On the Pain of Growing Up and Glimpsing the Story in Your Struggle

There are moments in life when the proverbial crap hits the fan, when all the world seems out of control, and if you could just pause your life for an instant, slow it down, and watch from the outside, you might actually laugh… at least to keep from crying.

I picture an old college apartment, you know, that dirty “boy” (or girl) who seemed to never clean and just live in the filth. You step into their place with a rather clear mind of perspective and see the chaos swirling, junk splayed out before you in the form of a drab, crowded room: dirty dishes and uncleaned mountains of laundry amidst stacks of files and work that somehow must be done. Brown, stained carpet (didn’t it used to be a lighter shade?). Overturned tray tables. Sad furniture, grey and bleak filing cabinets, cheap shelves sagging in the corners of the room, the oppressive weight of unread papers and unchecked to-do lists, all that was meant to be completed. Such good intentions; disaster in motion. You have a remote in your hand as if in a dream, so you step back a moment and reduce the scene’s speed from real-time to a type of distant slow motion: white paper swirling majestically, floating like so many torn leaves, the fan turning in a dull, fluid whir, caked dust drifting from the tips of the fan blades. You lift the remote gently and punch a button, reducing the room from a pause to a stop. Bewildered, you freeze, furrow your brows, turn on your heel, and walk hastily from the room. You can’t bear to look it this mess any longer.

When was that last moment for you? That day, week, month, year? What was a turning point in your life? When did you have to open your eyes a little (or perhaps very much) when an experience forever changed you? And, when did you find the clarity to look back at that room, that chaos in your life, and see it for what it was – a chasm in your heart and an awful wide-eyed glimpse at your reality?

I posed these questions to my students in response to a short story that we read about losing a piece of our innocence and in turn gaining compassion. This was in October.

Soon after, at the advent of second quarter, we began reading To Kill a Mockingbird and the theme continued: Scout’s childlike, playful demeanor slowly chipped away into a hard look at the world and the evil therein. The stories kept connecting.

Two days ago, a mother and beloved fellow teacher shared a sliver of her own story in a safe space. She explained that recently, there was a day when she was home with her sons, and something terrible had happened. It was something challenging to process and something that could not change. It was out of their control, she and her husband’s. It affected their family in a deep way. And though they had protected and shielded their children from birth, helping each child carefully and age-appropriately deal with the world in a brave way when the time was right…on this day, they couldn’t do much. On this day, she watched her eldest son grow up, and in ways difficult to explain, it broke her heart. Because in certain ways, it had shattered his too.

Within the last few weeks, people I deeply love have shared stories with me on the phone, on restaurant benches, in my classroom, on my couch, and in face-to-face moments of unflinching truth. Words and tears have spilled forth. Prayers have been prayed. Hearts have been splayed out. The aching realization that “I’ve grown up a lot this year,” has been spoken. And for a while, for these last few weeks, I felt deeply. I over-felt. I was at a loss. I couldn’t get a grip. I was stuck in the pain and the horror of it all, of these people who I loved so fiercely and felt connected to who were hurting. It was a type of vicarious bleeding, a slow overdrawn pull that eventually left me dizzy and disoriented. It was glimpsing that torrid room and not having the remote to stop it. Instead, I spun out. Last Saturday was the worst.

But a few days this week have allowed me perspective and a “stepping back.” I’ve been able to slow down my mind and press pause on my remote. I’ve let the days drift past me and just been “in” them but not affected too deeply by them. I’ve been able to see clearly some of the chaos and the ensuing pain. Some of the brokenness. And, I’ve discovered that whether it is criticism or cancer, anxiety or exhaustion, loneliness or longing, there is some relief to be had, some hope to be gained, some truth to be held.

In a separate post (perhaps a part two), I will share some poetry from my students from that October prompt, some eloquent words of wisdom (with their names and stories protected, of course). For now, though, I’m thinking of a different story – the novel in which we just read the final page. Because, sometimes, we really need to bypass our present and fast forward to an ending we know so that we can hang on to what’s in store for our future. And here’s an ending that I know.

By the end of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout has lost much of her innocence. That can’t change. It still feels awful.

She has wrestled through a difficult trial (literally), attempting to grapple with the idea that a man, though having seemingly done nothing wrong, would have to suffer so much for the sins of others. She has seen ugly parts of the world filled with pain and violence and loss, and yet she also has seen beauty in which shadows stepped out of the darkness to reveal truth behind them, and heroism and protection emerges where she least expects it. The world still feels confusing. She still is filled with questions. The understanding is incomplete and too lofty for her to reach. The pain is still real, and it won’t be rationalized away or sugar-coated. It would be unfair and perhaps even cruel to try to paint it any differently than what it is. It must be dealt with. But perhaps, she can take a break from it.

So, her father reads her a story.

The final scene that we read is a tender one. Scout is in her father’s arms, nestled up, warm and safe. Despite all of the wonderings still on her mind, he quiets her with love. No matter what she has gone through, she or her loved ones have endured to this point. No matter what was broken, it will mend some. No matter how much was lost, more might still be gained. We end on hope. She is still a child, held tightly in the arms of another, and her father will be there with her and with her brother, Jem, when they wake up. Tomorrow will be a new day. And I find great hope in that ending.

Though, some people hate it. Some people want to know the end of the story. What happened to Boo? To Dill? To Jem? How does Scout grow up? What is the final page of the final book of a larger series? Shouldn’t there be a sequel? Why can’t I know what happens, now?

At times, I feel like that too. But, for now, I’m content with that ending. Because when a chapter or a book ends in uncertainty, there’s a real moment of ownership and opportunity that can be bred out of it. There is a sense in which we decide the ending. We decide the fate. We have the choice, as Rafiki shares in Lion King, “to either run from it… or learn from it.” And, that wild, blue-butted baboon is right when he smacks Simba over the head with his wisdom stick and helps Simba realize that it’s not true that “it doesn’t matter” because “it’s in the past” and “yes, the past can hurt…” but what we get to do is pull ourselves out of the past and into the present with a hopeful glimpse into the future. We get to turn what was an awful wide-eyed glimpse into our circumstances into an awe-filled, “awe-ful” (if you will) picture of our reality. That hurt sucks. That growing up is hard. That to peer unflinchingly into the truth of a situation is more than we can bear at times. We’re at a loss for words or feelings or actions to surmount that. But, we do get to decide our future. We do get to keep fighting the battle, one day at a time, and we can emerge as conquerors on the other side of it. That is possible.

So, what was it, your last moment when you felt you hit a turning point? When did you know that you had to grow up and that you had lost some of your innocence? And what will you do about it? That is really the question at this point. What is your choice?

For, in a real, true, empowering way, the rest of the story is quite literally up to you.

You get to decide. Where will you go from here?

And, please, let me know, if you choose.

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Always

Guns are blazing, but my aim is true.
You strike down, but HE builds up.
You try to fight,
You claw,
Lash out.
Coward.

Don’t you know? Haven’t you learned?
The fight may wage on, but the battle is won.
You can strike at me,
Keep the hits coming,
But the power that loads these guns,
The pistol shots I can fire,
The perfect aim I can wield –
It’s sharper
And has more power;
He comes in like a wrecking ball.

Satan, sit down.
BACK. DOWN.
I command it,
And you flee.

Don’t you believe?

God has more grace.

So let go. Jump in.
What are you waiting for?
It’s alright,
Because there’s beauty in the breakdown.

What [you] meant for evil, God works for good.

Always.

Genesis 50:20

There’s a Hole in my Soul, I Can Feel It, I Can Feel It…

Oh, the tangled webs we weave.

Bastille in their song “Flaws” sings, “You always wore your flaws along your sleeves. And I buried them deep beneath the ground. Dig them out. Let’s finish what we started. Dig them out, let nothing be undone.” I played this song for my students yesterday and we talked about flaws, about vulnerability and being gentle with ourselves and others. It’s fitting that my own devotion would apply to me this morning, and perhaps to you. Do you wear your flaws or your sleeve? Or do you bury them deep? Are you weary this morning? Or are you relying on the Lord’s strength? Your own? Perhaps you’re like me and you think you’re good to go, but you just haven’t crashed and burned yet. I’m trying to coast to a stop more easily than I used to, to settle into a slow jog, a trot, then a walk, rather than having an epic crash with skinned knees, concussions, and other various hazardous injuries that occur when you just. won’t. stop. Because that’s me. I just won’t stop, much of the time.

That persistent voice keeps telling me to slow down, you know… that “pesky” ever-so-wise Holy Spirit. He keeps saying, “Be gentle with yourself.” He keeps saying, “Rely on me, not yourself.” He keeps saying, “Whoa girl… you know you can’t run on your own steam forever. Or even for a second… You have to come refill. You have to come to me. To the Lord. Only my Word has life.”

And yet, I often don’t listen. Often it’s the last thing that I do. I’m getting better at it, but boy, am I a stubborn, hard-headed one, and I know I’m not alone. We’re a hard-headed people… often a hard-hearted people.

There’s a hole in my soul. Can you feel it? Can you feel it? There’s nothing else that can fill that hole in my soul other than the Lord. Only the Lord. Only Christ. And yet, I try to fill it or ignore with so many other things, mainly myself, my work, my efforts, my, my, MY. So selfish am I in my pursuits to care for others or to do my job. The devil is a sneaky one, prowling like a lion, clever like a snake. But I will crush his head. I will turn his plans to ashes. I will cry out to the Lord, and I will tell Satan to flee, and he will flee from me. For what Satan plans for evil, what we do to ourselves is turned to evil, but God works it for good. ALWAYS. (Genesis 50:20)

So let’s wear our flaws on our sleeves. Let’s finish what we started. Let’s let nothing be undone.

Lord, Finish this work that you started. Forgive me for trying to do it all on my own. Thank you for making me learn this lesson over and over and over again so that I have to keep coming back to you, so that my efforts are in vain, and you are glorified. Thank you that you are strong and powerful and the source of my strength. Strengthen my weak knees, lift my weary hands to you, and make straight paths for my feet, Lord, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Heal me, Father. Amen.

(Hebrews 12: 12-13)

To Those Who Say We Should Fire Bad Teachers

I recently found a strongly worded article that I wrote in my second year of teaching. I’m now starting my eighth year, and though I am for once not in a public school, I still get fired up thinking about those who make claims like, “We should just fire all of the bad teachers” or “Teachers’ pay or position should depend upon their students’ test scores.” Want to know why I get so fired up? Feel free to read. I stand by those words as much today as I did then.  

To Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert in response to their recent Newsweek article about firing bad teachers,

As a second year teacher, I have no argument with the premise that bad teachers should be let go. Of course, teachers who have made mistakes as grievous as the ones mentioned at the end of your article should not still be teaching. However, I do have a serious problem with proposing that we treat school as a business (implied through many of the arguments and quotes of this article). School is not a business. It is not something you opt into. It is a requirement for every child in the United States, and unlike businesses, public schools do not hire and fire kids for uncompleted work or for failing to perform up to their potential.

I teach with a veteran teacher who is close to retirement. Yesterday, we sat talking about this Newsweek article at lunch, and she rightly chose to give a rebuttal to the comment that, “Once upon a time, American students tested better than any other students in the world. […] the achievement gap between white students and poor and minority students stubbornly persists—and as the population of disadvantaged students grows, overall scores continue to sag.” She pointed out that when she began her teaching career, her only real options were to become a teacher or a nurse. Also, when she began her teaching career, many students who struggled academically or posed behavior issues dropped out at an early age to get a job. The truth is, that “once upon a time” was a time when struggling students were not as well served by our public education system, and the seeming lack of struggling students then probably added to the fact that students tested well. It may be that the teaching skill has not lowered, but instead we better include struggling students in our schools, and their scores now play a role in our “reputation” as an education system.

In this article, it was quoted that “Measuring teacher performance based in part on the test scores of their pupils would be a no brainer.” I STRONGLY disagree. There is much a teacher has control over – how effectively they teach, how much they continue to learn about the craft of teaching, the rules in his or her classroom, etc. We do not, however, have control over a students’ motivation to learn or a students’ steady increase in grades or test scores. There is much we can do to try to motivate and embolden our students, to help them take risks with their learning and TRY to succeed. However, there is no guarantee. These kids are PEOPLE. Granted, they are not grown and fully developed, but they are PEOPLE and people cannot be controlled fully. They are not wholly predictable, and to compound that, each child is different. If you have taught even a year, or if you have several children, you know that every child responds in different ways, and the “teaching” you do whether in your classroom or in your home with your kids must vary in order to be effective. Bottom line: If scores were used to measure teacher performance, I believe we would lose a lot of good teachers in addition to the bad ones. There are far too many factors playing into a student’s success – their home life, their access to resources, their personality, their learned behaviors, their state of mind, etcetera, to base a teacher’s skill set on his or her students’ test performance, even in part.

Daniel Weisberg, general counsel of The New Teacher Project, was quoted in this article saying that, “the Marine Corps never has any problem meeting its enlistment goals […].” That is fine and good for the Marine Corps, but Marines are in charge of themselves – themselves and possibly a unit of soldiers who are motivated to belong. If a soldier gets out of line and doesn’t perform, they have no responsibility to keep him or her in the program. As a teacher, you are in charge of yourself AND (in my case) 80 students. I can work and work and love them and love them and pray and pray that those students will work hard, and many of them will, but what happens when one doesn’t? Do we kick her out? Do we turn our back? No. Our public education system requires that we persist, and unless she becomes a danger to herself or others, she continues to stay in our school, and there is no guarantee that she will come around. Public education is not a business, and it is not the Marine Corps. It is public education – a whole different organization of a different kind.

I do not claim to have all of the answers, but what I do know is that the public education system does need some reformation and “measuring teacher performance based in part on the test scores of their pupils” is not the solution we need. What I truly believe is that it’s about time that policymakers started asking teachers (those good ones you mentioned, because there are many of us) what we propose, and see how that pans out. I have a feeling the public will be impressed with the solutions we come up with if we are given the time and respect to troubleshoot about our own very noble and very challenging profession.

Sincerely troubled by your article,