Knocked down by a feather

Image result for faith Yesterday was tough. The traumatic effects of living in fear sprang to life and we could no longer pretend that everything is business as usual. A student saw an ICE agent in the hallways of our school. A man dressed in khakis and a dark green shirt. Everyone tried to remain calm, but everyone was panicked to their very core. We spoke with security and admin and were able to determine that this man was not in fact an ICE agent, but a park ranger working with one of the various programs that our school offers. Relief yes, but the trauma of the increased ICE activity in our community had been exposed. All of our hearts needed calming.

We try our best to continue providing routine and familiar structures. We do not let up on classroom rigor and expectations. Yesterday however, we needed to pause. We needed to breathe, as my mom reminded me later that evening during a tear-filled, frustrated phone call. My awesome colleagues and I combined our classes and held a restorative circle outside in the sunlight. We then walked around the campus and took group photos. Later we watched a movie, the first movie I’ve ever shown in my class. There were reiterations of love and support flowing between staff and students. We were already drastically down in numbers, due to many participating in the Day Without Immigrants protest.

I told God, as I was driving home yesterday, that I don’t know how to keep going like this. There’s not an end in sight to this fear. There is no way of knowing how any of this will play out. Not to mention how hard it is to digest that THIS is reality now. God keeps reminding me to pray, so I am resolved to do so. Yet, today I still woke up with a heavy heart. While dropping off my little human at school, I realized that I had forgotten her backpack at home. I walked her in and her kind teacher told me not to worry about running home and retrieving it. I thanked God for her grace. As I was parking in my own school parking lot, I reached to grab my purse, only to see her backpack sitting right behind it. Annoyance doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt in that moment, or how crazy.

I just finished reading Spillway, which is a beautiful memoir written by a mom whose son suffered a traumatic brain injury in a skiing accident. She wrote of God winks, or ways God reminded her that he was there and in control. This day did not start well, and my heart was overwhelmed, but the minute I stepped on campus, God started winking.

A Latina woman that works for the school cafeteria was standing in my classroom doorway, reading the many things that I have posted there, including a school newspaper article about undocumented students, and flyers with legal resource information for the rights of undocumented people. She stepped back when I came up, and explained she was just reading the information as she walked away. I called after her that she was welcome anytime. First wink.

I sat down at my desk and felt like I couldn’t do anything until I looked at a morning devotional on my phone. The words besieged and troubled jumped out at me, as I read how David, who grieving and strengthening himself in the Lord  sought his guidance at all times. Wink 2.

No sooner had I finished praying for guidance, than the woman from earlier was back, knocking quietly at my door. She asked where she could get some copies of the legal resources for her friends. Then we started talking. She shared the story of her family. It was a story of persevering in true faith, even when she felt abandoned by friends and family. We both had tears in our eyes. God nudged me. I was not the comforter here. SHE was the comforter. Wink 3. She poured love and renewed energy into me. Before leaving, she randomly and directly told me who I should pray for, and how I should pray for them. Wink 4.

I shared the hope I received from this conversation with another stressed out colleague. She looked at me with tears in her yes and summed it all up perfectly, “talk about knocking me down with a feather,” she laughed. Indeed.

First period began and I summoned up the energy it takes to embrace a class of freshmen on a Friday. Half-way through the class, one of my juniors knocked on my door. I had barely let her inside, when she shakily said, “Ms. I need a hug.” I smiled and calmly hugged her, but on the inside a wrecking ball was spinning out of control, bracing myself to hear the worst news. But when I pulled back, she was smiling. She was so excited that she could hardly get the words out. She had been accepted for the CNA internship program for next year, which opens many incredible doors for her future. We both started shrieking, so grateful for something so wonderful to celebrate. She said that she had prayed for this, and I told her, “Then, now it is time to say thank you”. Wink 5.

Thirty minutes later, another student dropped by my room on her way to lunch, chattering about how happy she is that her good friend had been accepted into this program. As she left, she called over her shoulder, “I told her that she needs to thank God.” Wink 6.

God reminded me today that it is not in fear that we live, but in hope. God is here. He sees all. We will continue in faith.

 

Just pink cards on a wall

Stapled to the wall of my classroom is a world map, around which dozens of cards are posted. On these cards are the introductions my students wrote on the first day of this school year. So much has changed for them since September. Lately, I find myself going back to read these cards over. They are my reminder that these humans are just kids, despite the very adult stories they carry. Some I had already known for a couple of years, and some I had only known for a day, when I asked them to write a few basic facts about themselves. This map, framed by teenage words, is nothing more than a symbol for the community and trust that we build every day. Our journey together is never linear. For every step forward, there are often two steps back. While we grind our pencils down to nubs writing essays and sweat over annotating short stories, we have conversations. We talk about life goals, past mistakes, fears, and relationships. We talk about making better choices, changing the world, what it means to have faith, and being good people. The one thing we never do, is give up. The one thing we consistently focus on, is that no one can take away our education. The one thing we never, ever let go of, is hope.

Undefeated hearts fill my classroom

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In my class of mostly undocumented students, we’ve been talking about hope. We’ve been talking about triumph over adversity. We’ve been talking about staying focused when fear, hate and uncertainty swirl around you. We have plunged head first into the pools of Maya Angelou’s fierce words of perseverance.

As one of my senior girls said, “We’re not going to quit and give up. We’re going to keep coming to school and focus on graduating.”

Brave hearts speak volumes over fear. Loving hearts defy hate. These kids have both in spades.

A world exists for them that does not for me. I’ve never had to move from place to place every few months, hoping to evade the gangs that want to end my life. I’ve never had to see my father gunned down off of his bicycle in the street. I’ve never had to watch my family starve through a destitute economy that has left no jobs to be found.

My life has never been so at risk that I would risk it further for a chance to see my child survive.

I’ve never had to crawl into a trunk, hoping for freedom, unsure if the trunk would ever open again. I’ve never had to walk for two days without food or water. I’ve never been left on the side of the road to die because I injured my foot and became a liability. I’ve never had a gun pointed at me on a train, forced to watch another be gang raped. I’ve never been so dehydrated that I’ve dropped to the ground to guzzle water filled with sewage.

In my public school ESL classroom, teenagers fill the room with noise, hormones, and laughter. They talk too much, they forget their pencils, they get in trouble for playing with their soccer ball in class. They call me Miss, Seῆora, Maestra, and Mom. They shake my hand and hug me as they file into class. They are as thoughtful as they are chatty. They are as hardworking as they are forgetful. They are as emotional as they are dedicated to their education. They are typical teenagers, like any teenager in any classroom around the world. Sitting in their desks, bent over their composition notebooks, the stories that they harbor are not evident.

Their stories come out in pieces, quietly over time. Even in sharing their stories, they are not defeated. They are matter of fact. They are hopeful. They are determined. The grace of God shines through their sense of humor.

They often work after school and on the weekends, helping to support their families. They dream about going to college to become nurses or entrepreneurs. They are examples of focusing on love instead of hate. They are a constant reminder that God, not a man, is in control. I am thankful for these kids and their families. I am thankful for the ways in which they inform and stretch my world views. I am thankful for their young hearts that rise each and every day, never giving up their fight for safety and freedom.

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Within these four walls

Walking into a room full of teenagers is never easy. It’s fun, it’s exhilarating, it’s exhausting, and it’s maddening. It’s a heartbreaking, uplifting labyrinth of hormone fueled emotions. Teaching high school is a crazy job, but I love it. How to handle each individual without bias or presumption, to expand minds and open hearts, to build foundations that raise up each equally is a responsibility that I never stop thinking about.

This weight has been heavier in recent days. I have cried in my car driving to and from school and have been physically ill. Looking into eyes filled with fear, embracing broken hearts and listening to young adults question why they are hated has left me at a loss. I love my country. I love the American spirit that drives our democracy, which I unequivocally believe in. I love that we are a nation of immigrants built on values of liberty and justice for all. I am proud of my students, who in their pain have not uttered a single hateful word as they process their new reality.

They have too many questions that I cannot answer. Questions of safety and racism. Questions of whether or not they can pursue dreams of attending college. Questions of what happens if…

What if we don’t have a home to go back to?

What if there are no jobs where we are from?

What if our lives are in danger if we go back?

What if my family is separated?

The what ifs are dangerously endless. So we talk about systems of checks and balances. We talk about hope. We talk about doing good. We focus on what we are thankful for. Supportive adults provide safe spaces for hurt voices to be heard and valued. Outside resources are provided to support those who are overcome with fear. And I pray. Something that any Christian can do for those in pain, regardless of political beliefs.

Words have power. Even if we believe or hope that words will not turn into actions, words have still created a chasm between those who feel safe and those who do not. Even if we have different points of view, it is still important to see those who are hurting and to acknowledge their grief. The dust will settle and we will all carry on with the daily task of living. Within the four walls of my classroom, I am witnessing broken, tender hearts carry on with hopefulness and resilience. It is how we choose to carry on that makes a difference.

 

We Go, or We Die

We go, or we die. It’s a statement that will never leave me. Simple words, weighted in life experiences that I can’t fathom, spoken in broken English by an African teenage refugee. This beautiful girl with the brightest smile spoke these words in the same matter of fact way I tell my five-year old that if she eats candy, she’ll get holes in her teeth. And then this precious soul laughed. A bold, contagious laugh that left me no choice but to laugh with her, the truth of her words hanging between us as we hugged and she went on to her English class.

It’s been a little less than two months since I heard this phrase, and yet I think about it every day. Thankfully, these words are not true in my life in the literal way they are for too many, but I see the truth of her words everywhere. Those five words embody perseverance, they laugh in the face of sitting down and giving up. We are all persevering in one way or another. Not a single one of us will escape trials or crises in different ways at different times. When you live your life believing that if you don’t go, you’ll die, your life requires a degree of faith.

The size of whatever burden we are carrying in a particular moment is insignificant. There are days when I feel that if I have to prepare one more meal, clean one more toilet, or say “no, you may not have another snack” one more time that I will lose my mind . And as dramatic and silly as I know I sound, I can’t not do any of those things. I could, but the gross, hangry, chaos that would ensue would be equivalent to death, so I go until I find joy again in the marathon of parenting a little person. There are other days when I simply have no clue what God is doing in my life. Those days are particularly frustrating, those punched in the gut by life days, but I know that I have a choice to go in faith and trust that God’s got me or to die a spiritual death. I know that the way I go is being watched by two little eyes and one little heart, the sponges of the sweet soul who spends her days trying to emulate her momma. That burden is heavy, but I hope that she will learn to “be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, and faithful in prayer” (Romans12:12). The way we go is as important as the actual going. To go in love, to go in faith, to go in hope, this is what I pray to be able to do throughout my life.

I’m so thankful for the truth this student spoke into me at the beginning of this summer. Her trial that day was simply making it to summer school. She had to take TWO city buses just to reach the nearest school bus that would transport her to her classes. Her family had just moved, and she wasn’t sure of her address. Confused and unable to speak more than a few sentences of English, we thought she would have to be dropped from her course. We couldn’t risk her getting lost chasing buses in unknown parts of the city. When she showed up with only a couple of hours to spare before the attendance/drop deadline, we were astounded. We shook our heads in disbelief. I would never have made it. I would have heard three buses and said I’m out, and I’m a native English speaking Texan. It had taken her hours. She was hungry, she was tired, but she had made it. That’s when she spoke, her eyes sparkling with laughter. “Miss. In Africa we go, or we die. So today I said I go.”

I usually kick off my shoes when I first walk in the door, until I carry them upstairs later. Found my little person lining up her shoes with mine this afternoon.

 

Never Forget

An elderly woman was sitting quietly at a small table. Her thinning, snow-white hair was perfectly coiffed, her face was tastefully made up, and her pantsuit had been meticulously pieced together. Her hands shook ever so slightly as she methodically broke off pieces from a hefty glazed donut and chewed carefully. As I sat myself in the seat opposite her, she lifted her eyes to meet mine, our faces breaking out in mutual smiles. “Hello Hether,” she greeted me, only it sounded more like “Hello Hayter.” I grinned. I loved this precious woman.

I only knew her for about a year. She would come to the conversation classes at the English school at which I worked in Israel. She often arrived early or stayed after class to socialize in English with the teachers or other students. I knew all about her daily schedule at the assisted living home where she lived, and we had many lengthy discussions about her impressive exercise routine. She spoke to me often about her health, and how hard she worked to keep her mind and body in shape.

I no longer remember her name, but I do remember her gentle nature and the musky scent of her perfume. I remember her gravelly voice, the brightness of her red lipstick, the single gold chain clasped around her wrist, and her arthritic, sun spotted hands. Most of all, I remember her graceful poise, and the gratitude she expressed for each day she was alive. And the donut conversation. That I will never, ever forget, for as long as I live.

“Do you know why I am eating this donut today?” she asked. I had no idea. “My doctor tells me this is the only day I can eat a donut.” She inhaled deeply and pushed her sleeve up revealing a row of numbers tattooed on her arm. She spoke slowly. “When my sister and I were in the camps, we were so hungry. We were starving. There was no food for us anywhere. I will never forget that feeling. So on this day, every year, I eat a donut. Because I can. To remember.”

We both sat in silence as she finished her donut.

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