Here I am in the city. My children are 12 and 13 and (I'm knocking on wood as I write this) mostly self-sufficient. This week they have spent their afternoons at basketball camp, and my afternoons have been free to fill as I please.
This process feels a bit like getting to know myself again. In our previous small town life I would've filled my time with busyness or noise. Nothing to do? Turn on some HGTV. Not sure how to fill an hour? Might as well fold laundry and scroll through Facebook. This past month has forced me into more quietness. For one thing, we didn't have internet at the new house for a couple of weeks. That means I had to wean myself from the meaningless Facebook scrolling. I couldn't waste my precious data. Pandora couldn't even be streamed, taking away the background music that defines my world.
Adding to this dynamic is the knowledge I will not be a full-time teacher in the fall. I am teaching one college course at a small private school, but in ways I feel like I've been stripped of my identity: high school English teacher. That's not to say I won't return to that profession, but it does mean that obsessive planning and reformulating of units doesn't eat my time.
So here, in no particular order (and for the five people who might read this blog), are some things I've been learning/rediscovering about myself:
"Well, I was born in a small town," as John Mellencamp would say.
As as matter of fact, I didn't grow up IN the small town; I grew up in the country outside the small town. It was a blissful childhood full of bike rides down the gravel road to meet up with Gina so we could "ride into town." Lazily with seemingly no destination, my Flower Power one-speed would pedal beside Gina's bike. We didn't need a trail of breadcrumbs because it was impossible to get lost. A familiar landmark dotted every corner: Marian and Irene's house with my favorite porch swing, the softball diamond stirring up a cyclone of dust behind my beloved elementary school, Casey's on the highway, the dilapidated library where precious librarian Grace would stamp check-out cards in stacks of books each week. I was a small town girl.
College and married life brought me to more small towns. The population grew some, but I could still be on a first-name basis with the postal clerk and the bank teller. I still had to be a tiny bit embarrassed to buy wine at the local grocery store because surely a student of mine would be bagging my order. I lived in towns where I knew street names and business owners along with rumors of neighbor's marital distress and alcohol abuse problems. I was still a small town girl.
Still. There's always been something in me that loved the pulse of the city. Chris and I spent countless weekends in St. Louis and Kansas City, Nashville and New York City. We discovered favorite sushi restaurants and listened to live music in dive bars. We used public transportation and looked at online reviews to find out-of-the-way donut and ice cream shops. We were also city people.
Now after two weeks of living in St. Paul, I guard my words because I don't want to gush too much. It feels like a new relationship. I'm afraid to talk too much of this sweet new guy because I might jinx it. Maybe if I focus too much on the positive traits, some totally nasty flaw might surface that will make me run in the other direction. I also don't want to hurt the feelings of my previous loves, you know? I mean, those other boyfriends were great, too. Seriously. And they made me who I am today and taught me what is really important about life. I wouldn't be who I am today without them.
Still. This new love is pretty sweet. Yesterday we checked out a global market in Minneapolis where we picked up some baklava and local beers. Then we ordered authentic Chinese takeout because we could. This morning we checked out a new church where the pastor addressed racial injustice and our broken judicial system right after we sang a traditional hymn I knew from my days as a child. Father's Day lunch was sushi in an adorable neighborhood followed by a walk around one of the many lakes in the metro area.
I feel a bit swoony and honeymooned, you know? And this feeling of pure bliss probably won't last forever, but it's here for now. Does this mean I reject small town living? Of course not! It also doesn't mean that I think those who choose to live in a small town are making some gargantuan mistake. Because they aren't. And it doesn't mean I don't painfully miss my sister and her crew and my good, good friends who let me be myself. Because I really, really do.
It just means that the four of us (and Rooney!) are here and happy. And that feels really nice.
Sometimes things just find a way of working themselves out.
If you've followed my blog this year, you will know it's been a tough one. I've faced some racist issues in my classroom and dealt with the normal share of teenage apathy. I've blogged about losing my mojo, feeling angst with the first snow, and finding my purpose. I've questioned my career choice and thought about heading a new direction with our move to Minnesota.
Today, however, I had a sweet little moment of closure and hope. Okay, I say "little," but I'm pretty sure this will be one of my "greatest hits" on the soundtrack to my teaching career. Today we finished up College Comp II with some reflective writing and heartfelt hugs at the door, and then in a scene reminiscent of Dead Poets Society, a group of eight junior girls climbed up on my tables and proclaimed, "Oh captain, my captain."
And then I had an ugly cry.
Moving is coming with some Big Feelings, and I'm trying to handle them with grace and focus on leaving well. These eight girls moved me with their final reflective words today, and without even knowing it, they reminded me once again just why I chose this noble profession, one my friend Jennifer described as the most "frustrating and rewarding" career in the world. I won't share my students' words here; they are a personal treasure for me to hold close to my heart, a powerful reminder to push through the teenage apathy and continue always with kindness.
So after probably the hardest year of my teaching career, I was gifted with one of the most treasured experiences of eleven years in the classroom.
Teach Happy, indeed.
I am a teacher.
For the past eleven years, that title has been official. I teach Shakespeare and sentence structure and the Socratic method. Mostly, though, I teach students.
Before I was officially labeled a teacher, I was still a teacher. I played "school" in my basement with a makeshift classroom of stuffed animals and reused worksheets and sample textbooks from my Aunt Rachel who worked at the school. Then I worked at camp and volunteered in youth groups, another form of teaching. And of course now that I'm a mom, I teach every day. Through conversations about relationships with peers and the importance of education, my sons can never escape my classroom, even if they would like a break!
This is my last week in my official teaching position at Okoboji High School, and because I don't have a job for next fall yet, I am feeling an emptiness. Each box of books that gets packed weighs a bit heavier; every student who tells me they wish I was staying brings a few more tears.
I've only been in my current position for eight years, compared to others who have spent a complete career here. I hope, however, that I've made an impact, however small it might be.
If you would have asked me a few months ago, I would have said that our upcoming move to the Twin Cities would offer a much-needed break from teaching. I started looking at corporate training jobs and jobs with Christian nonprofits. I imagined a typical 8-5 job where I took an hour lunch with coworkers and lugged no work home on the weekends. I fantasized about abandoning the rushed 20-minute lunch break with just enough time to warm up leftovers, fill my water bottle, and have a brief discussion of politics with my regular lunch crew. In my new non-teaching world, I wouldn't be responsible for a room full of hormone-crazed adolescents who can't go 10 minutes without checking their Snapchat. In this new fantasy life, I was better paid and better dressed.
But the reality remains; I am a teacher. And as annoyed as I get by some nameless students in my English 2 classes, as bothersome as it can be to run to the restroom between classes because I can't leave my 15-year-olds unsupervised, well, I can't imagine life NOT in a classroom next year. So I'm working on my resume and sending in applications and making plans for Teach Happy vol 2: The Minnesota Years.
This is a reminder to keep things simple.
At parent-teacher conferences a few weeks ago, I had to break the hard news to a mother that her daughter wasn't fully applying herself, her apathy reflected in her grade. We talked about the potential of her lovely young daughter and discussed a plan for moving forward.
A few weeks later that same daughter was excelling in my class. She was engaged and active, learning and growing. So I wrote her a little Post-it note that said something like this: "You are kicking butt lately. Way to go!" I quietly placed it on her table while we were reading and didn't say a word. We never talked about it.
This week in a written reflection, that same student wrote this: "I hope Mrs. Witt is reading this because one day she handed me a note that said something like 'keep up the good work, you're kicking butt.' You have no idea how happy I felt after that. When she gave me that note, that is all I really needed to hear/see. . . after I finally realized that I need to get my crap together and a teacher realized it, that note gave me a little 'umph.'"
I don't write this to brag about myself but to hopefully inspire you. Take 30 seconds today to write an encouraging message on a Post-It note. You have no idea what impact you might have.
Last night I had a nightmare. I was finishing out my last weeks in my classroom, and the teacher who was hired to replace me kept taking down my decorations and bulletin boards without my permission. Eventually I had to interrupt her to say, “Seriously, can this not wait until I’ve finished the year?"
I guess I’m having some insecurities about being replaceable.
I’m probably not alone in this. We want to think that we are the only ones who can do our jobs this well. I want to believe that even after I’ve packed up the books of my classroom library, next year my students will look at each other with a sigh. “We really miss Mrs. Witt.” And some might. I’ve had so many sweet students express their sadness that I am leaving. But the truth of the matter is that the new teacher will be fabulous and the days will march on, and Okoboji and I will go our separate ways.
That’s life when we make big changes.
In case you missed it, my family and I are moving north -- to St. Paul, Minnesota, to be exact. This decision has been in the works for years, really. Chris and I have always dreamed of living in a city, and we are so excited for the opportunities this experience will present to our two sons. In case you missed the beginning of our love story, Chris and I first met at a concert in Kansas City. Since then we’ve loved live music and ethnic restaurants and art museums. Our new metro home will provide ample chances to experience all of those and more.
Of course we’ve also enjoyed our time in Okoboji. The school, the community, our family…so many aspects that we will miss. I’ve cried about leaving my sister and her family, my classroom and colleagues, my students and my house with ample square footage. (City life will require dramatic downsizing. And for those who have asked, we are not choosing a suburb.)
For years Chris and I have whispered in bed at night about this one life we’ve been given. We’ve expressed fears that we will wake up one day and realize that we’ve missed all of the chances thrown our way. So we’re taking this leap.
From a house with three living spaces and room enough to turn cartwheels to a bedroom barely big enough for our furniture and a detached garage. (The horror!)
From classrooms and sports teams where my sons are sometimes the only kids of color to a fabric of racial and religious diversity.
From Iowa to Minnesota. From known to unknown.
The next few weeks will be filled with packing and purging, remembering and refocusing. We will work on looking forward to new adventures and leaving this home with grace and goodness.
The word “essay” first entered our language in 1597. It comes from the French verb essayer, “to try.” Today I try to capture in words my recent feelings regarding race in Middle America.
Let’s start with a conversation I had with my oldest son. He’s 13 now, with the muscles and build of a young adult. He walks with the weight of extra burdens not cast on many of his peers.
He’s had trouble this year with a classmate who carries a heaviness of his own. At one point this student made fun of my black son for the color of his skin. My son reacted in his own heavy way. Heavy seems to be the word of the day.
Black parents often refer to “The Talk” that they must have with their young kids of color. This isn’t about the birds and the bees, however; this is about survival. How do you respond to the police? How do you handle yourself when faced with confrontation? How can you take measures that, while not guaranteed, will hopefully keep you safe?
So in our own heavy moment at home, we have our version of The Talk. (Think about how strange that must feel for my son. We look like the oppressor, not like him.)
We tell him that of course he wants to respond when hateful things are said. Lashing back is in our nature. But he must learn to control the anger. The white boy will instigate, and you will be caught. It’s the law of the land. My husband compares it to basketball, the language my son understands best. One player pushes another, but the push back gets the whistle for the foul.
I call on the powerful words of former First Lady Michelle Obama. Let the classmate go low, but you must always rise high. You have no other choice.
And perhaps the saddest fact of all? We took this child from a country where he was the majority. Where the color of his skin allowed him to blend in and was never the ammunition forced into the weapon of childhood bullying. And we brought him here.
Here. Middle America. Where just last week I had to push pause during a short documentary on the Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 because a handful of my 10th and 11th graders couldn’t control the giggles and suspicious sideways glances every time the n-word was uttered. Here in my home state, Steve King, who says “we can’t restore civilization with someone else’s babies,” routinely wins elections and the support of white supremacist David Duke.
This is also the Middle America of my childhood. Of leisurely bike rides around town with my best friend when our number one priority was having enough change for candy at Casey’s. This is the Middle America of rolling farmland and highways straight like an arrow. This is the Middle America where I first encountered Jesus and had my first kiss and received my college degrees. I love this place.
But this is the Middle America where every year, still, in 2017 my two sons face racist remarks in school. It’s the same place where a student told me that she didn’t experience racism in our high school, saying, “Well, just from my friends, but we all know it’s a joke.” It’s the same place where the Confederate flag is routinely featured on screen savers and in the backs of farm trucks. (For those who need a history refresher, Iowa was a Union state.)
I don’t know what will bring about change.
Last week when we watched the documentary on Selma, I simultaneously marveled that just a few decades ago blacks were denied the right to vote and mourned that we still have conversations today about the motivation of new voter ID laws that most directly impact minorities. I look at the fact that Loving v. Virginia invalidated laws against interracial marriage in 1967, and now 50 years later my husband and I can adopt transracially without fighting in court. At the same time, I look at the racist garbage posted on Facebook and Twitter, sometimes by my students, and think that 50 years hasn’t afforded too much change. I see pockets of progress around me, but I also see the dark corners of Middle America; I peek under the rug where we don’t like to sweep, and I see remnants of a segregated past, an unspoken “know your place” that hasn’t gone away.
And there it is. I’ve tried as Francis Bacon first did in 1597. I haven’t made a clear point. I haven’t drawn any strong conclusions, but I'm trying. I’m sure I’ll try again tomorrow. And the next day and the next day. I’ll try until I get it right.
This month's existential crisis came in the form of Esther. (Is it normal to have a monthly existential crisis?)
I've heard the story of Esther since I was a young girl. Esther, the beautiful queen destined to save her people. Today Pastor John taught on this story again, and I've been emotional since. Mordecai, Esther's uncle, persuades her to act on behalf of the Jews who will otherwise be exterminated at the hands of Haman. Mordecai says, in one of the book's foundational verses, "For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father's family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?" (Esther 4:14).
For such a time as this...
At lunch after church I was distracted. "Esther had a real calling on her life," I said to Chris, "a true Purpose."
'Yes," he replied. "But she didn't know that when she became queen."
And he was right. She didn't know right away, but she eventually knew.
What if I never know?
I had a snow day on Friday and found myself doing some deep cleaning and organizing. In the bottom drawer of my nightstand I found a roll of black and white film that Chris had taken before we were married. I stared at those pictures, trying to remember what I was like at 22. My skin was so smooth with no wrinkles around my eyes. I had not yet decided to become a mother by adoption, and I had yet to lay eyes on my two beautiful sons. I was finishing up my teaching degree, and as always, I loved learning. I stayed up later and said yes to more adventures. I wore thrift store t-shirts with cut-off camouflage pants.
I believed there was a Purpose for me.
Soon I had a vocation: English teacher. And I've had moments where my work feels like a passion, but I wouldn't say it's ever felt like Purpose. I felt a hint of that purpose during my summers working with youth at camp. I've felt similar hints when I've met with young girls for Bible study. And of course there's always been my dream to be a back-up singer. I don't need the fame and spotlight of a lead singer; no, just give me a mic and let me sing harmonies. Likewise, I read the work of professional bloggers and think, "Oh, I would love to do that," but that's not my calling either.
I'm always living in my head, asking all of these big questions and not often getting answers. Maybe I'll never know my "for such a time as this." Maybe my purpose isn't saving a whole people group like Esther. Maybe it's being a mom and teaching students about Orwell and helping young writers find their voice. Or maybe it's something totally different. Or nothing. Or everything.
See what I mean? Existential crisis.
My personal and professional lives overlapped in the power of the prodigal son.
It was the assigned reading for College Comp II, a part of our chapter on analysis. This is a class all about close reading and writing. It comes with a heavy serving of reading and discussion. Maybe you know the story. Father has two sons. Younger son takes money and runs. Lives the party life. Finds himself destitute and living with pigs. Literally. Comes home to rejoicing father. Older brother is peeved. Still, celebration ensues.
"This is a story about bad parenting," a student remarked.
I nearly spit out my tea.
"Can you explain more?" I queried.
"Sure. The kid didn't learn a lesson. The father gives and gives and gives. The older son has every right to be angry. How does the dad expect the son to learn from his mistakes?"
A lively discussion followed. We talked about grace and forgiveness, about cultural context, about the importance of character placement. (Just why is the older son there? What is his role?) We talked openly about how our own parents might shape our interpretation, and my students looked for my input as the sole mother in the room.
"Well, you know," I began, "in my house we mess up every day. In big ways and little ways, myself included. When my kids come to me and say they're sorry about something, my first response is always to hug and kiss and forgive. Then I move into teaching and correction."
"Oh, in my house that was always opposite," the same student who initiated the conversation reflected.
That same night as I sat in church, I thought again about the parable that I've read hundreds of times and heard dozens of sermons about. While many of my students connected to the older brother, I always find myself relating to the younger son, maybe because I've been the one messing up so very many times. Unlike the younger son, it seems like I'm always drifting away, not necessarily running at full speed. But then I blink and discover I'm away from my Source, the One who really loves and welcomes me home. (Oh, I do so love the love of Jesus.)
I sat in church and reflected on my own parents, the ones who first introduced me to that deep, deep love of Jesus around the oak kitchen table as Dad read devotions. The parents who took me each week to sit on the stark wooden pews with a soundtrack of rumbling hymns that taught of "streams of mercy, never ceasing."
My parents always sided with grace. Family folklore tells the story of the night I missed my curfew. (I'm sure my siblings can also recite the details by heart.) I was sitting in a friend's yard on a perfect summer night when I saw headlights coming down the road. I had already missed my midnight curfew by at least an hour. "It's my dad," I joked. And it was. He cranked down the manual window and said four words to me: "Get your butt home."
And I did. I learned from that lesson, too. I wasn't berated or shamed when I got home. I was first hugged because my parents had been worried that my car was in a ditch on a gravel road. Yes, there were consequences for my actions because I had broken the rules. But I was corrected in love. Grace always won.
This lesson will come back to the classroom, too, because I label this as a teaching blog. I hope I'm known as a teacher who sides with grace. This morning two senior boys came into my classroom on the day our Kate Chopin literary analysis is due. Our school has had district-wide filtering and network issues this week. These boys had both been victims with no access to their first drafts. I could have said, "I'm sorry, but there will be a penalty for your actions." And maybe I should've. But I will forever be that young girl in an old church singing, "Let that grace now like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee." So instead I said, "I understand extenuating circumstances. I know the tech is up and running now, so try to get it to me by the end of the day." And each boy smiled and said, "Thanks, I will."
So that's my response today, too. "Thanks. I will."
Today to start the new year in my classroom, I introduced my students to Naomi Shihab Rye's poem "Burning the Old Year." I reflect on this poem each year at this time, and my hope is that my students can take something away from it as well.
I like to teach.