To The Teacher Who Is Considering Leaving…

Dear Teacher Who Wants to Quit:

I am sorry.

Sorry too that I must start first with regret. What a poor way to begin. But then. You are leaving teaching. And a void has already been left in the wake of this momentous decision. I feel that void. And sorrow too; for when decisions like this are to be made, it is grievous. It is hard. And it brings with the complication of the matter a complexity. Complemented by muddled thoughts and sincerest compassions.

I wish this were not so. But you must do this for you. I understand that. I respect that. I get it.

It’s still hard. For everyone. I hope you get that too.

You and I have never met. Our paths have never crossed. And oh!, but I desire they would. Would that they could. I felt the weight of the words I read tonight. Your words. You are done teaching now, after twenty-one years. Done. You say it’s over, even though doors have still been left ajar. Open in the event you change your mind. You won’t, you say. And so this decision (you so plainly express), it is thus a painful one. A pulling away, a separation. The full effect of which you have not yet felt, its raw intensity the afterglow.

You are leaving teaching.

Permit me to say this: what loss we as educators feel tonight. What collective pain we bear. You are a needless casualty. Sidelined. Left injured on the battle grounds. What other words to use but wounded, for we as teachers fight wars we’ve never bargained for.

Those left standing, one of which am I- we feel weak. Feel lacking without you. We do not know each other, you and I, but we joined forces when we stood united in our common desire to educate. Fellow comrades from different points across the globe. Teachers: called to inspire and educate and lift our students. We are fellow cohorts even though our life path lead us down different winding roads.

We have not met. But my heart aches. For your presence will be missed. You leave a void. Your spirit, soul and heart will forever carry forth your call.

You are leaving teaching.

As are so many, many others.

There are battles raging even now that we as teachers seemingly cannot fight. There are forces by which we feel overpowered. All around us, the pressure is to standardize, regulate, assess, quantify, qualify.   It seems teaching is currently more about data than it is about children. It is seemingly more about numbers than hearts. More about facts than about minds. More about records and statistics than about the big and little bodies which come to school as their very best selves, ready to face the giants day in and day out. Ready to climb mountains.

The children we teach are people. Not numbers to crunch. Figures to analyze. Data.

They are souls.

But so are we, dear friend. So are we.

So you are leaving teaching.

Could I ask you to humor one last request? Think back to the first day you knew- knew that you would one day be a teacher. Think back to that one, isolated moment. And ask yourself to stay in that moment. Rest there. Remember. Can you recall that reason you chose to teach? It’s meaning for you personally? That call to teach- it still matters. It does.

The why for what brought you here is still alive, buried though it might be.

Could you ever find it in you to reclaim it? Can you stir to life the embers of a dying dream?

You said you thought you’d be a teacher until you die. I wager a bet. You will be.

A teacher is less a profession and more a mindset. More an outlook than a physical position. Teachers teach because they are hope spreaders, love sharers, compassion spreaders, grace bringers. Teachers teach because they believe. Because they believe that there is something good in this world to know and be. Something good in this world to remember. And something good in this world to aspire to, to reach for. To hope for. Teachers must then teach for freedom and justice. For awareness and love. William Ayers has said it better than I in his writing on headaches in teaching:

The teacher in this way of thinking is one who challenges the taken-for-granted, problematizes solutions, and questions received reality. The teacher, like the writer, can be a philosopher, a scientist, an artist, a citizen, and even an activist, but only if he or she stays alive to the possibilities and attuned to what has yet to be achieved in terms of freedom, justice, understanding, and beauty.

My friend, do not forget that you are still a teacher. And wherever life leads you, whether away from the chaos of our schools or back into the fray, never stop believing in the hope of possibility.

You are a teacher. And you always will be.

Where there is life, there is potential. Wherever desire and stubborn resolve are found, there is a hope of achieving possibility.

Yes, you are leaving teaching. But dear friend, teaching will never quite be done for you. You will always be a teacher, it’s written on your heart. So go forward, do what your heart is calling you to do. Heal. Mend. Grow. Love.

And always keep alive the possibility that there is room for you here. There is a place for you. If you should ever feel the call within you rise up once more.

Sincerely,

The Teacher Who Has Been There Too

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On secrets and toppling walls…

I watch him build the wooden walls of his tower, painstakingly. One by one.  They stand in solidarity for mere moments, only to topple before even I can add another brick. This is child’s play, and it is fascinating to watch him. These walls are made for crashing, in his view. In his mind’s eye. This is amusement and discovery and cause-and-effect. This is pure delight. His sole reason for creating is to therefore demolish. To knock down, tear down- flatten. He is happiest when things fall over. When walls come down.

And so am I.

These walls we’ve built up to protect us- they are false protection. We build them high and bolster them with whatever is at our disposal. We claim we haven’t enough time to explain the reasons for their existence- we’re too busy. And no one would even understand their purpose anyway. That’s what we say. We say they’re necessary- we need these walls. They are protection. It’s a cruel world out there- someone is always trying to attack. To assault. And we’re always on the defensive. We need these walls, or so we think- we’d be devastated without them. We’d be naked. Wide open for onslaught.

Our walls. Built to shut the world out. To keep the world from knowing. Knowing our little secrets, that is.

Those shameful, little secrets.

Secrets…that we are trying to keep hidden.

About marriages which are failing.

About struggles we’re having with anger. With doubt. With depression. With disappointment. Fear. Anxiety. Disillusionment.

Secrets about our struggle with abuse.

Secrets about our addictions.

We keep these secrets because we are afraid. We’re scared.

Petrified that someone will find out.

Because if anyone ever knew our secrets, they might come to discover our frailty. Our weaknesses. Our imperfections. We’d be exposed and heaven help us- what could happen then?

No one ever enjoyed feeling bare and exposed.

Wide open for humiliation.

But what if in toppling those walls, we were known. Truly known.

Known for our humanity. For our beauty. For our uniqueness.

What if we were known and loved for our imperfections. Known and loved in spite of our flaws and failings?

What if telling- what if sharing secrets brought us freedom? What if speaking our truths allowed us to breathe again?

What if we were lovingly held, even in our brokenness? And rebuilt anew?

Again and again and again.

Because that’s what living sometimes entails: a process of starting over. A renewal. A chance to have a new beginning. A chance to say, “I’m not hiding anymore.”

What if beauty were to come from ashes.

Sometimes it takes feeling scared to bring us closer to the Sacred. And while we might falter, while we might fall- we are held. In Arms of Love.

May we never forget: Our secrets are merely precious stories waiting to be told.  And walls are meant for toppling so those stories can be re-written. Retold.  Time and time again.

In This World…

In this world, you will have trouble…

There will be trouble.

There will be sorrow.

I sit one row back as my heart grows heavy. Prayer request after sorrowful request for those needing a special touch are called for. Requested for those needing a miracle. I turn to speak with a man behind me and his head falls to his chest as we converse, tears close to the surface. He isn’t able to finish his thought; mid-sentence, his grandson steps in to finish the story where he left off. The grandfather’s cherished grand-daughter and the young man’s sister: she is dying. “It will probably be today” the younger of the two men says simply. I am at a loss for the right words to say, offering only what I have to give: my sorrow. A young sister, a granddaughter: dying, even as we speak. She chokes and fights for life while I dispassionately sing the choruses about joy and living. Truly her short days on this earth have not been easy. She has never run or walked or played. She has missed those taken-for-granted moments, trading them in for a life of long-term care. It is too close for comfort- this story, and I fight back emotions.

We just buried my aunt not even two weeks ago.

As I turn back around in my seat, the stark reality of another struggling family hits me square in the gut: a local family from the next community over has lost a home. It burned down Friday night- the cause, an electrical fire: they escaped with only their lives and the clothes on their backs. The weight of these and the many other accounts of adversity that I am hearing begin to cover me in grief: a friend whose has been inflicted with a near-detached retina, who might not regain her eyesight back even within the year. Another friend who put her knee out. Church friends who feel more like family: hospitalized, bed-ridden. Cancer and various other long- term illness the cause. My own back and shoulders ache with tension.

I can’t bear all this sorrow.

And my mind wanders to my own immediate family coming to terms with the death of our only aunt on my mother’s side, a woman who had been bed-ridden for thirty-one years. The death of her baby: our only cousin from that side of the family- a baby taken before his time. Jesse Robert Maclean. And the questions still unanswered burn within me: why. Why her? Why him? Why them? Why us?

Why all this sorrow?

In this world, we are promised many things.

There will be joy.

I pull together a meal: pork-chops with seasoning, rice laced with chicken broth. Corn, fresh garden salad, rolls and angel food cake topped with cherry conserves. My sweet friend has just given birth to her second child: a darling baby boy. I hold him against my shoulder and breathe in the sweet fragrance of his baby smell, while his mama and I talk. He is a joy- a precious gift to cherish and gaze at in awe-struck wonder. I take in the ease with which his mother tenderly nurses her child and we both revel in the moment. The joy and the wonder of it all.

The absolute miracle.

Later, my own family of six head down to my in-law’s sprawling property, grass growing greener by the day. We are here for an impromptu birthday party, of sorts. Cats lying lazily on the back porch greet us while hot spring sun shines brightly overhead.  We will celebrate my mother-in-law’s birthday with a still-warm-from-the-oven banana chocolate chip cake topped with whipped chocolate icing. Cake, ice-cream and candles- can afternoon snack get any better than this? She beams with pride as the grandchildren envelope her to help blow out the dwindling candles, wax dripping down onto the icing below.  There is easy banter and laughter. This home is filled with love and joy. Filled with happiness.

For in this world, there will be joy. There will be celebration. Pleasure, delight, elation.

But we are promised this surety as well: there will also be sorrow. It’s a promise.

I wonder at this prospect.  This reality. There will be trouble.  There always has been and there always will be.

There will be pain. There will be suffering. There will be disease. There will be hardship. There will be persecution. There will be loss. There will be adversity. There will be poverty. There will be destitution. There will be difficulty. There will be obstacles.

There will be death.

We stand over the grave and I try to process my feelings and sadness. A body is buried. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. This is the final resting place for her, indeed for all of us: a grave.

When we as family leave the graveside, after singing “What a Day It Will Be”, the caretakers will cover over that coffin with dirt. It will be lowered six feet under. And the shell that she was will be buried underneath the soil and grass.  A tombstone remaining to commemorate her life and death. The sorrow and mourning will also remain as the reality of this closing chapter of a mortal life that is now over. The sadness and sorrow lingering long after that final mound of dirt has been patted down.

The thought of this all is so very troubling. So difficult to deal with.

For the troubles of this world remind those of us who still remain, those of us who remember: that death is waiting in the wings. It lurks in the shadows for everyone of us.  It is coming.

We will have trouble.

And with this reality as our surest promise, I wonder still at the hope one can garner so as to carry on. So as to continue.  So as to press forward and live, in spite of it all.

How do we find that hope to face trouble in this world? To face pain and suffering?

How then shall we now live?

In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart, there is One who has overcome the troubles of this world.

There is One who is over trouble. Who is over heartache. Who walks through adversity with those who call His name. There is One who has crushed Death underneath His feet with the words, “It is finished.” There is One who has gone on before us to prepare the Way.

And He has not forgotten us. He has not left us alone.

He is God with Us: Immanuel.

He knows our deepest longing, our darkest fears. He whispers into our soul that He is near. He reaches out, extends His love and peace and hope to fragile souls like mine in our greatest moments of need.

And He has overcome.

It’s a surety, a promise. There will be trouble, but His Word is true.  He has overcome.

Prevailing over trouble and suffering and disease and hardship and persecution and loss and adversity and poverty and destitution and difficulty and all other obstacles this world has ever known.

He has triumphed over death.

So we take heart.   In this world there will be trouble.  We will endure much hardship, much suffering.  We will suffer, forging forward through this time of trouble.  But in a little while, we will be with the Father- can’t you see Him smiling!

He waits for us with arms outstretched. He encourages and calls out to us in the brutal harsh reality of the here and now.  And one day when this life is over, He will welcome us home.

Where He will remind us of that other precious promise, that hope and joy: that He was always with us.  Even through the storm.

Even in the distressing trouble that was our painful reality.

He was always there- and forever, He always will be.

He has overcome.  And one day, we will too.

It’s a promise.

On kindness

Tonight, my thoughts turn inward. I am thinking of living. Of life. Of how we do this thing called living. This thing called living life. I am thinking: of how we are perceived by others to have lived our lives. Of how we even perceive it ourselves.

My aunt lies dying in a hospital bed, and I wonder about her life. About how she was unable to live a life which I would perceive to be full and complete. I wonder about such things, wonder what this really means. What it entails. Because, I want to know. Whose life is really full? Really complete? Is it mine? Is it yours? Is it hers? Is mine and yours that much better than hers? Is there dignity in a life of confinement? Is there any joy to be had? Any kindness?

I wonder.

Today someone reminded me yet again about the particular importance of kindness to the soul of another. We can have everything going for us- all talents, all gifts, all opportunities, all measure of wealth and wisdom and health. We can seemingly have it all. And yet be missing kindness.

And thus have nothing.

If kindness is the sole missing link, I wonder: is any of the rest really worth the bother? For kindness is the air that sustains. It is the breath of life. It seems to be everything.

I just got off the phone with the nurse on duty at the manor this evening. The nurse at the manor where my aunt lies dying, specifically. His voice was so kind. Palliative nurses and geriatric nurses are amazing people. What I notice first about so many of them is their kindness. Their voices are kind. So is their touch. They are tender, gentle. They are unafraid of what so many of us are afraid of: smells, textures, sounds, movements. To each subtle and not so subtle change, they offer a supreme measure of kindness and sense of respect. To each individual, they extend the olive branch of peace and grace. They are guardians of kindness. It takes an individual of high character and quality to work with people, but those who work with our dear elderly, who work with our dying: they astound me. For these individuals have a special quality- a seemingly overflowing measure of goodness within. Grace and love which just spills over into their touch. Into their interactions both great and small.

If we can learn kindness, we have learned nearly everything we need to know about interacting with the rest of our world. If we can know what it feels like, sounds like, looks like: what it is. Then we have a better chance of understanding how to do it.

For kindness (that kindness of which I speak is supernatural, is sacred): it is our only way forward in this messy here and now. It is the light that leads us. It is the hope that holds us.  And it is perfectly embodied in the One who knew it, breathed it, lived it.  Our example.  The One we uphold as the truest picture of loving care.

Jesus. Lover of humanity.  Kindest of the kind; gentle and gracious.

It is His kindness which is everything. Which we seek to model and exude.

His kindness.

Without which, we have nothing.

And it is His kindness which I know holds her in the hollow of His gentle hand.  Even now, in the darkness of this dying night.

Even now.  And forevermore.

To those who’ve been shamed, let me be the one to say…

“You’ll never amount to anything. You’ll never be much. You’re a problem child.”

So he was told.

I had forgotten, but she reminded me yet again as we were talking: about the cruelty of  words and how shattering they can be when ill-spoken. When hastily proffered. When handed over without any thought or consideration to the receiver.

And how excruciating when those words are held out to a child, a teenager: as evidence of their failings, flaws and weaknesses. As evidence of their shortcomings. When spoken as a statement to their individual worth. A testimony, if you will: to their person-hood. And when these words of shame are spoken by a teacher, no less: the damage they inflict is often irreparable.

“You’ll never amount to anything. You’ll never be much. You’re a problem child.”

Those words- they have still, at times, been spoken.

And he’ll never forget those words, no matter how much time and space come between. She’ll always remember. For they are there. Forever imprinted in his memory. In her memory. Impressed on his subconscious and thus filtered in and out through his more aware consciousness in the here and now. She’s trouble- or so she thinks; and so she’ll spend the rest of her days either seeking to live up to that reputation or finding a way to prove them wrong.

It’s how the story goes.

And to those students dealing with their own insecurities, anxieties and fears about who they are and what they might become, this is either a death sentence or a fire lit beneath them. A motivation or a deterrent.  It’s pivotal.

This piece of writing I’ve composed: it is not a reprimand to students- goodness knows there are enough of those out there to fill a book. This is a reminder to those of us as teachers to choose our words carefully before we speak them. We can never get those words back again. This is a memo to those of us who educate: to watch our collective tongues. Carefully. To form our opinions with awareness to those around us. To say what needs to be said, but to do so respectfully. With dignity. In honor of the life that stands before us.  For all life is worth that at the very least. Is worth a semblance of regard, out of respect, if nothing else, to the person and all those others they represent. The parents, family and friends. A person is not an island. And words have a ripple effect. Do not think they will fall like a stone to the bottom of the ocean. They will be carried away on the waters and they will oft be repeated. And never forgotten. Do not offer words without thought to what message those words are truly conveying. Words can have more than one meaning. And what we think we are saying lightly can be taken heavily by the hearer.  And buried deep within.

This is a message to we who are adults- we are the forerunners. We have been there before. We know the pain of derision, the wound that is a sarcastic comment spoken in scorn. We remember. And so, we who know better must live better. We must watch what we say and say it with care. There are others listening. Believing what we say. Taking it to heart.  Living up to it, those words.

“You’ll never amount to anything. You’ll never be much. You’re a problem child.”

To that one who has had these words flung in your direction, let me be one to stand up and boldly say:

You are more than the sum of one man or woman’s opinion. You are more than one person’s point of view. You are capable. You are able. You are competent. You don’t have to live down, stoop low to anyone’s minimal expectations of who they think you’ve been destined to be. Prove them wrong. Be more. Do more. Live for more. Aim higher, reach farther. Be inspired to make the change you need to make so as to become the person you were born to be. It’s in you.
You can do this. Be the person you were made to be. The sky’s the limit. And you’re full of potential and possibility.

You’re amazing, I know you are.

Believe it.

I do.

What We Crave

In our deepest parts there is a craving to be needed. To know that our lives are necessary. Essential. We want to live for something- something bigger than just ourselves. And we want to impact someone- beyond ourselves.

I listen to many stories and each one means something to me. Her’s was special. She told me of the people whose lives had impacted her own. I listened, intently. And while I listened, she indicated to me, through tears, how overwhelming it had been for her- this experience. This trauma. But in the midst of the pain and trouble- the mess that we call living: there were people. People who did simple little things and people who did providential, epic things. Big or little, they did them for her. And I thought of this one life that had been impacted by love. By care. By the tenderness that is a warm embrace. The comfort that is a phone call or text message, unexpected. I thought about the gifts and love offerings. The support. The net of care that had been created for this one individual. And all because people sensed within themselves a desire to reach out beyond themselves toward another human being in need.

These people: they felt the need and they responded.

And yet. Accompanying this great need to reach out, there is something more.

In our deepest parts, we know that we are not self-sufficient. We know our lives are full- yet broken. We need people, Someone: to perfect the beauty that is our life. We need one another. Each other. But oh! how often we allow pride to stand in the way. We tell ourselves, “I can handle this. I can do this on my own.” But a knowing settles in and reminds us yet again, we need each other. We need to be needed every bit as much as we need to be reminded that we are, at times, ourselves needy.

For in our life, there is a hungering. A thirsting. A want- of something that seems just beyond our grasp. We are so often full, but at times, we find ourselves, so very empty.

We crave hope.

Sometimes that hope comes in the form of an encouraging word. That is enough to light a spark of hope. Sometimes what we need is a helping hand. And sometimes we need more. To be lifted and held: in tangible, heartfelt ways. Sometimes we need a rescue plan, as life squeezes every last bit of hope out of us. And when that rescue plan shows up, the very human hands and feet of a saviour, we reach out and hold on for dear life.  Because we know- we are not alone.

We are not alone.

Grace or criticism?

Grace or criticism?

I have contemplated grace and its place in my life for many years now. I have wondered at its significance, its practical purpose. I have tried to make sense of it. Tried to understand it. And the only way I know how is to put it into the context of my own lived experience. To make sense of it through the circumstances I find myself in on a daily basis.

For me, grace is a strand of love. For love is everything that is good in this world. And since grace is good, it is a strand of love. How I describe grace is in this way: doing willingly for others what wouldn’t come natural. Or put another way, offering love even when I don’t feel like offering it.

Grace is second and third chances.

Grace is endless, actually. I cannot even fathom it. It’s depths and heights. When I think of the grace I have been offered, I am compelled to consider offering such to those I interact with. When I feel like being gracious and even when I don’t.

Criticism, on the other hand, is something which comes quite easily. I have also contemplated its significance in my life and come to discover that criticism, unlike grace, is quite quick to be offered. It is something I could offer without putting too much thought into how I might frame it or place it in context. I can criticize without any premeditated deliberation or contemplation. It easy. And quite natural, I’m afraid. Critiquing, as a branch of criticism, is not so severe a practice. Critiquing requires deliberation and restraint. And it is a discipline. I have learned through many years of watching and listening that careful critique, unlike criticism, can shape us and mold us through it’s wise counsel and influence. One who has learned to critique has also learned to listen and to see. To understand the many angles of a situation.

When to use grace? Criticism? Critique?

If love is in all and through all, and grace is a strand of love, then I believe that grace must be exercised liberally in all of life’s various circumstances and situations. Grace is the open door to reconciliation. It is the pathway toward forgiveness. It is the light at the end of the tunnel. It is the salve for the open wound. And so then: love is both the beginning and the end of everything. It is the Healer’s gentle touch. The Hands that hold.

Growing up in a very fundamentalist environment, I didn’t always see grace. I felt the sting of criticism and the pain of disapproval. But rarely did I feel the freedom of grace. The liberty of love expressed in compassion. But it was there just the same, although often hidden. Not seen in the obvious but through the obscure.

True, there was much criticism, and that is what I remember. But in time, I came to realize that grace had greater influence than the spirit of criticism. Grace had farther fields of influence. And grace could do what critical could not. It could soothe. Heal. Relate. Love. Affect. Grace had powers and strength that critical did not. And grace could do all this in and through the abiding constancy of love. Criticism often worked under the influence of hate. It was only when criticism came under the spell of love that it changed. No longer criticism, it became critique. And as long as critique stayed within the realm of love, it was pure and true. It had the steady influence of a constant to guide it.

My constant is love. The tool to project that love is grace. And I can thus critique under the watchful eye of these two powerful forces.
I no longer wish to have my life marked by criticism. I was checked on such today, offhandedly, when a colleague shared a story and added this detail: “You know, I had preformed an opinion about so-and-so based on what everybody else was saying, but that wasn’t really a true picture of what ____ was like with me when I had a chance to talk one on one.” Which gave me pause to reflect on how too often I judge and criticize others based on an opinion I’ve already heard from someone else. Based on second and third hand information. How incredibly unfair.

Where criticism really stings is when it is directed at destruction. Again, criticism is not evil. But when it originates in hate, it has the power to destroy. To cut down and to damage. To ruin and defeat. To expose and annihilate. To devastate those at whom it is directed. Criticism is powerful. And one has only to listen to one human being tell their story to understand the power of criticism to shape a life.
I am still receiving letters from readers who read the essay “What Students Remember Most About Teachers.” I want to include a link to my most recent letter. There are parts of it that break my heart, for it speaks of the power of criticism to hurt and wound. I am still considering how I will respond to this letter.  I am saddened that teachers have wreaked such havoc on a life.  And that an adult is still captive to the memories of that influence.

I wish this writer to know: I care.  I cannot fix or mend.  But I can care.

I haven’t yet formulated what words I will write to this dear one, but this I will seek to do, through the grace that I have first received and experienced in my own life.  And that is to write that response in love. With a heart overflowing.

In a wash of grace extended outward.