What we sometimes need to hear

For reasons I cannot account for (given that this is supposed to be my good, healthy, happy, even-numbered year) the last few months have been a struggle. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m failing as an adult and a person. . . I wouldn’t say it. But I feel so far away from the person I was as a middle school teacher on the other side of the world. It’s like all the adulthood I earned in Prague through blood, sweat and tears didn’t convert over into my American life.

Anyway, I was home sick for my kids and started re-reading some old blogs. I found this one and I think I needed it more than they ever did. Maybe you will too.

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Dear students,

On Tuesday we had to say ‘Goodbye.’ For some of you, this was easy – you were excited about the next step of your lives, your summer plans, or even just getting home for lunch. For some of you, the last day of school was tougher. You were torn between a past that you loved and a future you’re unsure about (no matter how excited you may be for it to come). And then, not all of us got to say ‘goodbye,’ did we? That happens too.

For me, the hardest part of the day was walking down the first floor hallway for the last time. You know the one – it runs along the ninth grade classrooms from the lunch hall to the big staircase at the end of the school. All those big windows let light come washing onto the smooth floors and across your lovely picture boards. I’ve been dreading that walk for a year and a half. I go that way every day after lunch to get to my office. Really, the day I realized how hard it would be to walk through this hallway on the last day of June was the day I realized how much I was falling in love with you and your school.

But the day did have to come and, even though you’ve already moved along with your summer plans, I want to say just a few things. Think of it as one last little piece of love from your teacher to help you through the next few years.

Be ready to smile.

I know Mondays are hard and it’s easy to be glum when you get bad marks or lose your phone (or someone hides your phone and doesn’t say where! . . . Honzo. . . ). But smiling is a way to fight back. Happiness is not something we find, it’s something wemake. Smiling – even when you don’t really feel like it – is the first step. And I think you’ll discover that if you smile at people, they’ll smile back. That’s called human connection and we don’t do it enough. But more importantly, your smile will have an effect on those around you. Your smiles have gotten me through some really difficult days. The person I am today is made up of tiny pieces of the people you have been for the last two years. You have shaped me by our shared experiences and you’ll continue to shape those around you for as long as you live! We humans share this planet and we will influence each other, for better or for worse. Remember that and decide: how do you want to shape people? If all you ever give the world is a smile every day, it will be a brighter place.

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Be kind.

This one is tough. Being kind isn’t easy and it isn’t glamorous. It certainly isn’t cool. But you know what? It is one of the greatest things you will ever learn. Learn to be nice to people you don’t like. Learn to keep quiet when you want to say something funny at the expense of someone else’s feelings. Learn not to laugh when a friend is down, no matter how funny it might seem to you – help them back up instead. I know this might sound boring to you. It’s not. Kindness is both a gift and an adventure, and only the bravest will ever know its fullest depths. It is the most underappreciated form of goodness and heroism that exists. There is no glory in being kind – only the reward of helping another person. And that is enough, trust me.

Don’t complain about lunch.

We can all agree that not every lunch in school is a good lunch. I particularly struggle with the fish dishes. Gag. But someone made that food. Someone paid money so that you could eat it. And someone much hungrier than you is going without lunch at all today. This isn’t meant to make you feel guilty, only to remind you to appreciate what you’ve been given. Appreciation is something you’ll struggle with your whole life. Start now. Start by thanking God for food to eat, friends to eat it with, and a school to eat it in. The best part about this is that the more you appreciate what you have, the fuller life will seem to you. Richness and joy will leak out of every mundane activity and colorless possession and you’ll discover an entire world that most people will never notice because they never learnedappreciation.

Work hard.

Duh. Turn in your homework. Study for tests. Get good marks. But hard work won’t do you any good if you’re not doing it for a purpose. And I don’t mean, “Mom is happy when I have good marks,” or “I need to get into a good high school.” Work hard because you can. What a gift it is to learn! What a privilege it is to fill our minds! God has given us the most amazing capacity to grow and expand! It can be a struggle and you won’t always win, but I want you to try. I want you to aim to grow yourself into the brightest, smartest, hardest-working person you can be – but don’t do it for me! Do it for yourself. Do it because you owe your humanity the very minimum respect of cultivating your mind, body and soul to the best of your ability.

Don’t give up on yourself.

I’ve seen some of you quit. I’ve seen you come to a wall that you didn’t think you could climb. Can I tell you something? Watching you give up on yourselves is the hardest part of my job – worse than grading papers (or losing students on the metro. . . Petře. . .). Thomas Edison (inventor of the light bulb) once said, “I didn’t fail – I found a thousand ways not to make a light bulb!” And after thousands of tries, he finally succeeded. And all those failures added to his character – they made him a stronger person. The key is to keep trying, because, ultimately, our greatest successes are not what we accomplish but who we become. Become someone who doesn’t quit.

Don’t give up on others.

There have been a few times in the last few years when I’ve thought, “I’m not meant to be a teacher – I can’t do this.” (One of these times may definitely have followed the ping-pong incident). Do you know why I didn’t quit? Because you wouldn’t let me. Every time I got worn down, you picked me right back up. We need people to believe in us. We need to believe in others – and not just with things like school and work! Growing up is hard and we all make mistakes. Be patient with your friends. Forgive. Forget. Work together. Don’t give up on those around you who are struggling to find themselves – and I mean everyone, not just our friends. Everyone. Our faith in humanity is much too fragile. Learn to sympathize, learn to respect the struggles of others, learn to lift people up.

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Follow your road.

Leaving school has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It breaks my heart to go. A lot of people have been asking me, “When will you come back?” And the truth is, I don’t know if I will come back. Who can know the future but God? On Tuesday, when someone asked me when I’d be coming back to Prague, a dear teacher took my face in her soft hands, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Your life is ahead of you.” I needed to hear that. I needed someone to tell me that it’s okay to say ‘goodbye.’ Love and friendship are not bound by space and time. So follow your road. Go where you need to go. The people who love you most will be waiting for your return or simply praying for your safe journey, wherever it takes you.

Keep your heart open.

I want to thank you for letting me into your school. You can’t know how I scared I was when I first came to Prague. I didn’t understand anything anyone said. I wasn’t used to the rules and customs here. And I kept getting lost on the stairwell! Most of all, I was scared of letting everyone down, of being a bad teacher. Nebyla jsem špatná učitelka, žejo? I could not have made it through the last two years without your help. You have been so kind to me. You have been so much fun to work with. And you believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself anymore. If anything, you were my teachers and I was your most adoring student – and I always will be. I want you to know that you have been my greatest adventure. I also want you to know that it’s okay to love your new teacher the way you have loved me. People come and go – that’s life. But there is no end to the amount of love we can give. Don’t let the pain of an ending keep you away from the beauty of a beginning. All things do end, eventually. Keep your heart open for whoever needs a home there. And be ready to love everyone – no matter where they come from or where they’re going.

It took me less than 90 seconds to walk from one end of that hallway to the other. The school was quiet – the way it is in the afternoon when you’re all tucked away in your last classes of the day and everyone is sleepy from a full lunch. For that 90 seconds, I thought about all my favorite moments in this school. The first snowfall, Halloween, learning our Christmas songs, the Garden Party. I thought of all your little triumphs and all your dreams, your fears and hopes and crazy ideas – pieces of yourselves that you’ve given me. What an honor to have been your teacher!

But before I knew it, the hallway ended. The view around the corner spread out before my eyes and, looking backwards, the hall lay still and silent.

Life happens quickly. It’s over before we know it. Don’t waste a moment, don’t miss a beat. Remember that you won’t always have the chance to say ‘goodbye,’ so live each moment expressing your love for those around you – let there never be a doubt in their minds how much they mean to you. I hope, I hope, I have been able to express just how much you have meant to me.

But above all, don’t be afraid. The world needs brave people who will be kind, fair and loving.

Are you ready?

Best of luck,

Your Teacher, Mary

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To girls and people who know them

Dear Tender Hearts,

This started out as an open letter to high school girls, but I’m going to expand the list a little because there are so many more people in this world who are tender-hearted, wide-eyed hopefuls and they can learn from the girls of the world too.

I was inspired to write this because I’ve been hanging out with a lot of high school girls lately. February saw me as an alumna judge at a high school debate tournament, a counselor at a youth winter camp and a freelance sports journalist at the championship game of a girls’ basketball league. So yeah, I’ve been around a lot of giggling, crying, squealing, hugging, bouncing, laughing, dancing girls this month.

Perhaps college (and then “adult life” and then “college: round two”) has embittered me to the once golden years of my girlhood. Recently I have found myself looking back on those years (8-11 grade, mostly) with a shudder and a grimace.

I was loud. I was nerdy. I was self-righteous and so self-absorbed (Oooookay, I honestly thought this list wasn’t going to sound so much like present-day me. Awkward). I roll my eyes at the stupid ideas I had about boys and cringe thinking about the things I did to impress them. The whole world was so unstable, it could have shattered with a glance (not that I had the social skills to perceive which glances were earth-shattering and which weren’t). I prided myself on knowing everyone, and in the end, I don’t think I really knew anyone.

My real friends were all saints for putting up with me for so long. So were my parents.

When I finally have my fifteen children, I hope they’re all boys, I tell myself sometimes. Girls are a mess.

But this month changed my mind. (Not about the fifteen kids – that’s still basically a life goal).

Courage, sacrifice, determination, commitment, toughness, heart, talent, guts. That’s what little girls are made of.
-Bethany Hamilton

It was oddly and almost uncomfortably nostalgic to walk onto the campus in Redlands(ish) where the speech and debate tournament was being held. A bunch of kids were walking around in their suits like they were the coolest thing since sliced bread, pants too long and jackets too baggy. The girls all made concerted efforts to look classy and fashionable, a difficult task with braces and bangs and acne. I know. I have been there.

All the girls had very loud, generally not fully-informed opinions which drifted on shrill voices across campus. At that age, we want so badly to be seen because sometimes it doesn’t feel like we exist unless someone else says so. We want to our ideas to be heard, our voices to be recognized. We build these huge worlds up in our heads, ourselves half at the helm and half pitching seasick over the side. It’s deliriously exciting and painful and, frankly, I’m glad I’ve mostly outgrown the nervous energy.

If mini lady-bosses are bundles of energy, mini athletes are explosions. I love sports reporting, especially at the high school level when all the parents and siblings come out to watch. It’s exciting and fun, and I get paid to do it which is like, the very best of situations.

The hardest part is the post-game interviews. Don’t get me wrong, the girls are all sweethearts. But all that pent-up “girl energy” usually just comes out in squeals and shrieks. Not much coherence or quotable material. After nearly every game, as I leave the court, pool or field, I hear one of my interviewees loudly telling someone about the experience of being talked to by a real reporter with all the color and frustration and excitement a girl can have.

I worked at a high school camp over Valentine’s Day weekend. On the last day, I heard a girl crying in a bathroom stall. Her friend was standing by the sinks just kind of chillin’ so I asked her what was wrong.

“Dean is leaving today,” said the friend.

Ah yes.

I knew this feeling. Dean was the super cute college boy who also happened to be just the nicest kid ever. If I was a fifteen-year-old girl again, I’d be crying over Dean too. I’ve certainly shed enough tears over boys in my day.

“That’s hard,” I said, putting on my most mature, counselor-y voice. “I know how tough it is to get attached to people. But you’ll learn as you get older that it’s so much nicer to get to be friends with all these boys. You’ll see them enough and you’ll get a lot more out of a friendship than out of an attachment.”

I went on for several more minutes, spewing my hard-earned life advice. The friend just continued chillin’ by the sink, listening patiently.

Finally, the bathroom door opened and out came a red-eyed girl. My jaw dropped.

It was Dean’s sister.

I looked at the friend with one of those earth-shattering glances and she smiled a little.

“You knew she was his sister and you just let me go on like that?” I asked her, trying to hold onto my mature, counselor-y demeanor which was quickly slipping away.

“It was good stuff,” she said with a simpering smile.

Watching Dean’s heart-wrecked sister wipe her eyes tragically on a scratchy paper towel, I was suddenly flooded with another kind of nostalgia. For a brief moment, I was back in my tenth grade bedroom, sobbing into my hands and listening to the CD-mix my brother left behind when he packed for his return trip to college after Christmas break. (This was back when we still used CDs, kids. We’ve come a long way in a decade).

Suddenly, in that ridiculous bathroom, I felt so stupid. In my desperate attempt to grow up and reject the humiliating mistakes of my younger years (which I just seem to be repeating on escalated scales in my twenties), I threw away some very precious parts of who I am.

Yes, I was one of those shrill, opinionated high school girls who would literally have tried to take over the world if Congress hadn’t had age requirements. I’ve tempered that ambition and righteous zeal with a little perspective, life experience, empathy and the ability to listen to constructive criticism. But I wish I stood up for myself as much now as I did then. I wish I pushed to have myself heard a little more often. I wish I could tell all those bossy girls that there is nothing wrong with taking charge of something and doing a good job. This is your world too. Don’t lose your desire to make a difference.

I was also one of those girls could not get a handle the energy level and bring it down to a normal setting. I was fiercely competitive and ferociously excited to win. Honestly, I was really just excited about everything. It’s hard to do that now because, in my experience, excitement often leads to disappointment. It is so much easier to go through life without expectations or hopes. What no one told me was that indifference uses energy too. It will drain you till you’re empty and leave you to sit alone with your predictable, half-enthused life. I wish I could tell all the girls who squeal and giggle and hope and dream, that life is far, far too big and too wonderful to let the risk of disappointment dampen the beauty of possibility.

And I was most definitely one of those love-struck teens. I was head-over-heels with someone new every week. But I also fell in love with people. I loved humans. It didn’t matter who they were or where they came from, I’d find a way to be friends. Granted, it was an imperfect friendship. I have learned a lot about being a friend to someone over the years. But even as I left high school, I could feel myself becoming more wary and judgmental. Out of necessity, I tell myself, I have built up a few small walls. But I wish they’d come back down. I wish I could tell the tender hearts out there that, yes, the world is full of broken people who will hurt you, use you, ignore you, hate you, lie to you or never pay you back for that lunch. And the ones who will hurt you the most will be the ones you least expect. But the safest approach to all these people is the same: love them anyway. Relish the cracks that make us human and love them with the compassion of the Divine.

I am a little less mortified by my own experiences in girlhood now. And I have the girls in my life to thank for it.

Grow up strong. Grow up excited. Grow up tender.

 

Best of luck, and all my prayers,
A girl in progress

The World Behind Me

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

-Mark Twain

 

Self-admittedly, I have always been a little self-righteous. It began innocently enough – as most sins do – something good rooted in a sinful nature that eventually turns into something not so good.

I grew up in a home that taught me to love knowledge, love truth, love the practice of it. And because of that, a very large part of my identity is founded on a pride in knowing and following the truth. I build up a castle of facts around myself so that when I am faced with conflict or adversity, I have ground to stand on.

Truth is my fortress.

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Several years at college, in the workforce and then on the other side of the world have done a lot to change my view of the world. Issues I used to take for granted, used to stubbornly defend as the absolute truth, I am seeing are more complex than my 16-year old mind could have understood at the time. The details aren’t important beyond mentioning that only what I believe about my faith has remained completely unaltered.

Since coming home, I have begun to see much more vividly how far I have branched away from the views of my family and friends (and now I understand why they say never to discuss religion and politics at the dinner table).

It has felt isolating, to be honest. No one prepared me for that. I certainly still align myself more with the views of the community I grew up in than say, the far liberal left. The unfortunate result is feeling like I don’t really fit in either group.

Maybe other millennials are feeling the same way. This is what our parents wanted, right? They wanted us to grow up and become our own thinkers.

But I’m afraid I have played the part of the bitter idealist for too long. I have been the tortured, enlightened martyr in the fight for perspective and balance that every secretly hates talking to for more than four minutes lest I begin another rant. And it was yet another journey that has begun to cure me of my own self-importance (which, though much less self-righteous in nature, has manifested itself similarly).

Athens is quite a place to experience. What a city of paradoxes. Greeks are a people divided by a courageous compassion for those washing up on their shores and a fearful self-focus, making them apathetic to the needs of humans in the throes of great tragedy. It’s a ruined city built around a city of ruins – both of which are celebrated in their own way. And it’s a city with ancient people and modern people; tourists, foreigners and refugees.

It’s an amazing place to build a church.

I visited three churches while I was there, all of which were freckled with different nationalities, different worship backgrounds, different theologies. It was uncomfortable for me and my frigid protestant background.

My self-righteous spirit was much more awake during those services than my humility ever was, as it critiqued and criticized every aspect of the worship. There is a Biblical way to have a church service, there is order and method for a reason. The liturgy, the depth of our hymns, the fencing of the table, the preaching of the word all has ordained structure! I’d be screaming on the inside as I sat through a messy fifth chorus of “Good, Good Father.”

Following one of the services, the congregation of Greeks, Americans, Sri Lankans, Iranians and North Africans piled into cars and drove to the seaside. It was time for a baptism.

Now, I was raised as a paedobaptist, which means we baptize our infants as a sign that they are born into the covenant family of God, whether or not they are elect believers. I have seen several adult baptisms, one in a backyard pool in the Czech mountains and another in a church baptismal in the South.

This one was different. Perhaps because I was already feeling so rigidly defensive of my own beliefs and practices.

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We spilled onto mushy white sand, which was littered with trash and seaweed. A huge storm had rolled over the night before. The debris seemed to suggest that the sea had gotten sick and thrown up whatever was in its belly onto the beach.

We picked our way to the water’s edge where four Iranians stood, ready to give us their testimonies. They were all refugees. Some had left their homes seeking God, others had found him along the way. Some had been rejected by their families and spouses because of their faith in Christ. Some had left good jobs and good lives to come to Greece. Each one had made a dangerous journey. Each one had had to leave the community they were born into to join the family of God. Each one gave up their world for the next.

The sun was still low in the late-morning sky and it turned the water into a silver sheet of ripples. So bright were its rays, so clear was the sky, that all we could see were the silhouettes of our new brothers and sisters as they were lowered into the water and brought back up, new creations in Christ Jesus.

An African woman to my left began to sing a song I have known since childhood. It’s one of those songs I have written off as shallow and repetitive, but in the context of this baptism it took on new life.

I have decided to follow Jesus
No turning back, no turning back.

The cross before me, the world behind me
No turning back, no turning back.

It was a long way down for me that morning. You don’t realize how high your horse is until someone clubs you in the stomach and knocks you off.

I am so narrow-minded.

The impatience I once had for people who grew up with different values than I did, I now have toward those who don’t apply these values the same way I do. My stubborn insistence that I am right has made me unkind and uncaring. Some child of God I am.

We should seek the truth, but we must speak it in love. Our castles of fact will not serve us well if we cannot learn how to invite others in with winsomeness and charity.

God’s people come from all over the world – in it, not of it. We are born into different cultures and traditions. We will disagree on how to be good stewards of this earth or godly citizens beneath the authority of men which God has placed us under. We will even disagree on what it looks like to be a child of the Risen King. Our churches will have different flavors and our Christian walks will be the varying tunes of a mighty orchestra that rises in harmony to the ears of God, the Great Composer.

And if the beauty of a broken people united and made perfect in Christ were not enough to strip away self-importance, the reminder that we are all refugees in the eyes of God, washing onto the world’s shores with nothing to give brought me back down to my knees.

In the damp sand of an ancient shore on a very clear day, I remembered the second greatest commandment. It is not, love the truth. It is love your neighbor.