The Cow-Tail Switch and Family Values

One of my favorite stories to read with my classes is The Cow-Tail Switch. It’s a short, African folktale about a hunter that is killed by a leopard in the forest. It takes all of his sons to bring him back to life, and after he returns form the dead, he makes a cow-tail switch (a sign of honor and authority in the village) and wants to give it to the son that did the most to bring him back home.

The funnest thing about this story is that, traditionally, there was no real ending. The point of it was to argue over which son did the most important thing to bring him back from the dead, but it’s impossible to say which was most important because each brother’s work was useless on its own and dependent on each other to bring the father back. So how do you decide?

“Let’s have a death match over it,” one of my students said in 3rd block. We had just performed a little reader’s theater with the piece, which really put the students in the mindset of the characters. Then we started a class debate over who should get the cow-tail switch. Both previous classes had argued and voted, civilly on who should get the switch. But my 3rd block always made things interesting. “I can take all ya’ll,” he said as if he really was the son that gave his father blood to live.

“That’s not fair, Zion,” I said. “The youngest brother is only two years old by the time they find the father. You can’t fight a two year old!”

“Yes, I can!” he said. “He’ll be the first one out!”

“I think we should just burn it,” one of the girls said as if the switch was really sitting front of us. “It’s causing too much trouble.”

The verbal battle over the imaginary cow-tail switch (an item that no one in the class understood or cared about when we first started the story), went on until the bell interrupted us, signalling the end of class. My 3rd block students argued all the way out the door and into math class.

Then it was time for 4th block. We went through the story in the same way and when it arrived for the big celebration where the hunter, Ogaloussa, chooses which son to give the switch to, we began our debate.

At first, it was a debate very similar to every class before us, they brought up each of the sons and weighed their contributions to their father’s reincarnation. But then something strange happened.

“So what do we do?” I asked to wrap things up.

A tiny little doll of a girl raised her hand. “I think we should share it,” she said. “Can we share it?”

A few other students nodded their heads.

“Oh yeah!” another student added on. “We can put it in one of those glass cases and the whole family can keep it in their house!”

“How about if we just make more of them?” Another student said. “Then each son can get one.”

“Or we could take it apart and use each piece in a new switch so that every son gets a piece of the first switch.”

This class came up with more ways to share the switch than there were characters to give it to! I had never heard any idea like it in all the times I’ve taught the story. But I had to stir up some kind of controversy. So I said, “Let’s assume we only have the one switch and we have to give it to only one person. Who would we give it to?”

They thought for a moment, and then someone raised their hand. “What about the mother?” he said “She’s the one that raised all the sons. She had to raise all seven of them! She’s the one that kept the family together when the father was dead. She’s the one that must’ve taught them to do all the things they know how to do. She deserves it the most.”

All the students nodded.

We took a vote in the last minute before the end of class and the mother won in a landslide.

It struck me how odd that was. The mother is barely even a character in the story. She has no lines of dialogue and is mentioned perhaps twice in the whole passage. She could have just as easily not existed and it wouldn’t’ve changed the story.

But the mother figure of any family is not so easily overlooked by my students–most of whom live with single mothers. To them, that invisible mother in the African village was the cornerstone of the family. All of the arguments spoken on her behalf were just as true for each student’s own mother. And when they took that vote in the end, they weren’t voting for a fictional character. They voted with a heart dipped in the reality of their own lives.

It was beautiful.

Sent

As a missionary kid, I’ve heard many people talk about my parent’s work like they are specially endowed super heroes sent by God to carry out tasks that no one else could do. And as much as I’ve always thought my dad had some super hero in him, I don’t believe that missionaries are quite as special as they’re made out to be.
You don’t have to cross any national boarders or sit in a grass hut to be an instrument of God for the benefit of others. But if you don’t recognize the opportunity and take the risk of talking to strangers you might just pass up the chance to be an “ambassador of Christ” (2 Cor 5:20) to someone in need.
This was made clear to me back in college. In the same era of my life when God was sending me angels and even homeless angels, he made me an ambassador of his love to others.
I met Ashlee when she scared the crap out of me by pounding on my car window as I pulled in to park at my apartments. It was mid afternoon and I had come home from my college classes, but I hadn’t even had time to turn my engine off before she was at my window, black-mascara tears streaming down her beach-tanned face. I rolled down my window to see what she needed, but it took a moment for me to make out her words between her sobs. Eventually I got that her boyfriend had dumped her here and she didn’t have a way to get home. “Can you give me a ride?” she said, “Just to my sister’s house, it’s up near Monkey Junction.”
“Sure,” I said. How could I have said no? The woman was clearly desperate for help.
She got in the car and composed herself–wiping her face and calming her breathing until she could talk. Then she began to tell me what had happened, breaking off to let me know where to turn.
You see, her boyfriend had been driving her around in his truck when she finally decided to break the news to him that her daughter’s father was getting out of prison in a few days–just in time for her daughter’s 6th birthday. Her boyfriend, who was high on crack at the time, didn’t take the news too well. He got real nervous and agitated in the car and finally stopped at my apartment complex to throw her out of the car and drive off.
“So… you’re daughter’s father is in prison?” I said.
He had been convicted of possession and  sale of drugs and locked up for the entirety of his daughter’s life. “This party is the first time he’ll get to see her!” Ashlee said.
“Oh, how nice,” was all I could think to say. This whole conversation–the whole event–was far out of my comfort zone.
We arrived at her sister’s house and she got out of the car, but asked me to stay until she was inside. I watched her knock on the front door, the front windows, the side windows, and then yell at the house, “I know you’re home! Answer the door!”
If they were home, they didn’t answer the door. Defeated, she got back in my car and asked in a shy voice if I would take her to her own house in the next town over–about 30 minutes away. I agreed and we set off.
On the way, we got to know each other a bit. she thanked me a hundred times for helping her and invited me to the beach with her sometime (Something she obviously enjoyed a lot). “You should come to my baby’s birthday,” she said. “You can meet her dad. We need friends like you. None of my friends would have ever picked up some stranger in a parking lot.”
“That sounds nice,” I said, not really sure what to think, but trying my best to be polite. She gave me all of the information for the part and wrote down her phone number for me before I dropped her off at her house, just a block or two from the beach. It was a typical beach-house–not the vacation type, but the kind that sit on stilts  behind the hotels, ignored by all.
About a week later, I went to the store and bought a gift for Ashlee’s daughter: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.
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My favorite children’s book

I wrapped it in green paper and headed off to Ashlee’s house for the party. Cigarette smoke billowed out of the front door, hurting my smile just a little bit, but Ashlee wouldn’t let me escape the cloud. She grabbed me warmly and pulled me in to introduce me to her family, taking the present from me and putting it in a pile of pink gifts near the girls, also dressed in pink.
“That’s my mom over there, and this is my baby’s daddy,” she said, pulling me close to a group of men sitting around the table with beers and cigarettes. A rather intimidating man in the middle of the group nodded his head at me. I smiled and held out my hand to shake at the same time that he held out his fist for a fist bump. That was the first time anyone had done that.
Somewhere deep inside me I knew how to fist bump. But the whole situation–strange house, strange people, this scary-looking man fresh out of prison, the smoke–frazzled me and kept me from thinking clearly. So in an embarrassing moment of thoughtlessness, I grabbed his closed fist and shook it vigorously, saying “Nice to meet you!” with the best smile I could offer.
The man’s face contorted into a look of shock and confusion.
I left the party soon after that, feeling like I had failed enough for one day. The daughter seemed to have no interest in my book, which was severely lacking in pink or lace. The father, I was sure, had written me off as an idiot or a bimbo. And I wasn’t sure I could manage to breathe much longer in the cloud of smoke that sat like a heavy fog in the house.
But one thing made me feel good about the whole thing. Ashlee counted me as a friend. After only an hour with her over a week’s time, she considered me a friend. And that made everything worth it.

911

I called 911 the first time back in 2010 when a car exploded in front of my apartment at 2am.

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Don’t worry, I called 911 before I took the picture.

The second time, it was because my friend was bitten by a bug and didn’t have her EpiPen on her. And I’d like to take this moment to tell anyone who is prescribed one, please, please carry it with you because it is terrifying to watch a friend not be able to breathe over a bug bite.

This week, I had to call 911 for a third time. This time, it was for the police.

For those of you who don’t know, I work in a rough neighborhood school. In fact, as soon as school started up in August, we had a window smashed in the kindergarten hall. Our on campus police officer stays busy, as do the Behavior Management Technicians (BMTs). A surprising number of my students have at least one parent in prison right now, and a few of our 8th graders come and go from jail like it’s a second home. Last year, I had a student steal money from my pocket, and thanks to a student threat and a police report, I now know that a “chopper” is a gun (I thought I was being threatened with a chainsaw).

On Thursday, I left the school at 4:30, stopping to say hello to a former student of mine at the front doors. The school counselor had informed me that his 19 year old sister was murdered two weeks ago by her boyfriend, and I wanted to make sure he was okay, but I couldn’t find the right words to say past, “How are you doing?” to which he said, “Fine,” and left it at that. Without wanting to push anything, I smiled and said goodbye.

As I drove out of the parking lot, I passed a stopped car at the entrance. A woman in the passenger seat put her hand out the window and waved at me. I stopped my car in front of them, thinking maybe they had broken down, but as soon as I stopped, their car moved forward and came to pass me. I rolled down my window as they passed to see if they needed something. The woman in the passenger seat was sobbing and called to me, “Call the police!” but before I could make sense of the situation, the man at the wheel drove off, turning right onto the main road and toward ‘the hood.’

I grabbed my phone and started dialing 911, but then a thought occurred to me: “How are the police ever going to find a moving vehicle? What do I tell them? It was white with a temporary license plate that was too faded to read. The windshield was shattered like someone had thrown a big rock at it and the back driver’s side window was out. But would that be enough for them to find the car?” I had to be able to tell them where it was going!

So without any further reasoning, I turned right, following them into the labyrinth of narrow streets around the school, all the while, listening to 911 ring for so long that I thought I had dialed the wrong number.

The car turned down a narrow street right next to the school and I followed. But as soon as I did, survival instincts kicked in and I realized that this was a horrible idea. I stopped my car. As soon as I did, the white car stopped as well. And then it backed up and started making a 3 point turn.

My life didn’t flash before my eyes. Possible news headlines did. “Teacher killed in her car after calling 911 on a suspicious driver.” I looked around and thought to myself, “I”m going to die. This is where I’m going to die–in a little narrow road less than a block from my school. Will anyone even see me die? God, are you done with my life? Is this all I was meant to live?”

Thankfully, by this time, the 911 operator picked up on the other end and distracted me from myself just long enough to stumble through the sentence, “This woman in a car told me to call 911, but then the car drove off.”

“Okay. Don’t follow the car,” she told me.

“Oh. I am.”

By this time, the car came past me again, heading in the opposite direction. I didn’t know whether I should hide the phone and pretend I hadn’t called 911, or to show them that I had, in hopes of deterring any further problems. The woman still screamed from the passenger seat, “Call the police!”

On the speaker phone in my lap, the 911 operator said, “Can you ask her why?”

Before I could do anything, the car pulled back out onto the main road, cutting off traffic and causing a school bus to honk its horn. ”

“They’re gone,” I told the operator.

She asked me several more questions: “What did they look like? Was there any drugs, alcohol, or firearms? What clothing were they wearing?” All with the most bored sounding voice that made me believe that no police were even going to bother coming. For a minute, I thought about rushing back out there and following them again to make sure something was going to be done. Did the operator not take it seriously? Did she think we were being over dramatic? Will I ever know if that poor woman got help?

And then it occurred to me: Those people had come from our school parking lot. Chances are, one or both of them had a kid in the school. Was one of our students going to go home to that? Whether it was a domestic dispute, abuse, rape, or kidnapping that I witnessed, chances are one of our students was going to feel the consequences of it.

I cried and prayed my way back home to my safe and peaceful apartment (not the same place where a car exploded), wondering what was happening in my student’s homes that night.

 

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.

Autumn is Here

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

Someone is excited for the season.

Someone is excited for the season.

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