On Saturday night I spoke at Washington Christian Academy’s Annual Banquet. It was a huge honor and thrill, and today I’m sharing what I wrote on the blog. What I wrote is long, but if you’ve been following along in this space for awhile, you know it takes me a country minute to say what I need to say.
Have a donut and enjoy a little story.
I’d like to tell you a bunch of stories tonight because it’s what I do. My hope is you’ll find a bit of yourself in them, as I have found a part of myself in Washington Christian Academy’s story.
Ten years ago, I moved to DC with my husband Jesse after he’d accepted a job at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose building sits on the East-West Highway with a sculpture of Noah’s hand out front.
For a few weeks, I unpacked boxes, found places for their contents, then, as a reward, I’d hop on the Red Line and explore DuPont Circle, Adams Morgan, or make my way to my favorite place, Georgetown. This routine kept me content for a few weeks, but after awhile, I got restless. Our first apartment on Connecticut Avenue was, after all, only about 600 square feet. There are only so many places one can put a couch. It was time for me to find something to do with my days, and as much as I would’ve like to have made the argument that one can be “called” to shop the storefronts along M and Wisconsin, I didn’t think I’d convince Jesse that this was the best use of my time.
I’d been a teacher before we moved. I worked at Covenant Christian School in Mishawaka, Indiana, a one-hallway school where I taught a 5/6th grade class. I’d been a 7th grade Reading Teacher at Goshen Middle School, a public school where once a week for an hour before they saw them, teachers prayed for their students – petitioning God to give them what they needed: breakfast, sleep the night before, safety, peace.
I loved being a teacher: I loved talking to students about books, loved watching them hold a pen and drag or push it across the page, their faces close to the paper so they could catch every bit of the story they were trying to write.
But once we moved to DC, I thought maybe it was time for something different. Maybe I’d write. Maybe I’d become a mother. Maybe I’d work at Paper Source on M Street and take my breaks walking along the Potomac River.
I suppose I could’ve pursued all those things back then, but it was in the DC CRC on a sweltering August morning that I’d heard about Washington Christian Academy. I read in the bulletin that the school was looking for teachers.
Nah, not teaching, I thought as the pastor, Norm Steen gave his sermon. I don’t remember what part of scripture he was preaching on, but he told a story about a time he was on a plane headed to California when it hit turbulence. The woman next to him was extremely concerned and preparing for the worst when Pastor Steen said, “Listen. I believe in God and I understand he has a plan for me, and He has one for you, too. And I’m pretty sure this is not it.” He was referring to the plane’s potential crashing.
He laughed, as did the congregation and this was the first time I’d looked at this idea of God having plans for me with excitement and humor paired with comfort and reassurance. I’ve read Jeremiah 29:11 in high school for confidence: God knows if I’ll be the Captain of the Drill Team, if that boy will ask me to PROM, if my parents will let me and not my brother have the car on Saturday night. God knows what college I’ll get into. I had the verse taped to my desk underneath my loft on 2nd Noordewier at Calvin and I read it as a meditation or mantra rather, words to say repeatedly in the hopes I’d begin to believe I was where I was supposed to be. Being at Calvin was my first foray into Christian education unless you count Vacation Bible School, and it turns out that developing a Christian perspective with which to see the world is overwhelming, terrifying work. But sitting in the DC CRC was the first time I identified that wondering what I would do with my one wild and precious life is turbulent but also exhilarating.
A few days later, I was sitting outside of Jesse’s building waiting for him. I was leaning against the sculpture of Noah’s hand when I began to study the bird – another sculpture – in flight. I was startled when I noticed that the bird is flying away from Noah. This is not the dove who returns with an olive branch. This could be one of the ravens – the earlier explorers – that came back with nothing.
“Seems like it’s bad for business to have the bird flying away from Noah’s hand,” I said to Jesse as he came out of work.
“What?” he said.
“That bird,” I said, jabbing my thumb in Noah’s direction. “It’s forever searching. Don’t you think you guys – a group of PhDs who know just about everything there is to know about water – would want that sculpture so that it’s the dove coming back with the olive branch?”
“We don’t know,” Jesse said. “We’re taking what we do know and testing the water.”
So a change in barometric pressure, a shift in wind, a quake on the ocean floor, and the story changes.
That evening, Jesse and I ate dinner at Cactus Cantina. We sat outside and I could see the National Cathedral peeking out over the trees along Wisconsin. We munched on chips and salsa and sipped margaritas and I thought about what Jesse said about testing water. Sometimes, he and his co-workers are the dove pointing to safety and land and resolution. Sometimes, they are the ravens; lost and uncertain and probably afraid. But always, they are working for the Hand that’s just released them.
“I think I’m going to apply for that teaching position at Washington Christian Academy,” I told him that night. “I’ll give teaching another try.”
“Teaching sounds good,” he said.
And teaching did sound good. Truth be told, I was lonely, homesick for Chicago and I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but South Bend, Indiana, too. I was overwhelmed at the thought of what I would do and where I would fit in DC. Teaching was a nice pair of jeans – the kind that you’re equally comfortable and bold in. Teaching was a familiar story, and I needed something familiar.
But this is not to say the story I was stepping into would be easy. It was August, days, in fact, before the school year began. Normally, I prepared for classes and set up my classroom all summer long. This year, I would have to do that in a few days. I taught in three classrooms, all of them portables, all of them shared with other teachers. My desk was on the other side of the school in another portable. It’s not that these were awful conditions, but this setting added to my homesickness: I was far away from what I knew – my friends, my mom and dad, my brother. Jesse was no longer a student and was now beginning his career, and I wasn’t sure what that meant for me and for our marriage.
I remember standing at the copy machine scratching my head over how to use it and wondering what I’d gotten myself into when Jeannine Shannon walked into the workroom.
“You’re Callie?” she asked with a smile.
“I’m Jeannine. I’m new, too. Let me show you how to work this thing.” And with the expertise of a heart surgeon, taught me how to make back-to-back copies, three hole punch and staple them, plus pour myself a cup of coffee all with the push of a couple of buttons. (I’m just joking about the coffee part, though she did tell me where the nearest Starbucks was.)
I decided I’d like Jeannine for a friend. Not just for her gracious help, but for the smile she wears that looks as though she’s in on some great joke.
Back in the 6th grade classroom, I met Diane Bratt and somehow (I think it was by the grace of God), we started discussing Harry Potter. This led to an invitation from Diane to attend a talk given by Azar Nafisi about her book, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Nafisi was speaking at the Folger Theater, and I sheepishly told Diane I only knew how to take the Red Line and had no clue how to make a transfer on the Metro.
With a friendly flick of her hand and a “pshaw,” Diane said, “It’s easy. I’ll show you.” And so it was that I hoped I’d made another friend – one who wasn’t afraid to read and talk about the difficult stories – one who searched the difficult stories out.
I met Rachel Steen, the Kindergarten teacher who introduced me to the free daily concerts at the Kennedy Center, and Brenda Ritsema, who told me about the $6 pizzas and Old Bay Seasoning on French fries at the Stain Glass Pub. Little by little these women helped me get acquainted with the surroundings of my new setting.
That year I lucked out and was blessed with the four best classes at Washington Christian Academy. These kids were bright and curious and so, so funny. So I threw everything I had at them: Katherine Paterson, Sharon Creech, Gary Schmidt, Elizabeth George Speare, and of course, Harper Lee.
I remember once, around Martin Luther King Day, I decided to have my students take turns reading his “I Have A Dream” speech in a round robin; each student takes a few lines. One student, a gal who was so shy the only time I heard her voice was through her writing, wouldn’t read when it was her turn. I worried this might happen, and while I didn’t want to push her, I wanted so badly for her to hear herself read, “I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of trials and tribulations.” Or, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be more plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” If she heard herself read, I thought, or rather hoped, maybe she’d find herself in the story.
The room was thick with silence, and I didn’t know how long I should wait. If any of you have sat in a room with silent thirteen and fourteen year olds, you know it’s about as comfortable as having a root canal. I was just about to say, “It’s OK,” and have someone else read when one of my more boisterous students leaned over and gave her a friendly nudge. “You got this,” she said and nodded at her.
It’s all she was waiting for. My shy, sweet student looked back at her bold friend, nodded, then bowed her head and read Martin Luther King’s words about having a dream.
It was painful and joyful and all of us followed along.
I thought of communion Sundays when I’m supposed to walk up to the front of church and take the bread but I’m afraid and ashamed for all that I did and didn’t do – all that I will and won’t do and the Pastor offers me the bread, and looks me in the eye and says, “Jesus was broken for you, Callie.”
You got this. You’re part of the story.
Ten years later, I sat in my car in the WCA parking lot on Batchellor’s Forest on a rainy spring day, a few minutes before I was to interview for a teaching position. I was on the phone with Jesse telling him I didn’t think I could do it. That is, I didn’t think I could go through with the interview and teach. I was overwhelmed, nervous I no longer had what it takes to be a teacher, afraid I’d been away too long, thinking this was no longer a place I fit in.
Looking at the building that seemed to me like Hogwarts, I told Jesse, “I think I’d need to know too much to teach here. I have to be sure of something,” I told him, “and I’m not sure of a lot.”
Since I’m telling the truth tonight, I’ll tell you I didn’t think I’d ever go back to teaching. Once we had kids I thought I’d be at home. I imagined myself as the room-mom, the gal who made the party favors and snacks and had kids running all over her home all the time. Once I had kids I wasn’t expecting teaching to pull at my heart, and when it did, I felt awfully guilty. Sitting in the parking lot, I wasn’t sure how I’d be a mother and be a teacher. Mothering, teaching, writing, they all take everything I have and I’m usually pretty winded after spending time in these roles. Would one of them suffer? Was too much at stake?
I think now about those ravens Noah released into the world. I suppose he wasn’t terribly attached to them. After all, two (and now, probably more) of every single animal was on that boat. Perhaps he was happy to have a chance to do a bit of spring cleaning as he flung them outside.
But I wonder if he felt a bit of trepidation releasing those birds and watching them spread their wings and fly. Certainly there had to be a bit of separation anxiety. After all, he kept them safe. They kept each other company as the world drowned. I wonder if he worried that they would come back empty beaked, or whether they would come back at all.
But what else could he do? The birds had what it took to get the job done. It’s what they were created for. Noah had to release them into the unknown, that’s the only way he could learn something.
So it would be that I would swoop into teaching excited and uncertain.
One afternoon, a few days before the school year started, I was sitting in that great little café area on the third floor, my lunch and To Kill a Mockingbird spread out on the table, when Karen Lees came in to use the microwave.
“You won’t be able to sit here when the kids come back,” she told me.
“I know,” I said. “I couldn’t resist sitting next to this view.” I nodded my head towards the wall of windows whose view boasts the soccer field and a fence of trees beyond that.
“It’s great, isn’t it?” she asked as she pulled her lunch out of the microwave. It was hot so she put it on the counter and pivoted towards me to talk more while her dish cooled. Karen’s son Todd was a student of mine, an 8th grader ten years ago. I remembered, as we talked, that he wrote about whittling wood into shapes and figures. He’d written that he was never quite sure what they’d end up as, and the uncertainty caused him a bit of anxiety, but he enjoyed the whittling; so he was content to work and wait and watch.
Karen asked me about my girls, then. “They’re good,” I told her and looked down at the table where To Kill a Mockingbird was open. I was reading about Maycomb and thinking about what I would do to help the students understand Scout, Jem, and Atticus’ surroundings. “It feels weird to be away from them,” I added. “I wonder what they’re doing.” I shifted slightly and the chair made a squawk. I looked out the window at the trees.
Karen’s dish was cool enough to handle so she picked it up, but instead of turning towards her office, she walked to me. “You’ll still learn about your girls,” she told me, then nudged me in the side and smiled, and I thought of the boisterous student encouraging the shy one ten years ago: You got this.
“You’ll be surprised what you’ll learn now,” Karen added.
Months later, after we’d finished To Kill a Mockingbird, I walked into school with bags of play-doh for each of my students. We were beginning to study and write Creative Nonfiction, and I brought it in as sort of a response to, “I can’t write anything because nothing in my life is worth writing about.” The play-doh would serve as a metaphor: How can you shape something that seems shapeless? How can you use what you’ve been given to create a story?
But first they needed to play. I told them they had to make ten things, and they dove in. At first they chattered and laughed as they messed around with the play-doh. Early on, they tried to make ten things as fast as they could: a snake, the letter I, the number 1, a stick. But the longer they worked, the quieter the conversation got and the bigger risks they began to take. One made a tsunami. Seeing his classmate’s creation, the student next to him attempted a fishing pole going into the open mouth of a fish. One made a bowling ball, pins, and an alley. Another made a bird’s nest with baby birds; their mouths open waiting for their mother. All this from about two tablespoons of playdoh.
In a journal entry, they were to respond to two questions:
1. How is working with a lump of playdoh like writing Creative Nonfiction? And 2. If you are made in the image of God, and God is a creator, then you are a creator, too. How can you apply this to your writing?
A few answers:
You can turn what you thought was a mess into something amazing.
We get to mold things that are rather plain and grim into something beautiful.
We have to be confident and take risks just like God does with us.
We are called to create, so we can write about the great life God has given us. We can share our thankfulness (our finished stories) with others, too. It would be a shame to keep it all to ourselves.
At the church I attend, the pastor calls all the kids to the front when a baby gets baptized. They gather around the water while he helps them remember what this business of God loving them immeasurably and completely is all about: “I say this every time because it doesn’t change,” he tells them.
Most of the children standing there had been baptized in this church. They came to the water differently: some were quiet, some squirmed, some cried. But they each received the water, and the promise that this is a place where people will help them grow, where they will be nourished, where they can be confused and scared and not always understand the story they are living, but that they are in a place where they can live it and those around them will do our best to help them see God.
I wonder about staying in a story and looking around even when it might not be the story we thought we’d live. Certainly, there have been a lot of changes at Washington Christian Academy, and I’m sure there are more to come. But I think that what WCA has always provided and will probably always continue to provide is the idea that God calls us to study a story that is equally joyful and painful. The work we do to stay with that story will be both turbulent and exhilarating. But most of all, WCA is the ark we stand on as we take our first steps into the world; knowing we’ve been wonderfully and fearfully made by the Hand who releases us to fling what we have into the world, forever searching, forever testing the waters.