Category Archives: Education

Freak

That’s my response to something when it ruins me. Could be good or bad. The idea is that it elicits such a strong response I must euphemistically use profanity.

Today, on my backyard patio, I think I said this word aloud, to my retrieving chocolate labrador, as I finished up my study on the spiritual fruit of goodness.

Goodness, as it turns out, is not just some passive form of badness or evil’s opposite. Goodness, if one goes back to the original Greek (wow, I sound like a New Testament scholar now, I’m not) implies characterized energy, or in other words, according to the fine research done by Mrs. Beth Moore, goodness is active.

An example in today’s study was the “active” goodness that the various servants employed in the parable of the talents. Those who were rewarded with “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” “actively” looked for good ways to invest and multiply the talents they were given based on their abilities, the text says. And so, because of their faithfulness, their Master also welcomed them into His joy and entrusted them with more.

Ok, nice, cool. Yea, I grew up in church, I remember Christian school chapels about this nice little story of the parable of the talents when I was a kid. I get it. Move on, Beth. Move on. Oh, she did.

“With this question: Are you doing too many things to do any ONE thing well for Christ? If so, what can you do about it?”

FREAK. There’s my quintessential current dilemma. I spent the last school year working two jobs (one of those jobs involved three jobs really and was the hardest year I’ve had yet in my career), getting over a break up, meeting the man of my dreams I hope to marry, becoming involved in my community group, doing some light editing for my church, planning and taking some fun vacays, and overall, just trying to survive. Now, summer is here and I’m just trying to recover the pieces of me that are left after all the collisions, both good and bad, and all the burnout that’s realer now than it’s ever been. And I’ve been left to wonder, what can stay in my life for this next year that promises so many dreams fulfilled, and what needs to go? And all of this, as my roommate so aptly put it, “At what cost?”

To be more specific, my current question is, “Jesus, do you want me to keep second job next year when school starts again? Because, well you know I have some fun and exciting, but expensive ventures up ahead this year, and you know I have credit card debt, and you know I don’t like to lose control of my finances. But Jesus, you know I also want to love people in my community group so much better, and I want to be the kind of teacher I feel like I was my first three years when I loved my kids fiercely and took joy in being their Lo-Lo, and you know, you know I want to love my man with all the Happy Becka I can give him. So, how would you have me proceed?”  The world would tell me I’m crazy to give up a second income when this next year only holds super costly events for me. I would even tell myself to suffer 8 more weeks of a draining second job in order to feel more prepared to handle those expenses. But at what cost? Can I then do any of these things well?

As if that slap in the face wasn’t enough, the next question in the study, the last for the day.

“In what ways can you ‘guard the trust’ God has given you personally?

FREAK. FREAK. FREAK.

And after the understated replacement cuss word, this is all I’ve got.

Perhaps the things I’m doing that deplete my energy and “active” goodness and are not producing any kind of Kingdom good need to go so that the things that do produce Kingdom good can be multiplied.

Sure. God has given me intelligence and the gift of education and the ability to multi-task, and given me the gift of teaching, and of enjoying lots of people, even the teenaged ones. He’s made me a fast editor, and a natural writer. He’s given me a godly man, and incredible friends and community. But, I’m not investing in any of these “talents,” as well as I could be, because I’ve been investing in ones that don’t pay the right kind of dividends. And I’ve let that exhaust my “goodness.” I don’t use second job to advance any kind of ministry; I use it simply to get ahead financially. And while that is not wrong in and of itself, perhaps some other things would fall into place, and the joy of the Master would be restored for me, if I multiplied those things that have eternal value – like my high school kids, and my family, and my community group, and my Zac.

I bring this up tonight because a.) it HIT ME with a lot of weight. The timing was just too real. Just yesterday Lizzy (roommate) sat across the breakfast table from me and asked, “Becka, but at what cost?” And then, this afternoon, I discussed it with another close friend. Uncanny the timing. Also, because b.) God often speaks to me most through both my writing and through the advice and confirmation from others. So, please, by all means, speak to me, if you have thoughts.

I don’t want to look back on the next year and wish I had invested differently. Multiplication of Kingdom stuff is what matters; all else is, ultimately, vanity. But that is a hard pill to swallow when all you want to do is take your one talent and bury it for fear you’ll lose control of it somehow.

 

The Great Anti-Story

If F. Scott Fitzgerald never wrote The Great Gatsby, I think I would despair of teaching.

Alright, so that might be a bit of a bold move, but no joke, I begin talking to my students about that book on the first day of school. The momentum builds with every passing month, much as it must have for Gatsby with every passing year he got closer to reconnecting with Daisy. And like Gatsby, I wax a bit obsessive. There are green M&Ms to be procured, t-shirts to be purchased (I own three), parties to be had, interrogations to be held, caution tape to be sketched across linoleum, and glorious posters to be made. This year, joy of all joys, there is a film adaptation to be viewed. One can only hope Luhrmann will be able to come even remotely close to the colossal hype that has been created for this new movie rendition of a classic American tragedy.

And perhaps the strange thing about all of this is really that the story of The Great Gatsby is not great at all. Like, it’s not a great story.

It’s such an anti-story.

Sitting in Donald Miller’s Storyline Conference this past February, I learned the key elements that go into making a good story, the kind that climbs the NY Times Bestseller lists, wins academy awards, and gets inducted into the literary cannon for all of posterity. The gist is that there must be a character who wants something (something worth wanting) and is willing to overcome many obstacles to get it. In the end, the conflicts that are endured create the meaning. The character’s life is transformed and he or she saves many lives.

In light of this, the story of Gatsby really deconstructs. The reasons, of course, are curious. And I think Fitzgerald knew exactly what he was doing. Gatsby both does and does not want something worth having, or seemingly worth having. He wants money, fame, wealth, and the security it brings. He wants his first love, Daisy. She is the embodiment of all those things he innocently and truly believes will bring him epic happiness. He certainly overcomes obstacles, poverty, a stolen inheritance, World War I battles, heartbreak, and business deals. His means for these triumphs, however, are perhaps opportunistic at best and downright dishonest and murderous at worst. He most certainly transforms. After all, Gatsby fashions “just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception [a Platonic one] he was faithful to the end.” The end. Gatsby comes to his end at the change of the seasons, from summer to fall, lounging in the pool he never used before himself, when the deranged George Wilson shoots him and then himself  “and the Holocaust was complete.”

Gatsby saves no lives. In fact, he loses his own. All those dreams, all those obstacles, all those “real” books, all those “beautiful shirts,” wasted. Thirty years old, and his was a life wasted. No one comes to his funeral. His lover Daisy doesn’t even call, and Nick stands practically alone, with Gatsby’s dad, in the rain on the day he is put in the ground.

The irony of The Great Gatsby is that he was not great at all. His story was not a great one, at least not in any kind of a way that mattered. It almost seems that Fitzgerald wrote the worst kind of story about the worst kind of character to demonstrate what Americans should hope NOT to be. It is intriguing that when so many of the key elements of Gatsby go wrong from a story-telling perspective, we continue to read this legendary tale. Perhaps it’s because of all us hope for a sort of redemption for Gatsby. Perhaps, like him, we all have this “promise of life,” this “romantic readiness” that longs to get to chapter 8 and see Daisy run back across the lawn, or hydroplane across the bay, and straight back into his pink suited arms.

But, I for one, am thankful she does not. And not just because she’s “a beautiful little fool,” but because if she did, the lesson of Gatsby, the reason for the anti-story would be lost. If we are to learn what not to do from this non-great, Great Gatsby, then we must understand that life lived for wealth, materialism, even earthly love, will never satisfy. The green light (the American Dream) will always “year by year recede before us.” And if that’s our pursuit, if those things are our “following of a grail,” well, then, we will “beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

And that’s why I teach this book, this anti-story. Because I need to know, and the kids need to know, and America needs to know that money, cars, parties, social class distinctions, “friends,” things, none of that is great. People will disappoint. Lovers will leave. Businesses will dry up  and lights will flicker and die. That’s not the kind of story we want to tell with our lives. It’s not going to transform us in any kind of real, lasting, permanent, and redemptive kind of way. It’s not going to save anyone else’s life. In fact, it will probably just result in self-destruction.

Only the things done for eternity will matter.

I’m still toying with how to continue digesting this anti-story, how to make it real and lasting for my kids, how to use it to save many lives, how by contrast, it can make our characters greater. I’m thinking that a viewing of Tom Shadyac’s documentary I Am, might be in order. And I’m thinking some sort of reflective essay, super open-ended and as open as Gatsby is secretive may also be in order.

And I’m hoping that my kids can one day look back and narrate their own stories and say something like, “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my teacher gave me some advice, that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Your life tells a great story if it transforms you, and saves many lives. Everything else will fade away.”

Lies, Lives, and Little Brothers

If you were to ask me right now, at almost 1am, STILL grading final exams and final essays from my college class, I’m not sure I’d have a lot of redemptive things to say about my job: teaching.

Currently, I am in my 6th year of teaching high school English, my 4th year in advising the high school newspaper, and my 2nd class deep of instructing English composition classes at a local liberal arts university. I’m tired. All the time. Rest is… elusive. Note the time of this post if my words aren’t proof enough. And I’ve been steadily grading since 2pm this afternoon.

So far this week, in my various roles of “teacher” or “professor,” I’ve battled entitled, lazy, irresponsible, and even irate students (mostly college students, ironically). I’ve been stalked by parents on instagram who have nothing better to do with their time than troll the interwebs looking for inconsequential fights to pick. I’ve been asked the same question at least 3 times, that I’ve answered at least three times before it was asked, and all this at least three times in the last three days.

And, if I wanted to indulge my old nature of awfulizing, I could go on.

But, these are the lies the Devil wants me to believe when I’m tempted to think my job doesn’t matter, or worse yet, when he tries to quench the passion I have for learning that got me into this profession in the first place.  These are the half-truths he wants me to cling to in those moments of frustration, exhaustion, and irritation that tempt me to think my work doesn’t save lives.

I was pretty deep into this kind of thinking last Christmas Break, not caring about a whole lot of things, much less my job. I had begun to just give up on ever gaining back the fire I once had for students, novels, engaging lessons, teachable moments, and those warm fuzzies you get when you know you have a conversation with kids that will pay off in life dividends, not just standardized testing numbers. Then my brother (my 4 years younger than me little brother) made this snarky comment, “Yea, Becka, cuz it’s not like you do anything important at all. I mean, you don’t have 160 members of the next generation walking through your doors every day or anything. People like Steve Jobs didn’t ever attend high school and get inspired by a teacher or anything like that. You’re right. Your life is absolutely meaningless.”

Ouch. But, oh, what a healing agent was mixed into that painful balm. Bless my brother for his biting sarcasm on Christmas Day 2012.

I thought of it last night. I think of it often. But, last night, the boyfriend and I attended my high schoolers’ spring musical, Hairspray. They did a fabulous job. But, as various kids were coming up to me from former classes, and I was struggling to remember all their names, I suddenly realized just how many students’ names I’d have to remember if I could remember all of them: upwards of one thousand. ONE THOUSAND. In 5 and a half years of teaching high school, I’ve had one thousand kids sit under my instruction for an hour a day, 5 days a week, 4 weeks a month, 10  months out of the year.

The thought is and was both exhilarating and terrifying. The weight of my profession has never been lost on me. But, sometimes, I forget just how weighty it is. I go to conferences like Storyline and I hear Donald Miller and his chums talk about saving lives in Africa and I just want to be there. I want that glamorous crazy story of the girl teaching beautiful brown skinned, wide-eyed babes in the jungle (admittedly, that is actually way too white man’s burden style for me, but you get the idea). I forget how much life-saving there is to be done right here, perhaps because it’s not as sensationalized. But, God knows I’ve seen and heard pain amongst kids in entitled Woodcrest just as real and raw as those of genocide survivors in Rwanda. And perhaps just because they’re in the first world does not mean they are in any less need of rescue, reconciliation, and redemption.

A character who lives a great story must overcome conflict. Teaching is rife with conflict. This week alone has provided all the fuel I need to, ironically, burn out of the job. But, it is finding the meaning in the suffering, learning the lessons in the conflict, that actually transforms the character and saves lives. That’s what it means to be a great character. That’s what I want.

I want to Absurdly Hope that even in all the perfunctory and mundane grading of papers and emailing back to ridiculous and demanding students, lives are being saved, and characters (hopefully not just mine) are being transformed.

Thank you, little brother, for the truth you spoke into the lies a few months back, for the lives who need me to believe that what I do is absurdly important.