A Bottle of Water

There are hundreds- thousands- just like him.

Standing in intersections, sometimes holding a cardboard sign, sometimes not.

Red light, they walk the yellow-lined aisle between cars.

Wordless, usually.

I don’t have a rule, a standard, a constant choice.

Sometimes, music still playing, brake lights glowing, I roll the window down.

Extend a hand.

Extend support.

Extend what I have.

Sometimes I don’t.

It’s Sunday afternoon, pleasant but not quite warm.

I’ve never seen him before.

But it’s usually late, far beyond sundown, when I idle this intersection.

I see him, signless, standing there three cars ahead.

In a moment, I swipe an arm behind my seat, pull a water bottle from the case.

Give water, I read somewhere once, they’ve no place to go for just water.

I roll the window down more, my hand holding the bottle forward, towards him.

It’s a race then, between his staggering limp and the impending green.

But I’d wait.

He arrives, takes the water.

I glance up at him, where he stands so near my car.

Thank you for your kindness.

His accent is heavy, surprisingly Middle Eastern.

I don’t have any cash, I say. My voice comes out flat.

Was I trying to apologize? Explain?

But at least you gave something, he says as the light turns green.

I accelerate, slowly. Roll through the odd, y-shaped intersection.

His words ring in my ears. Humbling.

At least I gave something.

Comfort and kindness, encouragement from the man in the street.

And all I gave was a bottle of water.

~Natalia

 

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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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Seeds

I shift in my seat, leaning against the high plush back of the worn swivel chair. Across the room, she’s tucked into one of the twin orange arm chairs. The white board, draped in Christmas lights, the day’s goals and final assignments still scrawled across it, spans the wall between us.

She appeared in the doorway not long after dismissal, stepping purposefully, peacefully into the classroom, her voice heard easily in the rare quiet. For several long minutes, I sat at my desk, half-heartedly typing an email, while she spoke. A kind of multitasking, I suppose.

But soon, the tiny screen has been folded down, its pure glow now limited to illuminating its own keyboard, while I gaze across the room, listening intently.

See, this is the kind of music that you should be listening to, always are listening to, she says as she catches the faint strains of the Disney soundtrack I’ve put on Pandora. I laugh, nodding. It’s pretty much classical and movie scores during the day, I tell her, but I break it up with some Disney in the afternoons. 

She tells me she’s begun a preaching internship, at her church. This is not remotely surprising to me, given the plethora of mini-sermons I’ve been treated to since meeting her, and I tell her this. She sits, silent for a moment, and I wait, watching her.

I know the movements she makes. The hand raise before a joke, before sarcasm. The pause, the intensity sliding into her gaze before a bold statement. The finger raised, pointing at me, calling me back to me, before a particularly relatable statement.

You’re in a different place now than you were then, she says, as the conversation weaves comparisons between this day, this week, this lesson, and the shape and flow of my life barely 10 months ago.

I’d not considered that point before- not truly- and I tilt my head, letting the comparison, the contrast, sink in. You’re right, I tell her after a moment. I’ve moved, of course. Switched schools, taken a full-time job, in the past months. But she’s not referring to locale or employment; we both know that.

I think then about the woman- the girl?- who hurtled through life all those months ago. I think about the battles I fought, the struggles I faced, the choices I made, and as I mentally run through the days, weeks, emotions, feelings of a year ago, I see last year’s self turned so inward.

I made big choices: relationships, jobs, living situation, and I look back to the hours that I spent shrinking into my own heart, my own head. Like a vacuum with no air output, I pulled my worry, my concern, my very surroundings into the chaotic, spinning fortress inside me. And there I agonized. There I stayed.

Your compassion is so evident, she says. I see it all the time. I nod, hesitant to pick up, to hold, the kindness she’s laid before me.

She speaks again, and I cross my legs, lean elbow on knee, chin in palm. The theme to Hercules plays quietly from my computer, creating soft undertones of equal parts whimsical and heroic.

You’re right, I tell her, slowly nodding my agreement. I have changed a lot, matured a lot, these past months. She rocks her head sideways, eye brows raised momentarily, the plain look of I told you so. 

I’m much more at peace,  I observe, my eyes wandering to the string of cheerful lights hanging above her head.

She agrees then; her hum of assent firm, settled. The conversation continues; winding, tracing, ebbing, flowing.

We speak the sovereignty of God. We trace lines of conversation, of memories, stories, questions, long down the trail of thought. Our conversation moves to a table in a bustling, cozy restaurant not far from school. There are pauses, thoughts, sudden bursts of excitement. We agree, we challenge. Once, I shrug, almost subconsciously. As if the weight of the words we’ve collected, savored, might simply slip of my back, dissolve into the floor like something imagined, something vague or misty.

But conversations, like friendships, and maturity, and the grace to grow yet more, are not easily dismissed, or forgotten.

Rather, they are seeds of so many things. Seeds of joy. Of hope. Of grace. Of learning. Watered with honesty and conviction, blossoming under the gentle care of time.

Because with words, with time, with dinner on a rainy Friday night in a big city- we’re always sowing seeds.

~Natalie

 

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

Kind 

  
Be kind with your words. 

Be generous with your kindness. 

It just might be the encouragement, the lifeline, the kindness that someone else most needs. 

{And with these sweet words from a parent, I move on. To another day of teaching, of loving, of begging God for grace to show, because I’m running a little low.} 

~Natalia 

Rumbling Contentment

I love routine, I think.

Watching the wheel of seasons, times, days, come spinning back around full circle.

And then all over again.

I’m spinning a new wheel just now, in many ways.

But some things never change.

Like God’s grace.

Like the fresh air in the morning as I step down the front stairs.

Like the sun setting over a slice of Chicago.

Like the El tracks clacking up streets, around corners.

The same clicking rumble of peace and contentment in every shaking, roaring turn of the tracks.

~Natalia

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