Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Happiness Fairy Makes 3 Wishes

"Thy firmness makes my circle just,/ And makes me end where I begun.”– John Donne

AACS is like a small town. It’s a little world cunningly connected. Everyone knows everyone’s business, half the people are related—as in parents, siblings, cousins and the rest are either in-laws or somehow connected by marriage or Marching Band. My son-in-law, who is from Pennsylvania, is continually amazed by how many people around town know Valerie. While out to dinner, Val tried to explain her connection to the waiter that made them close enough to hug in greeting. “Oh we’re connected sort of by marriage. Well, he’s my brother Joe’s wife’s sister’s husband’s little brother and I used to be in this thing called the Variety Show with him when he was a kid.” Andrew shook his head, “What?” Yeah, it’s hard to grasp. And like a small town,
AACS is made up of people – therefore beautiful and also harrowing things can and do happen. In my last note, I mentioned that AACS had given me some of my most beautiful experiences and some of my most harrowing. Because of that fact, I have more to say.

Though a true believer, I came to AACS in a disillusioned state about the church and my own place in it. Very early in the first year, my friend Ellen Smith prayed for me once during morning devotions saying, “Let her be humbled by Your presence in her classroom.” I came see that “humbled” meant overjoyed by His faithful help! This became my banner, my experience, my joy. I began to know God’s help in planning, in seeing what students needed, in learning how to win the wounded. I remember the restorative joy that came to me when I saw that a student had learned, felt encouraged or enlightened. Little by little, year by year as I served in an organization only related to church, my concept of the church was healed. Much of this was due to the blessing of sharing a classroom for several years with Gary
Derechinsky, experiencing Steve Larson’s chapels and seeing Dick Bitzer look after students. But much of it was due to working together with dedicated Christians where God gave me trusted friends; many of these taught my children and I taught theirs-- adding the depth and complexity of commitment and loyalty to what I know as my own small town.

Other wonderful moments include the privilege of meeting all of the imaginative, eloquent and expressive writers who have come through my class! There are too many to list, but each such a joy. There were moments of revelation when the entire class saw something cool about the poem – Laurel, Liz, Jessica and Todd’s realizations about Donne’s Poem “Hymn to God, My God In My Sickness”, Amy Crout’s explanation of the structure of Hamlet, Andy Intlekofer’s “man is a cigarette,” (you had to be there), Honors 11 seeing how
carefully the dark play Macbeth told again the story of creation, fall, redemption and Geoff Banks and Charlie Friedman leaving class on the last day of “Macbeth” saying, “That was a cool play.” And so many more, Jake, Davy, Jen, Erin, Lizzie, Alexis, Dale, Missy and John… too many to list here—my last incomparable class, all the students whose bright faces have meant so much to me… all the variations of Kristen, of Alicia, of Megan far too many to list here which is why I wrote a novel – to tell the world about them.

While teaching at AACS moments of blessing came to me about my own family. It was there that I first heard Valerie sing-- just a solo line in a song but the chords echoed in my heart and I wondered if she might have a gift. It was at AACS that I had the privilege of watching that gift begin to develop under Cindy’s loving care. The fall after Val graduated when I did not hear her voice among the Chapel singers, I started to cry, for some dumb reason. Not just sniff, but sob. Tears flowed out of my eyes so fast my face and hands were wet. My nose was a river. Next to me sat Mike Boyle (who by the way is an excellent writer). He dug into his pocket and pulled out a ragged, shred of a tissue. This he offered to me, eyes accepting, no words needed.

One day, while scribbling vocab scores in my grade book during lunch, Andrea Anderson dragged my son Joe over to my desk. They ate lunch in my room and she wanted his support to tell me a daring idea. Eyes sparkling as only hers can, she took Joe’s arm and I saw Joe smile and press her hand close to his side. My mind blinked. What was that? I can’t remember what Andrea was talking about because I “saw” this sort of brightness surrounding them and I wondered if maybe… I shook it off. Hadn’t they vowed that they were only friends?

Though the fun and fulfillment of teaching beside my son Eric could be the subject of a longer literary work, something interesting happened before he joined the faculty. I was walking out of Chapel one day chatting with Seth Harris. Looking up, I saw seated on the top bench of the bleachers a lovely girl with huge dark eyes and the most exquisite, contemplative expression.
For some dumb reason, I couldn’t catch my breath. Seth waved to her. “Is that your girlfriend?” I gasped. “What?” he said, disgusted with my ignorance. “No! Family friend. R.J.’s sister.” Then I remembered. I had seen Care Napolitano once before at a multi-church function – she had been just 2 years old and had been sitting in blue stroller, sitting in her quiet, composed way, eyes wise and unblinking even then. Funny, that I remembered her so clearly.

Karl and I went through a lot together at school. Stitches, forgotten lunches, waiting together at games and practices, a collapsed lung, a no-hitter, digging Dixie Jones’ car out of the snow and he was at school with me on September 11. Next evening, we went to a prayer meeting. Standing beside him I sensed God calling him to give himself to the lost. As we walked together through that school year, I watched him wrestle with his faith. The next fall, his senior year, a chapel speaker asked if any students felt called to “the ministry.” My heart filled when Karl stood up with so many of his classmates. That year, he started a group that reached out to middle school students. He’s been doing so ever since. Sorry if I’ve misspelled, the stupid computer screen is all misty.
But AACS is not perfect and neither was my teaching. I made mistakes which I regret. And AACS has things that should be improved. If in leaving I could have three wishes for the school, they would be these listed below. I wish that

1. AACS would continue to be a praying community. I remember how opening my class with prayer changed my teaching for the better. Prayer is what has gotten us through all the tough times, what has been the foundation for the good things – and it is what will keep the good things about AACS alive.

2. AACS would establish a Teacher Advocacy Group. Years ago, at a teacher in-service day, Keith Pavlischek said that Christian Education is accomplished on the backs of the teachers. Administrators, visiting scholars and teachers gathered in the gym, nodded and snickered agreement. It’s true, it’s always been true, but it must stop. Now that we have plenty of staff to run take care of details like finances, and etc., my wish is that AACS would pour their resources
into the teachers. I wish they would establish this group and listen to it. This is what they will tell you: provide for the teachers. Keep class sizes down so that students get the attention they need and talented people stop burning out. Give teachers great benefits; give them the salaries they deserve. Remember that if they are paid well, if their physical needs are met, they will teach better. Even more freely and generously will they then devote themselves to teaching and inspiring kids.

3. Hold the standard high. In every way seek to create a safe, beautiful place where kids can learn their academics and the truth about the God we serve. Never give in to poor writing, incomplete math notebooks, Cliff Notes or cussing in Chapel. Never give up helping kids to “dream what God dreams” and to set about seeking to make those dreams come true.

One last word of advice: try ot be nice to everybody because you never know who
your kid is going to date and marry, or date and break up with or who might marry your daughter-in-law's cousin, or be in a band with or who will come to work with you!

May the Lord continue to bless others at AACS as He has blessed me and mine. I am trusting that He will be with me in my new adventure as He has been so graciously at AACS.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Goodbye to AACS

“Though I must go, endure not yet/ A breach, but an expansion, / Like gold to airy thinness beat…” – John Donne
Leaving AACS is a little like dying, I think. I don’t particularly want to go, but something irresistible is drawing me away. Though I must go now, my reasons for doing so have to do with the facets of my calling and with all that AACS has meant to me. And as I go, I have 3 parting wishes for the school.
Before I knew I was a teacher, I wanted to have a family and to write. When I say I wanted to do these things, I mean my heart burned with longing. I could almost feel the unformed beings as Sharon Olds describes in her poem The Unborn… “the glimmer of them” waiting. One at a time, God gave us four children. Being pregnant was a joyful wonder to me. I was humbled and profoundly touched by – I don’t know how else to say it – God’s company, His presence, His real help. When young Karl was born safely after a scary pregnancy, we believed our family was complete. I had to stop being pregnant, and I would never give birth again, never again experience the closeness of God’s merciful hand in that special way.
As my children were growing, the desire to write awakened in me. Just as I had with them, I knew the urgency as if each were “stretching its arms out/ Desperately to me.” I began writing, had some success publishing articles and short fiction. I thought of a novel about a basketball player who is mistakenly enrolled in the school where his father’s enemy is the popular athletic director and coach. I saw all the characters in a flash and knew their names. Through a series of events, I was miraculously given the privilege of teaching at my children’s school. I felt as blessed as Moses’ mother must have. Teaching at AACS has given me great joy, armfuls of friends- many of whom are former students, profound blessings and a few harrowing moments.
Then, dear Reader, I wrote the novel. Called Solomon’s Puzzle, it is set in Annapolis, where I have drawn on my life as a teacher of interesting, endearing students. The teenagers in my novel are neither shallow nor stereotypical -- Zach Efron would not get the part in the movie. The book shows the powerful, redemptive love of individuals in a community that is patterned after AACS. It took me eight years, while teaching full time, to write most of the book. I included as much of the funny stuff that happened in my classroom as I could. I wrote in snatches of time late at night, while snow kept us at home or during summer days too hot to garden. I described my burden at the end of this time as feeling that I’d been pregnant for 8 years!
My students howled with horrified laughter when I told them of my reoccurring nightmare that I’ve assumed was a metaphor for my writing. It is this: I am pregnant but seem to remember that I’ve been pregnant for many years. I go to the doctor expecting him to tell me horrible news – but no! The baby is still alive! He urges me to –and of all things—pay attention to the fact that I’m pregnant “Don’t forget, now” he scolds and urges me to go through the birth! Having given birth to actual children, I found this notion startling – birth could not be avoided, could it? However it is not included in the expression “sure as death and taxes, so maybe it can be avoided. Apparently so in my life as pertains to the birth of fictional works.
The variation on this dream is that the baby is born and I love him. The baby is healthy, beautiful and evidently not very demanding… or hungry. I put him in the bassinet and forget to feed him! As I dream, I fret, How is this possible? Though asleep, I remember that I once took good care of my actual children. The scenario is so unlikely that God illustrates the enormity of His faithfulness by comparing it to a woman’s typical and dauntless dedication to her newborn.
Can a woman forget her nursing child, And not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely she may forget, Yet I will not forget you. --Isaiah 49:15
Whereas in my dream, time goes by, lots of time, lots and lots of time. Anxiety mounts in my dream like a fog of poison. I fight to get away from whatever is keeping me and I find my poor baby, now about the size of a pencil, and cry, How are you still alive? How could I have forgotten to feed you? What kind of a mother am I? I’m glad my students laughed because I felt rather haunted.
My sabbatical year gave me the concentrated quiet I needed to gather the threads of Solomon’s Puzzle into a striking conclusion. This proved an intense and complicated process – sweating blood, writing, rewriting furiously, staring past people who were talking earnestly to me as I tried to glimpse the colorful and compelling shadows of fiction. But as so often in my home and my classroom, I was humbled by God’s help and inspiration; I love the book’s ending.
I missed teaching and returned for two wonderful years. But now I think I must publish the novel. I’m not sure how to do this. Part of what I’ll be doing now is discovering how to bring the novel to publication. Also, I have more things in my mind and heart that I want to write.
During this time my family has grown nice and big. Counting my lovely daughters-in-law and my wonderful, favorite son-in-law, I have 7 adult children and 3 irresistible grandchildren. I love spending time with my family and feel called to care for them and to enjoy them. I simply can’t resist them and my spare time is given wholeheartedly to them. Wisdom tells me that if I keep trying to teach and write, I’ll teach but I won’t write. Nor will I try to publish. And my novel will lie in a silent pile of virtual pages.
In his novel, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald describes the difficulty of leaving as being done “…with lingering regret like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.” Everyone can remember playing outside on a summer evening , unaware that twilight had come because the joy of playing captures the attention so fully that unaware, the eyes adjust to the parting light. But the call comes again. Here children linger, “Five more minutes!” they bargain. They are called again more insistently and one by one they desert the dark street. Now it is my time to go; it seems I’m called away.
… to be continued