Today, I prayed with my students

I never thought that the above statement would come out of my mouth, and I certainly never imagined that it would be the title of a blog post. As a long-time public school teacher, I spent 17 years painstakingly avoiding any discussion of my personal beliefs with my students. I sat quietly while they freely shared religious and ethical ideas, facilitating only, trying never to impose my own thoughts on impressionable ears.

I thought I was done with teaching for a while, set on a course to focus solely on my writing, publishing my next book, writing this blog, and freelancing for a growing client base. But life has a way of throwing us for a loop every now and again. You know what they say about best laid plans. I’m still writing, but I’ve been pulled back into teaching once again.

The difference is that now I find myself not in my standard, large public high school, but in a small Christian school, the proverbial fish out of water. Except that somehow, I’m not. Somehow I went from one extreme to the other in any number of ways without a major struggle. The biggest change, indubitably, is that after 17 years of never bringing up God’s name, I am including Him or allowing my students to include Him in any conversation that might arise. I thought it would be weirdly uncomfortable. Instead, it’s profoundly liberating.

Then today happened. Thursday is Chapel Day, usually just 15 minutes of listening to a message or praise music, and then it’s back to class. But today, the facilitator called all of the teachers onto the gym floor and invited the students to find a teacher and form a prayer circle. A group circled around me, and we joined hands and prepared to pray. I told the kids that I would get the group started, and then anyone could jump in with their own prayers as they saw fit.

Confession – other than with my family, I’ve never formed an original prayer out loud, in front of other people, before. I’m pretty sure I’m not very good at it. So it’s a bit intimidating to pray in front of kids who respect you and think that you have something to offer. I didn’t want to let them down, and I felt a tremendous responsibility to do a good job by saying something worthwhile.

Somehow, I found my voice. As much as I wanted it to be, my prayer wasn’t profound or deep or resonating with spiritual insights. I just thanked God for bringing me to the school and introducing me to all of the wonderful kids there. I told him how grateful I was to have them in my life. It was probably 30 seconds, in total. Then I stopped and waited for my teenagers to fill in the blanks.

No one said a word.

After about a minute and the start of some nervous chuckling, I initiated a new prayer: “Please God, let someone else join in on this prayer,” and the circle erupted in laughter, and the ice was broken. At that point, students began to pray, sometimes joking around a little, most of the time quite serious, and it was… how can I describe it? … inspiring, refreshing, heart-warming. It was slightly awkward and a little bit weird, and at the same time, it might have been one of the most important things I’ve ever done with my students.

It’s amazing how you can look back on your career and assume that you’ve seen and done it all and that this is as good as it’s going to get. Sometimes, you’re right, but sometimes, it gets better.

The Christian school environment isn’t for everyone, but for me? Well, it has taken me and shaken me, and it has made me think. And for a long-time teacher who had thought she had done it all, that’s a beautiful thing.

 

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Have your kids fallen in love with reading?

Recently, it seems that teenagers do less pleasure reading than in the past. I still come across children who have favorite authors or who read and enjoy the latest bestsellers, so they still exist. But they are fewer and farther between.

I see this when I ask students to read a book for class and then watch as they plod through it as if it were the most tedious task they could imagine. If I tell them to read 2 chapters a night, they groan. You would think I was asking them to clean toilets or scrub grout with a toothbrush. And I just don’t get that. As an avid reader, I can’t imagine not spending my last minutes of the day, snuggled in bed, reading by lamplight. I can’t fathom a plane ride¬† and its blessed accompanying silence without also imagining a book, resting on the snack tray next to the salted peanuts. In fact, when I think about my favorite places to truly relax, they all involve books.

The beach; the rocking chairs on my patio; my over-sized, overstuffed chair – all have served as backdrops or comforts as I nestled in with a book in my hand. For me, reading isn’t just following an engaging story or getting lost in beautiful prose, it’s escaping into another world or recognizing myself or the people I know in entirely different characters.

I wish all of my teenagers could feel this way about books. To be honest, they’re not going to get there with some of the classics we insist they read, and this makes me sad. If you’re a teacher and have the power to choose the books you’ll teach, take that power very seriously. If you’re a parent, do everything in your power to lead your children toward books they’ll love. And if you would like to share the titles of books that have changed your life, please, please do.

Some of my favorites:

1. The Great Gatsby, because you never can repeat the past, no matter how hard you try.

2. The Book Thief – when death is the speaker, you’re in for a disturbing ride.

3. The Kite Runner and/or A Thousand Splendid Suns – life in Afghanistan from a boy’s and girl’s perspective (respectively)

4. Angels & Demons – the best argument for science and religion working in tandem that I’ve ever encountered

5. The Bible – read from start to finish instead of in fits and starts, the patterns and themes evolve beautifully and clearly.

What are yours?

A mother’s thoughts on back-to-school

Most of us are familiar with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s Stages of Grief, generally applied to death and other horrible tragedies. Today, I provide a humorous twist on these stages as they apply to sending kids back to school after a long, long summer.

1. DenialThat is NOT another empty toilet paper roll, is it? They wouldn’t be so inconsiderate after I’ve yelled at them for two months, would they? What is wrong with these kids? Why can’t they think of other people? I know I didn’t raise them this way.

2. AngerTyler Frank Jerrigan! Get your butt into this kitchen right now! Please explain to me how a 15-year-old can eat every single ingredient I purchased for the casserole I planned to make tonight. Ricotta cheese? Seriously? What did you do – eat it out of the container with a spoon? I can’t believe I have to start hiding ingredients!

3. BargainingPlease, God, if you could just get me through the next two weeks or so, I think I can make it until school starts. I promise that I won’t hide the M&M’s and then lie when my kids ask me if I have any chocolate. I’ll do anything. Please!

4. DepressionHoney, there’s a bag of M&M’s underneath the garment bag on the top shelf of the closet. You have to use the step ladder to reach them. The step ladder is hidden under the bed. Get them now.

5. Acceptance – Is that the school bus I see rounding the corner? Is it turning down our street? Yay! School is starting! Have a great day, kiddos! I know this is going to be a fantastic year for you.

I’ll miss you.

Kids caught being amazing – You won’t read this in a newspaper

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reminded of the awesomeness of teenagers and the acts of kindness they perform that truly restore my faith in humanity. Since teenagers always seem to get a bad rap, I want to share just a few instances I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing just in the two weeks since school started.

Day 1: A teacher on hall duty accidentally kicked his mug, spilling coffee on the hallway floor. “Don’t let anyone step in this,” he told me. “I’ll go get some paper towels.” Just then, a student happened by, glanced down, and noticed the puddle on the floor. Without saying a word, he disappeared into the bathroom, returned with a handful of paper towels, and mopped up the mess. He never looked to me for acknowledgement or praise; he just continued along down the hallway.

Day 6: For the first time in my long teaching career, I am working at a Christian school. The other day, we had our first Chapel Day, 35 minutes of singing contemporary Christian music led by a praise team. I entered the gym to the rocking sounds of an electric guitar, wicked drums, a bass, and a keyboard. One of my quietest, most reticent students was standing at the mic – the lone singer – belting out praise music with a voice reminiscent of Florence of Florence and the Machines. I think my jaw probably dropped open. I watched as teenagers surrounded the band and sang with all of their hearts, some with lifted hands, eyes closed. I actually got goosebumps and thought to myself, I have the greatest job in the world. How often does that happen?

Day 7: I had graded my students’ first essays and entered the scores in the online grade book. The next day, I returned the papers and went about reviewing their errors and discussing areas for improvement. One boy raised his hand. “Dr. D, you gave me an 80 on my paper.” I concentrated on not rolling my eyes. Here we go with another grade grubber, about to complain that he should get another two points, I thought. He continued, “I noticed in the grade book that you had entered an 88. You’ll have to go in and fix that.” Now my jaw actually did drop.

So you see, they’re out there. You won’t read about them in the paper, and the media won’t talk about them. That’s why we need to. Share this with others and let them know that good kids abound. And please, share you own stories about all those teenagers out there who are really, really good kids.