Hurdles

HurdlesThe hurdlers are not happy.

From where I stand at the end of the long jump pit, waiting for my seven jumpers to come bounding down the runway, to land with a sandy splash in front of me, I can see the hurdlers, shivering in their navy warm-ups, less than eager to start their race.

“We like the 100!” they’ve wailed, after discovering that they were signed up for the grueling 300 meter low hurdles. These are sprinters, preferring the intense glory of the quick, high 100 and 110 meter race. This business, three times as long and far more taxing, isn’t their game. Our point-savvy head coach, noted that they aren’t the only ones; this race seems universally hated, and therefore offers many opportunities for scoring points in the abandoned lanes. All hurdlers, he declared, will do the 300 this week.

SorcheWhile the freshmen and sophomore hurdlers shiver in the wind, I stand with Sorche, a senior. She’s new to track this year, returning to BFA after two years in Canada to finish her senior year. Though energetic and athletic, this is her first sport at BFA, and as such she represents much that I love about BFA sports. In many schools, there’s no opportunity to try a sport. You try out, and hope to make it on the team at all. Here, students often show up with little experience, just to learn and enjoy. Sorche is like that. She came, she decided the intimidating hurdles were fun, and she worked hard to learn and improve.

On this chilly afternoon in Stuttgart, she stands in shorts, ready to start. She’s had shinsplints since early in the season, so her legs are crisscrossed with pink athletic tape, giving her the appearance of a Lisa Frank zebra. She squints at the 300 meters of race ahead of her, at the hurdles in the way, frowning. She’s no more excited about this race than the freshmen, but she’s not trying to get out of it.

“It’s just–far,” she sighs.

“You’re right,” I reply, ever the helpful coach. “But it won’t last forever.”

“Yeah, OK.” She takes off her jacket and hands it to me, shivers one last time and folds herself into the starting blocks. A final gunshot, and she’s off. I follow her pink-striped leaps around the track with my eyes, jogging over to the finish to see the last few.

At the finish line, she meets the ground in a happy heap of relief.

“You’re done!” I cheer from above, handing her the warm-ups.

She nods, smiles.Finished

“How was it?”

“Hard.”

“Yeah?”

“Hard. But–” she hesitates. “I think I’d do it again.” She looks up at me and grins. “I mean, I may be crazy. But I want to do that again.”

Earlier this week, I asked my juniors a number of questions to help them select a topic for their upcoming practice college admissions essays, the last essay of the year. One of them regarded lessons that they’ve learned lately.

Sorche’s race was my lesson, not a new one, but a forgotten message brought to light: Hard and good sometimes come together.

I sometimes complain that teenagers hate challenge, doing whatever it takes to write the simplest essay, run the easiest race, read the shortest book. While the herculean efforts of Sorche and many of our other track runners scold me for this unfair generalization, this race today also reminds me that high school students are not the only ones trying to avoid difficulty.

So often, I want to avoid my own hurdles, running around them or under them, running the other way entirely. The challenges of relationship, vocation, trusting God with future and present–all of them can be deflected with enough eye-shutting and subject-changing. And yet, without challenge there is no growth.

Looking ahead to the next month, I know already that the hurdle of farewells looms large. A school year almost always ends bittersweetly, this year more than most, as many of my closest friends and the class to whom I’ve become most attached will leave Germany in June. Though the change is inexorable, I know that I could somehow dodge the suffering, withdrawing into some snail shell of denial or detachment, refusing to say goodbye. Or, I can remember, like Sorche, that even the hardest roads are sometimes worth running into head-on, eager to grow, learn and finish well.

Hurdlers

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On Messes

Karmyn long jumps for the first time ever!

Living in this beautiful mess is who we are.

From “All I Am,” by Most People

I’ve never loved messes.

Not that I’m compulsively neat, of course. I have my blind spots, like everyone–mugs that sit on the counter longer than they should, that piece of paper still on the floor of my room, which is probably a packing list for the Romania trip–but in general I like to keep things clean. Make pizza dough, for sure, but get all the flour off the counter when I’m done kneading. I like things put back together.

It’s been a “messy” week. Not disastrous or tragic, not heartbreaking or world-shattering. Just messy. Lessons that didn’t go as planned. Projects that didn’t get finished. Days that were filled, morning to night, with activities that took longer than I expected. I found myself often tired and almost comically frustrated by the many factors far beyond my control.

I am just recovering from one of the most difficult of these–a yearlong project that miscommunication between students has brought down to the final, stressful wire of a printing deadline–when I read this proverb: “Where no oxen are, the manger is clean, but much revenue comes by the strength of the ox” (Proverbs 14:4). I laugh at the imagery, picturing a compulsive but penniless farmer, pleased and perplexed at his spotless, empty barn, while the prosperous farm across street has stalls filled to bursting with cows and all the mess they entail.

The cows and stalls stick with me, though, as I consider the ways that I’ve spent this week trying to “keep my stalls clean” instead of doing the hard and risky work of trusting and caring for those I’m here to serve.

In any endeavor that involves another living, thinking being, things are bound to turn out differently than I expect. Students make mistakes, not because they are inherently untrustworthy, but because you and  I and everyone makes mistakes. I’m humbled to remember the parents, teachers and coaches who spent my adolescence not being annoyed with me for “messing up” their intricate plans for how I’d behave, but with patience and wisdom teaching me to build and grow, even when that growth was risky and a little messy.

Saturday morning, I stand beside the sandpit at our track meet in Bitburg, Germany, waiting for seven long jumpers to take their four trails each. I’ve spent some time coaching each of these jumpers. We came out early today and marked starting steps on the runway, practiced accelerating to the end and  hitting the wooden board in just the right spot each time to pop up in a graceful arc into the sand. I’ve tried to calm nerves with information, encouragement, advice.

Now, though, I’m watching a jumper on his third jump. He fouled on the last one–placing his foot just over the board, thus jumping too late–and I want more than anything for him to get the next trail marked rather than “scratched.” As I watch him from the opposite end of the runway, it strikes me that there’s nothing more I can do for him. With all coaching paused for a moment, I’m trusting him to remember. This is his jump, not mine. As he sprints toward me and the sandpit, I pray for him, for this jump and other things. Talking to God, I watch this jumper run down and, thankfully, jump in time.

I realize that this–bringing to God those elements far beyond my control–is how it’s possible to live with or even rejoice in the unpredictability that life often brings. And I’m thankful, for the first time this week, for the grace I have received and can now give, for the beautiful messes that God uses for His glory.

The Long Run

Victorious 4X400 team, shortly after qualifying for the European Finals.

There’s only one seat left when I get on the track bus.

Well, two seats really, but the one in the front technically belongs to a baby, and she should probably stick with her mom, Distance Coach, for now.  That leaves one seat, way in the back.

It’s been ages since I was a “back of the bus” kid, and even that was only a too-short  senior year, rich with confidence brought on by teen accolades like “Cross Country Captain” or, better yet, “Viola Section Leader.”  Since then, I’ve been happy with whichever seat is most open, and as a coach and teacher this typically leaves the front.  It’s fine.  I usually fall asleep listening to Sigur Ros, never wishing I was holding court in the back.

The final seat is next to 800 Runner, who is also an energetic student in my fourth period.  I awkwardly ask if I can sit down in the seat currently holding what looks like everything he owns.

“I was kind of saving this seat for my pillow… but OK.”

Since we compete in a league of other international schools, sports at BFA carry an entirely different set of traditions from sports at home.  In high school, the ride to our track meets was approximately 20 minutes, enough time to ask for a stick of gum or a sip of Powerade, to French-braid my and, if I was quick, one of my teammate’s hair.  In DoDDS European, our nearest competitor is three hours away.  If we’d have to leave earlier than 5:00 AM to get there by meet time, we go the night before and spend the night on a gym floor somewhere.  So bus rides, they are a gargantuan deal here.  And bus seats, those are critical.

I find myself surrounded by my own students, the juniors who apparently rule this back of the bus.  After the initial wails of “Oh, it’s my English teacher coming back to haunt me!” we settle into apparently normal bus routines.  There are German verses to memorize (“Der Herr ist meine Hirte…”), hip hop songs to listen to, clips of Glee to watch on an iPod.  They ask me what I was like–and what the world was like–when I was in high school.  I hand a poetry book to 800 runner, recommending Billy Collins’s “On Turning Ten” for an upcoming project, and listen to the song he’s singing at Junior Senior Banquet.  The sun sets as the autobahn slides by.

Near Kandern, the conversation turns to faith, the practical ways of living it out in a world generally less friendly than the one they’ve known so far.  They share their experiences in Bahrain, in Italy and Chile and Greece.  As we exit the freeway we’re pondering God’s will, the goals of evangelism and the nature of free will and election.

I think about how long it’s taken us to get here, to these important conversations, both on this bus ride and this year.  About how much trust is involved, in this transient community, in going deep and sincere.  I’m honored by their earnestness and thankful, again, for the privilege in teaching of spending a whole school year with students.  It’s a long time, and by the spring we know each other well enough to be honest, well enough to invest.

“How long are you staying, Ms. Dahlstrom?” someone asks, just a few kilometers from home.

And I know it’s an important question, to them and to me, even if I don’t have an answer yet.  I know because I’m finding that this place, any place, deepens the longer I stay.  I wish for a better verb than this expression of dimension.  Yet with under fifty students, depth is the best word to describe the titles of coach, mentor, advisor and big sister that weave their way into and beyond the classroom.  I am still a teacher, still passionate about words, the writing and sharing of them.  But I’m also holding starting blocks at track meets, or fixing the hair of Banquet MC between acts, the same hair I curled and pinned up this afternoon.  This has proved to be vaster than I ever expected it could be.

As life with Christ always is.  I’m thankful.

Lovely Junior Girls

Jumping (with Coach Dahlstrom)

I earn my living by writing a daily newspaper column. Each week I am aware that one column is going to be the worst column of the week. I don’t set out to write it; I try my best every day. Still, every week, one column is inferior to the others, sometimes spectacularly so.

I have learned to cherish that column. A successful column usually means that I am treading on familiar ground, going with the tricks that work, preaching to the choir or dressing up popular sentiments in fancy words. Often in my inferior columns, I am trying to pull off something I’ve never done before, something I’m not even sure can be done.

Jon Carroll, “Failure is a Good Thing”

“You guys, today I planned my first workout ever!”

I wave my index card at the students coming in from lunch, getting out notebooks and novels.  On it, I’ve jotted down a series of drills with names like “Hop & Skip” and “Hop on 1 Foot.”  One side says “Experienced” and the other says “Novice,” and the drills are even slightly differentiated.

“Ugh, do we have to do it?” someone asks with a grimace.

“This is English class.  You have to write in your journal and then discuss The Great Gatsby.  So… no, it’s for track.”

“Wait, you’ve never planned a workout before?” asks another student.  “How do you usually work out?”

“I put on running shoes and, you know, go running somewhere.”

“So today you’re…?”

“Doing long jump.”

It’s ironic, really, that I’ve ended up specializing in sand jumps and assisting on sprinting with Black Forest Academy Track & Field.  I was a member of the Ballard High track team for two and a half seasons, during which I competed in long jump, all three relays, and every race that didn’t involve hurdles.  When I tell students about this, they’re either incredulous or impressed, thinking I’m some kind of genius decathlete.

This is not the case.  I started out as a mid-level sprinter and passable jumper, but a season of cross-country slowed most of that down, so that as the seasons wore on my trips around the track grew progressively more.  One of the last races was a 3200 meter race in which I finished two laps behind the lead runner.  I was an all-around mystery to my coaches, with a great deal of experience and little expertise.

Today I’m flipping the album back twelve years, back to ninth grade when I competed regularly in long jump.  It’s a delight, really.  I’m standing in the rain, counting the steps of sprinting athletes, watching their feet cross a muddy board and sweeping puddles off the sodden runway.  I’m crying “Faster!  Toes straight ahead!  Up and out!” as the sand flies in my face.  I’m answering to “Coach.”

It’s all so new to me.

Two years ago, I found myself in a strange position.  I was mentoring a student teacher at Ingraham, confident and complacent in a job I’d held for several years, looking ahead and wondering how I would keep learning in the years ahead.  I little knew at the time that life is never static, that walking with God means the pursuit of new challenges around each unexpected turn.  Yet I remember fearing it, this feeling of mastery, even then searching for ways I could continue growing, both as a teacher and a person.

Coaching track isn’t the obvious choice for me, the place I am most qualified and knowledgeable.  And yet the habits of encouraging and challenging students, honed the last four years in the classroom, are serving me well here.  I’m honored with the responsibility, taking care to do my homework.  (On my coffee table are two books–the Track & Field coaching manual and my Canadian History textbooks.  It’s the story of this year.) For the rest, I’m learning, making mistakes, growing as a teacher as I serve students in a new way.

In the last year, God has taken me around the world, challenged me in ways I could never have imagined.  Sometimes that means learning a new language, finding a place in a new community.  And sometimes it means reading about triple jump on Saturday afternoon, then getting up to hop, skip and jump across the living room.