Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Downside to Dum-Dums

I was sitting in a Starbucks this morning, waiting for a coffee companion who would ultimately never show.  I had arrived to our meeting early, intending to prepare and organize a few notes, but instead I started writing.  Here's what happened:

Friday I had an interesting interaction with two of my students.  The first was a fifth grade girl.  She had opened the fridge where our students keep their water bottles. provided by the program, and where I keep the students' drinks and dinners for the week.  You may also find the occasionally abandoned soft drink, not to mention at least 2 bottles each of chocolate and strawberry syrup used to flavor the white milk almost none of my students want to drink.  A little flavor goes a long way.

Anyway, she's opened the fridge to get her water bottle, which is numbered to discourage students from sharing more than just water.  Standing with the fridge open, she realizes her bottle is empty and says that she'll just drink from her older brother's bottle.  She's going to wait for us "to fill up her bottle" for her.

Excuse me?

I looked at her and stated simply that LA and I are not responsible for filling up the bottles.  The only time we even worry with them is when we wash them [or pick them up from the table, floor, desk, playground, etc where they are carelessly left].  Despite her family's presence in our program for a number of years, this student seemed surprised that it was her responsibility to refill her water.  [And as far as I know, she still didn't fill it!]

The second occurred while on our field trip last week.  The students visited a local credit union to deposit the money they earn for grades each nine weeks.  I sent two boys in to use the restroom and followed them in to see how many students were still in line.  Clearly, the boys weren't aware I had followed them inside.  Both boys, despite have to go "so badly" stopped at the desk just inside the door and asked for a dum-dum sucker.  Normally I wouldn't have thought anything of it, but both students had already deposited their money and, upon doing so successfully, had received a plastic cup and 2 suckers.

I am not ok with my students expecting to receive things when we go on field trips.  [On the flip side, I am grateful for the generous hearts of people within our community].  Part of me wonders about myself in this situation.  I'll admit, I chastised the boys once they got outside.  They had already received, were already given where gifts were not expected, and then returned to ask for more.  I think, why point out and correct over something as small as a dum-dum when my students already have so little?

But I also wonder, where does this sense of entitlement come from?  What does this say about how we are meeting the needs of these students and their families?  I strive to empower my students, not come at their every call.  I want my students to work hard, advocate for themselves, and earn what they get.

My students thrive on questions.  Anytime something new is in the office, there are endless questions.  Are those for us?  Can I have it now?  When?  What's it for?  Where did you get it?  When can I have it?  Who's it for?  Why is it here?  Is it going to stay here?  Did you eat cake without me?  [This last one is a particular favorite, and it was asked only one day.  Another group had had a parent meeting and served cake, the remainder of which was in the trash.  More than one student came by, looked in the trash, and wanted to know who had cake and if they would get any.  All before they even said hello].

I do want them to feel comfortable asking for things, particularly help.  I want to give them the tools they need to succeed.

I do not want them to be given everything, to expect gifts each time we go into the community.  Nor do I want to deny them little joys, or rush them into growing up.  They are entitled to a childhood.  Where's the balance here?  Am I wrong?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

I am the luckiest

I have spent my morning lingering over coffee, curled on the couch reading for hours.  There was a half marathon in town today that ran though my neighborhood so I decided to delay any outings.  To sit and be has been so refreshing.

Even now, sitting on the couch I glance out the window and see bright and clear blue sky.  The green of the tall evergreens is stark against the blue.  The sun streams in, brightening the side of the house across the street.  Never before has it seemed so white, the trim of the windows so bold.  The tree outside my window waves a few leftover leaves at me, wind whistles under the roof of the porch like a swarm of insects.  The day looks warm, but I am not fooled - 50 degrees is still cold in my book.

Like this morning, yesterday truly was a day of small things.

I got some things done at the office, donning comfy clothes [cause it's Friday] and a second cup of coffee.  I was able to finish up a few projects I had going and, while things are always going on and up in the air, I ended my office time feeling satisfied.

I got to spend the afternoon with my [mostly] sweet students, laughing and eating crunchy noodles from atop a plastic bag, listening as small voices joined together to thank God before they began eating.

We danced through traffic, arms waving about our heads and our bodies bouncing in the seats, on our way to the bank for them to deposit their money.  Upon parking the van I see a familiar face making her way into the bank.  Honking gets me 10 minutes with my old college roommate, catching up with my van of students looking on and growing restless.  While they were waiting to go in, everyone stood outside in a parking space playing Simon Says and eating suckers.  We were barely in the car when it started to sprinkle.

As I drove a few of my students home, I got asked some pretty heavy questions.  What is cancer?  What is HIV?  How do you get them?  Why did Chris Brown hit Rihanna?  Is he in jail?  It's amazing the things 4th and 5th graders bring up, and I find the perspective of my ELL students to be the most interesting.  [Over Halloween, the big concern was poisoned candy, where it came from, how it got poisoned and why].  Although things can be hard to explain, and I certainly don't want to give answers that cause too much distress, I feel honored to be a part of the conversation.

As soon as I got home, I checked movie times and made the quick decision to go see a movie.  I had asked a few friends to join me earlier in the week but we couldn't all get together.  I saw About Time, and was actually glad that I saw it alone.  It's refreshing, sometimes, to do things alone.  After the movie was over, I chatted with another lady who had also come alone.  We talked outside the theatre for at least a half hour.

The drive home was quiet and warm for this time of year.  The moon was hanging low, bigger than I've seen in a while.  Almost perfectly round except for a sliver at the top, covered by a dark, thin cloud.  I tried to find a good spot to grab a picture, but couldn't; it would have never looked like the real thing anyway.

I've been trying to pay attention to the small things.  I want to be a noticer.  An appreciator.  It's got to be a habit; too much get lost in the daily grind.  The only want to make a habit is to practice, I suppose.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Giver Quartet

Recently, I've been reading The Giver series by Lois Lowry.  I read the first book, The Giver, when I was in third grade.  I remember being forced to by my librarian and, while I liked the book, I didn't jump at the chance to re-read it.  I'm fairly sure that has been the only time, other than recently, that I indulged in the novel, but certain scenes stuck with me throughout my childhood.

There are four books in the series, but I've only gotten my hands on three of them [borrowed from my mother].  The only one I haven't read is The Messenger.  I started The Giver one Sunday while I was doing laundry, and was so involved in the story, I finished it the next day.


All the stories take place in a very controlled society.  Especially in The Giver and Son, one can see the structure clearly.  Each year, children are celebrated in groups each year at a ceremony, where participants are granted something new unique to their age group.  Sevens receive a jacket.  Nines get a bike.  Twelves, the last year to celebrated, ring in adulthood with their Assignments, the jobs they will do for the rest of their lives.

Singles apply for spouses, and parents apply for children.  Each family may only have two.  Among the first scenes in Son is a birth.  Claire, the story's protagonist, is pregnant.  Her Assignment at Twelve was birthmother, and she gives birth at the ripe old age of fourteen.  She refers to herself in her role as a Vessel, and the baby is known as her Product.  As soon as she gives birth, the baby is removed and placed in a Nurturing Center where it will be cared for.  Claire is never meant to see or interact with her baby.

I'm still not far along in the last book, but each time I open it I can't help but wonder if, to some small extent, this is where society is headed.  A life where things are so controlled and life and creativity and individuality are devalued, even hidden.  In the second book, Gathering Blue, a young girl named Kira with a deformed leg and a seemingly magical talent for embroidery is kept in captivity after her mom dies.  Although she doesn't see it at first, the comfortable room in the Council Edifice slowly becomes a suffocating prison.  She and her friends Thomas [gifted with woodcarving] and Jo [a toddler with a powerful singing voice] begin to realize that they are being held captive because of their gifts.

I've wanted to comment on this series since I started but I'm not sure what exactly I want to say.  In reading this morning, I came across a passage in Son, where Claire is talking with her co-worker Jeannette.  Claire is the only employee at her job who has not attended the December Ceremonies - someone has to remain behind to work.  As her co-workers return from a day of sitting at the Ceremony, Claire asks Jeannette about the Naming of the Newchildren, for all one year old children receive their names and are placed with a family.  Jeannette confesses that she was startled to hear the name Paul given away.  That had been her father's name, and two people within the Community can not have the same name.  Names, however, can be regiven once someone dies.

Jeannette did not know her father had died.  And what's more, she did not seem upset.  Her description of her father was "very nice".  She seems to not even know about the personality of the family who raised her, or if she did, could not adequately express herself in words.  As Claire listens, she thinks to herself that she feels "a little sorry for Jeannette, although she didn't know exactly why."

Once the two children in a family grow up and receive their Assignments, the parents are moved to a special house for adults without children.  It seems there is no communication between families after this process.  There are no phone calls or visits, and each go on to live his or her own life.

How similar does this sound to our culture?  The desensitization of teen pregnancy, the devaluation of the elderly, and to some extent, the suffocation of individualism.  I've been reading some blogs lately where the parents are adopting, and I think Claire's unique situation also gives insight into the struggles and desires a birth mom has for the child she places up for adoption.

I'm still not far into the last book, and I look forward to what's to come.  I suppose I wrote all this to say  that it's worth a read.  Lowry has an excellent, fluid writing style and it doesn't take long to get sucked into this story that seems so inhumane and foreign, but at the same time, all too familiar.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Amidst tears and word cards

I'll admit, most of my students are enigmas to me.  Having only been on the job for a few months, and noting that this is a very different population than I'm used to working with, I spend a good bit of time learning to communicate with my students and then processing what I've learned.

Today was no different.  There is one student who has sporadic attendance in our program, and would rather choose to constantly run around, do cartwheels and turn circles rather than do homework.  My boss had a meeting with his teacher and mom today [I would have been there too if I hadn't gotten up late...oops] and I gained a little more insight into his life.

There is a slew of challenges going on in this child's life both at school and at home, and getting the background made the daily grind a little easier.  After getting the run down on the meeting, I spent the better part of my day making word cards.  He is surprisingly good in math but struggles in reading and spelling.  LA [my boss] and I hoped that by making letters cards and word matching, he would be more apt to study.  We hoped that giving him something to move, something to put his hands on, would entice him a bit.

Today was not his best day, and about an hour into program he was frustrated and crying [and it wasn't even related to homework!].  After a little coercion, he finally worked with me on the word cards.  There is a lot of work to be done, and I do not have a hard time envisioning more frustration and tears, but he seemed to enjoy the work.

I'll admit - working at my computer all day and putting together these activities for him was tedious.  By the end of it my shoulders hurt, my legs were restless, and it felt like I had wasted a day doing nothing but cutting paper.  For the last few weeks I've been working on individualized activities for my students to do once they finish their homework.  With more than 25 students in 9 different schools, I've been spending a lot of time in front of a computer.  The work seems to be never ending and I didn't realize how tiring it can be.

But watching him work today was the reward.  I wasn't sure he would be on board with the activities but he seemed to enjoy them [as much as he could in his current emotional state].

There are so many things going on in the lives of my students, and sometimes I forget they are just kids.  I'm still learning a ton every day, but I'm lucky enough to have students and a boss who give me grace each day as I fumble my way.  I know there are more long days ahead, more mistakes, more tears and frustration [from my students or me?].  But I know it all works for good, and I hope I get some insight one day into the long term effect.

Monday, November 18, 2013

'Tis the season

I do not enjoy Christmas like I used to.

I think there are a number of reasons for this.  My family traditions have changed.  Family members have moved away, others have died, many have had kids, some live in other countries.  It's hard to get everyone together and when it happens, it's typically not actually on Christmas.  Getting the family together was always my favorite part anyway.

Recently it seems the holidays have been coming around earlier.  I am not ok with Christmas commercials in September.  I am not ok with Christmas carols on radio stations 24-7 starting on the first of November.  I am not ok with the skipping over of Thanksgiving or the crazy advertisements businesses use to encourage me to spend more money and buy more things.  I think part of this stems from travelling to third world countries, particularly the trip I took to Ethiopia.  There are times I walk into a grocery store completely overwhelmed with the sheer bounty surrounding me.  How much abundance we have.  How little we recognize it.

Don't get me wrong.  I enjoy the decorations, the songs, the lights, the joyful spirit that is sometimes palpable.  Love Actually, The Santa Clause, and The Polar Express can frequently be found in my DVD player.  I still give and receive gifts.  But the overall experience is not the same.  I miss the anticipation that happened when I was younger.  

Sitting with my middle school students in youth group this past Sunday, we began talking about the upcoming advent season.  We asked the students what traditions they had with their families.  Some talked of advent calendars, others of wreaths.  One soft spoken student talked about how excited she is the morning of Christmas.  She smiled as she recounted how she typically gets up way before the sun, going into her older sister's room first and then her parents room, proclaiming Christmas and asking to get up to open presents, only to be told by both parties to return to bed.  After going back to bed, she is up every half hour, barely able to contain herself until she is given the ok to venture into the house.

I miss the anticipation of presents, the excitement for Christmas morning, and yet I wonder too, why can't we be this excited about the true reason for Christmas?  When did we lose Jesus in this holiday?  Most years, I believe that humanity steps up to the plate, and we can see people showering others with joy and love if we know where to look.  I want everyday, and particularly around Christmas, to feel that same anticipation as my students.  But I want it to be directed to the One who deserves it most.  How does one equate the excitement of presents to the importance of Jesus without seeming "preachy"?  

For me, this season I am focusing my attention on reviving that child-like anticipation.  I am paying particular attention to my students, watching them for cues as the excitement for the holidays and a break from school builds.  I want to share in this season with them, to be present.  I want to change my mindset a bit and try to experience the world through their eyes.  

I hope they can sense my expectation at all that is to come.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Knee Deep

I'm feeling knee deep in various projects.  I'm working on individualized SOL folders for my [28] students, plus the daily operations of our program.  I'm tutoring a second grader twice a week, trying to make homework interesting.  I'm seeking out opportunities to write.  I'm leading preschool play dates.  I'm delving head first into books, something I haven't done for quite some time.  I'm preparing for another [short] trip out of the country.  I'm meeting friends for dinner, teaching Sunday school, chatting with Jesus over coffee and coming to some realizations about myself and what I want.

My life is full.

I spend a good portion of my evenings contemplating worksheet ideas for my students, researching projects, drinking tea, reading and learning from others.  My students are not too happy about our new academic focus and really, who can blame them?  I'm still fumbling along blindly - I have no formal education or experience as an educator.  I get that they've sat in school all day and sometimes the last place they want to be is with me in after school, particularly the middle school students.  This project is in its infancy and worksheets are the go-to.  Hormones are raging and attitudes are sharp, and some days I feel like I spend more time defending than anything else.  There are days I feel incredibly overwhelmed and inadequate.  Is this really how it's supposed to go?

Despite the busy, the insufficient, the push back, I see the gift.  I see the small and the lovely, the special and cherished.  It comes wrapped in laughter as I tutor, causing us to lose all focus.  It comes in the face of a preschooler as he sticks is hand in paint and proudly smooshes it onto his paper.  It comes in strangers helping me load boxes of food to feed my students.  It comes in motivation and in falling exhausted into bed each evening.  It comes in the quiet and in the noise.

In light of that idea, I'm contemplating a shift on the blog.  Perhaps a new web address and title will roll out soon, providing a place for intentional reflection on the gifts I receive each day.

And boy, are those gifts abundant!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The meaning of [my] life

I've been doing a lot of self-searching lately, trying to figure out where I want to be in a year.  Where I could, realistically, be in a year.

I just moved into this apartment.  I like its location.  I just started this job, and I [usually] like going into work every day.  So why am I looking ahead; why am I thinking of moving on already?

For many years, I have seen myself leaving town and moving abroad.  It's only been in recent years that the dream has begun to be fleshed out, but I still lack the courage to go.  It's a scary thing, especially when you've lived your whole life in one town.

What if I go to a country where I don't speak the language?  How do I open a bank account in a new country?  Can I even work for wages?  What would it be like to uproot every significant relationship I've ever known?  Everyday things would be new - laundry, cooking, getting from one place to another.  And don't even get me started on the idea of my travelling alone, as a single white female.  The idea of completing ordinary tasks seems exciting and new, giving me a chance to marvel at the simplest of things.  But without warning those same tasks can change to objects of paralyzing fear.

But it seems that everywhere I turn, particularly in church and small group, I keep getting the same message:

Go.  Love.  Be.  Travel.  Orphans.  Fear not.

And yet I fear.  Still I doubt.  Is this really where I am called to go?  Is this really who I am meant to be?

Last week, an interesting idea was presented in our small group.  The quote -

"We were created to glorify God"  [John Piper I think although I can't be positive]

What would it mean to embody this idea, to really live it out every day?  I know that the work I'm doing now is meaningful [actually, it's pretty close to what I would want to do as a career.  I think I only want my location to change].  I also know that one's calling is not necessarily the same thing one does as a vocation.  So why do I still feel so called to go?

That same night, a second question was posted.  This is not the first time I've been presented with this inquiry, but it's not one I find terribly realistic so I've never truly considered it.

"What would you do if you knew you could not fail?"

[Who can imagine a world without failure?  Failure is always a possibility, a scary one.]

What would I do?  I would travel the world, write, create art and not worry about how it's not perfect right away.  I would work with orphans, see and do things, leave a notable mark on the earth and the lives of its inhabitants.

And then tonight, a final thought, related to our small group study of John 6:1-25.  Mission [the work and opportunities we are given by God to accomplish, partnering with Him as His kingdom is realized, whether or not we choose to accept them] precedes faith.  Contrary to our belief, we don't have to have a certain amount of faith before setting out on mission with Jesus.  We don't have to have certain skills perfected; we don't have to have it all together.  Faith is the expectation that God will show up.

Perhaps my calling is not overseas.  Perhaps I am called down the street, to the orphaned of this community.  Perhaps I am called to a community in another state.  I don't know yet [does anyone ever know for sure?], but I'm eager to find out.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Not Who I Used To Be

It's been a long time.

I'm sitting on the couch, indulging in a newly established ritual of a cup of hot tea before bed, researching the possibility of a blog project for my students, and it hits me.

It's been a long time.

I've had the itch to be creative, to reflect.  It's been there for a while but I haven't been quite sure how to satisfy it.

So I thought I'd resurrect this old friend and see what happens.

After all, if I'm going to be leading my students in such a project, perhaps I should have a little success in it first.  Or if not success, at least consistency.  But I suppose if nothing else, the old adage will hold true - "Those who can't do, teach."