My One Word 2016

My first week of school in 2016 is done and I have to say, it wasn’t the torture that I thought it’d be. It actually left me with some hope, realizing that my students are growing.

Of course with it being January and all, I had to offer them up the challenge of My One Word. So after some brief discussions about what they want to be better at this year and what qualities they admire in others, they came up with these,

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which we posted on our classroom door so that every time they come in, they are reminded of their own commitment to work on being better at ______ (loving, grades, anger control, football, drama free…).

My own word is up there as well: First.

I knew it had to be my word as soon as I started thinking about My One Word. But I didn’t want to commit to it right away. It would require me giving up so many things that I would rather come first, first. But over the past year, I’ve built up a lot of laziness and a lot of idols that needed to get sloughed. Not only was it a very obvious sin in my heart, but it was really starting to affect my life. I had been having more and more issues with prioritizing things correctly and would instead just do what I want to do with the excuse of, “I work hard enough as it is. And this ‘first’ can really be put off until later.” By the end, I wasn’t giving my best effort toward anything because all of my ‘firsts’ were taken over by a lot of ‘I want this now.’

Instead, this year I’ve committed to focusing on what should really come first (It’s not that hard to figure out what that is at any given moment) and to take everything in the baby steps of “I’ll do this first.” I don’t have to get bogged down with all the things that need to be done throughout the day or week or month, but I know that when I put the right things first, then the necessary things will get done.

Of course, my first ‘first’ needs to always be God–throughout my day. Because it is only by His will and through His strength that any of my other ‘firsts’ will be worthwhile work.

If God doesn’t build the house,
    the builders only build shacks.
If God doesn’t guard the city,
    the night watchman might as well nap.

It’s useless to rise early and go to bed late,
    and work your worried fingers to the bone.
Don’t you know he enjoys
    giving rest to those he loves?

-Psalm 127:1-2, The Message

Ode to that Gluttonous Mosquito

His stealth would make ninjas envious
His attack was swift and sure
He flew in below my radar
Staying close to the floor.

It was the end of his season,
He was the last of his kind.
With a voracious appetite,
He attacked multiple times.

Even after the symptoms started
I couldn’t find him there.
He was a crafty survivor.
He knew to hide just where

My view was blocked,
And so I thought, for sure it must be a flea.
Or a whole flea colony, perhaps.
I counted the bites past three.

In a moment of panic I tore at my skin,
Wondering how I became infested.
More bites appeared on the other side
Of my leg–I had been bested.

Until finally I gave up scratching,
And started to search for a cure
Something to kill the army of beasts
I was positive was lurking down there.

That’s when he finally revealed himself,
Slowly drifting away from the scene.
His wings could barely hold him up,
And his path was beginning to lean.

I watched the fat thing go,
Staring at him in shock.
He struggled to keep himself afloat
With his belly full of my stock.

I could almost hear him laugh at me,
And I knew he must be smiling.
I had never been so pleased to know
The shortness of life for a mosquito.

Crayons and Cockroaches

Cause I ain't got a pencil

First thing every morning, a herd of boys come in to my room slapping each other’s hands with gang handshakes and putting off their work with every excuse in the book. “I don’t have paper;” “I lost my notebook;” “I don’t have a pencil.”

In an effort to teach them responsibility, I don’t hand out pencils like I did last year. Most of them will eventually find what they need to do their work, whether that means digging deeper into their book bag or getting it from their friends. Most of the time, the “I don’t have a ____” excuse is a cheap trick to procrastinate.

But one particular boy crushed my heart. He never had a pencil, but he was always anxious to get some kind of work done. He would beg me for a pencil. And cruel as I was, I gave him a crayon. I thought, surely, the embarrassment would help him remember to bring a pencil, or the frustration of writing with a crayon would motivate him to find a pencil from someone.

Instead, I watched him write with crayon day after day until I caught him bent over his paper with a tiny nub of a crayon to finish his classwork.

I gave him a pencil, certain that I’d be loosing all my pencils to him soon enough. But at the end of the class, he gave it back, restoring my faith in my students.

In my second class, I have a student that comes from a very troubled home. I found this out after I met his grandmother at a mid-morning conference. She came in smelling like stale alcohol.

One day he came to school with cockroaches. They came out of his backpack in a swarm–abandoning the old food smashed at the bottom of his bag. The incident earned him the name “cockroach boy,” and sparked an investigation into what kind of home life he has if his bag could gain such an infestation with little notice at home. He received a new backpack right away, but the rest is still ongoing.

Neither of my stories have resolutions. The first boy still asks for something to write with every day and the second boy is constantly getting pulled out of class by his social worker.

When I see this sort of thing every day, its easy to say “I’m so thankful that I don’t have to go through that.” But that kind of “us and them” is much too distancing. I am with them every day and I don’t want to push them away and think that what they go through is something outside of my world because I have a direct effect on their world.

Instead, let me say I’m thankful to have each of my students in my life. Through them, I am constantly reminded how much of an effect my actions have on the people around me. Evey day, my students train me in the art of forgiveness which means starting each day as if yesterday didn’t happen (and sometimes it’s starting each moment as if it’s the first); patience which is waiting without a heavy sigh for a new moment to come; and tone and word choice which is learning what it means to speak all things in love–not anger, or exhaustion or frustration.

An Ode to Inner City Mothers

It’s a little early for mothers day, but I have to do this.
When I first started teaching, I was only 10 years older than my students. When a few of them started calling me “Mom” or “Auntie,” I bulked and made it clear that I was not that old. Now I’m between 15 and 17 years older than my students and I still can’t swallow the idea of being any kind of mother. But when I meet my students mothers, they are my own age. And more often than not, they have more than one kid.
It stuns me every time. When I first heard that one of my 15 year old students was a father and that his mother had had him at 15–the concept of being a grandmother at the age of 30–I couldn’t fathom what that meant for a home life. But it’s a scenario that is all too common in the inner city.
This is not said to shame anyone. On the contrary, I want to honor the mothers that somehow provide for a family against so many odds.
One mother, in particular, deserves the praise. She can’t possibly be more than 30 years old, but wherever she goes, a trail of 7 kids follow close behind, complete with two sets of twins. With no husband to help her (or anyone else that I have ever seen or heard about), she somehow finds a way to provide for her small clan of kids. I can’t imagine how many hours at what kind of job she must have to do so.
But if that wasn’t enough, her tribe of children are not the most docile kids. Her oldest son is one I like to refer to as the mad scientist. With the right tools, he would destroy the world. He’s smart (ridiculously smart) but there’s no kind of trouble he won’t get in to.
The next two oldest in the family are twin girls, also highly intelligent. One is known as the angel and the other is clearly the evil twin. It’s important to be aware of which one you are talking to.
The rest of her kids are in elementary school, and I have not had the pleasure of knowing them. But my point is this:
This young mother not only finds a way to provide for all of these little mischievous geniuses, but always makes sure to come to every parent-teacher meeting, with her train of little ones behind her.
On open house nights, you will see her walking the school hallways, going from one class to the next and taking time to talk to every single one of her kid’s teachers, listening to them list all the horribly disastrous things that her kids have done in class, so that by the time she reaches me, her eyes are red with tears and her body slumped with fatigue. Her children, too, are tired and dragging each other through the door. Each one is responsible for taking care of the next youngest. The mother will drop into a chair tell me she doesn’t want to hear one more bad thing about her kids.
Nor do I want to tell her one more bad thing. I am in complete awe that she would even take time out of her day to come and talk to me, when most parents ignore us completely.
So I search earnestly for something good to say about her son. And when I manage to find just one kind word, she smiles and straightens up with pride for her family.
She makes my night. She inspires me. With the weight of so many things stacked against her, she puts in the effort to care about each and every one of her children and their education. And that is why I have to honor her.
But it’s not only her.
With this new school year underway, I’ve already spotted other mothers like her coming out to meet the teachers at open house with a small clan of kids in tow, each child looking after the next youngest in line. The mothers have a long night of meetings ahead of them, but they’re there.
They are symbols of strength and diligence in the community–working against the push and shove of adversity and hardship. Very few people acknowledge them and the exhausting dedication they exude. But someone should.

Autumn is Here

Someone whispered the word “fall” and suddenly, this:

Someone is excited for the season.

Someone is excited for the season.

Ghosts of the Past, Hopes for the Future

Before the school year began in August, I had a series of nightmares (as I often do before something big happens). In these nightmares, I was trying desperately to teach a new class of bright and joyful students, but the ghosts of my last class kept interrupting. They walked all over my room in their ghostly forms and made such a racket with their banging and talking and complaining, that I couldn’t teach my new class.

Of course, that’s just nonsense brought on by my own worries for the new school year. I looked forward to the opportunity to teach a new group of students who were much better behaved than my last class of crazy kids.

Just before the school year started, however, I received word that I would be teaching remedial reading in multiple grade levels across middle school, including, but not limited to, my students from last year–particularly, some of my most challenging students from last year. Suddenly my nightmare seemed more like a premonition than a silly dream.

The first few weeks of school went a lot better than I had expected, though. Most of my students were excited to be working with me and I felt relieved to know that I could build off of the past to ensure a better year for all of us.

But last week, everything changed again. Our school received word from the district that we had too many teachers and too few students. Two teachers needed to be transferred out to another school and everyone else was going to be shuffled around to cover the changing classes. Within that week, I went from teaching 6th, 7th, and 8th grade reading, to teaching 6th grade Language Arts exclusively. And just like that, my past students whom I both loved and dreaded were cut out of my day, like ghosts.

Sure, they’re still alive and making plenty of noise at the end of the hallway. I can still hear them when they go to lunch. And every so often, I see them walking between classes, or ducking around the hallway during classes, trying to avoid the Behavior Management Technicians who act as bouncers for the school.

It’s a bitter sweet feeling to let go of them so soon (and yet so late considering I already had them one full year). And now, as I transition into 6th grade Language Arts, I know that I’ll never have a class as difficult as that one (God willing), but I’m sure to always be surprised by the students handed into my care. I can already tell, these 6th grade students are going to be an interesting time–like a party at a zoo.

Explaining my Tattoo to Kids of the Inner City

Working in a place where everyone and their 30-year-old grandma has a tattoo, it’s been an interesting experience trying to explain mine to them. I thought it was simple to understand. Especially since so many of them understand the significance of a cross.

The difference stemmed from the fact that they think a tattoo should be a part of self expression. It’s very personal. Unless it’s a gang tattoo. Then it’s a part of a group identity and is meant to show loyalty.

“That’s a gang tattoo,” the kids told me in May. “You’re a part of a gang. Or at least a squad.”

“No,” I insisted.

“Yes,” they said. “It’s a tattoo that all these people got to show that their the same, right? That’s a gang tattoo.”

I was baffled (as I often am with these kids), but after I let the idea sink in, I accepted it as a difference in semantics. Since gangs are what they know, their vocabulary to describe what I have reflects that. They don’t understand standing in solidarity with others around the world, but they understand sticking up for a gang brother. And really, the two are the same.

What I mean to say is, I, apparently, am a part of a “gang,” which would make Jesus my gang leader. He’s a very strange sort of gang leader. He says things like, “If someone takes a swing at you, let him take another, too” and “Love your enemies and pray for those who hurt you.”

It was not the conversation I expected to have over my tattoo, but it has been a fascinating look into the world of my students and a chance to see myself in a new light. I already knew that I was a Citizen of Heaven (Philippians 3:20), an Ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:20), a Slave of Christ (1 Corinthians 7:22), a Prisoner of Christ (Ephesians 3:1), a Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), a Child of God (John 1:12) and a Friend of God (John 15:15). But now, I have a new identity:

I’m Christ’s Gang Member (my students).

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