once a teacher

img_20160906_085443There it was. Bright red and gleefully tucked beneath the clear folds of plastic wrap and blue ribbon, my very first “Teacher’s Apple.”

It’s an idea I have loved since I first spotted it in the soft colors of Norman Rockwell paintings kept in a book beneath our living room coffee table. Giving the teacher an apple. How classically, iconically American.

Needless to say, it wasn’t really something I experienced in the Czech Republic. Oh, I was begifted with plenty of little treasures, but apples were never a thing there as far as I could tell.

So beginning at my new little school this year, ten minutes away from where I grew up, has been…Well, it’s been a long time in coming.

My tumultuous year away from my Czech students in Prague was reaching an excruciating peak in March when I was contacted by this little school to see if I was interested in a teaching position.

I wasn’t.

Already, I was mapping out a survival plan for my remaining three years of college education here in San Diego and teaching part time at a tiny Christian school was just not in the cards. It wouldn’t be Prague, you know? And I would be too busy.

But I have trouble saying, “No” to people, so the next thing I knew, I was in the middle of a phone call with a board member and then in the middle of an interview with the entire school board and then negotiating hours.

None of it held any large office space in my mind. I was in the middle of several meltdowns in April and May, mostly involving finals and anxiety about my trip back to Prague in the summer for some final goodbyes and a little closure.

And all the while, I assumed I would turn the job down eventually. Something wouldn’t work out. Because how could it? This school wasn’t mine. It wasn’t Prague, remember?

And yet an insatiable curiosity kept pulling me along. This was no longer an inability to be an adult and say, “No, thank you, but I just can’t.”

There was a turning point, I remember.

During the full-board interview, after being sufficiently and terrifyingly grilled on my values, virtues and skill sets (most of which I may have slightly oversold), the Chairman leaned back, pointed his sharp eyes on me and said in his gruff voice, “Is there anything you’d like to ask us?”

I thought for a moment, whispers of my little Czech students still echoing in my ears all these months later, and said, “Tell me about the kids.”

All heads turned to the Chairman, who had been to this point the most intimidating figure in the room. He softened. He smiled. He said, “Let me tell you about them.”

I don’t remember what he said, but I remember how he said it. He said it with the same tenderness I have felt for my own little okurky. He said spoke about them with affection and hope, as though he could vividly see all the promises held in their futures lined out like golden stepping stones and he wanted more than anything to help them jump from one to the next.

And I knew that feeling so well.

So I took the job.

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Harvey, the fake owl that sits on my candy bowl. He is a dear friend.

I rearranged my school and work schedules. I found minutes in the day I didn’t know existed until I had all the time I needed to make everything fit. I read text books. I made lesson plans. I drafted a friend into decorating my classroom for me.

And on the first day of school, I found myself on the receiving end of an apple. The girl was quick about it. She placed it in my hand and then dashed away.

For three and a half hours, I made my way through high school level English and Spanish. Then I packed my things, locked my classroom and dashed off to campus to begin a round of back to back college lectures.

All week, I was in and out so quickly, I barely noticed the flurry of paperwork and signatures and beginners ‘how to’s’ I still needed to walk through. I did notice the other teachers graciously asking, “How’s it going? Are you doing okay?”

And I was, surprisingly.

After teaching several hundred students of all grades in a different language in the Czech Republic, a room of six high schoolers who all understand English seemed too easy. It was like training for a marathon and then running a mile.

On top of this, it was good to be back in the classroom. Indoctrinating a new generation of children on the importance of adverbs and explaining complex grammatical concepts with shoddily drawn stick figures. Having a little room with a little desk to sit behind (or on, as is more often my case). Having tiny people just bursting to ask questions, push buttons and grow into themselves.

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It wasn’t until Friday, the end of the first week, that I felt it. A realization. A revelation. A homecoming.

As my new students waltzed out of the room, practically singing, “See you on Monday!”, tripping over themselves to get to lunch, I felt a little tug on the cords of my heart. The same tug I always felt when school let out in Prague. It would be a whole weekend before I saw my students again.

My new school isn’t my old one. I knew that going in. I am very aware of it now. And I know that nothing will replace what Prague was to me.

But I think God knew I needed to be back in a classroom. I think maybe he’s been wanting me here and I was too stubborn to go on my own, so he just kind of pushed me into one.

When the Chairman bustles into my classroom with his gravelly voice and his broad smile and asks, “How are you doing?” – I tell him I’m doing well, that I like it here, that it feels like a good fit.

But the truth is, it’s more than that. It feels like home.

a return to joy

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Speeding on a train from Kutná Hora to Prague. Photo Credit: Eli Hirtzel.

“Did you get any rest?” Rachel asked me, lowering herself into the deeply cushioned chair next to my corner of the couch.

“Not really,” I said. Early evening light filtered into the livingroom of the house I had once lived in for two years. The day was hot and muggy and we were both glistening, despite the coolness of our new surroundings. It’s a long walk from our hotel rooms on top of the hill to the house at the bottom (during the late summer evenings, you can sometimes see fireflies along the path in the forest, but I’ve not managed to spot any this trip).

Rachel tilted her head sideways and eyed me, looking every ounce the schoolteacher she is.

“Why not? What were you doing all afternoon?”

“Mopping up the bathroom,” I said. “And crying.”

Rachel smiled. Not a happy one, but a knowing one. She understands, about the crying at least.

“Why were you mopping the bathroom?” she asked.

One of my roommates, a girl from the American team who had come to help with the English Camp, had had a disagreeable moment with the shower in our hotel room and we didn’t have time before church to mop up the lake left in the wake of their dispute. So following Sunday lunch at the house, I trekked up through the forest alone to our room and found myself knee-deep in water, wet towels and something unexplainably sticky.

Then I rehung all my laundry around the open window, hoping they’d dry out better in the fresh air than in the dank of our bathroom before I packed them for a final time in the evening.

Then I broke the bathroom hairdryer trying to shortcut the hang-dry process with a pair of shorts.

Then I stared out the window for a while.

Then I sat on my bed and cried. For about two hours.

I don’t know why I came back to the Czech Republic, to be honest. Technically, I came to help with an English Camp the church puts on every summer. Technically, I came to see my former students and fellow teachers one last time before their school year let out. Technically, I came to catch up with a few dear friends I had to leave behind when I returned to San Diego last July after living and working in this beautiful country for two years.

But I couldn’t tell you what I was really coming to find. Peace? Closure? The missing remnants of my broken heart so I can piece myself back together before resuming my new life in San Diego?

Why had I come back to Prague? What a truly awful, horrible, stupid idea. Because I knew this moment would come. This afternoon when I’d be sitting on this couch for the last time, wishing with all my heart I could stay, knowing I’d have to leave.

I wish I could explain why leaving Prague last year was so devastating to me. It’s a question I have thought about a lot this summer as I have revisited forests, fields and the homes of friends I know so well. My breath still vanishes when I cross Charles’ Bridge. My eyes still linger on the horizon whenever St. Vitus Cathedral stands against it. Prague is always new for me. But it also has the feel of a very old friend, one who knows me perhaps better than I know myself.

Every sidewalk I traversed this summer led me down a thousand memories of the city and its people, each in a different season. Every friend I visited refreshed my mind and loosened my tongue to the Czech language (which, sadly, I have only been able to speak with my cat for the last year, and she’s not much of a conversationalist). And every day, I remembered anew why this place feels so much like home.

Which is unfortunate since I don’t live here anymore. And I find myself asking God, “Why would you give me this just to take it all away?”

“Have you ever thought about moving back?” Rachel asked me, echoing a question I’ve heard maybe a hundred times.

Of course, is always my answer. I’d give my right leg to be here forever. Sometimes I wish I was Czech or wonder whether my Czech friends feel special to belong to a people and a place like this.

In fact, even the difference between returning to San Diego, which was difficult and stressful, and returning to Prague was shocking to me.

They say you can’t go back. You can’t go home again. That was totally true for me. When I moved back to San Diego, it felt forced and awkward. I had become a stranger in the town that raised me. I had chased a different wind and had changed with the current, such that the old seas felt rough and strange to me upon return.

Okay, I realize this all may sound a little over-dramatic, but I just don’t know how else to explain how I’ve been feeling for the last year. Not that I haven’t adjusted, made new friends, started new ventures. But in the still moments before sunset, the walks from my car to the house when the stars are out, the muffled laughter of people enjoying themselves right here, I find myself somewhere else. Somewhere far away, in a time that almost seems imaginary, as though I fell asleep for two years, dreamed a wonderful dream, and woke again to a world that has moved on without me. And it leaves me feeling heartbroken and lost.

I thought ‘coming back’ would be the same with Prague. I had been away for a year after all. Would I recognize this place? Would it remember me?

Prague surprised me. I instantly felt pieces of myself fall back into place as I immersed myself again in a culture and a language. I visited my school and saw my students and fellow teachers. It felt like I had never left. Like I had been gone only a day.

And I’m wondering if this is because the ‘Home’ where we begin is a launching point, setting us up for flight and a future. To return is impossible because it represents the past. But the ‘Home’ we create on our own is our future. Coming back is easy and natural, like finding your way back to the path that leads you onward.

So why don’t I just move back? Get a teaching position again? Make my own way of things?

Simple, really.

I first considered moving to Prague in 2010 after a short term mission’s trip when it was obvious that there was a need for workers in the field. I felt so called to go. For three years, I waited, planned, prepared. Finally, I was accepted to go as a missionary associate for two years, with the possibility of extensions. It was so hard and yet so easy to struggle through those two years (five, if you count the three years in San Diego it took to get me to Prague) because, at every step, I knew that this was where God wanted me to be. And in my heart I knew I wouldn’t leave Prague unless God sent someone to replace me or made it very obvious he wanted me elsewhere.

In a way, He did both. So I left.

I’m in San Diego because it’s pretty clear to me that God wants me there right now. And I’m not unhappy.

Not unhappy, but I’ve been missing something. For months now, I’ve noticed the lack of something very important in my life, something I long to have back.

I’ve lost my joy.

I’ve been missing the delight of waking up every morning and knowing I’ll get to see all my students, I’ll get to walk through fall leaves or winter snows, I’ll get to learn new words and practice old ones. I’ve been missing my friends from school, the women who opened up their lives and hearts to me. I’ve been missing impossibly clear Czech skies, feathery forests and wayside flowers. I’ve been missing the life I had and all the joy that came with it. I have this fear that my two years in Prague were the best I may ever get, nothing will ever be quite so golden. And even though I know in my heart that this is probably untrue, it’s hard to fight the feeling. Especially sitting in a house that was once home, looking out a window into what was once my world and my future.

“It is hard having your life in one place and your heart in another,” I finally said.

Rachel gave her head a little shake, sympathy in the highest degree, and we waited for the evening devotional to begin.

The dear man who led us through Scripture and then prayer began quickly and finished quietly. We read only three passages, each about the sacrifice of the Christian life. For us, living safely and happily in the first world, the Christian life doesn’t require many sacrifices. Certainly not the pain of death. Not torture, not imprisonment, not persecution.

Literally, all I have to do is live by the Word of God and follow His direction in my life. And in return, He has given us a peace that passes understanding.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God,which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 4:4-7

All this I know in my head, but it has taken a year for that knowledge to work its way into my broken heart.

Suddenly, I felt a lifting of my spirit, a calming of my soul.

My world of hopes and dreams here in Prague seem like an awfully small sacrifice to make for the One who gave me all.  

Sitting there in that living room, I suddenly felt myself breathe for what felt like the first time in a year. The idea of being able to bring a sacrifice to the altar of the Lord brightened my soul in a way I didn’t expect.

Prague is not something God is taking away from me. It is something He has given me, which I should be delighted to return to him to make room for the new plans He has for me whatever or wherever they may be.

Logically, it doesn’t make sense. It is very truly a peace that passes understanding. And, although it didn’t come all at once, that evening I began to realize it personally.

I trooped back through the forest to the hotel that night with another friend from the team.

“I really want to see fireflies,” I told him. “This is my last chance before I go home.”

In the dark, I could hear him laughing, but he made a point of staring into the abyss of the shadowy creek for bobbing lights with me. We found none.

I sighed. Not even fireflies? Like, I understand that God gives and takes away as he pleases, but not even one little firefly? You know, as a consolation gift? Is that too much to ask for?

We kept walking, my friend bending the conversation as softly as the curves in the road.

And then I saw it.

Glowing unmistakably, it flickered a few yards in front of us. Beating nearly as loudly as my friend’s heavy footsteps, my heart seemed to pound uncontrollably as we slowly approached the little creature.

“It’s not a firefly,” my friend said, crouching on the pebbled pathway near the grass where our new acquaintance lay blazing like a supernova.

“No,” I said, entranced. “He’s a glow worm.”

A dozen memories of Czech mountains and Czech children and all the glow worms they’ve brought me over the years blinked before me.

“Should we take him with us?” asked me friend.

“No,” I said again, feeling a smile spreading warmly across my face as we watched the only glowing insect in the whole forest beaming before us. “His place is here.”

He’s not a firefly, but he’s something – a reminder from the Lord that he hears me. That I’m not alone. That he’s sending me back to San Diego for a reason. Just like he sent me to Prague for a reason.

Prague is my glow worm. Beautiful, magical, moving, but not mine. Prague and the people in it belong to God and it is time to let go of the idol I have turned them into, to give them back and trust that they will be just as safe in his hands as they’ve ever been.

Coming back to San Diego was no easier this time around. I still feel so deeply sad to leave a home I hoped was mine. But my heart is healed, fully back, not inside me, but in the hands of my Savior. I’m ready to love again, adventure again, find a new home with a new people, if that’s what he asks me to do. What a little sacrifice, to live this life God gave me unto him and no other.

And with that readiness has come the return of my joy.

a baseball confession from a broken heart

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Sunshine washed the field in a perfect golden haze the last time I walked away from a college baseball game in 2013. I had been covering Southwestern College’s team for a local paper and the season was coming to an end, just as a new one for me was about to begin.

That was the month before I left America, just a few short weeks before I packed my bags and boarded a plane to Central Europe where a whole new future awaited me.

For the most part, I was ready to go. I had been planning to teach in Prague and work with the church there for three years (since the summer I graduated from high school, for the sake of precision). But walking up the hill from the dusty diamond, I realized very keenly that I would miss this. I would miss baseball.

One day I’ll tell the story about how I got into sports reporting. It was part accident, part ego, and no one was more surprised than myself.

But this isn’t a story about beginnings. This is my attempt at explaining to all of my confused, amused family and friends why I have been so obsessed with baseball this season. So the only relevant information you need to know about my beginnings with covering this sport is that it took me two and a half games and one wikipedia search of baseball terms to understand I had found something I really, really loved.

It is also important to know that Prague changed me. Specifically, being a middle school teacher changed me, or brought out something in me that I didn’t know was there before. Some of you followed all this on my travel blog as it was happening, but not even I realized just what a different person I had become until I came home. The problem is that when you are shaped in one place and then move to another, it takes a while to find a spot where you fit again.

And the full-time student life I moved into didn’t really accommodate my inner sunshine-seeking, people-watching middle school teacher.

Moving home, leaving Prague, was the hardest thing I have ever done.

It was only natural that, upon returning from Prague after two years, I would find my way back to baseball. I write for my college paper where some of the Jaguar coaching staff still remember me from 2013. I also write for a paper in East County covering high school and community college games.

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My nifty lil story and photo published in a real newspaper.

Four months of baseball have seen me climbing trees and hanging over outfield fences with my feet jammed into the spaces of rusty chain link fences, or kneeling in the dirt (and mud – thanks, El Niño), angling for that perfect shot.

One particular game in Eastlake had me picking through piles of trash behind the outfield fence next to the home dugout. I squatted in the mud next to a wheelbarrow filled with murky water and ignored the weeds brushing against my ankles. When it comes to angles on the field, the stretch between second base and third is my favorite and I would literally squat on an ant hill to get a good view of it.

Barely two innings had gone by when rain began to lick the back of my neck. Tucking my camera beneath my coat, I trekked back through the mud to the bleachers where fans were taking cover under jackets and backpacks.

Fighting the crushing feeling that we were about to get rained out, I pushed my lens through the gaps in the fence and took a few snapshots of the batter as the wind began sending torrential sheets of water down onto the field. My fingers were numb, my clothes were getting soaked and I could tell my camera was not going to be a happy camper after this experience. I wanted to be grumpy, but all I kept thinking as a stupid smile pushed its way over my chattering teeth was how lucky I am to have this job, to be at a baseball game on such a day.

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Helix runner dashes home through the pouring rain during a game at Eastlake.

El Niño and I were definitely not friends. I know the rest of California was ready for some wet weather, but rain means cancelled games.

I obsessively checked the weekly Google weather forecast twice a day to make sure game days were still clear. Cancelled games absolutely wrecked me. 

But when the weather was clear, it was beautiful. The first time I ever noticed spring in San Diego was season I covered baseball, back in 2012. Outside the classroom, away from my computer, the baseball field opened up to me the glories of early March. Sunlight clearer than glass cut across the field and breezes rippled the mesh on the outfield fence. Warm in the sun and cold in the shade, every sound seemed crisper and every color seemed brighter. Butterflies fluttered by and insects hummed in the grass. And on a baseball field, the afternoons lilted by slowly, taking their time.

I remember sitting in the dirt next to the SWC dugout at an away game at City College in Balboa this April. Several times an inning, planes swept through the pale blue skies above us, and the tops of Downtown’s beautiful skyline popped up over the outfield fence. It was a warm day and the dust billowed into columns whenever runners slid into the bases. Luckily for me, City’s field is grossly uneven. Third base is elevated nearly a foot from home plate. Sitting on the dirt, I could see the bag almost exactly at eye-level. My camera snapped up every dusty third-base slide that afternoon.

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One of those perfect third-base shots from my spot in the dirt at City’s baseball field in Balboa.

I have two distinct memories from this game. The first was realizing that this is exactly how I hope to whittle away Friday afternoons for the rest of my life: sitting in the red dirt of a baseball diamond with my camera, watching a game unfold.

The second was getting spit on. One of the sophomores to my right took a swig from his water bottle and spat into the dirt, but the breeze picked up the salivinated Aquafina and thinned it into a mist that caught the right side of my face.

Every normal instinct I possess told me to be upset about getting spit on (because, ew, obviously), but I was just too happy to be at a baseball game in perfect weather with a fantastic view of third base. So I wiped it off without a word. I may have even smiled a little.

And I thought how lucky I am to have this job, and to be here at a baseball game on a day such as this.

But I am obsessed. When the team lost, it ruined the best of days. Wins made my whole week. The only page open on my phone more often than Google weather was the Jaguar schedule and results page, which I refreshed obsessively during away games to keep track of the score.

I wore my lucky shoes on game days, carried around a can of corn in my backpack on weeks when defense was struggling and was late to more math classes than my GPA will probably forgive me for on account of needing to stay at the game for just one more inning.

There are plenty of reasons to like baseball (the lingo, the superstition, the magic of the ninth-inning comeback). But the more people raise their eyebrows at my over-the-top obsession with the sport, the more persuaded I’ve been to figure out why I love baseball.

And I think I’ve finally figured it out.

See, the thing about being a dugout reporter is that it gets me up close to the game. And not just close enough to see streaks of red as the baseballs whiz by me (or, on occasion, at me, as has happened several times in foul ball territory).

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I actually never saw this one coming. But the rest of the dugout did and I earned some pretty solid street cred for not flinching when it missed me by inches.

I get to see the players and the coaches work out pieces of their personal stories as each game unwinds.

I hear the dugout chatter. I know which pitchers wish they got played more. I hear them wonder to their pals behind the batting cages how much harder they have to practice to get put in. So when they get to close out a winning game, I understand what the smile on their face really means. I know which players have trouble controlling their emotions on the field, so when I see them swallow their cuss words and walk off a strikeout with heads held determinedly high, I understand what they’ve actually accomplished. I’ve been with these boys all season so I know who needs a big win and who just needs to get on base today, who has their hopes set on transferring to a university and who has their hopes set on that scout noticing them.

And just like that, my own problems fade away. I get caught up into the hopes and dreams of thirty 19 year olds. And it feels a lot like being a middle school teacher again.

I knew coming back to San Diego wasn’t going to be easy, not because this isn’t home anymore, but because there is another spot of the world that also feels like home, and my heart feels constantly broken as it tries to be in both places at once.

Even in the joy of perfectly good days, there is a longing for my classroom on the other side of the planet and the little people who were mine for a season. Sometimes I get into my car to drive home from school or lace up my shoes for a run and find myself sobbing into my hands, a song from the radio or my iPod unexpectedly pulling me back in time to the golden sunshine of my classroom, the faces of my students, and the dreams we built together.

IMG_20160603_232103But I never feel like that on the baseball field. In fact, sometimes that’s where I go when the longing gets too heavy. I’ll just sit by the edge of the field and stare at the empty grass. Birds peck their way through the outfield. Shadows stretch across the diamond like the twisted branches of an enchanted tree, and I fall under its spell.

Finding a place where we feel like we belong is one of the great, often unspoken quests of the human heart.

I thought my place was Prague. But for now it seems to be next to a baseball field and I can only think how lucky I am to be here, in a life such as this.

things I have thought during finals week

(Illustrated with my instagram feed – mary.york)

-How many times can you eat pizza in a week before your blood cells turn into marinara sauce?

-Why did I doodle so much in math class and how did I get so good at drawing penguins?

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-This paper is supposed to be five pages but I’m only turning in four and a half because someone has to be the rebel.

-I would rather be in the Hunger Games and lose than take this math final.

-Will anyone notice that I slept in this shirt? Nope.

-I’ll bring in donuts – then maybe the professor will like me enough to bump my B to an A.

-I would rather meet a dementor in a dark alley without my wand than take this math final.

-Do beans have fiber?

-Should I get a math tutor?

-Will anyone notice that I haven’t changed this shirt in 48 hours? . . . I’m gonna give this a solid ‘hopefully not.’

-SERIOUSLY, WHERE ARE ALL MY MATH NOTES?

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-I am going to fail this class.

-Is this tutor seriously touching all of my pens? Can you not just pick one? Do you not already have your own? Will you leave mine alone, please? OH MY WORD, STOP TOUCHING MY PENS, BRUH.

-I would rather be on the Deathstar when Luke blows it up than take this math final.

-Eight pages, I can write than in 90 minutes, right?

-I am going to put on make-up today because it’s finals and I want to rock this! Yeah, nevermind. This isn’t happening.

-Do people hate me?

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-Does coffee count as food? It’s a bean, right? So… fiber.

-I would rather sit through a six-hour loop of “Let it Go” than take this math final.

-If I put on enough perfume, this shirt won’t smell like I’ve worn it all week. I’m positive.

-What if I just tell them it’s my “lucky shirt?”

-I would rather get a face tattoo of Justin Bieber than take this math final.

-I would rather go over Niagra falls in a wooden barrel than take this math final.

-How do you turn ⅔ into a decimal?

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-I’m going to fail this class.

-I would rather wrestle the alien from ‘Alien’ with my bare hands than take this math final.

-I would rather fight an R.O.U.S. with both hands tied behind my back than take this math final.

-I would rather be set on fire and then buried alive and then dug up and eaten by zombies than take this math final.

:takes math final:

 

… 
-Well. That was anticlimactic.

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How to almost miss your final

I’m pretty sure I didn’t do college right the first time. I say this because I never remember spending this much time on Netflix. Deadlines were met with ease. All-nighters were both non-existent and unnecessary. Countless hours were wasted in the quiet, study-conducive environment of the school library. I think I even checked out books.

But don’t worry, I have it figured out now. And for those lost little college freshmen who still haven’t quite figured out the system, allow me to share my foolproof method for turning in college papers just under the wire.

Consider it my Christmas gift to you. Happy finals week.

  1. Read the syllabus several times to make sure you are very, very clear when the exact deadline is due. Now forget it and get back on facebook.
  2. Open a Word document. Don’t title it yet. There’s no need to make that much commitment up front.
  3. Google “great ways to start an essay” for several minutes and then Google “great ways to make money” because that popped up first in the automatic listings and, frankly, feels a lot more promising.
  4. Decide to title your Word document. “Essay.”
  5. Casually instagram your computer keyboard with a caption like, “No rest for the weary! #collegelife #thuglife #killinit” – Spend twenty minutes picking out a filter.
  6. Look at the clock and realize that you’ve not been super productive for the last hour and mentally slap yourself. Then look up a youtube video of Shia LaBeouf’s motivational video and JUST DOOOO IIIITTTTTT.
  7. Check facebook.
  8. Pack your backpack and laptop and go to a coffee shop to “get some real work done.”
  9. Thank the barista for your tall skinny peppermint mocha latte and find a table that isn’t already taken by someone better at procrastinating than you are.
  10. Instagram your laptop keyboard + coffee. Caption: “Round two! We are knocking this sucker out tonight! #allnightifIhaveto #Ihaveto #redcup”
  11. Check facebook.
  12. Write a couple paragraphs. At least one of them should have more than two sentences.
  13. Pull up dictionary.com to double check a spelling, but then get distracted by the Shakespearean terms of endearment on the sidebar. Spend the next fifteen minutes wiki-ing the complete list of Shakespeare characters.
  14. Answer a call from your mom. Yes, that is your wet laundry in the machine. No, you’re not sure how long it’s been there – Thanksgiving? And can she check if your driver’s license is in the back pocket of your jeans, please?
  15. Because mom’s are inspirational, you write another couple of paragraphs. Mess with the settings on your paper to add extra spacing between all the letters.
  16. Google collective nouns for animals. Text the best ones to all of your friends.
  17. Check facebook.
  18. Tell yourself you are really going to get serious and write for a half hour.
  19. It’s getting late – go grab some dinner before you curl over and die because you haven’t eaten in like, seriously, like four hours.
  20. Get distracted on the way home and find yourself mysteriously in a Barnes & Noble. Peruse.
  21. Your friends have texted you and want to have a study session at a someone’s house. Bring snacks.
  22. Studying with friends includes catching up on several episodes of the Walking Dead (and that’s what you’re beginning to feel like) and re-watching an episode of the Office (which you may never see the inside of if you don’t graduate from college).
  23. Someone gets the munchies again. Volunteer to accompany them on the food run. Take as long as you want. In fact, take longer. Literally, don’t come back for two hours.
  24. Come back and get settled in front of your computer again.
  25. Finish your essay.
    Hahahahaha, just kidding. Check facebook.
  26. Instagram a selfie of you (sad duck face) and your computer. Caption: “This essay is killing me. Make it stop. Need coffee! Ahhh! #stressed #hungry”
  27. Eat something and talk to your friends about Saint West. Google weird celebrity baby names.
  28. Someone wants to go watch a movie because -they know it’s late but- there are $6 tickets at the Regal theater right now. Consider it.
  29. Uncommitedly tell your friends that maybe you should finish this essay first because it’s due tomorrow.
  30. Go watch the movie with your friends. (Hashtag: YOLO). You can just finish this essay before class in the morning.
  31. Set alarm for 5:30 a.m. before you go to bed.
  32. Sleep through it.
  33. Wake up at 7:45 and PANIC.
  34. Open your laptop and write two pages of almost-total nonsense (with a surprising amount of collective nouns and Shakespeare references).
  35. Go through and repeat the word “the” in multiple places throughout the the text.
  36. Run spell check. Click “change all” and hope for the best.
  37. Forego showering or changing shirts.
  38. Run through several extremely yellow lights.
  39. Sit in the parking lot for ten minutes trying to find parking.
  40. Run to your professor’s office to drop off the paper with two minutes to spare.

Like a boss.

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5 New Slang Terms I Never Learned While Abroad

“My eyebrows are melting off!” I moaned dramatically to the girls sitting near me. Our managing editor perked his head up with a perturbed expression.

“Melting off?”

I wailed pathetically as someone searched for a tissue. The girls were giggling sympathetically. The heat was doing horrid things to everyone’s make-up. But I’m new to the eyebrow game and I’m not used to this. How could I have known that if you pencil in your eyebrows when it’s hotter than 80 degrees they will end up all over everything before the day is out?

I couldn’t have. Because before I left for Europe, “On fleek” was not a thing.

ON FLEEK Adj. 1) (slang) a state of completeness and flawlessness, the quality of being perfect 2) the combination of fly and sleek . Synonymous with on point. Used most often to describe eyebrows.
-Urban Dictionary

The enjoyable aspect of culture shock for me was catching up on two years’ worth of slang that I missed while living abroad. So it’s back to Urban Dictionary. As a language enthusiast, this kind of stuff is right up my proverbial alley and I will walk it all night long.

“They look fine,” said Asia, the Momma of our gaggle of women – actually, she might only be the Momma to me. All I know is that whenever I really need a hug or someone to get lathered up into a righteous rage for my sake, she is who I go to. “They’re not messed up at all, really.”

Asia has perfect eyebrows. She would know.

“Well, that’s a miracle because they’re all over my glasses,” I said, glowering at my chunkie blue frames.

“Why do you guys do that to your face anyway?” asked our managing editor, typifying the well-meaning clueless male.

Because,” was the obvious answer that we all chorused with one, dignified sniff. It took me less than three months at home to become a huge eyebrow snob. What is America doing to me?

Glasses cleaned and self-confidence mildly restored, I slipped back into my heels and stood up (the kids in the newsroom are always getting on me about walking around barefoot, but what’s a girl to do?).

Ella, our incredibly competent multimedia editor chose that moment to sache in, ladden with film equipment and ready to rumble.

“We’re gonna be late,” she said with assertiveness. I grabbed my camera bag and followed her quick, short steps out of the school newsroom and across the sweating campus. It was the kind of day that was so hot, everything stood still – the trees, the grass, the sky. Nothing moved for fear of shattering into a million heat-ruined pieces, or withering away into wilted dust. In the earth’s silence, we trampled across bark patches and glistening sidewalks baking under the glare of the sun.

Our destination: La Jolla. The job: San Diego’s annual film festival. The excitement level: through the roof.

We had both dressed up for the occasion – not that either of us needs much convincing to dress up. Ella is one of those girls who always looks impressive.

How either of us got ourselves actual press passes for this shindig is still beyond me, but there we were, lost and running late in La Jolla, on our way to meet the Stars.

We ended up parking half a mile away and walking over to the ArcLight theater which was decked with all the glam required for a red carpet event. Scurrying around timidly with our bulky equipment, we found the press credential check-in and got our name badges.

“I feel so official,” I said happily as we scouted for a spot on the carpet to sneak onto. We hadn’t reserved one ahead of time and had shown up so late that there really wasn’t much room left anywhere.

“Dude, I know,” said Ella – who, by the way, also oozes ‘cool and casual’ like it’s part of her DNA. “I’m going to head over to the media line. Do you know where you’ll be?”

I shook my head and gestured clumsily in a vague direction.

“Okay,” she said simply and perkily walked towards her destination with the confidence of a very self-assured jungle cat.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If Ella was a guy, I’d ship us.

SHIPPING – Verb. This is most often used on tumblr by fandoms. Fandoms will ship everything and anything. Shipping comes from the word relationSHIP. Basically it is when you want a fictional character, real-life person, or cartoon people to be together.
-Urban Dictionary

I’d ship us because she’s the quintessential good-guy that every girl never goes for. And because her hair toss is on point.

But we’re currently friending it up pretty hard and I’m okay with that.

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The red carpet was L-shaped and I placed myself on the outside of the corner. Already making his way up the cherry stem towards the theater doors was a young man whose name was written on a clipboard held by a pretty blonde at the end of the carpet. ‘John Boyega.’

The name meant nothing to me so I kept adjusting my camera lenses. It was tough coming into the semester as photo editor. I had no experience with the position or with anything like it. On top of that, I’m not really a great photographer either. I learned how to take pictures the way someone learns their first language – I recognize a good angle when I see one. I can press buttons and turn knobs and things turn out alright. Explaining to someone who doesn’t know how to work a camera how to do what I do would be like an American trying to explain subjunctive verbs to literally anyone. We know how to use them, we just aren’t totally sure why.

And then, of course, I wanted to make a good impression. I didn’t want to come in and just flop. Quitting, flopping, failing or in any other way not being on top-shelf level is not an option, doggonit! I had a lot to prove, too, because the last photo editor’s ghost basically indwells the hearts of the current staff and I see flickers and shadows of her everywhere, both inspiring me towards and intimidating me away from greatness.

Semi-VIP’s dressed to the nines and looking very forced-relaxed were shepherded down the carpet. Half an hour slipped away while I wrestled with my camera and tried to navigate the continuous, fidgety flow of photographers cramming for better shots.

At last, a hush fell over the crowd and a car pulled up to the curb, ferrying a very famous, much-anticipated actor – the one and only Adrien Brody.

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It should be mentioned that I had a huge Brody crush for about six months in high school. I was pretty excited to see him in person. He’s the youngest Academy Award Winner to get Best Actor and he has a knack for playing a diverse range of adorably oddball characters. And that nose. I guess he’s what you’d call Hollywood’s Talent.

TALENT – Noun. Synonymous with weight, power, ability and attractiveness. The one who has a bit of everything.
-Urban Dictionary

On the corner of that carpet, between the fans and the line of reporters waiting to get their fifty seconds with him, I got a rare glimpse of the man before the mask came on.

The moment he stepped out of the car, I felt my heart sink. Not in disappointment, but in sadness. The middle-school teacher inside me lifted her head and felt immediate empathy for a tired, lost little kid who doesn’t want to sit in his chair anymore. Adrien Brody looked beat. For three seconds, as he buttoned his coat and disentangled his legs from the car, he looked tired and in need of a sandwich.

But as soon as he turned to face the fans and cameras, there was that smile – disarming, charming and completely convincing. There is a man who knows how to step into his job.

I got a few shots of him, but that face had taken it out of me. I couldn’t see him as an actor once I’d seen him as a tired boy who’s staying up too late to do his homework before school.

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We waited on the carpet after Brody disappeared in doors, not sure if we should pack up or wait around. Evening had given the breeze a cooler touch, but it was still stuffy around the collected mass of media and onlookers. Cameramen, photographers and reporters from varying stations stuck stubbornly to their place in line, checking their equipment and comparing notes. I had almost repacked my camera when a car drove up. From the back seat slid an elegant woman in a black dress. She embodied sophistication and class from the straps of her heels to her neatly parted hair.

Geena Davis.

I’m a recent Davis fan. Only a few years ago, I watched “A League of Their Own” (this was during the height of my new-found passion for baseball). I think she’s a real lady. Honestly, she’s the kind of woman I had expected to turn into. Turns out life had different plans for me, though I’m hoping there’s still time to get my act together.

She glided down the carpet, smiling graciously at reporter after reporter who asked her the same questions.

My camera lens fell to the ground and I bent down to pick it up. Glancing forward, nearly level with the ground, I noticed Davis’ shoes. One was on her foot, the other was off. She was standing on the red carpet barefoot while interviewing.

This classy woman.

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When the interview concluded, she softly put her hand on the reporter’s shoulder for balance as she stepped back into her shoe. It was as simple and natural as anything I’ve ever seen.

After she swept into the theater, the media line thinned out. Fox News, ABC and Getty Images all packed up their bags and went home.

Ella and I lingered, running our hands across the velvet rope and getting inconspicuous selfies in front of the backdrop because we’re basic.

BASIC – Adj. Used to describe the typical girls who think they are cool because they’re artsy, can make a duck face, carry around coffee cups, and wear designer brands. You’ll know a basic when you see one.
-Urban Dictionary

Someone handed us a spare program as we turned to leave and it was only then that we discovered that John Boyega, the young man on the carpet when we first arrived, is the new lead in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Talk about some fangirling.

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It was nearly dark when we got back to the newsroom feeling rather triumphant from our long evening.

Dan took me home once I got all my pictures uploaded and sorted out. I’m learning not to feel embarrassed when I have to ask someone to give me a ride because I’ve missed the last bus. People love to be helpful and it’s okay to be the person who needs helping.

I told him about the red carpet, recounting the events with the onslaught of chatter I use to communicate in as we rolled down the hill away from the college.

“I had a huge Adrien Brody crush,” I said. “Probably because I refused to like Brad Pitt and Justin Timberlake, or whoever it was that everyone else liked.”

“Why not?” asked Dan in an unpresumptuous tone. Dan is a very even-keeled individual.

“I don’t know,” I mumbled. “I guess I didn’t want to be like everyone else.”

“What’s wrong with everyone else?” he asked.

There he had me. Nothing is wrong with ‘everyone else.’

“I mean,” I stuttered uncomfortably, “I just want to be myself. I don’t want to be a stereotype.”

“Oh Mary,” said Dan with a condescending little coo. “Are you a Special Snowflake?”

I paused.

“What’s a Special Snowflake?”

SPECIAL SNOWFLAKE – Noun. A member of that newly-adult, me’er-than-me generation which expects attention and praise just for being themselves — doing anything to deserve it is completely optional.
-Urban Dictionary

“It’s okay to be like everyone else,” Dan said. “You can’t not be – you’re human. And you can’t not be a little different too because. . . You’re human.”

By the time the college had disappeared from sight, the sky looked like someone had spilled a blue ink bottle across it and then poked out two or three holes for light to shine through. We call those stars.

Funny thing, stars. Some people are labeled as Stars because they shine brightly and everyone can see them, etc, blah, blah. Truth is, they’re just people. People who are trying hard to make it to the top, people who have to put on a good face for work, people who’d just rather be barefoot. They’re just like everyone else.

And that’s okay.

11 Ways To Earn Your Freshman Fifteen

fatface

Many of you have heard me reference the Freshman Fifteen (hashtag: been there, done that).

For those who might not know, the Freshman Fifteen is the roughly 15-ish pounds any new college student will gain upon being suddenly thrown into the least conducive environment found possibly anywhere in the First World to one’s health. It should not be confused with the Sophomore Ten, which is really just a compilation of bad decisions and having too many friends who can afford to feed you pizza.

I am an overcomer (and I don’t use this term lightly. It took me three years to lose the twenty pounds I gained in college. And if you’re not keeping track, with my two years for Associate studies, that averages out to gaining about five pounds per a semester or roughly two pizzas a week).

As one who has walked this walk (and eaten this eat), I would like to bestow some god-motherly advice upon those who may be beginning the start of a lot of self-hate, unused gym memberships and a first-name-basis relationship with the cafeteria lady on campus.

Call them warning signs. Call them beacons of guiding light.

I call them…

11 WAYS TO EARN YOUR FRESHMAN FIFTEEN

  1. Eat on campus – Campus food is horrible. It’s packed with sodium and salt and salty-like carbohydrated sugars and like … you know, stuff. Also it’s bad for you. AND THE SALADS ARE EXPENSIVE. Don’t even try to kid yourself that the OJ will compensate for the tub of lard they cooked your breakfast potatoes in. It won’t. It’s laughing at the very thought – a hard, cruel, high-pitched cackle that only orange juice can truly pull off.
  2. Eat off campus – First of all, money. But beyond the slimming of your wallet, might I remind you that off-campus food tends to come in mammothly American-sized portions that could feed an entire family. The prime example of this would be the Chipotle burrito which is basically the most expensive non-Mexican burrito you will ever buy and not finish. And you won’t finish it. Because it’s huge. *That’s why they charge you ten dollars for it.
  3. Snack – Okay, if you are part of the 2 percent of humans who will actually bring raisins and celery sticks to school, you can get away with snacking. All I know is that if the bookstore hadn’t stopped carrying cheese puffs and candied peanuts, I’d be about four pounds heavier than I was eight weeks ago at the start of term.
  4. Don’t sleep – It’s a largely known fact that there is some correlation between sleeping and weight gain. I don’t know what it is, I just know that whenever I find myself drooling through my 7 a.m. class, it reflects on the scale. My amatuer opinion is that lack of sleep makes one grumpy and stressed. Stress makes one eat. And eating is DEFINITELY related to weight gain (though again, I’m a little iffy on the details).
  5. Wear sweatpants / leggings / yoga pants on the reg – You’d be amazed at how far you can let yourself go when you don’t put real pants on every day.
  6. Accept pity food – It’s hard for one starving college student to recognize that another starving college student may not actually be starving just because they don’t have food in front of them. And it is one of the greatest acts of generosity for former said college student to offer latter said college student some of former said student’s precious food reserves (this includes but is not limited to french fries, candy, granola bars, uncooked mac ‘n cheese and essentially anything in a take-out box). However, it would be wise for aforementioned latter college student to know his or her own boundaries and learn how to say, “Naw, thanks bruh.”
  7. Skip the workout to study – “Studying,” also known as “Netflix,” is one of the primary causes of college weight-gain. The time spent in a sedentary position (and the teeeeears wept over Mary Crawley’s run of tragic luck in love) is not good on the body. Be aware
  8. Indulge in late-night nibbles – Whatever you’re reaching for will not write your paper for you. Inspiration does not come out of an ice-cream carton. Put it back.
  9. Get daily servings of the four food groups – Candy, cane canes, candy corn, and syrup. Thank you, Elf.
  10. Throw portion control to the proverbial winds – If someone brings in a lot of left-over Marie Callendar’s pie, why stop at one piece? There are four kinds. Why not try all four? Why not retry that second one with the oreo crust? Why not then get pizza for lunch because someone else is paying? Or eat an entire bag of Doritos because you found it in your parents’ pantry and it was looking at you kinda funny? You’ll show those Doritos.
  11. Stop caring – Forget about the fact that you only have one body and that your health is important. Assume that “surviving college” is the highest possible standard of living in your early twenties and don’t bother shooting for anything that would require to you get up early to exercise, pace yourself throughout the day or be intentional with your eating habits. Leave that till you’re more of an “adult” because it’ll be so, so much easier to begin creating important habits when you’re older. Afterall, what is your body other than a vital, irreplaceable instrument of your precious heart and mind? Who needs to take care of that old thing. Hashtag: cheese puffs.

*Some of those Chipotle facts may be less facty than other facts. Please don’t not eat Chipotle because of this post. I some friends who work there and they’re nice people and they like customers. Just saying.

An Interview with Superheroes

LUZ

“You’re writing an article about being nerds?” says Luz, tentatively taking a seat in the second office swivel chair. I occupy the first. “I like your hair.”

Under the teaming white lights of my fall harvest decorations, I have been conducting a series of interviews with my fellow student journalists in the photo office of our newsroom.

“So who’s you’re favorite comic book hero?” I ask as she straightens up in her chair, bright-eyed, curly hair bouncing with usual zest.

“Ironman,” she says.

“Any particular reason why?”

“I guess I love how RDJ portrays him in the movie,” she says. “He’s very sarcastic and he’s mean so I guess my evil side relates to him.” She clears her throat with a giggle and clarifies that she doesn’t have that much of an evil side. “It’s very well-tamed.”

I ask why she likes the movies and she giggles again before giving me a business-like answer.

“I like to see how separate heroes interact with each other,” she says. “Because they’re all these very authoritative figures and then they get into conflict with each other and you see different sides to them.”

She pauses a moment before likening the Avengers to our newsroom staff, each of us with our own special powers.

“So then,” I ask, “I would definitely be Captain America of the newsroom, right?”

“I didn’t say that.”

Luz doesn’t give up a lot of ground. She may be small and doe-eyed, but she is fierce.

There was actually quite a bit of debate among the staff as to what animal Luz would be if she were not in fact a human. Although 'Doe' won out with a wide majority, 'Lemur' was close behind. And the multimedia editor thought it was important to note that deer are a little more ditzy than our Luz. "They're like, oh my gosh, there's like totally a car in the road... What should we like do?"
There was actually quite a bit of debate among the staff as to what animal Luz would be if she were not in fact a human. Although ‘Doe’ won out with a wide majority, ‘Lemur’ was close behind. And the multimedia editor thought it was important to note that deer are a little more ditzy than our Luz. “They’re like, oh my gosh, there’s like totally a car in the road… What should we like do?”

“I’d probably be like a mix between Black Widow and the girl with the mind-control,” she says, thoughtfully, admitting that, unfortunately, those are the only two females currently on the Avengers’ super-team. “I get into your brain and that’s how I know where to harass you.”

This is true. Luz knows how to harass.

“But I would love to fly,” she says a little wistfully.

We sit and watch each other for a moment before I ask her the final question of our make-shift interview.

If you could leave a legacy…

“Being able to inspire people,” she says, a thousand years of hopes and dreams burning behind her eyes, some of which I have been privileged enough to witness form on her tongue as she incarnates her plans with spoken word. “I think that’s the best form of leadership.”

MARTY

Marty takes a seat a little reluctantly.

“Is this going to take a lot of time?” he asks. “Because I have a homework project I have to finish up.”

“None at all,” I assure him. “I just need to know who your favorite comic book character is.”

“Oh,” he says, looking visibly relieved. “It’s a tie between Swamp Thing and the Hulk…because they’re both green.”

I know who the Hulk is because I don’t live under a rock, but Swamp Thing is new to me. I clear my throat.

“So, tell me about Swamp Thing,” I say in my best attempt to not sound ignorant.

I didn’t understand half of what followed, but basically, you get chosen to be Swamp Thing. There are like four different colors involved and an ecologist and apparently the comic has really cool artwork (it does – I looked this up afterwards).

“What got you started in comics?” I ask.

“I read comics that family friends would let me read,” Marty says, dipping back into his childhood and giving his bearded chin an absentminded rub. “Not really like cape hero stuff. More like really independant stuff.”

He admits that maybe he was a little too young to read a lot of these comics because they’re “ultra violent.”

“I stopped for a while,” he says folding his hands over his green shirt. “But I got into it again a couple years ago reading Thanos.”

“Oh, I know this!” I say, perhaps a little too excitedly. “He’s from the Thor universe, right? He’s the red guy!”

“No, he’s the purple guy,” says Marty, shaking his head.

“Well, okay then. If you could have a power or an infinity stone, which would you rather?”

He doesn’t even pause.

“An infinity gemstone comes with a lot of power,” he explains to me. “I’d rather have one gem than being born with one power that I didn’t have any control over.”

I thank him for his time, though he seems to have forgotten about homework. But before he leaves he says, “If I did have a superpower I’d want it to be turning into animals or shape-shifting so I could experience things humans can’t.”

Then he leaves.

MARIAH

“Harley Quinn,” says Mariah before she even makes it to the chair. Mariah isn’t feeling well today, but you’d never guess it. This girl is all energy and ‘go.’

“I just like how she’s crazy,” says Mariah. She pulls one leg up under her as she sits like a perky little puppy. “Like, during the day she’s the Joker’s girlfriend. He would never say it, but she is.”

Mariah knows a lot more about comics than I do and spends the next several minutes explaining to me who Quinn is. She was a therapist for the Joker before they both kinda went cray-cray, or that’s how I understood it.

She makes a point of saying that Quinn doesn’t technically have superpowers but that she’s pretty baller anyway. She even beat Batman at one point which made the Joker super jealous.

“How do you think you relate to her?” I ask as Mariah settles her head against a raised knee and smiles. We’re all trying to forgive her for continuing to wear her Raiders beanie to the newsroom.

“The crazy in love part,” she says. Granted, she admits, she wouldn’t kill anyone for love. “I have a conscience.”

She’s starting to look tired. The excitement of our interview project has worn off and her need for some R&R is showing. I wrap up.

What’s your superpower?

“I would have a super boyfriend,” she says with that same sweet, crazy grin. “A super, crazy boyfriend.”

DAN

“Do I have to sit while I’m being interviewed?” asks Dan, rolling around on his shoe-skates.

I don’t bother fighting him on this point because who am I to judge the creative process.

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“Okay,” he begins as he rolls back and forth in my office like it’s some kind of skating rink, which it isn’t. I have a whiteboard and everything. “In 2014 on Tumblr…”

That’s where I got lost. Oh, I have Tumblr. I just have no idea how it works. But Dan is “pretty active” on it and apparently the Tumblreans were celebrating the 75 anniversary of Dick Grayson (original Robin), who is described by writers as the heart and soul of the DCU (“DC Universe. Keep up with me, Mary.” Dan explains that Grayson was a major personal role model and that for the anniversary, he and other Tumblreans made a book about him.

“It’s a collection of scholarly essays by fans,” he says, “analyzing Grayson’s place in history, his transition to Nightwing, and his effect on other characters.”

He stops rolling.

“Why are you laughing, Mary? You’re the one wearing glasses. You’re more of a nerd than me.”

I regain composure and he continues skating.

“Mine was more on the pathos side of it all,” he says. His skating has slowed to a glide. “It focused on the positive effect of having a character like that. A character that isn’t made just for the white-male dominated culture we live in where power and dominance and sexualized characters are used to bolster the confidence of one specific people group.”

He stops skating now and leans against the door, arms crossed, eyes sincere.

“One of the beautiful things about being a geek or nerd is that you’re able to find a sense of community with a ragtag group of people who might otherwise feel like outcasts,” he says.

Stepping out of his rakish reputation for a moment, Dan says that Grayson was a character who greatly influenced his life and decisions at an age and time when he needed someone to influence his life and decisions.

“He does good for the sake of doing good,” he said. “He’s well assimilated and very emotionally open and honest. And that’s the thing about superheroes. They inspire people to do good and to make people better.”

We pull up pictures of Grayson, both as Robin and then as the superhero he became, Nightwing.

“He fulfilled the role of the sidekick beautifully,” says Dan as we scroll through countless hours of labor and love that has been spilled onto paper through pencils, telling a story, making a hero, changing a life. “But then grew up and realized, maybe that’s not who I am.”

I think I can relate to that.

“When you’re dealing with the bat family, most of the people are orphans,” Dan reminds me (as if I even knew there were more than just Batman and Robin). “Lots of emotional issues. But he doesn’t let that consume him. At the end of the day you only have so many shots to say what’s on your mind or tell someone you care or to do good.”

Dan leans back in the swivel chair, his be-wheeled feet dangling over the edge. I’m reeling with the new information about extra Robins and Batgirls and somebody super cool called “Oracle.” Shots at life and chances to change. Doing good.

He looks at me contentedly.

“I just have a lot of feelings about superheroes,” he says.

An Ode to Hand Sanitizer and Friendship

The glass doors slid open with a familiar swoosh and a gust of wind pulled me into the cool room by the tails of my heartstrings.

Newspapers covered every flat surface and plaques hung so closely together on each inch of the walls that the white paint beneath was almost unnoticeable. Large windows revealed a passageway lined with offices leading around behind our newsroom “bull pit.” A great, three-panelled white board clung ceremoniously to south wall, and directly to the left of it was a small doorway leading into our archives room and connecting to the passageway of offices where they disappeared behind an award-plastered wall.

This was where I began the painful process of growing up all those years ago. This is where I learned how to write, how to rewrite, and how to pretend to write when you’re really watching Bridesmaids in the back office with someone else’s cheese puffs. This is where I first learned what it really meant to be a friend to someone – not because I was, but because they were to me.

“Thank God for air-conditioning,” said someone, sweeping past me into the newsroom.

“Is it just me or does it smell like bleach in here?” asked someone else, plopping a school bag down one of the forty chairs in the huge room. People took seats at the rounded tables or scurried to their offices in the back to grab pens or drop off bags.

“Max has been trying to keep it clean in here,” said Bianca, her ruby lips and voluptuous hair framing her face with a sheik burst of ‘chic.’ “If we get ants in here again he’s not going to be happy, so let’s try to remember the food rule.”

About eight of us had been waiting outside in the hot, August sun for Bianca to come unlock the newsroom so we could hold our pre-semester editor’s meeting. School was starting next week and we had to get our act together.

Hand Sanitizer

During the wait I had had a chance to meet some of the editorial board. One or two of them I had met briefly after I graduated in 2012 and we have been awkward facebook friends for these several years. Most of them were completely new to me. Most of them were kids. Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one.

Twenty-one. There’s a year I hope I never have to repeat.

Jaime, our intrepid editor-in-chief, began the meeting with a toss of his Biebery hair and a small smile.

“Let’s talk Issue One,” he said with an incredibly even-tone voice. I settled into my chair and tried not to say anything. In flashbacks I remembered joining the newspaper my second semester of college. I needed computer credits and this seemed like an easy way to get them.

After exactly one afternoon, I was hooked.

And for those who don’t know, journalism is one of those professions that will suck your life away before you’ve even noticed that you haven’t really been home in about four days. Several of the editors have couches or mattresses in their offices. Most of us have emergency food stores tucked away in our office cabinets, right next to the red pens, battery packs and several full seasons of The Office. If the zombie apocalypse goes down in my lifetime, this is where I plan to stake out my fortress, or whatever.

But I knew coming back wouldn’t be the same. For starters, I trained most of their mentors. While still in Prague, I had been given an introduction I’m sure was exaggerated immensely. There was pressure to prove I wasn’t just a byline from our archives. The last editor-in-chief, a go-for-the-jugular kind of gal, had asked me to be photo editor and, because I’m an idiot, I said, “Sure.”

I do not have the qualifications to be photo editor.

So I just sat and listened as each editor talked about their section and how to get the semester going. I tried to match names and faces. I’m a middle school teacher – I should definitely be able to keep track of names at this point.

About halfway through the meeting, as I did mental flashcards with people’s faces, the double doors swooshed open again and a short, ball-capped, spit-fire of a human being walked in. He swaggered over to a chair next to Jaime and slid in, widening our circle by one, incredibly large measure of sass.

Immediate uproar.

“You’re back!”

“How was it?”

“Dude, so excited you’re here.”

He accepted the rush of affection with a very chill shrug of the shoulders and the complacent grin of someone who belongs.

“Dan is one of our really good cartoonists,” Jaime explained to me. Jaime was doing a good job of keeping me in the loop. It was almost like he could see the smoke billowing out of my ears as I tried to keep up.

Everyone knew everyone. I was the new person. I’m used to this by now, of course. Switching debate categories my junior year of high school, going to college that first year, moving to Prague. Yeah, I’m super used to being the new kid on the block.

“Is there anything anyone wants to add?” Bianca was asking. They were talking newsroom maintenance.

I raised my hand.

“When I was here we used to have hand sanitizer by the computers in this room and at the front desk. Is that not a thing anymore?”

Everyone exchanged blank stares and someone smothered a chuckle. (I’m sorry, people. I have a thing for hand sanitizer. Get over it). But I guess maintaining a clean working environment and preventing the spread of contagious diseases LIKE EBOLA is not a priority anymore. I accepted this and the discussion moved along.

Thankfully, I had a bus to catch and was able to duck out of the meeting early. I’m becoming less and less of an extrovert in my old age.

The first day of school dawned bright and early for me. My first waking thought – immediately after, “Who on earth gets up this early to do anything?” – was a fluttering wish to know how my students in Prague were doing on their first day of school.

A world away, in a corner of time that I will never be able to return to, a dozen little classes and their darling teachers are gathering in a little yellow school.

I brushed the thoughts away. I can only think about my time in Prague in 60-second clips before I get choked up. One day those precious memories won’t stir up difficult emotions, but it was not this day or any day this summer.

After skillfully and courageously surviving the trip to school and the first seventy minutes of class, I dropped by the newsroom just long enough to tidy up the photo office. Tomorrow was our first big day and I wanted my room to be presentable to our future photographers.

The multimedia and campus editors were occupying the hallway with half-cocked grins and tired eyes. I surveyed them from a distance like a cowboy sizing up a buffalo he’d really like to mount on his wall. There were only two of them, after all. I could manage that.

This is it, I thought to myself. This is my chance to make friends.

“Hey,” I said in my most nonchalant, I’m-a-totally-cool-person voice. “I’m headed to the Dollar Tree for hand sanitizer. Anybody want some?”

The pretty campus editor with the perfect eyebrows perked up.

“Yes, definitely,” she said. “Would you mind?”

“No, not at all,” I said with a cheery smile, feeling like one of those popular blond girls from the TV shows who have their lives all put together.

I was feeling like a total champ for about six minutes, right up until I rounded the corner on the end of campus and saw my bus pulling away from the curb.

Missing buses is something I’m used to. It happened all the time in Prague. But there was always another bus, or tram, or metro. I checked the schedule.

“AN HOUR?”

The pidgeons next to me fluttered away to a safer distance and someone shot me a curious glance.

An hour? Really? WHY, AMERICA, WHY?

I couldn’t go back to the newsroom, that was obvious. I couldn’t ruin that perfect impression of having it together – not with so much at stake. Maybe I could walk to the Dollar Tree? How far away was Bonita? Just down the hill, right? And I had planned to walk home from there anyway.

It was hot and I was wearing jeans (again, because I’m an idiot), but I could not be detered. I needed this hand sanitizer. I needed a cheap candy bowl to lure potential friends into my office. I needed to get to the Dollar Tree.

So I set off walking. I walked everywhere in Europe. This should have been no problemo.

About two miles later, having lost nearly a quarter of my body weight to sweat, limping from a blister building on my left heel, I began to rethink the whole process.

The green logo of my destination did eventually come into view and, after purchasing my goods, I started off for home. The total trek was about 5 ½ miles, coming in just over an hour and a half.

About a mile from my house I pulled out my phone and staged a fake conversation, just so I could vent out loud without looking like I was talking to myself to anyone who might be driving by.

“You’re an idiot, Mary,” I told myself through my phone. “You couldn’t have just waited for that stupid bus, could you? Now just look where you are. Walking home. Walking six miles home. I hope you’re happy with yourself.” I wasn’t.

I tried to put the incident behind me and when I dropped the hand sanitizer off in the campus editor’s office the next morning, she gave me a very grateful, “Aww, thank you, girl!”

No girl, thank you.

“We were a little worried about you yesterday,” she said as I turned to leave. “You totally disappeared on us!”

“Oh,” I laughed nervously. “Um, yeah, I just went home.”

Laaaame.

Jaime shared the same sentiments when I dropped off a bottle of hand sanitizer at the reception desk, currently occupied by Dan the cartoonist guy.

Little King Trash Mouth

“Everyone was like, ‘Where the heck did Mary go?’” Jaime continued as if the Case of the Missing Mary was the most interesting thing to happen in the last 24 hours. Surely not.

“I just went to the Dollar Tree in Bonita,” I said. “It’s right on my way home.”

“I thought that was you I saw,” said the cartoonist, spinning around. Without his ballcap a ruffled mohawk striped the back of his head. “I drove past you. I think you were on the phone. Why were you walking, though?”

I groaned.

“I was going to offer you a ride,” he said in an off-handed way, “But I was like, ‘Eh, I barely know her. That might be weird.’”

“You should have!” I moaned pathetically. All pretense of being chill flushed away. “I missed my bus and I had to walk all the way home!”

Jaime and Dan both let loose a chorus of laughter while I sat there and fidgeted, and then Jaime said, “But… Why did you go to the Dollar Tree in Bonita? Don’t you know there’s one right across the street?”

I lost it. I absolutely lost it. Whatever efforts I had been trying to make to seem like some cool, accomplished, put-together piece of whatever, they were all failing miserably.

“I am such an idiot,” I pouted, cradling my head in my hands.

“Yeah, that wasn’t a super smart move,” said Dan with friendly American sarcasm. “The Dollar Tree by the school is literally so close.”

No one let me forget about the hand sanitizer incident. I don’t even know how they all found out so quickly.

Dan, especially, thought it was hilarious. He proved to be a real cheeky rascal. The kind that pulls a Jim Halpert face every time someone cracks a ‘your mom’ joke (and by ‘someone’ I mean ‘me’).

“You are so aggressive, Mary,” he would say to me from whatever office chair he had turned into his throne for that day. One minute he’d be shaking his head disapprovingly, and the next he’d be instigating – with devilish glee – some act of office mischief.

Annoying Dan became one of the joys I depended on to get me through the day.

I spent that first week up to my eyeballs in equipment inventorying, story assignments, press badges and templates. I didn’t have an assistant yet so I was dropping balls right and left. I may know how to take a good picture, but managing a section is a completely different duck pond. And all my ducks were like radio-active baby rhinos that I had to teach to swim.

On top of all this, I have been using a Canon for the last three years and the school’s equipment is entirely Nikon. About twice a day I would walk into someone’s office and ask, “Does anyone know anything about cameras? How do I increase the shutter speed on this?” To which they would shrug and say, “Aren’t you the photo editor?”

Ah, yes. Yes, I am.

Bianca and the multimedia editor did mountains to help me get things sorted and the viewpoints editor helped me start my computer at least three times the first week.

And every time I would feel overwhelmed or flustered (outbreaks which the editorial board has begun calling “Marydowns”), I would think about my tiny office in a tiny school in Prague with hand-drawn pictures and students projects pinned up along the walls, reminding me that bunches of tiny people loved me. Just for a moment. Just until it started to hurt again.

The first week of school melted into the third week and I found myself an assistant. I figured out where the playback button was on our Nikon cameras. I put things up on our office walls. Slowly, the place started to feel like my own.

Accept for the fact that I still felt like everyone thought I was one, big, unjustifiable failure, I was hanging in there.

One evening, as I was blaring David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” (a college staple) from my computer and desperately trying to figure out how to crop things in photoshop, Dan opened the door to my office, dragging a cushy chair behind him.

“I stole this from multimedia,” he said, making himself comfortable. “Why are your lights off, dude?”

Relishing the opportunity to ignore my current technical difficulties, I spun around and faced him.

“I get distracted when I can see everything, so I keep the lights off when I need to work,” I said in as matter-of-fact, I’m-not-crazy-I-swear a tone as I could possibly muster under the circumstances.

“Hmm,” he said, looking around my two-bit working space. “I’ve been stalking you on Instagram a bit,” he said still examining the white boards and the sticky notes everywhere. “Your students looked really cool.”

“Wait, which picture did you see?” I asked, excited to talk about something other than how badly I was fulfilling my duties as photo queen.

“The one with the kid wearing the meme shirt,” he said. “And a couple others. What was it like teaching in Europe?”

And I was off. I told him about the Wall-of-Shame and our English Clubs. I told him about the rascals and the angels and all their crazy antics. I told him how much I loved being a teacher and how much I miss it. And it all came out so naturally, like it was any other part of my life.

We compared notes about pre-teens for a bit and then the multimedia editor came back looking for her chair.

Dan got up to go and I went back to work. It felt so normal I didn’t even realize immediately the significance of that conversation. I was able to talk about Prague, about a part of my life that I have been feeling like I lost, without the ache that comes with it.

It was just another memory. Just another time. Just another piece of me to share with a piece of someone else.

The gift of friendship

I had no idea how badly I needed people this month until they turned up. Part of what has made coming home so hard has been the gaping hole in my heart, carved out by precious children and fearlessly loving teachers who welcomed me with open arms and made me one of their own.

As difficult as it is to be the new person, it is incredibly humbling and incredibly beautiful to once again be the object of friendship from strangers. To be included. To be offered a place in a family of human beings who are loyal and kind to each other for reasons the rational mind cannot fathom. And so, to be reminded of the goodness of God as He is reflected in His extraordinary people.

True things I’d forgotten about college life

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I earnestly considered titling this post, “Who seriously does this on purpose a second time?” (Also in the line-up was “Always a freshman, never a post-grad” and “Netflix, I love you”). But the basic premise of the following list is simply that coming back to community college as a technical freshman (but like, way older) has reminded me why we all try so hard to eventually leave college in the first place. Not that it isn’t a barrel of hoots and all, but at some point every baby eaglette will look around its nest and say to itself, “I know it’s a long way down from here, but I’d much rather end up decomposing on the forest floor in a pile of feathers than spend the rest of my life eating $2.00 pizza-pockets from the cafeteria.”

Or, you know, something along those lines.

Now that we’re officially finished with the first full month back at school, I’d like to share my list of all the true things about community college life that I’d forgotten in my three-year absence.

  • The freshman fifteen is not a joke. It is serious. It is very, very serious.
  • Putting money on your print-card for the library may mean surviving on a smaller gas budget, but there’s no way you’re giving up your daily coffee ritual. Priorities, bro.
  • There is no right way to make friends in class. Everyone is just going to feel very awkward until after midterms. Get used to it.
  • *Sweatpants.
  • Three sequential weeks at the same desk confirms place ownership. If someone takes your spot at anytime after the three week mark, it is within your legal right to Regina-George-glare them into humiliation.
  • Procrastination has a whole new meaning. Well, the meaning is the same, you just demonstrate it a little more prolifically.
  • Netflix.
  • Bus schedules, student parking and scantrons become a much bigger part of your life than  you ever wanted or hoped for.
  • People who ask clarifying questions about homework that you’re too lazy or scared to ask are appreciated. People who ask if there will be homework are not.
  • There will always be someone who cares less than you do. Unfortunately, this does not help the Curve.
  • Grunge is almost in fashion. Don’t even bother with the mascara.
  • Crying the first day of class will brand you for the rest of the semester by everyone who has figured out how to juggle classes and jobs and transportation like real adults already. Don’t be the person who cries on the first day. Be the person who cries on the second day.
  • People who try having existential discussions before your early morning class have not yet realized that college is just glorified high school and no one cares about their opinion before eight o’clock in the moooorning. You are not obligated to talk to them pre-coffee.
  • There is such a thing as “pre-coffee.”
  • The quiet ones are either brilliant, cool or clueless. Anyone who talks is way too excited to be here.
  • Group projects are where teachers send smart kids to die.
  • If you eat at the cafeteria, the cafeteria will eat you. Your soul is precious. Protect it.
  • Everything you learned in high school has no useful purpose in college. Everything you didn’t learn in high school but should have is sitting just beyond the reach of your panic-stricken mind, laughing at you in deep, drawn-out chuckles.

*Back in my day sweatpants (or yoga pants) were still a thing. Apparently, since I’ve been gone, leggings are the new do? Oh children.