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.

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