Of Exile {In The Library}

Speaking on faith and vocation for BFA Chapel
Photo: BFA Communications

Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.’

Jeremiah 29:5-7

After thinking about exile all week in preparation for my Chapel talk, it makes me smile a bit when I realize that I’m speaking in the Library. Today’s Chapel consists of six faculty members offering seminars on the intersection of our vocation and our faith, so students have some choices to make. As we have few large rooms on our campus, and I’m the English-teaching lover of books, to the Library I go. This means that I’m precisely the farthest away from the Auditorium, where the students have gathered for worship, and that they’ll need to really commit to walking up a bunch of stairs to get here. But that’s fine; I’m not the biggest fan of large crowds, anyway.

I’m speaking on Jeremiah 29 today, expanding on the story of the prophet’s letter to the Israelite exiles in Babylon. It’s not a new chapter to me, having encountered its oft-excerpted eleventh verse as a seventh grader at North Seattle Christian School almost two decades ago. We mulled over those words, back then, zooming in on the “prosper” and the “future,” because those seemed most relevant to us when we were twelve. God must want us to be rich, right? That’s cool. Let’s play basketball, prep for the spelling bee, check on our Tomagotchi pets; God’s got this covered. Starting way back then we lost the context, the story, the bigger picture into which God promises this future, and the wholehearted seeking God asks in return. As a professional teacher of books, I’m a huge fan of context, so today is a bit of a storytelling day.

Despite the cliche factor, I picked this passage for a reason, not for the promises at the end of the letter, but for the commands at the beginning, which have both comforted and haunted me at several points in my young adulthood. Since the speaking prompt had to do with vocation, I’ve chosen too speak not about literature, which I do pretty much constantly, but about teaching as a profession, specifically my first two years of it. I tell them that I almost quit multiple times during my first two years, and my sweet students, the ones who trudged all the way up the stairs to hear me, scoff. “No really,” I said. “It was hard.”

For a while, we’re in a different school, with a younger Ms. (rather than Mrs.) Dahlstrom. I tell them about the library conference room where I taught remedial reading to students who had failed the state reading exam, some of whom weren’t literate in any language, let alone at a tenth-grade level in English. I tell them about the fall I taught 180 ninth graders, and the period that had 30 ninth-grade boys, two ninth-grade girls, and a tenth-grade mother-to-be in her last trimester. Though I’m careful to distinguish my loneliness and discouragement from the suffering of geographic refugees, both ancient and modern, I tell them that for me, then, this was a sort of exile. That I would have seriously considered giving it all up for a quiet office and a pair of nice tall shoes, if not for the words of Jeremiah 29, a small piece of God’s insistent voice of calling on my life.

“‘Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce,'” I read aloud to the assembled students and faculty in the Library. “This is a long-term arrangement. Gardens take time; houses take time. Also, families take time. Look what else he asks them to do!”

I keep reading the passage, telling them of my crestfallenness, in those bone-tired first years as a teacher, at realizing that God had called me, specifically, to Seattle and to my classroom and to the individual students I taught. I could go work for a magazine, keep my clothes clean and hands un-markered, but it wouldn’t change the calling. Instead, God had planned for the calling to change me. That was the hope, the future.

Sometimes we get to choose the “end” of the stories we tell about ourselves. Today, I choose not to take the story all the way to Germany, to the fruition of one of the fantasies that I spun for myself in the difficult years. Because that particular exile ended two years sooner. It ended when Ingraham High School became home, when in its welfare, in this city in which I’d been placed for that season, I found welfare. Yes, eventually I moved on, but I left that school happy, satisfied enough that I knew I was leaving home, a part of my heart, behind in Seattle.

I know that for some of our students, the exile is geographic, far closer to the Israelites than I’ve ever been. Though Kandern has its charms, they’re not where they’d like to be. For others, like for me, it’s more complex, dissatisfaction with situations and circumstances still (and perhaps always) beyond their control. “I told a story about a while ago,” I tell them, “But that wasn’t my last exile. The point isn’t always to leave exile. Sometimes the point, like Jeremiah reminded the Israelites, is to meet God there. Because God is everywhere. If you seek me you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart. Exile is a great place for seeking, for looking around and paying attention to what God wants you to be doing here.”

We reset the chairs and tables in the Library with our last few minutes before the bell rings for lunch. I chat with the students, most of them ones I’ve taught or know some other way, and the teachers, most of them friends, who made the trek up the stairs. I think about how this has become every bit as much home as Ingraham ever was, perhaps even more, how I’ve literally settled down, set up a house if not built one (Keeping a basil plant alive is the same as planting a garden, right?), married and started a family in this place. It once seemed like the far corner of the world, and now it’s the center of it. I leave the Library asking God to reveal my places of exile, which clearly don’t include this cozy village I call home, knowing that He’s there, too, in the shadowy corners of my heart, asking me to lean in, to listen, to keep learning.


My Doorways

“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”

-F. Scott Fitzgerald


Riomaggiore, Italy, Spring 2006

This quote, snatched far out of context from a tense scene of The Great Gatsby, makes its rounds every September. And while I agree, as much a lover of fall as any girl who likes sweaters, hot drinks and orange leaves, for me it would be more accurate to say “Life starts all over again when I cover the bulletin boards with a new color of paper.” Or “Life starts all over again when I spy notebooks on sale for $.50 at Office Max.” September is a beginning again, a year “fresh, with no mistakes in it,” as another fictional teacher, Anne Shirley, would have said. Whether I was opening a fresh box of home school books, unlocking a new locker at Ballard High School, or rewriting my name on the board at the front of my classroom, September has always meant that even though I got a C in pre-algebra last year, or fought with my sixth period students every day, this is a new year.

This September, for the first time in 25 years, I’m not going “back to school.” Oh, I’m learning. But instead of purchasing school supplies I’m registering for bottles and swaddling blankets. Instead of arranging desks, my husband and I are struggling to set up a second-hand bassinet, which came to us in great condition, but with no instructions. Instead of planning curriculum, preparing for my students’ first day of classes, I’m writing a birth plan, preparing for Luci’s arrival in November. It’s another kind of new year.

I interviewed for my first teaching job from this phone booth.

I interviewed for my first teaching job from this phone booth.

And in the midst of this new year, I’m feeling nostalgic. Not simply because I’m not there, swimming in the sea of details and dreams that a new school year entails, but because I became a teacher exactly ten years ago. To be precise, I started my student teaching internship at Ingraham High School a decade ago, nervous and uncertain yet armed with a vague determination to “see it through” and bolstered by a pragmatic and grace-filled mentor. Though days and years since have blended together into a two-toned mural–public and private, urban and rural, secular and Christian–those early moments are still vivid. I remember their faces and voices, those ninth graders, fourteen-year-olds from Somalia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Cambodia, who made me a teacher, those many years ago. Before them, I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach anymore. After them, I did. 150 ninth graders changed–or at least cemented–the course of my life.

Those first days of teaching, both as a student teacher and the following year when I set out on my own, are perhaps the best analogue for my heart and soul this summer. To look ahead into the mystery of parenting and all we don’t know of this silent, wriggling person inside of me, I’m looking back. Back to the evening I interviewed for my first real teaching job at Ingraham, from the pay phone by the harbor in Riomaggiore, Italy, where I’d gone on vacation from a study-abroad trip to England. I was sunburned, wearing a swimsuit under my linen pants, my hair still in braids from our day at the beach. When the line went blank, nine time zones away, I’d been offered a job. I started the call as an English major and ended it as a professional teacher.

I’d crept back to the rocks where my friends sat, watching the sunset, drinking wine and eating sun-warmed pesto on fresh Italian bread. As surely as the sun was disappearing behind those rocks ahead, I realized, this would end. Not just a perfect trip, but the whole season, a marvelously chaotic four years that had been rich in learning and light on responsibility. I didn’t know then that there would be other trips to Italy, nor did I suspect how much learning I’d keep doing forever. I thought I’d just grown up. Standing in the doorway of “real” adulthood, whatever that is, I knew it was a one-way journey. And I that was leaving a particularly pleasant room.

Sunset over the Mediterranean, Spring 2006

Sunset over the Mediterranean, Spring 2006

This summer I’m standing in another doorway. Ahead there is a baby girl, a lifelong journey as parents, and behind–now across an ocean–ten years of words in books, essays and the voice of my students. Every inch of me is thankful for this new room that awaits us, aware that at each step we’ll grow and change, that loving our little girl will require us to draw closer together and closer to Christ. I’m thankful, and…

It’s still a doorway. Not a closed door–God willing, I’ll return to teaching a year from now–but still a doorway, from a familiar room to a brand-new one. More than anything, this summer I’m remembering when teaching was the new room. Or further back, when it was college, or high school. There’s always a familiar place, where I can find my way around with my eyes closed, and a wild new one to explore.

And just as it did ten years ago, the way forward takes both courage–holding my breath and trusting that the same God who brought me this far will stick with me–and infinite gratitude. For the places I’m leaving behind, even if just for a while. For the places I’m going. For the students I’ve taught and don’t teach at the moment. And for our little girl, so close to me and still three months away.

Long Distance

Ingraham High School, Graduation 2010

Ingraham High School, Graduation 2010

I’m sitting out in the long-expected sunshine, a stack of Honors American Literature exams on my lap. I’m reading them, marking them, but slowly.

I keep getting distracted. A senior is heading off to Scotland in the fall, and he perches on a bench long enough to talk about summer jobs in America and the psychology program he’ll start in September. His best friend walks by in a Seattle Sounders jersey, which I stare at just long enough to realize it’s out of place here.

I get distracted by the students who emerge from their math exams–some triumphant and others shaken–to sit in circles on the pavement, signing yearbooks with many-colored pens and waiting for their dorm vans to take them back for “last things” at their school-year homes. We laugh about the year, remembering classes that are already fading into legend. They peer over my shoulder and guess at the handwriting on the backs of the exams. I guess, too, and am right most of the time. I set the grading down, and don’t pick it up again for an hour or so. The time is precious, not wasted.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world, other students are waking up to go to their senior breakfast at Alki beach, across Elliot Bay from downtown Seattle, where they’ll take pictures in front of the familiar skyline. Later today, while I’m fast asleep, some two hundred Ingraham High School seniors will walk across the stage on the football field.

They’ll wear blue and white robes, and colorful shoes. The girls will have immaculate nails, the boys new haircuts. Their enormous families will shout and whistle with each name read aloud, one last time. They’ll toss their hats into a sky that, more likely than not, threatens rain. Their families will pour down from the bleachers with candy necklaces, balloons and flowers, eager to celebrate this formidable summit that’s an accomplishment as much for the community as the lone student in the center of pictures.

Ninth grade language arts, 2010

Ninth grade language arts, 2010

I’m here and I’m there. These are the last Ingraham students that I taught, three years ago. They were the sweet ninth graders, Sudanese and Mexican, Vietnamese and Filipino, who liked Owl City and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and who threw me a goodbye party on my last day at Ingraham. They’re the ones whose notes I read three years ago, lost and tired and starting at a new school in a new country. I’m in the right place, I know, sitting by the Kander River with these giggling, math-addled teenagers, hearing their stories and signing their yearbooks. I just wish I could be there, too.

Three years, and I’m becoming familiar with distance. We have Facebook, we tell each other. We’ll be in touch. (In touch. Such a bizarre term for correspondence, the opposite of touch.) It’s easier than it used to be, when a long-distance call was diamond-rare and those strings to Papua New Guinea on the missionary board meant that those kids in the rainforest might be several feet taller, for how often I saw them in person. Now Skype is free and sometimes works really well. Well enough that we can forget that the world is wide and we’re scattered across it.  We’ll be in touch. We say it so often, we almost believe that nothing will change. We sometimes even forget to say goodbye.

I said goodbye to Ingraham, three years ago, but it isn’t gone. I’ll remember it forever. And these seniors I see every day, whose handwriting I know and whose laughter I can recognize from far away, they won’t completely leave Black Forest Academy when they graduate  on Friday. Across time and distance, we love and remember.

And in these distances–from Ingraham, from our students who’ll leave in a few days, from Timmy in Air Force training for the summer–I’m learning what to do with love and memory. I had a teacher in Austria who used to tell us that thought and prayer should be so intertwined that every time a person came to mind, we’d pray for that person. Every time. I’m not there, yet, but I’ve found that when farewells leave holes of longing, they seem closer when I take that longing back to Christ, turning the ache into prayers for courage, peace and strength for my friends and students. I’m learning to trust God with those that I love, trusting that He loves them even more than I do, and will protect and comfort them when I’m far away.

BFA Class of 2013, Opening Ceremonies

BFA Class of 2013, Opening Ceremonies

I’m learning, also, to rejoice in all circumstances. Even in goodbyes, rejoice. Mourn, of course, but also praise. Because we’ve been fortunate, this community that God creates and recreates new every year. Because this tension–wanting to be here by the river and at Ingraham graduation–reminds me that I am rich in love. It’s all a gift, unexpected and unearned, but beautiful all the same. God has been good to me, to us. To Ingraham and Black Forest Academy, and the Classes of 2013, who I’ll keep praying for long after we’ve said our last goodbyes.

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now. For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart…

Philippians 1:3-7

Miss Gruwell and Miss Potter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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