Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Most Important Question

Many years have gone by since I opened a gift on Christmas Eve. As kids, my brother and I used to rush our parents out of the evening church service so we could get home and carefully choose one colorfully wrapped package from under the tree.

This Christmas Eve, I was presented with a gift so precious I found myself temporarily speechless. It was one of those gifts where you want to say, “Oh, you shouldn’t have!” or “You didn’t need to do that!” to the giver.  

The old tradition was unearthed in the form of two little girls we’ve “adopted” into our family. Angela is a former student who stole a piece of my heart. We started taking Christmas gifts to her and her four siblings a few years back, and now they are a regular part of our lives. Part of that regularness is taking them to the grand Christmas Eve service with my parents at First United Methodist Church in Fort Worth. Dressed in their prettiest clothes, Angela and her little sister, Mary, sit snugly between all of us on the pew as we sing Christmas hymns, take communion and light candles in the darkness singing “Silent Night.”

During the service, I received my first gift: watching a child learn to follow the words in a hymnal for the first time. I held the red book for Mary, tracking my finger along the words as her tiny voice sang “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” I began to look around, like when you see your child take those first steps and wonder if anyone else is there to witness the moment.

Gift number two came in the form of a question. The little girls were busily studying the service program, asking why some of the words were in bold (people speak) and others were not (pastor speaks). Then Angela looked up and whispered, “What is a manger?” I had to suck in my breath to hold back the tears. During my awkward silence, I reflected back on my 11 years as a mom and my six years as a teacher. I have never been asked such a simple but meaningful question; I mean, we all assume our children have been saturated with the story of Christ enough to know what all of it means, from the bed of hay to the heavenly host.  What do I say? Then I felt the hands of Jesus on my shoulders because that’s the only way I could find any words of wisdom.

 “A manger is like a barn,” I explained. “When Jesus was born, there was no place for his mother to have the baby, so she had to give birth to Him in a barn with animals all around.”

Another Christmas classic was next in the program, which gave me time to gather myself and hope that my words didn’t completely confuse the poor child. This time, I just listened to their voices and watched as their little brown eyes moved around the church from the organ pipes to the brightly lit garland and the rows of poinsettias garnishing the front railings.

When the service was over and we made the slow walk into the lobby, God shone a spotlight on my final gift. There next to the doors was a large nativity scene, complete with real hay. I grabbed the girls and led them toward the scene, waiting impatiently for a family to take their Christmas photo in front of it and move along. (If you were that family, I apologize for staring at you and nudging you out of the way, but this was a God thing).

 “This is a manger,” I explained, pointing out baby Jesus, Joseph, Mary and the wise men. They listened as if I was sharing a great secret when I told about the wise men who traveled a long way to see this important baby and all they had to lead them there was a star.

Now on more than one account, Angela has left me stunned and breathless by her simple and profound observations, both written and spoken. Again, on this Christmas Eve, God used her as a messenger. She pointed to the brassy star at the apex of the manger and said, “That was the star they followed – the star God gave them from heaven.”
“Yes, Angela,” I said, “God showed them the way with a star.”

I have truly seen the magic of Christmas through a child’s eyes. It is not a cliché or a myth, but exists in the curious hearts of humble children who live in a tiny apartment smaller than a manger. Now I know what awestruck wonder feels like.

Jesus, you shouldn’t have, but boy am I glad you did.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Why Am I Surprised?

You'd think I won the lottery. Or maybe I received a huge raise or an all-expense paid two-week vacation because of how darned giddy I am right now. I've pumped my fist with an ecstatic "YES!" and just completed a happy dance in the kitchen. 

I'm ecstatic, friends, because I have seen God answer a prayer as clear as day, and it happened in my dining room while I was eating chicken spaghetti with a small group of friends. To those who see miracles every day, you can roll your eyes all you like. But my heart is pumping as if I've been in a spin class for an hour, and I haven't even had any caffeine ... at least for the past 6 hours.

Many of you know for the last two years I have taught at one of the lowest-performing, highest-poverty level schools in our city, in our district. I have never seen needy defined as much as I did on a daily basis. My students were starving -- physically, mentally and emotionally and academically. 

I adopted the "starfish" philosophy and called in my friends and my church to recognize this tiny school, hidden behind the broken down cars and the dilapidated fences in East Fort Worth. For two years, I told sob stories to those more fortunate in hopes that my school and the students within its walls would be recognized as a place in DIRE need of help. 

Then one week this summer, a light poured out like a pitcher over a small community where survival skills are key. Christ Chapel Bible Church decided to take their successful Kids Camp (VBS) to the 'hood. For a week, church members and children took their fears, their Bibles and their hearts to recreate a happy, joyful, fun place where they could learn about Christ and be loved in a safe place. One guess which neighborhood they visited. 

So tonight, several couples in our Bible study came to our house to meet after a summer hiatus. We all caught up, dined, talked about kids and relayed busy schedules to one another. Then one of the women began to tell me about the week she and her family spent serving God in Stop Six. Where I taught. With my sweet, needy babies. They ALL showed up! As I began to roll call my students' names one by one, my friend would say, "Yes, she was there" or "Yes, he comes every week."

Wait ... every week?

The Kids Camp didn't end after one week. Nope. A small group of volunteers at Christ Chapel have committed themselves to an hour a week, taking these kids out of the constant chaos where they search for peace. They giggle, they sing, they touch Bibles. They eat as much pizza as they want. 

My heart was floating up out of my chest and into my throat as my friend showed me pictures of my babies (that's what teachers call their students, FYI). Tears brimmed for at least a half hour as the couple told me of one student who now comes to church with them and has even been to their home. They even have a nickname for her. That's what you do for people you love.

One more thing. The woman told me that every week at church, my former student asks, "When am I going to see her?" 

She's asking for me. A student who gave me grief, made me question my ability to teach, took every ounce of my attention, love and energy every day. A student who was the subject of my "you won't believe what happened today" stories I vented to friends. And she still was asking for me. 

I don't know why I'm surprised. God answers prayers all the time. Some of them right away, others in ways we don't expect and mostly not in our time frame. But this one opened up like the curtains on stage of a Broadway musical. I am giving Him a standing ovation. 

IN CASE YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN ONE, LOOK NOW. This is, by definition, an answered prayer. All God's people say Amen.

Friday, April 17, 2015

How I Whipped the Nay Nay

"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

Soldiers say it. Parents relent to it. And every teacher at some point in their career refers to this phrase. Now before anyone goes judgin', I am not referring to this phrase in the literal sense. I have not attempted nor do I wish to beat anyone. Those who have any experience with trying to be yourself in a situation or get your way, and then finally succumbing to  "The heck with it" will be able to relate to the use of aforementioned phrase.

And so it goes that we had a pep rally today in preparation for the big state standardized test that occurs next week. (My own opinions of this test will be released in another blog, lest I digress). Two of our fantastic assistants put together an agenda that included cheerleaders, chants and signs all in an effort to get these kids PUMPED about sitting in a classroom for 4 hours in which they can't move, sneeze, sleep, slump, speak or breathe loudly.

"Who wants to join the teacher dance-off?" My assistant friend announced at the staff meeting. My alter ego who thinks I'm an amazing hip-hop dancer made me raise my hand and before I knew it, I had signed up.

The next thing I know I'm on stage with four elementary students and five other teachers for a practice session. So there's the African-American population.
And there's me.
Doin' the Whip and the Nay Nay.

What's that, you say? Here's an entertaining activity for those who are truly wondering. Google "Whip and Nay Nay" and watch it. Then insert my face into one of the girls dancing (the one who isn't very good). How 'bout it?

Yep. I even practiced at home to the embarrassment of my daughters who begged me not to do it. "Mom, stop doing that! You can't do that on a stage!" they pleaded.

But my mind was made up. I thought, if I can teach in these trenches and survive, last another year without a  sabbatical (read: visit to the funny farm), then by golly, I can do the Whip and the Nay Nay.

Thankfully, I had a 6th-grader in front of me who could "hit it" (read: showed advanced skills at these dances) and I mirrored her moves, pretending in my head that I looked just like her. It also helped that I put on sunglasses, which added to the logical theory that if they can't see my eyes, then I can't see them and they're not there and it didn't happen. Makes sense, huh?

Oh I forgot to mention that after the Whip and the Nay  Nay, there was the Stanky Leg, Break-Yo-Leg, the Superman and.... wait for it ... The Drop.
Yeah, I didn't drop. It hurt my knees to watch, so I decided to listen to my body that was screaming "HEY --ELL NO!" I modified to the partial bend and called it good.

I was sweating like an oldie, but man, I began to feel a part of this staff after two years. And the best part was, after we took our bow -- "We out!" -- and I rejoined my students, their eyes were beaming like I was some kind of celebrity they'd never met. They saw a new side of me and we connected on an entirely different level. Their level.

One student made me so happy I almost cried. She told me I wasn't just good up on stage, I was really great. And I don't think she said it to try for an A in class.

Whip, Nay Nay, sporting a do-rag, rapping, whatever it takes. This is so cliche' but if you told me five years ago I'd be doing what I did today, I'd have admitted you to the funny farm.

We out.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Good Morning

"Yo, get up niggah!"
He pushes your shoulder and you roll over into something wet on the sheets below you. Little brother peed in the bed again. Oh well, it'll dry.
You didn't sleep much because your brother played Grand Theft Auto 2 on X-box til  midnight and you share the room and the twin mattress. Mama and her boyfriend in the next room were up yelling and you heard a couple of smacks, so you know he hit her. Again. But now the only sound is the repeating theme song from Grand Theft Auto. The only light is the glow from the TV.

You peel your body from the twin-size mattress on the floor and hope that mama did laundry yesterday. You've already worn that blue shirt two days in a row. Lucky you, brother's shirt fits you and it's clean, cause he didn't go to school yesterday. You grab the shirt, crumpled but clean, from the pile on the floor and start to slip it over your head when brother comes back into the dark, cramped, stale room.

"That's my shirt!" he yells and grabs it from your head.
"I got it first. I need a clean shirt!" You reply back. Even though he's younger, he's bigger, and he rips the shirt from your body, smacking your head so hard it knocks you to the carpet. You can't let that happen so you ball your hand into a fist and pop him in the face. Arms, legs, hands entangle. Then a huge hand stings your face out of nowhere.
"What the f___ you doin'?" The large man, mama's latest boyfriend, favors everyone else over you. And she's asleep, so you have no armor to shield you. Big sister is still sleeping  -- she doesn't go to school 'til 9 -- and mama is out. Out sleeping or out of the house, who knows. You've faced his early morning wrath before and choose to concede rather than the physical alternative. "Here. Suck this," You say as you throw the shirt to your brother and grab the only other uniform top you have -- the one spattered with stains from two days of school lunch. You are lucky again, because it's cold outside and you can wear your big jacket all day, even in class.

"Now get out the house, I'm tryin' to sleep. Go on." Boyfriend man pushes you and little brother toward the door and his voice gets louder as he's pushing. You're at the front door when you realize your homework is on the kitchen table and your backpack and coat are still in your room. You got cold last night and used it for a blanket.
"Wait I gotta get ..."
"DON'T YOU TELL ME TO WAIT, BOY." He's in your face now. "I've heard enough of yo' lip. You get to school. Now go!" He slams the door.
You feel the heat from tears welling in your eyes, but you cannot let them drop from your lids. He can't see you cry. Not again.
Little brother was able to sneak his jacket from the couch during the procession to the door, but you're outside with nothing.
"Hurry up, we gon' miss breakfast!" Brother starts running down the sidewalk towards school. You're out the door with a stained shirt, no coat, no homework. Again.

When you get to school and line up to go to class, Ja'Kendrick points out the orangey-red stains on your shirt. "Man, you stank!"
"Shut up fool, at least I don't f--- my mother," you reply back. Ja'Kendrick pushes you, but you've learned to go to the back of the line when someone messes with you, which is most of the time.
Your teacher stands at the door and you wait to shake her hand. "Good morning!" She sings. "I'm so happy to see you ..."
This is a mix of truth and fiction. Truth: I'm the happy teacher who stands at the door.
Fiction: The names have been changed.
Truth: I feign to remember  almost every morning what these students have gone through before they come to see me at 7:45 a.m.
No wonder they are angry and rigid like cold winter trees when they shake my hand.