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Monday, May 23, 2011

The Complexity of People

If I have learned nothing else in the last several years, I have learned that people are complicated. It has become abundantly clear that we are all full of contradictions. We strive to live a certain way, but inevitably we fail.

Sometimes we own our failures and work to do better in the future. I know that sometimes I have to learn the same lesson over and over (and over and over) again. To give an easy example, my encounters with procrastination are many. I am perfectly aware that it is one of my challenges, but I often (not always) still fall into my procrastinating ways.

I was reading a student essay today that said that people who commit the same sin multiple times should go to Hell, because (he says) if they're truly sorry, they wouldn't be a repeat offender. Incidentally, the writer is a student who has made the same mistakes more than once. I wonder if he believes he is Hell-bound. If he does, I hope that at some point he learns to forgive himself and to ask others for forgiveness. I hope he recognizes his strengths in addition to his weaknesses.

Within the last 24 hours, I have been made publicly aware of both my strengths and my shortcomings. The two incidents reminded me of my own complexity. My reaction to recognition of my success was, "Do I deserve this? Yes, I do. I think I do, but do I really?" My reaction to recognition of my failure was, "Do I deserve this? Yes, I do. I think I do. Yes, I do."

It always seems to be easier to recognize the bad things about ourselves. Thank God other people see the good and point it out, because sometimes we (or at least I) get too caught up in the bad and lose sight of the good within. The challenge is seeing both good and bad and accepting both. The challenge is accepting the contradictions within all people, not just ourselves.

May we learn to embrace complexity.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Last day

Today was my last official day of classes. To say it was a "class day" is a bit of a euphemism. We didn't have class. We celebrated. I often do this at the end of the year and this year, even if I weren't leaving, these kids deserved a celebration. They worked hard.

When I look back on the year, I realize how high my expectations have been for my kids. I expect a lot from myself and I do the same for my students. Sometimes I am disappointed. But if I look at this year and think about my boys, I am definitely not disappointed. I was talking today to my juniors, who I pushed particularly hard, and told them how thankful I am for all of the work they've done. I told them I know that I asked a lot of them and said that they had met my expectations. A student asked if they exceeded my expectations and I said that in some ways they had. As I thought more about it, I wish I had just answered yes. They succeeded in so many ways. They opened their minds and hearts to others whom, though they may not have even realized it before, they had looked down on. They wrote pieces of their own stories and trusted each other enough to share them. They considered the ideas of non-violence and forgiveness and some might even try to practice them in their lives... Those are a few of their larger successes.

There were many smaller day-to-day successes, too. Today is a perfect example. Students signed up to bring food for their class parties, and they followed through (which hasn't always been the case). While this may sound like nothing to someone who's not a teacher, they were quiet and reverent today during prayer, even when the front of the room was filled with food for them to eat, the sun was shining outside, and the end of school was fast approaching. They filled their plates in an orderly manner and when it was time, cleaned up after themselves. End-of-the-year parties have never gone so smoothly. I think they had fun and I am grateful that they allowed me to relax during what could have been a chaotic and stressful day.

Today for the most part I held myself together; I didn't shed too many tears. I'm holding on to the fact that I still have a few days that I'll see my kids in the classroom, if only for their exams. My juniors have a book project to finish up, which may extend past next week when we finish exams. I also have a few service days over the summer...so I'm putting off my real "last day." I know I need to let go so that I have open arms to embrace what's next. I'm still working on it...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Drops in the Ocean

A few days ago for the first time, I noticed a Gandhi quote in a friend's classroom: “You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.” Sometimes I focus on the dirty drops- I am pessimistic. I despair. When I am in optimist mode, I see the beauty of the ocean, the abundant goodness that surrounds me, both in humanity and in life.

A couple days ago I got a flat tire. It happened in front of my house, so it wasn't a big deal. When I told my mom about it, she said, "Boy, when it rains, it pours." I couldn't imagine what she was talking about until she reminded me of my kitchen that's been without a ceiling for about 2 months and some other thing that recently went wrong that for the life of me I can't remember right now. I was clearly in optimist mode, because the various issues really just felt like small dirty drops in the ocean of abundant goodness. No big deal. And in the grand scheme of things, they're not a big deal.

I don't have a ceiling, but I do have a roof and my kitchen is well-stocked with food. My tire went flat, but I live a block from a bus line. Though I was ready to to take the bus to school, my dad offered to drive me to school, and he woke up earlier than usual to do so. Thanks, Dad!

There are times when I feel overwhelmed by schoolwork. Then I remember that I am so fortunate to have a job, one that is fulfilling and, I hope, adds to the beauty, rather than the dirt of the ocean. One student told me the other day that he hopes he can make a difference in the world. His desire is one more drop to add to the beauty...Another student wrote a beautiful and unexpected essay reflecting on The Freedom Writers Diary, a book that we have just finished reading...another beautiful drop. May there be many more.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Loving my neighbor

It occurred to me today that someone reading this might wonder with what authority I can name my blog "Love thy neighbor," with the address being "trulylovethyneighbor". After all, I could give many examples in which I have failed miserably at loving my neighbor.

Those would be the times I didn't notice someone in need...the times I didn't listen...or I did listen and did not act compassionately...the times I simply did not act at all...the times I flat out did something I knew was wrong... If I were to list all those times, this would be a very long entry.

When I was talking to my students today about the death of Bin Laden, a student said that radical Islamists think we are infidels and want us dead and there is nothing we can do to change that mentality. My response was that I have never personally encountered such people, so I can't say from my own experience that if it is true. However, I went on to say, speaking from my experience as a teacher who from time to time has students in class who are pretty hateful and disrespectful towards me, I can say that when I treat those same students with the respect they don't give me, our relationship often changes. We may never have an easy relationship, but in most cases, they become a little easier. It would be simpler to write them off, but that would be a failure to do my job.

In fact, just today I had a wonderful conversation with a former student who I'm pretty sure added some gray hairs to my head. He was a student who gave me lots to pray about when he was in my class. I prayed for his well-being (his life was not the easiest and he didn't seem to be making it any easier for himself) and for my own capacity for patience with him. And despite the very difficult relationship we'd had, here we were having this lovely conversation in which he was telling me about the changes he's made in his life. Amazing.

So, while I have heard that radical Muslims want me dead because I am Christian, if I ever encounter one, I hope I will treat him or her like a human being, showing respect and giving the person, and the idea of transformation, a chance. How could I do anything else?

After school I was thinking about what I'd said and I wished I'd pointed out that while I try to practice what I preach, I fail and fail and fail. But I keep trying. And maybe that's what's important.

It may be that I have no authority to write about loving my neighbor, but I find that doing so helps me to try to live according to that ideal. The more I write about it, the more I am reminded of my goal. Thanks for allowing me to do so.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Revenge or justice?

Proverbs 24:17: "Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice."

The first thing I heard when I turned my radio on this morning was that Osama Bin Laden was killed. I was shocked. I wasn't really sure how I felt. My students asked me what I thought and I didn't have much of an answer. I haven't really had time to process it until now.

So here it is: I am sad. Let me clarify. I know that Bin Laden and his followers caused many deaths and great destruction. My heart aches for all of those who have died or lost loved ones because of radical ideology, Muslim or otherwise. My heart aches for those who have died, lost loved ones, or been separated from loved ones in faraway wars.

I think I grieve most today, however, for the sheer joy, exhilaration, revelry I see people expressing over someone's death. Ding dong the witch is dead! Let's party! That is the vibe I am getting, but it is not the one I feel.

Maybe I would feel differently if I had a closer personal connection to the violence in our world. I don’t know. But what I feel currently is heaviness of heart. I am reminded today that too often in our world, we use the word justice when we really mean revenge. These are two very different concepts, but we often use them interchangeably. With Bin Laden's death, revenge was accomplished. We got back at him. But won't some people want revenge for his death now? Will his death bring an end to some of the suffering in our world? I am doubtful.

Justice is about bringing our world into greater harmony. When people are excited about death (anyone's death) and destruction, we are surely not in a place of harmony. Was justice accomplished? Again, I am doubtful.