My Favorite…?

One thing that seems to pop up every year in my classroom is the question, “Am I your favorite student?” This is closely followed by its popular cousin, “Is ________ your least favorite student?” Students generally are curious what us teachers are thinking so I typically give an answer but rarely the one they want.

“All my students are my favorite! I like them equally!”

“I don’t have any least favorites! Why haven’t you taken your homework out yet?”

This year I’m teaching a new subject with 6th graders. I’ve never taught students this young but so far I am enjoying it. I am extremely hesitant to generalize about this in October but it seems to be an exceptional group of kids. I would like to describe one of them to you.

She is a happy, bubbly, talkative, kind sixth grade girl. She always says “Hi!” expressively in the hall when she walks by. She raises her hand everyday, participates actively and always has something interesting to say.  When she learned I liked soccer on the first day of school she excitedly told her dad that she had “found his favorite teacher!” because he was a big soccer fan too. Her mom showed up on back to school night, just as bubbly as her daughter, to tell me that.

The Monday she found out my birthday was the day before she announced excitedly that she was going to bring me chocolate and the next day she did. I won’t go so far to say that she was my favorite student ever but I looked forward to seeing her every single day just because of how positive and nice she was.

She also happens to be a Muslim who wore a headscarf every single day to school.

Her fashion sense is ridiculous. She has a different scarf every day that always seems to match perfectly with her shirt. The day after the Patriots first game of the season she wore a red shirt with the team’s name down the sleeve and a blue headscarf. Not that it would change my opinion of her at all but she speaks perfect English and I have no idea what her immigration status is.

I mention all this to make the following point. There are voices in our society who use fear to gain power, usually political. Some of these people like to decry those who are different and “other.” They scapegoat all immigrants, particularly Muslims, as those bringing violence and crime into our country. They decry the value of multiculturalism and diversity in our society and schools.

These voices are at best ignorant and misinformed, and at worst filled with malice, racism, and hatred. They should be ignored and marginalized for the inaccurate dreck that they are. Anyone who spends a day in even a mildly diverse classroom could see that the fears these people are exploiting have no basis in fact. The US is a country of immigrants, based on freedom of religion and expression. Diversity is and should be our strength and pride.

A few weeks ago my “favorite” student announced she was leaving by the end of the week to go to a nearby charter school she had finally been accepted to. I played it off in the moment but I was devastated. Teachers only get a school year with their students and then they float on to another hallway and grade. This student was only in my class about a month. I hope she comes back to visit at some point.

We are living in divided and acrimonious times. It is far too easy to “what about” ourselves to death when the latest outrage or rhetoric is splayed out by our leaders. What hope do we have?

I hope my student continues to grow into the intelligent and kind person she is and I hope we continue to acknowledge that what unites us is far more significant than the things that divide us.

 

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Cups up to Camp Sandy Cove

After a nearly hour long commute home on a rainy Monday afternoon I opened up an innocuous email to find out absolutely devastating news. The summer camp I had grown up attending and consequently working at as a young adult was closing, effective immediately. Summer camp elicits lots of stereotypes and images for different people but this news is truly heartbreaking for me. I’m in full-on processing mode but here (in brief) is what Camp Sandy Cove meant to me.

I started attending when I was probably 9 or 10 in the mid-90s. It was in Pennsylvania back then and I was just a kid but I loved it. Soccer, archery, outdoor cooking, endless food and games. It was a blast. I attended only a week for a few summers and then three weeks and then, in my last summer as a camper, 4 or 5 weeks.

I knew that I had to become a counselor ASAP and entered their leadership program in the summer of 2000. I failed miserably, took 2001 off, and returned in 2002 for their counselor in training program. This was one of many, many times where through challenges and adversity I grew and matured at camp to become a better version of myself.

I returned as staff in 2003 and had a fun, if challenging summer. I needed to fully grow into the role of camp counselor. The next summer the camp moved to a property in West Virginia and I was off and running. I served on staff in the summers of 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2010, 2011, and 2012. I’m beyond grateful for these experiences.

Camp was so much hard work and so much fun at the same time. I played games, led activities, taught Bible lessons, sang crazy and beautiful songs, mentored other staff, and on days off went to IHOP late at night. Some of my very best memories are associated with experiences at camp.

Camp was a safe place for me growing up and into adulthood. I could be wild and crazy at camp. I could make friends at camp in a way I never could at home. I felt free at camp to just have a blast and be myself. One memory of so many that sticks in my head is of singing Isaiah 40 as a teenager in the middle of the woods under the stars after bringing our mattresses out to a fire-pit for the night. So many moments like this will be with me for the rest of my life.

People spoke into me at camp. They taught me and encouraged me. I would never have been leadership staff at camp if one of the Directors had not floated the idea to me four summers earlier. He saw in me things I don’t think I ever would have. I will always be grateful for the opportunities and experiences I had at camp.

So again I’m sitting here just lost in thought, and feeling, and emotion. I am but one person over nearly 70 years that camp impacted. I hope people reading this will rekindle great memories of themselves at camp as well.

Cups up to CSC. It will be deeply missed.

Thoughts on Willow Creek

The news coming from Willow Creek Community Church in the last week is incredibly sad. Allegations against long time pastor Bill Hybels from multiple women have turned out to be far worse than originally stated. The blowback resulted in two pastors resigning and last night the entire board of elders announced they would be resigning. For those not in the evangelical world, Willow Creek is a huge megachurch near Chicago which has many different sites where their church meets. To have the entire leadership resign is truly tragic and shocking.

I must admit however that ten years ago I would have been even more shocked than I am today. Ten years ago I was on the periphery of a situation that, while not abuse or harassment, was no less damaging to a Christian organization. I wrote about this story on this blog a number of years ago but I feel like I should retell it today briefly. I’ll use even fewer identifying details than when I first wrote my blog. I admittedly only have one perspective on the matter and want to be kind to people who lived it out much more closely than I did.

Tens years ago after college I lived overseas for a year as an intern with a Christian ministry. The organization had been started by a couple who soon got married after founding it. During my year both the husband and wife taught classes and preached sermons that I enjoyed immensely. I can’t express how much I respected each of them.

We lived on a somewhat sprawling missions base. Basically it was a big, incredibly beautiful piece of land with some buildings in the middle. The husband had an office right in the middle of everything, surrounded by windows. We called it the fishbowl. During the year the husband and wife had to travel back to the US for a couple months and for various good reasons, the husband ended up coming back a couple months early.

The ministry had a number of North American mission staff. One worked closely with the husband as his assistant among other roles. Her desk was in the fishbowl with him. I had to fly back for my sister’s wedding midway through the year. When I got back the husband and assistant picked me up from airport, a 2-3 hour car trip each way. Today such an extended time alone would set off alarm bells for me. Ten years ago I suspected nothing. I think often evangelicals “suspect nothing” because sex is largely taboo and we do not discuss it very openly. We also put pastors and leaders on a pedestal where they surely can do no wrong. This should change.

At the end of my fantastic year I got an email the first week I was home. The husband wrote that he had fallen short in a number of ways. Basically an emotional affair but nothing physical. He and his wife were returning to the States for counseling. I believed the email because why wouldn’t I? This guy had been a tremendous leader who had spoken into my life repeatedly. I shouldn’t have.

Less than a year later we get another email from the wife. The husband had an affair and had decided to get divorced. The marriage was now over. Again it should not have shocked me at the time but it did. When the allegations against Willow Creek’s Pastor came out I had a feeling they were even worse than what had been released. This past week has confirmed my feelings.

I do not mean to say we should speak out or judge before all facts are in. But if the #Metoo movement has shown us anything it is that we need to consider allegations with eyes wide open and at the very least not summarily dismiss them. The man who ran my ministry did not abuse or harass anyone but what began as a significant personal failing became a full-blown affair that destroyed a marriage.

It is really hard to write this. Even now, ten years later I hate to come off as disparaging. It feels both very close to me because I was there when it happened but also very far away. I was just a lowly intern who had no idea what was going on. The Board at Willow Creek does not have my lack of accountability. The fact that the Board did multiple investigations and found that Hybels did essentially nothing wrong is incredibly damning to their credibility. The fact that further, credible accusations only just now led to their resignation means all churches need to look even more carefully at their policies regarding leadership.

I learned a lot in my year overseas. Once during a lesson on leadership, the husband told our class of interns, “The greater the sin and the higher in leadership, the greater the consequences.” This is playing out tragically today for the Willow Creek community. May this sad sequence of events lead to greater accountability for church leadership and greater care for all church staff and members.

What I’ve Done So Far on my Summer Vacation.

It is a well-known fact that most teachers get a summer break. For me, a public school teacher, that equates from about mid-June to Late August. Obviously having a huge summer break is different from most industries. I thought it would be nice to list (in extremely rough chronological order) what I have done in my first month of summer vacation.

  • Had friends over to catch up and meet our daughter.
  • Watched my 2 month old daughter while my wife went to work.
  • Fed my 2 month old daughter.
  • Played with my 2 month old daughter.
  • Changed my two month old daughter.
  • Gone to a wedding of good friends.
  • Gone running a lot.
  • Completed a class to earn graduate credit to increase my salary in the fall (one more class to go!) Note: the only way for public school teachers to increase their salary is to show up for another year or take further education classes. If this sounds like a terrible system to you I applaud your motivation to attempt to make it better!
  • Taken my daughter to a friend’s July 4th party and watched fireworks (we have cute ear protecters.)
  • Watched my 3 month old daughter while my wife went to work.
  • Fed my 3 month old daughter.
  • Played with my 3 month old daughter.
  • Changed my 3 month old daughter.
  • Taken my family to two professional soccer games.
  • Napped
  • Read half a book.
  • Drove up to Maine last Wednesday and said goodbye to my 91-year old grandfather as he passed away in the hospital. My dad and I made it with two and a half hours to spare. The nurse noted that he was waiting for people to show up to be with him.

Many Americans for various socioeconomic reasons can’t take much time off from work. Many who can do not take what they are fully allowed. How much vacation one takes is a personal one between them and their family. I will say I am really grateful I was able to  hop in a car (my wife graciously watched our daughter the whole day so I could go immediately) midweek and get up to Maine to be with my grandfather. If it had been during the school year I would have likely already been at school and getting up there in time would have been impossible.

Summer vacation can be a difficult time for many kids and families. Many kids have zero of the supports they enjoy during the school year. Many parents (and various family members) work long hours, often leaving kids to (literally) their own devices. But I think the general principle of a longer break in the summer (maybe 4-6 weeks) would not just be good for teachers but for other workers too. More time to relax and reboot. Time to do activities one enjoys. Time with family. Last Wednesday was challenging but I am beyond grateful that I was able to see my grandfather one last time.

Thoughts on Fatherhood.

The moment had arrived. My wife was ready, after three location changes and over a day of waiting and hospital care, to deliver our first child. I look over at the first doctor on the scene and rather sheepishly ask, “Do I have time to go to the bathroom?” I did and I did. Less than 30 minutes later I was a father.

I’ll be frank about this entry. It is more for me than for others. My first child was born just under two weeks ago and I simply want to remember everything. The memories I write here may seem a bit all over the map and disjointed but they are glimpses of the monumental experience we had in four days at a hospital in Boston.

We went to the hospital Tuesday morning, a day I completely thought I would go to work.    Instead we spent the morning in sort of a holding room as we began the process of inducing a pregnancy. Within the first two hours of sitting there two women were wheeled out for C-sections and than wheeled back in, babies in their hands. There unseen cries made me impatient. I was ready to meet our little one!

A brief aside about my in-laws. They are fantastically intentional and supportive of their kids. They showed up at 8:30AM that first morning and were there until the moment of birth the following afternoon. They spent that first night in the hospital in incredibly awful chairs in our delivery room. In retrospect, they could have gone home that night, but my wife told me she needed them and so they stayed. I’m so grateful they were there but also grateful that they happened to have a vacation planned for a few days later!

I confess to having felt fairly sheepish in the hospital. I know I was the impending father and had an official visitors sticker and totally belonged there but I couldn’t walk through the Labor and Delivery unit without feeling completely in the way. I really didn’t want to bump into a doctor or nurse who were about to bring a life into the world as I was fetching more water for my wife. This is a good time to give a shoutout to our hospital and how good our experience was. Nurses are unsung heroes, full stop. They do so much, work 12-hour shifts and not once did I percieve that they were tired. I feel very fortunate that we live near Boston and were able to deliver at such a well-regarded hospital.

It’s hard to express how I felt those first moments as the delivery process began. I ran competitively in college and have run in countless road races, long and short. I’ve traveled overseas and got married four years ago. None of those experiences came close to the pure rush of adrenaline that flowed through me as I put my hand on my wife’s forehead and waited to meet our daughter.

I did not know the gender of our baby until birth. My wife did but was able to resist telling me for months. I know that this provokes a lot of questions and interest but I’ll just say this: From the start I was going to be ecstatic with either a boy or girl. It did not matter to me what they were as long as he/she was healthy. And so in the minutes after her birth I went over to where doctors were cleaning our baby off and had to identify the gender. With all the emotion and adrenaline of the moment it was a significantly more difficult task than I might of thought. I focused really hard, looked at our child and made the announcement: we had a baby girl. Her name was Eleanor Joy.

She was pink, and crying, and healthy. She was perfect. After two hectic days in the hospital we were able to go home as scheduled. I won’t go into all the details here but this was a miracle baby. I couldn’t have expected how perfect she is and yet knew it all the same. The amount of prayer and support that brought this little girl into the world is too numerous to mention but know that it mattered and know that we are so grateful for you all. It gave us so much comfort and even confidence as we prepared to welcome our little one.

There is so much left to say but I’ll finish with this. We are home, adjusting to life with our little one. She is eating, and growing, and crying, and that other thing babies do. It is tiring but awesome. It’s still hard to believe but I’m a dad now. I’m grateful for almost a month at home before returning to work and the many visitors and gifts that have graced our address. I’m mindful that many do not have the support or resources we have enjoyed. Thank you to everyone who have supported us so well. I’m just starting this journey but I can’t wait to continue.

Four years in.

One of the most surprising things about adulthood is the number of things you experience for the first time and than you feel like you have become an expert on. You knew absolutely NOTHING about something and then suddenly you are able to carry on a conversation for a solid 20 minutes about it. If I can find someone else with the same experience? Well this introvert just became a Nobel Prize winning orator. Mortgages, sump pumps, or lawn mowers? Please let me regale you with my knowledge.

The topic that most exemplifies this trend though in my life is my marriage. Being married is still something that pervades our society with expectations and advice even as many are uncertain about and delaying the experience. While I realize that people get many messages about marriage from their family and society it’s funny how blind you can go into it. It’s hard to envision exactly what it will look like to commit your life to someone and then make good on it. Despite the inherent difficulty here, it’s my fourth anniversary on Thursday so I thought I would offer a few thoughts based on my experience.

Four years in it is my conviction that my decision to make a lifelong commitment to my wife in marriage is the best I have ever made. Endless caveats could be made here before I continue but I’ll just throw out a few that feel more obvious to me. Plenty of people get married who probably should not. Plenty get married but for the wrong reasons. Many single people may feel the need and desire to get married but in fact being single is perfectly OK for the time-being or perhaps their life. My goal here is not to encourage anyone to get or stay married who should not but simply to relay a brief slice of my experience.

Four years in my wife and I know each other really well. We have learned our likes and dislikes. We have established routines. We find ways to compromise on many things. We even fight better than we used too. My wife especially has made it a huge value to establish ways to grow our relationship and communicate that have allowed us to love each other while avoiding lasting resentments. If I had one piece of advice in this entry it would be that communication is absolutely critical. There are a million reasons your partner might not realize something they are doing grates at you. Talk to them about it. Over time, I think good communication breeds countless dividends.

Four years in we support each other (and get support from others) in countless ways. We look out for each other. We cook for each other. We comfort each other. We pay for things for each other. We worry about each other. As a relatively not anxious person this has been one of the most ridiculous things to happen to me in marriage. One moment I am bingeing on Netflix blissfully unaware of anything and then, suddenly, my wife hasn’t texted me enough during the day and so she must be in a ditch on the side of the road somewhere. Just as we support each other, our commitment has also brought together a incredible network of family, friends, and church folks who love us so well. So many examples could be said here but I’ll simply say I’m grateful and thankful for all of you.

Four years in I’m writing this in a hospital awaiting the birth of our first child. Children don’t fix marriages and it will certainly make ours more complex but damn am I excited for us to be parents. There are a wide array of families in society today and all have value but I am so grateful and fortunate to have my wife by my side as we start this new adventure. Marriage is not a panacea for the unhappy or a goal for all but, four years in, I can’t imagine doing life any other way than what has happened so far.

Grasping at Straws in Times of Grief.

School is a very strange thing when you get down to it, especially as a teacher. You see these kids for 45-50+ minutes a day, for 180 days. They populate your mind extensively for these 180 days. You spend many hours thinking about where they should sit, how they might respond to a certain lesson, and grading their work. The bells rings, and they come in. The bell rings and as stressful as the class may have been, they disappear again. The days go by, the seasons change, and June (Finally!) arrives. And they disappear for one final time. They may or may not come by to say hello again but the massive investment that you had in their life for 10 months is done. In my case they move on (in 1-2 years) to high school, out of my building. As memorable as many students have been it always surprises me how quickly I forget many of their names.

I write all the above because last week a former student of mine unexpectedly passed away. He was 16. I got an email from my department head saying there had been a death at the high school and she could not make meetings today. Twenty minutes later in the middle of first period our principal emails the news with his name.

I read the email, paused in bewilderment, and had to go back to teaching my class.

I taught him two years ago and confess to not knowing him all that well. He was a quiet student. He did his work (usually) and kept to himself. He was a strong athlete and seemed well-liked and popular. He was not the type of student who would ever come back to the Middle School to say hello. I wouldn’t either when I was a kid.

Usually before I write a blog entry I have a plan, a spine, a piece of inspiration. I know what I want to say, I just need to get the words down in the right order. This is not an entry like that. I have no idea what to say or think. He simultaneously feels very close and very far away all at the same time.

I went to his wake on Sunday. I waited in a line for 2+ hours to pay my respects and hug his family members. I’m grateful for the former students I saw and that his mom remembered me.

I suppose this entry is just a fleeting attempt to try to honor him and his memory. He may be gone but he was my student and he mattered. I hope he is at peace now and I hope his family, in the awful months ahead, can find little glimpses of peace and even joy as they remember him. I also hope for all my students: past, present, and future that they can find the support they need to have a good life long after they disappear from my classroom.