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.

The Author Wept

This week, Black Forest Academy mourns the loss of  a baby girl born prematurely just a month ago to one of our new staff couples. We grieve as a community, lifting her parents and younger brother up in prayer, full of sadness and gratitude that she is at last whole.

While we waited for her ride to come pick her up, I sat on a bench next to one of my students. I don’t know her well, but as she talked I felt like I did; this girl, like myself and a handful of students I’ve taught each year, is a writer. She walked me through her process, touching blithely on a few different tales she’s spun over the years. She described scenes that she enjoyed writing, characters that surprised her as they wrenched themselves out of her control on the page, and her first 40-page story, written shortly after she learned to type.

After a while, we started talking about characters, about the deep investment of an author in the people she creates. She told me about a time that she startled herself while writing a particularly chilling scene, and the many times that she’s written herself to tears over the fates of her characters.

“It’s not what I wanted to happen to him,” she admitted, telling of a particularly sad ending.

NOTE: If the final Harry Potter book is still on your to-read list, it would behoove you to skip a paragraph, lest you learn more plot details than will please you.

I told her about J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, who confessed that she wept while writing one of the final chapters of the final book, when her hero realizes that he will need to sacrifice his own life to defeat the villain, and goes willingly to his death.

“She said that she just cried her eyes out writing it,” I said, confessing, “Which is pretty what happened to me reading it.”

“But” –and I know what she’ll say next– “She knew the ending! She wrote it!”

I nodded, and for a moment we pondered the paradox of an author’s weeping for a fictional character, who indeed turns out all right in the end.

“Sometimes I wonder if that’s how God feels,” I mused. “If even though He knows how it all works out, He cries when things happen. Because He made us, because He loves us.”

I return to that thought this week, as our little community mourns the loss of our newest member, a baby girl born just a month ago to a young couple on our staff. We’re caught in the tension of this heartbreak in time and joy in eternity, where she’s healed of the heart defect that took her life. We weep, even knowing that she’s well now, missing her here.

Jesus did this too. At Lazarus’ tomb, just moments before raising him from the dead, we read of his sorrow:

“When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept.

I’m drawn back to the thought of the author, tears dripping onto the unfinished work for which she already has planned a happy finale. And then to Jesus, weeping to see the sadness of his friends, even as he saw joy ahead.

And so we weep, as Jesus did, mourning the broken present, trusting in eternity’s joy, and grateful that the Author loves us, made us, and sees the finale when we cannot.

Please pray with us for this sweet family in their sorrow. Thank you.

 

The Fear Jacket

 

"There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear..."

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear…”

I’m troubled from the start, Friday morning.

Living nine hours ahead of my friends on the West Coast, the ongoing ugliness of election season in America unfolds mostly in the morning for me. I wake up and see it spattered across social media, the messy barbs of rhetoric flying between two people I don’t know, far away, but nearer to home between friends, family and students, each exchange more impassioned than the last.

We don’t understand each other, I realize, waking each morning to see in stark relief all of the perspectives that aren’t my own, battling it out in text on a screen. I’m not there to attend protests, haven’t watched any debates live, but I feel it all the same, the creeping sense not of unity, but of two-ness that our country has become lately.

I’m reminded of Thomas Hobbes who, writing during a particularly dark period of British history, described a world plagued by “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” It’s continual fear that I pause on this morning, thinking about the fears peddled by both sides, and my own real fear for our nation.

Then I come to class. My sweet English class, where we’ve been reading the mournful, ponderous tomes of Romantic American literature. We’ve finished with The Scarlet Letter, leaving behind Hawthorne’s “darkening close of this tale of human frailty and sorrow,” and have spent the week mostly in the company of Edgar Allan Poe, examining tormented cats and an inexplicably verbal raven. All week, we’ve dwelt on tales of darkness springing from men deeply cynical of the human heart. Left to our own devices, Poe and Hawthorne seem to tell us, we’re all selfish at our best, and consumed with paranoid madness at our worst. The spectrum of human existence seems bleak indeed.

My students are writing their own “Tales of Woe” today as we wrap up this part of the Romanticism unit. “Take an ordinary, mundane circumstance,” I tell them, “And add in something extraordinary. A man is taking a nap and a talking raven comes in. A teacher is grading English finals and an elephant walks by. Ordinary and extraordinary. That’s it.”

The students nod, dutifully writing down this combination of elements in their notebooks.

“Now,” I continue, holding up a mug full of printed, cut-out words, “Take a pinch of woe.” I demonstrate, pinching out weary, solitary and desolate. “These words are your tone, your inspiration. It’s not a complex story, this one. It’s all about the tone. The tone of woe.”

The laugh, they write, they pinch out melancholy words and sprinkle them with abandon through stories of prophetic breakfast cereal and murderous oranges. Towards the end of class we share excerpts, enjoying our creativity and the unfamiliar feeling of painting with only dark hues for a while.

It strikes me that they’ve put it on–fear–just for part of a class, just for the adventure of it. Now, like a jacket, they take it off, going about their ordinary, un-woeful Friday and leaving the fear behind.

I wish I could do that in real life, I find myself thinking. Then I remember that I can.

“God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.” (1 John 4:16-18)

Like my students, leaving behind their fear because it’s no longer necessary, I can trade mine in, a jacket of fear for one of love. It’s God’s love, the perfect love, that casts out the fear, reminding me that I am–all of us are–deeply loved, intentionally cared for by our Creator, who doesn’t let us muddle on alone but remains invested in us, individually and as a community. I remember that God loves my nation, not more than the others but because it’s a nation full of his beloved people. I remember that I don’t have to be afraid.

And while it’s God’s love that gives me confidence, there’s action required of me, too. John continues with words that convict:

“We love, because He first loved us. If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.” (1 John 4:19-21)

It’s a time of division. It’s tempting to believe that I know best and easy to imagine that some people know nothing. And yet, God says, love. Because nothing can separate us from His love, and nothing is more important than, day by day, loving Him and loving our neighbors. Those callings are the same today, tomorrow, and November 9th. Love, because you’re loved.

I can’t pretend this is easy to do, to love my neighbor as God does. Fear is easier. Suspicion is easier. Frustration is easier, the tendency to shrug my shoulders, shake my head and go, “I just don’t get it!” to the shouting silence of words on a screen or the real, inscrutable opinions of people I see every day. So it’s a choice, now more than ever, but really every day. To listen and to love, sometimes without agreeing or even understanding.

I’m choosing the better jacket. Because it’s better to love than to live in dread of what could happen, in three weeks or at any point in my unpredictable life. God is good, and will be good. And that’s enough.

So I leave the fear behind, like a teenager closing a notebook, laughing off a lesson, and going to lunch, where the real business of loving and living is going on.

The Patience of Questions

Photo: New Yorker

Photo: New Yorker

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

An orange entrepreneur is telling a story to a red-suited politician.

“…Somebody would call up Sean Hannity, this was before the war started. He and I used to have arguments about the war. I said it’s a terrible and a stupid thing. It’s going to destabilize the Middle East. And that exactly what this’s done.”

I press pause. The students of my public speaking class have found the elusive equilibrium between fascination and boredom in the last period before they depart for their senior trip to Rome. They’ve given their speeches, turned in their homework. Now we’re watching the U.S. presidential debate they’ve heard a lot about, but haven’t experienced themselves.

“What… what is he even saying?” one girl asks, baffled. “The moderator asked why he had better judgement than Hillary. So… what?”

“I just heard ‘Sean Hannity’ about seven times,” I admit. “Other than that, I have no idea.”

The nuances of this debate are lost on my students, for the most part. They don’t know the jargon, the background, the political gossip that decorates both news and entertainment these days. They don’t all hold American passports, though even that isn’t a guarantee of political engagement. Still, they suspect it’s important, so they watch and comment.

The last few months in American politics have prompted several articles from prominent writers and news anchors, who  feel for the first time ambivalent about their roles of “unbiased journalists” in the face of what they see as huge threats to our nation. They want to pick a side, to tell one story, and often they do.

Sitting at the front of the classroom, with a room full of students with only half-formed opinions, I suddenly understand the feeling. I don’t have the ear of the nation—I’m no New York Times columnist or CNN reporter, trying to justify my bias—but I do have a bit of influence. Over just this small world, just a few minds. What will we do with it, ask teachers everywhere, cracking our knuckles like super-villians.

As we watch this debate, I have to bite my tongue often to keep from telling them not just what I think, but what to think. It’s not a new feeling, the temptation to just tell people what to do, and pray that they listen. Today, with these eager high school seniors, I realize that the most important shortcuts I’d take as their teacher and mentor aren’t even political ones. There are mistakes that I’d like to warn them off of, life paths down which I’d point them decisively. They have questions–about God, about life, about love–that I could start to answer. I could just tell them, and if they’d just listen life would be so much easier.

"Incredulity of Saint Thomas," Caravaggio

“Incredulity of Saint Thomas,” Caravaggio

Last weekend I had the opportunity to sit on a panel of other community members at the local church, for a forum for youth called “Conversations.” The topic of the day was curiosity, both the attention and the boldness it takes to ask questions. They looked at Carravagio’s painting of Thomas, examining the way Jesus not only allows but welcomes Thomas’s questioning, pulling his hand to the wound to show him. We discussed the role of questions in forming our own faiths at various seasons in our lives, assuring students that we’d asked questions of our own, and continue to do so now.

“Having the answers” (or even just thinking I do) is deceptive kind of power, really not much power at all. The notes that my students write down and memorize produce only impermanent results, not lasting life influence. They repeat that “Jesus” is the answer, but can’t show their work. The research they do on their own, painstaking and circuitous, full of questions and dead ends, is where the real learning happens. The questions take so much longer, but the earned answers are the ones that last. I can only walk with Christ when he is a person I know, not a word to fill in the blanks, a prescribed selection on a ballot of life choices. And knowing takes time.

When my class’s debate commentary dwindles, I unfreeze Mr. Trump and let him finish complaining about Secretary Clinton’s temperament. We giggle at her now-famous shoulder shimmy of a response, and watch a few more exchanges before moderator Lester Holt redirects them with a calm, “It’s time to move on.”

“It’s time for us to move on, too,” I say, closing my laptop. “But quickly–politics aside–what would you say to Donald Trump if you were his public speaking teacher?”

“Make an outline!” my students cry. “Seriously. An outline, and stick to it. He would be so much clearer, and then we could understand him.”

For the thousandth time I’m reminded that I’m not in the business of teaching young people what to think, nor can I make them believe. I can teach them how to think, I can teach them how to ask questions. I can tell them who I believe in and why. And I can walk with them, with patience and God’s grace, on the road to learning and faith that takes longer, yes, but is a journey all their own.

Teaching & Remembering

Friday, September 9.

I scrolled through my cache of YouTube speeches, looking for one to share with my students. Each Friday in Public Speaking class, we watch a speech together, then spend time afterwards critiquing and learning from the style and–to some extent–discussing the message. This was only the second Friday, though, so I had little precedent and no real algorithm for deciding which speech to watch. There were historical addresses by presidents and reformers, the commencement advice of celebrities great and small, and half a dozen TED talks on as many topics.

Remembering the date, and the power of Presidential addresses in times of tragedy, I took my search in a new direction. I started typing “George W Bush” into the search bar when Google filled in the rest: “George W Bush Sept 20 2001 Speech.”

I didn’t remember the speech right away, the President’s address to Congress just over a week after the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. I didn’t remember it, but I know I watched it, because that’s what we did that week. We watched. As I read the transcript, dug up from a dusty corner of the Internet, I began to remember.

This was the speech that began the War on Terror, the speech in which our last President reminded a grieving nation that the acts of religious extremists don’t represent the faith as a whole. The speech in which he assured us that we were united, that we shouldn’t be afraid. I remembered that we were united, but we were afraid anyway. Every time a plane flew overhead, those first weeks, we looked up, even in Seattle.

I poked around the Internet, looking for the whole speech, but could find only the most intimidating parts excerpted to personal YouTube channels. I considered showing those parts to my multinational speech class, asking them to parse out the rhetoric and tone of those strong words for anxious days. But my students, though astute citizens of the world, are also sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. I do the math quickly, realizing that I was their age and they were toddlers in 2001, too young to understand that their world had changed in an instant. They’ll need memories to understand this speech. In strength they’ll hear vengeance, not reassurance.

“They keep getting younger,” a fellow teacher said to me last week, as we’d laughed over how very young even our seniors seem this year. “Not me,” she continued. “Them.”

Like my colleague I’m not getting older, of course, but events get pushed back and back, until they disappear from view, like the view of the dark-green shoreline from the ferry deck. My first students, only a few years younger than I, begged for time every year to remember, just a few minutes to retell where they were when the Twin Towers fell. Some suggested moments of silence, too, and I always obliged. Remembering is important.

Now I’m realizing that memories like these divide generations as surely as technology or presidents or any other marker that sociologists devise. Do you remember that day? Or have you just learned about it? In just a few years my high schoolers will have lived all their lives in a “post” world, and that maybe someday their commemoration will be to simply ask me “You remember? What was it like, then?”

We watched a different speech, just as relevant, called The Danger of the Single Story. In it, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie implores the West to treat her country and continent with nuance, to learn the rich tapestry of stories that make up her world, instead of the single narrative of poverty and disaster. While my young students took notes on her anecdotes, vocal cadence and nonverbal cues, I thought about the art of remembering well, as a community, the importance of our many stories.

On Sunday, the fifteenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, I sit in the dark, holding my daughter while she naps and reading what New Yorker writers wrote in the days and weeks following the catastrophe. Closer accounts, from writers older than I was at the time, they still hit home. I cry more freely now than I did when I was seventeen, with more to lose, more to love.

And I wonder if next year–or even next week–I’ll go back for that speech, or another like it. I close my eyes and see the President, wearing a hard hat and holding a bullhorn, embracing first responders. They don’t remember that; perhaps I should show them. I wonder if the season has arrived when I’m teaching about tragedy instead of remembering with, and if that’s just as important, after all.

More Than Passports

This year's seniors display their flags before Opening Ceremonies. Photo: BFA Communications

This year’s seniors display their flags before Opening Ceremonies.
Photo: BFA Communications

  1. What is an American?
  2. What did you learn about America from the book you read this summer?
  3. By your own definition, how American are you?

Write for five minutes without stopping. Be prepared to share!

Honors American Literature, 5 September 2016

Familiar scratch of pen and paper, familiar slant of morning light through familiar second-floor windows. Unfamiliar students, answering an old question at the beginning of a new year. What is an American?

We’ve spent a few days pondering this, reading New Yorker articles written by outsiders looking in and trying, as best as we can, to capture the “essence of America” as we begin our course in American Literature. Last week, my students claimed that institutions like bottomless chips at Chili’s, monolingualism or the game of baseball were emblematic of America, revealing features of nation’s face. Today, we’re discussing the face itself. When we get to the bottom of it, what is an American? And am I one?

It’s not an irrelevant question for us, either in English class or here at Black Forest Academy. In class, we’re beginning a year of exploring the relationship between a culture an its art, so uncovering the culture at its foundation, the basic scaffolding that makes this one nation different from the others, is key. We’ll get to the American Dream later, yes, but for now we’re back at the beginning and even before it. Before there was an America–before declarations and constitutions and wars–who were Americans? And how did they know?

At BFA, the question is more personal, and more interesting. I ask the class how many hold U.S. passports and the majority raise their hands. “How many of you, then, have spent more of your life outside the country than in it?” Again, mostly raised hands.

I tell them about my students back in Seattle, who were always from somewhere, but also American. Somali-American, Mexican-American, Vietnamese-American, African-American. Even the ones born elsewhere were American, having adopted this country as part of their hyphenated identities, calling it home and vowing to stay. And I tell them about themselves, or past versions of them, students born in the United States, with American passports, who feel like strangers in Topeka or Chicago or Portland, and at home in Baku or Nairobi. Identity is more than a passport, I remind them, and they nod knowingly.

Toward the end of the class, they line up as a spectrum from most to least American, by their own definitions. By the window are students whose only exposure to the United States has come from their classmates here, who have no other relationship to America and who doubtless wonder why I’m making such a big deal about this question. By the door stand a few students who’ve just moved here, who are also mystified by the many identities that their classmates hold in tension. In the middle, though, are the tricky stories.

The brief visits to America punctuated by most of their lives elsewhere. The feeling of not fitting in to the culture that issued their passports, but still realizing–often with self-awareness beyond their years–that they’ve been shaped by their starting point, and that American culture will always be their native language, their default mode. Yes, we’re American, my students tell me. We just don’t quite know what that means, all the time.

From Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus to Luke Skywalker, all through literature we learn that a hero’s ambivalence about his place of origin is the beginning of a good story. As I listen to my students, global wanderers still trying to pin down “home,” I realize that a new story has begun, and that I’m thrilled to meet the heroes that will fill this year.

Bigger Places

Our valedictorian speaks to BFA's Class of 2015.

Our valedictorian speaks to BFA’s Class of 2015.

“There are bigger places out there than Kandern…. And thank the Lord for that.”

BFA 2015 Valedictorian

Talisman headshot, circa 2002. Photo: Courtney Irby

Talisman headshot, circa 2002. Photo: Courtney Irby

The morning of graduation day at Black Forest Academy, I received a message from a  former BFA student. “Did you go to Ballard high?” he had written beneath a picture of my alma mater. After confirming that yes, this was my high school, I had a few seconds of nostalgia. Like, 9 seconds. I thought of a day when the staff of the Ballard Talisman newspaper posed next to that sign in Brady Bunch-style photos. (See photo left. You are welcome.) It was a bright spring day my senior year, so bright that I had to wear sunglasses because my prescribed angle put me smiling directly into the sun. With middle-parted hair, sunglasses and silver hoop earrings, I gave a demure smile to the top left, even as my bright future lay in stunning non-mystery just three miles southeast of that point.

Then I moved on, leaving that day behind for the many that came after. I was more mesmerized, honestly, by the delightful twists of fate and design that have led one of my students from this high school in Germany–a student who is now studying what I studied at the university where I attended–to be having dinner across the street from Ballard High School. The world is big and small, I thought.

Hours later I sit near the back of BFA’s auditorium, already hot on a day that promises to break 30˚ C, and squinting again. This time I’m trying to make out the face of a young woman in my small group, this year’s valedictorian, as she confesses guilelessly that speechmaking stresses her out and that her billowing robe makes her “feel like Voldemort.”

I often cry at graduation, and this year is no different. I’m proud of these students, whose names and talents and handwriting I’ve come to know, and eager to see what they’ll make of life beyond the narrow borders of our little town. Four years ago, when I played viola in the Seussical pit orchestra, I watched many of these students as ninth graders, animated onstage and a little clumsy off of it. They are and aren’t those same people this morning. It’s hard to see them go, but we, their teachers, knew this would happen. We hoped it would happen, even. Maybe not as soon as it’s seemed, but this triumphant crowd of robed graduates was the goal.

Now they’re ready, primed for adventure beyond the blue doors of Black Forest Academy. As I scan their faces, so tiny against the wave of blue, I try to imagine them in six months. Making friends, signing up for lab time, going to get slurpees at 7-Eleven at midnight. Or in ten years, finding jobs, homes, and families or continuing in their wandering. Just as I was unable to see a decade ahead when I was seventeen, that day I peered into the sun outside of Ballard High School, I can’t quite imagine their futures. Surely they’ll be as different as mine was from what I expected, and I pray that they’ll be just as beautiful.

“There are bigger places out there than Kandern,” our valedictorian is saying. “Bigger than Holzen, Wittlingen or Marzell, bigger than Schleingen. Even bigger than Basel. And thank the Lord for that.” The reminder is as much for the rest of us as the graduates themselves, I realize. They know that the world is enormous. Though I traveled just three miles from Ballard High to Seattle Pacific, all of them have already come much farther, just to be here in the first place. They’ve always existed far beyond our borders, and my daydreaming takes me to their other homes, to India and Dubai and Russia, places that are already part of their wide worlds. Now they’re traveling again, either back to where they’ve come from or onward, for brand-new shores.

Our valedictorian finishes by encouraging her classmates to serve and love Christ wherever they find themselves, in whatever they do, and that’s my prayer also. Whether in college or working at Canadian Tire, at Capernwray Hall or on a ship sailing around the world, I pray that our students would seek Christ in new ways, and discover more deeply what it means to love him, wherever he takes them.

I’ll drive by Ballard High in a month or so, and doubtless then it will bring more memories with it than this morning’s photograph unearthed. But so will SPU and Bethany Community Church. So will Oak Tree Starbucks and Ingraham High School. And so does BFA, every day, pleasantly haunting this small town with all the people who have called it home, if only for a little while. High school was grand, a place of growth, community and discovery. But as our valedictorian reminded us, I thank God often that it was only one of many such places for me, and that growth, community and discovery never end as we follow Christ throughout our lives.

The Adventurous Class of 2016

Another Period Six, tiny and genial, on our last day of classes for the year!

Another Period Six, tiny and genial, on our last day of classes for the year!

Five students are finishing their final on this cool Monday morning, and I’ve already taken down all the posters and curtains, collected the books and graded my final coursework for the quarter. Nothing left for this teacher to do but post this year’s end-of-year letter, finishing nine hilarious months with a truly unique group of students. I will miss them, very much.

3 June 2015

“We shall not cease from exploration.” 

T.S. Eliot

My dear students,

On this fine June day, I am delighted to wish you a very happy Last Day of School. There is still plenty to do, of course; you won’t be having a homework bonfire at the beach tonight, like I did in high school. But it’s the last day for us, this group of people with whom you’ve shared a few good stories, deep conversations, and the tribulations of essay-writing throughout the year. I can think of no more fitting way to end our time together than this, sitting out in the sun and talking about books.

This is my ninth Last Day as a teacher, and something like the thousandth overall. And while the days and lessons blend together now, each class stands out for something. Some groups were wild and intractable, years that I held my breath and kept teaching my 150 students until they poured out of the building one day. Other classes were warm and genial, deeply loving each other, if not the homework I assigned. Your class, both wild and genial, is a class of adventurers.

Your journeys have taken you far, both geographically and intellectually. Since this is BFA, of course I see the adventures outside of the class as well, as you build playgrounds in Greece, take sudden trips to Malta and spend a few days “in the French woods.” Yet in the classroom I see your exploratory nature just as clearly. You are the students who diligently read nearly every page of the books I assigned, even The Scarlet Letter, afraid you’d miss something if you didn’t. Your thesis statements are bold and dramatic, reaching for risky and new ideas instead of settling for the easy ones on the surface. You write better discussion questions than I do, often, and have sorted through the controversies of the year—Is Gatsby a good person? Should George have killed Lennie? What on earth happened with Oskar’s grandparents?—with cordial grace and honor. You’re not always right, but you’re willing to stretch, risking a wrong answer in order to learn. I love this about each of you.

At seventeen, my expectations for the future were modestly interesting, but the reality of the last thirteen years of my life has been far richer and deeper than any of my expectations. There were tamer paths to take, ones that might have kept me in Seattle, with a good job as a public school teacher and friends I’ve known for ages. But I said yes to a journey, reading every page of this new chapter. This spirit of exploration can take you far, in learning and in life, but it comes with a warning. With the love and strength of Christ as your foundation, I’m confident that your adventures will take you beyond where you can imagine now. Just know that not all risks are worth taking, and not all adventures are worth having. To be a proper explorer means using your heart and your mind, and listening to Christ with both. From there, you can expect challenge, like this year of Honors English, but also growth and joy and love.

This is the end of a chapter of BFA for me, but not for you. Soon enough you’ll be back here, learning again, reaching for new heights. Keep asking hard questions, writing tricky essays, having great conversations. I may make it back here to see you graduate, but if I don’t, know that I’m proud of each of you, for the journeys you’ve already taken and the people that Christ has created you to be.

Peace in Christ,

Kristi Gaster