Wednesday, May 21, 2014

For the Class of 2014

I'm not good at good-byes. In real life, like, away from this computer, I struggle with how to express emotions. So good-byes, which are so often filled with that peculiar mixture of sadness and anticipation, are not exactly my strong suit. In fact, I am so bad at good-byes that I often choke on them. A recent example happened on this year's trip to the Dominican Republic. Jack Horton, one of my students, asked me to say a good-bye on his behalf to a little boy he connected with on the trip. Since Jack wasn't going to get to visit the boy's village on the last afternoon of the trip, he asked me to give his good-bye wishes on his behalf. Jack, I feel like you should know me well enough to know that I would fail miserably at this, but, I suppose, that in the end, I really just have myself to blame. That whole afternoon in the village, I could feel the anxiety of the good-bye building up within me. I would have to find the right time, the right spot, the right words- in Spanish. But I wanted to do it. I didn't want to let Jack down. Finally, the perfect moment presented itself. I was walking along the dirt road just outside of the village, on the way to see what the villagers call "la laguna" (and what some gringos have not-so-affectionately named "the death pond"), when all of a sudden Jack's little amigo starts trotting along right beside me. I'm thinking to myself, "Wermel, this is your chance, you've got to go for it." And I did. I introduced myself, and asked the boy if he remembered Gato (Jack's Spanish name). He nodded his head and looked at me in anticipation. This is it Wermel. You can do it. But did I do it? No. Rather than saying "Gato says to tell you good-bye," I told this kid that Gato says, "hello." I was thinking good-bye, I knew to say good-bye, but when the time came I totally choked."Hello" is all that would come out.

Good-bye means the end. And when things are good, I don't like the end. So I don't like good-bye. And what I don't like, I'm usually not any good at.

In the next few days, there are going to be some good-byes. Maybe we won't say it to one another. God knows I probably won't volunteer to utter the words aloud. But, in my heart, probably in all of our hearts, we know that's what we're doing. These days are my last days with the people I've come to know and love the best since moving to Texas. It's finally time to say good-bye to the class of 2014.

I got my job at Hill Country Christian School on a stormy April morning in 2011. I'd been married for just over one year- and that year had been as stormy as the morning I was hired. People say that the first year of marriage is the hardest. I don't know if people say that for the same reasons that I claim it, but, regardless, in this case, what they say is true. Details don't really matter, and now is not the time for that anyway, but I will just say this, when I went in for my final interview, that morning, the clouds hung low in the sky, swollen and purple with rain. And if I could have drawn a picture of what my heart felt like at that time, then I would have drawn a picture of those clouds and said, "That'll do."

In that time of unexpected pain, I wondered what would ever un-do the hurt. I know relational pain. I've had my share in my past, a lot of it a byproduct of my own choices. But I don't know if I've ever felt a pain that was so surprisingly deep as the pain I lived in that year. And I don't know if I've ever doubted so much that God would act to remove it. During that time, I read something about the book of Ruth, and was taken-aback by a statement about how God works. For the life of me, I don't remember where I read it or who the author was, but it was said with such authority, that I wondered if it could be true. It didn't seem like it could fit all cases, especially ones like mine. The statement was about kinsman-redeemers. If you've read the book of Ruth, then you know this already, but in that story, Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, are in a greater amount of a pain than I've ever been in. Their situation is pretty dire. They've lost everything, and don't have a whole lot to look forward to in life. Their disappointments are crushing, and Naomi is so depressed that she doesn't even really want to be alive. But then, in the midst of their despair, God provides Ruth and Naomi with another ending. They were alone and without hope or a future. And then God writes Boaz into the story. Boaz was their kinsman-redeemer, a family member in a position to deliver them from their troubles by marrying Ruth and starting a new lineage, a new story. I'm not a Bible scholar, but I'd put money on Boaz being a "type"of Christ- the rescuer, the giver of new life and new hope. Usually, when you're reading Christian books, that's the kind of thing that you run into- Christ is your own personal "Boaz." So, what was so shocking to me about the thing that I read was that, rather than just saying, "Put your trust in Christ. He's the real-deal Kinsman-Redeemer," this author said that God delivers His people, through His people. God is still in the habit of writing kinsman-redeemers into people's stories. He still gives people new hope and new futures by using his own people to bless one another. But at the time that I read this, I didn't see how it was possible for me. When you read Ruth when you're a single girl, Boaz is the husband that you desire. He's the "one," right? But I was already married. I already had a Boaz and I was still in pain. So who was God going to use to redeem me? And, for a long time, I dismissed the idea as bad biblical interpretation. Who can really make a claim like that anyway?

When I started to teach them they were sophomores, and, at that time, I think they reminded me more of children than adults. They were respectful and attentive. They worked hard, and were endlessly patient as I fumbled through my Chemistry notes. More than once, I came to class and had to admit that I'd taught them something wrong the class before, and that I needed to go back and re-do it. Such is life when you're teaching a subject for the first time. I really couldn't have had a more patient and respectful audience. I was lucky they didn't laugh me back into working part-time retail.

It was tough, though. They were so smart, and I didn't want to disappoint them. I tried hard, but it wasn't enough. I still made all sorts of mistakes and wished every day that I was better at teaching them. Just after Christmas, I was probably at my weakest. Exhausted from trying to learn two new preps and teach five classes, amazed at the emotional and spiritual intensity of teaching in a Christian School and bewildered by news of my dad's cancer and Andy's job loss, I remember the morning that I woke up (very early, as has been my habit these past three years) and decided to tell them the  truth. I don't remember exactly what I said. I don't know if they remember either. But I think I told them about my dad. And about Andy being unemployed. And I think that I told them that I was trying my best, and that I was going to keep trying my best. I hope that I told them that I was sorry that my best sometimes wasn't good enough. I remember that I was nervous. I hadn't ever been that vulnerable with any group of people, and these were sophomores, for goodness sake. And, though I don't remember exactly what I said, I do remember that I left school that day feeling, for the first time in a long time, that I had spoken what was true in my heart- in the deep parts- and that it was heard.

It's funny, but I couldn't tell you what happened next. What exactly happened over the next two and a half years? I can't put it into words. Not in one sentence, anyway, or even in a paragraph. But in my mind, I can see it-a series of scenes and conversations. I see...

Marshmallows flying and cheetos burning. A Periodic Table made of cupcakes. I see Paige in a blue prom dress at the Oasis. I see Grace when she realized she could exempt her Chemistry final. I see Courtney and Paige in side-splitting laughter after they sunk almost all of the lounge chairs in our old apartment swimming pool. I see Preston's eye-brows knit together, the tell-tale sign that he is learning something new. I see Jack at 6:45AM, lying on the porch of my portable, waiting for the AP Biology test review to start. I see Courtney and Olivia with their pipe cleaner "sex combs," coming at me to pollinate me. I see Nathan Brown's drawing of houses, a perfectly planned community, along the side of his guided reading. I see Armineh's sweetness- always that sweetness- a portrait of true beauty. I see Paige frustrated and Courtney defeated when hours and hours of studying don't produce the results that they expected. I see Baley making peanut-butter balls in the DR and then she is crying, her face between her knees in the back of Anyuli's restaurant, and then she is smiling when she sees Darlin Frid. I see Mitchell Butterfield's eyes moving involuntarily from the pain of his sunburn. And then I see him with his head down on my lab table, the headache so bad that he can't even look up. Then I see him smiling after beating me and Robin for the dozenth time at "Clue." I see Ashton and Mitchell and Robin and I playing Jenga at the high school retreat while everyone else is in the chapel. Our time was holy just the same. I see pizza boxes and junk food and strewn review sheets at 9:30PM the night before the AP Biology exam. I see Jack and Preston at the door of my apartment, ready to help us move. And then I see Preston discover Andy's sword collection. I see Bella. I miss Bella. I see Federico's scar on the back of his head, and I see him walking down the street toward the Mak house with a Red Rock in his hand. I see him kicking off his shoes to jump into the pond in Chichigua. I see Olivia's face when Ashton surprised her at prom. I see a group of them in my living room, playing telephone pictionary. I see Preston running, I see Preston biking, I see Preston rolling around on the carpet underneath his dining room table because it's so soft and he's so tired after we've ridden God knows how many miles in the heat of a summer morning. I see Jack catch and I see Jack pitch. I see Cale's cheshire cat grin. I see Macey and Courtney fighting. I see Grace finally getting angry because life is so not fair. I see a text from Baley and will respond, even though my eyes are droopy and I'm nearly asleep. I see what I will teach them tomorrow, what I want them to know, what I want them to value. I see Armineh singing and I see Karen playing volleyball, those forever-long limbs stretching toward the sky. I see Colin warming up before a basketball game, looking very nonchalant, but I know he knows we're watching him. I see Zach up to no good with Fernando again and I see him grateful for help and I see some of his anger fade into friendship. I feel one of Aimee's sweet hugs and I see Andi's smile and her long, yellow braid. I see Courtney's eyes- brown- and Justin's eyes-blue, and God help me, I cannot help but think of a Punnett Square. I see Preston in his crown with my pointer teaching an Anatomy lesson. I see Jack's handwriting- perfect in every detail- thanks for everything.

It's funny how life forms from seemingly random moments that begin to connect, not in any detectable pattern, at first, but one day, you wake up and you realize, as if by surprise- I don't hurt anymore. And that is how it happened for me. Three years, countless moments. I didn't have just one kinsman-redeemer- I had a whole class of them.

Class of 2014. I don't expect to ever love another class like I love yours. And that is well. God gave me you at just the right time- a time when I needed you most. Maybe, just a little bit, we all needed each other. It's time for good-bye. I am proud. I am hopeful. I am sad. I am relieved. I am thankful. You have been my friends, my students, my challenge... my people. Go forth into the world and continue to bless it, and remember, always, that you have been a blessing to me.

I love you.

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