Monthly Archives: January 2015

Because I Fought Back in ‘Nam, or, Zombie Bookworms

She’s 18 years old and too nonchalant for gossip, but she has news and she is dying to verify it. I can see it in the furtive, sidelong jerks of her head, and the cast of her eyes as she whispers with her friends. I think, is she really talking about what I think she’s talking about? Or am I imagining things?

None of my business, right? Class doesn’t start for ten minutes; this is her time, not mine.

And then I get one of those text messages. You know the ones: “Hey, I heard…. Is it true?”

And, yes, actually, it is true. But as I sit there staring at the screen, thinking “How does she know?” I see every one of my students in my mind’s eye, just as nonchalant, but just as bursting with morbid curiosity as the next one.

I’ve taught close to 800 different students who still attend this school. That, Folks, is a substantial grapevine.

So at 7:01 on a Tuesday morning, I stand up in front of first period English, and I start a conversation. It’s the same conversation I begin six more times today–and it gets easier every time. It morphs into a stand-up routine, only… more macabre.

It goes something like this:

Soooo…. Um. I have cancer. Like. Not–cancer, like I’m going to die tomorrow cancer, but cancer like, I’m probably going to be missing some school, and when I come back, part of my arm will be missing, and you’ll either all want to know what happened, and I’ll have to tell you, or, I won’t tell you and there will be lots of rumors, so let’s just name the beast, okay?

Actually, you know what? The rumors will probably be more interesting, so let’s make up our own. What other explanations might you come up with for a gaping hole in Mrs. Lybbert’s arm?

Come on–they are high school kids; after the initial surprise, they think it’s funny. They will add  to the list on the board all week. Here are my favorite alternative explanations for my absence/pending arm deformity:

  • run-in with a unicorn
  • street-fight with a panda
  • zombie bookworm
  • encounter with a rabid student
  • she’s all about that life
  • she fought back in ‘Nam
  • she graded too many essays and lost part of her soul
  • light saber injury, she has; beat Darth Vader, she must

So there you have it: the rest of the story. Or the start of a new one.

Feel free to add  your own items to this list 🙂

The Breasts on my Classroom Window

There are breasts on my classroom window. A voluptuous, detailed set, but just one. I successfully removed the others, along with a multitude of other more… phallic sketches.

This artwork shows up regularly because the bus stop is located outside my windows and what else is a kid to do with more than an hour, plus a drawing utensil, on his hands? I mean, besides hop on a buddy’s shoulders and repeatedly ram his behind against the window, which has also occurred.

Heaven help the poor girl who is trying to teach in my room during that shift; it’s her first year, and she not only has to deal with the numskulls inside the classroom, but the ones outside, as well. I can’t blame her for closing the blinds and ignoring the artwork being crafted beyond them.

It’s just a little disconcerting, every morning, to unveil the windows.

In case you hadn’t heard, we’re running 11 periods a day at Moses Lake High School–starting at seven in the morning and ending at five at night. The theory is that at any given time, only 80% of our students are on campus. In reality, at any given time, only 80% of our students are in the classroom.  The other 20%, well… who knows what they are up to? I can only report what’s going on in my remote corner.

You’d think that someone would be supervising common gathering areas like the  bus stop, and I’m sure that happens, but no amount of adult supervision can cover 100% of the behavior of 2400 teens, 100% of the time.

I’d be willing to bet that the culprits are probably fairly rational people, given a different situation–say, a Sharpie plus their dream car. They’d be outraged if you suggested they draw obscenities all over the bodywork or slam their backpack or fanny into the paint job. They wouldn’t do it.

My question is, how do you awaken a sense of ownership in students for school? How do you awaken them to the incredible opportunity a free education really is? How do you convince teens to value something they have not chosen for themselves?

There will always be gaps in supervision as long as students are not self-regulating–as long as they do not see community assets like schools, and opportunities like schooling, as privilege not punishment.

The district is running a bond right now, and as much as we desperately need the space, dare I suggest that we also need an answer to this question, before we erect yet another edifice for our children to kick against in their resentment of the status quo?

Of Balers, Teens, and Broken Things

There is something supremely satisfying about disemboweling a recalcitrant household appliance (you thought I was going to say “teen”, didn’t you? for shame), locating the source of the problem, and setting everything right again. Every time, I get an urge to pound my chest and roar. I should have been a repairman.

photo (12)

My broken motor coupling

Speaking of recalcitrant teens, on the other hand, I took my third to the podiatrist. He was given a new cast and instructions to get no more daring than sponge baths. On the way out to the van afterwards, he says, “If using a garbage bag and duct tape–which is a really good idea, by the way–is like playing Russian roulette, then if I use six bags, that’s like taking all the bullets out of the gun first, right?”  Which is, of course, precisely what he is doing.

Also, sewing zippers into the bottom half of his pant leg, with my sewing machine. He’s only broken one needle so far. When I offered to do it for him, he stayed in his seat. “Relax, Ma, it’s just like a baler.”

And so there he sits: my seventeen-year-old, baling his pants. I’m going to bed.

There is a Crack in Everything

About that molten rock.

I was listening to this speech by Tyler Jarvis, and yes, it starts out all “mathy” (his word, not mine) and technical, but then it set me back on my heels, hard, and made me look at my whole life.

Because here’s the thing: I don’t know how many times I’ve used the story of Jesus feeding a multitude with a couple of fish and some loaves of bread as metaphor for our own lives–how we have to give everything we have to Him, and trust that He will make up the difference. I’ve used it in talks, in Sunday School lessons, and in one-on-one quasi-counselling sessions. I’ve thought that I believed it, and lived it.

Jarvis doesn’t mention fish or bread or miracles even, but he does talk about the complexity of scientific and mathematical problems, and by extension, life, and how we have to come to grips with imperfection and failure and be willing to make our best approximations and act on them in faith, and fail repeatedly in an iterative process of progression that can feel agonizingly slow–or else risk the paralysis of fear. Because so often, we have to act on solutions that we know are incomplete, inadequate and wrong, simply to learn how to refine the next attempt.

I’m not very good on acting on solutions I know are incomplete. I want to map out the solution first, down to the smallest detail, before I begin. There is something to be said about making your very best approximation before moving forward, of course–of not handing Christ one head of a fish, or half a loaf, when you really have quite a bit more under the napkin.

But I realized that what I’ve actually been doing is more akin to looking in my basket, looking up at Christ, and saying, yes, of course I want to be of service to you and all these people; yes, I believe you can make my efforts enough; but seriously, what I’ve got here is pathetic. You and I both know I could do so much better. How about I zip home and make enough bread to feed all these people, and bring it back here before anyone gets cranky? With sufficient faith, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, so therefore I must be lacking in faith (or willpower) if they do get cranky–so please, help me be faster, better, stronger, because I really don’t want to let anyone down.

That’s what I’ve been asking for. And then I go through life exhausted and bewildered because I know God hears and answers prayers, and I’m trying my hardest, but there simply isn’t enough time in the day or enough flour in my pantry to accomplish the miracle. I  am still trying to feed the multitude myself, instead of handing over my inadequate lunch and stepping back into the obscurity of the crowd and letting Him take over. Because in the stress of the unprepared moment, when I have only five loaves and two small fish, not having anticipated the demands of the day, I recognize that I could  have done better.

What I don’t consciously consider is that five loaves or ten, nothing I have is going to be enough. Nothing. In terms of the molten rock, I haven’t looked around me, taken stock of my situation, and crafted an imperfect solution out of what resources I have, and then asked God to illuminate my efforts. I have essentially been asking God to somehow transform me so that I don’t need light.

Did you know, I sat down and drew up yet another plan, after twenty thousand other failed plans, and crammed in every little thing that I absolutely MUST do, and when I added up the required hours, most of the days of the week the total was somewhere around 20. And then, instead of saying, hmmm… that won’t work… I said, Okay, God, you are going to have to make me able to function on four hours of sleep a day. Except Wednesdays… I can only fit in two and a half, that day. You are a God of miracles; if you can make rocks glow and multiply loaves and fish, you can make me strong enough to do this. And I was serious. I’m obsessive like that.

But I’m also losing my mind.

Jarvis closes with the chorus from Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”, which I’m not familiar with, but which spoke to me so well that I had it memorized upon hearing it once. It ran through my mind for hours afterward:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Jarvis continued: “Our bells are cracked. But let us ring those bells that still can ring. Stop worrying about your failure to achieve perfection—perfection is not possible in this life. Instead, embrace the light and healing power of Christ that come in through our cracks and imperfections.”
I have one more day before school starts up again. One more day to climb the mountain and hunt down some suitable stones before I embark across the great deep that will be this next semester.

X-Ray Vision and Night in the ER

Heard a truck pull up at about 8pm on New Years Eve. My first thought was, “There’s Jaeger; what’s happened?” but he’s never home that early, and the diesel of the truck was definitely not his little Honda. But then the front door opened, and no strange voices ventured a “Hello?” so I went to investigate. My 17 year-old was standing at the bottom of the stairs, covered in more manure than usual, and shuddering uncontrollably.

The leading lip on a loader bucket had fallen about a yard and a half, directly onto his toes. He had broken the metatarsals in his right foot. Here’s the bizarre thing. I actually said this–offered as my diagnosis. Of course, I also immediately followed that with, “Actually, I made that up. I think metatarsals are in your hand.”

But on some level, I must have known it applied also to feet. And after spending New Year’s Eve in  the ER, I realized an odd thing: I’ve had the same instantaneous understanding of my children’s broken bones every time it’s happened. When Jaidon shattered his shin, and broke his arm; when Quinton and Winslow broke theirs: I knew what bones were broken, and even terminology like “greenstick” and “spiral” fracture. The terms just came to mind. Today, I couldn’t tell you what the names of the bones they broke are. No clue. But for some reason, my subconscious can pull these facts up during times of stress, with perfect clarity.

That’s the other thing–they don’t really seem like times of stress. Along with the perfect clarity is a sense of pervasive calm.

I had that same experience when my husband fell 12 years ago, and began his decade-long convalescence that would transform me from a stay-at-home mother of six without a college degree, into sole breadwinner and a doctoral candidate. When he opened the door,  I was kneeling on the floor, changing the baby’s diaper. I knew, with absolute calmness and certainty, that not only what he had broken, but that my life had changed completely. When the on-call doctor misread the x-rays and sent us home, I was correct about his error.

In these moments, there is such total absence of concern or fear, that I have wondered if my convictions are wrong. But always, on some level, I absolutely knew that the bone was broken, and in what manner. I’m learning to trust that instinct about broken bones. Now… if  only I had that kind of insight about other ills–the ills of hearts and minds. And if only they were so easy to treat–with an x-ray, and a plaster cast!