Wednesday, April 27, 2016

For My Teachers: A Delayed Word of Thanks

     Today was a Wednesday that truly felt like a hump day, and not in the "funny Gieco commercial with the camel" way. It was a hump day in the "I am trying to tell 80 kids to quiet down and 2 of them are listening to me" way. Instead of being grumpy about my day, I decided to use this as an opportunity to recognize some of the teachers that were faced with the task of dealing with me throughout the years, because days like today remind me how severely unappreciated and misunderstood they are
     To the world geography teacher who introduced me to the thought that the world is bigger than this small town, thank you. That thought helped me survive the minefield that was my high school experience. When I finally got out of that small town the summer after graduation and went all the way to Honduras for a mission trip, I got a letter from you saying that you were proud of me, and it is one of my most prized possessions. Making you proud is more valuable to me than any degree or job could ever be.
     To my high school journalism/ Senior year English teacher, thank you for letting me think I knew more than I did. I know I was a brat, but being in charge of that school paper for a year was one of the only things that gave me any confidence at that time in my life. Thank you for gently steering me in a different direction the times my writing was overly cynical and angry due to teenage angst. I'm glad they were never put in print, thanks to your good judgement. Thank You for teaching the Canterbury Tales in what must be the most entertaining way possible, even though you might have gone just a little overboard with your creativity on that one. I'm still not sure what that story is actually supposed to be about, but I don't think I really care, because the real theme can't possibly be better than your interpretation. Also, thank you for those times you almost made me cry when you pushed me to explain myself more than I wanted to, or flat out told me I was wrong in front of the whole class. In those moments, I may have questioned your status as my favorite teacher of all of high school, but when it was all said and done, that status remained, because I realized that in those moments you were teaching me to stand up for myself, and helping me learn that sometimes in life I'm just going to be wrong about things, and it's going to be okay. That important lesson is worth more than any English skills you could have taught me.
     To my mission trip cohorts that I like to call my "teacher friends", thanks for being the people that inspired me to consider the possibility of working with children. While I'm not exactly sure what I will end up doing career wise, I do know that without you I never would have discovered that I have such a love for children, and a desire to help them, whether they are just down the street or across the ocean. Many people like to complain that God isn't allowed in schools anymore, but I know that as long as people like you are teachers He is there, because you bring Him with you in the way you treat the people around you.
     To the people who say that all teachers do is prepare students for standardized tests (I know you're out there, because I've talked to some of you, and seen your posts all over the internet), I won't try to prove you wrong, because your experiences must be far different than mine. You don't get to be in a school for a few hours a day and see the overwhelming list of task teachers face every day. I've heard it said that teaching is a job that requires you to do 20 jobs at once, and over these past few months I've seen just how true that is. They are expected to manage somewhere around 20 little humans, with different personalities,  different life stories, and different learning styles. They can't control what happened to those little humans before they got to school, but they are expected to handle the effects of it. They are very often responsible for correcting behaviors that are triggered by events outside of their control, and they are the ones that are faced with stopping the tantrums, drying the tears, and correcting the misbehavior, all while simultaneously teaching the things their students are required to know.
     When I think back on all of the teachers who impacted my life, I don't think of the test scores they helped me achieve. I think of people who chose a stressful and demanding job because it was their calling, and as a result of following to that calling, taught me important life lessons that cannot be found in any textbook.

Monday, April 25, 2016

On Losing A Friend, Part 2: Remember the Dash

     April 25th is my least favorite day. It's the day I lost a great friend very unexpectedly, and the memories it brings are very deep and dark. I decided I wouldn't talk about it this year, because I didn't think I wanted to bring up sad memories again. I've known this date was coming up, and when I found out that youth Sunday would be April 24th, and that I had a friend coming to visit on that same weekend, I was happy, because I knew I would be busy, which would keep me distracted from thinking about that upcoming day that brings back so much sadness. But after a busy Saturday where I drove my friend all over two counties, coming up with hours of fun activities, and a busy Sunday morning filled with nerves about all the public speaking I would have to do for the beach service and youth Sunday, the time eventually came for me to sit down and listen to a sermon. A sermon delivered by one of our youth that was so profound that I found myself praying that I would not cry right there in the front pew, revealing to these teenagers I secretly want to be cool around that I'm really very emotional in the most uncool way.
    Yesterday, I was reminded that the end date is not what matters. It's no coincidence that I heard this message on April 24th, one day shy of the fourth year since losing my friend. I don't want to plagiarize or steal ideas from someone else's sermon, but here's a brief explanation of what it taught me.What really matters is the dash that represents the life we lead between our birth and death. This really hit me hard, because due to the way my friend died, people tend to focus on his end date, instead of the life that dash between birth and death dates represents. 
     I'm still sad, and a part of me always will be until I see my friend again. But each year, I realize that it's getting a little bit easier to focus on the good memories that the dash contained, instead of the tragic ending that April 25th brought. So, today I'll think about the time my friend tried his hardest to help me study for a French test I was nervous about, even though he had never taken French and didn't know a word of it. I'll remember how he always gave the best hugs, and how he sometimes left English class two times a day to go buy Honey Buns from the cafeteria, even though that class was right after lunch. I'll laugh about the time he brought me orange juice in Sunday school, and didn't tell me it was expired until I had taken a sip, but assured me it was okay to drink because expired orange juice is just "extra pulpy." Today, I'll think about his dash. It was a short one, spanning only seventeen years, but it was bold. He lived his dash to the fullest, and I'll do my best to follow his example and make my dash a bold one. 
Today, I want to share one piece of advice I didn't know yet when I wrote the first post about losing a friend. When you think of your friend, try not to focus so much on their end date. Try instead to think of the way they lived their dash. If your friend was anything like mine, their dash is too bold to ever be forgotten.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Founded on The Rock

I am in a unique position in our congregation, because I’ve technically aged out of youth group, but I’m still a few years behind most of the adults. On Thursday nights I go to youth, On Sunday mornings I go to the young adult Sunday school class. I feel like I have one foot in the adult world and one foot still in youth territory, and lately I’ve started to feel like I’m losing my balance. I’ve done lots of questioning and praying, and over and over again, I’ve sensed God telling me to stay with the youth. It’s been a long journey understanding exactly what “Staying with the youth” looks like, but as I began to write this, God suddenly revealed a clear answer. Youth group was the foundation of my faith, and without it, I would not be standing here today. It’s like the story in Matthew Chapter 7, in which Jesus tells  of two builders who chose different foundations.
    24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
    For me, the foundation began when my family had just started attending Salem, and two young men began inviting me to youth group. Daniel and Scott were so kind and genuine with their invitations, and I’m forever thankful to them for leading me to this group that I have grown to love so fiercely. More bricks were added as several youth leaders came and went, each teaching me new things. The foundation really started to take shape when a new youth leader arrived, and through consistency and dedication, showed me the great things that happen when someone makes the conscious choice to truly “stay with the youth.”
    I’ve been asking myself; In this season of “staying with the youth”, have I done all I can to help them build a strong foundation? When they look at me, do they see someone who has faith that goes beyond just talk? Or have I become so concerned with decorating the house of my faith with pretty curtains and bright paint colors that I have neglected the foundation that holds it up?
    Two weeks ago, as we were in the process of planning youth Sunday, we suddenly realized that the date we had designated would be the day after prom. After a very brief discussion in which they were asked if this would be a problem, one of them spoke up and said “It’s ok, I’ll just sleep later, after church.” The others did not hesitate to agree, and moving youth Sunday to a “more convenient” week was never even discussed.
   True, in the grand scheme of things, this may seem like a small instance. But in that moment, they were faced with a significant choice; They could set aside today to recover from the events of yesterday, and back out of their commitment to lead service. Or, they could commit to getting up, showing up, and serving God, even though they will be tired. The winds of earthly commitments blew and beat on their houses, and those houses did not fall, because they are being founded on the rock.
    In this small choice, the youth were quick to put God first, and that gives me great hope that those instincts will follow through when the decisions they have to make become bigger and more difficult. Speaking for myself, I can say that they did, and even when things have felt uncertain, I’ve always had that foundation holding me up. I would not want any of these youth to neglect the foundation now, only to find out later in life that they have nothing solid to land on when the wind and rain of life comes crashing in.
    In a few hours, we will have youth Sunday. If we’re being honest, it’s one of those Sundays that may be tempting to skip. Things might not run as smoothly as usual, and Pastor Meghan will not be preaching. But before you decide to forgo church today, or show up physically but not mentally, I just want you to know something. Youth group is not a pastime, a social club, or just another extracurricular activity to put on a college application. This Youth group took in the shy, awkward teenager I once was and helped her become the young woman standing before you today. A young woman who, although she still feels awkward most of the time, is starting to understand that making God a priority is more important than any insecurity I feel, in any situation.

    Today, I ask you to be there for the youth, be a part of the solid foundation that they are building. Like they said, You can sleep later, after church.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Sadness is Not Weakness

     Today, I had one of those conversations that only come around a few times in a persons life. It was the kind of conversation that uncovers new knowledge that permanently changes your perspective in a big way, and after it's over, the whole world seems a little different. This conversation inspired me to write about something I never thought I would reveal. So, here we go.
      I should preface this by saying that I have never been officially diagnosed with depression. I just know that since about seventh grade, I've consistently experienced periods of feeling sad and unmotivated, and these times last for a while, ranging from a few weeks to a few months. Sometimes I have an idea of what is triggering these episodes, other times they seem completely random. I went through one of these periods last spring, near the end of the last semester when I was living away from home attending college. It manifested in seemingly small ways, like skipping class for the first time in my life, and leaving the laundry undone until the only clean clothes I had left were pajamas.This particular episode may have gone unnoticed if I didn't have a very caring and perceptive roommate who is very kind and kept asking me if I was okay because I didn't seem to be acting like my normal self. I've never talked to a doctor about these events, partially because I was born with a lot of physical problems that have always needed to be monitored and fixed by doctors, and I'm too stubborn to let myself possibly be labeled with yet another problem, especially one whose symptoms are invisible to most people.
     Even though no one has ever directly told me this, I've always sensed an unspoken rule that Christians aren't supposed to be depressed, especially when we don't have a concrete reason such as the death of someone close to us. Even at funerals, it's always acknowledged that we're happy because the person who died is with God now. We start our rejoicing while we're still mourning, and while that's a wonderful thing, it can imply that there's no room for sadness in the Christian faith. It's often suggested that any and all negative feelings can be solved, simply by praying and reading the Bible until we feel better. We call our hard times valleys, and convince ourselves and each other that everyone has these valleys, and they're simply preparing us for our mountaintop moments. While that's a very poetic thought, and might be true sometimes, it ignores a very real problem many people face. It can make people like me believe that our sadness is our own fault, and that we're having these feelings because our faith isn't strong enough. I know from personal experience how devastating it is for a Christian to believe that the sadness they feel is due to a lack of faith. I'm thankful for the first psychology professor I had, a conservative Catholic woman who also happened to be highly educated in her field. Through her starkly honest way of teaching, I was able to realize that there might be something chemically imbalanced in my brain that will be there no matter how much scripture I memorize. I started to understand that it's important to realize and acknowledge that a chemical imbalance in a person's brain is not a sin.
     A friend I grew close to through church died when we were seventeen, and the cause of his death was suicide. Sometimes I feel like I'm not supposed to talk about him because of the way he died, and lately that's really been bothering me. I asked his mom once if it was okay with her that I wrote about him sometimes, and she said that she saw it as a healthy part of my grieving process. I would never write anything about him that I haven't thought about very carefully, because it's very important to me to honor his memory as respectfully as I can.
     I decided to write this because of him. He's not here anymore so I can't tell him that I understand now. I understand that he truly was the strong Christian I always saw him as, and he was also a person who struggled with an illness that was invisible to me. I finally understand that those two aspects of who he was are not contradictory, and that's helping me forgive myself. I'm forgiving myself for being an ignorant teenage girl that was so caught up in how handsome and charming he was that I never thought to ask him how he was feeling. I'm not a doctor, and I'm certainly not God. It was never my job to "fix" him, and though I still doubt this sometimes, I know there's nothing I could have done to prevent his death. My job was to be his friend, and I believe I did that pretty well. I'm thankful for the people in my life who have also done that job well, and given me the courage to share these thoughts, so the cycle can continue, and maybe someone else can discover for the first time that what they are going through is something that many people experience. People just like me avoid talking about it because it makes us feel ashamed, but it shouldn't. We are strong people, and we have an even stronger God that loves the people he created, no matter what's going on with the feelings in our hearts or the chemicals in our brains.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Best Brother

Yesterday, I watched a fellow student present a project about her sibling who has a disability, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about the things she said. She didn't share fond childhood memories, but instead spoke of her bitterness and jealousy, and told a story about going to Capitol Hill to speak about the hardships her sibling faced and how it affected her family, and to essentially demand that the government compensate them for this "hardship". I've been trying to see things from her perspective, and to believe that she is showing love to her sibling by being an outspoken advocate. I'm still in a bit of shock over some of the things she said, and I've been thinking about how thankful I am that my brother doesn't have such a negative attitude about me, or my role in our family. Up to this point, I've tried not to write about my family in specific detail, because they shouldn't be exploited for my benefit, but I'm making an exception today with the best intentions. Let's all cross our fingers that my brother doesn't disown me for what I'm about to say.
     Because I was born with a birth defect that causes my life to be a little different than the average person's, my childhood was sometimes interrupted by doctors appointments and surgeries, and the general feeling that I didn't exactly fit in. However, when I think of my relationship with my older brother, most of the memories I have are the same as those of most siblings. I have a very clear memory of one summer day when Seth and I were at my grandmother's house, playing upstairs where she couldn't see us, and Seth discovered a bottle of Japanese Cherry Blossom perfume. I don't know what exactly we were doing that led up to what happened, but for some reason, probably a combination of sibling rivalry and whatever it is in adolescent boys brains that causes them to do things that make no sense just for the fun of it, Seth decided to start spraying the perfume, and once he started, he just kept going. Grandma may have been oblivious to our shenanigans up to that point, but it turns out that if you spray an entire bottle of perfume, the scent travels pretty quickly. The scene that followed is one of the only memories I have of my Grandma being mad at us to the point of yelling, and once she was done yelling we were banished outside and barred from coming back in until we were invited. I was devastated to have made Grandma angry, and worried that our parents would be notified of this incident and further punishment would certainly follow. I retreated to the hammock to cry, and Seth, completely unfazed by the uncharacteristically harsh lecture we had just received, promptly began trying to flip the hammock over with me still in it.
     Another time when we were a little older, I was lucky enough to be invited to ride around with my brother and his friend as they tested out his truck in the snow. During this ride, they began to discuss the possibility of doing some donuts in a parking lot that belonged to a certain school I may or may not have been attending at the time. I don't know how serious they initially were, but once Seth realized that I didn't want to be a part of this plan for fear of getting caught, he really began to amp up the story, becoming more dramatic the closer we got to the school, eventually having me convinced that I was about to be an unwilling participant in something that would probably get me expelled and possibly even arrested. I can't disclose exactly how the story ends, because of that unspoken agreement siblings have to let some secrets remain secrets. I can say that I did not get expelled or arrested that day, but I did have a lot of fun.
    Most of the memories I have of my childhood with Seth have nothing to do with me having a disability, or him not having one. I don't know how he feels about having a sister like me, and maybe I should ask him. What I do know is that I never heard him complain about it, and I feel confident that he would never stand up in front of his peers and say that my existence in his life has left him bitter. While I remember many people focusing on the things that made me different when I was growing up, the thing that stands out about Seth is that he has always treated me the way most big brothers treat their little sisters, and my differences didn't seem to have much of an effect on our relationship. If anything, they made it stronger.
     I realized yesterday that it's probably worth mentioning that I'm thankful for him. We're not the most sentimental siblings ever, and I'm embarrassed to even have said this much, but I'm not ashamed. Having Seth as my brother taught me that I am allowed to expect people to treat me with respect even though I'm different. Some of my childhood memories include doctors and hospitals, but the most vivid recollections I have are of cherry blossom scented mischief and riding through the snow in his passenger seat, excited to be a trusted sidekick on his adventure. When my brother shows up, laughter is sure to follow, and laughter is always better than bitterness. I'm forever thankful that he saw past the things that made me different, and allowed me to simply be his sister.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

What's That Like?

During a recent appointment with a doctor I've been seeing for my whole life, I found myself having a conversation that reminded me of the importance of being a good listener. My Harvard educated orthopedic surgeon asked me about my part time job as an aide in an elementary school cafeteria, but the thing that really stood out to me was that he listened, sincerely and intently, to what I had to say. He could have dismissed me, because he had more important things to do, or simply because, according to the social norms of the world we inhabit, a surgeon doesn't necessarily have to listen to my perspective on the daily struggles of a cafeteria aside. But he's known me since I was one day old, and even though you could say he's just doing his job, I think he has a little bit of vested interest in anything in my life that's positive, because he's done a lot of work to fine tune the negatives of the birth defect I was born with so that I can function at my best, and I get the feeling he's glad to hear I'm doing something somewhat productive.
     I've always appreciated good listeners, and prided myself on being the kind of friend who can always be counted on to listen. What drew me to journalism back in high school, other than my love of writing, was that it gave me, as introverted and awkward as I am, a way to connect with people through listening. I love interviewing someone and getting to hear them talk about something they have a genuine interest in, even if it's a topic I have no personal knowledge of. My favorite thing about working with children now is that so many of them are so open and not worried too much yet about the opinions of others, and that makes them generally easy and fun to talk too.
     The easy thing about people like that doctor who I'm very comfortable with, and the children I see at work five days a week, is that they're not often bringing up things that I disagree with or that require me to consider a worldview different from my own. And if a child does approach me and say something I find disagreeable, I have the option of simply telling them to go sit down. All jokes aside, I can't go through life telling everyone I don't agree with to "go sit down", so I have to learn to listen, even when it's unpleasant for me.
     My first semester living away from home, I experienced the biggest culture shock of my life so far. Although my parents did a great job of making sure my brother and I were exposed to places outside of Mathews when we were younger, living in such a small secluded place did limit me in ways I didn't even realize until I left it for the first time. I went from a high school where probably 95% of my graduating class was comprised of white people, to a college where 60% of students living in the dorms where not white. During the first few weeks of my first semester, I met a friend of a friend who was openly gay, the first person I ever met who identified as such, and I was completely at a loss trying to figure out the best way to react to this new experience. Even as I'm writing this, I'm realizing that before I went to college, I knew of only two people who classified themselves as Democrats. I really was that limited in my experiences, and I had a lot to learn.
     That first year away from home brought a lot of uncomfortable moments, where I felt threatened by beliefs and opinions that challenged my own way of thinking, but through that discomfort, I learned a lot about listening even when all I want to do is argue. I came to realize that I need to give everyone the basic respect of listening, even when I don't agree with what is being said. It also taught me to appreciate the value of easy conversations with like minded people, and to respect the moments when I have the privilege of being a listener, because it is a privilege, earned through trust. No two people on earth will ever have all of the exact same experiences, and that means that we all grow up with different views about the world around us. Throughout history, these different views have been the cause of much cruelty, suffering, and even death. God himself said that there we will have trouble in this world, and the older I get, the more I believe that "world peace" is an oxymoron. And yet, while I am not naive enough to think that everyone in the world will ever be able to get along, or that any of us can remedy that insurmountable dilemma, I do think that positive things have the potential to take place whenever someone takes the time to be a truly good listener. We can't fix everything, but we can all ask "What's that like?", and really listen to the answer. It might not change the world, but I think it's a good place to start.