One Step Ahead

My students learned what this is this week. They were impressed and intimidated.

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Joshua 1:9

“Just remember, it’s not scary.

The juniors giggle nervously, fidgeting with blank-screened phones and tapping pencils on their blue journals, open to pages filled with questions. At the beginning of class, I asked them to write down as many questions that they could think of about the college application process, and about 20 minutes into it, five seniors appeared with answers.

Or at least some answers. These seniors were students of mine in Honors American Literature last year, so they arrive with smiles of nostalgia, remembering that twelve months ago they were the nervous ones, the juniors slogging through the quirky mystery of our practice college admission essay, trying to make sense of their lives and learn how to explain themselves to strangers. Today, they’re the experts, returning to a class they liked to rest on the pleasant laurels of having one more year of experience than their friends. One year, it turns out, is plenty for now.

The students of Black Forest Academy, when they graduate, remind me the old song lyric, shouted to the patrons of the bar in “Closing Time:” You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here. With parents still serving overseas, many don’t have one place in North America that they call home, but unless they navigate the labyrinth of applying to European universities, for the most part they return to the place of their citizenship for college, a “return” that is sometimes as foreign as studying abroad would have been for me as a seventeen-year-old. I think of how many of my peers stayed in the greater Seattle area upon graduation, how I could look across the Ship Canal from my dorm room and spy the roof of my high school up the hill in Ballard. There is none of that here, and the juniors know it. No matter what happens, the odds are high that they’ll be moving away from Kandern, from Germany, and probably from Europe in just over a year.

The seniors tell about how they decided to apply where they did, and what eventually pulled them to one place or another. They discuss wanting to have family close by, or specific regions that have always intrigued them. One young woman was drawn by a specific program at her chosen college, which she settled on “despite” the fact that her older brother goes there, too. Many mention financial aid packages being a deciding factor, and stressed the importance of researching scholarships for international students, missionary kids, pastors’ kids, and almost every other sub-category you could imagine. The juniors are mesmerized, interrupting only long enough to ask follow-up questions or for helpful websites to be spelled out for them.

Towards the end of the presentation, I ask the visitors to think of one thing that they wish someone had told them a year ago about this process. With something between a laugh and a shrug–the gesture of someone who is tired and excited and satisfied with a busy year almost finished–one student replies:

“Just remember, it’s not scary. When I was a junior I thought that applying to college was this big, scary adult thing, and I was dreading it. But it had to be done, so I did it. And it really wasn’t that bad. It was… just normal. So don’t be too scared. Work on it, prepare, research, stress just enough, but don’t be scared.”

How important, I think to myself, how important it is to have someone just a few steps ahead of us. Growth and change are always intimidating, I realize, thinking about the milestones that used to stand in the way of being a “real adult”–milestones like driving or getting married–and the milestones that still do. There are Big, Scary Adult Steps ahead of us now, too, like buying a car and trying to find somewhere to live in the greater Seattle area. Steps like having a second child, and learning what it means to parent two kids at once with some measure of grace and wisdom (not to mention sanity).

In the midst of these steps, I am immeasurably thankful for the people a few months or years ahead of me, the ones who tell me, “You can do this. God will be there,” and then encourage me to just start, already.

My juniors are almost grown up, by many definitions. This week, it’s been truly delightful to listen to their stories, hearing them discuss how their interesting lives have shaped them into interesting people, and trying to imagine where these fascinating folks will be in a year or so. It’s hard to leave without seeing it happen, honestly, but I always knew it would be hard. And anyway, today my job isn’t to say goodbye to them, but to prepare them to say goodbye to this place, to this chapter of their lives. Today the best I can do is open the door for the one-step-ahead seniors, and let their encouragement do the work.

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An Ode To New Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crucible: Classic & Current

You must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, now, a precise time—we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God’s grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not light will surely praise it.

Arthur Miller, from The Crucible, Act III 

The murmured words of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible mingle with the lazy creek as I tiptoe between reading knots of students, their heads bent over their copies of the 1953 play, their voices alternating between animation and monotone. My largest class, they’re also paradoxically shy about reading aloud as a group, so in a concession to their reserve I’ve let them split up into smaller fragments today, tiny groupings in which they feel safer being dramatic. It’s Friday afternoon, almost hot, and we’re reading outside. Pretty standard good-day material.

The play sounds a bit like a broken record this way (a phrase that two of my students recently pretended not to recognize, much to a colleague’s chagrin). As all of the groups are at slightly different points in Act III, I often hear the same words repeated three or four times; different tones from different voices, but the same familiar lines. I heard it last week, too, when the other junior English class was reading Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun, again outside. That time, they were far away, but it didn’t matter. Then, as now, I know the lines that go between. Whether the words are mumbled or shouted, spoken with an accent (real or assumed) or intoned agonizingly slowly, I’ve heard them before. Many, many times.

In an effort to help students learn more reflectively, a few years ago I began asking why we read the books we read. My English class consists of six main texts, and five of them are exactly what you’d expect. Only Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer, came out within my lifetime, let alone theirs. These books are, well, old. Yes, they’re classics, but why? Why is is that these are the same books that your parents, perhaps even your grandparents, read in American Literature class? Haven’t any books been written since then? Weren’t they any good?

I recently told my students I’ve read this play twenty times, and really that’s an underestimation, not an exaggeration. “Don’t you get tired of it?” they’ll ask. “No,” I reply. “It’s different each time.”

One of my students is doing a presentation that compares the panic outlined in The Crucible with the racial profiling of Muslims that escalated dramatically in the months following 9/11. Those attacks hadn’t happened yet when I first read this play, in October 2000, when I was fifteen years old. I have changed, but so has the world, and each new year brings new resonance to this old play about an even older event.

Later this week, we’ll discuss why reading The Crucible is relevant today. My students will mention police shootings and “alternative facts,” the fears that led to Brexit and travel bans, and the general divisiveness of our age. They’ll echo Judge Danforth’s words above, haunting words that cast prejudice in the light of a godly crusade, specifically noting his “with us or against us” attitude.

Considering the famed optimism of the nation it represents, the canon of American literature isn’t particularly cheerful. This year, we’ve gone from the prejudice of Puritan Boston to the racism of pre-Civil War South, to the hollow glitter of 1920s New York to the hopeless agony of Depression-era California. I love these books, works of art that reveal heartbreaking truths about our culture.

Still, I wish they weren’t still so relevant. I wish very much that I could ask this question–How is The Crucible still relevant today?–and have fourteen teenagers laugh at me. That play about witches? About a tormented community? About how fear makes people do crazy things? That kind of thing doesn’t happen now. Let’s read something more current.

It’s the conclusion we keep coming back to, my students and I: We read these books because they still matter. We read these books because their authors didn’t just tell a story; they tapped into basic truths at the heart of the world, truths that span time and space.

We read them because relating these books, at most a few centuries old, helps us to read an even older and far more important text. Through the classics, we remember that stories tell truth, not just their own, the historical truths that are so valuable in Scripture, but truth for today, truth that keeps mattering as long as we’re human, created in God’s image and longing for redemption.

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.