On Labels

Student journalists assembling our school newspaper in time for this semester’s first Distribution Day!

We’re putting the finishing touches on our latest issue of the BFA Chronicle newspaper, admiring a photo of Fiddler on the Roof cast members in the Arts section when one reporter looks up at me suddenly.

“You play violin?”

She phrases it as a question, but since this student journalist is also herself a member of the Fiddler cast, I know it’s not. We’ve been in half a dozen rehearsals together, and I’ve seen her squinting across the stage at me, as if trying to decipher if, indeed, it’s really me playing that instrument with the little pit orchestra.

“I do,” I reply with a nod. “I mean, not terribly well, but I do.” For a moment, the room is abuzz with chatter, the journalists suddenly curious and interested in this fascinating new tidbit about their teacher. It’s a senior editor who calls it to an abrupt halt.

“Yes! She’s a teacher and she does other things. Shocking!”

I laugh, and the students get back to work, which may have been Senior Editor’s intention in the first place, but the moment sticks with me.

Later, I’ll discuss labels with the ninth graders in my Advisory group. We meet twice weekly, the ninth graders and I, focusing our time on a variety of topics and activities designed to help them grow smoothly from uncertain middle schoolers to confident, autonomous high school students. After a brief video, our conversation brings us back to labelling, its uses and danger, especially in relationship to gossip.

Knowing that the defensive ninth graders are unlikely to incriminate themselves by listing harmful labels they apply to others, I begin by asking them how even positive labels could have unintended consequences. “I mean, you’re missionary kids,” I remind them. “That’s not a mean label. If anything, it’s a good one, but still. Do you always like to be ‘the MK’?”

They do not. The ninth graders erupt with tales of being asked to recite random Bible verses from memory, or speak languages that they’ve never really learned. “It’s like people only know this one thing about me,” one of them comments. “I’m more than just that one thing.”

In some ways, I think that young people are better at recognizing the consequences of labels than adults are. Or rather, they resent the labels more. I look around my school and see students that are sculptors and soccer players, graphic artists and members of the Model UN. High school is a time when we encourage kids to try things out, to see what they like and what they’re good at. At the risk of falling into cliche, it’s a time to “find yourself.”

Adults, on the other hand, seem to cling to our labels. How ardently I resisted being labeled as a teacher at 21! It’s with equal passion, though, that I claim the title now. Once we find something we love, we sink into it with abandon. This is who I am. I’ve found myself!

Except, just like the ninth graders, we’re more than one thing.

I recently listened to a sermon from our church in Seattle in which the pastor spoke of the “latent gifts” of the shepherd boy, David. Certainly he loved being a shepherd, and was very good at it. It’s probable he never expected much more for his life. God knew differently, saw the gifts of faith and leadership that would make him one of Israel’s greatest kings. David could have shut his eyes to it, crying, “I’m a shepherd! Leave me alone!” but he was aware that he probably didn’t know himself, his capabilities, as well as God did. So he listened, and learned something new.

I love people who live this way. Rooted in Christ as their only static identity, they pursue various callings and gifts in various seasons. My sister majored first in theater, then in Global Development Studies, and now owns a bakery in Seattle. My mother studied outdoor recreation in college, then went on to be a mother and later a bookkeeper for three decades, before using the last few years to become a volunteer snowshoe guide with the U.S. Forest Service.

I’ll soon shed the label of “teacher,” at least for a while. And though at times that feels painful, a stripping-away of this role I’ve loved so much, for so long, I’m inspired by the ninth graders. We’re not just one thing. We belong to Christ, who knows us best, and sees what we cannot, the king inside the shepherd, the violinist behind the teacher.


Remembering How To Read

My last experience with an orchestra, for BFAs 2011 production of Suessical.

In order to arrive at what you are not

You must go through the way in which you are not.

And what you do not know is the only thing you know

And what you own is what you do not own

And where you are is where you are not.

“East Coker,” T.S. Eliot

I turn the page and squint, hoping maybe the swarm of five b‘s hovering next to the treble clef will go away if I frown at it. I don’t even know what to call this key, much less precisely how to play in it, but there’s no time to complain. I have to–literally–face the music. The song is “If I Were A Rich Man,” in the key of Evil.

Except… I used to know it. There are things I don’t know how to do, like knitting and experimental physics. There are things I do know how to do, like making pies or teaching English. There are even things I’m learning to do, like being a wife and a mother, or speaking German. But there are a few things, fragments of old passions, that I used to know and love well, and have simply forgotten.

I dusted off my violin (literally dusted it off, folks) a few months ago to start rehearsals with the pit orchestra for our school’s production of The Fiddler on the Roof. I’ve played in a pit orchestra before, six years ago for Suessical, but there were some key differences:

  1. I was single then, with theoretically unlimited time for practice.
  2. I was playing viola, the parts of which tend to be more percussion than anything tricky or melodic.
  3. It was Suessical, a show full of poppy little ditties, not the intricate, Russian-influenced themes of Fiddler on the Roof.
  4. It was six years ago, six years closer to college, which was at that point the last time I’d played in an orchestra. (Now, that college orchestra is a horrifying 15 years back.)

I chose to play violin this time instead of viola because playing in alto clef makes my head hurt, but this decision comes at the price of actually having to play lots and lots of notes. Notes that I no longer know, fully, how to read. I stumbled through the first read-through of each song, trying to keep up through the exotic keys and notation that is what happens when the incredible vivacity of “To Life” makes it onto the page. I’d expected to be a small part of a full string section, but alas, there are only three violinists. So my missed notes are a third of the notes. No pressure.

Having finished the first pass at the music, we come back to the beginning today, and something strange is happening. I can follow along. I still can’t do everything, every time, but I know what I’m supposed to play. My fingers can find the notes faster, now, than my mind can name them. In the still-challenging trenches of these still-complicated pieces, I’m remembering how to read.

A Greek philosopher once advised, “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things.” While I’m not certain what “external things” he had in mind, I know that this return to music over the last two months has often left me feeling foolish and stupid, a little lost and several steps behind everyone else. It’s a not a pleasant feeling, not one I want to hold onto forever, and of course it’s possible to feel both of those things without improving. And yet as I sit up straighter, as I hear the rhythm on the page before I have to play it, and realize that the notes that look impossible are actually quite within my reach, I realize that sometimes, maybe often, true growth waits on the other side of just this discomfort.

I’m also struck, here in this genial little rehearsal, among gracious fellow violinists far more talented than I and led by a chronically upbeat director, that I’m willing to keep trying because I know that I’m well-supported. If I miss a few notes, I’m not fired. The director keeps listening for the good, bringing it out in our little group.

It’s a lesson I try quite often to convey to my students. Risk working hard at this–striking out on a new book, a new idea, a new thought–and you’ll grow as a result. I’ll do my best, I promise, to help you avoid feeling foolish or stupid, but you may feel a little lost, once in a while. It means you’re ready to learn something new.

What it doesn’t mean, though, is that the learning will be easy. The stakes of the pit orchestra, small violin section aside, are relatively low and an English paper won’t follow anyone past high school. The harder sight-reading often takes us by surprise, in the unexpected twists and turns of life, and our students are fluent in transition. They are constantly moving, reading cultures and picking up languages, making friends and somehow learning dozens of unwritten and unspoken rules of each new place they call home.

My stronger fingers are a promise, I realize, that the transitions that are common to my students’ and my life are not forever. If we keep walking through them, in the company of people who care about us and following the direction of a God who cares more, the unfamiliarity wears off and we grow stronger, bolder, more fully who we were made to be, even in new places. Knowing that we’re loved, we’ll remember how to read, no matter where we go from here.


Thoughts From the Valley

“With every job when it’s complete
There is a sense of bitter-sweet
That moment when you know the task is done…”

Mary Poppins

Camping in the valley

February 2010. I’m crying in a theater in mid-town Manhattan.

Heeding the advice of one of my bosses from college, who regularly travelled to New York for business, I’ve taken this evening off from the International Baccalaureate (IB) conference I’m attending to see a show. During lunch I got myself to the Times Square TKTS box office, where I learned that my Broadway options included Mary Poppins, the clear choice for my evening of solitary fun. I got dressed up, went alone to a Thai restaurant and ordered food too spicy to eat, and then arrived promptly at the proper theater, ready for my first-ever (and last, at this point) show on Broadway.

The tears don’t come until the end of the show, which proves just as merry and quirky as the movie I’d grown up loving. With everyone else, I clap along to “Step In Time” and giggle at the escalating ridiculousness of the verses of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” The show ends, however, with Mary Poppins’s departure, as she sings the lines above and continues:

Though in your heart you’d like to stay
To help things on their way
You’ve always known they must do it alone

The valley

I’ve come to New York this week to learn how to be a better public school teacher, but I’m not sure I’ll be staying. In fact, I had an interview earlier this week with TeachBeyond, a mission specializing in global, Christ-centered education, an interview that is one more link in the long chain of events that could lead me not just away from public education, but away from Seattle, and the United States, entirely. Untethered by property, debt or a significant other, the timing is right to teach overseas. There’s also the nagging feeling of calling, the desire I once had to serve the children of those in ministry, who are trying to decipher God’s work in their lives and hearts in the midst of the details of a ministry-centered lifestyle. Children, if I’m honest, like me. I always wanted to teach them, and now I might have the chance, somewhere far away, like Germany.

As Mary Poppins bids Jane and Michael farewell, though, my eyes fill with tears, because I’m not running away. It’s been four years at my school in Seattle, and though we had a rough start, I’ve grown to love the multicultural, unpretentious, earnest place that is Ingraham High School. I love that my students know so many languages and teach me about the wide world beyond Seattle. I love that I get to show them that Shakespeare can be fun, or that Lord of the Flies is relevant to real life, or that a graphic novel can “count” as good literature. I love that we could celebrate together when America elected our first black president, and mourn together when I got laid off (and eventually rehired) at the end of my third year. It’s time to go, I’ve started to suspect, but I still love it.

Almost eight years later, the feeling is the same. I know it’s time to go, feel confidence in the strong, sweet longing for my daughter to grow up near her aunts and uncles and for Timmy to embark on a career in mental health counseling. I see the hazy outlines of good in the future, imagining unexplored delights and challenges. It’s misty and uncertain, imagined rather than assured.

Up to the pass we go!

I often imagine transitions as a mountain pass (a real, specific pass in central Austria, if you’re curious). We’re hiking upwards, unable to see or truly imagine what awaits us on the other side. We’re free however, to look back at where we’ve been, how far we’ve climbed. We can be thankful, or even a bit nostalgic, for the valley below us, a green meadow crisscrossed with streams and frequented by wild horses. Above us are clouds, rocks, sky, and the promise that if we keep going, a new 180 degrees awaits our exploration. I’ve never been disappointed by a pass, and I’ve never been disappointed by listening to God. It will be good, God promises, because I am good.

It’s not a guarantee, I know, that we’ll get to love all the places we leave behind, but that’s how it’s been for me, so far. I’ve never scrambled up the hill in retreat, thanking God for every step that takes me farther away. I’ve always been able to look back with gratitude, the bittersweet journey of moving from one well-loved home to another.

Today I’m savoring the valley, thankful. My students began the morning sitting on their desks, energetically reviewing for their final exam. “What are the influencing factors for realism?” someone almost shouts into the morning stillness. As they talk over each other, rushing to give the answers that they’ve memorized, I sip coffee and listen, amazed. Amazed that they care so much, that they’ve worked so hard, that I get to be their teacher. We have one more semester here, a semester I know will be full of details of packing, moving, job interviewing, and traveling. But I’m thankful for moments like this, too, times to look back with gratitude and ahead with expectation, keenly aware that God has been–and will be– very good.

For more concrete information about our upcoming transition, including ways you can be praying for us, see our most recent newsletter. Thank you, as always, for reading and journeying with us.

The Civilly Disobedient

Is it ever right–ethically or morally–to break the law? Explain why or why not.

-Honors American Literature journal question, Monday

It’s always a good day when I get to stand on a chair.

I sense that the students understand this, also, even as they mutter about being hustled, a few minutes into class, from their comfortable plastic chairs to the space at the back of the room. This space, perhaps 25 feet wide and six feet deep, is magic. It’s the floor we sit on, in a narrow oval, to read scary stories, and the back-of-class stage for all manner of skits and roll-plays. Today, it’s the ground for Would You Rather: Lawbreaker Edition.

At the beginning of class, I asked them to write for a few minutes about the question above. Is it ever right to break the law? They wrote, dutifully, and now they’re standing just as dutifully in the back of the room, while I direct them from my chair perch on high.

“OK,” I begin. “You have to pick a side. This is the question you wrote about. Is it ever right to break the law? Yes,” I motion to the door side, “Or no?” I motion to the windows. Mostly they shuffle to the door, a few students opting to stand in the hall outside to express their extreme comfort with law-breaking. A few misunderstand, citing times when obeying the law is just fine.

“I didn’t say ‘Is it always right to break the law,'” I remind them. “I said ‘ever.’ That’s important. Obviously we mostly obey the law, right?”

My students nod. “Now. Would you rather not pay your taxes,” window, “Or plot to overthrow the government?” door. The students laugh, mostly opting to not pay their taxes because “…you know, I’d rather have my money than… not have it.”

We’ll be reading Henry David Thoreau’s “On The Duty Of Civil Disobedience” in a few minutes, the author’s treatise regarding why he, among other forms of passive protest, refused to pay a poll tax that would fund the Mexican-American War. As I read through a few more scenarios involving various laws broken through civil disobedience over the years, I begin to think I may have lost them, my international students. They didn’t know that interracial marriage was illegal in America the early 20th century, and don’t have a solid grasp on the concept of draft-dodging. It all feels very theoretical in this safe little classroom in Germany. We’d disobey the laws you think we should, they seem to say, but we’re not super sure why.

Then I reach the second-to-last question.

“Would you rather hold a secret worship service in a country where it’s illegal, or smuggle Bibles into a country where they’re illegal?”

Suddenly, they’re all questions, of which the most common, and loudest, is “What if we’ve done both?”

Sometimes, in the busyness of writing and rewriting papers, reading classic literature and pacing ourselves through bell-ordained school days, I forget that our students at Black Forest Academy are rather extraordinary. All teenagers are extraordinary, of course, because they are odd and clever and creative, because they’re heroically weathering one of the more difficult seasons of human life, because in spite of it all most of them remain optimistic about the future and their roles in it. But these teenagers, our students, are something else entirely.

I forget that some of their very lives are founded on acts of civil disobedience, large and small. I forget the risks associated with some of this work, for which deportation–permanent exile from the places they call home–is sometimes a light potential consequence. I forget that Paul’s preaching and imprisonments, which I read in the early morning alongside many other “Bible stories” are the real models on which they base their ministry. If you’re not supposed to preach Christ, do it anyway. If you’re put in prison, keep preaching. God’s law always comes first.

When we reach the last question, asking them to choose between participating in the Underground Railroad in the 19th century or the Resistance in Germany in the 20th century, my students rebel. “Both!” they cry. “How could we possibly choose between those?”

In a few years, my students will be in college, perhaps away from the law-breaking part of their lives. But as I listen to them today, I’m inspired by their nonconformity, the way they’re able to evaluate both laws and cultural norms in light of the truth of Christ. They’ll go back to America, doubtless to be amazed at the “stands” their peers choose to make, or perhaps the lack of them. I can only hope that the students who confidently tell me that they can’t choose between an illegal worship service and an illegal Bible will continue to value both in places where worship and Scripture are less illegal than simply forgotten. Their civil disobedience might not break any laws, but it will continue to remind them, and those around them, of the extraordinary lives they’ve lived, and the extraordinary God they serve.

To Inform & Entertain: Inside a School Newspaper

An early sample issue of the BFA Chronicle. (No, our newspaper isn’t published in Latin.)

  • Effects of both Hurricanes in the US
  • Protests in France>> labour reforms and worker’s rights
  • North Korea
  • SHORT election follow-up
  • Healthcare in US
  • Iran Deal
  • Net Neutrality
  • DRM being added to HTML standardization
  • Healthcare
  • Kneeling nat’l anthem
  • 500 anniversary reformation
  • Earthquakes
  • Climate Change (hurricanes, wildfires)
  • Refugee crisis: What is it? Why?

BFA Chronicle October world news article idea list (chosen stories underlined)

“But wait. What was their least favorite article?”

Six young journalists squint at the projected results from a survey of their peers, given out along with their practice issue–we called it a “soft open”–of the rebooted BFA Chronicle. The survey asked students to evaluate the quality of the issue’s articles and visual elements, and also to comment more abstractly on the purpose and mission of a school newspaper.

According to the jagged-edged bar graph on the screen, 94% of students polled believe that we should be covering school news. My students spend a few minutes discussing the counterpart of this statistic, the sobering majority of those surveyed who suggested that world news didn’t belong in our pages, before they remember that I’d asked the focus group for their favorite and least favorite articles.

“I’m not showing you that part,” I demur, keeping my finger poised over my laptop to protect the information.

“But why?”

“I just… don’t want to,” I reply with a shrug. “None of it was personal, though. It was all about the topics. So, if the favorite articles were about the new schedule, advisory and the middle school moving to campus, then the least favorites were probably… what?”

“German election,” someone says.

“And Myanmar,” someone else adds.

“Exactly.” The two articles had focused on matters that the students had decided were important for their peers to know about: the September 24 German federal election and the refugee–and probable ethnic cleansing–crisis among the Rohingya people of Myanmar.

The journalists, especially the ones who’d worked on the articles in question, nod stoically, faces wrinkled into thoughtful frowns. I’d expected frustration or even outrage from my passionate, informed, news-reading journalism students, so their mild reaction surprises me.

“OK, so how can we use this information for the future? What do we do with these results?”

“More world news!” a journalist jokes. “All world news!”

We laugh, but spend a few minutes considering our position, a remarkably similar one to media everywhere. There are entertaining stories and important stories, and often the two don’t come together. It’s a weighty task, not just for teenagers for for any of us, looking past Top 10 Cupcakes in Seattle to get to the the city council’s meeting on affordable housing, or scrolling over photos Beyonce’s twins to find out how Puerto Rico is faring in the wake of the hurricane.

Even more complicating, the stories that are important for an adult living in America, like U.S. tax reform, have very little relevance to teenage expats and international students. Our focus, the journalists decide, needs to be on issues that either affect students directly, or are so hugely critical to the whole world that they just have to know about them.

We finish class looking at the list of article possibilities for October. “With these issues–relevance, importance, timeliness–in mind, which three are we going to write about?”

Two students practically shout “North Korea!” at the same time, then back off graciously, each insisting that the other write it. In the end, they settle that the sophomore will research whatever is most current in the North Korea story, while the senior returns to write a follow-up to the unpopular story about the election.

“Because… it’s important. I just need some space to explain why.”

I smile, remembering the many times I’ve used the same justification for the less-glamorous aspects of my classes. Walden is important. Thesis statements are important. Properly citing research sources is important.

Without knowing it, these journalists have become teachers, taking it upon themselves to explain the world to their classmates. Listening to them argue over who “gets” to write about North Korea, I’m paradoxically hopeful. Though the story is sure to be grim, behind it there is a fifteen-year-old who knows that these matters will shape the future, and cares enough to explain it in terms that his peers will understand.

For the rest of the class, the students dive into local news reporting with the same alacrity and skill. They claim stories about where to get the best food in Kandern, features on the upcoming class trips or winter sports, and editorials about Halloween and whether it’s OK to say “no” if you’re asked to Christmas Banquet. (Spoiler: It’s OK.) They know this community well, in all its variety of moving pieces, and are excited to spend the semester writing about–and for–it.

As long as they can keep writing about German politics, too.


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.


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.


“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.