A Good Mennonite Poem

One new little blog feature that I’m happy to roll out this year is a Good Reads widget that gives you a peek at what I’m currently reading.

(Yes, I said books, plural. I’m famous for reading several at a time. This is actually good practice according to Douglas Wilson, author of the cunning little writing book Wordsmithy. In his chapter, “Read until Your Brain Creaks,” he encourages writers to read widely, and he announces that it’s perfectly acceptable to have to have, say, twenty books going at a time.

I don’t quite have that many, but I DO try to follow his advice by reading a lot, dabbling in different genres, and bouncing between several different covers.)

Currently, I’m still digesting The Brothers Karamasov… then there’s Vera Brittain’s autobiography, Testament of Youth (a movie by the same name was released in 2014) about a young British scholar, who, after fiiiiinally convincing her Papa to let her go to college (and Oxford at that!), she abandons her studies to enlist as a nurse in the armed forces during World War I, after which, she becomes a staunch pacifist, due to her experiences on the front and the war-time death of her brother, her lover, and another friend.

A reader once pointed me to the biography of Lilias Trotter (after having blogged about the writings of John Ruskin), and let me tell you, Lilias Trotter’s testimony is phenomel (though much of the literature around her life is a bit lacking). A documentary of her life was made in 2015 (a little disappointing cinematically, but I made my parents watch it on Christmas with me, and we enjoyed her testimony, despite some of the movie’s slow pacing). Basically, John Ruskin, leading art critic of the Victorian era finds 20-year-old Lilias to be England’s next rising artist. Convinced of her artistic genius, he offers to tutor her, and they enjoy the kind of friendship that only the arts provides, until Lilias announces that she cannot continue to paint, but that she has another love–that of Jesus Christ, and as a young women, heads off to Algeria as a missionary. Despite her poor health, her inability to speak Arabic, and the fact that all missionary societies refuse to support her, she and a few friends leave on their own, determined to make North Africa home. Her slow, steady work and her approach to missions was uncommon for the time as she tried to reach the Arab world through the written word and the arts. Go google Lilias Trotter! Or better yet, read her biography A Passion for the Impossible!

I’m also reading The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost Their Sense of Evil by Andrew Delbanco. (That’s pretty self-explanatory.)

And finally, I continue to page through one of my new favorite books, an anthology of poems (published by the University of Iowa Press and edited by Ann Hostetler, professor of English at Goshen College) called A Capella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry.

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I picked up my copy at my favorite used book store in Goshen, Indiana for $9, only to go to the Goshen Library sale a few weeks later and find a copy for $1. (Lucky me. I gifted one to my roommate). And. We have been devouring Mennonite poems for days!

Who even knew that writing like this existed?!

Good Mennonite poems!

Good poems. The kind I read at university and dearly loved but never stumbled across ones that were about me.

I read the poetry of white British mothers, African American artists, Native American activists, political poetry from Guam, plays from Hawaii, Lakota cries, Cherokee voices, Argentine verse… but where was the story of me?

In Mennonite Voices, these poems are our story.

Probably the strangest poem in the anthology is this poem about cookies. It is my favorite poem of the anthology. If you read it here, and you don’t understand it, that’s fine. It’s probably not meant to be totally understood at the first reading.

The Cookie Poem
by Jeff Gundy

“Here are my sad cookies”

The sad cookies. The once and future cookies.
The broken sweet cookies. The cookies
of heartbreaking beauty. The stony cookies
of Palestine. The gummy and delicious
olive and honey cookie. The pasty
damp cookie trapped in the child’s hand.

Sad cookies, weird cookies, slippery
and dangerous cookies. Brilliant helpless
soiled and torn cookies, feverish and sweaty
cookies. Sullen cookies, sassy cookies,
the cookies of tantrum and the cookie of joy
and the sweet dark cookie of peace.

The faithful cookie of Rotterdam. The wild-eyed
cookie of Muenster. The salty Atlantic cookie.
Cookies in black coats, in coveralls,
in business suits, cookies in bonnets
and coverings and heels, cookies scratching
their heads and their bellies, cookies utterly
and shamelessly naked before the beloved.

Cookies of the Amish division, cookies
of the Wahlerhof, cookies of Zurich and
Stassburg and Volhynia and Chortitza,
Nairobi Djakarta Winnipeg Goshen.
Cookies who hand their children off
to strangers, who admonish their sons
to remember the Lord’s Prayer, cookies
who say all right, baptize my children
and then sneak back to the hidden church anyway.
Cookies who cave in utterly. Cookies
who die with their boots on. Cookies
with fists, and with contusions.
The black hearted cookie. The cookie with issues.
Hard cookies, hot cookies, compassionate
conservative cookies, cookies we loathe
and love, cookies lost, fallen, stolen,
crushed, abandoned, shunned. Weary
and heroic cookies, scathingly noted cookies,
flawed cookies who did their best.
Single cookies, queer cookies, cookies of color,
homeless cookie families sleeping the car,
obsolete cookies broken down on the information
highway. Sad cookies, silent cookies,
loud cookies, loved cookies, your cookies,
my cookies our cookies, all cookies
God’s cookies, strange sweet hapless cookies
marked each one by the Imago Dei,
oh the Father the Son the Mother The Daughter
and the Holy Ghost all love cookies,
love all cookies, God’s mouth is full
of cookies, God chews and swallows and flings
hands wide in joy, the crumbs fly
everywhere, oh God loves us all.

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The Entire Presidential Race As Told by Characters in Macbeth

Let’s have a little fun, shall we? What if we cast Trump and Clinton as our favorite Shakespearean power-hungry couple, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?

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Trump, to the sixteen candidates he beats for Republican nominee:
“Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.” (Act V, Scene V)

Ben Carson, to Trump, after dropping out:
“Let’s briefly put on manly readiness
And meet i’the’ hall together. (Act II, Scene III)

Trump, when asked about proposed policy:
“Strange things I have in head, that will to hand
Which must be acted ere they may be scanned.” (Act III, Scene IV)

Trump, to no one in particular:
“I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.” (Act I, Scene VII)

The American public, upon discovering the two nominees for President:
“If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well
It were done quickly.” (Act I, Scene 7)

News Reporter: Trump, how do you feel about Russia and North Korea?
Trump: “Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear
The armed rhinoceros, or th’ Hyrcan tiger;
Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble.” (Act III, Scene IV)

Trump, to women: “Bring forth men-children only!
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.” (Act 1, Scene 7)
Trump: “What sound is that?”
Attendant: “It is the cry of women, my good lord.” (Act V, Scene V)

New reporter, speaking to Democrat: Any words on the Republican nominee?
Democrat: “Not in the legions
Of horrid hell can come a devil more damned
In evils to top [Trump].” (Act 4, Scene III)

News reporter, to nearby Republican: How do feel about the Democratic candidate?
Republican: “I grant [her] bloody,
Luxurious, malicious, false, deceitful,
Sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin
That has a name.” (Act 4, Scene III)

News reporter: And your thoughts on the Republican candidate?
Women, Hispanics, Muslims, in unison:
“The devil himself could not pronounce a title
More hateful to mine ear.” (Act V, Scene 7)

Clinton, as depicted by Republicans (on hiding emails):
“Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.” (Act I, Scene IV)

Obama, late in Clinton’s campaign: “Welcome hither!
I have begun to plant thee, and will labor
To make thee full growing…let me enfold thee
And hold thee to my heart.”

Clinton: “There if I grow
The harvest is your own.” (Act I, Scene IV)

Clinton, to the American public, on emails:
“Things without all remedy
Should be without regard. What’s done is done.” (Act III, Scene II)

Trump: You oughta drop out!
Clinton: “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” (Act 5, Scene I)

Democrats, when the FBI announces more investigation days before the election:
“If we should fail?”

Clinton: “We fail!
But screw your courage to the sticking place
And we’ll not fail.” (Act I, Scene 7)

Trump, upon hearing that Clinton has indeed been cleared for the emails:
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair!” (Act I, Scene I)

Republicans: “Let us seek out some desolate shade , and there
Weep our sad bosoms empty.” (Act IV, Scene III)

Democrats: “Each new morn
New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows
Strike heaven on the face, that it resounds
As if it felt with [America] and yelled out.” (Act IV, Scene III)

Young facebook activists: “What I believe, I’ll wail;
What I know, believe, and what I can redress,
As I shall find the time to friend, I will.” (Act IV, Scene III)

Pious non-voters: “Bleed, bleed, poor country!
Great tyranny, lay thou thy basis sure
For goodness dare not check thee; wear thou thy wrongs.” (Act IV, Scene III)

Disenchanted voters: When I go to vote, “yet my poor country
Shall have more vices than it had before,
More suffer, and more sundry ways than ever,
By him [or her] that shall succeed.” (Act IV, Scene III)

Half of America, day after election day: “I have lost my hopes.” (Act IV, Scene III)

A Poem: Teaching Heart Beats

I’ve been working on portions of this poem every spring over the last three years of teaching here in Indiana. It’s deeply personal, and for my students.

There are things left unspoken inside a teacher’s heart. After the grading is done and the lesson plans are printed and the meetings are over, some of us teachers go home, and myriad thoughts whirl around in our heads, long after the sun sleeps, and we lie in darkness praying for tomorrow.

In “Part I: Memories,” you’ll meet several students that are characters created from parts of students’ personalities from the past three years, collected into single characters. “Part II: Lament” grieves students’ loss of innocence, and “Part III: Credo” is a charge for Christian teachers. “Part IV: Invocation” is a prayer for my students.

I’m not particularly fond of this poem (obviously, as I’ve been continually revising it). But sometimes revisions are never done. So I’m putting it out here, meaning, it’s good enough, and it’s what I want it to be for now.

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Teaching Heart Beats

Part I: Memories

Once,
I saw you reach out.
Once, I saw you pray.
Once, I saw you put an end to the mocking.
Once, I saw you listen.

I see you.

They told me, “His name is Learning Problem.” “He calls himself Attitude.”
I try to see potential.
And buried in your sporadically-done homework, I once heard a quiet moral opinion from you.
I whisper-cheered through clenched teeth, at my desk, at 9:00 p.m.
“Yessss.” He thought today.
My hope is that you will think tomorrow.
And the next day.
And the day after that.

I see you.
You’re the one who demands A’s.
But I gave you a B
To teach you to think.
Writing is the measure of thinking,
Not silly test scores.

I see you.
You’re all alone at lunchtime,
The others gathered around in desperate cliques, animatedly eating.
And my heart aches for you.
I pray for you.
I think you are special. I think you are unique.
(If I were 14, we would be friends!)

I see you.
You’re the intellectual one.
You keep me on my toes when you fact-check me.
Your assignments are almost chilling in their brilliance.
You will be taking a road that not many of your peers will.
My advice: keep your social life and go play some volleyball. Get the B.
(Learning the art of friendship is also a lifelong study.)
Teaching you is one of my biggest tasks.
I feel a huge responsibility to guide you toward the big “c.”
College.
You will go.
Will you become bitter at your uneducated subculture?
When will you realize that Mennonite pastors and deacons are fallible humans?
Will you notice the uncommon fellowship of our subculture?
Will that fellowship be important enough for you to stay?
Will you find community, acceptance, love, or romance outside our culture, leading you away?
Will that acceptance change your morals?

I see you.
Wasting time.
Staring
At
The
Clock.
Creatively taking a long time to do anything besides your work.
Throw away a tissue.
Get a drink.
Go to the bathroom.
(I snicker at you.)
Know why?
Your vocab words still aren’t done. Even after all that.

I see you.
You had to stay in from recess.
Again.
You glance up from your book
And with your inquisitive face
You inquire
What this verse means
And how to deal with an angry friend.
Your thirst for wisdom is deep.

I see you

I see you all.

Do you know
…that your radiant face in 8 a.m. Bible class is inspiring?
…that your seriousness and bold attention in literature is startling?
…that your hard work and goodwill are so convicting?

You are skillful students. You clean, cook, work, and play with such excellence.

(Who do we think we are, trying to exercise your minds?)

To the students at UCS:
Your faces and lives stretch before me
like a promising Midwestern sunset

And I weep
on my knees
for the lives you will live.
I thank God for the pain you will endure in the next five years,
pain being the only thing God can use to empty you of yourself so that you cling all the more to Him.

What token, what gift, can I give to you who have given me so much?
This poem
is my photograph.
Keep a copy to glance at sometimes
and remember a teacher who saw you in this way.

Part II: Lament

I am weeping for you.
My heart is bleeding for you.
Oh my students.
The pain in your lives.
The hurts from your past.
Your broken families.
Your lost childhoods.

Part III: Credo

We will be strong.
We will be pure.
We will stand in the gap.
We will sacrifice our lives.
We will build up the church.
We will love each other.

We will not back down.
We will be good role models.
We will love Jesus more.
We will be disciplined.
We will be difference makers.

We will not be down-hearted, cynical, or hopeless.
We serve the God of all comfort.

Our task is not our task.
Our task is God’s task.
To bind up the broken hearted, to heal their wounds, to love.
God is our hope.

Part IV: Invocation

The wind whips and whistles through the early spring sunshine
Tries to dry the wet land and white lumps in the fields.

I know that spring is coming.
We are not surprised.
It always does.

So like spring
comes the enduring work of God.
And wherever His Word goes
It is not wasted.

Oh Jesus
Ravish us with the spring-dream of your unending faithfulness and blessing.
Amen.

How My School Ruled April Fool’s

You know, April Fool’s Day doesn’t fall on a school day for another three years, so my co-teachers and I planned a memorable day for the students.

First, the tired and trodden students ambled sleepily into the hallway only to be met with a Barrage of Large Objects in Their Path, and found themselves ducking under the high jump bars, around a very large caged bunny, moving past a fake tree, hoisting themselves over a massive, ten foot long, two foot high long jump mat, and proceeding down the hallway, filled with a roll-y cart, a commercial vacuum cleaner, and a table supporting a large bowl of…. onions. And a broom was sticking out of the library book return receptacle.

As students streamed into school, they asked our secretary who filled the hall.

“You tell me!” she retorted.

Confused, the high school students turned to our “slightly annoyed” high school teacher.

“Who filled the hall?”

“Well it was obviously some of the older ones, either the seniors or the youth group who rented the gym last night!” he sighed, irritated. (Our prank wasn’t just the hall-filling, but also convincing the students that we hadn’t done it.) The surprised students immediately began denying their involvement; THEY certainly didn’t want to be held responsible or have to clean up the mess. (We as teachers VOWED that the responsible parties would put everything away.)

“I wonder who it was,” the ornery students asked, in awe.

Students who attended the “offending” youth group’s gym night immediately began protesting.

“I’m sure it wasn’t us! We didn’t even have keys to the school! They school renter unlocked for us!”

The high school teacher brushed them aside.

“You could have easily gotten a key!”

“But it wasn’t us! You have to believe us!”

One conscientious student, on his way to class, approached the teacher and said penitently, “I just want you to know that it wasn’t me. You can call my parents. I was definitely home last night and there is no way that I did it.”

Meanwhile, the seniors headed to their second class and stopped the principal.

“Who was it? Who filled the hall?”

“Well it was obviously your youth group!” he retorted.

“It wasn’t us! We promise!”

“Well then maybe it was the senior girls!” he hurumphed.

The senior girls were getting visibly upset and started protesting louder,

“IT WASN’T US! Why do we always get blamed for everything?!”

“All right, come here, I need you to help me with something,” our principal said. He disappeared for a few moments, and then pulled up to the school’s front door with his car, of which he had taken off the side mirrors.

For the seniors, it suddenly clicked what was going on. They greedily helped him ease the car into the hallway. Just yet another Large Object in the Path.

Around this time, we teachers released the three BABY GOATS into the gym.

The poor little kindergarten class, whose classroom is right next door to the gym, heard a bleating sound. One small student excitedly announced to his pregnant teacher, “I just heard your baby make a noise!”

Next, our secretary asked a senior girl to “go get me something from the fridge.” A few moments later we hear screams of terror as she returns.

“MISS MILLER, MISS MILLER! THERE’S BABY GOATS IN THE GYM! THEY’RE RUNNING AROUND AND THEY SCARED ME SO BAD!”

Meanwhile, in the junior high classroom, we were having a surprisingly fun class. We had just played a game in celebration of finishing our annual research papers and had settled in to a monotonous grammar review. Midway through the review, I stopped.

“Did you all hear that? I heard a cell phone.”

No response.

“I was sure I heard a cell phone,” I said. “Does anyone have one in your desk?”

I cocked my head at a seventh grade boy and bored into him with my gaze. I marched over to him.

“I’ve talked to you before about having your phone in your desk instead of keeping it turned off and outside in the hall in your backpack.” I put my hands on my hips. “You’re going to have to give me your phone.” I returned to the front of class and threw the purple cell phone on my desk. I put my hands on hips and sighed angrily. Suddenly, I whipped a hammer out of my desk and began smashing the phone to pieces! Up and down and up and down I raised the hammer, hitting the phone to bits! Tiny pieces of glass spread over my desk and onto the floor. The phone nearly slid off my desk, but I reached after it smashing it over and over with my mallet.

Out of the corner of my eye, I grew startled by junior high students’ scared, apprehensive glances. THEY WERE IN LITERAL SHOCK.

I could hardly contain myself. I fought not to laugh, but all of a sudden I grew pained because I realized that my students were actually afraid of me in that moment, terrified at the monster I had become.

I gurgled and giggled nervously. “Uh, April Fool’s, guys.”

Only two students kind of giggled. The rest stared at me strangely, not believing what they had just seen. They sat in solemn terror. I tried to lighten it up by laughing and explaining how I had planned this at the beginning of the day with the seventh grade boy. He, of course, was smiling behind his hand. Once I was sure that they all got that it was a joke, we resumed English class, but they were all still a little shaken! They all sat quietly through the rest of grammar class, even as I kept giggling at the front of the classroom. By the end though, they were smiling shyly and me and each other.

Student 1: “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I thought: ‘She is WAY overreacting.’”

Student 2: “I was SOOOOO scared! I was shaking!”

Student 3: “I was pretty sure a guy wouldn’t have a purple phone.”

Student 4: “I knew he didn’t have a phone, so I was pretty sure it was a joke.”

Student 5: “I thought you had literally GONE CRAZY.”

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Down at typing class, our secretary had created her own fun by changing the autocorrect on all the computers so that whenever the students typed the word “candy” (a word from their typing exercise for the day), it would automatically change to rude name-calling names. How would you like it if the words you keep trying to type change to “Stinky Face” or “Liver-witted Hiney Squeegee”? (Tears are rolling down my cheeks right now.)

One high school teacher gave a test, with regular questions interspersed with IMPOSSIBLE questions that the students could never be expected to know.

A particularly conscientious student, quite confused, reasoned, “Mr. Yoder, I’m SURE we never went over these in class! And I KNOW they weren’t on the review sheet!”

“Are you sure?” he answered, calm and surprised. “Keep working; maybe you’ll find a question later that can help you with this one.”

That question being the last question on the test: “DO YOU REMEMBER THAT TODAY IS APRIL FOOL’S DAY?!”

Not wanting to leave out the little ones, we even got the youngest students in on the fun. Our kindergarten teacher passed out little packets of Cheerios labeled “Donut Seeds.”

“Take these home and plant them, and you can have your very own donut tree!” she said.

Most of the young ones knew it was a joke because she had carefully explained to them about the prank in the hallway and had even read a story about April Fool’s Day. But one young man somehow missed it all because later he was still talking about taking home his donut seeds so that he could grow his own donuts.

Back in the high school classroom, our math teacher was explaining the kindergarten prank to some students in one of his math classes. Which prompted the math students to ask:

“So what’s YOUR April Fool’s day joke? What’s YOUR teacher prank?”

Mr. Dave squinted his eyes and said, “Well, actually, I was the one who put the stuff in the hall.”

“No you didn’t!” they crowed. “That’s your prank, is you getting us to THINK that you put the stuff in the hallway! But you actually didn’t!”

By this time, we as teachers are just howling because of how many levels of prank-ness there is by now.

“No, this time I really did it!” he laughed.

By this time, the students decided to get in on the fun. They successfully sequestered the high school teacher’s fancy, cushy, office chair, awkwardly lugging the large rolling chair, from end-to-end of the school, in panicked rush, to avoid being seen by the high school teacher on the warpath to find his chair.

Ninth and tenth did a great one on me. I breezed into class ready to give them their vocabulary quiz, going off about the absent students and chirping about who should and shouldn’t take the quiz today… I began passing out the quizzes when I realized that all of them were smiling strangely at me. Then I realized: they’re ALL in different seats! (I have assigned seating in that class.) I hadn’t noticed at all!

One last April Fool’s Day prank came from the junior high students. Our student council planned a beautiful Easter meal today. We set up in the back of our classroom. We had fancy decorations of tulips and pearls, and ate off those really nice fake silver plasticware sets, and had grilled chicken, mashed potatoes, salad, jello, and the most especially divine white chocolate raspberry cheesecake. (Mother who made the cheesecake: it was superb, as always!) Before we prayed our Easter prayer and ate our meal, the student council made an announcement.

“Since it’s Easter, we have a gift for each of you! BUT: you have to wait til everyone gets a present to open one!” One seventh grader ceremoniously handed each student a nicely-packaged gift bag.

“Okay! You can open them!”

We dove into our bags, clawing, and giggling with glee. And we each unwrapped…. a rock.

A dumb ‘ole rock.

Boring gray lumps of stone.

“What.” we intoned.

“APRIL FOOL’S!” the Council yelled.

We all laughed together and then our class president led us in a special prayer of thanks.

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Probably one of the best April Fool’s days I’ve ever had. 🙂

Later in study hall, the junior high girls and I dissected the rest of the cell phone. So, obviously, we had fun.

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Bones and Breath: On Faulkner and Faith

After World War I, the United States fell into an economic depression. We could say that it fell into another kind of depression as well. A depression, or spiritual funk, stimulated by philosophical polarities of the day. Indeed, forty years had already passed since the German philosopher Nietzsche claimed it was logical to reason that “God is dead.” There were those supposed inconsistencies between religion and science. Perhaps not in mainstream culture, but perhaps in academic atmospheres and in the classrooms of its universities. Clashes between scientists and religious fundamentalists in the 1920s certainly existed.

The human mind reasoned: how could God be alive? He obviously didn’t have control; man’s advancement had pretty much been obliterated at that point. Humanistic philosophy claimed that man could build and maintain society. And then World War I happened. Engineers pointed to crowning achievements of man’s inventions. And then the Titanic sank. The Roaring Twenties turned into the Great Depression of the ‘30s. Upon whose heels came the terrifying and unimaginable World War II. Man’s ability for progress, once accepted as fact, was now in question.

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Humanity was not asking: Will I prosper? Rather, in fear, it was crying out: Will I survive?

William Faulkner in his 1950 Pulitzer Prize speech addresses this fear.

“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?”

The thing with which we must come to terms is what a society full of fear produces. Think about the time in which you were most afraid. How did it control your decisions? How did it control your productivity? How did it control your understanding of life?

This fear, I think, has the possibility to produce a hopeless fatalism, which Faulkner must have observed on the earth, seeping from below the ground of modern society. And to that trembling mind, he offers this reminder:

“the basest of all things is to be afraid.”

For, Faulkner reasons, when writers are crippled by fear, they forget “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” Faulkner insists that a writer…

“…must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid… Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”

Here we notice Faulkner’s expression of mid 19th century Romantic sensibilities in his emphasis on the human heart. But there is his concurrent recognition of modernist skepticism, in which he says that humanity is basically saying: “The meaning of life? What meaning? What life? I’m fighting for my life, for control of my glands!”

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And Faulkner laments the effect of this perspective of survival. If a writer writes “of the glands,” Faulkner says,

“he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. …I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

This message of hope (and concurrent responsibility) certainly retains humanistic undertones. And maybe that is my point.

How utterly human is hope! We always hope even in the most impossible of situations! Why do children in concentration camps write poetry? Why does, as Maya Angelou asks, the caged bird sing?

Have you ignored that basic human emotion of hope? What is your mind’s perspective? What is your voice saying?

Is it fear that guides your voice? Is your voice a raucous squawk, your breath being crushed out of you, your voice simply the rush of oxygen into your lungs, a timid cry, an elemental whimper realizing that today you are, indeed, still alive? Or is your voice that of boredom, like SO MANY voices that we hear today… whether the tintinnabuli of posts, shares, likes, and updates… searching for meaning, trying to create meaning… where there is none?

Perhaps you are like those humans, of which, when contemplating life as if it’s the eternally inspirational sky, say only, “it has been wet… it has been windy… it has been warm.” You do not, as Victorian English art critic John Ruskin puts it, reject apathy against the mundane. Ruskin laments:

“Who, among the whole chattering crowd, can tell me of the forms and the precipices of the chain of tall white mountains that girded the horizon at noon yesterday? Who saw the narrow sunbeam that came out of the south and smote upon their summits until they melted and mouldered away in a dust of blue rain? Who saw the dance of the dead clouds when the sunlight left them last night, and the west wind blew them before it like withered leaves?”

These are the observations only possible through a perspective of hope in the midst of the mundane.

Now imagine this human hope infused with that which is divine, a hope which comes when we release ourselves, allowing our stubborn selves to accept sonship, claiming that we are children of God, and finally accepting the benefits of divine childhood, living in an assurance, and if not assurance, then careful, guarded acknowledgment of the promises of God, those promises which say, “I will never leave you; I will never forsake you.” Or those manifestations of belief: “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.”

Faulkner calls for hopeful artists.

Do you have a hope? Do you have a voice?

I pray you shall.

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Diversity in the Classroom: the Mennonite Surprise for Liberal Educators

One of the things that has constantly amazed me about teaching at my tiny little Mennonite school is that there is so much diversity. You wouldn’t think so, would you? Not, at least, in a church school serving a conservative denomination that, for better or for worse, has historically stressed conformity.

DIVERSITY IS THE WORD
The word “diversity” is certainly a current catchphrase in today’s world, especially in the liberal public university. You hear about it everywhere from biology (natural diversity), to sociology (social diversity), to literature (various and diverse literary theories). In education courses, we study diversity as it relates to the kinds of students in the classroom. We study different kinds of learners, but we also talk about the various cultural differences that might pop up in the classroom which we might have to deal with. We are instructed to be understanding of that diversity.

MENNONITES: CULTURALLY DIVERSE?
When I moved to Indiana, I felt that in some ways, my days of figuring out diversity were over. After all, I was moving to a tiny town in a rural religious community. How diverse could it be? I figured pretty much everyone would be wearing John Deere t-shirts and camo, and totin’ rifles and warm apple pies. I assumed that I had this community all figured out. I mean, hey, I grew up Mennonite, how “culturally” different could it be?

I assumed I would have my classroom figured out because I reasoned that my students would have a similar background to me. And to a certain extent they do. For many of the students, we have a lot in common. Things like whoopie pies and homemade bread. A capella singing and church food committees. Funerals meals and wedding volleyball. We all know what these things are. But there are ways in which diversity pops up in unexpected ways. For example, our school serves over ten different area churches. Those churches differ in practice and expression of their Christianity. That means the children’s homes differ. Different families have different attitudes toward education. Different families have different practices relating to the use of social media, movies, and Netflix.

A visitor to our school would look out at all my students and see one mass of Mennonite kids. But to the keen eye, the diversity is invigorating. Contrary to what would have been my assumption, not all of my students have white European ancestry. We have students whose racial backgrounds span four different continents. So in history class, I can’t so easily gloss “our ancestors” as being the early Anabaptists in Europe. Also, we have diversity in family background. I think there’s an assumption that Mennonite families are these perfect little units with a Mom and a Dad, six kids, and grandparents next door. But I have found that not all of my students have picture-perfect-package, tied-with-a-bow, families. I see a child desperate for attention, attention she doesn’t get from her large family at home. I see students whose families have been touched with death or separation. I see students fiercely missing their older siblings who are growing up and moving away. I see students with parents from different cultural backgrounds. Backgrounds other than the cookie-cutter Mennonite background of Northern Indiana Amish ancestry. I see students whose families have been touched with pain due to church problems.

And while our private school employs a strict dress code (thankfully), you can even pick out diversity in the students’ personal style through their footwear. Vans or Toms? Converse or Air Jordans? Uggs or wedge booties? There is certainly diversity and difference of opinion.

STEREOTYPES: WHAT’S THE POINT?
So I ask myself, where did this cookie cutter come from? And since it doesn’t fit so many of my students, why don’t we just get rid of it?

Because life is easier if we don’t take diversity into account. It’s much simpler to talk about things “on the whole.” It’s easier to talk about “the majority.” It’s easier to make something “one-size-fits-all.”

But maybe we’re missing something by ignoring diversity. Maybe we’re missing something by not taking other viewpoints into account. Maybe we’re missing something by not using our creative minds to imagine what it is like to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.

DIVERSITY IN UNIFORMITY
It’s interesting to me that my school is more diverse than I (and maybe other outsiders) originally assumed, but that my school, as a whole, also adds to diversity in literary experiences. Let me explain. While my students’ home lives may be diverse (they have different backgrounds or family dynamics), they still represent, “on the whole” (to borrow that horrid phrase) a generally similar ethnic, or people group, background. The religious background is pretty unifying at our school. So while there is diversity, we do experience a unifying identity. (Students are taught to filter life’s questions through an Anabaptist, Biblical worldview. And many students experience the same in their home churches.)

Yet taking this further, I see this unifying Mennonite identity as adding to diversity in contemporary culture. It is intriguing to see my Mennonite students defy secular teenage stereotypes in the English classroom. I would like to explain how my Mennonite students add diversity where my secular university said there would be no diversity of opinion.

I once took an education course on juvenile literature. The class should have been renamed: Liberal Agenda for Teaching Trashy Young Adult Novels. My professor put together a reading list of “diverse” contemporary literature written for young adults. We read these books in order to get ideas for what to teach at the secondary level. (Later, I found out that nearly all twelve novels were on the banned books list. I should have figured that out. I THOUGHT they were trashy! But coming from my Mennonite background, I wasn’t exactly sure what you “English” people read when you are teenagers.) The point my professor was trying to make by having us read these books and discussing them in class was that there is some literary merit to banned books, and reading edgy novels like this in class can get students excited about literature. It gets them reading, and it gets them thinking. Sometimes contemporary novels can be paired with classics to make that interaction with a classic text more meaningful. (For example, pairing The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian with The Scarlet Letter to update discussions about  subculture versus dominant culture.)

The point of the class was not always that classics are bad, but sometimes we need to work really hard to make connections for students. However, there was much classics bashing in that class, especially about some of the heavier religious classics. For example, I was told up and down: “Do not teach The Scarlet Letter. Students hate it. They do not relate to it. Are you teaching is simply because it’s on the curriculum? Get creative.” When I got to my school, I noticed The Scarlet Letter on the curriculum, and I thought to myself, “Oh no, here we go.”

Guess what?
My students loved it. One student gushed: “I loved that book! I would have read it on my own, but I got soooo much more out of it because we discussed it in class!” Every day the kids would come to class: “WHAT?! Dimmesdale is THE FATHER?!”
And the themes of legalism, communities’ response to sin (and sinners), the theme of guilt… All of these things my students highly identified with, and they could relate to these themes. We played conscience alley with the different characters. We played “What Would I Do?” games. We talked about the spiritual themes of the book. (We get to do this at our religious school.) So, thank you, Hawthorne. You wrote a classic, and it still speaks to people today, even teenagers.

I bring this up because I was told that teenagers HATE The Scarlet Letter. Ironically, an institution that preaches diversity got it wrong. They left a Christian perspective out. Interestingly, my teenagers’ one point of uniformity is their one point of diversity in the world. They deeply understand the idea of community versus the individual. They understand the idea of sin and guilt. They’ve seen legalism and hypocrisy played out in their own communities, especially in religious contexts. In some ways, the themes of the novel are very real to them. So I say that I love that my classroom is diverse. And even in its uniformity it is diverse, because they relate to literature they’re “not supposed” to relate to.

This year we read The Pilgrim’s Progress. I had a bit of the same reaction. Oh, dear. Here we go again. Another deep religious classic. But again, my students were so into it. It was the first day, and we had an invigorating discussion about justification by faith alone versus the viewpoint of salvation being faith and works. WOULD YOU EVEN GET THAT READING TWILIGHT. What excited me most about the conversation is that the conversation wasn’t entirely between me and the students. The students were talking amongst themselves, exchanging ideas. So I went home that day smiling. Once again. My students are proving the majority wrong. There are teenagers who want to talk about spiritual things. They don’t see Bunyan and Hawthorne as boring dead guys. (Well, I mean, let’s be honest. Of course they do. But they are willing to discuss the themes of their work. And sometimes volatile discussions ensue. I feel like those are the days that I WIN as an English teacher. Or at least literature wins.)

My take-away lesson is: never assume there is a cookie-cutter shape. Always be on the lookout for subtle differences. If there is a majority, find how that majority is different from other majorities. Diversity is a thing.

My teens get The Scarlet Letter. Not a ton of English teachers can say that.

Maybe we’re missing something by ignoring diversity. Maybe we’re missing something by not taking other viewpoints into account. Maybe we’re missing something by not using our creative minds to imagine what it is like to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.

Survival Tips for First-Year Teachers

Last week I talked about some of the hardest lifestyle adjustments first-year teachers make. This week I’m giving a few survival tips for first-year teachers in regards to relationships.

Make friends with the other teachers (for the students’ sake).
Engaging other teachers in constructive conversation reduces stress by challenging your one-dimensional views of students. I was sitting at a basketball game this year, cheering for my boys, and I leaned over to another teacher: “I kind of forget that they do things other than English.” And I don’t need to tell you that that’s a problem. Certainly, having chosen the field of language and literature, I obviously see the English classroom as a very important part of development on the part of a student and an individual, but I need to remember that their performance in my class does not represent their entire being. You might only see students in the context of your class, and your class might not be their best subject. What happens is that you begin to make a little box and put the student in it. Talking to other teachers can help round out a student.

“Jake is doing poorly in my English class. He’s very quiet, he hardly says anything, and he doesn’t perform on tests and quizzes the way I’d like him to. How is he doing in science?”
“Oh, he’s doing very well in science! He participates so well in class! I can always count on him to raise his hand to answer questions. He’s so interested by biology!”

(Near verbatim conversation that I had this year.) Having these conversations can help round out a student because you can begin to pinpoint the student’s strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. You can share the triumphs of students who excel, but you can also gain helpful information in understanding where your struggling students’ strengths and interests lie. These cross-discipline conversations are very important. For example, it can lead you to ask the question: what would happen for Jake in English class if we wrote English research papers on biology topics? What if we discussed a controversial bio ethics issue for the speech class debate? These constructive conversations can actually make you more hopeful about a struggling student’s future performance.

(A note: these conversations also lead to discussions about social dynamics among the students. For example, one student may be quieter in one class because of a certain peer group, but be much more engaged in another class. Noticing those peer group patterns and discussing them are insightful.)

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Make friends with other teachers (for the teachers’ sakes).
It is a good idea to try to serve your fellow teachers.
“ARE. YOU. KIDDING. ME. I’M DOING COSTUMES FOR THE SCHOOL PLAY, MAKING BROWNIES FOR PARENT’S NIGHT, AND CHANGING BULLETIN BOARDS THIS WEEKEND. YEAH AND REPORT CARDS ARE DUE.”
Cringe. Pat pat. It’s going to be oooookay.
Certainly, the little things pile up. But you might think of finding ways to be available to your fellow teachers. If you hear a teacher complaining about a task that comes very easily to you, you might offer to help. (Little. Little tasks here. Not school-play-costume-sized tasks.) Think instead of things like: “I can bring back those copies for you.” “I can make that announcement for you.” “I’d love to brainstorm with you about the hallway behavior problem you’re having.” Showing other teachers that you are human (that you are available and that you care) builds a positive atmosphere and might just work in your favor down the road. Like when, after your emotional wailing about the rented costumes getting ripped, a helpful co-teacher (who happens to sew) offers to mend the ripped costumes. And she acts like it’s no big deal at all.

Find a way to connect (to the students).
I’m not sure how to put this. If you have not seen the movie Frozen, you are NOTHING. I’m suggesting that it’s important to stay marginally informed of kid culture. No, perhaps you’d rather not watch The Hunger Games or another Duck Dynasty episode. You don’t like country music, and you think One Direction has terrible lyrics. Maybe you don’t even have a smart phone yet. However, my advice is: get in the know. Try every now and then to be relatable. Otherwise you might end up having an awkward conversation with a car load of eighth graders, where, when asked about a cool movie you recently watched, you do a comparative analysis of the French government’s round up of 8,000 Jews in Paris in 1942 to America’s modern-day abortion genocide. As for the eighth graders, they will probably stare at you like you are from Mars. A better response might be: Despicable Me.

Find a way to disconnect (from the students).
A fair warning to new teachers: you will get very wrapped up in your students’ lives. You will spend outrageous amounts of time thinking about your kids. (Even if you are a content teacher, or, one who teaches because they “love science!” rather than because they “love kids!” Content teachers still care a lot about their students and their success as individuals.)
However, this involvement can be a source of stress. Teachers can stress themselves out by thinking that they are the child savior. This year, I would periodically get overwhelmed because I would feel like a child needed so much, and I need to give them more, but I realized I couldn’t give them everything they needed. And that was true.

I’ve heard it explained like this: we as teachers have both responsibilities and opportunities. We have the responsibility to teach grammar and lit, to test for comprehension, and to lock the classroom at night. We also have opportunities. We have the opportunity to encourage a failing student. We have the opportunity to reach out to a child who is struggling at home. We have the opportunity to love a child unconditionally and to teach them to spread their wings and fly.

However, we cannot get our responsibilities and opportunities mixed up. For first-year teachers, I think that responsibilities must come first. The first year of teaching is about mastering the content, simplifying the busy work, and honestly, just surviving. From my own experience, I would encourage first-year teachers to prioritize immediate responsibilities rather than spending too much time trying to change the world. (But, we feel the pressure to, because there are so many haters of the mistakes of first-year teaching. Why must all seasoned teachers and popular teacher/authors continually disparage what goes on in your first year? It is really discouraging!)

The days will come where you look at you bulletin boards, and realize they needed to be changed two weeks ago, and your report cards are due, and also those thirty research papers, and you will burst into years. Because you will remember your sick neighbor (who probably deserves a casserole), your filthy kitchen at home, and those bills that need to be paid. But on top of all this, you will find that you cannot stop thinking about that undisciplined student who is failing, who said today, “I’m not smart enough to go to college.”

It is at this moment that you need to remember: do the responsibilities first. The opportunities will be there tomorrow. You have a lifetime of teaching. Changing the world tomorrow might mean taking the sticky-tack off the wall today. Opportunities are sweet. But they should not be contrived.

Strangely, the survival tip here is: get away. Take a weekend off. Go visit family. Play a game of soccer. Go out for coffee (with non-teachers). Get a hobby. Do absolutely no school work. You will be amazed at how clear your mind will be when you return. I especially encourage the weekend thing. In late winter. To a place with lots of sunshine. Give yourself a sanity break. You (and your students) deserve it.