December: News, Thanks and Prayers

Happy Birthday to Luci!

Happy Birthday to Luci!

News and Dates:

  • December 2-3: Opening weekend for BFA Basketball
  • December 16: Last day of classes!
  • Mid-December-early January: Home to Washington for Christmas
  • Curriculum for DecemberAdventures of Huckleberry Finn, Short story writing

We’re Thankful For:

  • A marvelous first year with our daughter, Luci. She’s growing and changing so fast, and we feel overwhlemed with thankfulness that we get to be her parents.
  • Flexibility in scheduling that allows Kristi to work at BFA and Timmy to coach basketball this season.
  • Family that we’ll see this Christmas and those we keep up with from afar.
  • Financial partners who make this ministry possible by encouraging us with monthly support.
  • The English Department at BFA this year, who provide support, collaboration and encouragement to Kristi as she teaches there.

Please Be In Prayer For:

  • Member Care. Pray for Timmy with his role in TeachBeyond Member Care. Our missionaries here in Kandern have lately sustained a number of traumas and losses, so we ask for prayer both for these families and for the team of people who provide support to them in the midst of troubling times.
  • Financial Support. We’re blessed with enough monthly for basic living expenses, but could use more support to facilitate the hospitality aspects of member care. If you’ve ever desired to have a missionary (us, or anyone else!) over for dinner, help us bridge that gap in the Kandern community by investing in our member care ministry here. If you’re interested in helping to support this aspect of our ministry, please visit our Getting Involved page or our online giving page with TeachBeyond.

As the year comes to an end, we are overwhelmed with gratefulness to the friends and family whose encouragement and support make our ministry here in Germany possible. Please let us know if there are ways that we can be praying for you, or if you have any questions our life or ministry.

Peace in Christ,

Timmy & Kristi Dahlstrom

What Mary Knew

It’s Happy Hour.

Not the Happy Hour of years past, but Luci and I have developed our own five o’ clock rhythm lately, while Timmy is at basketball practice. Luci sits in her high chair in the kitchen, while I make dinner and serve her bits of small food, a few pieces at a time, which she likes picking up with both of her tiny hands and tucks away with astonishing efficiency. We used to listen to Disney songs or my favorite tracks from Hamilton, but now that it’s December we’ve turned to Christmas music. It’s a good time.

I’m a broad appreciator of Christmas music. I especially love the older, sacred hymns, whose convoluted syntax and vocabulary are as integral to Christmas as the voice of Linus reciting Luke 2 in the King James Version, but even newer tunes have their place. One song, however, awakes fresh ire each Advent, a 1991 ballad called “Mary Did You Know?” Because of the existence of “Last Christmas” and “Christmas In the Northwest,” it’s hard to say if this is my least favorite Christmas song, but it’s safe to say that “Mary Did You Know?” is somewhere in my bottom five.

The verses list specific miracles, which were doubtless a surprise to her at the time, but the majority of the song bends toward asking Mary, mother of Jesus, if she knew she was raising the Son of God. I don’t care for this song because it could end after the second line–Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?–with a resounding “Yes. I definitely knew.”

Though she perhaps couldn’t have anticipated the scope, Mary had ample information about the child she’d just borne in such peculiar circumstances. The angel Gabriel had filled her in on the salient details, that she’d conceive the Son of God by the power of the Holy Spirit, that she would give birth to the long-awaited Messiah (Luke 1:26-38). After Jesus’ birth Simeon, overjoyed to finally meet the promised savior, reminded her that this child would be “a light of revelation to the Gentiles” and “the glory of Your people Israel.” He even interrupted his own prophecy to turn to Mary with the ominous warning that “a sword will pierce even your own soul” (Luke 2:32-35). And yet Mary still “treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

Though ignorance of what was happening might have been terrifying, for me the knowing makes Mary even more inspiring. Just a little more than a year into motherhood, I’m struck anew by Mary’s strength and humility in the midst of a challenging calling. It can’t have been easy, both before his birth and while raising a little boy, for Mary to know that she was raising the Son of God, who would become the savior of her people and indeed all humankind.

A weaker person might have regretted being told at all, and yet Mary responds to the angel’s news first with humility, asserting that she is a “bondslave of the Lord,” and then with deep joy, singing a beautiful song of thanksgiving. Though doubtless aware of the personal difficulties that this journey would cost her, Mary never made it about her, instead thanking God for the part that she can play in His greater story.

This is where Mary inspires me; whatever I’m doing, I recognize that the easiest way to tell the story is with me at the center. I’m teaching, I’m parenting, I’m living in this little town. I can become so obsessed with these vocations that I forget I’m a small but beloved piece of a much greater whole.

How much harder to live as Mary did, with clear eyes and an open heart, saying, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38), then rejoicing to participate in God’s plan for redemption. Perhaps what I’m actually doing with each day wouldn’t be so much different, but my heart would be, turned outward instead of inward, focused on God’s kingdom, not mine.

Weary

"We are never tired, as long as we can see far enough."

“We are never tired, as long as we can see far enough.”

The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.

Galations 6:9

My students silently and gingerly tiptoe across the muddy triangle of grass wedged between our school, the highway and the river seeking, as I’ve directed them, a space for “silence, thoughtfulness and solitude.” We’ve just finished our unit on American Romanticism, spending the last few days on Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, so as has become tradition I’ve taken my students out to “experience nature” for part of our class, and then spend the rest of class reflecting on it.

It serves the purpose of reinforcing course material, I tell myself, but as I watch my students drifting around the lawn I’m keenly aware that I’m that teacher right now, the Dead Poets’ Society-influenced one who drags her students out of the classroom, through mud and drizzle, in pursuit of quirky interest. I’m unrepentant, however, because today we’re not seeking enlightenment or novelty; we’re simply seeking rest.

Looking down at the slip of paper in my hand, which I cut out yesterday and drew for myself at random this morning, I read:

We are never tired, as long as we can see far enough.

A week ago it was glorious fall, the limbs dressed in full splendor, but today is just November, drab and damp and a little depressing. And I usually like November. I obediently look up at the sky, crisscrossed by black branches, at the farthest trees on the hill, which really aren’t so far away at all. I can’t see very far, I tell myself. That’s why I’m so tired.

I suppose that Emerson was likely talking about real horizons, but that’s not exactly where I’m headed. I’ve woken up most of this week feeling trapped in the confusion and urgency of the moment. There are the immediate needs of my sick daughter and our broken car, both of which require attention and planning. Both Monday night and Wednesday morning brought news that caused me to ask, “Really, God? I just don’t get it.” I can’t see far enough–into the eternity where it all makes sense, where the twists and turns of daily life smooth out into His glorious narrative, the working-together-for-good of it all–and I’m tired.

So what does it take, I wonder, to find the horizon? I’m reminded of Paul’s words, written to the Galations and echoed by Hillary Clinton in her concession speech Tuesday night:

Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.

Love the things that are eternal, and work for those. I know that it doesn’t spare me from the details, that loving eternity means paying even closer attention to the needs of those around me. Today it will mean writing cards for students that I care about, remembering that investing in this way is at least as important as grading the unseen essays that loom over me like a thundercloud. It will mean going home and cherishing my family, the gift that they are to me and to many. It will mean remembering that we’re all made in God’s image, every human, and that God’s love for us is immeasurable and eternal. And that if I can wake up each day looking first to Him, that’s all the horizon I need to keep heart in doing good.

The Author Wept

This week, Black Forest Academy mourns the loss of  a baby girl born prematurely just a month ago to one of our new staff couples. We grieve as a community, lifting her parents and younger brother up in prayer, full of sadness and gratitude that she is at last whole.

While we waited for her ride to come pick her up, I sat on a bench next to one of my students. I don’t know her well, but as she talked I felt like I did; this girl, like myself and a handful of students I’ve taught each year, is a writer. She walked me through her process, touching blithely on a few different tales she’s spun over the years. She described scenes that she enjoyed writing, characters that surprised her as they wrenched themselves out of her control on the page, and her first 40-page story, written shortly after she learned to type.

After a while, we started talking about characters, about the deep investment of an author in the people she creates. She told me about a time that she startled herself while writing a particularly chilling scene, and the many times that she’s written herself to tears over the fates of her characters.

“It’s not what I wanted to happen to him,” she admitted, telling of a particularly sad ending.

NOTE: If the final Harry Potter book is still on your to-read list, it would behoove you to skip a paragraph, lest you learn more plot details than will please you.

I told her about J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, who confessed that she wept while writing one of the final chapters of the final book, when her hero realizes that he will need to sacrifice his own life to defeat the villain, and goes willingly to his death.

“She said that she just cried her eyes out writing it,” I said, confessing, “Which is pretty what happened to me reading it.”

“But” –and I know what she’ll say next– “She knew the ending! She wrote it!”

I nodded, and for a moment we pondered the paradox of an author’s weeping for a fictional character, who indeed turns out all right in the end.

“Sometimes I wonder if that’s how God feels,” I mused. “If even though He knows how it all works out, He cries when things happen. Because He made us, because He loves us.”

I return to that thought this week, as our little community mourns the loss of our newest member, a baby girl born just a month ago to a young couple on our staff. We’re caught in the tension of this heartbreak in time and joy in eternity, where she’s healed of the heart defect that took her life. We weep, even knowing that she’s well now, missing her here.

Jesus did this too. At Lazarus’ tomb, just moments before raising him from the dead, we read of his sorrow:

“When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept.

I’m drawn back to the thought of the author, tears dripping onto the unfinished work for which she already has planned a happy finale. And then to Jesus, weeping to see the sadness of his friends, even as he saw joy ahead.

And so we weep, as Jesus did, mourning the broken present, trusting in eternity’s joy, and grateful that the Author loves us, made us, and sees the finale when we cannot.

Please pray with us for this sweet family in their sorrow. Thank you.

 

November: News, Thanks and Prayers

All dressed up for our local Trunk or Treat!

All dressed up for our local Trunk or Treat!

News and Dates:

  • November 2: BFA celebrates our 60th Birthday!
  • November 4-6: Weekend retreat in Switzerland
  • November 14: Basketball season starts
  • November 21: Luci’s first birthday!
  • Timmy will be serving as an assistant varsity boys’ basketball coach at BFA from November to February. He’s excited to spend time mentoring the guys and growing in his coaching skills!
  • Timmy has also started a play group for parents of preschoolers, meeting semi-regularly. This has been a great time of connection for the stay-at-home parents in our community!
  • Curriculum for November: Transcendentalism, Huckleberry Finn, Informational Speeches

We’re Thankful For:

  • 60 Years of BFA, and the chance to reflect on God’s faithfulness to our school as we celebrate this week.
  • Autumn in the Black Forest and quiet weekends to hike and admire God’s creation.
  • One Year of Luci, a time of blessing and change as we’ve become a family of three and moved to a new country.
  • A Visit from Dahlstrom Parents, which is truly a gift each fall, giving us the chance to reconnect and them the chance to hang out with their granddaughter.
  • Commencement Speeches, for giving Kristi’s Public Speaking students the occasion to reflect on what they believe deeply, and what they find to be the most important “parting words” they could give to their peers.

Please Be In Prayer For:

  • Basketball Season. Pray for us as we begin a new season as Timmy starts working with the boys’ varsity basketball team. Pray for strong connections on the team, and health and safety for all involved.
  • Financial Support. We currently have about $4315 pledged monthly, and we continue to pray for a bit more support to cover increased cost of living here. We’re blessed with enough for basic living expenses, but could use more support to facilitate the hospitality aspects of member care. If you are interested in helping fully support our ministry, please visit our Getting Involved page or our online giving page with TeachBeyond.

In this month of thanksgiving, we are most of all thankful for our faithful friends and family, whose encouragement and support make our ministry here in Germany possible. Please let us know if there are ways that we can be praying for you, or if you have any questions our life or ministry.

Peace in Christ,

Timmy & Kristi Dahlstrom

The Fear Jacket

 

"There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear..."

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear…”

I’m troubled from the start, Friday morning.

Living nine hours ahead of my friends on the West Coast, the ongoing ugliness of election season in America unfolds mostly in the morning for me. I wake up and see it spattered across social media, the messy barbs of rhetoric flying between two people I don’t know, far away, but nearer to home between friends, family and students, each exchange more impassioned than the last.

We don’t understand each other, I realize, waking each morning to see in stark relief all of the perspectives that aren’t my own, battling it out in text on a screen. I’m not there to attend protests, haven’t watched any debates live, but I feel it all the same, the creeping sense not of unity, but of two-ness that our country has become lately.

I’m reminded of Thomas Hobbes who, writing during a particularly dark period of British history, described a world plagued by “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” It’s continual fear that I pause on this morning, thinking about the fears peddled by both sides, and my own real fear for our nation.

Then I come to class. My sweet English class, where we’ve been reading the mournful, ponderous tomes of Romantic American literature. We’ve finished with The Scarlet Letter, leaving behind Hawthorne’s “darkening close of this tale of human frailty and sorrow,” and have spent the week mostly in the company of Edgar Allan Poe, examining tormented cats and an inexplicably verbal raven. All week, we’ve dwelt on tales of darkness springing from men deeply cynical of the human heart. Left to our own devices, Poe and Hawthorne seem to tell us, we’re all selfish at our best, and consumed with paranoid madness at our worst. The spectrum of human existence seems bleak indeed.

My students are writing their own “Tales of Woe” today as we wrap up this part of the Romanticism unit. “Take an ordinary, mundane circumstance,” I tell them, “And add in something extraordinary. A man is taking a nap and a talking raven comes in. A teacher is grading English finals and an elephant walks by. Ordinary and extraordinary. That’s it.”

The students nod, dutifully writing down this combination of elements in their notebooks.

“Now,” I continue, holding up a mug full of printed, cut-out words, “Take a pinch of woe.” I demonstrate, pinching out weary, solitary and desolate. “These words are your tone, your inspiration. It’s not a complex story, this one. It’s all about the tone. The tone of woe.”

The laugh, they write, they pinch out melancholy words and sprinkle them with abandon through stories of prophetic breakfast cereal and murderous oranges. Towards the end of class we share excerpts, enjoying our creativity and the unfamiliar feeling of painting with only dark hues for a while.

It strikes me that they’ve put it on–fear–just for part of a class, just for the adventure of it. Now, like a jacket, they take it off, going about their ordinary, un-woeful Friday and leaving the fear behind.

I wish I could do that in real life, I find myself thinking. Then I remember that I can.

“God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.” (1 John 4:16-18)

Like my students, leaving behind their fear because it’s no longer necessary, I can trade mine in, a jacket of fear for one of love. It’s God’s love, the perfect love, that casts out the fear, reminding me that I am–all of us are–deeply loved, intentionally cared for by our Creator, who doesn’t let us muddle on alone but remains invested in us, individually and as a community. I remember that God loves my nation, not more than the others but because it’s a nation full of his beloved people. I remember that I don’t have to be afraid.

And while it’s God’s love that gives me confidence, there’s action required of me, too. John continues with words that convict:

“We love, because He first loved us. If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.” (1 John 4:19-21)

It’s a time of division. It’s tempting to believe that I know best and easy to imagine that some people know nothing. And yet, God says, love. Because nothing can separate us from His love, and nothing is more important than, day by day, loving Him and loving our neighbors. Those callings are the same today, tomorrow, and November 9th. Love, because you’re loved.

I can’t pretend this is easy to do, to love my neighbor as God does. Fear is easier. Suspicion is easier. Frustration is easier, the tendency to shrug my shoulders, shake my head and go, “I just don’t get it!” to the shouting silence of words on a screen or the real, inscrutable opinions of people I see every day. So it’s a choice, now more than ever, but really every day. To listen and to love, sometimes without agreeing or even understanding.

I’m choosing the better jacket. Because it’s better to love than to live in dread of what could happen, in three weeks or at any point in my unpredictable life. God is good, and will be good. And that’s enough.

So I leave the fear behind, like a teenager closing a notebook, laughing off a lesson, and going to lunch, where the real business of loving and living is going on.

October: News, Thanks and Prayers

Our principal addresses the students on the first day of school.

Our principal addresses the students on the first day of school.

News and Dates:

  • September 29-October 4: Junior Trip to France (Normandy & Paris)
  • September 29-October 7: Senior Trip to Italy (Florence, Rome & Venice)
  • October 17-October 22: Dahlstrom parents visit Kandern!
  • October 31: Herbstmesse (Fall Fair) in Basel
  • Curriculum for OctoberThe Scarlet Letter, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, commemorative and commencement speeches

We’re Thankful For:

  • A New Small Group for Kristi, another group of sweet senior girls and a wonderful co-leader. Excited to share this year together!
  • Mentoring opportunities for both Timmy and Kristi as we get back into the community and reconnect with young people here.
  • Autumn in the Black Forest, our favorite season here, with its crisp days and golden leaves.
  • A Great Start to the school year for Kristi, as she returns to teaching after a year away.
  • Walking for Luci, who gets more confident in her exploring every day! She’s putting her sleep to good use!

Please Be In Prayer For:

  • Connection with Students and Staff. In our roles in the school and in TeachBeyond Member Care, pray that God will be directing us in the conversations and relationships we have with those around us in the community. Pray for wisdom and discernment as we show Christ’s love in our community.
  • New Schedules. Continue to pray for our family as we adjust to the new schedule and routines of the school year. Pray for energy, communication and balance, along with health as we enter a cold-heavy season.
  • Financial Support. We currently have about $4315 pledged monthly, and we continue to pray for a bit more support to cover increased cost of living here. If you are interested in helping us return to this ministry fully supported, please visit our Getting Involved page or our online giving page with TeachBeyond.

Our ministry here in Germany truly depends on your encouragement, prayer and support, and we continue to be so thankful for the ways in which you reach out to us. Please let us know if there are ways that we can be praying for you, or if you have any questions our life or ministry.

Peace in Christ,

Timmy & Kristi Dahlstrom

The Patience of Questions

Photo: New Yorker

Photo: New Yorker

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

An orange entrepreneur is telling a story to a red-suited politician.

“…Somebody would call up Sean Hannity, this was before the war started. He and I used to have arguments about the war. I said it’s a terrible and a stupid thing. It’s going to destabilize the Middle East. And that exactly what this’s done.”

I press pause. The students of my public speaking class have found the elusive equilibrium between fascination and boredom in the last period before they depart for their senior trip to Rome. They’ve given their speeches, turned in their homework. Now we’re watching the U.S. presidential debate they’ve heard a lot about, but haven’t experienced themselves.

“What… what is he even saying?” one girl asks, baffled. “The moderator asked why he had better judgement than Hillary. So… what?”

“I just heard ‘Sean Hannity’ about seven times,” I admit. “Other than that, I have no idea.”

The nuances of this debate are lost on my students, for the most part. They don’t know the jargon, the background, the political gossip that decorates both news and entertainment these days. They don’t all hold American passports, though even that isn’t a guarantee of political engagement. Still, they suspect it’s important, so they watch and comment.

The last few months in American politics have prompted several articles from prominent writers and news anchors, who  feel for the first time ambivalent about their roles of “unbiased journalists” in the face of what they see as huge threats to our nation. They want to pick a side, to tell one story, and often they do.

Sitting at the front of the classroom, with a room full of students with only half-formed opinions, I suddenly understand the feeling. I don’t have the ear of the nation—I’m no New York Times columnist or CNN reporter, trying to justify my bias—but I do have a bit of influence. Over just this small world, just a few minds. What will we do with it, ask teachers everywhere, cracking our knuckles like super-villians.

As we watch this debate, I have to bite my tongue often to keep from telling them not just what I think, but what to think. It’s not a new feeling, the temptation to just tell people what to do, and pray that they listen. Today, with these eager high school seniors, I realize that the most important shortcuts I’d take as their teacher and mentor aren’t even political ones. There are mistakes that I’d like to warn them off of, life paths down which I’d point them decisively. They have questions–about God, about life, about love–that I could start to answer. I could just tell them, and if they’d just listen life would be so much easier.

"Incredulity of Saint Thomas," Caravaggio

“Incredulity of Saint Thomas,” Caravaggio

Last weekend I had the opportunity to sit on a panel of other community members at the local church, for a forum for youth called “Conversations.” The topic of the day was curiosity, both the attention and the boldness it takes to ask questions. They looked at Carravagio’s painting of Thomas, examining the way Jesus not only allows but welcomes Thomas’s questioning, pulling his hand to the wound to show him. We discussed the role of questions in forming our own faiths at various seasons in our lives, assuring students that we’d asked questions of our own, and continue to do so now.

“Having the answers” (or even just thinking I do) is deceptive kind of power, really not much power at all. The notes that my students write down and memorize produce only impermanent results, not lasting life influence. They repeat that “Jesus” is the answer, but can’t show their work. The research they do on their own, painstaking and circuitous, full of questions and dead ends, is where the real learning happens. The questions take so much longer, but the earned answers are the ones that last. I can only walk with Christ when he is a person I know, not a word to fill in the blanks, a prescribed selection on a ballot of life choices. And knowing takes time.

When my class’s debate commentary dwindles, I unfreeze Mr. Trump and let him finish complaining about Secretary Clinton’s temperament. We giggle at her now-famous shoulder shimmy of a response, and watch a few more exchanges before moderator Lester Holt redirects them with a calm, “It’s time to move on.”

“It’s time for us to move on, too,” I say, closing my laptop. “But quickly–politics aside–what would you say to Donald Trump if you were his public speaking teacher?”

“Make an outline!” my students cry. “Seriously. An outline, and stick to it. He would be so much clearer, and then we could understand him.”

For the thousandth time I’m reminded that I’m not in the business of teaching young people what to think, nor can I make them believe. I can teach them how to think, I can teach them how to ask questions. I can tell them who I believe in and why. And I can walk with them, with patience and God’s grace, on the road to learning and faith that takes longer, yes, but is a journey all their own.

Teaching & Remembering

Friday, September 9.

I scrolled through my cache of YouTube speeches, looking for one to share with my students. Each Friday in Public Speaking class, we watch a speech together, then spend time afterwards critiquing and learning from the style and–to some extent–discussing the message. This was only the second Friday, though, so I had little precedent and no real algorithm for deciding which speech to watch. There were historical addresses by presidents and reformers, the commencement advice of celebrities great and small, and half a dozen TED talks on as many topics.

Remembering the date, and the power of Presidential addresses in times of tragedy, I took my search in a new direction. I started typing “George W Bush” into the search bar when Google filled in the rest: “George W Bush Sept 20 2001 Speech.”

I didn’t remember the speech right away, the President’s address to Congress just over a week after the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. I didn’t remember it, but I know I watched it, because that’s what we did that week. We watched. As I read the transcript, dug up from a dusty corner of the Internet, I began to remember.

This was the speech that began the War on Terror, the speech in which our last President reminded a grieving nation that the acts of religious extremists don’t represent the faith as a whole. The speech in which he assured us that we were united, that we shouldn’t be afraid. I remembered that we were united, but we were afraid anyway. Every time a plane flew overhead, those first weeks, we looked up, even in Seattle.

I poked around the Internet, looking for the whole speech, but could find only the most intimidating parts excerpted to personal YouTube channels. I considered showing those parts to my multinational speech class, asking them to parse out the rhetoric and tone of those strong words for anxious days. But my students, though astute citizens of the world, are also sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. I do the math quickly, realizing that I was their age and they were toddlers in 2001, too young to understand that their world had changed in an instant. They’ll need memories to understand this speech. In strength they’ll hear vengeance, not reassurance.

“They keep getting younger,” a fellow teacher said to me last week, as we’d laughed over how very young even our seniors seem this year. “Not me,” she continued. “Them.”

Like my colleague I’m not getting older, of course, but events get pushed back and back, until they disappear from view, like the view of the dark-green shoreline from the ferry deck. My first students, only a few years younger than I, begged for time every year to remember, just a few minutes to retell where they were when the Twin Towers fell. Some suggested moments of silence, too, and I always obliged. Remembering is important.

Now I’m realizing that memories like these divide generations as surely as technology or presidents or any other marker that sociologists devise. Do you remember that day? Or have you just learned about it? In just a few years my high schoolers will have lived all their lives in a “post” world, and that maybe someday their commemoration will be to simply ask me “You remember? What was it like, then?”

We watched a different speech, just as relevant, called The Danger of the Single Story. In it, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie implores the West to treat her country and continent with nuance, to learn the rich tapestry of stories that make up her world, instead of the single narrative of poverty and disaster. While my young students took notes on her anecdotes, vocal cadence and nonverbal cues, I thought about the art of remembering well, as a community, the importance of our many stories.

On Sunday, the fifteenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, I sit in the dark, holding my daughter while she naps and reading what New Yorker writers wrote in the days and weeks following the catastrophe. Closer accounts, from writers older than I was at the time, they still hit home. I cry more freely now than I did when I was seventeen, with more to lose, more to love.

And I wonder if next year–or even next week–I’ll go back for that speech, or another like it. I close my eyes and see the President, wearing a hard hat and holding a bullhorn, embracing first responders. They don’t remember that; perhaps I should show them. I wonder if the season has arrived when I’m teaching about tragedy instead of remembering with, and if that’s just as important, after all.

More Than Passports

This year's seniors display their flags before Opening Ceremonies. Photo: BFA Communications

This year’s seniors display their flags before Opening Ceremonies.
Photo: BFA Communications

  1. What is an American?
  2. What did you learn about America from the book you read this summer?
  3. By your own definition, how American are you?

Write for five minutes without stopping. Be prepared to share!

Honors American Literature, 5 September 2016

Familiar scratch of pen and paper, familiar slant of morning light through familiar second-floor windows. Unfamiliar students, answering an old question at the beginning of a new year. What is an American?

We’ve spent a few days pondering this, reading New Yorker articles written by outsiders looking in and trying, as best as we can, to capture the “essence of America” as we begin our course in American Literature. Last week, my students claimed that institutions like bottomless chips at Chili’s, monolingualism or the game of baseball were emblematic of America, revealing features of nation’s face. Today, we’re discussing the face itself. When we get to the bottom of it, what is an American? And am I one?

It’s not an irrelevant question for us, either in English class or here at Black Forest Academy. In class, we’re beginning a year of exploring the relationship between a culture an its art, so uncovering the culture at its foundation, the basic scaffolding that makes this one nation different from the others, is key. We’ll get to the American Dream later, yes, but for now we’re back at the beginning and even before it. Before there was an America–before declarations and constitutions and wars–who were Americans? And how did they know?

At BFA, the question is more personal, and more interesting. I ask the class how many hold U.S. passports and the majority raise their hands. “How many of you, then, have spent more of your life outside the country than in it?” Again, mostly raised hands.

I tell them about my students back in Seattle, who were always from somewhere, but also American. Somali-American, Mexican-American, Vietnamese-American, African-American. Even the ones born elsewhere were American, having adopted this country as part of their hyphenated identities, calling it home and vowing to stay. And I tell them about themselves, or past versions of them, students born in the United States, with American passports, who feel like strangers in Topeka or Chicago or Portland, and at home in Baku or Nairobi. Identity is more than a passport, I remind them, and they nod knowingly.

Toward the end of the class, they line up as a spectrum from most to least American, by their own definitions. By the window are students whose only exposure to the United States has come from their classmates here, who have no other relationship to America and who doubtless wonder why I’m making such a big deal about this question. By the door stand a few students who’ve just moved here, who are also mystified by the many identities that their classmates hold in tension. In the middle, though, are the tricky stories.

The brief visits to America punctuated by most of their lives elsewhere. The feeling of not fitting in to the culture that issued their passports, but still realizing–often with self-awareness beyond their years–that they’ve been shaped by their starting point, and that American culture will always be their native language, their default mode. Yes, we’re American, my students tell me. We just don’t quite know what that means, all the time.

From Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus to Luke Skywalker, all through literature we learn that a hero’s ambivalence about his place of origin is the beginning of a good story. As I listen to my students, global wanderers still trying to pin down “home,” I realize that a new story has begun, and that I’m thrilled to meet the heroes that will fill this year.