What You Leave

“What’s it like leaving?” It’s the question of the month, a fair one to ask after eight years in missions, seven at Black Forest Academy. The answer, I mostly reply, is that it’s complicated. Because there are many kinds of leaving, and they all mean different things. Today—with our students graduated as of this morning and our school year officially finished—seems as good a day as any to reflect on the different leavings in this season of goodbyes.

You leave a class. You forget the particular slant of their handwriting or cadence of their questions, forget what it was like to share the inside of one classroom and half a dozen stories for a while. You leave inside jokes and outside games, the easy shorthand of a shared nine-month history.

You don’t leave students. They do leave you, but they’re supposed to, and it’s supposed to be sad. If they stayed forever, or you weren’t sad, then something would be wrong. But you take the stories they told you, the questions they asked. You take a handful of notes that make you smile. You’ll hear from them again, often when you least expect it, and anyway you’ll remember them—some part of each of them—forever.

You leave a building. Hallways that you could walk blindfolded, a classroom you know how to keep cool and clean. You leave a copier with no more mysteries, even how to fix it when it jams. You leave a bell schedule that you just—after almost a year—committed to memory, including a sense of exactly what kind of lesson fits into 55 minutes.

You don’t leave a school, or at least you don’t leave alone. Schools are organic places, and everyone leaves, every year, trading in this school for a new one. Even if you returned in the fall, with most of the students and some of the staff, it would be to a new place. The school was just right, for just right now, each year. God made it that way, and it was very good.

You leave a job. You leave a sense of well-worn competence that got you through the tougher days. You leave a curriculum that—at this point—you mostly created, familiar and time-tested. You also leave classes that you taught for just a little while, ones full of experiments. These were just as fun, if not more so. Someday, you’ll return to the land of new books and students. Remember how much you grow there, in that humble place, and be gracious with yourself.

You don’t leave teaching. Even if you don’t have a contract or a classroom next year, and you don’t know when you will again, teaching gets into everything, like glitter. Whether you’re explaining German recycling practices to anyone who will listen, or writing creative writing prompts for your sister, or showing your toddler how to use her balance bike without getting knees full of gravel, you’ll still be a teacher. You even use your teacher voice with the Google Home, so don’t worry. Your vocation isn’t going anywhere.

You leave neighbors. You leave the easy proximity of last-minute cookouts or trips to the pool, cups of sugar and multilingual greetings in the alley. You leave the bakery staff asking when your baby is due, and acquaintances delighted by how much your daughter has grown. You leave running into half a dozen people you know every time you leave the house.

You don’t leave friends. You know from experience that you’ll see many of these people in person again, on this continent or that one. You’ll run into them at weddings and airports, will scheme visits to their home or host them in yours. Even without visiting, you know that technology is a gift—when used properly—that keeps friends close.

You leave an apartment. You sell toys, appliances, curling iron and rugs. You clean and clean and clean. You pack and weigh and repack. You throw the sheets in the wash and clean the empty fridge one more time. You watch the last sunset from your fourth-floor window, and bid your village farewell.

You don’t leave home. Home says goodbye—the streets you’ve memorized, the boxy houses, the seasons that feel as comfortable as slippers, the greetings you murmur to the familiar faces you’ve seen in the street for almost a decade. But home comes with you to the airport, fills your phone with texts goodbye and then later, hello. Home sits next to you on the plane, reading a book or playing with a stuffed animal or five. Home meets you on the other side of the ocean, the smell of rain or coffee, the sound of wet pavement, looming mountains inviting you up and in, arms and faces and voices. Home says hello.

 

 

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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.

For Sale: A Good Tent

I have a confession to make. Though I fear that this admission may lead to the recall of my Dahlstrom Card, for the sake of honesty and the all-important Need To Tell A Story, I make it here with fear and trembling:

I haven’t slept in my tent–or any tent, for that matter–in four years.

I’ve been outside, of course. I’ve trekked in the Dolomites and hiked regularly in the Cascades up until it a few weeks before my daughter was born, but none of my adventures in the last few years have involved sleeping outdoors.

Now, I’m setting the tent up in the living room, trying hard not to poke out any windows or eyes with the poles that stretch from wall to wall. Luci is fascinated and delighted, but I feel more conflicted. You see, I’m setting it up so I can take a picture of it, a photo that I’ll post in our community online flea market as I try to sell my precious tent. I try to feel like Jo March in Little Women, selling her hair to purchase train fare for her mother to visit their father, wounded in the Civil War, but I’m unable to avoid a sense of betrayal. My tent, which I’ve set up in a castle, which has visited the beaches of Normandy, may soon belong to someone else.

The truth is, I had actually thought this particular tent was lost until a few weeks ago, when Timmy discovered it lurking behind a suitcase in the rafters of our attic. Dusty but essentially the same reliable, simple tent is has always been, it seems to beg for more excursions. Why, it seems to inquire, has it been so very long? Yet its discovery led us to a trying and oft-repeated conundrum: Do we bring it with us?

Europe being a place of cheap, comfortable mountain huts, I’m not actually sure why it ended up here in the first place. I imagine that on some trip back to Germany, I had space in a suitcase and just knew that I was a Tent Person, and therefore must have a tent, easily accessible, wherever I lived. And I’ve used the tent a bit, though not nearly as much as I probably expected. There are, after all, the huts.

The tent takes up most of the living room when I set it up. I unzip the door and Luci walks in, amazed. To her, this tent she’s never seen is as marvelous as any cathedral. She actually gasps once she’s inside, peering out through the mesh windows and sliding her little feet around on the blue floor.

“Can you read me a story in this tent?” she asks, producing a book as if by magic.

“Yes, I can read you a story.” What are tents for, after all, if not for stories? I crawl in beside her, and begin to read Miss Rumphius for the hundredth time. I know it well enough that my mind isn’t on the story as I read, but rather wanders back to the last time I slept in the tent, almost four years ago, a time that made dragging the tent from one continent to another more than worthwhile.

Sunset in Montreaux

After the wedding of one of our small group girls, a recent graduate, my former (and last) roommate Emily and I spent three days camping in Montreaux, Switzerland. Our campsite was a large lawn on the shore of Lake Geneva, three kilometers from town, and we were camping because Switzerland–at least that part of Switzerland–is just too expensive to sleep in. So we were camping, at the end of my first four years at BFA, just a few days before Emily was moving back to Minnesota. It was trip for celebrating friendship, and four good years. She would soon move home, and I would come back to a school pared down of many of my closest friends and the students in whom I’d invested the most. It was a trip to say goodbye.

I’ll never forget our last evening in Montreaux, sitting by the lake and taking picture after picture of the most breathtaking sunset either of us had ever seen. After a while we stopped talking about it, stopped talking at all, basking in the rose gold splendor splashed on the water and sky. There were tears in that sunset, both of gratitude for the good years that we’d shared, and sadness for the end of this season. When the sun was really gone, a navy sky billowing in its place, one of us–I can’t remember now who–said:

“The thing is, there’s always another sunset. Even though this is the best one we’ve ever seen, there will be more.”

Confession: The last time I went camping was in 2014. It was with this dear friend, and it was grand.

And it was true then. For me there were four years of marriage, a baby and now another. She returned to new friendships and jobs, and built a new home. Later this summer, I’ll go to her wedding, a whole new sunset. We haven’t yet seen the best God has to show us.

Luci and I finish the story, and I take the tent down. She doesn’t want me to, and I don’t really want to, either, but since it takes up the whole living room it really can’t stay here much longer. As I roll it up, remember all the other times I’ve carefully folded and stowed it in its bag, I realize that this tent belongs to another sunset. That sunset, four years ago. Later, I’ll joke with Timmy that I have a five-year plan for tent purchases.

We’ll need a four-person tent within the next two years, I tell him, seeing in my eager daughter a future camper, and vowing that this next child will get on board, too. We will go camping together; it’s just what families do. Then, in five years, we can get another two-person tent, a lighter one for when we’re able to go backpacking again as a couple. This was just my first tent; it won’t be the last.

Long after the tent is put away, when I’ve begun to make dinner, Luci wanders into the kitchen. “That tent was good,” she tells me, a weighty declaration of approval.

And looking at her, her hour-old love of tents, it’s not the past camping trips I see, marvelous as they were, but the ones still to come, in a bigger tent, in a new place.

“It really was, Lu. It was a good tent.”

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.

An Ode To New Friends

Some 2014 grads on Commencement Day. Missing these kids, but so proud of the adults they’re becoming!

Graduation seasons begin early around here. Though Black Forest Academy still has a good six weeks of school left on the calendar, social media means that we get to participate virtually in the early graduations of universities in America, from which mortarboards and monochromatic robes have begun to fill Facebook and Instagram. This is always fun, of course, seeing kids that I knew as uncertain teenagers graduate college as slightly more certain adults, but never more so than this year. This year, one of my favorite classes is graduating.

A Side Note: Slightly less controversial than whether or not teachers have favorites (My opinion: We do, but it doesn’t affect their grades), is the open secret that whole years’ worth of students earn our affection. These are the years when June is more bittersweet, after which the following September feels a bit empty. For me, these are the classes of 2009 at Ingraham, and 2014 at BFA. It’s no coincidence that these are also classes for which I served as a faculty advisor (here we’re called “sponsors”), one of the adults who helped them get through fundraisers, class parties, fancy dinners and dances, and–at BFA–class trips to France and Italy. It makes sense that these classes, the ones in which I invested four years of attention instead of one, are my favorites.

So this year, it’s fun to watch the Class of 2014 graduate from college, learning through the limited window that social media provides what they’ve been doing, and where they hope to head next. Some head to grad school, others back into missions, and a few onto the jobs for which they’ve trained in college: nursing, teaching, aviation. I’m excited for them, and incredibly proud.

What makes me proudest and happiest, though, aren’t the posts about their future plans, but rather the ones about their friends. They post photos posing in caps and gowns, showing off empty diploma cases (the diplomas are almost always delivered later) and garlands of honors cords, with captions devoted to the friends who’ve been with them these last four years. Sometimes–in the case of a few universities that draw small clusters of BFA alumni–these are also students I know. Most of the time, though, they aren’t.

Most of the time, these friends are new ones, students they encountered in freshman orientation or Psychology 101. They are roommates that were assigned, people they met at church or through jobs or internships. These bonds have deepened, as with all school friends, through shared learning and adventures, friendships forged in that critical moment when they’re both somewhat independent and still working hard to discover the world and themselves in it. It’s a great time to make friends, and I’m always thrilled to see that my students have done so.

I’m thrilled because it means that they’ve kept learning. Some of this learning comes from their professors, of course, but often the students who come back to visit tell of adventures in independence, questions of faith, and falling in love when they least expect it. Just as I’m not finished learning, at 33, they’re by no means complete at 18. We do our best to academically and spiritually, but also socially and emotionally prepare them to thrive as young adults, but at some point we have to trust that they heard us, and keep praying for them from afar.

What I see on these graduation days is that they’ve been listening. Many people leave high school thinking they already have all the friends they’ll ever need, resolutely passing up social opportunities to write letters (or maintain FaceTime appointments) to people from back home, even if that “back home” is now scattered around the world. Of course, this isn’t by any means a bad thing. I’m always touched to see the intentionality and care with which our students maintain their friendships once they leave the shared space of tiny Kandern, meeting up for weddings and holidays several times a year.

I’m equally impressed, however, with the extent to which many of them also enter college ready to know and be known. It’s easy for those of us who say goodbye often–TCKs or not–to hesitate to form new friendships, so I’m happy for the ones who overcome that fear, discovering the extent to which their hearts expand to accommodate even more homes and friends.

Last week, Timmy spoke at Senior Day, which consists of a morning of seminars regarding leaving this context and entering another smoothly, followed by an afternoon excursion to a nearby French village, and a dinner together here in town. His particular task involved talking with them about “Entering Well,” practical advice for beginning their next seasons with grace and wisdom. Among other topics, he told them to remember, as they began school in these new cities and countries, that everyone’s story has value. Yes, they’ll have a lot to say, these students who’ve ridden camels and possessed multiple passports and witnessed revolutions. But they’ll also have a lot to learn, even if their freshman roommate has never left her state, if they’re willing to listen and to invest.

For them, these commencement ceremonies are another goodbye, a period of upheaval with which they’re all too familiar. But home has gotten bigger, with the addition of each new friend. Their hearts are bigger, the world is smaller, and I’m proud of them.

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.

Home Is Where We Start From

The view from Rodborough Fort

Three days into spring break, I find myself on a windy hilltop, alone and reading poetry. At my back is the high outer wall of Rodborough Fort, a well-kept castle of indeterminate history or function, not open to the public but apparently available to lease. I text Timmy a picture of the castle and the “To Let” sign: “Let’s move here instead of Issaquah.” I mean, Issaquah is great, but this is a castle. Worth a shot.

The Cotswolds region of Southwestern England billows out below me, a vista of beige commons, lacy wood and stern hedgerow. I’ve come to Britain this week with five colleagues–the rest of the high school English Department at Black Forest Academy–for a long-expected journey to the birthplace of our mutually favorite language. We’ve come for various reasons, seeking rest and recreation, time to read and places to explore. Mostly, our trip was precipitated by two circumstances:

  1. This year was the first in ages that BFA has had the same six English teachers two years running.
  2. Four of us won’t be returning to teach here in the fall.

So this is bittersweet, a shared adventure at the breaking of a good fellowship. Today, my colleagues are out on a literary pilgrimage to Tintern Abbey, a ruined cathedral in Wales, subject of William Wordsworth’s eponymous poem. Having slept poorly last night and still battling a cold, I opt to stay behind.

Though often given just the title of the abbey itself, Wordsworth’s poem is called “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798.” The poet writes of returning to this panorama, a hill overlooking the green expanse of Wales, with his younger sister. He reflects on seeing this same view as a younger man, of a time when Nature “to me was all in all… an appetite; a feeling and a love / That had no need of a remoter charm.” This place, he reflects, used to be everything; his comfort, his joy, his ecstasy, his purpose.

Though I’m missing the abbey itself today, my afternoon echoes the poem. I’ve brought T.S. Eliot’s Collected Works, and have been reading “East Coker” aloud into the wind. (As one does, of course.) Both the poem and the place carry me away from today, reminding me of other seasons as clearly as a Dickensian ghost. Because I’ve come back to England often–far more often than any other destination–for various reasons and with various people. And this particular poem has been with me, off and on, since I first began this journey overseas, eight years ago.

“Home is where one starts from,” I murmur to no one, reading Eliot’s line to the spread-out valleys, but also to the past selves I meet in this place. To the soon-to-graduate English major, uncertain about the first job she’ll return to in Seattle in just a few months. To the 25-year-old sitting in a cafe in Canterbury, stealing a quiet moment from a field trip with international high school students, wondering if easy solitude, traveling alone and living light, will be her fate forever. To the wife about to become a mother, hiking all over London with an also-pregnant friend, aware that these travels will be done for a while.

“Tintern Abbey,” in the end, is also about time. It’s about growing older, revisiting those places and things that gave us joy in when we were young, and how we see them from the far side of experience. The poet confesses, a few lines later, that

That time is past, 
And all its aching joys are now no more, 
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this 
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts 
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe, 
Abundant recompense.

Long gone, the poet reflects, are the days when Nature alone was “all in all,” but he doesn’t complain. Since last he visited this hill he’s grown up, taken on new cares and discovered new joys.

While nature, where I meet God’s creativity and beauty most consistently, will always hold roughly the same place in my heart, I realize today that travel is what’s changed for me. These explorations used to thrill me, an end in themselves, making me feel bold and young and alive. I still enjoy them, but like Wordsworth, I find the pleasure changed. I look for different things, and find different joy. And now there are other gifts. I’m thankful for this hill, this familiar place and familiar poem, but soon I’ll walk down the hill. I’ll call home, and talk to my husband and daughter, whom I miss so much after only a few days. In a few days I’ll be home, and that will be even better.

Earlier on this trip, I told a colleague that when I first travelled to England, in 2006, I found it unimaginably foreign. The driving-on-the-other-side-of-the-road, accented English, odd foods for breakfast, and generally mysterious currency were so bizarre, and I’d truly reached the edge of my comfort zone. “Now,” I laugh, as we walk to a grocery store open on Sunday and buy almond butter and Reese’s candy, “This is halfway home.”

Home is still where we start from, but as I look down to my own personal Tintern Abbey, I’m also thankful for the returning, a new gift in this new season.

Haunted By Homes

Der Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher: A stunning example of the magnificence of the German language.

“No matter how you get there or where you end up, human beings have this miraculous gift to make that place home.”

Creed Bratton, The Office

Luci and I halt abruptly in front of the kitchen/toy/hardware store window display on Hauptstrasse, because I’ve spied a familiar word.

Beside an elegant box containing three ceramic egg-cups and a strange metal tool, there is a sign, advertising “Der Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher.” Roughly translated, it means, “This thing should break the egg at a specific point.”

German words fit together as endlessly and seamlessly as Lego bricks, so there are perhaps hundreds of words like this one, most of which I lack the proficiency to interpret. This one, too, would have been out of reach, if not for one simple circumstance: This massive word was the name of my first Upward Bound team, in the summer of 2010, the summer before I moved to Kandern. Instantly I’m dragged back to that July, the start of all these adventures, when I still thought of German as a quirky novelty, to be explored and tasted, like new flavors of cheese or chocolate in this new land.

Today, German feels different; less novel than useful, less foreign than familiar. Luci and I have been running errands out on the town, weaving a circuitous route of the greatest hits of life here. We first evaluated our park options, settling on the Merry-Go-Round Park over the Slide Park, after which we kicked a soccer ball around in the gravel and traversed the stump forest, pausing only for a brief spin on the colorful rope carousel. Then, we navigated empty stroller and walking Luci down to the thrice-reopened bakery for a chocolate croissant and pretzel, which we munched happily at the only public picnic table in downtown Kandern. We went to try on shoes from the sale rack at the local shoe store, and after 10 solid minutes of German-only discussion, left with two cookies and new hiking shoes for this summer’s adventures. We returned bottles at the store, stopped by a massive, community-wide garage sale, then returned for our groceries on the way home. A busy, productive sort of Saturday.

Arrested by the familiar, bizarre word in the window, reflecting on the morning I’ve just spent with my daughter in our town, I’m struck by how very much home this village has become. There is still so much more German to learn, so many more people to know, but today Kandern–even Germany–feels like a well-loved sweater, the one whose smell and softness have almost become a part of you after so many winters spent together.

Yesterday, one of my students–a bubbly, Korean-American girl–lamented that we didn’t have an Arabic class. “If I could just take AP Arabic, if that existed,” she said, “I would be awesome at it.” Surprised at this declaration from a student I didn’t know well, I asked her where she’d learned Arabic. “Jordan… and Syria. We lived there for eight years.” I nodded, thinking about the events behind her pause, about the turmoil she’s left behind to live in Germany. Still, I suspect that if I asked her where home was, our little village might not make it into the top two.

This season has been haunted by homes. My own, the beautiful two places I’ve been fortunate enough to live and love. But mostly my students’ homes, places around the world that they’ve loved and lost, places that have made indelible impressions on them, so strong that they mark their lives not by grades, like most children, but by where they were living back then.

When I lived in Kenya. We had just moved to Moldova. When I was a kid in Bangladesh. Right before we left Pakistan.

Though our students sometimes encounter real trauma from those places, what continues to surprise me is that, more often than not, they also bring a strong sense of belonging and identity, even from places where they have never–will never–look, speak or believe much like the people who surround them. They will refer back to their North American passports once in a while, missing Chik Fil A or Tim Hortons. But they’ll also tell me that passion fruit reminds them of being kids in Tanzania.

The long and ridiculous word in the window, and all of the memories it recalls, provokes a flash of understanding. I think about today, the little interactions in this little village that would have been impossibly difficult and foreign eight years ago. I think about how there will be a loss in letting go of this mastery and the belonging that came with it, even in exchange for a place that is almost as familiar. Someday, like my student, I’m sure I’ll find myself saying, “If I could just take AP living-in-a-tiny-German-village, I would be awesome at it.”

Instead, I’ll let these courageous teenagers inspire me with their flexibility and curiosity, their marvelous capacity to, as Creed Bratton of The Office says, “make that place home.” There are more words to learn, more people to know, and there always will be, in old homes and new ones.

Nothing Wasted: Of Slides and Research Papers

Luci, the lone teeter totterer.

Friday morning, and the playground is deserted. Since I teach only one class today and Timmy is hard at work in the counseling department at school, Friday mornings I stay home with Luci. After what feels like a month of freezing weather and sickness, we’ve seized our health and the balmy temperatures and walk across the river and two big streets to the park. We walk, on our own four feet, without any strollers involved. Big steps for the little person beside me.

They’re just the first of many today. When we get to the empty playground, (suspecting all of the other two-year-olds are either in Kindergarten or still eating breakfast) Luci peruses the toy options. While I generally find German playgrounds somewhat superior to their American counterparts–full of the risky, wood-metal-tire climbable things that I remember from my own childhood–this one is a little sparse. The Americans in Kandern call this the “zipline park” because of the pretty cool zipline that runs across it, but Luci is still too small for the zipline, which leaves only a few other options.

Luci investigates them carefully. She rides the Bouncy Cat–a chipped-paint feline on a giant, rusty spring–for a few seconds. Next, I push her in the swing, an activity which brings plenty of giggling, but again only lasts a minute or two. Swings were apparently cooler when she was 18 months old. We use the digger for a while, swiveling this ageless tool in every direction and creating a trench in the pebbly, twiggy sand around it. “What about the teeter totter?” she asks, pointing to the magnificent contraption, with spots for three kids on either side. I note that we’re at least one kid short for see-sawing merriment. Finally, she turns to the slide.

I hate this slide. Maybe hate is too strong a word–I generally reserve that one for major systemic injustices, and also pickles–but this slide freaks me out. It is about ten feet high, its precipitous steel slope polished to a mirror-like sheen by the behinds of endless multitudes hurtling down at the speed of light, their little feet scraping away the pebbles at the bottom as they try to come to something like a halt. The worst part about this slide, the part that has for the most part kept Luci off of it for almost two years now, is the approach. Where the friendly, plastic slides on the Air Force base have friendly little steps to the top of their five-foot drops, this one is a ladder. It has maybe seven metal rungs, spread at a distance that would challenge a clumsy adult, let alone a shorter-than-average toddler.

“Can I go on that slide?” Luci asks me. Moment of truth. Yes, I’ve gone down the slide with her before. That’s how I know it’s fast. I’ve also lifted her halfway up the slide and let her drift the last few feet to the bottom, where I caught her before her feet touched the ground. We could do that again, I suppose.

It’s scary being a parent, with what seems like an endless newsreel of potential worst-case scenarios playing on a precarious back-channel in my brain. But there’s another channel. There’s the outdoor instructor channel, remembering teaching young adults, teenagers and, yes, little children to rock climb in the Alps, helping them to overcome fears of heights and falling, acknowledging danger and respecting the risks. There’s my own childhood, full of tree-climbing and forest-exploring and scaling the outside walls of our house from a shockingly young age. I look back at the slide.

“Yes. You can go on the slide.” I stand behind her while she climbs the ladder, one hesitant rung at a time. I remind her to look down at her feet, to place one tiny boot solidly before she moves the next one, to always hold on with both hands. When she gets to the top, I tell her to wait again. “Wait for me, and I’ll come around and catch you.” She waits, and from the front of the slide I half expect her to freeze, from the height or the steepness or the weight of being alone up there, for once in control of when she comes down. Instead, she looks at the view, a particularly nice one from way up high, takes a deep breath, grins at me, and then comes down.

And it’s not as fast as I remember; I don’t have to catch her, even. She comes to the bottom, breathless and happy. “Can I do it again?” she asks. We spend the rest of our time at the park on the slide.

On perhaps her eighth time up the ladder, when she’s more confident with the rungs, I hear my daughter say, to herself or to me, “I’m doing it!”

I think about my students, working hard to finish their research papers before this evening. It’s been a long process, these 5-7 page papers on American authors, and we’re all a little tired of it. I also know, because they’ve told me–loudly–that this is the longest paper they’ve ever written. Like, ever. I imagine some of them are already scheming how to make it truly the longest paper of their lives, plotting careers that will take them far away from writing. That happens, I tell them, when you’re tired.

After a few weeks, though, I hope the story changes. I hope that at some point, when they passed the borders of the most pages or words they ever wrote down, someone said, “I’m doing it!” I’m writing a paper, and it’s hard, but I’m doing it anyway.

I talk often with my young-mom peers about the skills we’ve brought to motherhood from earlier in our lives. The dietician who writes about feeding young children, or the artist who lets her son “help” her prepare pots for glazing. The pastor whose children take part in every aspect of her ministry, retelling Bible stories in their own charming ways from very young ages.

View from the top!

As I start to think about the transition from teaching to full-time parenting, it’s tempting–and intimidating–to see it as a hard border crossing, a citizenship change, as I leave behind everything from one role to jump fully into the other. Yet I’ve suspected for a long time that nothing we do in our lives needs to be wasted. I’ve still played violin and made spreadsheets and lattes as an English teacher, remnants of former lives that have come in handy in my current career. And I this next chapter will doubtless be full of teaching, whether its the logistics of climbing a ladder, or the celebration of accomplishing something risky, hard and a little bit scary for both of us.

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.