Would You Miss Me?

Miss Shull. Would you miss me if I was not in your class? 

We’re swinging. Side by side in the back of the school yard.

It’s been weeks since I let them out here. Weeks of mud. Snow. Cold.

But it’s not quite so cold, the mud is tolerable, and in these after-lunch moments, we’re outside.

I’m watching the jungle gym. Eyes fixed on the ten pre-teens scrambling over the bars, across the bridge, down the slide.

They’re playing lava, and I’m watching, waiting for disagreements to arise.

I don’t hesitate to answer her, though.

Of course I would! I exclaim, my voice heavy with the absurdity of her question.

What would be different if I wasn’t here? She asks as our swings take turns advancing, retreating over the muddy mulch.

This, the child who cried this morning, hunched over a half-done math page.

Are you crying because you’re at the back table, or because you got in trouble? I had asked, leaning low across her work, speaking in quiet tones under the low rumble of a classroom on a Monday morning.

She shook her head then, tears falling afresh.

It’s rare, in that third floor room, for tears to appear.

Are you crying about your math? I used the pencil I’d taken from her hand to tap the page in front of her.

Tears.

Now, we’re side by side on the swings, and upstairs, the math’s complete, but no one really cares.

Instead, I tell her all the reasons I thank the Lord for her presence in that class. She knows many of them, has heard me pray them over her many mornings since September.

She’s quiet barely a moment when I finish speaking. She’s rarely, so rarely quiet.

You’re like the best teacher ever, she says as her feet kick into the air in front of her.

I laugh, looking over to where she’s holding the chains of her swing, eyes flicking to my face for just a moment.

You just have so much joy. Like, it’s crazy. All the time you do. 

I shake my head, grinning. Thank you, I laugh. That’s the Lord. 

And we swing again. Tandem movements, peaceful silence.

And it was not until just now, these quiet evening moments when I mentally prepare myself for another day on my toes, another day on the front lines of education, that I realize what she was saying, really.

She’s saying that it’s worth it.

Worth it when I raise my voice for what seems like the majority of the day.

Worth it when the student arguments are endless, and the parent emails even longer.

Worth it when the stress nauseates me, and another day seems like a lifetime.

Worth it because she can see, and she knows, and somehow- miraculously, wonderfully, somehow- she can see God right through me.

And for that, I could do this 100 years over.

~Natalia

The Valentine’s Gig

The bar is half full when we arrive; pushing through the door, trading the Chicago streets and swirling snow for the pounding swing of live jazz music. We move slowly, almost aimlessly, towards the cluster of small round tables just beyond the band. There’s a pause as we glance at one another, eyes vaguely questioning, before sitting down.

We’re barely seated when the band takes a break. They’re an hour on, thirty minutes off, and here in this thirty minutes, we’re greeting old friends, shaking hands all around, grinning nice to meet yous to acquaintances just made.

There’s a door in the wall behind us; the kind of half-door they have in church nurseries, with a menu fastened to the top half. We stand in the gap, scanning menu items, pondering between catfish, perch, wings, nuggets. The pizza puff, we’re told, is amazing, and I order one, standing there in that half-open door.

The food comes with three minutes left in the band’s break. Paper baskets of fries, fish, chicken, with little containers of homemade barbecue sauce, fill the tiny table in front of us. I’m hungry, and curious, and the pizza puff burns my tongue; the price of not waiting for the rest of the table to be served. The drummer, the bass player- the reasons we’re here, really- rush a bite or two before returning to their instruments, their own pizza puffs emitting steam from where they’ve been bitten.

The band’s leader, a man named Greg, grabs the microphone. We sit at our table, munch our fries, while Greg’s easy manner as an entertainer fills the darkened bar. He introduces the band again; the same titles, intonations we heard 30 minutes prior. He invites a guest musician- a bright-eyed woman holding a flute- to join the group on the stand, and stand catches my ear, because it’s not a stage, but the wooden floor, the border lines of black amp cords delineate the stand as their own place- the place where music is born.

The bar fills slowly, almost imperceptibly, as the next set unfolds. The opening ceremony for the All Star game plays soundlessly on the two TVs over the bar itself, and a small ring of men has formed there. Their eyes flick to the screens occasionally, but it’s their conversations that grip them; swapping words, nods, stories, over the drinks they grasp in crossed arms.

There are two couples at the bar, their backs to one another. One woman, the outline of her black sweater almost fading into the dark behind her, gazes calmly around her, her eyes most often falling on the screen beyond her man’s head. He faces her, his hands resting on her lap, and she holds them, gentle fingers curled into his. I can’t hear their voices over the roll of the band, but I watch her look at him, listen to him, nod, speak.

Behind her, another man sits at the bar with his love. Unlike the other’s crew cut, this man has long hair twisted into locs and pulled back, away from his face. His shirt is bright red, like the woman’s beside him, and holes that have the distressed look of intentionality fill both their jeans. They must speak, I know, but I don’t catch the movement of their mouths, or the flick of recognition in their eyes. Instead, this couple moves. Seated atop her bar stool, the woman swings her shoulders to the beat of the jazz, her movements sultry, loose. He moves, too, his hands swaying, beating the air in front of him with the same easy drive.

Beyond both couples, the bar has filled as night falls with the snow outside. Men drinking beer, watching the game above. Couples out for Valentine’s Day, leaning into one another over drinks, across the tiny clothed tables. Women in red, hair neatly coiffed, out with friends, sisters, aunts. The light is dim, yet not threateningly dark, and the music rises, consumes, but never overwhelms.

Later, I step into the bathroom only to be accosted by the shouts of an angry woman. She’s in the far stall, screaming into a phone at a man I can only assume to be her boyfriend.

Later still, the band stand empties and I stomp snow off my boots outside, haphazardly brushing snow off the drummer’s car while he loads a waist-high stack of equipment into the trunk.

Not much later, he pulls the car onto the snowy street, leaving the bar- with its dancing, laughing, shouting, listening, arguing, loving people- far behind.

~Natalia

 

One Minute

Pajamas on.
Hair flying.

Coat flapping, unzipped.

Boots pounding, echoing down the deserted street.

Footprints disappearing in the falling snow.

Wallet forgotten, find it back in the car.

Less than a minute, from front door and back again.

Sixty seconds of time suspended.

Floating, flying, through the crisp chill.

Snowy night, dark street.

Completely alone.

For one still, heart-racing minute.

~Natalia

Such a Grace

Four weeks between coming here is a long time, much longer than I’d like.

But it’s a long time living, too, and when I sat down here on the kitchen stool, opened to this familiar online glow, I wasn’t quite sure what to tell you.

The 34 days of 2016 have brought with them 34 and more surprises, questions, lessons, and doubts, and I’ve been sinking deeper into the unpredictable, yet unquestionable certainty of His grace with every passing day.

The days feel like seconds, or decades, and Friday afternoon often finds me stumbling zombie-like through the twilight hours, until a second wind hits, or bedtime rolls around.

Two weeks ago, falling fast from the emotional and mental rollercoaster of another day at work, another day caring for, educating, challenging and being challenged by my little loves, I pulled stacks of papers to be graded from my desk, sliding them into my bookbag.

The top page slipped off the pile, falling in the casual, wafting way a single sheet of paper does. I bent to pick it up, and the name in the top corner caught my eye.

Bee. 

No, I’ve no students named Bee. But one of my girls, whose needs, discipline, and very heart I have agonized and prayed over- I call her Bee.

I’ve no idea why, but it’s been months now. That’s just what I call her.

We’ve struggled, her and I. A child, growing slowly, almost imperceptibly and yet undeniably into a young woman, with all the ups and down, insecurities and thrills that adolescence provides.

Weeks ago, I sat across from her in the chapel, the rolling noise of dismissal rising all around us, and looked her in the eye.

You’re valuable. 

You’re important. 

You’re loved.

You don’t need to change so that people like you. 

How you were made was on purpose- and it’s wonderful. 

She sat, stoic, listening to me. I smiled, blinking the shine of tears from my own eyes, and patted her arm before I stepped away.

Slowly, the truth settled into her heart- and just as much into my own- and a peace grew in the classroom, at least between her and I.

But I didn’t know, I wasn’t sure, until I saw that paper, there on the floor.

I stood there in the glow of the Christmas lights, hot tears in my eyes.

She knew.  Through the battles and the consequences, the stony face and the pep talks, she knew I loved her.

And maybe, just maybe, she liked me, too.

My job, this year, is my joy, my heartache, my battlefield and my harvest. The days are long, and yet a blink of an eye, and the weeks are barely a breath. But a moment like this- a nickname on a paper, a wordless, unintentional encouragement, is a kiss of grace, a downpour of grace, as I step forward, plod forward, run forward, into the days the Lord has before me.

I don’t know where I’ll be next year, don’t know the hearts God will place in my care then, but right now, I know exactly who He’s given me, and even that responsibility is such a grace.

Such a great grace.

~Natalia