Happy Ending

It seems to happen almost every spring: The end of a school year sneaks up on me in a strange way. Before I quite know what has happened, my comfortable every-day routine becomes a thing of the past. My students leave my classroom and never assemble there again in the same way.

The end of this school year has come even more stealthily than some, and I blame this fact on the long winter. After all, wasn’t it just yesterday that I took this picture?


Ok, it was almost two months ago, but still—after we were finally finished with winter weather, only a few weeks of school remained. Now we’re down to only three more days, and all that end-of-the-year nostalgia fills my mind.

Nevertheless, we have enjoyed these last few weeks to the fullest. There were dandelions to play with, and if you are a little girl, why would you not “paint” your face with dandelions?


Our field trip day was one of the major highlights of the year. We visited Ephrata Cloister and the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. Thanks to Faith Builders’ Living History Threads curriculum, we learn about Ephrata Cloister in our third grade history class. I love the way this field trip ties in with our history lessons. I can also highly recommend the discovery tours that Ephrata Cloister offers for school groups. The engaging, interactive tour provided a fun learning experience for my students.

At the Ephrata Academy we experienced a taste of 1800s-era school days and were able to try our hand at writing on an old-fashioned slate.


One of the students got to dress up and act out some of the jobs of a “sister” at the cloister while our tour guide gave us an overview of the cloister lifestyle.



We toured some of the buildings and learned about colonial medicine at the apothecary. Can you tell that by this time we were warm, tired, and ready for lunch?


I love this place. There’s something so quiet and dreamy about it, especially in the beautiful spring weather.


We ate lunch at the picnic grounds there at the cloister, then headed to the Railroad Museum.


(Of course lunch tastes much better if you sit on the picnic table rather than on the benches.)

The Railroad Museum also offers great tours for school groups, and we had an excellent tour guide. The students got to try various old-fashioned railway jobs, and one of their favorites was loading luggage into this old car.


And then, of course, we had to visit the all-important gift shop. It amuses me now, but I still remember that thrill of being able to buy souvenirs on field trips when I was a student.

It was a good day, and it’s been a great school year. I’m grateful for all the days I had with my twenty precious children.



More Than Just a Job

Nothing compares to that first-day-of-school charm. The desks stand in neat, straight rows. The workbooks are unmarked, and the carpet is newly-shampooed. All the pencils are still sharp, the crayons unbroken. I stand by my door and watch the children come down the hall in their new shoes, and they greet me with smiles that are equal parts eagerness, shyness, and sheer exhilaration. They scarcely speak above a whisper as they unpack their backpacks and explore their new room.

And then the first day moves into the second, and the days melt into weeks. The desks are perpetually crooked, the new shoes have scuff marks, and the floor. . . well, let’s not talk about my classroom floor. Do you have any idea how much of a mess twenty youngsters can make in a day’s time?

But although I’d like to capture that beginning charm and be able to pull it out anytime during the school year, there’s also nothing like the comfort of familiarity and established routines. Instead of sitting at their desks glancing at me cautiously before the bell rings in the morning, students gather around my desk laughing and chattering and telling me their stories. I love this. I love that I know them and they know me, and we’re not shy around each other anymore.


No matter how many years I have taught, each year still has its “firsts.” This is the first time I have had twins in my class. It’s also the first time I have had so many girls in one class–fourteen, to be exact. Yes, we have plenty of shrieks and giggles around here. Sometimes I feel sorry for my six poor hen-pecked boys. Then again, they’re pretty good at holding up their end of things.


IMG_1469(Practically every break and lunchtime someone will say, “Miss Beiler, will you come spin?” And sometimes it’s, “Hurry up and finish your lunch, Miss Beiler, so you can come spin double dutch.”)

I worked part time on a cleaning crew over the summer. I wouldn’t say I hated the job. Parts of it I enjoyed, and I was glad for the opportunity to make some money in between all the traveling and other things I did throughout the summer. But when school started I found myself laughing with joy each morning as I got into my car, just because I was so happy to be going to school instead of going to my cleaning job. How am I so fortunate to have a job I truly love?

And even though my dirt-spying senses were sharpened by a summer of cleaning, most of the time I don’t even care about the dirty classroom floor. It’s a sign that life happens here.


IMG_1463(This picture is taken from my classroom window. It shows what often happens when your windows are level with the ground.)

And for a parting shot, here’s a note I found on my desk one day:


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.

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:


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.


(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?



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.


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.



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.


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).


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.


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:


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.