Sustainability {Or, Measuring A Year}

Class of 2017 on the first day of school…

Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles
In laughter, in strife

In five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure
A year in the life?

From “Seasons of Love,” RENT

June 24 marks one year back in Kandern, this time as a family of three, a year filled with beginnings-again, with all joys and challenges included. At intervals throughout the year, friends, colleagues and acquaintances have asked us “how it is” being back. I must have expected to have a better answer at one point, but honestly this has become one of those questions, like asking “How are you?” to a brand-new parent, or “How was your trip?” to someone who’s just returned from a mission trip to Haiti after an earthquake. There is no simple answer. There’s just… well, a year.

This year was challenging, as we realized that having a young child who goes to bed early would change how we connected to the community. We went to fewer events, had fewer extracurricular commitments, and learned that weekend lunches were the best times for connecting with other young families. We hosted dinners and movie nights after bedtime, gradually figuring out how to exercise hospitality from this new family context.

This year was beautiful, returning with our daughter to this place that Timmy and I fell in love, reflecting daily on the vast history of blessing with which Christ has built and continues to build our family. We walked familiar trails, visited favorite buildings, and watched countless sunsets, thunderstorms and snowfalls from our fourth-floor apartment.

This year was surprising, filled with relationships and opportunities that we didn’t expect from the far side of the Atlantic. Timmy coached basketball and I substitute-taught ceramics for a few weeks. I co-led a girls’ small group with another young mom, and Timmy spent the spring doing a counseling internship with staff in the community. We discovered that Luci is by far the most popular member of our family, bringing gleeful grins from eleventh-graders and fellow teachers alike.

Though it’s impossible to sum up–to measure–this year, as a Pacific Northwesterner it seems no coincidence to me that the word that keeps coming to mind is “sustainability.” Because in the end, this was the common denominator of our ministry in Germany this year. Both at Black Forest Academy and in the community in Kandern, we seek to enable missionaries to sustain healthy ministries in the places to which God has called them.

For me, sustainability means teaching young people to read, write, speak and think clearly, helping to provide a quality English education while their parents serve in evangelism, community development, translation, refugee ministry and other mission work in Europe, Asia, Africa and beyond. Families that would have had to leave the field when their children reached high school are able to remain in ministry in these capacities.

For Timmy, sustainability means providing counseling and other hospitality services through TeachBeyond Member Care here in Kandern, working with a great number of missionaries, mostly school staff, as they transition from North America to Europe, from big cities to small towns, and from traditional careers to the decidedly non-traditional life of serving as overseas missionaries. This also means opening our home to fellow missionaries, providing hospitality and a safe space for connection and processing.

We’re working on our second year back in Kandern now, but I don’t expect our “word of the year” to change much. Our focus continues to be on creating space for sustainable ministry, both for our colleagues here in Kandern and for the parents of our students, spread around the world. We’re thankful for the weeks of summer ahead of us, time to spend sustaining our own family and ministry as we rest and reset for Year 2 (or Year 7, or Year 9, depending on how you count, and which of us you ask). Join us in praying for rest, health, and peace this summer, for us and those in our care.

If you’re interested in learning more about our ministry here in Germany, read our bio at Meet The Dahlstroms. Or, if you’d like to learn more about how to partner with us in ministry, follow this link to our TeachBeyond giving page.

…and the last!

 

A Witness of Transformation

Gelato or graduation? My most pressing question in 2006.

The morning of my last Commencement Day, I woke up feeling rested and disoriented. I’d been traveling for almost three months in Great Britain and Ireland, and that morning, I was in Riomaggiore, the southernmost village of the Cinque Terre, in northern Italy, spending a week traveling with a friend from home after my quarter abroad.

I woke up on a soft bottom bunk, not unlike mine back in Seattle, and for an instant that’s where I thought I was. At the home I left behind, ready to get up, don a black robe, and head to a sports arena to finish college with my classmates at Seattle Pacific University. It wouldn’t be a bad day at all, I thought to myself, but I had other plans.

I can still sketch the skeleton of the day, shading in the details with probabilities. Mel and I probably had pastries and espresso for breakfast. We definitely took the train straight to Monterosso al Mare, saving hiking for another day, where we ate gelato and sprawled on the beach. We probably swam in the Mediterranean and read novels (mine was probably A Room With a View, which had just started to get good). We definitely returned to Riomaggiore in time to get dressed up and have pasta and seafood in an actual restaurant (in contrast to our normal pesto and focaccia spreads). We probably sat on the breakwater and watched the sun set, and I probably said something sarcastic about “missing graduation.”  I didn’t, if I’m honest, miss it at all. It was a good day.

So it’s with some amusement that I realize, many years later, that I’ve been to more graduations than I can count since then. Trapped like a hamster in a wheel or a Bill Murray in a Groundhog Day, I return almost annually to the climactic steps of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” the intoning of full names and the billowy robes that, mysteriously, seem to be blue no matter where I go. They are each unique and very much the same. Same words, different faces.

The most moving commencements are the ones I’ve watched, not the ones I’ve… commenced. There were the high school graduations of my siblings and a handful of others. The culmination of four years advising two different classes in two different schools, my beloved classes of 2009 and 2o14. One year, my sister and my mom both walked in SPU’s ceremony, finishing their B.A.’s on the same day, despite starting about three decades apart. Those were good days, all of them, significant and memorable in ways that my own Ballard High School graduation was not.

This is a significant milestone, without a doubt. Last week, a student of mine from Ingraham celebrated getting her degree from a private university, while working full-time to pay for it, becoming the first in her family to graduate from university after also being the first to graduate from high school. Graduation is a big deal for her, as it is for everyone around her, even the far-away ninth-grade Language Arts teacher who hears about it.

Ballard High Graduation, 2002

But for many students, this last day of high school or college gets swallowed up in what’s behind or ahead if they’re not paying attention. It’s the rest of us–teachers, parents, siblings–who watch from the sidelines and remember. Not just who they are today, these grinning graduates in flat hats and gold cords, but who they have been. Or all the whos they have been.

We’ve seen the wide-eyed sixth graders, the confused freshmen boys, the first dates of sophomores, the tired-out juniors, the questionable decisions of angst-ridden seniors. We’ve seen mistakes and redemption, confusion and answers, love and loss. We’ve seen these things better than they have, sometimes, and this ceremony marks the transformation, a moment laden with individual histories even as they are ironed into azure uniformity for an hour or two.

I stand at the back of Black Forest Academy’s commencement ceremony this year as the students exit. The Class of 2017 somehow managed to break with tradition enough to recess to John Williams’s Imperial March from Star Wars, a bit of whimsy that adds to an already-whimsical moment. The students pair off, give a hug or a handshake or a light-saber battle, and then walk down the aisle to the back of the room arm in arm.

With two of my small group girls after graduation. Well done!

It’s charming, as it always is, and without much anticipation tears spring to my eyes as I watch them. I don’t know these students well, I realize, but I have watched them grow up. They were in the sixth grade when I began teaching at Black Forest Academy, and now they’re as grown up as they’re likely to get in this part of the world. They are tall and bold, ambitious, eager. And they are gone now.

Even fifteen years later, I remember the excitement of being a newly-minted high school graduate. I only had a street-level view, though. I couldn’t see very clearly the difference between the ninth-grader who entered that big public school with fear and resentment, and exited four years later, with more knowledge, fewer prejudices, and a concrete vocation to return to high school as soon as I could, this time as a teacher. My parents, youth pastors, and teachers, they could see the journey.

From this side of stage, it’s the journeys that I love now. Perhaps I’ll graduate again someday, from a yet-unknown school with a different-shaped hat, but until then I’m content to be a spectator, a witness to transformation each June, marking time with tossed caps and waving incredible people on to the next season.

 

A Chronicle of Longing

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

8 June 2017

My dear Juniors,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

Mrs. Kristi Dahlstrom

The Teachers of JB 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I know three incredible women.

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

Speaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Place Between: Thoughts From a Refugee Camp

Washing tables

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

This Impact Day is different.

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

The boys start our gardening project.

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

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

Our completed planter

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

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

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

Painting faces at the end of the day

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

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

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

A student gives his commencement speech in Public Speaking class.

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

1 Timothy 4:12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Canyon of Enough

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

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

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

Proverbs 30: 8b-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hearing The Bells

Christmas TreeI heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
     And wild and sweet
     The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
     Had rolled along
     The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
     A voice, a chime,
     A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

“Hey, this is a song!”

I hear it half a dozen times as the eleventh-graders walk into class and pick up today’s reading, Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells.”

“‘I heard the bells on Christmas Day,'” the first student reads aloud, then exclaims with recognition. “Wait, I know this from somewhere…”

“Yes, it’s a song,” I reply. “You know the Casting Crowns version from a couple years ago. But before that, it was a different song, and before that it was a poem by Longfellow. So we’re reading it today.”

We’re using it, actually, to practice poetry analysis. We needed to do this today, because it’s been a month or so of reading only prose, and their semester final is looming. I’d selected “Christmas Bells” because it’s the week before Christmas break and the poet is American. (If I were teaching a different class, you can be sure we’d be reading Christina Rosetti’s “In The Bleak Midwinter.” But she’s British, so I made a different choice.) Sometimes I’m just a public school teacher thrilled by the little things, like reading a Christmas poem in English class. I’d written the title on the lesson plan, made 31 copies of the poem, and given it little further thought until this morning, confident that any poem of Longfellow’s must count as “literature” and bear some deeper examination.

Today, I share the results of an hour’s research, telling them the story behind the poem. I ask them to look at the poem’s date, 1863, and tell me if it means anything to them. “Um… Civil War?” they murmur with varying degrees of confidence. Then I tell them about Longfellow, widowed father of six, whose oldest son enlisted in the Union Army without telling him. After a series of close shaves, Charles Longfellow was shot in battle in Virginia in late November of 1863. So in December his father and brother set out to Washington, D.C., where young Charles hovered in critical condition, unsure if he’d survive or, if he did, if he’d walk again.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
     And with the sound
     The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
     And made forlorn
     The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

“So picture him,” I tell my students. “Longfellow sitting in the hospital, hearing these bells on Christmas and waiting to find out if his son would live. That’s the context. And for this poem, it’s important.”

With the setting established, my students get to work reading and rereading the poem, comparing it to their lists of terms and trying to decipher what deeper meaning they can find from the poetic structure of stanza, rhyme and refrain. I wander the room as they work, giving a hint here and there.

When we come back together after ten minutes, my students have answers for me.

“It has a… a refrain? The last line is the same in every stanza. ‘Of peace on earth, good-will to men.’ That’s a refrain, right?”

“Yes,” I answer, nodding. “Yes to the meaning, and yes to the refrain. The meaning comes from the refrain, right? Without the refrain, it’s just someone saying, ‘Yay, it’s Christmas! But I’m sad. But yay!’ The refrain also has another poetic device with it. Starts with an A…”

“Alliteration? Apostrophe? Assonance?” my students read from their lists.

“You know it’s not those ones. Come on, it’s…”

“An allusion?” someone ventures.

“It’s an allusive refrain!” I reply. “Exactly, and you know what it’s alluding to. The angel said this, right?”

For a moment we’re closer to Sunday School than upper-level literature class, but it’s a moment when my Christian-school kids have the upper hand at something, so we savor it. As a group they tell me about a choir of angels and some bedraggled shepherds who receive the best news of their lives. We zoom out and talk about Israel’s state in that moment, occupied by Rome and ruled by a megalomaniacal, insecure king. Israel needed peace, good-will, and here was an angel promising just that, gifts from the Messiah they’d been waiting for.

“And that’s what Longfellow saw, too,” I continue. “America torn apart by the Civil War, families literally killing each other with no end in sight. A world that still needs peace, good-will, a savior. Longfellow saw it, and we see it.”

Do we ever. The ones who pay attention to the news are more specifically worried, but none of them can shut their eyes to the refugees filling Europe, nor the wars ravaging places that my own students have lived or visited. The refrain is important to us as much as it was to the shepherds or to an aging poet and his injured son.

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said:
     “For hate is strong,
     And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” 

We return to the theme, the meaning they decided on and I wrote on the board in red ink. “Hope in the midst of difficult times.” At the beginning of the school year we spent some time talking about the definition of “literature,” the criteria by which we set it apart from other written words. One of them was that literature had to be concerned with “ideas of permanent and universal interest.” In the midst of global crises and turmoil, talking with young adults about the hope they cling to as they come of age in a chaotic world, this concept has never been more relevant.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
     The Wrong shall fail,
     The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

As we wrap up the last stanza, I’m thinking of a Bible class I visited a few weeks ago, a tenth-grade class just starting their study of Revelation. It’s a weird book, the teacher told them, full of maybe-symbols and numbers and disaster, but the important point is that in the end, Jesus wins. That’s the takeaway, he said. Just remember.

Like marginalized shepherds, low on the socioeconomic ladder, burdened by layers of oppression as they waited for a savior. Like Longfellow, at a hospital in the war-torn U.S. capitol, waiting for his son to wake. Like all of us, worried or wandering, heartbroken or homeless, in these dark days. We remember, we grasp with outstretched fingers for the promise of our Savior, who has already conquered the darkness.

The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.

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.