The Heart of the City

We’re driving on the freeway, the thick line of skyscrapers, pierced by the stretching Hancock and Sears Towers, ahead of us. We’ve been in the city, within the dotted map boundaries of Chicago, all day, but as traffic rolls forward, cars of all sizes advancing, falling back again, I can’t quite escape the feeling of crossing from one place into another, different place.

As a sea of red lights flash momentarily before me, and the roll and glide of forward motion slow around me, I turn to Karas, where she sits in the passenger seat. In two days, we graduate from college. Tomorrow, we’ll celebrate our undergraduate accomplishments with the 20 other future teachers who learned and lived with us over the past four years. But today- on this Thursday in the middle of May, she’s offered to spend the afternoon with my sweet, chaotic kindergarten loves. She arrived at lunch, news of her arrival rippling through the eager little ones. I close my eyes now and still see how they perch on their knees on the long cafeteria benches, how they sway, unbalanced, over their un-touched trays as she arrives in that basement lunch room, greets each little child. Her presence, her humor, her genuine interest in the children whose hearts and lives I carried for those weeks, buoyed me up for far longer than her visit lasted.

But now we’re in the car, driving back to Moody, leaving four little ones in aftercare and piles of papers- mostly graded- on my desk. We’re quiet. Minds the odd mix of exhilaration, exhaustion, nostalgia and sadness brought about by the end of a school year; the end of an era. The radio plays- always, always plays- and I don’t bother to lower it when I speak.

I used to think that was Chicago. I say, motioning towards the lakefront skyline that slowly grows before us. But really, that’s Chicago. I motion behind me, vaguely indicating the school, the people, the houses bursting with life and movement that we’ve just barely left behind.

It’s those children who form the backbone of this city, I tell her, and she nods in agreement; she knows. Those little lives, whose stories are inextricably woven with the strands of Chicago, are the foundation of this city. They are not the businessmen commuting to their sky-high offices in the loop. They are not the workers, the staff and employees, who fill the downtown shops, restaurants, stores.

These children play baseball in the muddy ball diamonds of Chicago’s parks. They walk the busy streets- not among the towering buildings, but among the stores, the food carts rolling up and down, occupying valuable sidewalk space without anyone complaining. They slip into the little corner stores with their cousins on the weekends, the beg their parents to take them to the theater down the street, they ride their bikes around the blocks, snaking between short houses packed too close together.

They are the heart of the city.

More than the glitz of the Magnificent Mile, with its eccentric mix of classes. More than the tourists flowing along the beachfront. More even than the men and women who populate all those sky-scraping office buildings.

I love Chicago. I always have, and I imagine I always will. And with every passing year I spend more deeply entrenched in the lives of its people, the more I am convinced that they are the heart of this glorious, broken, beautiful city.



Modeling, They Say

Modeling, they tell you, is absolutely vital to effective education.

You must model for your students. Model just about everything.

Are you teaching them how to do long division? Do it on the board first; model for them.

Are you teaching them how to use a thesaurus? First, you find a synonym. Model for them.

Are you teaching how to sit on the carpet? How to keep one’s hands to oneself?

How to read the Bible? How to organize a binder? How to love reading?

Do it. Show them. Let them see you.

Model for them. 

They say, all the experts, all the veterans, all the people leading the field, that modeling is what good teachers do.

And I believe that, wholeheartedly.

But what they don’t tell you, what doesn’t come up in the methodology books

and practicum discussions,

is that modeling doesn’t begin when you step to the board, and it doesn’t end when you put the pen down;

modeling never stops.

Every single thing you do in that classroom- every way you speak, every facial expression, every weird little quirk you’re unconscious of- they’re soaking it up.

I know because I read them a book, that jumble of chaotic little wonders.

I read it once, twice.

I read with inflection, with voices, and then that book went back on the shelf.

But days, weeks, even past a month later, I heard those little voices reading that book,

to themselves, to one another,

and with each page, with each exclamation, their inflection mirrored mine,

their tone matched mine.

They heard me, all those long weeks before, and they listened,

and they replicated.

They followed my model.

The way I clap my hands twice when I lean over, ask someone to bring me their untied shoe.

The face I make when I make a mistake and they catch it.

The way I sit. The way I pray, even.

They’re doing- all day long, all year long- what is so very important, so very vital, for learning.

They are following the model, the example, that’s been laid before them.

And today, as I sat in the front-row swivel chair of an education conference,

and I heard modeling, of course, and in that moment,

I heard once more the sound of little voices imitating my own,

reading that silly picture book, over and again,

and I felt again every conviction that I’d ever held

about protecting their hearts

and showing them the best way

and following Christ as far as I might,

just so that they might see,

they might grow,

they might go yet further

than I ever will.


This is Summer: Season Four {#3}

“A dangerous lake,” 

But yet, here we are again;

Living on the edge. 


This is Summer: Season Four {#2}

This sweet Jenny girl 

And her family so kind; 

So worth the road trip. 


The Jen, Again

Some of you know the story. The tale of a sweet friend, new student at Moody for mere months, and adventures had even as we both sunk deeper into the realization that it would be a long, long time until we lived remotely close to each other again. 

Jenny moved back to Texas two years ago, after a year at Moody, and time together over the past 24 months has been sparse, carefully planned, and savored. 

But a wonderful thing about the Jen is that she’s one of many- surrounded by siblings, family as kind, encouraging, inclusive as she herself is.

Two years ago, I rode a megabus with Jen and an older sister, spent a weekend at another sister’s graduation from New Tribes. I loved it. I still talk to that sister. 

And now, on Friday, another sister is getting married, and tomorrow morning, I’m driving to Ohio for the wedding. 

For a wedding, yes, but what I’m looking forward to, counting down to, is the time with the Jen, with her siblings, with these people who are welcoming, entertaining, and kind enough to tolerate my repeated crashing of their events. 

And let me just say: I’m so excited to see the Jen again. 

~ Natalia 

{Photo taken at the Maggie Daley Ribbon in February, 2015}

This is Summer: Season Four {#1}

“You guys grew up here,”

The father nods at the lake.

I know, I tell him.


A Wordless Thank You

The graduation’s over- at least the programmed part. The twelve tiny graduates have already walked down the aisle, to the soundtrack of a Youtubed Pomp and Circumstance, and the click and flash of tens of cameras. The awards have been given; songs sung; verse recited, accompanied with swooping hand motions and exaggerated expressions that I know mimic my own.

Group pictures have been taken, organizing twelve gowned and capped little ones into neat rows, indicating over and again how the back row must look between their front row peers; where the “windows” are. The meal has already been served, too; plates of mostly-eaten sandwiches, sticky cups stained fruit-punch red litter the tables set up across the chapel.

There are two small tables set at the front of the room. Miniature rectangles, barely past my knee, decorated with graduation-themed table cloths, special made centerpieces. Their little blue chairs- the ones the boys in aftercare carried downstairs, under my supervision, the day before- sit around each table. During the ceremony, when the chairs stood so neatly in a staggered line on the stage, each seat was occupied. Each student had a seat, and there they sat while their principal, their teacher, spoke. A kindergarten line of miniature royalty.

Now, though, half of the chairs are empty. Their previous occupants roam the room, greeting visiting relatives, accepting congratulatory hugs and kisses with dimpled smiles, not even attempting to hide their joy, their excitement. At tables- the taller, regular tables- all around the room, food is eaten, pictures are taken, children are celebrated.

I move around the room, sticky with the sweat of directing my sweet graduates and the press of so many bodies in such a stifling hot room. I meet families, answer every child who requests a picture with a resounding yes, and nibble on a sandwich, down a cup of luke-warm punch in seconds. Between strong parent handshakes and child-given hugs around the waist, I sink into an unoccupied seat at one of the small, student tables.

There are two students- they’re really first graders now- sitting at the table, and after two months of sitting at the same miniature tables, in the same little blue chairs, with them while they learned, I slip into an empty seat next to them without a second thought. I love being in those chairs, being at their eye level; beside them, with them, as opposed to over them, leaning down to meet their upturned faces. No, sitting on those little chairs, my legs stretched under the table, I can easily glimpse their faces, read their expressions, talk with them.

So we sit, there at the little table, a boy on each side of me, and we talk about summer plans and how proud I am of them, and when one proffers his half-eaten bag of cheesy chips, I reach in and take one without hesitation; it’s been a long time since I worried about germs with these loves, and that kind of generosity is not easily turned down.

And then, as I wipe the gooey orange powder from my finger tips, the movement of another small graduate catches my eye. His parents standing, poised to leave, watch him from beyond the nearest tall table. The boy, whose dark eyes and dimples followed me, helped me, brought me so much joy while I taught, steps closer to me, quickly closing the span between us.

And then, almost before I realize he’s there, the child has appeared at my side, laid a faint kiss on my cheek, and rushed off once more to his parents, to his sister, to his summer. And I have a second to acknowledge him, to say goodbye, congratulations, you did great, before he’s gone, but the sweet gentleness, the child kindness of his little kiss, his wordless thank you, remains with me for far longer.


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