Angelina & The Lupine Lady

“That is all very well, little Alice,” said her grandfather, “but there is a third thing you must do.”

“What is that?” asked Alice.

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” said her grandfather.

“All right,” said Alice. But she did not know what that could be.

In the meantime Alice got up and washed her face and ate porridge for breakfast. She went to school and came home and did her homework.

And pretty soon she was grown up.

Barbara Cooney, from Miss Rumphius

Before bedtime, we pick out “long books,” the bigger picture books in the living room, as opposed to the little board books in the bedroom. Luci’s opinions aren’t as strong about these books, so I choose two of my favorites, Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius and Angelina Ballerina, by Katharine Holabird. These books, published in 1982 and 1983, respectively, glimmer like jewels in my often-hazy childhood memories. There were four of us then, a little church on an island, pebbly beaches strewn with driftwood, and books. Always books.

Snuggled under the blanket my grandmother crocheted for Luci two years ago, we start with Angelina Ballerina. A young mouse who longs to dance above all things, Angelina sometimes forgets to do anything else. When her dancing ways get out of hand, her father suggests ballet lessons. Angelina is thrilled, goes to the lessons, practices and reforms her chore-forgetting ways, and eventually grows up to be the renowned Mademoiselle Angelina in a mouse ballet company.

I smile at the pictures, remembering how much I loved an Angelina Christmas ornament I got one year, and how when I was just a little older than Luci I imagined that I, too, would be a “real ballerina” when I grew up. I started ballet lessons hopefully, learning positions I can no longer remember, and dreaming of the day I’d wear a pink tulle skirt in an actual recital. And then we moved away from our little island. I learned to ride a bike and explore the forest, and new passions took hold.

Next we meet Miss Rumphius, the tale of Alice Rumphius, who longs to “see faraway places, and come home to live by the sea.” As a child, her grandfather tells her that there is a third, more important task for her: she has to do something to make the world more beautiful. She grows up, travels the world–riding camels and climbing mountains–then comes home to a cottage by the sea, wondering how she’ll make her already-splendid world even more beautiful. Quite to her surprise, she finds a passion for scattering lupine seeds around the dunes and dales of her little seacoast, and grows into a wise, old lady, making the world more beautiful with her stories and flowers.

And while Angelina had my heart as a child, it is the Lupine Lady who speaks to me now. Perhaps I find some kinship with her, a woman who loves books, learning and exploration. Perhaps I’m still traveling to faraway places, and am wondering where my home by the sea will be. Mostly, though, I share her longing to “do something to make the world more beautiful,” even as she admits, “I do not know yet what that might be.”

A few weeks ago, a colleague shared an article titled “You’ll Never Be Famous–And That’s O.K.” In it, writer Emily Esfahani Smith discusses Middlemarch and the value of a quietly well-lived life, contrasting two of the protagonists and their different routes to success. One is materially successful, yet unhappy in marriage, while the other eventually marries her true love, yet never realizes her wide-reaching dreams. The second ends the novel satisfied, as the author notes, “Rather than succumb to the despair of thwarted dreams, she embraces her life as it is and contributes to those around her as she can.”

I haven’t read Middlemarch–though now I’m a bit closer to an attempt–but these stories remind me fondly of Tootsie Clark, who died at home at the age of 95 last week. The proprietress of a restaurant in my childhood hometown of Marblemount, Washington, I still remember her well, the cheery old lady who made the biggest, stickiest cinnamon rolls in the world. We’d go there for birthdays and holidays, for a special treat or a Date With Dad occasion. Tootsie would be there, baking her famous rolls and cracking jokes, sharing the same genial warmth with the passing-through tourists as the locals she’d known since they were my age. Last May, hers was the first car over Highway 20 when it opened for the spring, a tradition she carried on even in the last months of her life.

I can’t know how happy Angelina will be as a ballerina¹, but I’m pretty sure now that I won’t be her when I grow up. There are only a handful of career paths to “famous teacher,” and they almost all lead through the jungle of educational public policy, far from the roads I’m likely to tread. As for “famous wives and mothers,” well, I’m not planning to review baby monitors or turn this blog into a lifestyle brand anytime soon, though maybe Timmy and I will someday rival John and Abigail Adams in lively and learned correspondence. After a decade of teaching, almost four years of marriage and almost two of motherhood, my most valuable callings are also the most commonplace ones.

And yet this life doesn’t feel commonplace, not at all. In fact, I feel unbelievably rich, even as I’m undeniably not famous. I long to grow more like these childhood heroes of mine, fictional and real, Miss Rumphius and Tootsie, making the world more beautiful and investing in their communities. I scatter words instead of seeds, and bake chocolate chip cookies instead of cinnamon rolls. I’m still learning. And by the grace of God, using His gifts, I aspire to do something to make this broken world more beautiful.

And I don’t always know what that will be.

 

¹Probably very happy, since she’s a cartoon mouse in a children’s book, likely without the physical and emotional toll that fame takes on the rest of us.

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Holden

The Catcher in the Rye“What I was really hanging around for, I was trying to feel some kind of a good-by. I mean I’ve left schools and places I didn’t even know I was leaving them. I hate that. I don’t care if it’s a sad good-by or a bad good-by, but when I leave a place I like to know I’m leaving it. If you don’t, you feel even worse” (4).

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in The Rye

Stranded on the runway in Frankfurt, waiting to go home, I’m just bored enough to wish I was almost anywhere but on this too-warm, not-moving airplane. Bored enough to stand on the top of the hill with a fictional Holden Caulfield, just expelled from Pencey Prep, trying to feel a goodbye.

I’m re-reading The Catcher in The Rye. This is monumental, because except for those six or seven class books that I read every year, I almost never read the same book twice. There are so many books I want to read, far too many to read all of them even once, let alone more than that. When I do return to books, they are typically ones that I loved the first time, when the experience of reading them was tangled up with an especially pleasant place or time. The Catcher In the Rye is not such a book, and as such it wins the distinction of being the only book I’ve ever both intensely disliked and read a second time.

The Catcher in The Rye, the reclusive J.D. Salinger’s only full-length novel, concerns the disillusioned wandering–mental, emotional and physical–of seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield around New York City in December. It’s a wintry book, lonely and sad and urban, narrated by Holden himself in a voice that can be abrasive, earnest, playful and sarcastic, often all at once. The plot itself is a loose quest narrative, with the anti-heroic Holden seeking  meaning, innocence and, more than anything, a listening ear.

I first read this book in the eleventh grade, and I remember little except that Holden annoyed me. We were the same age at the time, this character and me, but the similarities ended there. Holden was rich and irritated; I was middle-class and content. Holden was failing out of private school; I was a grade-obsessed, public school honors student. Holden had endless complaints, to which my compassionate, teenaged response was usually “Just deal with it.” Reading it again is a sobering flashback on a younger and narrower self.

Because I’m returning to this book, really just a character, to find someone who’s become familiar. I know Holden now. In friends, in siblings, in students and even in myself, I’ve heard echoed the questions of this lost teenager, seeking connection in a world that seems to be increasingly disconnected. This is the Holden who considers vocation with the hope that he can escape being “phony”:

“Lawyers are alright, I guess — but it doesn’t appeal to me”, I said. “I mean they’re alright if they go around saving innocent guys’ lives all the time, and like that, but you don’t do that kind of stuff if you’re a lawyer. All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot. And besides, even if you did go around saving guys’ lives and all, how would you know if you did it because you really wanted to save guys’ lives, or because you did it because what you really wanted to do was be a terrific lawyer, with everybody slapping you on the back and congratulating you in court when the… trial was over, the reporters and everybody, the way it is in the dirty movies? How would you know you weren’t being a phony? The trouble is you wouldn’t” (172).

When his sister, the only character who finally listens to him, asks what he’d rather do, he can only describe his hope to be a “catcher in the rye,” a protector of the innocent:

Holden“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy” (173).

Holden can be maddening, both in his decisions and his motivation, and the narrator that I found so irritating hasn’t changed since I was in high school. I guess it’s me that’s changed, able to hear the truth under the bravado, and appreciate that even though my longing for meaning and connection have led me to Christ, the longing is universal. Though we can avoid chain-smoking or dropping out of school, in essentials Holden is related to all of us, connected in a way that elicits more compassion now than scorn.

Miss Gruwell and Miss Potter

Some of my first Ingraham students, four years later at their graduation.

Like all good teachers, I went to see the 2007 film Freedom Writers as soon as it came out. As some people are with sports or science fiction movies, I am with teacher movies. I love them. Long before I was a teacher–even when I was struggling with teaching as a calling–I would watch Dead Poets’ Society or, you know, Anne of Green Gables with tears in my instruction-loving eyes.

As teacher movies go, Freedom Writers is pure inspiration, telling the true story of Erin Gruwell and her work as an English teacher in an urban high school. I should have loved it, put it high in my queue of emotional school classics, but I didn’t. In fact, as a first-year teacher in an urban high school with a transient, low-income population, I found it exhausting. There is a possibility for success as a teacher, this movie told me, but it will cost you everything.

I much preferred, in fact, the other film I saw that day. (This is the only time I can remember seeing two movies in the theater in one day. Since it was January, I imagine it was a dark, cloudy Seattle day. I hope it was, anyway.) Miss Potter, which tells the story of Beatrix Potter’s early life and work, ends with the author settling on a farm in the Lake District of Northern England. She sits on a hillside above a landscape splashed with a million shades of green, notebook in hand, sun on her shoulders. “There’s something delicious about writing the first words of a story,” she begins. I want that, I thought, to write and live in a wild, beautiful place.

I remember, that evening almost five years ago, leaving Freedom Writers with a sobering realization. As much as I longed for the peace and quietness of a writer’s life, I’d been clearly called to this one, the urban teaching I’d just spent two hours watching on screen. I wasn’t sure about teaching, then, and there were still two years of uncertainty ahead of me, times when I would struggle with doubt and weariness with the enormity of this role. And yet there was peace, even then, in knowing that I was doing, by the grace of God, exactly what He’d called me to. My time at Ingraham was transformative and rich, in every way a blessing, though never one of the easiest blessings to accept.

I watched Miss Potter again recently, and as the camera sweepingly takes in the green landscape of Northern England, I saw Southwestern Germany, this place that has become home to me. And I realized that in many ways, God has given me here the best of both lives. I am surrounded by this marvelous beauty, a place of peace and creativity for me in so many ways. I’ve been given the space to think and to grow, to listen and learn, gifts for which I’m daily grateful. All that, and I still get to teach, spending hours of every day in the company of bright, interesting and energetic young people. God has transformed my heart regarding teaching in the last five years, from weary uncertainty to complete delight in what I do.

School starts at Black Forest Academy one week from today. I’m preparing classroom and curriculum, making space in heart and schedule for a new season of life. Thankful for all that’s behind, eager for all that’s to come, I truly can’t wait. Thank You, Lord, for this place, our students and this calling for which You continue to equip me, year after year.

Emily and I enjoy the sunset from a hilltop over Kandern.

Of Books and Places

“So, do you like English?”

I know that the question, directed at the future eleventh grader beside me, is a long shot.  All questions related to school seem distant and unreal in this first week of summer.  Like half a dozen others, we’re working at the new middle school in Sitzenkirch, prepping it for painting tomorrow.  I’ve spent the morning wielding a roll of masking tape and a putty knife, generally enjoying the company of my colleagues and some of my future students.

“Um…” He considers the question, perhaps searching for an unoffensive answer for his until-recently history and future English teacher.  “I mean, sometimes I like it.”

“Fair enough.  What was your favorite book you read for school?”

“For school?”

“Sure.”

“Hm.  I think Ender’s Game.”

“Nice.  I’m reading that right now,” I exclaim, despite obvious evidence to the contrary. “It’s good, right?”

He grins and nods, then continues taping with a smile.

It’s mid-afternoon by the time I pull off the path home from Sitzenkirch.  After the pressure and busyness of the last few weeks of school, the work projects this week have been a nice change of pace.

Kandern is quiet these days.  Though I’ve experienced the silence of Seattle Pacific University without students, or the idyllic peacefulness of evening church services at Bethany in the summer, I’ve never lived in a “college town,” where a great percentage of the population and activity comes from its students.  A week after graduation, life seems still and spacious and a bit empty.

Riding my newly-purchased bicycle–a rickety, champagne-colored affair with curved handles and a capacious basket–I steer off the path when I spy the perfect bench.  It is nestled in a hillside, overlooking fields of blue-green wheat, where red poppies mingle in messy cordiality.  Sitting down on the bench, under calm grey clouds and overlooking the magnificent spread of the Kandertal (river valley south of Kandern), I retrieve my sandwich and book.

I’m drawn instantly back into the world of little Ender and his Battle School, of his siblings and their plan to rule the world with ideas.  I shiver at the prescience of the politics and technology, the grander questions of empathy and ethics in warfare.  This is a genuinely good book, and I feel fortunate to be reading it on the most beautiful bench anywhere.

I’m also thankful because this particular book has been recommended to me dozens of times, by a wide variety of people, most recently my future student with the masking tape.  I love reading books that people recommend to me, especially students.  Book suggestions are personal and usually well thought out, and I like them more than the similar conversations surrounding movies, music or restaurants.  For while those activities take up a bit of time, perhaps leave a bit of an impression, if you really stick with a book until the end you’ll have spent hours on something you know another person enjoyed.  More than a taste in common, recommended books become a shared experience, an imaginary place you’ve both explored.

It’s why I love reading books in a classroom setting, why sometimes, when the class chemistry is right, student trust me enough to read odd and difficult books.  Going on the recommendation, they believe that because someone they know has been here before, it merits some attention.  (Of course, I’m aware that sometimes they’re just “getting it done,” and fully willing to admit the value of that discipline, also.)

The next morning, I ride to school for the next round of painting, and my student finds me reading on the front steps.

“Still Ender’s Game?” he asks.  I nod.  “What’s happening now?”

I think some of us remember good books like we remember a lovely bench overlooking a valley, its details as vivid as a real place.  “What’s happening?” we ask people reading books we love for the first time.  Or sometimes, “Where are you?”  Because we’ve been there, seen what they see, and are delighted to revisit it through new eyes.

“I just read about his brother and sister, writing on the Internet.  This book is seriously gripping.”

He nods and grins slyly.  “I won’t give it away.”

This is should be a brilliant summer.

“I’m Not in the Book!”


Supplies:

  • Pen or pencil
  • Journal
  • TEXTBOOK!

“Wait, what?”

Students filter in slowly from the hall, rummage around in backpacks for pencils and journals, then do double-takes.

“What’s this textbook business about?”

“Can I go get mine? It’s at home.”

“Um… we have textbooks?”

I nod and start to pull the class set out of the cupboard, where they’ve been since we read “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” more than six weeks ago.

We open to the bricklike anthology to Hemingway’s “In Another Country.”  In some ways, it is perfect for the English 11; at every turn, we encounter a thematic or technical feature I introduced in yesterday’s lecture on modernism.  We point to them like kids on a zoo field trip.  Look, kids, here’s a fragmentary narrative!  And over there, that’s what irony looks like!  Get ready, if you look really closely you can see the minimalism.  It’s accessible and rich in examples.  It’s also in no way Hemingway’s best work, and since it’s so unknown it won’t even count as cultural currency, to be spent later at a dinner party or job interview.

I’ve never referenced an English textbook in a terribly regular way, nor have I known any high school English teacher to work methodically through a high school anthology.  We all practice Literary Canon Arithmetic to some extent, adding and subtracting from the prescribed textbook.  Two years ago, when Seattle Public Schools announced that they were aligning English curriculums across the District, our worst-case scenario was a strictly-enforced anthology curriculum.  We all shivered at the thought of not being able to choose what we taught.

Though all anthologies contain great literature, often the selections are limited.  Many of them seem bound by length requirements, so we get excerpts from “Life on the Mississippi” instead of Huckleberry Finn, or “Winter Dreams” instead of The Great Gatsby.  Some of the selections are less clear.  “In Another Country” is longer and less intricate than “Hills Like White Elephants,” the Hemingway story we’ll read tomorrow.  I imagine this tale being chosen in a windowless conference room in a middle floor of a New York skyscraper, by a panel of literary experts who pull the strings on the next generation of learners.

The reason might be simpler, though, and lovelier.  Perhaps someone in that room loved “In Another Country” and defended it.  It’s possible he’d read it himself, in a magazine somewhere, and it cleared away the hazy definitions of modernism, or maybe reminded him of his grandfather, wounded in World War II.  Whatever the reason he thought it worthy of being read by all American eleventh graders.

That’s the way of English teachers, really, and the true reason that anthologies lie unopened by so many of us. Many English curriculums require students to read several novels (none of them anthologized), along with intermittent clusters of poems and short stories. I’m asked to run selections by our Department Head, but pending their approval it doesn’t matter if they are or are not part of our textbook.  Though we’re granted the solemn responsibility to teach “reading, writing, speaking and thinking,” often the words that get us there are flexible. We’ve spent our lives collecting the stories and poems like interesting shells on the beach, saving them for later, waiting for the right moment to bring them out.

This has its disadvantages, of course.  Students, even those taught only in Anthology World, will always arrive to college having never read a text their professor believes is critical.  There are, quite simply, too many books.  (After reading Othello and Hamlet back to back my senior year, I’m still putting off Macbeth.  Oh, and I’ve never read 1984.  I know, it’s important.) In the end, though, teachers often present the writing we love and remember.  As a teacher I’ve gotten to read many new books, and some of them, like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies or Othello have become my favorites only after teaching them a dozen times or so.

Most of my favorite classes, though, have been the ones in which I brought something beautiful or curious, something another teacher once read to me, and passed it along.  In this way, teaching English reminds me more of an oral than a literary tradition; the canon evolves autobiographically, with each of us teaching different stories, for different reasons, seeking always the sharpest images, the deepest themes, the most germane discussion.  Sometimes these appear in anthologies, where we visit Poe’s oval portrait and Twain’s jumping frog, linking us to someone else’s passions.  Sometimes we venture further afield, seeking wisdom and skill, and I’m honored by the trusted role of guide, tracing our steps by memory back to places I once found interesting, bringing with me these students I love.

Things that Made Life Better This Year: 2010 Edition

The sun is sparkling through the windows of my childhood home in Seattle.  It has been a week of rest and reconnection, so much so that I woke up today, surprised to find that it’s the last day of the year.  And of the decade, for that matter.

I’m neither old enough nor wise enough to write a reflection on the decade, this ten-year metamorphosis from 16 to 26.  But this year, encompassing as much change as the rest in a tenth of the time, ends with time for reflection on this quiet Friday.  It ends with thoughts of challenges and obstacles, but mostly thankfulness for the strange, the new, the varied, as well as the firm foundation of love beneath all this discovery.  Since New Years’ seems a time for lists, I’ve compiled my own gratefulness into list form.  In roughly chronological order, I present the first annual edition of Things That Made Life Better This Year.

  1. Reading Scripture slowly. In 2009, I read the Bible in a year.  This year, I spent one whole month reading James four or five times.  Another month was Ecclesiastes.  Proverbs has entered in late in the game, with its convenient 31 chapters for daily doses of wisdom.  I’ll probably go back to the yearlong survey again to fill in what I missed, but I’ve liked this walking pace, with time to see the nuance and hear the voices.  If I savor other good books, then why rush through the best one?
  2. Saying goodbye. Since I’ve said more goodbyes this year than ever before in my life, I am thankful both for those brave enough to face the farewells, and the love that makes them difficult.  It’s been bittersweet, but still better than bolting in the night.
  3. Looking out of train windows. Even on now-familiar tracks, I’m pasted to the glass like a child.  A child who can’t quite get over the thrill of sliding in a giant machine under cloudy skies, at the feet of mountains, trying to stay awake so she doesn’t end up in Graz.  I haven’t yet. Runner Up: Listening to Music on Trains
  4. Unruled journals. Because straight lines don’t reflect real life, as far as I can tell.  How could they possibly be expected to record it?
  5. Hiking. What should we do with this day off from our job as hiking guides?  Why, go hiking, of course.  It’s raining?  Let’s hike up that waterfall!  Foggy and getting dark in a few hours?  No better time to go looking for a castle.  What did I do with time off before?  Runners Up: Topographical Trail Maps and Jogging in the Snow.
  6. Speaking another language poorly (as opposed to not at all). Because in the end, playing it cool and silent isn’t as fun as learning something new and communicating, no matter how foolish I have to sound along the way.
  7. The iPad. Especially for reading fiction (not, alas, for poetry), and also to replace certain household tools, like a kitchen timer, level or alarm clock.  But mostly for whole libraries of English books available to this space-limited traveler, many of them for free.
  8. Skype.  The world is small and magical, and being an overseas missionary feels less far than ever in history.  Thanks to all those whose faces have graced my screen.  Great to see you.
  9. Saturday night suppers of popcorn, pomegranate seeds and Baden wine. Because life is good and simple.  Runner Up: www.allrecipes.com
  10. Reading in a variety of genres.  I remember whole periods of life when the word only punctuated my reading habits.  Only classics.  Only 19th century.  Only fiction.  Only for work.  Only (I confess) online.  This year, my favorites have included classics (The Count of Monte Cristo), young adult novels (The Hunger Games Trilogy), online journals (Arts & Letters Daily), and the history of vaguely foreign nations (Desmond Morton’s A Short History of Canada).  There’s much to learn, much to love.  Runner Up: www.savethewords.com
  11. The universal Church. Experiencing worship in a variety of cultures, with a variety of people, and realizing that the bonds of commonality are, in the end, so much more meaningful than the nuances that divide us.  I’m thankful to be a part of this greater family, and look forward to knowing it better. Runners Up: Concrete Community Bible Church, Bethany Community Church, G5 Evangelische Gemeinde
  12. Lots of time with students.  Whether with the Ingraham newspaper class or on a field trip to the University of Washington or the front lines of World War I, I have loved the relationships possible when students and teachers have the space to share experiences and stories.  So, Canadian History and Period 5 LA 9, Study Hall and Journalism and all the rest, thanks for the year.  It’s been great knowing you better.

Thankful for a strange and brilliant 2010!  Happy New Year!