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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Gratitude

All I aim to do here is to express my absolute gratitude for kindness, in particular for those who have been kind to me. As people learn of my plans for next year, so many people- students, parents of students, teachers, friends, family- have expressed interest in what I'm doing. They have asked questions, offered prayers, and wished me luck. They have asked me to keep in touch and through my blog, I hope to do so.

What is most humbling is that some have told me I'm doing God's work. Wow. Doing God's work. I don't know if I'm doing God's work or not. I hope I am. Actually I hope all of us are. We all have ways we can and do contribute to this world. So perhaps I should remind those people that they are also doing God's work in their own way...

When I think about what lies ahead, I know that were it not for all the people who have and continue to encourage me, I would not be who I am or where I am. So since you are likely one of the people I make reference to above, thank you.

Thank you. Thank you. (I like to repeat important phrases, so let me go for one more.) Thank you.

My Boys

Six years ago I took a job teaching at an all-boys high school. When I accepted the position, I was terrified of working with high school boys. My previous experience was with elementary students. Also I have always been a woman with primarily female friends, so boys, particularly of the adolescent variety, were intimidating.

Today I refer to my students as "my boys." I love my boys. They are sweet sensitive, and more thoughtful than they're given credit for. Of course, there are some who take up more than their fair share of my energy. They are usually the ones who have lots more on their emotional plate than they should at their age.

I am not a mother, but I think with my boys I feel a small fraction of what a parent must feel: pride, frustration, sorrow, joy, helplessness, hopefulness. My emotions have run the gamut. I have watched transformations- some good, some bad. I have seen boys grow into confident young men. I have seen boys find their own voice. I have also seen (thankfully not often) boys self-destruct.

Originally I was hired to teach Spanish. Now I primarily teach theology, the kind of theology classes that challenge my boys and me to be the best people we can be. As a result of trying to practice what I preach, I make extra efforts to relate to the kids who are not the easiest. For that same reason, I visited a boy in jail. When I became a teacher, never did I imagine I'd be visiting a student in jail. But even the boy I visited, who was convicted of some pretty horrible things, is still one of "my" boys. I think there are people who don't understand why I went or how I could possibly continue a relationship with him. To be honest, I'm not quite sure myself. However, I can't imagine doing otherwise. He was, and is, one of my boys. That's the best I can do to explain.

Normally at this point in the school year, I want nothing more than to be finished. This year I am not so eager. While I am excited for what's to come, the idea of leaving my boys, particularly the boys I have taught for 2 years who will graduate next year, makes me so sad. If I am back in the country by their graduation, I will certainly go.

I am so grateful for these last six years. I will cherish these last few days with my boys.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Fear

I have been thinking about fear.

My students just read two essays about successful use of nonviolence- in the lives of individuals and in the cases of Denmark and Le Chambon, France against the Nazis during WWII. As we began the discussion today, several students (as expected) said that the use of nonviolence in the personal cases we read were really cases of people who got lucky, because there are a lot more cases of people getting attacked where the attack was not stopped. I acknowledged (as I always do) that we can see many cases of violence in our world...and proposed that the problem is not that people have tried nonviolence and failed, but that they failed to try nonviolence in the first place, so there was no possible chance for it to succeed. (Incidentally, there is an awesome quote by Joan Baez about this. If I had it here, I'd quote it.)

One of the examples in the essay we were discussing (Gerard Vanderhaar's "Nonviolent Response to Assault") is of a woman and her children whose car has broken down by the side of the road. A man with a gun comes up to them and the woman looks him in the eye and tells him to put the gun away and push the car...which he does. One student asked what I would do in the situation and I said I honestly don't know, but that I hoped that, like the woman, I would try to engage the potential attacker as a human being and take control of the situation, rather than allow my fear, and the other person, to be in charge.

Of course, I have no idea if that's what I'd do, but I sincerely hope I would. In another example, as a man is being attacked, he starts yelling out to Jesus and the attackers run away. As I was thinking about this example, I decided that if I am ever in such a situation (or some other volatile situation), I'd love to start singing the song "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me." Who knows what the outcome would be, but at the very least, it would calm me.

I hope I would have the courage to use nonviolence. However, I have been in too many situations (maybe not of potential violence, but certainly risky in other ways) where I have chosen fear. The fear is about speaking up...speaking up when I see something that is clearly wrong. Just the other day I was reading a journal entry of a student who wrote about a presentation by the Invisible Children of Uganda. He said he'd seen the presentation before and yet had not acted on it, even though he was moved by it. He was upset with himself for his inaction. I understood. Along with the comments I wrote back to him, I gave him a short reflection by Mary Lou Kownacki called "Guilty Bystander." It seems there are many of us who do not speak out or act when we know we should (in one class we've recently discussed sins of omission...hmmm). Fear, and sometimes laziness, are powerful. They are also very useful for those who do harm.

Recently I did speak up about something. I am doubtful that my voice will change anything. But I feel good that if nothing else, I have drawn attention to something that needs attention. I was a little nervous to say it, but I am so glad I did. Like the woman in the car, I chose to engage, rather than shy away because of fear.

Sadly, I feel like using my voice then was my exception rather than my rule. I hope and pray that speaking and acting will become my rule and my habit, not my exception.

I pray that God will help me overcome fear.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Joy and Happiness

Yesterday I was with a group of boys visiting a graduate of my school. The young man we were visiting was in a near-fatal car accident a few days after he graduated (in 2009). Since the accident he has been in a slow process of recovery. He has almost no mobility, cannot talk, but can at least respond to yes/no questions by giving a thumbs up or thumbs down. When someone talks to him and he is interested in what the person says, his eyes focus completely on what is being said. It is clear that, though he may not be able to express it, his mind is working. As a colleague said to me, "When he looked at me, I knew I was looking into the eyes of Jesus."

When we go visit him, we talk to him, tell him school news, and of late, just hang out. Yesterday the time with him was spent playing various Wii sports. The boys took turns playing for him. It is so cool to witness their interaction with him and care for him. So cool.

His father happened to arrive while we were still there and I told him of my plans for next year. As we were leaving, he said he hoped I found happiness in the upcoming year. His tone seemed to indicate that he thinks I am not currently happy. Perhaps I misinterpreted. I told him that I love what I am doing now and that one of the hardest parts about my new adventures will be leaving the boys, particularly the juniors, many of whom I've had in class for 2 years. Again, his reaction led me to believe he thought I said what I said only because I was with boys.

However, it's true. I love what I do on a daily basis. I love talking to boys about justice issues. I love seeing them open their minds and hearts to people or groups of people they may have previously dismissed. I love reading what they write.

When I go with them on service projects, I often see their new sense of appreciation for what they have. I see connections form between kids who didn't previously know each other. I see kids who may not excel in class excel in the labor or, as in the case I describe above, simple presence, they provide. Witnessing these moments bring me incredible joy and happiness, even when I start the day wishing I were elsewhere (which, sadly, sometimes happens).

I continue to assert that high school boys are much more thoughtful than they are given credit for. They just need the chance to practice. While I know I am not always successful, I love trying to give them that chance. When they take that chance, I am filled with joy.

This year and all my years of teaching have brought me happiness, perhaps not in every moment (there have been some difficult ones, to be sure), but overall. It will be with sadness that I leave. I have already shed some tears and know that I'll shed more as the end of the school year approaches. Even when my life is filled with new experiences, I will remember the joy and happiness I found in working with "my" boys.

I am certain that next year there will be many new wonders as I wander the world. My joy will come not because I am leaving here, but rather because what I experience there.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Following My Gut

A year or so ago, I considered keeping a blog. This is the result, though as you can see, I haven't been writing. Last week I was in Belize with another teacher and 10 students. We kept a blog. I was reminded how much I like to write and so I thought that perhaps it might be time to start writing again...more than twice in a year!

There has been a lot on my mind of late. I am leaving my teaching job to travel and volunteer abroad next year. I know I'll go to India (that's where I'll volunteer for a few months). I know I'll go to Israel and Palestine (I'd like to be in Bethlehem for Christmas and I may stay there for awhile if I find a good place to do some volunteering). I know I'll go to Europe (I have friends and family there and would like to do some sight-seeing, too). But there are many unknowns.

When I tell people of my plans, some say they'd love to take a year-long vacation like me. I know that I don't want to be on a year-long vacation. Some compare my upcoming journey to Eat, Pray, Love. I have thought often of the book, and perhaps there are some similarities in our journeys. No doubt, like the author, I will learn about myself, though that is not my primary goal. Some tell me what I'm doing is brave. However, I don't feel like I am doing anything particularly brave. I'm doing what I have to do. I'm following my gut. It's not brave; it's just right. It doesn't even feel like I've made a choice, but have simply given in (and I don't mean that in a negative way) to a choice made for me...

There has been a stirring within for about 2 years. It was only this past summer that some clarity came to me about where that stirring might lead me. It was when I read the book Half the Sky that it hit me: it's time to go to India to work with women (India had been on my mind for years). That was what had been brewing. When I finally knew, I KNEW. I started making preparations to make it happen.

There have been times during the school year when I've wondered if I'm doing the right thing because many wonderful things have happened with kids in my classes and on service projects. However, I always come back to the stirring, the pull (and when I am talking to someone face to face about it, I always find myself making a gesture as if there is a string tied to my belly that is being pulled). I can't deny it. I have to go.

As I said, there are many unknowns. But strangely, they don't worry me very often: who is going to care for my cats, who will live in my house, where will I be a year from now? Recently the plans I've had in my head for months got turned upside down, which stressed me out momentarily. But after thinking further, I realized it was just God's way of letting me know who's in charge. If I'm truly going to follow the pull, I have to REALLY follow it, not just pretend.

And so the plans continue to unfold...