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

 

 

 

 

 

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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

 

Taking Off, Putting On

What is one thing you’ve learned about yourself in 2015? 

Di sits in the passenger seat, her black overnight bag at her feet. We’re driving into the city, weaving slowly southward in the darkening twilight of January 1st.

Ooh, I nod, eyes on the road still, watching the lights beyond me turn red in slow succession. That’s a good question. 

Well, you stumped me with ‘who is the funniest person you know’ last night, she exclaims, and I laugh then, remembering the moments she spent in silence, agonizing over who might be the funniest person in her life.

She never did come up with an answer.

But we talk then, about learning, and changing, and knowing oneself, and then, as the swaying flow of traffic pulls us slowly deeper into the heart of the city, a follow-up question forms, settling pleasantly in the air between us.

What are you taking off and putting on in the new year?

She answers first, talking about fear, boldness, friendships she treasures, habits she’ll continue to cultivate.

Then, leaning back against the seat, she looks over at me. What about you?

I have my answer ready.

I want to be more giving, I tell her. Of my time. Of kindness. Of my resources. The stories, the truths, the battles, the losses, and the near misses that make my life my own; the very same things that I so often guard, keep to myself. I want to share those things, too, I tell her, because relationships are built on sharing lives, and that’s a good thing. 

Di listens, nodding emphatically, murmuring the hushed tones of ascent that I’m accustomed to.

I want to take off being entitled, I tell her, feeling the conviction of my words settling into my heart as I speak.

I feel entitled to be entitled. And even as I say it, I know that it’s true.

I hear myself, barely weeks ago, sharps words of frustration spilling over into my classroom, all the while I tell myself it’s okay- I’m entitled to let my anger set the tone in the room.

I’m entitled, I tell myself,  to quiet time. To someone else taking out the trash. To children who do what I ask them to do. To parking that is less than a half mile from my apartment.

But that’s not true, of course. Not at all. I’m entitled to nothing.

So this year, as the days slip from January to February, and then beyond, I’m taking off what I believe I should have, and putting myself into the place I know so well.

The place of Christ’s grace, my brokenness, and the thrill, the power, the joy of knowing Him more, seeing Him work more, with every passing day.

And from that, I know, will come a spirit of giving,

and so much more.

~Natalia

 

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

One and Only

I call him my One and Only, the boy with the dark hair, the clear blue eyes. Of course, there are nine other boys in the class, but he’s the One and Only him. It started weeks ago, when the afternoons dragged long, and I lost his attention in the hours after recess. Sitting there in the second row, he moved, he talked, and I brought him back, again and over again.

But really, there’s more to teaching, more to life and relationship and loving, than nagging.

One day, all those weeks ago, as the January afternoon sun began to settle, already preparing to sink, and I knew his mind was wandering, stretching, escaping beyond the realm of academic learning, I called his name.

He looked up, and I knew what he was expecting. A reminder. Do this, please sit up, what are you doing, where should you be?

But not this time. No, I stopped next to his desk, asked him, in voice raised- teacher voice so all could hear- if he knew that he is the One and Only him. Do you know that, child? I asked. You are the only one, and we get to have you in our class. I stopped then, letting the truth sink in, and watched his face change, ever to slightly, as he processed what I’d said.

And the name stuck. Of course, many of them have nicknames- I’m a nickname kind of teacher, and that is his, and I admit, sometimes I say it just to see that shy smile creep across his face, just to watch his eyes light up, just a bit.

He’s president of the class this week; quite a good one, in fact. Sits at the big desk in the back, oversees classroom proceedings with justice and kindness, makes decisions that I’d rather avoid, such as Hannah-is-not-here-can-I-have-her-spot-in-line and she-forgot-to-finish-the-math-problem-can-she-have-grace-to-finish-it-before-we-grade-it?

And two days ago, when the Bible class conversation turned to stories, and how God changes lives- even lives barely a decade long- he sat in his presidential swivel chair, and he listened.

And yesterday, I told those 18 hearts just a tiny bit of my own testimony, before reminding them of the work that I know God is doing in each of their hearts. And then I set them loose, to reflect, to think, and to write down their own testimonies, their own stories.

And that boy, my One and Only, he wrote. He wrote and he wrote, because this one? He knew his story.

And this morning, in teacher devotions, it’s time for prayer requests, and the boy’s father, himself a teacher, he raises his hand, says he has a praise. Because his boy, his fourth grade son, his blue-eyed little boy, they’ve been praying for him. Praying for him to know his story, praying for him to own the faith he’s been taught, and last night, that One and Only boy, he went home with testimony in hand, exuberant to tell his daddy his story, how he knows Jesus has saved him.

And that boy? Now he wants to be baptized.

And sitting there in devotions, hearing how the Holy Spirit shapes and builds and guides in ways I can’t even imagine, I just cried.

Because this boy has a story, has a faith, has a relationship, and in these short months, I got to watch it grow. And that is breathtaking.

~Natalia

All Its Own

Friday night: exhausted. So tired I can feel my body sinking heavier, deeper, into my chair at the dining table.

I was so tired.

Monday morning: slightly better. A new week calls for new energy and new enthusiasm, and eighteen 9-year-olds at the door do not take a break.

Monday afternoon: dizzy, lightheaded, balancing atop the stool I often drag about the classroom.

Monday evening: resting. I managed to stay asleep for a 40-minute nap, then moved calmly, gently through a bit of remaining prep.

Tuesday: better. The dizziness gone, the exhaustion subdued. But the planning, the work- of that, there is always more.

I’ve three desktop sticky notes devoted to To Do tasks, one updated daily with tasks to be done, preparation and notes and plans yet to be made.

Am I supposed to rest during the weekend? On the weekend?

That’s the puzzle I try to solve, every day.

Just as an ever-present reminder that I’m not on top of things.

I can’t do it all, or even part of what needs done.

I need a lot more strength than I’ve got.

And that’s a lesson all its own.

~Natalia

What You May

My possessions are strewn about the floor, evidence of my recent move heaped in piles across the plush carpet. My laundry basket sits in the corner, the sleeves of a work shirt spilling haphazardly over the edges, faintly dirty cuffs draped unceremoniously over the plastic set of drawers containing much of my clothing. In the middle of the room, at the foot of my big bed, my bare comforter lies atop of pile of clothes, books, and other trinkets that have not yet found homes in my new room. The bed itself is littered with the day’s discarded clothes, my book bag, computer, and curriculum books for lessons I’ve yet to plan.

I’ve pulled the comforter cover- inside out- from where it was under the floor pile, and am attempting to stuff the comforter back in, when she appears in the doorway. Three years old, she clutches her scruffy kitty to her chest, dark eyes peering from under darker bangs. She’s used to my room upstairs, accustomed to knock first, and don’t touch the makeup, and yes you can climb on the bed. This is the first time she’s been in this room, since it’s become mine, and I allow her free reign, at least for the moment; I’m curious what she will do.

Her kitty abandoned on the floor by the door, she watches me wrestle with the comforter for a moment, before lifting the corner of the blanket, undoing the work I have done to stuff the unwieldy blanket into its floral cover. What are you doing? She asks, her tiny face tilting to study first me, then the blanket. I explain, and she moves, spins, twists my blanket further out of line.

Can you put that down please?

And she obeys, chattering all the while.

Her attention diverted from the blanket, which I’ve finally managed to contain, she moves toward the wall, towards the make-shift vanity that I’ve compiled atop my plastic drawers. She investigates my bottles of gummy vitamins, pushes my coconut lotion aside, until finally her little hands find my makeup bag. The holy grail of preschool exploration. She’s pulled my foundation out of its spot when I look up: No touching my make up. And again, she steps away, a slight hesitation in her step, but she listens, nonetheless.

I continue to work, organize, unpack, and she continues to flit about the room, her curiosity stretching much larger than her own tiny frame. Into the brown paper bag of food by the door. Into the pile of books and the hole punch balancing atop. Into my clean laundry, my skirts, my shoes.

And still I move her, reminding her of rules, creating new ones, redirecting, enforcing, badgering.

Finally, exasperated, she looks up, a shrug in her slim shoulders. Well, what can I do? She asks, hands, once more clutching her kitty, turn palms-up into a defeated shrug.

I sigh then, shake my head at my own oversight. It’s not the No, No, No that is most effective; I’ll not get anywhere- and neither will she- by constantly trying to beat her to the punch, listing all that she can’t, can’t, can’t before she’s had a moment to think what she can. Chagrinned, I sit back on my heels over the (gradually shrinking) pile of laundry.

Ah, of course, I say, an apology in my tone. You can do you work! I say, pointing her to the opposite corner of the room, where my pencil holder sits atop a bin of books. Her “work” consists of using every pen in the box to “write” on the scraps of paper that used to hold my own notes and scribbles. She’s diligent and focused when she does her work, and she perks up immediately when I suggest it. I follow her scampering feet to the corner, pull out the paper scraps for her, and watch her settle into her task, a faint smile of focus, of purpose, on her face.

I return to my tidying, working slowly to clear the floor, organize my space, and still her words sink further into my mind, my heart: Well, what can I do? And I think then, as I watch her write, play, imagine, there on the floor, that I want to be the kind of teacher, the kind of adult, the kind of heart, who tells a child all that they can and all that they may and all that they will, because there is a time for rules, and a time to comply, but there is yet more need to wings, for open space to create, to shine, to fly.

And that is what I want. For the children in my classroom. For the children in my home. And for three-year-old princesses with kitties in their arms and curiosity in their eyes.

~Natalia

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