Just Another Day?

I was having a hard time getting language class off the ground. The weather was hot. The students were restless and ready for lunch. Distractions abounded. I saw one student ceremoniously swinging his finger in the air, a long string of snot hanging from it. Before I could reach him with a tissue, he was busy rubbing the said finger on the carpet. At the same moment, I noticed several other students had their eyes glued to L’s desk, where a big black spider had decided to make a grand appearance. “Don’t smash him!” L yelped as I approached his desk. So I caught the spider in a plastic container and put it safely on my desk, telling the boys that they could play with it at lunchtime. Now, back to nouns and adjectives. . .

Yup, just another typical day in my third grade classroom. Or was it?

Once upon a time I used to write occasionally here in this space. Then, life happened. To be more specific, twenty-three little mischief makers came hoppity-bopping into my life. At all hours of the day, my mind has been occupied with planning, strategizing, problem-solving, and simply trying to make things work better in my classroom. With the kind of class I had this year, I didn’t have much creative energy left for anything else.

You wonder what I mean about the kind of class I had? Well, I can tell you this: throughout the two school years before this one, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I made students miss part of recess or lose other privileges because of their behavior. Usually a verbal warning or other minor intervention was enough to keep everyone in line. This year I counted myself fortunate if I could get through an entire day without needing to administer some sort of punishment.

“Your class . . . really needs Jesus!” said one of my co-teachers. I suppose that sums it up well.

And yet they are delightful children. For most of the year I enjoyed the challenge of channeling their energy in the right direction. It’s just that by the end I was exhausted.

But on that particular day near the end of the school year when the spider and a million other things threatened to crash our language class, I wasn’t even annoyed. I was only filled with thankfulness that all of my children were sitting there alive and well. Just that morning as we were finishing our staff meeting, we teachers heard the news that there had been a school bus accident along the route that one of our buses travels each morning. Could it be our bus? The news sounded grim.  Multiple casualties.  A helicopter called to the scene. One child trapped under the bus. What if that was one of our children?

I have never before been so happy to see Bus 6 pull into our parking lot and to see all my children come trooping into my classroom as usual, bursting with life and energy. I watched all twenty-three chairs fill up, and I thanked God anew for my dear, noisy, naughty children.

In the end, time is always so short. Every day is a gift. With more than a week of summer break behind me, the challenges of the past school year are already shrinking in size, and I miss my children. I hope they spend the summer reading books, climbing trees, and chasing as many spiders as they like.

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Comic Relief

Well, folks, it appears that I am officially old. It’s not that I feel particularly old. I usually figure that if I can keep up with twenty-three third graders and still have some energy left by the end of the day, I must have at least some youthfulness remaining. But two recent happenings in my classroom gave me the impression that I must be getting on in years.

The first thing was when I was saying something about travel before there was anything like GPS or smartphones. My students started gasping incredulously, like this must have been somewhere in the Dark Ages; and I had a sudden revelation of how much the world has changed in my lifetime. It used to be the old people who said, “Back when I was young, we didn’t have ______.” Now I guess I’m one of those old people.

The second thing that made me realize my old age was when I made a reference to something that happened when I was in third grade. One of my students exclaimed, “That was back in the 1800s!” I didn’t even bother correcting him. But I guess I do have my work cut out for me when it comes to teaching history. Or maybe it’s math?

Speaking of having my work cut out for me in history class—did you know that the Twin Towers collapsed on October 12, 1492?

Also, you would probably be surprised to know that it was Nero, not Enoch, who “was translated that he should not see death, and was not found because God had translated him. . .” Sometimes we get our history lessons a bit confused with our Bible memory.

Maybe you can help me decide whether I should be flattered by the words or insulted by the portrait on this little gem of a card:

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I have one student who chews practically anything he can get his hands on, particularly his erasers. He also doesn’t eat much at lunch because playing dodgeball is far more important than eating. One of the other students was exclaiming over how little he ate one day, when a third student said, “He doesn’t need to eat any lunch. He eats his erasers instead!”

Sometimes we teachers have to stop and laugh as we reflect on the things we’ve said. Yesterday I found myself saying (calmly and matter-of-factly), “If you need to eat some paper, please eat a piece of notebook paper instead of eating your book.” Yup. All in a day’s work.

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(So much to love in this picture: happy girls, that blue autumn sky, flaming maples, and the ancient golden sycamores that stand like sentinels around our church building.)

If you mention anything about Fords or Chevys in my classroom, prepare for an explosion. It’s a continual heated debate. One day at lunchtime I saw two of my boys rolling around on the ground in a fight/wresting match. I walked over to make sure no one was getting hurt and asked what this was all about. One of the boys said, “He said Fords are better than Chevys!” Swallowing a chuckle, I said, “How do you know that Chevys are better?” To which he replied, “Because all our tractors are Fords, and they don’t work!”

Well, maybe I’m not so old after all, and maybe not as much has changed in my lifetime as I thought. It seems to me that it was just yesterday that my own schoolmates debated the Fords versus Chevys question. If I were truly old, surely this debate would be settled by now, once and for all. Don’t you think so?

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Bridging Continents

“Where are you from?”

It was a simple question, one that I used to be able to answer readily. But in that one moment I was completely disoriented by the question, and for a few seconds that seemed like minutes, I had absolutely no idea what to say.

Every answer that came to my mind didn’t quite fit somehow. Kisumu? That’s what I was used to saying while traveling in other areas in Kenya. America? Well, yes, if people probed further to ask where I was originally from, that was the answer. Pennsylvania? Um, maybe. That was a good answer if the questioner knew much about American geography.

I was on the streets of New York City, on a week-long trip with students from Faith Builders. I had arrived at Faith Builders only a few weeks previously, and before that I had been at “home” in Lancaster County for only two months after spending four years in Kenya. America to me was still a dazzling place, fraught with surprising conundrums.

To that friendly lady in New York who asked the question, I think I finally managed to say something about growing up in Lancaster County and currently attending college in northwest Pennsylvania. But the question remained in my own mind.

And so, I write this for all the rest of you who have ever been baffled by that where-are-you-from question, since I know that my experience is common to many. I write this for you who know what it is to be part of two (or more!) completely different cultures and to wonder how to build a bridge between them.

I write this because this summer it was four years since I left Kenya, after living there for four years, and sometimes it seems like yesterday. Sometimes it also seems like something out of a different lifetime. Either way, my life is changed forever.

As I reflect on these four years since the Kenya years and especially on those early days of transitioning back into American life, various impressions stand out:

The weird brain fog and memory gaps
Perhaps one of the strangest things about jumping between two worlds was the way my brain could not process certain things. In general my memory serves me well. But in those months of transition, I forgot weird things in such a way that sometimes I felt like I was losing my mind. And while I remember details of some of the things during the last days I spent in Kenya, I have absolutely no memory of the last evening I spent there. Last summer I was with a former fellow-missionary, and she showed me her scrapbook album with pictures of the party we youth had that last evening. It is sort of creepy to look at pictures of yourself taken only a few years before, when you have no memory whatsoever of the happenings in the pictures.

The uprooted feeling of not knowing where home is
You know that feeling when you’ve been on vacation or something, and you think to yourself, This has been fun and all, but I just want to go home now. Returned missionaries get that feeling when they are at “home.” I still get that feeling occasionally, four years later. Maybe that’s not all bad.

An odd sort of grief
Like any kind of grief, it can hit you over the head at the strangest times. “It’s like a death,” a friend of mine (who had also lived in another country for several years) told me not long after my return. It’s true. The richness of having friends on different continents comes with a hefty price tag.

The time warp factor
It may seem like people don’t change much in four years, but they do. Even though I came home to visit occasionally, I still mostly pictured people as they had been when I left. So sometimes it felt like I had entered a time machine. My little third graders were suddenly entering eighth grade. The two-year-olds were starting school. I was a complete stranger to all the little children.

Technology advances
Do you realize how much technology changes in only four years in these modern times in which we live? I’ve never been one to keep up with all the latest technology, and I tend to learn about new gadgets and such from friends who have them rather than by reading about them or experimenting for myself. People in Kenya did not have all the latest electronics. Smartphones and ipads and came out while I was away, and I sort of learned about them distantly. I remember the dismay I felt in coming back to America and finding everyone glued to their phones. I’m still smartphone-illiterate.

The Thousand Tiny Surprises
So many things were surprising or astonishing. Sometimes this was delightful, like rediscovering the beauty of changing seasons and being completely in awe of things as simple as frost. Sometimes the surprises were humorous in an odd sort of way, like when I would see a shadow or something on a wall and subconsciously think it was a gecko. Sometimes they were completely disorienting, like that where-are-you-from question. Some things, like shopping, almost gave me a mental breakdown.

Some things still amaze me, and I don’t ever want that amazement to rub off. Foremost among these is the fact that I can turn on the faucet and have clear cold drinking water come gushing out. I shower in water that is good enough for drinking. Also, I am amused by people who complain about a few potholes in the road. Good roads and ease of travel in America still blow my mind sometimes.

It’s been a little while now since the last time I accidentally turned on the windshield wipers when I was trying to hit the turning signal. It’s been a while since the last time I absently scanned the night sky for the Southern Cross, only to remember that it isn’t there. If someone today would ask me where I’m from, I could probably answer the question easily. But though the tides of the Indian Ocean have long since washed this picture from the sand, they’ll never erase the Africa forever imprinted in my heart.

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Metamorphosis and Such

This little miracle never grows old: the way these fat little crawling creatures turn into graceful beauties that flit away on the breeze.

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It’s such a fun, easy way to bring some real-life science into the classroom. Are monarch butterflies perhaps making a comeback? I searched in vain for caterpillars the last few years, but this year I didn’t even collect all the ones I found. My kids were enthralled. They also learned to say the big word metamorphosis, and I think they even understand what it means.

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This little miracle never grows old either: the way I get goosebumps of pure joy when I get to stand in front of a roomful of eager children that I call “mine,” after a summer of having no children. This first month of school has flown by in all its busyness, craziness, and happiness.

I now know what it’s like to have my little room stuffed with twenty-three students. That little gap you see is where there’s actually still space for the door to swing in (which is always a plus, you know).

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The space problem is working out better than I was afraid it might. It does make some issues though, one of which is the fact that a row of desks has to be against the wall, right by the heater. This heater has all kinds of little grooves and crevices just large enough for things like pencils to fall into and just small enough to make fishing the things back out almost impossible. You would not believe how many pencils, crayons, etc. that heater has already eaten.

Going through a day with this class is a little like hanging onto the reins of a very spirited young horse. Stay alert and give proper guidance, and you can GO PLACES. But slacken the reins just a little, and you’re in for a runaway.

Although when I stopped to consider things the other day, I realized that I have about eighteen students who pretty much do what they’re told and listen in class and get their work done like they should. But then I have about five who, um. . . keep life interesting. I need constant reminders not to let the five overshadow the eighteen.

This is what happens when you have construction at your school over the summer, and the new grass needs a chance to grow.

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But we gladly put up with minor inconveniences like this, because the construction project means that we now have a gym! No more rainy-day recesses in the classroom. I cannot tell you how happy this makes me.

I’m also ridiculously happy about this:

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Who knew that a few sheets of colored copy paper from the office, a bit of scotch tape from my desk, and about five minutes of my time could so easily solve a problem that has bothered me all through my teaching career? Why didn’t I think of this ten years ago? I’ve learned that I’m not the only person who suffers from the brightness and incorrect color spectrum of fluorescent lights, so I’m passing on the idea to anyone who needs it. Maybe it looks cheesy, but what does that matter in an elementary classroom? And, by the way, the kids love it.

N prayed the other morning, “. . . and help us not to get angry at each other when we are playing at recess.” Yes and amen, Lord. We have a little work to do in that area. Watching the transformation of young lives as they become men and women who love God with all their hearts is more beautiful and miraculous than seeing metamorphosis in nature, but it takes a little longer.

Meanwhile, we patiently watch and pray and do our part to the best of our ability, trusting the only One who is able to change hearts.

 

 

Hospitality and Music

This summer I traveled to Virginia and entered the home of a couple I had never met before. They were away for the evening, but I went in and made myself at home, just as they had instructed me over the phone. I went to bed and didn’t even meet my hosts until the next day.

Did that feel strange? Maybe a little. But possibly the weirdest part, if I try to look at it through the eyes of general society, is the fact that it wasn’t really all that strange to me. How many people in America have ever had the privilege of walking into the home of total strangers (while the people are away!) and staying there for the night without even being expected to pay anything? Our Mennonite culture of hospitality and mutual trust is a blessing that I never want to take for granted.

The reason I traveled to Virginia was to rehearse with Oasis Chorale before traveling farther south on tour. So before the next two weeks were up, I had stayed in the homes of a number of strangers-turned-friends. This is not something new to me. Having traveled frequently with choirs and other groups, I have been on the receiving end of countless deeds of gracious hospitality. It’s silly that I still sort of dread this aspect of tours, since staying in strangers’ homes usually turns out to be fascinating and fun.  I guess it’s still the shy kid in me that just doesn’t enjoy the idea at first. I should know by now that the experience is an odd and joyous thing that adds another rich dimension to my life.

Always I meet generous people who are willing to share what they have, little or much; and the tour this summer was no exception to the rule. There were the hosts who brought out the fine china and goblets to serve us breakfast. There were those who regaled us with stories and were interested in knowing all about our lives. There was the man who, after we had arrived at his house, kept driving right into the yard and around the house because he wanted to show us his treehouse in the backyard. From the warm and sweet to the downright eccentric, I met beautiful people who are joyfully building the kingdom of God in their communities in quiet and ordinary ways. They inspired me to be willing to turn around and give, to pay forward the generosity that I received.

What more shall I say about chorale tour? The joy of making beautiful music with a group of talented people is not something that is easily put into words (which is why this post is mostly about hospitality). Being a caretaker of sacred beauty and worship is not a mission to be taken lightly. I am not sure that I have even fully grasped or appreciated what a privilege it is. But I do know that I am irreversibly hooked on choral music, and I am everlastingly grateful for the singing opportunities I’ve had in the last few years. Sometimes God takes the dreams you shelved long ago, gently dusts them off, and hands them to you with a smile.

 

Strangely Quiet

Strangely Quiet

Does anyone else look at this photo and get the distinct feeling that something is about to explode?

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No?

Well, maybe the reason I get that feeling is because I know what happened five seconds later. . .

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I also know all the drama that happened before we managed to take that first picture where twenty third graders are lined up in three neat rows and are (miraculously!) all looking at the camera. Just look at that second picture again, and you might not need to use much imagination to understand what a feat it was to organize the chaos in the first place. Photo shoots right before summer vacation are like that.

If you had been standing anywhere nearby, here are just a few examples of what you probably would have heard:

Teacher: “Let’s have all the girls sit on the fence. If you are not a girl, get off the fence. C, stop climbing the fence, you are not a girl. K, get off the fence!”

Girls: “Miss Beiler, make the boys stop trying to push us off the fence!”

Teacher: “Ok, everybody stand straight and tall. No, not you guys in the front! You’re supposed to be sitting straight and tall.”

Now it’s already more than three weeks since the end of school, and these pictures feel like something out of a different world. A world that I love and miss, even though I’m enjoying the summer break.

My life has been strangely quiet ever since I sent these twenty miniature noisemakers out of my classroom for the last time. When I got them to write down one thing they often heard me say this school year, about half of them wrote, “Shhhhhh!” But even if I had to quiet the classroom umpteen times a day, I loved teaching this amazing group of students. They’ll have a place in my heart forever.

Overheard in the Classroom

Friday was one of those days when I felt like I had about a hundred children in my classroom. Actually, I had only nineteen instead of the usual twenty, since one student was absent. It wasn’t that the remaining students were more mischievous or energetic or needy than usual. I guess it was just a variety of factors that kept me running. Plus, it’s that time of the school year when everything seems to be racing downhill toward the finish line while I brace myself and try to keep the wagon from rolling out of control.

This is what my desk looked like on Friday at the end of the school day.

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But amid the chaos, don’t miss the gift I got on Friday: the wooden cutout of my name, given to me ever-so-shyly-but-proudly by the quiet little guy who is destined to become a woodworking artist. We can just quietly ignore the misspelling of my last name. (Why, as an elementary schoolteacher, must I have a last name that so blatantly disregards the basic rules of English grammar?)

And that’s life. The sweetest gifts amid the daily grind. Humor amid the frustration. With that in mind, here are a few stories from my classroom.

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We open each school day with prayer, and usually I let the children share a few prayer requests. This needs to be carefully controlled so that it doesn’t just turn into storytelling time. We pray for the grandma who is in the hospital and for the little brother who has chicken pox and for the neighbor man who is not a Christian.

One day someone mentioned some people who had been hurt in an accident. Immediately hands shot up all over the classroom, since many of the children had heard about the accident. After letting a few students add details to the story, I said, “Ok, we’re going to pray now. If you want to tell me more about the accident, talk to me at break time.”

Half an hour later, in the middle of math class. . .

Teacher: “So, if sixty plus thirty equals ninety, and three plus two equals five, what is the is the answer to sixty-three plus thirty-two?”

E (after waving his hand eagerly): “Um, my grandma knows those people who were hurt in the accident.”

Math class came to a screeching halt as I decided it was time for a vocabulary lesson. “Class, I’m going to teach you a big word. Are you ready? The word is irrelevant.”

***

I teach Logic 101. I guide my students through complicated reasoning, such as, “If I run across that muddy field, then my shoes will become very muddy. And if I go inside with very muddy shoes, it could cause some problems.”

Yes, you guessed it. We did that lesson on the day I ended up with a very muddy classroom. “You see guys,” I said, “There’s this thing called Thinking Ahead.”

I know. Such a concept nearly blows the nine-year-old male mind. But at least I tried. And it always makes me want to roar with laughter when I think of the look on my boys’ faces when I gave them that little speech.

We’re also working on this: “If I hurry through my work today, I will end up with twice as much work tomorrow, since the teacher makes me correct mistakes. So I may as well take my time and do it right the first time.”

Mind-blowing indeed!

***

A lunchtime conversation:

E: “T kicked me during prayer!”

Teacher: “T, what was that all about?”

T: “He was making faces at me!”

Teacher (resisting the urge to laugh out loud): “Well, E. . .”

E grinned sheepishly, and that was the end of that conversation. Let’s just say that there are reasons why the teacher often prays with her eyes open.

***

After doing the dress rehearsal for our school Easter program first thing in the morning, my students were not enthused about having classes. They were sighing as I passed out the math speed drills, and someone moaned, “Do we have to have math class?”

“You’ll survive,” I said. “Anyway, I never heard of anyone who died from doing math.”

K raised his hand eagerly and in his best tall-tale voice exclaimed, “BUT, my UNCLE GOOFY died of doing math, because he swallowed his PENCIL while doing a speed drill!!”

The class roared with laughter. I laughed with them and then did my best to calm everyone down to start the speed drill. “On your mark, get set…”

Oh dear, L was waving his hand with a distressed look on his face as though his pencil was broken or something. I answered his hand. Immediately the distressed look left his face, and a mischievous grin replaced it as he said, “Well, MY Uncle Goofaloppagus died from doing math because he swallowed his PEN while doing a speed drill!”

***

Perhaps I should conclude on a more serious note.

A co-teacher of mine came over to my room before school to ask my advice on a problem she had with a student. After bemoaning the problem, she said, “If only we didn’t have to fight for souls!”

“You hit the nail on the head right there,” I replied.