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Herbstmesse 2011

On the bumper cars at Herbstmesse 2011

Halloween, 2011. On a clear and frigid evening in the city, we’d walked from the newer shopping district of Klein Basel across the Rhein River, and up narrow, cobblestoned streets to ancient Groß Basel, looking medieval with its cathedrals and leering timbered houses. At the top of the hill, in comical contrast to the severe flying buttresses of the Basler Münster, a bright carnival lights whirled in the darkness. We’d gone on the Ferris wheel, surveying the Swiss city and tiled cathedral roof with glee, and now we huddled around a bumper car rink, along with the rest of the staff and students of Black Forest Academy.

Out on the floor, cars full of students and staff crashed into one another with gleeful abandon, while those of us around the sides waited eagerly to snatch up any vacated cars once the traffic chugged to a halt. I’d ridden with a few friends, but was just as happy to watch the chaos unfold from the edge. We took special interest in seeing who rode together: parents with children, older siblings with younger, teachers with students. Sprinkled among them were the boy-girl riders, always the most fascinating. Some were predictable, others less so, pairs that were only tonight catching each other’s eyes.

I turned to point out one such couple to the man standing next to me, a fellow staff member I’d met a few months before, and was faintly disappointed to find that he’d disappeared. Though we exchanged emails a few times a week, they were mostly about our students and other parts of the school, and our schedules–working separately in the school and dorms–seldom brought us to the same events. In fact, it was just tonight that I had been willing to admit to myself (by no means to anyone else) that I was glad to see his smiling face near mine in the crowd when we left for the city. As I watched the students flirt and squeal on the ride, crashing into one another and wielding inflatable bats, I’d indulged in the faint wish that he’d ask me to ride a bumper car. Silly, I thought.

I went to Germany to be a teacher.

I have been thinking a great deal this fall about my expectations and how life has often unfolded in great, extravagant excess of them. I went to high school expecting to learn, a little, and instead discovered passionate love for writing and education. I went to university hoping to earn a degree, and beyond that gained experiences with mentoring and discipleship that have fueled ministry at BFA. I accepted a job teaching at Ingraham, thinking it was a necessary step to keep me in Seattle for a while, never expecting to fall in love with the multicultural quirkiness of Seattle ninth graders. It was as if at each page turn, I expected more black-and-white words, and instead was greeted with  pop-up landscapes, rich in detail and dimension, taking the story to places I’d never dreamed.

By that second autumn in Germany, I’d discovered that God had more in store than “just” teaching English at Black Forest Academy. I was leading a small group, volunteering in two dorms and playing in an orchestra, drawing on many past experiences to serve this community. I thought I knew my calling; I was a teacher. But at every turn God was showing me more to do, more to love, broadening my view and stretching my heart to accommodate more.

We recently shared with our church family in Concrete, Washington, that our five years at BFA have been more than we expected. As we spend this year away, we find ourselves inexorably drawn into expectations for the future. For going back to Germany, for becoming a family, pursuing both old and new roles. We wonder what it will be like, what our lives will hold. We don’t know, of course, and history tells me that even the outlines I think I’ve drawn so carefully will prove woefully vague. God always has more ahead of me than I imagine. I’m learning to walk forward with open hands, eyes, mind and heart, ready for the unexpected as long as He is beside me.

Beginnings, even important ones, often get missed. I wasn’t paying attention that Halloween in Basel, so that even when Timmy reappeared, holding a ride token and sheepishly asking if I’d like to take a spin with him, I never suspected that this was a turning point. Everyone else did, they’d tell me later–giggling to watch a teacher and RA gleefully crash a candy-colored car into things–but I didn’t. I’d laughed and jumped into the car beside him, unaware that this was the first of many journeys. Unaware of the new callings–to love, family, co-adventuring–that would spring from this moment. We’re waiting to meet our daughter any day now, but four years ago tomorrow I was just a girl at the fair, excited that a boy wanted to go on a ride with me. More, at every turn.

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Mrs.

The classroom countdown, back in September.

The classroom countdown, back in September.

“Miss Da–er, Mrs. Gaster?”

It’s the merry refrain of the week, echoing from junior after eager junior, accompanied by a waving hand and a pressing question. Unlike their senior counterparts, who use my new name out of self-conscious cuteness, the juniors are trying to get something done. They have questions–now, the last week of the semester, more than ever–and need answers. And to get answers, they feel it imperative to correctly address their teacher, whose name happened to change a few weeks back.

Young or new teachers frequently have a conflicted relationship with their own last names. It makes us feel old or dull, hearing a “Miss” or a “Mr.” attached to our less-used surnames. Sometimes, it sounds unbearably false or pretentious, attaching authority that we feel too inexperienced to deserve. I remember many times feeling like I was “playing school” in my own classroom, even after finishing student teaching, the prefix before my name just an echo from childhood games.

But perhaps because at almost-21 I was possibly too young when I started teaching, I quickly got over it, embracing my last name and the respect that went with it. My advice: If you’re afraid of your last name, teach ninth grade in a public high school. Heard five hundred times a day, in tones that vary from jubilation to loathing, even the sternest title loses its austerity, blending seamlessly into the role. To me, “Miss Dahlstrom,” means “teacher,” a happy personal synonym born out of vocation and relationship. After eight years, this is as much who I am as the colloquial Kristi of summers and after-school hours.

Which is why I smile when my students teasingly complain about having to call me something new halfway through the school year. “This is a hard adjustment for you?” I laugh. “What about me?”

Still, every half-Dahlstrom, half-Gaster address is a reminder, to me and to them, of a few important things. They repeat my new name purposefully–the juniors with exaggerated solemnity and the seniors with hyperbolic glee–because they’re still celebrating with us. Far from clandestinely leaving the continent and coming back–surprise!–married, our students have been anticipating this for months with us, counting down the days and then logging in, from all over the world and at all hours, to watch our wedding live. They’re thrilled to see us back here together, and to get to be the first to call me “Mrs. Gaster.” It’s an honor to hear, to be reminded by their cheerful stumbling that they’re paying attention to our lives.

It’s this attention, really, that I hear most in my new name on my students’ lips. Since that Christmas Banquet two years ago, Timmy’s and my relationship has unfolded always within the watchful view of a few hundred teenagers. For both of us, this was always an extension of how we were already living our lives, making our decisions, interactions and relationships visible to young people who, far from the older siblings and youth leaders who occupy these roles elsewhere, are looking for models of Christ-centered young adulthood. As we’d been available single, so we remained while dating, fielding the questions and confidences opened up by this new chapter in our lives.

As we return to Kandern, we realize that our marriage continues in this vein, that we have the opportunity to be either hospitable or hermetic in our new little house. We choose hospitality, aware that at every step of the way we’ll need to rely on Christ for the love that binds us together and pours out to those around us. Living in a community eager to support and mentor us as a couple,  surrounded by those who will hold us accountable to honoring Christ with our marriage, we are fortunate indeed.

And so, in Mrs. Gaster, I hear not just the “teacher who was Miss Dahlstrom,” though I’m tempted sometimes to listen for it, that echo of a younger self. In this new name, I’m reminded with each repetition that I’m more than a teacher here, that our home belongs to God as much as my classroom ever has. Though sharing the mysteries of written words remains so delightful I’d do it for free, in our marriage, we have the opportunity to “share life” with those around us, as my father exhorted us to do on our wedding day.

Walking together on our wedding day. Photo: Emily Kelly

Walking together on our wedding day.
Photo: Emily Kelly

It’s not a new lesson–Timmy and I, along with dozens of our friends and colleagues here in Kandern, have lived deeply in this community for years now–but it’s a road we walk together now, one name and one home to share. Pray for us as we begin this journey of sharing life together, turning our gaze first toward our foundation in Christ, as we seek to serve and love each other and those around us.