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.

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Angelina & The Lupine Lady

“That is all very well, little Alice,” said her grandfather, “but there is a third thing you must do.”

“What is that?” asked Alice.

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” said her grandfather.

“All right,” said Alice. But she did not know what that could be.

In the meantime Alice got up and washed her face and ate porridge for breakfast. She went to school and came home and did her homework.

And pretty soon she was grown up.

Barbara Cooney, from Miss Rumphius

Before bedtime, we pick out “long books,” the bigger picture books in the living room, as opposed to the little board books in the bedroom. Luci’s opinions aren’t as strong about these books, so I choose two of my favorites, Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius and Angelina Ballerina, by Katharine Holabird. These books, published in 1982 and 1983, respectively, glimmer like jewels in my often-hazy childhood memories. There were four of us then, a little church on an island, pebbly beaches strewn with driftwood, and books. Always books.

Snuggled under the blanket my grandmother crocheted for Luci two years ago, we start with Angelina Ballerina. A young mouse who longs to dance above all things, Angelina sometimes forgets to do anything else. When her dancing ways get out of hand, her father suggests ballet lessons. Angelina is thrilled, goes to the lessons, practices and reforms her chore-forgetting ways, and eventually grows up to be the renowned Mademoiselle Angelina in a mouse ballet company.

I smile at the pictures, remembering how much I loved an Angelina Christmas ornament I got one year, and how when I was just a little older than Luci I imagined that I, too, would be a “real ballerina” when I grew up. I started ballet lessons hopefully, learning positions I can no longer remember, and dreaming of the day I’d wear a pink tulle skirt in an actual recital. And then we moved away from our little island. I learned to ride a bike and explore the forest, and new passions took hold.

Next we meet Miss Rumphius, the tale of Alice Rumphius, who longs to “see faraway places, and come home to live by the sea.” As a child, her grandfather tells her that there is a third, more important task for her: she has to do something to make the world more beautiful. She grows up, travels the world–riding camels and climbing mountains–then comes home to a cottage by the sea, wondering how she’ll make her already-splendid world even more beautiful. Quite to her surprise, she finds a passion for scattering lupine seeds around the dunes and dales of her little seacoast, and grows into a wise, old lady, making the world more beautiful with her stories and flowers.

And while Angelina had my heart as a child, it is the Lupine Lady who speaks to me now. Perhaps I find some kinship with her, a woman who loves books, learning and exploration. Perhaps I’m still traveling to faraway places, and am wondering where my home by the sea will be. Mostly, though, I share her longing to “do something to make the world more beautiful,” even as she admits, “I do not know yet what that might be.”

A few weeks ago, a colleague shared an article titled “You’ll Never Be Famous–And That’s O.K.” In it, writer Emily Esfahani Smith discusses Middlemarch and the value of a quietly well-lived life, contrasting two of the protagonists and their different routes to success. One is materially successful, yet unhappy in marriage, while the other eventually marries her true love, yet never realizes her wide-reaching dreams. The second ends the novel satisfied, as the author notes, “Rather than succumb to the despair of thwarted dreams, she embraces her life as it is and contributes to those around her as she can.”

I haven’t read Middlemarch–though now I’m a bit closer to an attempt–but these stories remind me fondly of Tootsie Clark, who died at home at the age of 95 last week. The proprietress of a restaurant in my childhood hometown of Marblemount, Washington, I still remember her well, the cheery old lady who made the biggest, stickiest cinnamon rolls in the world. We’d go there for birthdays and holidays, for a special treat or a Date With Dad occasion. Tootsie would be there, baking her famous rolls and cracking jokes, sharing the same genial warmth with the passing-through tourists as the locals she’d known since they were my age. Last May, hers was the first car over Highway 20 when it opened for the spring, a tradition she carried on even in the last months of her life.

I can’t know how happy Angelina will be as a ballerina¹, but I’m pretty sure now that I won’t be her when I grow up. There are only a handful of career paths to “famous teacher,” and they almost all lead through the jungle of educational public policy, far from the roads I’m likely to tread. As for “famous wives and mothers,” well, I’m not planning to review baby monitors or turn this blog into a lifestyle brand anytime soon, though maybe Timmy and I will someday rival John and Abigail Adams in lively and learned correspondence. After a decade of teaching, almost four years of marriage and almost two of motherhood, my most valuable callings are also the most commonplace ones.

And yet this life doesn’t feel commonplace, not at all. In fact, I feel unbelievably rich, even as I’m undeniably not famous. I long to grow more like these childhood heroes of mine, fictional and real, Miss Rumphius and Tootsie, making the world more beautiful and investing in their communities. I scatter words instead of seeds, and bake chocolate chip cookies instead of cinnamon rolls. I’m still learning. And by the grace of God, using His gifts, I aspire to do something to make this broken world more beautiful.

And I don’t always know what that will be.

 

¹Probably very happy, since she’s a cartoon mouse in a children’s book, likely without the physical and emotional toll that fame takes on the rest of us.

The Canyon of Enough

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

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

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

Proverbs 30: 8b-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professionally Curious

DebateI’m walking in circles these days, dizzy spirals around the library under the rounded hangar ceiling of our school. Once in a while I’ll pause by a computer and a student, stopping to give advice or ask a question, but most often its a leisurely drift, digital eavesdropping on the eleventh-graders as they start their research projects.

My students are researching American authors in the next few weeks, looking into the backgrounds, distinctive styles and far-reaching influence of these writers. I asked them to pick someone that they either already loved or had wondered about. Like the juniors themselves, the author choices were diverse–encompassing Edgar Allan Poe and Laura Ingalls Wilder, Charles Schulz and Ralph Ellison–and we laugh at the selections hanging on the classroom wall. “These authors,” I told them, “Will become your friends. You’ll feel like you know them by the time you’re done.”

A frustrated sigh arrests my pacing.

“Um, Mrs. Gaster?” a student beckons. “I can’t really find anything about Louisa May Alcott’s influence on the world. Except, like, fan fiction. Um… did she maybe not have any influence?”

“What do you mean?” I ask, trying to avoid giving away the answer that seems so obvious to me, that Louisa May Alcott had–continues to have–an enormous influence on the world.

“Well, I can’t find anything about her,” my student sighs.

I point out a few directions she could take, exploring the film adaptations still beloved by many, or searching for recent revivals on Broadway and a web series on Youtube, then sit down to do some investigation myself.

A Google search, the simple kind that I tell my students won’t work, brings up an NPR segment and a New York Times article. Saving the segment for later, I read the article while my students tap away at their computers, getting up every few minutes to answer a new question.

“Does this site look reliable? I’m not sure if he’s really an expert.

“Um, do you know how to cite a chapter of a book that’s online? I mean, it’s a book, but it’s also online.”

“My computer… it’s just not working. Like, it starts to work. And then it just… doesn’t.”

As I told my students a few days ago, I only did one research paper entirely without the Internet, a project on Oregon in the fourth grade. The rest were Internet-aided, so I’ve walked before them through evaluating websites for reliability and citing complicated electronic resources correctly. Like them, I’m by generation a millennial, used to constant information at my fingertips, and I love it.

I didn’t always love research. Watching them, I’m remember the author that I once got to know. We never became friends, strictly, but I did have a strong feeling of compassion for Fyodor Dostoevsky, for his unhappy childhood and near-execution, author of dark romance and unfinished family drama. Predictably, I’d loved reading the books themselves, but the extra research seemed like torture then, endless hours of searching for a paltry stack of notes that hadn’t come out of my own infinite imagination. Some fifteen years or so later, I find that I’m more interested in the background of these books than I used to be, and can spend hours getting lost behind the scenes.

Perhaps this is my mind’s coming of age, in which imagination and facts finally coexist, instead of battling for my energy. Where once I’d rather spend every moment creating my own worlds, now I can’t get enough of exploring this one. I still love writing and reading fiction, but I’m finding real life just as engaging lately. This article on Little Women is fantastic, explaining why not only the first but also the second and third books in the series are worth reading in the 21st century.

Lately, “I’m not sure,” has become one of my favorite answers as a teacher. How did Emily Dickinson die? Why didn’t e.e. cummings use capital letters? Because “I’m not sure” is the beginning of a search, and the pleasure of finding out is greater than any false pride in my own expertise. I recently told a class of juniors that curiosity was one of the most important qualities they could have in school. In the end, I said, what you know is a little less important than whether or not you want to know more. There’s always more to know.

Finishing the Times article, I email it to my skeptical Alcott Scholar, as another student turns around at her desk to tell me that Steinbeck’s dog ate the first draft of Of Mice and Men.

“So he had to handwrite it all over,” she adds, stricken with sadness for this literary master. “I had to tell you that.”

There’s always more to know.

Debate 2

Gluten & Gatsby

Working on sugar cookie houses for our small group Valentine's Day party.

Working on sugar cookie houses for our small group Valentine’s Day party.

‘Tis the night before “school Valentine’s Day”–known by everyone else as Friday, or to the superstitious as Friday the 13th–and I’m baking cookies. Everyone, it seems, needs cookies tomorrow. There are some for my sixth period class, a tiny collection of eight students who managed to hold the best debate on whether Gatsby truly loved Daisy. There will also be cookies for my senior small group girls, these ones individually wrapped and stashed in mailboxes before the school day begins. And finally, there are cookies for my own household, for Timmy and for my sister, Holly and her boyfriend, Chris, who are visiting us for the weekend.

It’s been a week of baking, actually. Sunday saw the creation of seven heart-shaped pizzas and Monday several dozen cookies rectangles for the building of “sugar cookie houses” at our small group Valentine’s Day party. It’s been busy, a week that has consumed several hours and about twenty cups of flour. And I love baking, so I only mind a little.

I say a little because I’m about six weeks into my second attempt at giving up all things gluten. The first attempt was years ago, in Seattle, and I was moderately successful until I moved to Germany, land of salted soft pretzels and Bauernbrot, the crusty farm bread that comes steaming from local bakeries early each morning. I gleefully consumed wheat products for four years without much consequence, resuming my cookie and bread baking habits along the way, until December, when a variety of health problems prompted me to begin another gluten fast.

I love baking, love the experimentation and mystery of it, even love the precision required as compared to the looser standards of ordinary cooking. When I renounced wheat at the beginning of December, I knew that it would be baking bread that I missed the most. Even eating it was second to the rhythmic and meditative habit of creating it from scratch.

Heart-shaped pizza!

Heart-shaped pizza!

The first few trays of chocolate chip cookies come out the oven very nearly perfect. Golden, chewy, with their chocolate chunks molten and just barely holding their shape. I slide them onto the stove, wishing I could have one. With a sigh, I reach for the gluten-free flour and put together a small batch. They look about right, but they’re not the same, even warm and straight from the oven. They’re not perfect.

A few weeks ago, I followed a Pinterest tip regarding gluten-free Nutella braided bread, whose molten, golden whorls of chocolate looked too good to be true. It literally was too good, and my attempt ended with a sigh as I pulled the heavy, dense disaster from the oven. I wanted it to be one way, and it wasn’t.

Beginning the second semester of American Literature with a new group of students, I’m finding myself thinking again of foiled expectations and unfulfilled longing. Though Of Mice and Men is and always will be the saddest book I teach, The Great Gatsby is almost as hopeless in its tragedy. My attempts to bake perfect cookies and bread, more stubborn than stoic, mirror Jay Gatsby’s folly, not Lennie and George’s hapless disaster.

Our sugar cookie castle tower.

Our sugar cookie castle tower.

Though melodramatic to the point of silliness,  one of the greater tragedies of The Great Gatsby is its hero’s inability to form new impressions, to look wide-eyed and open-armed into an unknown future, because of a crippling obsession with the past. A man who wanted nothing less than a perfect repetition of a perfect past, Gatsby could never find a happy future. Nothing, in the end, would be as good as what he’d already experienced. And while I’ll get over the (hopefully temporary) loss of wheat products and their associated mediocre cookies, I have to be cautious about falling into nostalgic holes, not looking ahead for the delight in looking back.

I nibble on the corner of a gluten-free chocolate chip cookie, hot from the oven. It doesn’t taste the same as the others, those cookies I’ve been working on for the last twenty-five years or so. Still, it’s not bad. Honestly, how could anything made mostly of butter and chocolate taste bad? Just different. With another bite, I resolve to look ahead, to new ingredients, new homes, and whatever other newness lies ahead. After all, we’re not made for mastering just one recipe, or sailing just one horizon. There are many lives to be lived.

Chapters {76 Blue Hats}

With a dear member of my small group at the Graduation Reception

With a dear member of my small group at the Graduation Reception

Today is Commencement Day. After a hectic morning of pinning and adjusting mortarboards, searching for missing tassels, and ushering nervous graduates in to the earworm notes of “Pomp and Circumstance,” we watched as our 76 seniors, the Class of 2014, managed the many words and steps required to graduate from Black Forest Academy. They shook hands with administrators, listened to the carefully-crafted blessings and verses with which we send them out into the wide world, gave clever calls of solidarity to their dorm brothers or sisters, then had photos taken. It was all planned, rehearsed and executed to perfection, and now they’re done.

I haven’t been this attached to a class since 2009, the first class at Ingraham that I saw from their freshman year to graduation. There was another class after them, 201o, but that was the year that I, too, “graduated” from Ingraham, and so the significance of their transformation faded into the background of my more significant life changes that year. This is the first year in a while, then, that I’ve walked the long road of investment, been there “the whole time” with a class. It’s a long season, this cycle of a whole high school, and a good one.

Now, I’m standing at the post-graduation reception, surrounded by graduates in the half-dress of the accomplished. Some wear sundresses with blue mortarboards, while others billow around in unzipped blue robes, looking like Technicolor penguins or Hogwarts professors. Everywhere there are smiles, pictures, and goodbyes.

Between photos, cake and punch, I watch the celebration from the edges for a moment, my attention wandering back to fiction. I’m thinking of a series of book, called The Mitford Years. While technically not literature–the prose will win no awards, and the plot offers few surprises–it’s always been a favorite of my mother and me, the charming tale of an Episcopal priest, Father Tim, and his small parish. In the course of the series, this staid priest’s world is upended, as he marries, adopts children and tends to the ever-changing needs of his parishioners.

It’s a long series, nine books in all, offering a great perspective from which to see the transformation not just of the protagonist, but the community and its members all around him. Some characters are present in all books, beloved and familiar. Others pop in and out, visiting their priest only when circumstances require.

“It seems like I’ve known you forever,” a student remarks, handing me a letter he’s written to Timmy and me.

For once, I’m a speechless English teacher, because I know what he means. Of course I remember meeting him, a gangly, uncertain ninth grader, as if it were yesterday. But with the accumulation of experience and conversation–the bus rides and baked cookies and proofread papers–it feels like much longer than four years that we’ve spent together.

 

In short stories and shorter novels, the characters are static, introduced as soon as possible so that they can create the action of the work. In a series, though, a life-long book, characters come and go. Life is like that, as I’m reminded today, so gloriously complex that our plotlines sometimes intersect for only a short while. It doesn’t make them minor characters, flat foils to move the plot along–sometimes the briefest cameos can resonate for years.

As I look around me at the “leavings” of Commencement Day, it seems like a long time I’ve known these particular characters. This one chapter–four years of school at BFA–divides into 76 different next chapters. I won’t be able to read all of them, and I can’t tell how many will ever intersect with my own story again, but I’m thankful for these years, and excited to see what’s next.

Men of Maugenhard graduate!

Men of Maugenhard graduate!

To The {Book} Fair

Books in Greenwich

Books in Greenwich

…I’m coming to get you, I hissed,

as I entered the library like a man stepping

into a freight elevator of science and wisdom.

“The Literary Life,” Billy Collins

It’s a busy Friday night at Black Forest Academy. Upstairs, the junior varsity boys basketball team plays one of their last home games of the season. In the yearbook and graphic arts lab across the way, a few students and teachers watch the Opening Ceremonies of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, projected on the wall. (The Parade of Nations is never more amusing than when some of the loudest cheers are for Moldova, Romania, Turkey, Tajikistan and Korea. We tried hard to keep up when the star-clad Americans strolled onto the scene.)

Having resolved to watch basketball later in the evening, I’ve left the Olympic viewing party to get dinner and browse at the Book Swap. The Book Swap, one of dozens of annual traditions in our small English-speaking community, is exactly what it sounds like. Bring an already-read and now-unwanted book in the afternoon, get a coupon for a free new book in the evening. Simple. Or, as some of the students do, bring twenty books that you gathered from dusty corners of your dorm, books left behind by students lightening their loads, and come away with twenty that you haven’t been dog-earing for several years already.

The Book Swap is one of those Inventions born of Necessity for which missionaries are famous. We don’t have to invent all that much, I admit, since Germany is decidedly first-world. In our frustrated moments we blame life’s difficulties on the culture, but by the rational light of day we mostly know that car trouble and medical bills are unpleasant in every language. There are Kafkaesque tax processes and unfindable groceries, but as North Americans living in a German village in the Black Forest, we get along just fine most of the time.

What we don’t have, however, are books. English books. They’re mostly not for sale in our village, and this has never really surprised me. Imagine the smallest town you can in America. In Pacific Northwest terms, our town is the size of Fall City or Concrete, Washington. Then, if you can, imagine that town having a bookstore. Finally, picture the bookstore carrying a section of books in French. “Why would we have English books?” the baffled shop owner had asked me shortly after I moved here and began inquiring. “No one likes reading in English.” 

Of course there are still English books here, hundreds and thousands of them, stashed away in our living rooms and offices and in our own school library, which is what makes the Book Swap work in the first place. It hinges on the idea that people aren’t necessarily purchasing new books, but rather sending well-read words on to new audiences. It’s a beautiful idea from every angle–ecological, intellectual, communal, economic–but nothing can describe the delight of experiencing it in person.

This year, I go down with a coupon entitling me to seven free books, which I’d earned by cleaning out my living room and classroom bookshelves earlier today. I’m rather late, half an hour after opening, so by the time I arrive the pickings are slim. I peruse the tables of fiction–labeled Adult and Young Adult–along with the intriguing Miscellaneous and nostalgic Children’s sections. I pause for a while among the cookbooks, marveling over the rounded yellow letters and orangey photographs that place most of them firmly in the 1970s and 80s. Apparently missionaries aren’t up to transporting cookbooks transcontinentally. They collect here, like rain in a birdbath.

I’m not really here for new (old) books, honestly. I have a few novels at home that I keep for sentimental reasons, and the poetry books that I’ve brought because I can’t read poetry digitally, but most of my new reading comes either from the library or the Kindle store these days. I’m seldom willing to take the risk of physically owning a book that I might not like, even here where it’s a free exchange. I pick up a volume of Kipling short stories, and an old copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

For me, the chief enjoyment of the Book Swap is the students who flock here. Unlike their counterparts on other continents, the majority of our students love to read. Before I know it, I’m showing my meager findings to a girl weighted down with a stack of books she’s selected on advice from others, by attraction to covers or by the names authors she already knows. I find another student with a Rubbermaid bin full of books–the best books, he assures me–that he’s rescued from obscurity. An illustrated Bible and an anthology of Persian poetry stare up at me from the top of his heap. He’s delighted with his discoveries, even though he’s a senior who will leave most of these books in this valley just four months from now. Between now and then, they are his.

Unable to find any books I’m moved to own, I begin to make my way toward the exit as another former student enters, clutching a coupon in her hand.

“I can get one book,” she says solemnly, waving the coupon. “One. I better make it good.”

“Here, get a few,” I say, handing over my unused coupon. “Enjoy.”

“Really?” she hesitates, eyeing the coupon.

“Of course. I’m your teacher. I want you to have books!”

She squeals and throws her arms around my neck, and I laugh. Later, she proudly shows me three books written by and about women–an aviator, Biblical women and a friend of Anne Frank’s–eager to share the stories she’ll soon be drinking in like water. And I think, this is a brilliant night.

Richer Than Hemingway

“But then we did not think of ourselves ever as poor. We did not accept it…. We ate well and cheaply and ate well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.” A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

“Are you ready?” I ask my Period 3 Honors American Literature class as they file in, many of them from Timmy’s Romans class downstairs.

“Ready for what?” they ask, as usual.

“For class!”

“Oh, that,” is the worn-out response. “I guess.”

I’m excited, even if they aren’t, because it’s the beginning of Semester 2. I love the second semester of American Literature. Even with a research project looming in the third quarter, and a steady stream of essays to grade toward the end of the fourth, this latter half of the year includes some of my all-time favorite books–The Great GatsbyOf Mice and Men and A Raisin in the Sun among them–not to mention the best American poetry. Though I love the stirring imagery of Thoreau and the brooding symmetry of Hawthorne’s storytelling, in the end I’m glad to leave behind the blindly optimistic, “Let’s just write better than England, OK?” attitude of the American romantics.

“Well, you should be ready,” I continue as more students file in. “Today is the most depressing class ever.”

“Ever?”

“Ever. We’re talking about Naturalism today!”

And we do. For a whole period, we consider literary naturalism, a movement that puts the individual in the hands of factors beyond his or her control, factors like geography, family history, genetics and social class. Naturalists, writing in response to worldview-altering ideas of Darwin and Freud, believed that the fate of every living thing was unalterably determined, far beyond the power of weak mankind to change.

Surprising no one, I tell my students at the end of this dour lecture that there are very few American naturalists, that John Steinbeck was close, but East of Eden undid it at the last minute. Americans don’t want to believe this, do not believe it, by and large. We create ourselves, one person and life at a time, and no obstacle is so large that an American won’t try to surmount it. It’s in our blood, that Romantic desire to, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And then one fine morning–” In that unfinished thought lies all of our dreams, which which we stretch for beyond probability, the hopes that make us hate naturalism.

Still, there was darkness ahead. The stubborn optimism with our nation rejected naturalism accounts, in large part, for the disillusionment of the “Lost Generation,” the famed cadre of American writers and artists who fled the uproarious decade in the United States after the first World War to work in the more muted cities of Europe. We read these modernists, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, with the realization that they were caught between their hopes for what life could have been–what the world could have been–and what it actually turned out to be. Being American, they were unprepared for that heartbreak, making their art more poignant, their own stories more tragic.

My students are often puzzled that this is my favorite period of literature, a time so marked by sadness and loss. I think what makes me love these books is their honesty, their continuing relevance in a world that continues to fall short of our dreams. And while the nostalgic part of me can understand Owen Wilson’s desire, in Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris, to live in these richer moments of the past, really I have all that I desire from that age. A life of simplicity and community, marked by few possessions and many relationships. And, in the end, I don’t place my hope in being published or in living abroad or even in marriage. My hope, in the face of inevitable brokenness, remains firmly rooted in the love of Christ, a hope that never disappoints.

That’s why I can read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his early years in Paris, punctuated by tales of writing, adventure and love, without envy. I have the writing, the adventure, the love and more. I have the hope that these words, this moment, this love isn’t the best I’ll ever know. The best is Christ. And so I’m richer than Hemingway, richer than Fitzgerald, wealthy in the love of Christ that surrounds me every day.

Holden

The Catcher in the Rye“What I was really hanging around for, I was trying to feel some kind of a good-by. I mean I’ve left schools and places I didn’t even know I was leaving them. I hate that. I don’t care if it’s a sad good-by or a bad good-by, but when I leave a place I like to know I’m leaving it. If you don’t, you feel even worse” (4).

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in The Rye

Stranded on the runway in Frankfurt, waiting to go home, I’m just bored enough to wish I was almost anywhere but on this too-warm, not-moving airplane. Bored enough to stand on the top of the hill with a fictional Holden Caulfield, just expelled from Pencey Prep, trying to feel a goodbye.

I’m re-reading The Catcher in The Rye. This is monumental, because except for those six or seven class books that I read every year, I almost never read the same book twice. There are so many books I want to read, far too many to read all of them even once, let alone more than that. When I do return to books, they are typically ones that I loved the first time, when the experience of reading them was tangled up with an especially pleasant place or time. The Catcher In the Rye is not such a book, and as such it wins the distinction of being the only book I’ve ever both intensely disliked and read a second time.

The Catcher in The Rye, the reclusive J.D. Salinger’s only full-length novel, concerns the disillusioned wandering–mental, emotional and physical–of seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield around New York City in December. It’s a wintry book, lonely and sad and urban, narrated by Holden himself in a voice that can be abrasive, earnest, playful and sarcastic, often all at once. The plot itself is a loose quest narrative, with the anti-heroic Holden seeking  meaning, innocence and, more than anything, a listening ear.

I first read this book in the eleventh grade, and I remember little except that Holden annoyed me. We were the same age at the time, this character and me, but the similarities ended there. Holden was rich and irritated; I was middle-class and content. Holden was failing out of private school; I was a grade-obsessed, public school honors student. Holden had endless complaints, to which my compassionate, teenaged response was usually “Just deal with it.” Reading it again is a sobering flashback on a younger and narrower self.

Because I’m returning to this book, really just a character, to find someone who’s become familiar. I know Holden now. In friends, in siblings, in students and even in myself, I’ve heard echoed the questions of this lost teenager, seeking connection in a world that seems to be increasingly disconnected. This is the Holden who considers vocation with the hope that he can escape being “phony”:

“Lawyers are alright, I guess — but it doesn’t appeal to me”, I said. “I mean they’re alright if they go around saving innocent guys’ lives all the time, and like that, but you don’t do that kind of stuff if you’re a lawyer. All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot. And besides, even if you did go around saving guys’ lives and all, how would you know if you did it because you really wanted to save guys’ lives, or because you did it because what you really wanted to do was be a terrific lawyer, with everybody slapping you on the back and congratulating you in court when the… trial was over, the reporters and everybody, the way it is in the dirty movies? How would you know you weren’t being a phony? The trouble is you wouldn’t” (172).

When his sister, the only character who finally listens to him, asks what he’d rather do, he can only describe his hope to be a “catcher in the rye,” a protector of the innocent:

Holden“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy” (173).

Holden can be maddening, both in his decisions and his motivation, and the narrator that I found so irritating hasn’t changed since I was in high school. I guess it’s me that’s changed, able to hear the truth under the bravado, and appreciate that even though my longing for meaning and connection have led me to Christ, the longing is universal. Though we can avoid chain-smoking or dropping out of school, in essentials Holden is related to all of us, connected in a way that elicits more compassion now than scorn.

Last Words, Not Famous

Last Day! The squeals of accomplishment and relief fill the air as the final bell rings on the last day of school. Finals still loom, but that’s all the way after the weekend. Until then, my juniors can bask in the accomplishment of their penultimate year of school. As has become tradition, I’ve written them a letter, and pass it on now to you.

Dear Scholars,

A very merry last day of school to you! Today marks the eighth time that I’ve sat down in late spring—torn between a million tasks and the lassitude of approaching summer—to bid a class farewell. It’s a tradition I enjoy, though at every step there’s a temptation to be trite, banal, trivial, perfunctory, or any of the other synonyms for “lame” you’ve learned this year. I could use my final photocopy to give rules to live by or hard-won personal advice; but I know that you’d only remember the silliest rule from a list, and the decade head-start I have on most of you doesn’t qualify me for the kind of advice reserved for fictional wizards and dying prophets. So I’ll do what I’ve done before, telling you not what I’ve learned from 28 years of life, but what I’ve learned in the last nine months, this year with you.

Last DayEvery class had a trademark. Some were criminally truant, others social activists. Here at BFA, my previous classes have been Canadian, incredibly genial, or intellectual revolutionaries. You, Class of 2014 (with a few intrepid seniors along for the ride), are the Class of Astonishment. When I think of our journey from the wide-eyed optimism of early American literature into the experimental edges of the last century, I’ll recall your surprise at the twists and turns that literature took at every stage. You were horrified by the romantic irony of Hawthorne’s resolutions and the Gatsby’s and Lennie’s grisly ends. Emily Dickinson muddied her own rhyme schemes for fun, Whitman was more verbose madman than poet, and E.E. Cummings practiced grammatical lawlessness on the edges of readability. Whether delightful, daring or sorrowful, literature seemed to stun you more often than not.

Whether you were surprised by charming verse, biting satire or heartbreaking realism, your shock does you credit. Literature is a mirror of the human condition; fictional or not, most of it reveals truth in the end. It is this quality of astonishment—wide-eyed observation of the beautiful and broken parts of the world we share—that makes you human. To pretend that you’ve seen it all before is to close your eyes to places you can serve or, worse yet, to miss the grand scope of God’s creativity and redemption. Whether here at BFA or in your next chapter, keep being surprised. You’ll never, ever see it all.

I’m thankful for the year we’ve spent together, thankful for your humor and creativity, the wode-awake lens through which you see the world. Soon we’ll scatter across continents, to summer and other homes. I’ll miss you, dear students, but in late summer most of us will be here again; you to busy seniors years, me to reading the deeply-held beliefs of a new group of juniors. Come and find me, and let’s keep talking. Until then, I pray that your summers are restful, rich in relationship and full of discoveries. Thank you for a wonderful year.

Peace in Christ,

Ms. Dahlstrom