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.

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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.

A Place Between: Thoughts From a Refugee Camp

Washing tables

The the students and the rest of the staff have already gone by the time I’m ready, with coat and lunch, to head over to our work site for Impact Day 2017. This is the fourth annual Impact Day at Black Forest Academy, for which we give up a day of classes to do service projects in our community. In the past, working with teams of students I’ve cleaned at a music school and done landscaping at the cemetery.

This Impact Day is different.

After catching up to the team, I follow them through the center of Kandern, quiet in the late Friday morning, past two of my four apartments. We turn left at the more expensive of our two Italian restaurants, and head past the new condos, past the Catholic churchyard, and down to the swimming pool, still half empty on this early spring day. Finally, we walk down a new red-dirt road, and a few yards later we’ve arrived at the Kandern Camp refugee center, where we’ll be working today.

The boys start our gardening project.

Waiting outside, we listen as first our leader and then the camp’s director tell us about the center. Set up in Kandern last June, it houses approximately 50 people, mostly families. The director shares about the challenges of sharing such close quarters, how it brings to light intercultural conflict and the many ways in which these refugees are conspicuously not German. His attitude is one of gentle hospitality, speaking of the residents as guests he is eager to welcome, and ready to educate–for their benefit–about the mores of his own country. “We teach. We don’t force,” he reminds us, recounting a story of handshakes that were refused, even though “Germany, this is the nation of handshakes.”

While he talks, I listen and look. From the outside, the space looks like a long train of neat construction trailers; on the inside, it feels like a greenhouse, with a translucent plastic tent ceiling. They have family rooms, but share kitchens, bathrooms and community space for eating, playing, studying and socializing. The kitchens and bathrooms are divided by nation of origin: Syrians and Iraqis on one side, Afghanis and “Africans” on another. I realize that I was expecting something along the lines of American fairgrounds–dusty, dark spaces made permanent in a hurry. Instead, I’m struck by how German it all feels, as if the camp had arrived, pristine and ready-made, in flat-packed IKEA boxes. This country, unlike mine, is prepared to accommodate.

Our completed planter

Introductions finished, we spend the day beautifying the center. Several students and staff are on cleaning duty inside, mopping the large wood-laminate floor and cleaning the communal refrigerators. I work with a handful of high school boys to plant flowers–bright geraniums, begonias and chrysanthemums–in some plastic window boxes and one barren cement planter out front. Afterwards we pick up trash. It’s a busy morning.

As we eat lunch, the children come home from school. There are about a dozen of them, mostly under ten, and as soon as they arrive the camp comes alive. Our afternoon “work” consists of entertaining kids. The students throw balls, sling water balloons, give shoulder rides and paint faces. It’s often hard to tell who’s happier with this arrangement, the BFA students or these tiny, whirling centers of energy that swarm around them.

Watching my students interact with children who are growing up in this place between, I’m struck by both contrast and similarities. Teenagers who’ve bounced around the world play with little children who don’t know where they’ll live next. Both are learning new cultures almost constantly, becoming the sort of flexible nomads who will always have a complicated backstory. And yet I’m struck by the difference of choice. How our missionary kids are following a calling, theirs or their parents’, while these children are effectively in exile. One group pulled somewhere new, trusting in God to provide for them when they get there, the other pushed away from somewhere they loved, unsure of where life will take them next.

Painting faces at the end of the day

The day winds down to quietness. A few students have brought instruments and play some low-key jazz at one end of the community space. A toddler falls asleep in one of the senior girls’ laps. Several other girls paint faces, sponging color over delighted cheeks. I hold a grinning seven-month-old and wonder what it must be like to be a new mother here.

As we walk back to school, I’m grateful. Not just grateful because of comparisons, which is a suspect kind of gratitude to take away from a place like this, but grateful for the day. For our students, who work hard and generally are up for anything, whether planting flowers, mopping floors, or serving as human ponies for squealing children. For Germany, and the way they’re teaching me what it means to love neighbors on a global scale. For this place and the people in it, the hospitality the director and residents, letting us share in their lives in a small way, and learn what it means to share this village, this time, and this quiet corner of a broken world.

Commencement {Of Dreams, Failure, and Asking For Help}

A student gives his commencement speech in Public Speaking class.

Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.

1 Timothy 4:12

A ninth-grader stoops down to zip up the long robe, struggling with the zipper until a classmate helps him.

“Do I have to wear the hat?” he asks me, adjusting the polyester garment that billows around him like a navy cumulus cloud.

“Only if you want to,” I reply. “It’s an optional hat today.”

“Oh, I want to,” he decides, pulling the mortarboard down over his hair. “Is this right?”

I nod approvingly, and he’s ready to begin.

After a good deal of preparation, which involved listening to dozens of examples, coming up with inspirational rhetorical devices and honing personal anecdotes for support, my Public Speaking students are giving commencement speeches this week. Though some, like the young man starting his speech now, are still three years away from completing high school, I’ve asked them all to spend a few weeks listening to and preparing speeches for graduation ceremonies.

Like the college essays that arrive at the end of American Literature each year like a piece of dramatic punctuation, the commencement speech was a curriculum choice that I initially questioned. These are the Hallmark cards of speeches, often filled with platitudes and flowery language, hardly the spontaneous, vibrant speeches on self-selected topics that I enjoy at other points in this class. In a setting where cheesiness is not only accepted but expected, I had little hope for genuine expression or feeling.

Still, the speeches have taught me more about my students, and young people in general, than I could ever have expected. Part of their instruction in preparing the speeches was to build them up on the foundation of what we affectionately called The Wisdom. This Wisdom often took the form of a memorable platitude, a catchphrase that they could emphasize and decorate with anecdotes and rhetoric. While I helped them with the decoration, the foundation was all their own.

There are of course a few students who go with the classic “Follow Your Dream” speech, but there is a great deal of variation, too. I hear several speeches on the importance of failure: accepting it, learning from it, moving on from it. One student talks about humility being the key to success, reminding us that our victories are not just our own, but gifts granted because we live in community. Another focuses her speech on asking for help, and warns that this is only valuable if we’re careful to see assistance from those wiser than ourselves. One of the last speakers encourages his classmates to avoid comparing themselves to each other, and rather to remain confident in the love and approval of the God who made them uniquely.

The speeches are mostly of high quality, sincere and well-delivered, which doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is their depth, how these 14- to 18-year-olds have given speeches that are identical in content–though the examples differ to those delivered by people with a great deal more life experience. I realize that these ideals, grand and beautiful exhortations, truly belong to young people. That we’re still repeating them now, as adults, is credit both to the ideas themselves and the kids who discovered them as teenagers.

After spending the last decade in the classroom, I’ve come to take for granted that students have wisdom to offer. I forget that many feel differently, looking at hordes of tall, scowling teenagers with unease or scorn. I wish that I could invite the general teen-fearing public to these commencement speeches, to see the endearingly nervous and entirely sincere presentations of young people happy to use their podium to give their hard-learned advice, which finally has a forum, to a receptive group of peers–and one adult–eager to listen. Young and less-young, we’re not terribly different as we to fail, to dream, and to ask for help from different stages of the journey.

The Canyon of Enough

"Migrant Mother," 1936, Dorothea Lange Caption: "Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California."

“Migrant Mother,” Dorothea Lange, 1936
Caption: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.”

Give me neither poverty nor riches;
Feed me with the food that is my portion,
That I not be full and deny You and say, “Who is the Lord?”
Or that I not be in want and steal,
And profane the name of my God.

Proverbs 30: 8b-9

Thursday morning, the English teachers assemble in the upstairs kitchen of the school. We have classes to teach, papers to grade and lessons to plan, but for a moment we’re thinking of none of that. Though it’s just after breakfast, we’re thinking about lunch. Our highly organized supervisor sent out a spreadsheet a week ago, a sign-up sheet for soup ingredients, and the day has come. We dump our pre-measured and pre-cut containers of ingredients into one of our colleagues’ Instant Pot, and without much more ado, we go about our mornings, while Thai Wild Rice Chicken soup slowly stews one floor above us. We’re excited.

This week I’ve found myself in a strange literary canyon. Behind me is an opulent hillside of the 1920s, where F. Scott Fitzgerald spun his cautionary tale about youth, money, and the extent to which none of it is any good without love. Ahead, if I squint I can just see the austere outline of the 1930s, setting of Steinbeck’s miniature masterpiece, Of Mice and Men. For a week, we’ll be working on a research paper, letting The Great Gatsby sink in and then moving on to another Great, the Depression.

I’ve taught Of Mice and Men dozens of times, but the search for more complete historical context takes me to particularly grim places this morning. Though I’ve seen the famous Migrant Mother photo (above), I’d never known much more about photographer Dorothea Lange’s government-sponsored quest to capture the effects of the Great Depression. I get lost in a collection of her work, particularly drawn to the many pictures of families on the road, searching for work, for home, for a sense of stability that they lost somewhere back East, long ago.

In “Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning,” a documentary film produced by PBS, I learn of a family she photographed during the Dust Bowl migration. The photographer pointed out that in the series of images focused on this migrating family, a large and mysterious roll of something always appeared to be falling off their truck. When she finally asked the family what it was, they confessed that it was their kitchen linoleum, taken from a long-lost home and transported around the country for three years now, in the hope of finding a new floor to cover. I’m glad that for a moment there are no other teachers in my workroom, so I don’t have to explain the tears rolling down my cheeks.

I’m struck again by the timelessness of literature, its critical importance in continuing to understand our world. Gatsby’s folly isn’t bound by the Jazz Age. In real life, a similar solitary billionaire skulks in a white mansion in Washington, each day discovering to his chagrin that no amount of money, no powerfully crafted image, no artfully spun tales, can buy affection of an entire nation.

And Of Mice and Men, tale of the wandering poor, searching for a place call their own, continues to describe our world, so much so that I long for a modern-day Dorothea Lange.I fear that pictures only work in retrospect, and wonder what the rich and stable thought of her in the 1930s. With photographs of the refugees floating across the Atlantic, bicycling into Scandinavia, or forging their way through blizzards to Canada, perhaps we’d understand, and listen, and care. Is there a camera powerful enough to evoke some empathy from our nation?

If nothing else, I pray that reading these stories, at this time in history, can help my students to learn empathy for those different from them, without the filters and blinders of current events. I hope that they learn that privilege and power mean nothing without love, and that seeing and caring for “the least of these” is one of our callings on earth.

When lunchtime arrives, the English teachers return from our separate classrooms and subjects to the kitchen, and ladle the steaming soup in our bowl. I won’t remember later what we talked about, nor exactly how the meal tasted, but for a moment I’m struck by the “just enough” of this moment. Caught between poverty and wealth, we’re satisfied by this thing we’ve created together, by a moment of community and rest in the midst of a busy day.

It’s not a fancy lunch out that I used to envy from my “fancy working friends.” But it’s also a lunch, dependable and satisfying, in a steady job, in a town where all of us have our own homes to return to. And that’s enough, I realize, a place from which to practice caring, and loving, and seeing. Thank you, God, for this enough. Let us know what to do with it.

We Never Know

How will you use what you’ve learned in this class in the future?

Public Speaking Class Reflection

Finals Week at BFA. I have no tests to give today, so after finishing my answer keys and entering every last quarter grade into my spreadsheet, I turn to the reflections my Public Speaking students completed yesterday, their last day of class.

I once called this class “the Most Practical Class you can take at this school.” A grand label, I realize, but only somewhat hyperbolic. And today they’re looking back and ahead. What did I learn? How will I use it? What should others remember? How should this class proceed in the future? The answers that interest me most today those that require some imagination: “How will I use this knowledge?”

My students do not disappoint, writing about job interviews and class presentations, valedictorian speeches, toasts and eulogies. Others are more vague, insisting that they’ve gained the confidence to have more meaningful conversations, or in general to become better communicators. I hope they’ll go further, that the study of effective communication makes them informed citizens, skeptics in a world that needs them, but in reality, I know the real answer: You have no idea how you’ll use this class.

The most common complaint I hear among young adults–those who’ve left here or other places, who’ve graduated high school and college and embarked on the adventure of “real life”–is a lack of direction. Perhaps they expect, as my ninth graders at Ingraham used to, that by 21 they will own a house and a car, that they’ll be married and working in their dream job.

The reality is different, of course. They have jobs at desks when they thought they’d be outside, or behind counters making coffee, when they thought they should already be publishing political commentary for the Atlantic. They’re wondering if their expensive degrees were a waste of time and money, if they’ll ever use anything they learned in those mandatory years of school for any practical purpose. They don’t see how it fits together, and it’s discouraging.

There is already plenty of commentary in the world about Millennials and their high expectations, but their questions aren’t new ones. All the way back to Genesis, I think of Joseph, wondering what as a teenager he expected for his life. Even his wildest dreams–dreams that elevated him to power over his ten brothers and his own father–couldn’t have included being second-in-command over Egypt. Perhaps he expected to somehow bypass traditions of birthright, as his father had before him, and own the family business someday. Certainly he didn’t see himself stewarding the resources of a foreign kingdom and saving strangers from a worldwide famine.

Many young adults find that their road is a winding one, but this, too, shouldn’t surprise us. Joseph’s road led through kidnapping, slavery, false accusation and imprisonment, each new place more degrading than the last. He had questions at every juncture, I’m sure, but he also kept thriving, wherever he found himself. He wasn’t “just” a slave in Potiphar’s house; he flourished there, skillfully managing the household. He didn’t disengage in prison, but with God’s help rose to a position of power and authority, which brought him to a moment when a long-lost skill, the interpretation of dreams, brought him before the Pharaoh himself. Could Joseph have known, that day when he interpreted his own dreams and got himself thrown into a hole, that the very skill that caused his brothers to turn on him would catapult him to the top of Egypt? We never know.

My public speaking students are mostly seniors, one semester away from the glorious, adventurous uncertainties of college and young adulthood. I’d like to tell them that they don’t need to know what they’ll do in five years, or ten. A huge part of honoring God means showing up every day, keeping their eyes open and being ready to learn all they can from each moment. Some learning resurfaces years later, when you find yourself playing viola in a Suessical orchestra, or using those Excel skills from your college assistant job to create a grade book at your first-ever teaching assignment. Other skills–like AP Chemistry and making lattes–I’m still waiting on, but I’m still grateful.

So whether they use this class to run for president someday or to chat with someone on the train, either way I’m satisfied. We never know where learning takes us if we keep showing up, and that’s fine. All the better for the adventure.