the last month or so.

The seven students, mostly seniors, are buzzing about, putting finishing touches on their pieces. They dip them in buckets and bring them out dripping with yogurt-thick glaze. They hunch over teacups with sharp pin tools, scratching away dark engobe to reveal the white clay underneath. They trim their bowls, sending whirling ribbons of red clay to all corners of the room. We are busy.

Studio Assistant is recycling clay, pulling lumpy grey piles from buckets on the floor and feeding them through the pug mill, from whence the clay emerges in cold, sticky cylinders, to be placed on the table and then kneaded–or wedged–back to perfection, ready to be reused by next years’ ceramics students.

“You know,” I comment. “I took Ceramics 1 years ago, with Miss B, and we pretty much only used recycled clay. And we didn’t even have the machine! We were just wedging all the time.”

The students gasp, half-mocking, and I realize I sound old. They start telling stories they’ve heard from older siblings.

“I heard they didn’t used to do wheel-throwing, because they didn’t have wheels,” someone ventures.

“And that the room was so small,” adds a classmate.

“It was pretty small,” I shrug. “But they totally had wheels. Like, two. Or one, and a kick-wheel, that you did with your foot. And they did really well with that one wheel.”

The students shrug, going back to their mighty circle of five working pottery wheels, incredible richness by seven-years-ago’s standards.

As they work I try to plan for the immediate future, making imperfect calculations about kiln firings and how much time students “really need” to glaze their pieces and wrap up the year (as opposed to the three extra weeks of all ceramics, all day, that they’d probably love). And yet, no matter how seriously I try to focus on the tasks at hand, this room draws me irrevocably to the past.

I remember the first ceramics teacher I met here. Warm and spontaneous, a lover of picnics and travel and teacups without handles. Genially adventurous and fluent in German, she introduced me, in many ways, to this place that I love. Two of her cups still sit in my cabinet, neatly stacked, favorite vessels of red wine and pomegranate seeds.

I took my first ceramics class from her, a fun and invigorating semester that taught me most of what I know about art terms like contrast, balance, hue and shape. The classes were smaller then and, as I shared with these students today, more manual. Students worked hard for their creations, wedging mountains of clay, and were patient with one another, sharing the 1.5 pottery wheels.

First Ceramics Teacher left after my second year at BFA. I went to her wedding that summer, and came back to Germany to find a new teacher in my second-favorite classroom. It took another year–a busy year of teaching, Department Heading and getting engaged–before, one day, she offered me an open spot in her Ceramics 2 class. This second teacher I got to know first in the classroom, where she taught me to throw cylinders out of wiggly wet clay, where I made impractical sculptures and glazed them colors that inevitably disappointed me. I was then newly married, and she was my one of first also-married friends. We bonded over Pacific Northwest origins, a love of the outdoors, and of course the antics of my classmates in Ceramics 2 and then 3.

I remember throwing pottery together during summer and spring breaks, sometimes outside and once when my mom came to visit. Sometimes talking, sometimes working, enjoying the focused silence of friends creating together.

I once went with Second Ceramics Teacher and her class of AP Art students to a farm in the mountains, where an earthy German potter fed us Japanese food and showed us how to make square trays and wheel-thrown teapots. My square plate holds a sunflower in the windowsill, and my best bowl from that weekend, now salt-fired to rose gold, holds only the best apple slices. Meanwhile, Second Ceramics Teacher’s work is everywhere: in my house, on my desk at school, in the cupboards and on the counters of most people here. “Is that Jen’s?” people in the know will ask. And we just nod.

We got pregnant around the same time, Second Ceramics Teacher and I, and went back to the Pacific Northwest, where our newborns could be close to their grandparents. We visited each other that year, playing with clay in my parents’ freezing garage and introducing our babies. But I came back, eventually, and she teaches art in Oregon. I returned to a third teacher in this familiar room, who, at the end of the summer, casually mentioned that “I heard you used to come here and throw sometimes, and it would definitely be OK if you’d still want to do that now.”

I don’t know her as well, this Third Ceramics Teacher, though I’m starting to, in her currently Harry Potter-decorated classroom. She likes drawing on her pieces, little pictures that look like tattoos, delicate and whimsical. Up in my cabinet are four dessert plates that look like cabbage leaves, so that I can feel healthier about the chocolate cake the plates contain. I’ll be excited when she’s back, excited to share stories about these last weeks and hear about this chapter of her life, swapping mom stories as well as classroom ones.

As seniors get ready to graduate and scatter, as they always do, it’s tempting to complain that too much leaving goes on in this place. It’s true, I realize, looking around this classroom, not mine, where I’ve spent a good amount of time with three teachers in the last seven years. I guess the goodbyes are painful, yes, and there is always that feeling that my heart is stretched across oceans and continents. And yet…

Now I know three incredible women.

Don’t get me wrong; there are real losses to working in such a transient environment. None of these teachers, these friends, replaces the others. But they’re different, each unique and wonderful in their own ways, and I’ve gotten to know them all. As we reach the end of the year, when melancholy is tempting and goodbyes are looming, I’m going to choose to appreciate that as a gift. Three teachers. Three women. Three wives and mothers. Three friends.

Speaking

“What’s a fear you’ve overcome?” my student asks me from across the desk.

“Public speaking,” I say without thinking, and she raises her eyebrows. Though we’re in English class, spending the day filling out interest surveys by engaging in an enthusiastic round of “speed dating,” this particular student is also in my Public Speaking class at the end of the day.

“Fair enough,” she replies with a laugh. “You’ve definitely gotten over that one.”

Though I’ve learned a great deal about the subject lately, really that all-too-common fear was something that I had to face a long time ago, in a classroom in North Seattle, as a young teacher who cleared her throat too often and constantly pushed her hair behind her ears.

I’m thinking about speaking quite a lot this year, actually. Public Speaking has been the first “new” class I’ve taught since Canadian History, now almost seven years ago, so researching and lesson planning have taken me to odd corners of studying forensics, rhetoric and the nonverbal communication of various cultures. I’ve spent the year watching TED Talks, debates, and political speeches, mining the Internet for examples of that elusive cocktail of confidence and knowledge that makes smart people into good speakers.

Along the way, I’ve become convinced that I’ve stumbled into one of the most practical classes that a student can take. We talk about job interviews and best man speeches, proposals of the business and romantic variety. I tell them that this class would have been great for me as a student, because I can see that it’s great for them.

At the beginning of the semester they balk at having to speak for two whole minutes. “What will I say?” they wail. Their final speeches officially max out at ten minutes, but I’ve had students keep speaking for 15, regaling their classmates with information about the electoral college or Quiddich, or persuading them of the injustice of Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy snub. Though they don’t end the class having written any papers, built any toolboxes, or sewn any pillows, there is something almost tangible about the confidence created by a few successful speeches.

The other half of my day is also about speaking, of a very different kind. Luci’s sentences are shorter, two-word minimalist masterpieces like “Bye, Mom!” and “All done!” Her collection of words grows daily. Yesterday it was “elbow” and “leg,” places she can proudly point out while talking to her grandmother on FaceTime. The best part of each morning is when she crawls into bed, says “‘nuggle?” and curls up beside me on my pillow for a few blissful seconds. Her world is words and climbing lately, every day a new sound for us to interpret and a new chair to watch her scramble up onto.

Watching my daughter learn to speak and my students learn to speak confidently in front of their peers, I’m struck with the importance of spoken words. Written ones I’ve loved more openly over the years, spending much of my time writing and reading, or teaching people to write and read. But how many more words do we say every day than the ones that end up on paper? Spoken words, unlike their written cousins, are volatile and dynamic, at once permanent and ephemeral. It’s not for nothing that James warns that no one can tame the tongue, that forest fire of kinetic destruction. This year, however, I’ve delighted in the possibilities of speaking more than dwelling on its pitfalls. A good speech can inspire, a kind word can heal, and a sound argument can change the world.

It will be years before Luci can write, but in her speaking I get to know her. What she sees, what she thinks, what she wants. Someday maybe I’ll help her face the fear of speaking in front of strangers or classmates, but for now she’s fearless, naming the world as she sees it, one syllable at a time. With her, and my students, I’m happier than ever to listen.