Sit Right Here

Love and belonging are irreducible needs of all men, women, and children. We’re hard-wired for connection – it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The absence of love, belonging, and connection always leads to suffering.  

Brene Brown, Daring Greatly 

Amongst the pages of Daring Greatly (subtitled How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead), Brene Brown expounds upon the concept of shame; outlining both the power of shame, as well as how vulnerability and other forms of “shame resilience” work to combat shame.

My copy of the book is laced with blue ink; ballpoint parentheses and brackets around significant lines, such as the one above. Underlines tracing short phrases; curling, half-way-legible notes tucked in the space between text and binding. I read the book last spring, some six months ago, but lessons I learned, notes I wrote, ways to apply the text still come to mind; nuggets of truth rising to the surface whenever applicable.

I’m more mindful now of the language I use when correcting my students. Shame thrives when labels are placed on individuals, rather than behaviors. Is my child rude, or did he say something rude? Is she a disruption, or is she acting in a disruptive way just now? Seven hours a day, five days a week, I hold the souls of children in my hand; I dare not shame them into submission, even less into conformity to whatever my preferences happen to be.

Yet there is another kind of shame; a more furtive, perhaps self-serving variety that can wend its way into the classroom unannounced, unnoticed. It’s the shame of isolation. The shame of your mistake has made you unworthy of interaction just at this moment. 

It’s easier, of course, to send the loudest child across the room. To tuck him in a corner, or to correct him from afar. It’s easy to snap when I’m just tossing words into the air anyway.

Hush. Stop talking. Sit still. Move away from them. 

But I can feel the shame trickling in, collecting in small pools around me feet- and his- even as I scold and order, pushing him further away in my annoyance, or my eagerness to no longer be inconvenienced.

Its ineffective, too. Distance from authority, from positive peer interactions, from reconciliation, can do very little to reinstate the small noisemaker, the over-energetic learner. How can she do better when she has no more chances to even try? How can I guide her when she’s so far away that my voice must be raised just to speak to her across the crowd?

No, I’ll not send them away anymore; to the far table, to their own corner, to the back door. Instead, each correction comes with a beckon, drawing him in, motioning her closer. Come here. Come talk to me. Come sit by me. Come towards me, just as I reach out to you. I don’t give up on you, I don’t push you away. 

You’re worthy, you’re important, and just now, you’re sitting right beside me.

~Natalia

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Upon Turning 24

If it was possible to postpone a birthday, I would have put off turning 23. I dreaded December 24, 2014 with the same defeated heaviness that I felt as I anticipated turning 18 several years before.

The months leading up to 23 seemed nearly indecipherable from those preceding 20, 21, or 22. I was still a student. Still structuring my days around the same things that had owned me for so long; classes, homework, commuting to work, working. I felt almost ashamed to be turning 23 and still tottering on the edge of adulthood, not yet having scrambled up the craggy summit of a job, an apartment, or bills.

But days turn to weeks and  birthdays don’t wait, and I turned 23.

Three weeks after my birthday, I drove in the evening darkness to McHenry, IL, the back of my car stuffed with stacks of clothes I’d pulled right out of my closet, a bag of bedding buckled into the  passenger seat next to a bin of books.

Tiny snowflakes twirled lazily in the moonlit air as I crunched through the snow to the door of the beautiful house on the corner. The family of the house, both Moody professors whose counsel and kindness had sustained me through many a long semester, made me a member of the family, and my four months living with them, while I student taught 4th grade at a nearby christian school, were a dream.

When April came, December seemed both a blink and a millennium behind me. My time as a student teacher had ended, it was time to move on.

Driving the back roads of rural Illinois to and from school, dinner with friends, or errands, I rolled the windows down in the warming spring air and cried.

A semester of tears, I called it, later. Tears of exhaustion, as I adjusted to the relentless schedule of a teacher. Tears of frustration, of anger, of uncertainty as a six-month relationship ended. And deep, deep tears of loss as I mourned leaving the safe haven of living with mentors who had become family, of the training nature of student teaching, and ultimately, the safety of college itself.

Having left student teaching, real life began very, very quickly.

I moved out of the McHenry house on a Saturday evening, late in April. Two days later, I walked into the basement gym of a little christian school deep in the heart of Chicago, and lead 13 kindergarteners up the stairs behind me.

I spent two months teaching kindergarten, while the woman whose students I inherited gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. I held on, during those long days and incredibly short weeks, to the words a professor had spoken months before, during my last week of classes at Moody.

What you have to give, she said, is enough.

When diffusing one tantrum a day was a good record, I held onto that. When emails about retaining students in kindergarten began to fly, when I wondered what measurable gains we had made in learning, when teaching became parenting and my training felt barely sufficient, I heard her words once more in my head. And somehow, we got through.

The closing weeks of kindergarten brought the A-Z Countdown to Summer, and also brought a new anxiety, as I waited to hear if I would be able to stay on in the fall. I had fallen head over heels for the school, the staff, the students, and I wanted nothing more than to stay right where I was.

The right door will open, I said then as I waited and worked, half-heartedly researching other jobs in the area. The door that I’m supposed to go through will open, when it’s supposed to open. And I’ll pursue that until it closes. 

And then, one June morning while my kids were in PE, their excited shrieks echoing through the concrete stairwell, the door opened, and I sat in the principal’s office while he extended an official job offer for the 2015-2016 school year.

To teach 5th grade.

And after a summer filled with reading, beach trips, and road-tripping to my beloved Michigan every chance I got, September 8th dawned bright and warm, and I once again stepped into that basement gym. Except this time, it was not chubby-faced five-year-olds following me up the stairs. It was 11 eager, incredibly unique 10-year-olds.

And so the school year began.

And every week of the past three months, I have stepped into our top-floor classroom, the lights still off, the heater not yet humming. And I sit at my desk, in the early morning minutes before my kids appear at the door, waiting for my morning hug, and I think about the words that I have for this season.

Several long weeks ago, I cut a greeting card to fit the case on my phone. Be who you needed then, I wrote on the card, in the looping writing that peppers much of my classroom.

It’s a reminder, texted to me months ago, that I never want to forget. Because when I was in 5th grade, well, I needed many things. But more than anything, I needed Christ.

And I still do, and so do my students.

My year as a 23-year-old ended with many of the things that I found so noticeably absent 12 months before. A job, an apartment, the life of an adult.

But the same need, for Christ and for grace, runs deeper still. And the same purpose, to know and worship God, remains supreme.

And even though I’ve very little understanding of what 24 will look like, what I’ll be writing about at this time next year, I know Christ will be the same and I hope so very much, that when 24 ends and 25 begins, I really will know Him more.

~Natalia

The First Day

I’m not teaching tomorrow. I’ve no students packing last-minute school supply purchases into new-smelling bookbags. There are no navy and khaki uniforms laid out for 7am dressing. No lunches packed, no pencils sharpened.

Not yet.

Here in the city, school starts after Labor Day, and tomorrow marks two weeks until that much-anticipated first day. For me, tomorrow is the first day of official teacher prep; two weeks of seminars, meetings, classroom and curriculum preparation.

For some though, tomorrow is the first day.

The first day of kindergarten, for the one who knocks on our first floor door daily, announcing herself through the dark paneled wood before we can even turn the knob. For her, it’ll be the first day of sitting on the rug, finding her spot, befriending twenty other 5-year-olds with the same gusto that she invests in her playing, her inviting, her living, here at home.

For the one who texted me earlier, the one who sat in the back of my suburban student teaching classroom, it will be the first day of 5th grade. I know the classroom where he’ll be, and so does he. He told me tonight, my  phone buzzing intermittently where it sat on my dresser, who moved to Wisconsin, who went to public school, who joined the class. He knows the teacher; a passionate, fiesty woman whose eyes filled with the tears of a love-worn mother when we talked about her sons, who also were in my class.

The one on the other end of the text conversation tells me he’s excited, he’s got new school shirts, he’s excited to see his friends again. In turn, I tell him he’ll look great, he’ll do great; he’ll work hard, he’ll be challenged, but really, he’s ready for this.

In the kitchen here, in this downtown garden apartment, she stands on the other side of the kitchen counter, blue eyes still crystal clear, un-creased by the lines of exhaustion and stress that threaten to settle as the semester stretches into winter. She starts grad school tomorrow; the first class of what will turn, over the years, into a degree in social work, which I have never doubted she will use to change the world. She’s planning on leaving early tomorrow, in case the classroom is hard to find, in case the train runs slow. She’s calm, collected, there in the dimly-lit kitchen, and I wonder as I listen to her how her passion, her loyalty, her determination might be used to change the world, to rebuild broken lives, someday soon.

There are others, I know. Moody students tucked into bed, ready to rise early for their first day of college, their first day as a senior, their first day as a graduate student.

They’ve an exciting day tomorrow.

And here in the quiet, with the ceiling vent blowing its deep, droning hum, it’s comforting, encouraging to think of all those lives, all those days, all the emotions and plans and people that surround me; all moving forward, all taking the next step. And with every transition, every change, every great leap to higher heights, there are challenges, there are heartbreaks and frustrations and terrors.

But with a breath, with a moment- or maybe a year- everything is okay.

And that is a very good thing.

~Natalia

This is Where I Want to Be

It’s been a rather quiet several months on here, at Leadmewhere.com. It’s not been an accident, really. And truly, there has been much to live. January, February, March brought student teaching in a 4th grade class in the north suburbs; 19 students, one beloved cooperating teacher, and long hours of planning, preparing, and reflecting.

As March faded into April, the pace of life become near-frantic and uncertainty, deadlines and decisions flew past, one after the other with barely a moment to rest. I agonized over writing cover letters for jobs that didn’t seem quite the right fit. I interviewed for a job that would only last two months. A relationship ended. I got the two-month job, becoming a full-time kindergarten teacher only three days after ending my student teaching. I moved out of the home of the pair of professors who taught and mentored me for years, and welcomed me with open arms into their home for the duration of my student teaching.

I remember what I wore on April 20th, my first day teaching kindergarten in the city, but many of the other details of that day- and the ones that followed- have slipped away, melting, blending together to form the eight weeks that I spent eating, sleeping, breathing- even dreaming- the care and education of 13 little children. Their struggles, voices, accomplishments, and futures consumed me, and I didn’t stop until June 10th, when those tiny people graduated from kindergarten.

I breathed, then, and even took a roadtrip to Ohio, in which I listened to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in the car, spent four days with the Jen and her sweet family, and attended a wedding to which I was not invited. Once back, I dived once more, for another year, into the planning, the preparation, the excitement of WOW Camp.

Family trips to Michigan are the order of the day in August, and it was 2am when Stevy and I finally rolled into the garage last night.

Now it’s the middle of August, and I’ve three weeks until school- and my career as a 5th grade teacher- officially begins, but I was at school today, and I know that there is work to be done, lessons to be planned, a room to be set up, even now.

There’s been so much, and there will always be so much, because this is life and it’s not meant to be spent simply willing the hours to pass. I’m doing and I’m going and I’m learning and I’m living, and really, it has been good.

But this page, the hundreds of posts I have written, are here because in the living, in the learning, I also want to remember. I see scenes that sear my heart with their beauty, and capture my imagination with what has happened, what might happen, and I want to remember that. I live moments, experiences, days, that overwhelm me with their significance, even in the mundane, and I want to capture that, record that, write that all down. And this, here, is where I do that. And I never want that to stop.

So yes, I know it’s been sparse. I know the words have been few here. But the moments have been so very many, and I treasure the opportunity to write, even though what I say is so small when compared to what I see, what I hear, what I live. And I know that it will not always happen, I will not always find the time. But when I can, when the lights dim and the hour is late and it’s quiet all around, this is the place I want to be. This writing, this remembering, this celebrating and savoring, is what I want to be doing.

~Natalia

All Four Seasons

I used to thank God for the changing seasons. Balanced on the stool with the sliding cushion in that second floor 4th grade class. I thanked Him when the lake across the street froze, white lines of frost sketching across the iced surface. I thanked Him when my commute to school was an hour longer than it should have been, and the snow and ice pelted my car, slowed traffic to a hesitant crawl. I thanked Him when the sun’s rays could not pierce the heavy cloud cover, when we stomped our feet and breathed painful, foggy breaths into our scarves.

Thank you for all four seasons. Thank you for this pinwheel of temperatures, storms, weather eternally spinning around us. 

I have a video, barely 10 seconds long. Larissa, still sporting her blue coat, the reflective strip around the collar dull in the bland winter light. She stands on the corner, between plaza and fountains, both of which lie empty in the cold. Do you remember, she exclaims into the camera as the wind plays faintly with the wispy hairs around her face, when it was so cold and Laura and me ran in the snow up there? Here she motions with a baggy coat sleeve towards the plaza behind us. The plaza where, weeks ago, the snow blew in icy gusts through the city, and the open expanse of the raised plaza became like a dance floor for the waves and swirls of frigid air and the ice pellets masquerading as snow. Yes, they ran in the snow. And minutes later, unwrapping scarves, hoods, shedding mittens, we also thawed our eyelashes, watching tiny crystals melt off of each other.

Thank you for all four seasons. Thank you for protecting us when the wind is its sharpest, the roads are their iciest, the cold is its most bitter. 

This afternoon, I’m the first one to arrive at the plaza, across from the fountains. There’s a planter, there on the corner, and I let my bookbag slide down my arm, land heavily on the neat white cement. My shoulders are damp with sweat where the thick fabric straps rested. The planter is home to several sprouting trees, and I pull my feet in, lean my entire body into the shade that they provide. The air itself is hot; the breeze is heated, blowing my skirt, my hair askew. In front of me, a group of 10 high schoolers troops down the orange brick sidewalk loudly, yet their noise disappears almost as fast as they do, almost as if the heat itself has swallowed, muted, their raucous voices.

Thank you for all four seasons. Thank you for the freedom we have to live, to explore, to go, during the warmer months of the year. 

We sit outside to eat. It’s too cold inside- the restaurant proprietors apparently having fallen under the false assumption that the intensity of the air conditioning inside must be proportional to the summer heat outside. But the sun, quickly reaching its zenith, is uncomfortably hot, at least for a meal. How can one eat, how can one sit and converse, when the sun is blank, burning, bristling on one’s head, back, shoulders, face. So we sit in the shade, on the edge of the plaza, and eat our lunch. The napkins blow, attempt escape, in the breeze. My hair flies, knots, my bangs sticking to my damp forehead. The drinks in our glasses, lacking ice, are room temperature in minutes. Standing, we’re sticky, sinking, and yet not buried, beneath the cloudless sky. Walking home, cold drinks clutched in sweaty palms drip condensation. Walkers pause to wipe brows, and then seem to shrug off the heat as they set off again. The sidewalk buzzes, and the beach, I imagine, is even busier.

Thank you for all four seasons. Thank you for this pinwheel of temperatures, storms, weather eternally spinning around us. 

~ Natalia

Grace for Today

Yea, you were so happy every day in 4th grade! He says, glancing over from the corner, the computer screen glowing white before him.

I smile, laughing a little.

But then I pause, my head against the wall behind my rolling chair, and the words settle into my heart, heavy.

I don’t compare- I really can’t compare- between 4th grade, my home for 14 weeks, and kindergarten, where I’ve been for less than two weeks.

But he’s right; it’s true. These past two weeks have been so much pouring out, so much planning and working and corralling.

I smile when I don’t feel like smiling and I speak gently when my patience is thin

and I look out every morning at thirteen sweet, tiny souls who I have the privilege of loving and teaching every day,

and it is hard work.

It’s only Wednesday but it’s also already Wednesday,

and I have work to do yet this evening,

and I’m drinking in praise music like life itself,

and I’ve so many other things on my mind, my heart,

but tomorrow I get up (6:10- a sleep in day!) and I want to be ready,

I want to be full,

I want to be able to give,

because these weeks- oh they have taken out of me.

And I don’t know what tomorrow will be,

I don’t know what crises will occur,

what joys there might be,

but tomorrow has enough worry of its own,

and today has grace enough.

So I hold onto that,

take a breath,

and take another step.

~Natalia

I Might Miss Something

In the late evening hours, when the second floor has fallen silent, and my basement home seems to shift with the creaking of the old McHenry house, and the bubbling and thumping of the water in the pumps punctuates the night quiet, I sit on my bed, pillows piled high behind me, and open my little yellow notebook.

I write in spurts; three days in a row, then the notebook rides, untouched, in my backpack for three weeks. Sermon notes on an occasional Sunday, and then back to the backpack, to the purse, to the table beside my bed. But I always have it nearby, always available, and tonight, I’m going to write once more.

But before I do, I let the book fall open in my hands, begin to read where my eyes land. I read thoughts, prayers, from January. Read how I began to settle into life in McHenry, getting to know my 4th grade loves, haphazardly navigating weekends home, lesson planning, and letting go of my life at Moody. It’s an odd, near out-of-body experience to read emotions, prayers, conversations with God from months prior, and I sink deeper into the pillows as I flip further back, moving backwards past Christmas Break, until I open a page written during my last days living on campus.

I’m worried, I had written, that I’ll miss something. That in all this rush and work of final projects, I’ll forget to savor the last days- the last hours- that I spend in this downtown home. And then, as often happens, God’s gentle prodding, His guiding words, appear on the page, reminding me of rest and sovereignty and that what I can give is going to be enough.

I keep reading for a bit longer, soaking up His wisdom the same way I had when I first heard it. And then, eventually, I turn to the newest clean page, put pen to paper, and begin to write. And it’s not until this afternoon that I think again of those early December words of grace.

Because I’ve two more weeks in 4th grade- counting this one- and I’m beginning to feel that pressure, that worry, creep into my heart once more. I don’t want to miss anything. I want to savor the time, hold onto the moments. I want to be caught in each day, relishing the tiniest mundane details, because these will not be my details for very much longer.

But there is grading to be done, and a portfolio to be compiled, and a Redbook of InTasc standards to measure up to, not to mention the fact that I’m speaking in upper school chapel on Friday, and haven’t finishing planning English for the week… and I start to wonder how I might balance all this living in the moment, fully participating in each conversation with all these precious treasures, with all of these real life tasks.

I might miss something, I worry.

My time here is ending (as the student mournfully remind me) so very soon.

And yet, at the end of the day- and the beginning, and in the middle- I know that the God who put me here is sovereign over each moment, just as He is sovereign over these past four months of teaching. I know that He is using my time here in ways that I cannot even imagine now. And I know that, in two weeks, when I hug goodbye, say see you later, the time that I had, the conversations and the work and the memories, will be exactly what He intended for me, exactly what was His plan all along.

And with that peace, I continue to pour myself into what I do and what I love and what I teach, because there’s trust in that, and there’s also worship- which is exactly how I’m supposed to respond to all this grace.

~Natalia

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