Questions From Under A Table

Each spring, the juniors at BFA end the year by writing college essays, personal statements that answer one or both of two broad questions: “What has made you who you are?” and “What do you care most deeply about?” Every few years, I feel inspired to write an essay of my own to share with them, both as an example of the style (“This is how you write for strangers instead of your teacher!”) and to model the importance of continuing to reflect this way into adulthood. This was one of the two that I wrote this year.

Today seems like the day to share it.

I’ve always heard that looking at a situation from a new perspective can be enlightening, so I’m on floor, under a table in my journalism class, which I teach at an international school in Germany. Arms folded on a chair, I see only my students’ feet, scrunched up under computer desks repurposed as shelters. How normal this is, hiding under tables and listening to a school holding its breath while principals test the doors.

Some students ask me later if it was a drill, those who didn’t hear a few days ago that a practice lockdown was imminent. Sweet and naïve, they actually thought a genuine threat would go away after five minutes of silence. Most knew better, of course, students who’ve lived all over the world, weathering bombings and witnessing revolutions, who’d quickly recognize the sound of shelling or gunshots. They know that real lockdowns last a while.

Though I don’t share their experiences, I know it, too. I’ve been practicing lockdowns for ages, both as a student and a teacher, ever since a morning in April, nineteen years ago, when two boys in trench coats opened fire on the halls of Columbine High School. I was fourteen and several states away when it happened, but ever since then I’ve understood that the schools I love could become hell on earth with just a few shots.

I have always loved school, not just the learning—which years of home schooling proved could happen in a bedroom as well as anywhere—but discovery in community. I love it enough to keep showing up, now twelve years after my own graduation, day after day, to keep learning alongside that revolving crowd of laughter, questions, stress and brilliance known as high school students.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 probably did more to shape America as a nation, but it is the school shootings that have shaped me–as a student, teacher and now a parent. I’ve lost count of them now, but certain images still haunt the undersides of tables and desks. I see Sandy Hook Elementary, whose unthinkable attack virtually guarantees that my two-year-old daughter will practice lockdowns in just a few years. I see professors and teachers who literally gave their lives to protect their students, holding doors shut and pulling kids out of the way of bullets.

As I hide under the table and remember other teachers hiding under other tables, choosing between their own safety and the students they love, I know in my soul that this shouldn’t be normal. I shouldn’t have had dreams in which my schools were under attack, or spent the first four years of my career wondering which of my students could be armed, knowing that statistically, at least some of them were. School shouldn’t be like this, and no matter how sad I am, I can’t stop asking how we got here. 

I ask where the guns came from in the first place, and why there are so many of them. I ask who or what taught the shooters that this violence would provide any solution to their problems. I ask every question, because the answers are so important. I acknowledge normal, but never, ever accept it. Yes, we can pray to God to heal a broken kid, and a broken system, and a broken nation, but if God could use me to protect these students I love, possibly with my own life, God can also use me to ask questions that need asking, seeking answers that—like these young people, just feet at the moment—are too important to give up on.

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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.

Haunted By Homes

Der Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher: A stunning example of the magnificence of the German language.

“No matter how you get there or where you end up, human beings have this miraculous gift to make that place home.”

Creed Bratton, The Office

Luci and I halt abruptly in front of the kitchen/toy/hardware store window display on Hauptstrasse, because I’ve spied a familiar word.

Beside an elegant box containing three ceramic egg-cups and a strange metal tool, there is a sign, advertising “Der Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher.” Roughly translated, it means, “This thing should break the egg at a specific point.”

German words fit together as endlessly and seamlessly as Lego bricks, so there are perhaps hundreds of words like this one, most of which I lack the proficiency to interpret. This one, too, would have been out of reach, if not for one simple circumstance: This massive word was the name of my first Upward Bound team, in the summer of 2010, the summer before I moved to Kandern. Instantly I’m dragged back to that July, the start of all these adventures, when I still thought of German as a quirky novelty, to be explored and tasted, like new flavors of cheese or chocolate in this new land.

Today, German feels different; less novel than useful, less foreign than familiar. Luci and I have been running errands out on the town, weaving a circuitous route of the greatest hits of life here. We first evaluated our park options, settling on the Merry-Go-Round Park over the Slide Park, after which we kicked a soccer ball around in the gravel and traversed the stump forest, pausing only for a brief spin on the colorful rope carousel. Then, we navigated empty stroller and walking Luci down to the thrice-reopened bakery for a chocolate croissant and pretzel, which we munched happily at the only public picnic table in downtown Kandern. We went to try on shoes from the sale rack at the local shoe store, and after 10 solid minutes of German-only discussion, left with two cookies and new hiking shoes for this summer’s adventures. We returned bottles at the store, stopped by a massive, community-wide garage sale, then returned for our groceries on the way home. A busy, productive sort of Saturday.

Arrested by the familiar, bizarre word in the window, reflecting on the morning I’ve just spent with my daughter in our town, I’m struck by how very much home this village has become. There is still so much more German to learn, so many more people to know, but today Kandern–even Germany–feels like a well-loved sweater, the one whose smell and softness have almost become a part of you after so many winters spent together.

Yesterday, one of my students–a bubbly, Korean-American girl–lamented that we didn’t have an Arabic class. “If I could just take AP Arabic, if that existed,” she said, “I would be awesome at it.” Surprised at this declaration from a student I didn’t know well, I asked her where she’d learned Arabic. “Jordan… and Syria. We lived there for eight years.” I nodded, thinking about the events behind her pause, about the turmoil she’s left behind to live in Germany. Still, I suspect that if I asked her where home was, our little village might not make it into the top two.

This season has been haunted by homes. My own, the beautiful two places I’ve been fortunate enough to live and love. But mostly my students’ homes, places around the world that they’ve loved and lost, places that have made indelible impressions on them, so strong that they mark their lives not by grades, like most children, but by where they were living back then.

When I lived in Kenya. We had just moved to Moldova. When I was a kid in Bangladesh. Right before we left Pakistan.

Though our students sometimes encounter real trauma from those places, what continues to surprise me is that, more often than not, they also bring a strong sense of belonging and identity, even from places where they have never–will never–look, speak or believe much like the people who surround them. They will refer back to their North American passports once in a while, missing Chik Fil A or Tim Hortons. But they’ll also tell me that passion fruit reminds them of being kids in Tanzania.

The long and ridiculous word in the window, and all of the memories it recalls, provokes a flash of understanding. I think about today, the little interactions in this little village that would have been impossibly difficult and foreign eight years ago. I think about how there will be a loss in letting go of this mastery and the belonging that came with it, even in exchange for a place that is almost as familiar. Someday, like my student, I’m sure I’ll find myself saying, “If I could just take AP living-in-a-tiny-German-village, I would be awesome at it.”

Instead, I’ll let these courageous teenagers inspire me with their flexibility and curiosity, their marvelous capacity to, as Creed Bratton of The Office says, “make that place home.” There are more words to learn, more people to know, and there always will be, in old homes and new ones.

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.

A Chronicle of Longing

A very happy Last Day of Class from Black Forest Academy. For me, there are still two weeks of work left: two exams, two ceramics critiques, a debate, a graduation ceremony, and a few days of staff meetings and moving the Middle School. This makes our final day a little anticlimactic compared to the homework-burning, door-slamming squeals on grey June days of my youth. Still, we mark this day with a high-toned discussion of literature and life and, as usual, a letter. I’ll miss these kids a lot.

8 June 2017

My dear Juniors,

As I write this, you’re busily composing your thoughts on Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Contrary to the title of our last novel, this classroom is extremely quiet, and I know your many of your minds are already drifting incredibly far away, to the distant corners of the earth to which you’ll find yourselves scattered in a week or so. Only exams (and this one essay you’re writing) stand between you and the vast kaleidoscope of summer vacation. Congratulations on a job well done.

I began this year with both a warning and an exhortation, that this class would challenge you, but that you grow if you were willing to take some risks. And, Class of 2018, you proved to be risk-takers in the best sense of the word. Not only united by your love of Hamilton, you share a thirst for intellectual adventure. This class wasn’t an easy one, and I’m sure at some point you wondered why you’d put yourself here. Just showing up each day—with open eyes, ears, minds and hearts—is a tremendous accomplishment, and I want to thank you for the investment that each of you brought to Honors American Literature. I can’t imagine this class without even one of you in it, and we all know that I have a pretty superb imagination.

American literature as a whole is a chronicle of longing. Hester longed for love, Huck for adventure, Gastby for the unrepeatable past, George and Lennie for home, John Proctor for redemption and Oskar for his father. Many of these desires come from an admirable place, the very human search for love, relationship and belonging, and most of them remain unfulfilled in the pages of our books. This wasn’t a year of happy endings.

As you prepare to enter your last year of high school, in many ways the summit of childhood, I know that you, too, have longings. Perhaps you won’t raft down the Rhine River, come back and buy the biggest house in Kandern to impress your lost love, or meet every Herr und Frau Schwarz in Basel in search of some indefinable truth, but I know that wherever you go, you want to love, to be known, and to belong. And while I don’t have the power to write a happier ending for you than for our characters, I can remind you that we have something that they don’t have (other than physical existence beyond the pages of a book). In Christ, our longings find a home. We don’t necessarily have a guarantee for where we’ll live next, who we’ll meet there or how it will all turn out. But if we show up, knowing that our first desire is for Him, we won’t be disappointed.

So keep showing up. Keep asking questions. Keep learning with your eyes open. Keep longing. Know that no matter what the next chapters of your life look like, whether the shared one of senior year or the divergent ones that come after, you’ll be infinitely better off than a character from classic American literature, chasing your better dreams from a firmer foundation.

Thank you, dear students, for a wonderful year. I’ll miss you lots in August (and possibly before then), so please wave at me, tell me about your plans, and generally keep making me proud to know you.

Love,

Mrs. Kristi Dahlstrom

A Place Between: Thoughts From a Refugee Camp

Washing tables

The the students and the rest of the staff have already gone by the time I’m ready, with coat and lunch, to head over to our work site for Impact Day 2017. This is the fourth annual Impact Day at Black Forest Academy, for which we give up a day of classes to do service projects in our community. In the past, working with teams of students I’ve cleaned at a music school and done landscaping at the cemetery.

This Impact Day is different.

After catching up to the team, I follow them through the center of Kandern, quiet in the late Friday morning, past two of my four apartments. We turn left at the more expensive of our two Italian restaurants, and head past the new condos, past the Catholic churchyard, and down to the swimming pool, still half empty on this early spring day. Finally, we walk down a new red-dirt road, and a few yards later we’ve arrived at the Kandern Camp refugee center, where we’ll be working today.

The boys start our gardening project.

Waiting outside, we listen as first our leader and then the camp’s director tell us about the center. Set up in Kandern last June, it houses approximately 50 people, mostly families. The director shares about the challenges of sharing such close quarters, how it brings to light intercultural conflict and the many ways in which these refugees are conspicuously not German. His attitude is one of gentle hospitality, speaking of the residents as guests he is eager to welcome, and ready to educate–for their benefit–about the mores of his own country. “We teach. We don’t force,” he reminds us, recounting a story of handshakes that were refused, even though “Germany, this is the nation of handshakes.”

While he talks, I listen and look. From the outside, the space looks like a long train of neat construction trailers; on the inside, it feels like a greenhouse, with a translucent plastic tent ceiling. They have family rooms, but share kitchens, bathrooms and community space for eating, playing, studying and socializing. The kitchens and bathrooms are divided by nation of origin: Syrians and Iraqis on one side, Afghanis and “Africans” on another. I realize that I was expecting something along the lines of American fairgrounds–dusty, dark spaces made permanent in a hurry. Instead, I’m struck by how German it all feels, as if the camp had arrived, pristine and ready-made, in flat-packed IKEA boxes. This country, unlike mine, is prepared to accommodate.

Our completed planter

Introductions finished, we spend the day beautifying the center. Several students and staff are on cleaning duty inside, mopping the large wood-laminate floor and cleaning the communal refrigerators. I work with a handful of high school boys to plant flowers–bright geraniums, begonias and chrysanthemums–in some plastic window boxes and one barren cement planter out front. Afterwards we pick up trash. It’s a busy morning.

As we eat lunch, the children come home from school. There are about a dozen of them, mostly under ten, and as soon as they arrive the camp comes alive. Our afternoon “work” consists of entertaining kids. The students throw balls, sling water balloons, give shoulder rides and paint faces. It’s often hard to tell who’s happier with this arrangement, the BFA students or these tiny, whirling centers of energy that swarm around them.

Watching my students interact with children who are growing up in this place between, I’m struck by both contrast and similarities. Teenagers who’ve bounced around the world play with little children who don’t know where they’ll live next. Both are learning new cultures almost constantly, becoming the sort of flexible nomads who will always have a complicated backstory. And yet I’m struck by the difference of choice. How our missionary kids are following a calling, theirs or their parents’, while these children are effectively in exile. One group pulled somewhere new, trusting in God to provide for them when they get there, the other pushed away from somewhere they loved, unsure of where life will take them next.

Painting faces at the end of the day

The day winds down to quietness. A few students have brought instruments and play some low-key jazz at one end of the community space. A toddler falls asleep in one of the senior girls’ laps. Several other girls paint faces, sponging color over delighted cheeks. I hold a grinning seven-month-old and wonder what it must be like to be a new mother here.

As we walk back to school, I’m grateful. Not just grateful because of comparisons, which is a suspect kind of gratitude to take away from a place like this, but grateful for the day. For our students, who work hard and generally are up for anything, whether planting flowers, mopping floors, or serving as human ponies for squealing children. For Germany, and the way they’re teaching me what it means to love neighbors on a global scale. For this place and the people in it, the hospitality the director and residents, letting us share in their lives in a small way, and learn what it means to share this village, this time, and this quiet corner of a broken world.

Commencement {Of Dreams, Failure, and Asking For Help}

A student gives his commencement speech in Public Speaking class.

Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.

1 Timothy 4:12

A ninth-grader stoops down to zip up the long robe, struggling with the zipper until a classmate helps him.

“Do I have to wear the hat?” he asks me, adjusting the polyester garment that billows around him like a navy cumulus cloud.

“Only if you want to,” I reply. “It’s an optional hat today.”

“Oh, I want to,” he decides, pulling the mortarboard down over his hair. “Is this right?”

I nod approvingly, and he’s ready to begin.

After a good deal of preparation, which involved listening to dozens of examples, coming up with inspirational rhetorical devices and honing personal anecdotes for support, my Public Speaking students are giving commencement speeches this week. Though some, like the young man starting his speech now, are still three years away from completing high school, I’ve asked them all to spend a few weeks listening to and preparing speeches for graduation ceremonies.

Like the college essays that arrive at the end of American Literature each year like a piece of dramatic punctuation, the commencement speech was a curriculum choice that I initially questioned. These are the Hallmark cards of speeches, often filled with platitudes and flowery language, hardly the spontaneous, vibrant speeches on self-selected topics that I enjoy at other points in this class. In a setting where cheesiness is not only accepted but expected, I had little hope for genuine expression or feeling.

Still, the speeches have taught me more about my students, and young people in general, than I could ever have expected. Part of their instruction in preparing the speeches was to build them up on the foundation of what we affectionately called The Wisdom. This Wisdom often took the form of a memorable platitude, a catchphrase that they could emphasize and decorate with anecdotes and rhetoric. While I helped them with the decoration, the foundation was all their own.

There are of course a few students who go with the classic “Follow Your Dream” speech, but there is a great deal of variation, too. I hear several speeches on the importance of failure: accepting it, learning from it, moving on from it. One student talks about humility being the key to success, reminding us that our victories are not just our own, but gifts granted because we live in community. Another focuses her speech on asking for help, and warns that this is only valuable if we’re careful to see assistance from those wiser than ourselves. One of the last speakers encourages his classmates to avoid comparing themselves to each other, and rather to remain confident in the love and approval of the God who made them uniquely.

The speeches are mostly of high quality, sincere and well-delivered, which doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is their depth, how these 14- to 18-year-olds have given speeches that are identical in content–though the examples differ to those delivered by people with a great deal more life experience. I realize that these ideals, grand and beautiful exhortations, truly belong to young people. That we’re still repeating them now, as adults, is credit both to the ideas themselves and the kids who discovered them as teenagers.

After spending the last decade in the classroom, I’ve come to take for granted that students have wisdom to offer. I forget that many feel differently, looking at hordes of tall, scowling teenagers with unease or scorn. I wish that I could invite the general teen-fearing public to these commencement speeches, to see the endearingly nervous and entirely sincere presentations of young people happy to use their podium to give their hard-learned advice, which finally has a forum, to a receptive group of peers–and one adult–eager to listen. Young and less-young, we’re not terribly different as we to fail, to dream, and to ask for help from different stages of the journey.

Hearing The Bells

Christmas TreeI heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
     And wild and sweet
     The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
     Had rolled along
     The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
     A voice, a chime,
     A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

“Hey, this is a song!”

I hear it half a dozen times as the eleventh-graders walk into class and pick up today’s reading, Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells.”

“‘I heard the bells on Christmas Day,'” the first student reads aloud, then exclaims with recognition. “Wait, I know this from somewhere…”

“Yes, it’s a song,” I reply. “You know the Casting Crowns version from a couple years ago. But before that, it was a different song, and before that it was a poem by Longfellow. So we’re reading it today.”

We’re using it, actually, to practice poetry analysis. We needed to do this today, because it’s been a month or so of reading only prose, and their semester final is looming. I’d selected “Christmas Bells” because it’s the week before Christmas break and the poet is American. (If I were teaching a different class, you can be sure we’d be reading Christina Rosetti’s “In The Bleak Midwinter.” But she’s British, so I made a different choice.) Sometimes I’m just a public school teacher thrilled by the little things, like reading a Christmas poem in English class. I’d written the title on the lesson plan, made 31 copies of the poem, and given it little further thought until this morning, confident that any poem of Longfellow’s must count as “literature” and bear some deeper examination.

Today, I share the results of an hour’s research, telling them the story behind the poem. I ask them to look at the poem’s date, 1863, and tell me if it means anything to them. “Um… Civil War?” they murmur with varying degrees of confidence. Then I tell them about Longfellow, widowed father of six, whose oldest son enlisted in the Union Army without telling him. After a series of close shaves, Charles Longfellow was shot in battle in Virginia in late November of 1863. So in December his father and brother set out to Washington, D.C., where young Charles hovered in critical condition, unsure if he’d survive or, if he did, if he’d walk again.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
     And with the sound
     The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
     And made forlorn
     The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

“So picture him,” I tell my students. “Longfellow sitting in the hospital, hearing these bells on Christmas and waiting to find out if his son would live. That’s the context. And for this poem, it’s important.”

With the setting established, my students get to work reading and rereading the poem, comparing it to their lists of terms and trying to decipher what deeper meaning they can find from the poetic structure of stanza, rhyme and refrain. I wander the room as they work, giving a hint here and there.

When we come back together after ten minutes, my students have answers for me.

“It has a… a refrain? The last line is the same in every stanza. ‘Of peace on earth, good-will to men.’ That’s a refrain, right?”

“Yes,” I answer, nodding. “Yes to the meaning, and yes to the refrain. The meaning comes from the refrain, right? Without the refrain, it’s just someone saying, ‘Yay, it’s Christmas! But I’m sad. But yay!’ The refrain also has another poetic device with it. Starts with an A…”

“Alliteration? Apostrophe? Assonance?” my students read from their lists.

“You know it’s not those ones. Come on, it’s…”

“An allusion?” someone ventures.

“It’s an allusive refrain!” I reply. “Exactly, and you know what it’s alluding to. The angel said this, right?”

For a moment we’re closer to Sunday School than upper-level literature class, but it’s a moment when my Christian-school kids have the upper hand at something, so we savor it. As a group they tell me about a choir of angels and some bedraggled shepherds who receive the best news of their lives. We zoom out and talk about Israel’s state in that moment, occupied by Rome and ruled by a megalomaniacal, insecure king. Israel needed peace, good-will, and here was an angel promising just that, gifts from the Messiah they’d been waiting for.

“And that’s what Longfellow saw, too,” I continue. “America torn apart by the Civil War, families literally killing each other with no end in sight. A world that still needs peace, good-will, a savior. Longfellow saw it, and we see it.”

Do we ever. The ones who pay attention to the news are more specifically worried, but none of them can shut their eyes to the refugees filling Europe, nor the wars ravaging places that my own students have lived or visited. The refrain is important to us as much as it was to the shepherds or to an aging poet and his injured son.

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said:
     “For hate is strong,
     And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” 

We return to the theme, the meaning they decided on and I wrote on the board in red ink. “Hope in the midst of difficult times.” At the beginning of the school year we spent some time talking about the definition of “literature,” the criteria by which we set it apart from other written words. One of them was that literature had to be concerned with “ideas of permanent and universal interest.” In the midst of global crises and turmoil, talking with young adults about the hope they cling to as they come of age in a chaotic world, this concept has never been more relevant.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
     The Wrong shall fail,
     The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

As we wrap up the last stanza, I’m thinking of a Bible class I visited a few weeks ago, a tenth-grade class just starting their study of Revelation. It’s a weird book, the teacher told them, full of maybe-symbols and numbers and disaster, but the important point is that in the end, Jesus wins. That’s the takeaway, he said. Just remember.

Like marginalized shepherds, low on the socioeconomic ladder, burdened by layers of oppression as they waited for a savior. Like Longfellow, at a hospital in the war-torn U.S. capitol, waiting for his son to wake. Like all of us, worried or wandering, heartbroken or homeless, in these dark days. We remember, we grasp with outstretched fingers for the promise of our Savior, who has already conquered the darkness.

The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.

Weary

"We are never tired, as long as we can see far enough."

“We are never tired, as long as we can see far enough.”

The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.

Galations 6:9

My students silently and gingerly tiptoe across the muddy triangle of grass wedged between our school, the highway and the river seeking, as I’ve directed them, a space for “silence, thoughtfulness and solitude.” We’ve just finished our unit on American Romanticism, spending the last few days on Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, so as has become tradition I’ve taken my students out to “experience nature” for part of our class, and then spend the rest of class reflecting on it.

It serves the purpose of reinforcing course material, I tell myself, but as I watch my students drifting around the lawn I’m keenly aware that I’m that teacher right now, the Dead Poets’ Society-influenced one who drags her students out of the classroom, through mud and drizzle, in pursuit of quirky interest. I’m unrepentant, however, because today we’re not seeking enlightenment or novelty; we’re simply seeking rest.

Looking down at the slip of paper in my hand, which I cut out yesterday and drew for myself at random this morning, I read:

We are never tired, as long as we can see far enough.

A week ago it was glorious fall, the limbs dressed in full splendor, but today is just November, drab and damp and a little depressing. And I usually like November. I obediently look up at the sky, crisscrossed by black branches, at the farthest trees on the hill, which really aren’t so far away at all. I can’t see very far, I tell myself. That’s why I’m so tired.

I suppose that Emerson was likely talking about real horizons, but that’s not exactly where I’m headed. I’ve woken up most of this week feeling trapped in the confusion and urgency of the moment. There are the immediate needs of my sick daughter and our broken car, both of which require attention and planning. Both Monday night and Wednesday morning brought news that caused me to ask, “Really, God? I just don’t get it.” I can’t see far enough–into the eternity where it all makes sense, where the twists and turns of daily life smooth out into His glorious narrative, the working-together-for-good of it all–and I’m tired.

So what does it take, I wonder, to find the horizon? I’m reminded of Paul’s words, written to the Galations and echoed by Hillary Clinton in her concession speech Tuesday night:

Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.

Love the things that are eternal, and work for those. I know that it doesn’t spare me from the details, that loving eternity means paying even closer attention to the needs of those around me. Today it will mean writing cards for students that I care about, remembering that investing in this way is at least as important as grading the unseen essays that loom over me like a thundercloud. It will mean going home and cherishing my family, the gift that they are to me and to many. It will mean remembering that we’re all made in God’s image, every human, and that God’s love for us is immeasurable and eternal. And that if I can wake up each day looking first to Him, that’s all the horizon I need to keep heart in doing good.