I have always loved a college campus.
Last fall Chris and I attended a concert in an auditorium on the campus of the University of Minnesota, and I couldn't wipe the silly grin off my face. In my memory, it's perpetually fall on a campus. The leaves always have the perfect under-foot crunch, and the crisp air whispers secrets of cozy sweatshirts and too-full backpacks and stolen glances at the cute boy in my writing class.
Now I'm a grown-up, and my new teaching chapter has me on a campus again. I'm teaching two sections of Composition I and helping a student in a writing lab. I'm just two days in, but so far the change of pace feels just right.
Chris and I intentionally made the not-so-easy financial decision for me to step away from the full-time classroom this year so I'm more available as our boys transition to a new school. I will be there when they leave for school and come home from school, and in the ideal world, I'll get my work done while they're gone so that I can be more present with them at home. (Those who are familiar with the world of teaching composition realize how laughable that dream is, but it's nice to have hope still.)
I'm parking in faculty-only spaces and trying not to giggle when students all me "Professor." (I'm just waiting for someone to ask me how to get to Potions class.) I'm wearing a ridiculous grin when I walk through the beautiful brick buildings and looking out my row of classroom windows. I'm teaching again, and that feels just right.
I grew up briefly learning about the KKK in history class. "Wow. So much hate," I probably thought. And we learned about the Nazis, too. Of course we did. I read historical nonfiction, my thoughts consumed that it was possible to have that much visceral hate towards a group of people different than you. But it was all in the past. I had yet to learn about implicit bias and systemic racism. I could tuck those scary bad guys into the same category as black-and-white TV and the horse and buggy: historical artifacts.
So imagine my horror when I woke this past weekend to see a new visceral kind of hate. This kind didn't wear masks or starched uniforms. This kind looked remarkably like some of my former students or classmates when I was in college. This kind had the same hatred on their face directed at people different than them. And seeing these images now feels different than seeing them when I was a child for two reasons: 1) This is MY lifetime, not the lifetime of my grandparents. 2) I am the mother of children who are in one of the hated groups.
So this week I watched the video with Chris Cantwell, a white nationalist leader, and I heard him say without emotion, "I think a lot more people are going to die before we're done here," and that scares me. Because the bad guys aren't tucked away in my history book anymore. They are gathering and organizing and making plans. I see the map of hate groups and realize that yes, there are a few here in my new state of Minnesota. I listen to NPR and hear experts on white nationalists talk about the strength of the movement and their agenda to make sure that whites remain the majority in our country. Yes, some are willing to use violence to achieve that goal. And there it is again: fear and sadness. Fear for the safety of my children, especially my son who struggles to control his anger and refuses to back down from a fight. Sadness that this is really the country I brought my Black children to. Sadness that I haven't fallen into some strange time machine; it truly is 2017.
Last fall Chris and I took a class on the hard conversations that come when we discuss racism. We learned more about implicit bias and systemic racism. We heard a bit more about what it means to be an ally, on creating dialogue to hopefully build bridges. So when things like Charlottesville happen, like many others, I post articles that speak to me on Facebook. Maybe it's silly because most of the people who don't believe that racism is still a problem in our country have hidden me from their newsfeeds years ago. But still I post. And sometimes there is a dialogue, and sometimes there is not. Sometimes people get riled up, and sometimes they do not. Often, though, I lose sleep. That I need to work on.
Parenting transracially adopted children brings a whole host of challenges that Chris and I weren't prepared for. There, I said it. We weren't prepared. We were ignorant white folks who thought that racism was a thing of the past and everyone was the same on the inside anyway, so why did it matter if we lived in an all-white town in Iowa?
And then we began the hard road of parenting. We heard our child get yelled at by a grown-up for leaving his bike in the wrong spot, while all of the white children who parked their bikes in the same exact spot weren't addressed at all. We saw the police pull up to our house because our sons were seen doing something suspicious at the park behind our house while the white friend who was with them sat safely in his house without a visit from the police. We watched while our son was followed around a gift shop at the Grand Canyon while the white children wandered the aisles freely. We yelled at our child to put down his friend's airsoft gun because we could still see Tamir Rice's face. We made sure to stay near them in convenience stories, especially when traveling in other parts of the country. We had The Talk again and again and again because the world will treat them differently. It already has. We called church leaders and emailed principals when our son was called the n-word or made fun of because his skin looked different. We talked to our boys about microaggressions and why they don't have to let others touch their hair and how to correct grown-ups when their name is mispronounced.
It's tiring, and we had no clue. And to think the the African-American community has endured a lifetime of this fatigue. We have great friends to offer support and encouragement on the journey, but some days it feels incredibly lonely and isolating as we learn who is in our corner and who isn't.
Others using their voices to speak out don't feel scared and sad; they feel angry. Angry at injustice and the baffling reactions from Trump and the silence from their white neighbors. Anger isn't my go-to emotion because I'm so damn sensitive, but I understand that anger, too. And sometimes that means our words aren't measured; our reactions might get messy.
I'm not even sure my point in writing this other than to say that I'm watching history repeat itself and I refuse to be a bystander. I wrote earlier this week about the importance of speaking out, and I will continue to do so in some way. Because I want a better world for my kids, for all of us. In this process I'm probably burning some bridges and hopefully building others.
I witnessed a powerful, personal manifestation of racial reconciliation at Heartland Vineyard Church in Waterloo, Iowa, many years ago. A former white supremacist stood at the front of the church and shared his testimony, a story of redemption and transformation -- from hate to love, from dark to light. Many in the congregation were crying as this man emotionally spoke, and at the end, two Black women from the church body quietly stood, walked to the front of the church, and hugged the man as he wept. It was the most powerful, concrete display of forgiveness and grace that I have ever had the privilege of watching. A hush fell over the church because we knew the Spirit of God was among us.
Job 12: 22 "He reveals the deep things of darkness and brings utter darkness into light."
Here I am, years later, and today I sat in Mercy Vineyard Church in the Twin Cities. I've been in a very vulnerable emotional space lately. I miss my sister and my coworkers, and while I had many difficult days last school year, the knowledge I am not returning has filled me with Big Feelings. And then yesterday in Charlottesville a group of emboldened and brazen white nationalists left me feeling shaken and scared for my country, for my children.
In church I silently hoped that Pastor Jeff would speak of these issues, and he did not disappoint. He proclaimed that those who used the Bible to support their racist worldview were completely wrong. He boldly prayed for our brothers and sisters of color, and he spoke the Truth about hatred and darkness. The congregation responded with applause and amens and nods of affirmation, and we continued with our study of Ruth.
Micah 6:8 "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."
I sat throughout the rest of church today thinking about silence and complicity. Our pastor made it very clear where our church stands. We are FOR the marginalized in our community; we support justice and mercy and denounce racists and white nationalism. He spoke boldly.
Many of my friends and family are speaking out online and in public against the violence in Charlottesville. They are posting articles and attending vigils and using their voices to combat the clanging of hatred. As I post articles, these friends and family share comments of affirmation; they start conversations with their neighbors. They are not being silent in the face of hatred.
These conversations are not easy, and they involve words that we aren't comfortable using in our world today. My own sons were shocked this morning when I told them of the events that had unfolded. My 13-year-old learned about the Nazis last year in school, so when I told him that this rally involved Nazi flags and armbands, he was in disbelief. Have we learned nothing? It's hard to talk about white nationalists, white supremacy, the KKK and neo-Nazis. In 2017, well-meaning white folks such as myself like to believe that chapter of our country's history is behind us. Yesterday should serve as a wake-up call to us. We need to boldly denounce these actions and beliefs. What is our silence saying?
Revelation 5:9 "And they sang a new song, saying, 'Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.'"
I believe that one day God will set all things right. And in the meantime, I believe we have a lot of work to do. Like the former white supremacist at Heartland Vineyard who shared his sin so many years ago, we all have some soul-searching to do. Where is my privilege? How am I experiencing prejudice? What difficult conversations do I need to have? Where do I need to ask for forgiveness? And perhaps most importantly, how can I show love?
Psalm 33:5 "The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love."
I am no longer a teenager or twenty-something.
I haven't been for awhile now. As a matter of fact, I'm closer to a forty-something at this point. Sometimes, though, I forget. Does that happen to you?
Yesterday I took the boys to the beach to hide from the humidity for a few hours. We drove down the highway blaring hip hop, and for a few miles, they were quiet, allowing me to slip silently into my own memories.
When I was a teenager, I had this pink paisley bandeau bikini. I was all skin and bones and gangly limbs, but still. I wore that bikini with cut-off denim shorts and spent hours at the lake with friends. We were teenagers; we owned the summer. I kissed a boy I thought I loved and floated on my back under a sea of stars. I would be sixteen forever.
When I was a few years older, I wore a different bikini at a different beach. It was the Fourth of July, and I made some ridiculously foolish choices that sill make me blush. Still, I worked on my tan and maybe kissed that same boy again and owned more summer. I would be nineteen forever.
But then time marched on.
I guess you would say my experiences at the beach have changed a bit. I wasn't sixteen or nineteen forever, and I won't stay in my 30s. I'm working hard to embrace this new season. I worry more about slathering on sunscreen than lip gloss, and I play frisbee with my kids rather than flirt with an innocent crush. And when I get home, I study the earned roadmap of wrinkles around my eyes, make peace with my age, and turn on the Lumineers or Alt-J as a dinner-making soundtrack. Now I kiss a different man; I make wiser choices.
I am no longer a teenager or twenty-something. And that is just fine with me. That contentment takes work, though. In a world with picture-perfect magazine covers and plastic surgery, sometimes feeling my age feels more like inadequacy. When I walk through the grocery store aisles, I'm not turning heads; I'm trying to remember where to find artichoke hearts. When I study my reflection in the mirror, I'm not taking note of a tantalizing tan; I'm cursing the heredity that gifted me with varicose veins and too-small ears. But still.
I think of my grandmothers, each with beautiful white or gray hair and wrinkled hands that were soft to hold. So I will try to study my face with a dose of grace and imagine my future with grandchildren holding my wrinkled hands. Maybe we'll be on a beach somewhere.
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.
I like to teach.