I knew this time was coming.
I didn’t know how long it would take.
But it has arrived.
The time when I know my students well enough that I start seeing or sensing their stories. Their challenges. Their deep pain.
Communities in which poverty trickles down and settles carry the pains of our society. My school is in one of those communities. We used to be a thriving mill town many years ago. Back then people left the mountains to escape grinding poverty. They took a textile mill job that provided a steady income, a paycheck that gave their families better lives than the hardscrabble ones of eking out a scant survival from the land.
But now the pendulum has swung the other way. The mills are long gone – and with them steady incomes. Our mill town gradually became poorer and poorer, until now the schools in it have around 90 percent of their students on free or reduced lunch. These families live just at or below the poverty line.
That means not enough food in the household for everyone to get enough to eat. That means that the adults often have to work two and three jobs. That means housing is often inadequate. That means the stresses of poverty, stresses that are often self-medicated with drugs and alcohol.
That means too many unstable homes for our students.
That also means heartache for us teachers. Because we feel for these kids.
Just this week, I referred three students to our guidance counselors. I didn’t know exactly what these kids’ pains were, but I sensed that something was wrong. Something big, too big for a sixth or seventh or eighth grader to handle alone.
I myself had a particularly tough couple of days this week. A couple of straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back kind of days.
And one day when I wanted to quit, to give up, to pack it in.
I was at overwhelm.
When I took this job, I knew it would be tough to be around middle schoolers with their rollercoaster emotions. That’s part of why I’m so tired all of the time. It’s a real challenge for me to be exposed to all of those types of energy. I spend the weekends resting. I start to feel like myself again on Sundays – and then I have to get up on Monday and go through another week of emotional barrage.
You’re probably thinking, “So. . . why in the WORLD would you choose to teach in a MIDDLE SCHOOL???”
But it’s mainly because I want to see firsthand the challenges that our students face, the challenges that confront schools in poverty-stricken areas each day.
I want to be able to speak to those issues, speak to those challenges from personal experience.
I want to find a way to be involved with helping.
Back in July, I wrote that I knew I needed to follow the markers. I had no idea then that they’d lead me into a middle school classroom. But I had a sense that they’d lead me where I need to be.
I struggle now with wanting to see further ahead, to see how I may be led to help these kids. I wrote in my last blog post about how we need help from the community to serve our students, how these kids need caring adults in their lives, how teachers and schools can’t do it alone.
Markers are starting to come in the form of adults who do care about these kids, who do feel called to help in some way.
And on the day in which I was most discouraged, the most ready to give up . . . grace came.
I had a weepy day. I couldn’t keep the tears at bay. And I suppose I didn’t need to try.
I say I believe that it’s okay to be vulnerable. That we humans should share vulnerability – because we are all vulnerable in some way.
But it’s a lot easier for me to say that than to live it.
The heartache was too deep this week, though, for me to keep that vulnerability at bay. To keep the tears in.
And when I shared them, shared vulnerability, an amazing thing happened.
Grace stepped in.
And I received support. Lots of support.
From people at school. From my centering prayer group.
They let me know that they care. They hold me in prayer. They help me get through each day.
And on today, on this Easter Sunday, I find readings that help me see where I am now in my spiritual journey.
From Christine Valters Paintner and Abbey of the Arts I find this, one of my favorite saint stories:
We have arrived at the celebration of Easter and resurrection. What Holy Week teaches me is that surrender leads to the fullness of life, yielding our own agendas brings us to new possibilities we couldn’t have dreamed of for ourselves.
The story of St. Kevin and the Blackbird is perhaps one of my favorites of all the Celtic saints. He was a 6th century monk and Abbott, and was soul friend to many, including Ciaran of Clomacnoise. After he was ordained, he retreated to a place of solitude, most likely near the Upper Lake at Glendalough where there is a place called “St. Kevin’s bed.”
He lived there as a hermit for seven years, sleeping on stone and eating very simply, only nuts, herbs, and water. In the writings of his Life, it is said that “the branches and leaves of the trees sometimes sang sweet songs to him, and heavenly music alleviated the severity of his life.” Kevin is known for his intimacy with nature and animals. It is said that when he was an infant and young child, a white cow used to come to offer him milk. Later when he founded his community an otter would bring salmon form the lake to eat.
One of the most well-known stories about him goes that he would pray every day in a small hut with arms outstretched. The hut was so small though that one arm reached out the window. One day, a blackbird landed in his palm, and slowly built a nest there. Kevin realized what was happening and knew that he could not pull his hand back with this new life being hatched there. So he spent however many days it took for the eggs to be laid, and the tiny birds to hatch, and for them to ready themselves to fly away.
I love this story because it is such an image of yielding, of surrendering to something that was not in the “plans,” but instead, receiving it as gift. Instead of sitting there in agony trying to figure out how to move the bird, he enters into this moment with great love and hospitality.
How many times in our lives do we reach out our hands for a particular purpose, and something else arrives? Something that may cause discomfort, something we may want to pull away from, but in our wiser moments we know that this is a holy gift we are invited to receive.
St. Kevin and Glendalough hold a special place for me. I had a powerful spiritual experience at Glendalough at the Upper Lake across from St. Kevin’s cell. So this message resonates on a deep level with me.
I also resonate with Paintner’s article on Patheos, especially this part:
This Lent has been in part for me about dwelling in the border spaces of my life and recognizing those places and experiences that do not offer me easy answers, those fierce edges of life where things are not as clear-cut as I hope for them to be. There is beauty in the border spaces, those places of ambiguity and mystery. In Esther de Waal’s rich little book To Pause at the Threshold: Reflections on Living on the Border, she writes that the ability to live with uncertainty requires courage and the need to ask questions over finding answers. I am called to hold the space for mystery within me.
My time in the middle school classroom has been a kind of Lent for me, a time in a border space, a space in which I am uncomfortable, where I don’t quite fit. It has been hard.
But growth is usually hard.
I know the hard times aren’t over. My threshold time and place are still with me now.
I know that there is always some pain – even when grace is present.
But I remain open to grace.
I don’t have answers to my role now.
But I don’t have to.
I just need to listen and watch and be open – to Mystery and Grace.