Small victories, big victories, and everything in the middle.

Well, my friends, I haven’t written in weeks. And although I’m sorry that I haven’t been faithful in telling you about the latest refugee stories in our corner of Southeast Nashville, they have continued on regardless of whether or not I’ve been faithful to document them.

Honestly, that is one of the sweetest lessons I’ve learned about Jesus: He is faithful to continue His work, even when I’m not. He doesn’t need to stop and rest. He doesn’t need to learn how to better manage time. He doesn’t need me to accomplish His plans, but He invites me along. That’s a pretty sweet invitation.

There have been new students to meet, babies to prepare for, trips to take, paperwork to fill out, curriculum to design, and breaks to take. A lot has been happening in this direction, and I’m grateful that you’re here to read about what’s happened when I wasn’t writing.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much I enjoy living it.

 

The Zomi girls who like to braid my hair

Although last week was spring break for the middle school program, we offered to take the 5th graders on their field trip for the year. The plan was to go the Adventure Science Center. My task was pretty simple: pick up the girls in the mini bus, get them to the Negley Boulevard, and help them have fun.

Once we arrived at the building with an enormous pyramid on the top of it—the one that overlooks downtown from a huge hill—we counted and split into teams. I was excited when my supervisor paired me with two of the Zomi girls who like to braid my hair. We were a team, and our job was to stick together during the trip. They were excited, and I was eager for our time together. They ran ahead, and I tried to keep up. We climbed a tower, played games against life-sized germs, took pictures with a dinosaur,  and gazed at huge models of the solar system.

Near the end of the trip, we were given an extra 15 minutes to look at one more thing we might have missed on the trip. The girls told me they wanted to play the brain game, and we ran with fingers crossed that the line had died down.

Thankfully, there was no line. We only needed to wait for the two current players to finish. The girls didn’t want to wait, a trend that I had noticed from the moment we got on I-65 to head to the science center, and I tried to encourage them to wait just another minute.

Finally, it paid off and we were up. Basically, the point of the game was to see which player of the two could “out-relax” the other. Both players sat and wore a gadget on their head that measured the activity in their brains. The goal was to be so calm, relaxed, and focused, that there would be a nearly flat line to show your brain movement. The higher the waves on your screen were, the less relaxed you were, and the more likely you were to lose.

I had watched the people before us. The waves on their screen had started off high, but eventually nearly evened out. Sure, there were mountains here and there, but on the whole—they were obviously calm.

I remembered that as I watched my refugee Zomi friends attempt to “out-relax” each other. Their brain waves were high and jumpy at first, and I was certain they would calm down.

They didn’t.

Throughout the entire 3 or so minute game, the girls sat. One sat with her hands cupped over her mouth, and the other closed her eyes. They looked somewhat relaxed and focused, but the waves on their screen proved otherwise.

“It’s broken,” I thought to myself about the machine. But then I was reminded of the traumatic psychology videos I had watched during my training. I realized, “It’s not broken. They are.”

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a dozen times: I’m not an expert. But, what I have learned is trauma impacts the entire wiring of a person’s brain. One of the effects is the forces the brain to surrender any still or calmness. The brain is always running on high, usually in an effort to be on guard in survival mode. Every time in the past that those girls thought, “I’m hungry. I’m scared. I’m cold,” and those needs were not met, contributed to the rewiring of their brains.

They came as refugees and a lineage persecuted for their faith. I’ll never know all they’ve seen or gone through.

They learned to be on guard, instead of receiving comfort. They learned to experience hurt and fear, when they should have been experiencing safety and love. They learned to always be on guard, when they should have been able to trust that they were safe. They learned how to uproot and resettle in a place they didn’t get to choose—Nashville, TN—when they should have been able to seek refuge and safety in the place of their ancestors.

But, the world isn’t perfect. And with that, I have to remember that sometimes my students act out not because they don’t want to be better, but because they literally don’t know how to. In steps the high, yet humble, task of the teacher: to teach the right way with grace and kindness.

 

– – –

 

Shelby

I pick the middle schoolers up from school 3 out of 4 times a week. Some days they’re ready to listen, and other times, it takes some time to get them settled. During the bus rides, I often hear a wide range of totally random comments.

On this particular day, there were some Congolese girls sitting behind my driver’s seat. I have no clue what they were saying or what they were discussing, but I tuned into the conversation just in time to hear my sweet, very small, student Shelby say:

“They might say you’re ugly, but you’re really just cute in your own way.”

Amen, sister.

 

– – –

 

The Burmese Women

Before spring break, I wanted to give my higher-level class an extra challenge. I wanted to teach them how to express frustration. To be honest, I was worried about the lesson. Not only did I worry it would be too difficult to grasp, but I also wondered how’d they respond to using English in a somewhat “negative” way. But, we went for it.

That day in class, I only had 5 of my Burmese students. They are all women, wives, mothers. We spent more time laughing and chatting and asking questions. And y’all, I used every second to cultivate a place of vulnerability and safety.

Although I would never want to lead my students down hateful or unkind roads, I know that being a wife is hard. I know that sometimes your husband, despite all his love and trying, can sometimes still forget to wash the dishes or take out the trash. I’ve also heard that parenting is difficult too. Sometimes the babies will cry, and cry, and cry. And all you want is for them to rest so you can rest too.

You know, that’s just part of being human. We frustrate each other, and things don’t always meet our expectations. Reality and what we want are often different. Usually during my classes, I like to learn about what my students like, and what inspires them. But during this class, I really sought to learn more about what frustrates them. Honestly, my ultimate goal was to show them that it’s okay to have feelings, even when they feel negative.

At first, it was difficult to talk about it. By the end of class thought, we were laughing and joking, and really being honest about these things. During one of our last activities, I wanted to find out what frustrates them. These are some of the things they said:

  • It bugs me when the schools asks for more money.
  • I can’t stand it when the house is dirty.
  • I hate traffic.
  • It bugs me when the grocery store is expensive.
  • I can’t stand it when I can’t talk to people.
  • I hate it when I can’t speak English.

It was a difficult lesson, and really stretched their language abilities. But, it was worth it. Just to be reminded that they get frustrated by the same things we do, was worth it.

I forget often that I work with living, feeling, thinking humans. Seriously, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of just viewing them as students who don’t understand. It’s my most earnest and passionate prayer that I would never become desensitized to their humanity. They feel things just as you and I do, and think about the world and life too. Just because they can’t always talk about it with us doesn’t make it any less valid.

My job is to empower them. My job is to step in, when everyone else just wants to point out all they’re doing wrong, and encourage them that they’re valuable people capable of learning a language, making a beautiful life in a foreign land, and acknowledging every single feeling and thought that comes with it. Because the reality is, for a long time they didn’t have the luxury of knowing their feelings were important. When they ran to refugee camps and were shoved out of their homelands, they didn’t have the liberty to trust that their life—including all their thoughts and feelings—were important enough to protect.

You’re mad they don’t know English? They are too.

You’re upset they won’t answer simple questions at the grocery store? They know.

You don’t think they’re trying to do well with the second chance they have in America? Wrong.

Have grace and patience, friends. The same people you might get frustrated by have thoughts, fears, hopes, feelings. They’re made in the image of the same God as you are.

In the words of Pocahontas (deep, I know),

“You think the only people who are people
Are the people who look and think like you
But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger
You’ll learn things you never knew, you never knew.”

 

– – –

 

Kyle

This semester has been a learning experience for me as a teacher. One of my biggest learning opportunities has been in dealing with some of my most difficult middle school students. Kyle, one that I’ve written about on this blog before, has had some really great days but also some really hard days. There’s usually no in between.

Something we’ve toyed with in our program is the use of a disciplinary checkmark system modeled after the public middle school the students attend, but tweaked to encourage better choices and second chances as opposed to simply repeating, “You’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong.”

I won’t bore you with the details, but I will say it’s proven to be a pretty effective system. It is the most tangible way that I can hold my students accountable to making better choices, and having “evidence” to talk through solutions to our problems later.

My sweet student, Kyle, has gotten at least 1 checkmark each day. Usually for leaving class without asking, often times for talking at inappropriate times or not following instructions. However, he made some really great choices last week. I’m not sure if spring break and time to play was what he needed, but he came back ready to listen and work.

Monday passed, and he didn’t get any checks.

Tuesday passed, and still no checks.

To my shame, I hadn’t even realized how significant this was… until he came to me about it. He came to me frantically at the end of class with his checkmark sheet attached in his folder.

“Mrs. Brianna, checks! My checks!” he said, pointing to the paper.

Confused, I just nodded my head. I eyeballed the messy, inked up paper, and said, “Oh yeah, Kyle, these are your checks…”

“Mrs. Brianna, today my checks,” he said, still pointing.

I paused. Thought. And realized. “Ohhh, Kyle. You didn’t get any checks today! You didn’t get any yesterday either! You stayed in the classroom, you worked hard on Lexia, you were respectful of me and your classmates,” I explained.

He smiled from ear to ear.

“I good?” he said.

“Yes, Kyle. You’re good,” I told him.

He walked away, and the smile didn’t leave his face. I’ve thought about that so many times since then. It’s a victory to celebrate and he knows it too. And I’m grateful for the chance to get to encourage him every step of the way—even when he probably thinks I’m the difficult one for giving him the disciplinary checks in the first place.

 

– – –

 

Mrs. Brianna’s Class

We have an ongoing class competition at after school. We compete in attendance and minutes spent on our literacy program. Let me tell you about my class: they have consistently won in at least one category since December. In February, they really surprised us by taking the cake in BOTH categories. Then, I was amazed by the hard work they are dedicate to.

Last week, we found out that my class won in both categories. AGAIN. Of the 15 students multiplied by the 15 possible days of programming we had last month, there were only 8 absences. What? On top of that, they spent over 300 minutes on average improving their literacy. Again… what?

They could be doing a million other things after school. They could be playing soccer, babysitting, derping around on Facebook. But instead, they choose to continue learning. They choose to sit a little longer. They choose to work a little harder.

My sweet Shelby innocently asked me last week as we prepared to play a game of alphabet Bingo, “Mrs. Brianna, why do we always play games? We came here to learn!”

What she doesn’t realize is she and her classmates are. They are making huge strides of improvement, and it’s been an honor to play such a small role in that for them the last few months. I’m only a witness to the success stories that are being weaved in them. These are the kids that are going to make a positive difference, whether it be here in our Southeast corner of Nashville, or somewhere on the other side of the world.

A couple of the girls wrote me a note the last day before spring break. They said:

 

“Dear Ms.Brianna,

We say thank you for teaching us. We are really thankful for everything that you guys did for us. We have to thank to y’all for teaching us and we learn more and more from you guys. But if we did not be respect we say sorry. But you guys are the good teachers. We know that some time we didn’t be respectful to y’all. But all the human can not stay without do some mistake.

We will always loves you, Ms Brianna. The best teacher.”

 

Wherever they go, I believe in them. I’m so proud of the things they’ve already accomplished, and the things coming ahead.

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A festival. A really, really cool festival.

IMG_8730Back in December, just a couple weeks into settling into marriage, some of the Burmese women in my large group class stayed around class a little longer than usual. As I cleaned the board and packed my things, I wondered what they were doing. Did they have a question? Did they lose something?

All of the women, 4 total, finally came to me. “Teacher,” they said, interrupting my busy work, “we want to give to you.” They extended their arms to hand me a small package wrapped in a Walmart bag.

“For me?” I asked, surprised, as they smiled. Inside the Walmart bag and wrapped in sparkly tissue paper sat two neatly folded scarves, a necklace, and a hair bow. Donned in red, black, white, and green print, I could tell these were no ordinary American accessories.

“This is a gift in our culture. Zomi culture,” they told me as I held each item closely.

We talked, and the women helped me to dress in my own scarf and necklace. We laughed and took pictures, and I learned that one scarf was for me and the other was for my husband. These women—plus one who had moved and was no longer in class—had worked together to bring me a beautiful, thoughtful wedding gift. They didn’t have to, nor did I even expect anything like this. But, I felt honored that they would entrust such a unique part of their culture to me.

“When can I wear this? Is it okay to wear it?” I asked them.

They said, “To the Zomi festival.” They told me that there is a festival where the Zomi people gather to celebrate their culture. This would be the perfect opportunity to show off my new, beautiful gift.

Although I thought this festival only happened overseas, I learned that it happens in Nashville every year—very close to our classroom meeting place. They told me it would be in February, and that they would tell the exact date when they found out. The winter was only beginning and I was already eager to meet some of my students at this festival with the people who meant the most to them.

When I got home that night, I showed Travis the gifts we had been given. I wrapped the scarf around his shoulders as he read the card, printed with the words, “Sometimes something wonderful happens to someone special,” and signed simply with the names of some of my Burmese students. He promised we’d try to go to the festival, and I framed the gifts to display in the dining room until the time came to wear them.

 

– – –

 

I began asking my students about the festival again in late January, and even though some of the women weren’t sure if they were going, I talked a couple into going with me. I asked them again if we could wear our Zomi accessories, and what I should wear with it. I asked them if Travis and I would be the only Americans there, and they said yes.

Finally, the day came. After class, one of the ladies stayed behind to verify our plans. She asked if I wanted to give a speech at the festival about ESL classes, and I thought she was joking. Then I remembered that humor doesn’t usually translate well, and I had to politely decline. I couldn’t explain the reasons of my being under-qualified and against contract to speak on behalf of my organization. “Next year, maybe,” I told her.

That evening during the after-school program, some of the middle school Burmese girls played with my hair. They knew I was going to the festival, something they had wanted to attend with their families too, after work and wanted me to look prepared. And within just a few hours, my husband was picking me up from work and we were on our way. The GPS led us to a large building nestled behind a bar and a car parts store on a busy stretch of road in Southeast Nashville. I didn’t even need to text my student. She was already standing outside waiting for us.

We parked, got out, and dressed in our Zomi attire. My student, Sing, came over to greet us. She helped me adjust my scarf and led us to the front door of the building. On the inside, the building reminded me of a Co-Op or one of those buildings they held farming competitions in at the Cheatham County fair. It was simple, well-used over the years, and full of some 300 Zomi people on this evening.

Travis and I—two very white people, one with a righteous beard and the other in a single braid, both donning the attire of a culture we were just meeting—followed Sing through the crowd of dark haired, brown skinned people wearing the same white, green, and red patterns.

As we moved, they watched.

I could feel a quiet in the back of the room where we were. Eyes followed and thoughts wondered. They watched us silently, as we distracted them from the man on stage speaking words I didn’t know. I smiled politely and said excuse me, wanting them to know I was safe. I was here for them. When we finally arrived at the seats Sing and my other student, Lee, had saved for us, people moved further down to give us more room.

The next hour and a half, we sat and listened to a Zomi-speaking man. We turned to Sing and Lee, just to ask: what did he say? We watched the people around us, from babies just months old or men and women who could have raised generations. As we sat, this is what we realized. This is what we would spend the following days thinking about, and what many of our conversations would come back to as we remembered our evening spent at the Zomi Nam Ni festival.

 

About 1,000 Zomi people live in Nashville. Or more, who knows.

Someone asked me a few months ago if all my students are from Mexico. I was taken aback, and admitted that I actually don’t teach anyone from Mexico. They were amazed as I told them about the 7 other cultures that are represented among my students, and how that’s only a fraction of the entire representation of the immigrant and refugee community in Nashville alone. There are far more faces, languages, and places in this world than we often realize.

 

What if I learned the Zomi language?

As I sat listening to a language and had N O  I D E A what was being spoken, I wondered if I could learn it. My mind raced as I thought about the opportunity to provide at least one student with work to be my own teacher, and to find yet another reason to invest in her life. I’ve been told a few times in this line of work, “The most valuable thing you can give someone is your time and your faith.” It’s far more difficult and worthwhile to show someone you genuinely care about the things they care about, and showing up to learn more about them.

 

The Zomi culture will likely die away.

Sing went to the front row of the festival just to ask the leader to come meet me. I shook his hand, introduced him to my husband, and we talked for a few minutes. I praised the festival and the work of my students too. During our conversation, much louder music started and we looked over to see a group of teenage girls performing an Americanized dance in front of the stage. Although they wore the same festival colors, the presentation didn’t look unique to their culture.

The leader turned to me, and commented on the dance, “We have to add more American things to make the young people happy.”

And I honestly wondered how long this culture will survive. I know for many of the people in this room, the opportunity to come to America was a long-awaited prayer and blessing. But it dawned on me: this is now the land their children will know. This is the place they will grow, learn to speak, go to school, make a life. The land where the Zomi culture was birthed and grew into a vibrant tapestry of culture and people has, in many ways, moved. As a result, life in this now foreign land will look different. This land won’t always be foreign to them, and a part of me is saddened by the reality that there is a great chance that this culture will change.

 

Many of these people don’t have friends.

As we sat surrounded by an ocean of people, I turned to ask Sing, “Do you have friends?” She seemed taken aback by the question. “Who do you visit? Who do you talk to?” I asked further.

“Not really,” she quietly smiled. She named a few of the Burmese people she visits often, and of course, her husband and two children. For many of my students, including Sing, their time in English class once or twice a week could be the only opportunity they have to socialize with other adults. Especially with a native American.

Call it arrogant that I believe that my classes could be that special to some of these people, but I remember when my Kurdish student Anne left my class to go back to Iraq last fall. She gave me a beautiful keychain to remember her by, and cried as she hugged me. “You’re my only American friend,” she said.

And honestly, ever since then, there has a been a growing burden in my heart. It’s a burden that is aware of the loneliness of the people I work with. The bubbles they live in as they flock to others who look and speak like them. The isolation of not knowing more than a few. And the blatant truth that there are cultural gaps that deserved to be bridged among the people in this place, starting in this little corner.

 

I’ll never know the feeling of being a minority—even when I am.

When I was in Hong Kong, I journaled often about how I felt like strangers approached me differently there. In all my traveling, and in all the places I passed through, I always felt like they moved over a little more for me and stared for a little longer. I felt noticed. This same feeling followed us at the festival too. People stopped, noticed, moved over a little quicker.

And you know, this is probably the most arrogant thing I could probably ever assume, but I truly believe it is because I am a white American. I’m among the most-privileged, wealthy, educated people to have ever lived in history. I’m not here to get into a racial debate with y’all, but I am here to say that the way my students must feel when they go out as minorities in primarily white places is a feeling I’ll never know. Even when I am the only white person in a room. Even there, I don’t think I’ll understand what it feels to be judged cruelly for my skin color or to feel threatened.

 

We sat in a room of 300+ once-persecuted brothers and sisters.

Of all the words that sounded from the stage, these were the ones I understood: church, brothers, and sisters.

I turned to Sing. She explained, “He is saying that there are many churches in many places, but we are all one. We care for our brothers and sisters everywhere. We cannot forget them.”

When I asked her if every Zomi person was a believer, she almost chuckled as if I was crazy for asking such a thing. Of course they were. That’s why they had run. That’s why they had been pushed away from home. That’s why they were here now. That’s why they’re refugees.

And it dawned on me: I’m sitting in a room of brothers and sisters who have been pushed, harmed, and threatened because of their faith.

Wow. That washed over me and soaked me to the bone. I’ve heard about these people and the stories they’ve lived through, but I never thought I’d sit in a room with such a mass of them on this side of heaven. I wondered what many had seen in their lives, and I wondered if they felt closer the Father because of it. I admired their faith and courage so much more in that moment. And honestly, I think I caught a glimpse of what eternity with them will be like as we sat in that room. I’m eager for the day when we can worship together at the throne.

 

– – –

 

After we left the festival, Travis and I made a stop at Waffle House for dinner. The entire drive there, we unpacked and thought about the time we had spent in that packed room on that busy street with this culture we were only just beginning to know. He grabbed my hand and he prayed, “I’m sorry for the situations that forced them here, but I’m thankful they’re here now.”

 

Amen.

Hair, trauma, and rumors that my husband looks like Jesus.

IMG_8771All student names have been changed in order to protect their safety. 

 

Middle Schoolers Say the Darndest Things

My husband has a pretty righteous beard. And there are two things none of my middle school students have: a husband or a beard. And for whatever reason, the trend this week was to talk about my husband and his beard.

I pulled my phone out at one point during class to text my supervisor a question. Two of the students I was helping were quick to notice the lock-screen photo of my husband and me at are wedding.

One pointed, and said, “Teacher, is that Jesus?” I chuckled and told her no, that it’s my husband. She simply said, “Oh,” as if she was disappointed and truly expected a different response.

The next day, I sat in the gym when a student from another class came to me. She said, “Miss, can I see a picture of your boyfriend?”

“Sure, but he’s not my boyfriend. He’s my husband,” I told her.

She paused and just stared at me for a moment before saying, “……Jesus…. Christ.”

I opened my mouth to respond to her, but she seemed less interested once I told her he wasn’t my boyfriend. That’s still a mystery to me.

And finally, when we got on the bus later, little Tim asked me about my husband too.

What color hair does he have?” Tim asked, and I told him brown.

What about the hair on his face?” he continued, and I told him like black.

What about his eyes?” he asked once more, and I told him blue-green.

I KNEW IT! He’s been at my school before! I saw him before,” little Tim stated so matter-of-factly.

And honestly, I just didn’t have the heart to tell him he was probably thinking of a different guy. So I just kept driving.

 

– – –

Chesa and Ming

This time 5 years ago, I was preparing to cut off 19 inches of my hair. I spent months in prayer over the event, and I wholeheartedly expected God to transform my heart in the process. Back then, cutting off my hair was a symbol of dying to self. It forced me to do something uncomfortable to help strangers, and manifested a spirit of eagerness to give everything within my grasp for the sake of growing in the Gospel and mirroring it.

My hair has grown out significantly since then. And these days, I often find myself sitting in a gym with middle schoolers as students play with my hair. This wasn’t part of my job description when I began working with the after school program, but I’ve gladly taken it. They braid it, take it down, and then French-braid it again. They put it in sleek buns and tie it on top of my hair. They brush it out, and chuckle as they tell their friends in their native language that I have some grays.

And all the while, we just sit and talk. I ask them about school and their families, and they ask about mine too. I ask them about their dreams, and pray for them every second they tell me more.

These are some Burmese girls I’ve really connected with this semester, Chesa and Ming. Our friendship started during my second week of class, when we sat outside and they played with my hair. This week, I learned that they want to live in Florida one day and that one of them wants to be a cosmetologist and the other says her parents want her to be a doctor. As we sat this week, the thought came to my mind: God knows what He’s doing even when I don’t. 

He gives us what we need at the right time. He teaches us the lessons we need and gives us the resources we need when we need it all. 5 years ago, as a new believer, I needed every hands-on lesson I could grasp in order to understand the magnitude of this life I had agreed to live for. I had to learn to not want to hold onto the things I loved, and I had to be willing to die to myself. I needed to cut my hair.

But now, to be honest, I don’t find identity in my physical appearance like I did in my early Christian days. Having long, silky hair isn’t a distraction or something I value as much now as I did then. Actually, I considered cutting it off again a couple months ago just because it gets in my way and causes a headache. As I sat with Chesa and Ming this night though, I realized that most of our friendship centers on our conversation that happens when they play with my hair nearly every week.

I thought cutting off my hair was a ministry some 5 years ago, but now I think it’s a ministry to keep it. Just to give me an easy reason to continue building relationships with my new middle school friends—it’s worth it to keep, despite all its headaches and annoyances.

We kept talking as they kept working, and I told Chesa and Ming, “You know, everyone has been saying my husband looks like Jesus.” I showed them a picture, and they doubled over laughing.

Yes, as annoying as it is, I think I’ll hold onto my hair a little longer.

 

– – –

 

Notes about Trauma

Although I interact everyday with people who have undergone immense trauma, let me be the first to say with complete confidence: I do not fully understand it. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a psychologist. I’m not an immigration expert. I read and studied literary works in college, and wrote way too many papers about it. That’s the extent of my formal education. Everything else I have learned, I have witnessed on the field or in a few hours of job training.

While I’m not degrading my education or work experience, I do need to make it clear that there are a lot of days when the field I’m working in reflects a side of humanity that I didn’t realize I’d need to be prepared to deal with. There are damages to the human mind and soul that I don’t always know how to respond to.

What I know about trauma is that is completely rewires a person’s brain. The ideal environment for these people is shattered. The chemicals and big words I don’t understand within their body are restructured. It causes them to put up walls, build forts, and hide away in places. The only encouragement trauma offers the human body is the empty promise that all people are bad, every situation you’re in is evil, and you must always protect yourself.

I see the effects of trauma daily. This is why I work with the after-school program to teach our middle school refugees what is right and wrong, and that our team can be trusted. However, this week, I saw it in ways that startled me.

In our little circles, we call it shut-down. It’s when a student loses all self-regulation, and stops responding to reason, kind words, affirmation. It’s when they become seemingly empty. And at that point, teaching is impossible. The only thing you can do is help bring them back to their senses.

I’ve seen it in the Somali sisters I work with, even though I didn’t realize it until I went through training for my newest job at the start of the new year. For months, they have shown up late to class. They tell me they’re tired and busy. They tell me the work is hard, although according to the institution tests, their ability is far greater than they let on during class. They blatantly answer questions wrong and don’t listen. And they’ll wind up sitting in class, gazing off into space. Even as I say their name, there’s a blankness in their eyes. They don’t look up immediately.

And then there’s times when they come to class focus and full of energy. They’re on time, and far surpass my expectations with their reading and writing. They are engaged, and I believe them when they tell me they’re happy about English class.

I, like you’re probably thinking now, have wondered before if they are just lazy students and I’m a bad teacher. I’ve wondered if they just need more rest and easier work. But to be honest, I believe I’m dealing with deeply traumatized sisters who don’t always know how to process what they’ve been through or what they’re going through now. Call it a lie, but I truly believe they “shut-down” in class. I think the broken make-up of their brains makes them give up, stop, and completely stop responding to all reason or affirmation. I have no other reasonable explanation for the depths of sorrow and void I see on their faces in these moments.

I saw it in my middle schooler Maddie this week. When she put her head on the table, and when she lifted her head up long enough to let me talk to her, her expression was empty. Her eyes were blank. She didn’t want to hear or respond to a single thing I said.

When I asked her later if she wanted to choose her prize from the prize box for the week she shook her head no, and when I offered her prize tickets she had worked hard to earn, she turned away. Usually, no matter how upset a student is with me, there is no debate about whether or not they will choose their prize. They always, always do.

But Maddie didn’t.

Later, when I finally convinced her to stand up and walk over to the prize box, I wanted to celebrate. I felt like we were finally taking a successful step in the right direction. Literally and figuratively. And for a few seconds, she looked through the box. But almost suddenly, less than 30-seconds, the blank expression returned. I watched the transformation happen right before my eyes, and it shook me.

Here, on the cold tile of a brightly lit room in a church, sat Maddie. At some point in the past, she sat for days at a refugee camp in Tanzania, but today, she sat in a safe place with a box of candy, toys, makeup, and other gadgets in front of her. The only response she could do muster was to sit motionless and expressionless.

Friends, I don’t know how to explain it. My words fall short, but the image of her sitting there remains in my mind and it breaks my heart. Everything I’ll never understand as she does was there in her eyes. There was sorrow, isolation, painful memories, a confusing present. There was an emptiness that, for a second, made me feel hopeless.

The next day, Maddie told me at the end of class, “Miss, I didn’t get to pick my prize yet. Can I choose now?”

I was taken aback. It was like she had forgotten about the entire incident. It was like she didn’t even remember sitting in front of the box yesterday, after denying nearly a dozen offers of me encouraging her to choose her prize.

Honestly, it scared me. It scared me to see how a person—endowed with a soul and purpose made special in the hands of an Almighty God—could sit with so much void and darkness hiding within them. Not that she is evil, but the things that have been done to her are. I could call it nothing but the evil work of the enemy, and I hated him for that in that moment.

 

– – –

 

Sara and Milad

As usual, Sara greeted me early on Monday morning with a smile. Her nearly 2-year old, Helen, smiled bashfully before running to the other room. Helen has gotten used to me. In the past she would run in the other direction without even waving hi or bye. But now, she will stay. And if she doesn’t stay, she is quick to come back. She looks at me with an expression that I can only explain as a shy fascination. She doesn’t bolt away from me anymore than any other toddler I’ve ever met would. And sometimes, she even shakes my hand. Her eyes never leave me and neither does her smile.

Although building a relationship with my students is my first priority, it means so much if I can learn about their families too. Each and every person I interact with is uniquely different—different ethnicity, different story, different family– and it is a huge expression of trust that my students will let me greet their little ones and hold their babies.

The more I learn about the families of my students, the more that I realize: there are so many people to meet. There are friends to be made and strangers to greet—so many of which live in my neighborhood and community.

This week, during out short break during class, Sara served me chocolate cake, lemon cake, and a single strawberry paired with a cup of coffee. As Milad and I waited for Sara to return to the classroom we had spread across the coffee table, we began to talk. In nearly all of our conversations, there is something to be learned, even when it’s communicated in a somewhat broken, mispronounced, incorrect English. Honestly, this is usually the motivation I need to continue going because I’m so eager for the day when we can communicate in full, complete English sentences.

As Milad and I talked, we got on the subject of phones. I always love to hear my students reactions to American culture and lifestyle. Although they speak with the highest respect and kindness toward this new land they are in, I hear it in their voice: this place is different and unlike the home they once knew.

That’s not necessarily good or bad. But it is true.

This time, Milad described to me the people he sees always on their phone. He told me about the people he sees in public, and how their phones never leave their hands. They stare at it, and forget that there are real people standing around them. They choose the photos and typed words on a phone screen before they choose to look up and see the image before the photo is taken and the story in the flesh before its words are typed.

“Their phone is their friend. All the time on it. Too much no good, huh?” he said.

I simply nodded and, against all my training on speaking in complete sentences, agreed, “Too much no good.”

Valentine’s Day, Scooby-Doo, and a huge birthday party.

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All students names have been changed in order to protect them. 

Valentine’s Day

We made cards in my middle school classroom. I explained about this funny day we celebrate on February 14th, and showed my class what a Valentine’s card looks like. Then, we got our hands on markers and construction paper and made our own cards.

Some of my students made cards for friends in other classes, and other made some for teachers at their school. And about half of them made cards for any set of eyes that would care to read them. A couple of the girls devoted themselves to taping them up on the front door of the classroom.

This is what they read:

  • Happy Valentine’s Day everybody
  • Happy Valentine’s Day ❤ you are very kindfully to other people and you are always respectfully. Anyway I would like to say happy Valentine’s day.
  • Have big happy happy I happy Valentine’s happy
  • Saddy Valentine’s Day.
  • My is sister. I love you. I am thankful for you. Thank you for helping me. Love. Thank you for everything.
  • Happy Valentine’s day to everyone. I love you guys. ❤ Happy Valentine’s day to everyone. Enjoy your day guys.

 

– – –

 

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Darcy

Do you remember the middle school student I told you about who loves to jump rope? She helped me to jump rope one evening, and promised me that I could do it. Well, her birthday was last week. When I told her my birthday was only a few days after, her face lit up. “Really?” she asked.

When we made our Valentine’s cards in class a few days later, she made one special for me. I hugged it to my chest, and told her thank you.

This is what the Valentine card read:

  • Brianna, your the best teacher that I ever had. I wish that you could stay for ever in after school. Happy Valentine’s Day. Love, Darcy.

Just a few minutes later, she caught my attention again. She held a piece of notebook paper and a small, locked notebook in her hand.

“Miss, this is for your birthday. Happy birthday,” she said, handing it all to me. I opened the notebook paper to see a drawn peacock wishing me a happy birthday. The notebook had a mermaid on the cover, and said, “Always be yourself unless you can be a mermaid. Then be a mermaid.”

It was the first birthday gift I had been given, and one of the most special. The thought counts, and the actions that follow– no matter how big or small—make a difference. I have no doubt little Darcy will make a difference in this world. She’s making one in mine, and I’m supposed to be the one impacting her.

 

– – –

 

Tim

A small, sixth-grade boy named Tim started in our after-school middle school program a couple weeks ago. He’s from Asia, and he’s at that part of growing up where he’s still sweet and isn’t cool enough yet to make my life super hard in the classroom. He’s the only student who lives at an apartment complex further away from his classmates. I’ve driven him home a couple times, and I love getting a few minutes to talk to him quietly. Honestly, opportunities like that don’t come too often in our program. I’m thankful when they do.

This week, when Tim and I began the 10-minute drive to his home, he asked me, “Miss, I have a question: do you like Mario or Scooby?”

“Hmm. I like Mario,” I answered, wondering where he was going with this. It hardly seemed like a fair comparison.

“Really? Why?”

“Well, I liked to play Mario when I was a kid. He lives in an interesting world,” I explained.

It was quiet for a few seconds. I could only assume that he disagreed, so I returned the question, “Who do you like, Tim? Mario or Scooby?”

“Scooby!” he exclaimed, without giving it a second thought.

“Scooby? Why?” I asked him.

“Scooby solves mysteries. And, he isn’t afraid of monsters,” Tim said. My eyes were fixed on the road ahead of me, but I could hear his voice clearly. He sounded happy and excited, and this is something else I don’t get to witness a lot in my middle school students. And again, I’m thankful when I do.

You know me: I romanticize things and make it more poetic. And I knew when Tim answered that he likes Scooby because Scooby isn’t afraid of monsters (which is debatable, ha!), it was beautiful. Everyone has fears lurking in the shadows of their world. We run from them and avoid them. We don’t like talking about them, and many times, we don’t feel like we can fight them. Some people try though, and it’s one of the most inspiring and awesome things humanity does.

Everyone has them. And everyone’s looks different. I have a feeling that the fears and monsters I fight are different from the ones Tim has fought. I wasn’t brave enough to ask, but I have a feeling that he’s come face to face with monsters much bigger than the ones I’ve ever dreamt of. Even though he’s safe in America now, what I do know is that most of his life has been spent on the run. He’s run from monsters, and I have no doubt he’s met them too.

We talked the rest of the drive about Mario’s mustache, and he suggested that I tell my husband to get rid of the beard.

“Maybe you’ll like him without it,” he said. And I just chuckled.

 

– – –

 

Sara and Milad

I know I talk about Sara and Milad nearly every week, but we connect in ways that I don’t experience with many of my other students. I believe we have a special relationship, and I pray that even long after my role as their teacher is finished, I will continue to know them.

This week, they served me breakfast, as they always do. On my plate was a beautiful heart-shaped doughnut, covered in red icing and pink sprinkles. I asked them if they celebrate Valentine’s Day. They looked at me incredulously, “Of course. It’s a love day.”

Honestly, I had decided against teaching my students about Valentine’s Day this week because I knew that many countries around the world have banned the holiday. Out of respect for my students whose religious beliefs might discourage them from celebrating, I chose to forfeit that fight. Plus, I was super excited to teach about American birthdays instead.

I tried to explain this in low, introductory English to Sara and Milad. The world “Muslim” came to my mind, and I decided to go there.

“I know you’re Muslim. I didn’t know if you liked Valentine’s Day,” I told them, curious to hear their response.

There are good Muslims, and there are bad Muslims. We are good Muslims,” they said. They told me they loved to celebrate and parties. Milad went further, “There are many Christians: Catholic, Protestant, Jews–“

I stopped him there. “Only people who believe in Jesus are Christians.” And I think that proved his point.

There are good Christians and there are bad Christians. Same with Muslims,” he said.

I empathized. I understood what he meant. He, in simple English, was making religious comparisons that stretched around the world. And you know, I felt what he said. I felt it deeply.

There are Christians who shame the name of Christ, instead of letting His name shame them. They abuse His Gospel and carry it without much care about who could be watching. They don’t esteem His Words, and they twist it into their own words. They teach what’s wrong, and glorify the gods of their comfort. They speak up when it’s best to be silent, and vice versa. I know, because I’m one of them. Even when I try to be the “good Christian,” there are many days I fail.

And here is my student, talking about a different religion, but still explaining that there are some people who harm the name of what they claim to believe. They do more harm than good with their actions on the altar of their beliefs. And for those who are passionate for the “good” version of their religion, they feel the sting of those who shame the name of what they love.

Readers, I hope everything I write makes it evident that I love Jesus and Jesus alone. However, I also hope these words can show us the similarities we have with people who are so different. I hope we can find a common ground, and a safe place to meet the people we think we could never reach.

I hope we can realize that at the end of the days, we’re all broken people trying to do the best we can with what we’re given. As we all seek the same answers but look in different places, I hope we can find the reality that we’re all in this humanity thing together. And sometimes, maybe the people who look the most different from us are the ones who are more alike than we can even imagine.  

 

– – –

 

 

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Birthday Party

I shared with you all several weeks ago about how I told some of my students that I wanted them to visit my home for dinner. They loved the idea, and even suggested having a birthday party instead. I didn’t think I’d have the guts to go through with it, but once I told Travis, we were sold. All in. Nothing was going to stop it.

I dedicated last week to teaching my students about the basic birthday traditions in America, and the necessary words they need to know too. At the end of each class, I handed them a printed birthday invitation and explained that they were invited to my home for a party with students from all my classes, my family, and my friends.

On Friday night, we made a trip to Sam’s Club for bulk queso and a huge cake. On Friday morning, I left a class and then recorded myself driving into my apartment complex to send to the students who had RSPVed. Finding the address is easy, but finding the apartment number is the hard part.

Would you believe me if I told you that almost half of them came?

I invited 15 students, and watched in amazement as 7 of them came to our home with some of their families. These students were stretched across 4 different classes, and the only people most of them knew were me or their spouse. And then our friends and family began arriving too. There were knocks on the doors, and my parents kept coming to me saying, “I think there are some people looking for you.” They’d motion toward to the door, and I’d recognize familiar faces.

“Teacher, where do we put shoes?” they asked me, stepping into my home for the first time.

And before I knew it, there were Burmese, Kurdish, Cuban, Sudanese and American people piled into our tiny, one-bedroom apartment. We didn’t even have enough chairs for everyone to sit, but I’m not even sure anyone noticed. We ate pizza, we played pin the tail on the horse (seriously- ha!), and sang the most beautiful round of “happy birthday” I’ve ever heard.

Friends, do you know how brave this whole experience was for these people?

I thought I was brave for going out on a limb and hosting a party for such a wide range of people, but the ones who came were the brave ones.

The students who came to an apartment complex they had never seen before, and knocked on a door not knowing who would be on the other side or what they would say—they’re brave.

The friends and family who gave up time on their Saturday to come and meet people they might not ever see again, and can barely communicate with—they’re brave.

My husband who willingly let us budget for a pricey grocery trip to make my dreams of seeing unity among all people and serving them in our home—he’s brave.

All of my students brought me gifts. They brought Easter bunnies, perfume, flannels, house shoes, blankets, purses, a scarf from the tribe of Mara—way more than I deserve or expected. When my dear friend, Sara, handed me the gift as she and her family left, she hugged me tight. “I love you,” she said.  

I held her for a minute and told her, “I love you too.”

It was the party of a lifetime. It was the most tangible reminder of why I labor, day in and day out, to know these people and to seek to build long-standing relationships. It’s difficult, exhausting, and sometimes feels unfruitful. But the start of 23 years old told me that it’s not in vain.

Here’s to a year of more building, unity, loving, serving, and crazy, impossible, mountainous ideas.

I’m their teacher, but when it comes to learning about love and courage, I am their student. God, bless them.

 

 

Paperwork, plays, and prayers.

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All student names in this post have been changed in order to protect their privacy and safety. 

 

Nina

I gave up the opportunity to watch the Superbowl to go see a play with some of the 7th and 8th grade girls I work with. And by that, I actually mean that I gave up the chance to see Justin Timberlake do his thing just to spend a few more minutes with the girls I’m seeking to build relationship with. I know what you’re thinking: who gives up a chance to watch a JT performance like that?! But when my supervisor asked me if I wanted to get paid to chaperone for a play, I didn’t consider what I could lose. I wanted to go, and that was that.

And that is what led me to driving a mini bus full of some of the girls in our after-school program to TPAC last Sunday evening. I was nervous about driving with them on the interstate, and navigating downtown too, but it turned out okay. I was worried that many of the students wouldn’t enjoy the play because of the challenge of comprehending a theatrical performance set in a different time and context. But, I prayed in the ride to the apartment complex alone, and asked God to give us a good evening together. I asked Him to keep us safe, and to give the girls the energy and focus they needed to enjoy the play.

Once we got to TPAC, we nestled into our seats. We had a huge bag (literally) of popcorn to keep us satisfied, and we were eager for the show. Finally, the lights went dim and the curtains on the stage were pulled back.

I would soon learn that the student I sat beside, Nina, was fully of many, many questions.

“Is this real?” she asked me a few minutes into the play as I shook my head no.

“Did he call that woman ‘Sir’?” she asked as I nodded yes.

“I see three shadows. Why?” she asked as I pointed to the different lights above us.

And when the slave-girl and her lover kissed, Nina jumped. “Ew! They kissed?! Really? They kissed?” I laughed, and explained that in real life they probably don’t kiss. But for the play on the stage, their characters did. Just this once. Nothing I said could erase the look of shock and disgust off her face as she simply repeated, “Nuh-uh. Really?”

Although her reaction was funny at first, I thought more later: my insensitivity to public intimacy for entertainment should probably serve as an alarm for me that something in our culture is off. But, that’s for a different discussion a different day.

At the end of the play, Nina asked, “How do they do that?” I didn’t know what she meant. I asked her about singing and dancing before I realized she meant their entire stage presence. She was asking me about the performers. She wanted to know how they landed on that stage.

“How do they do that?” she asked again amazed.

I explained how people practice and train to become actors and actresses. They work hard to memorize long sentences in English, and then they dress up to perform it to others.

“I want to do that,” she told me simply, “I want to be an actress.”

I don’t know what’s ahead of my friend, Nina, but I hope she gets to one day. I really, really do. Dreams feel like an American luxury, and I delight in teaching my students to believe in the seemingly impossible, beautiful, bold visions placed in their hearts for a different future. I love to tell them about the possibilities and choices they can make now, because for most of them, they were deprived of self-choice for most (or all) of their lives.

 

– – –

 

Kyle

I gave my middle schoolers assigned tables this week. Although they nearly revolted at first, they’ve continued sitting at the correct tables and have begun to participate in activities with their new groups. It doesn’t sound like much, but this is a huge deal. I’m eager to see how our new set-up continues to challenge them and lead them to more successes.

However, with that, the week was filled with some of the greatest victories, yet hardest difficulties with my student, Kyle. (Check out the last blog posts to hear more about his story.) There were some moments when he took the seating changes like a champ, and other times when he roamed and wandered instead.

At the end of the week, he got upset because I didn’t reward him with an extra point. I explained to him that because he hadn’t listened to me when I asked for his attention, I couldn’t reward that. I promised to give him the point if he listened later.

“We need a new teacher,” he said simply.

Honestly, I wasn’t hurt. I told him that I care about him and the class, regardless of how much he likes me or not. I’ve seen how this story ends: they say they hate you, but on the last day of class, there is sadness in goodbye. I can’t pretend that I’m qualified to speak on why that is, but I do have theories. And most of them center on the fact that middle schoolers are awkward with processing positive feelings.

It sounds crazy, but I’ve reminded myself of his comment a lot this week. I’m still not hurt. If anything, I’m sad that he feels that way right now. But, if his comment isn’t the most accurate picture of humanity and how we treat Jesus, then I don’t know what is.

We dare to look at Him and say, “No, no. Give me a new teacher. I don’t like what you’re doing here.” Whether it’s because he calls us to things that stretch our comfort zone, or maybe it’s because we can’t see Him in the ways we want to. We assume we have the authority to look at Him and tell Him that He’s not enough, and we know better. We are like traumatized, awkward middle schoolers overwhelmed by the burden of figuring it all out. And we look at the only loving, trustworthy Teacher and tell Him “no.”

Suffice to say (for now), I’m learning about the depths of unconditional love and relentless pursuit—even when the people of your heart and burden are bent on running further away into their pain.

 

– – –

 

Too Many People to Name

A few weeks ago, my supervisor at my new job approached me about picking up some extra office hours. Although filing and paperwork isn’t my dream, being faithful to learning more about refugee and immigrant advocacy is.

Since then, I’ve been working alongside the lead office guy to learn more about the ins and outs of immigration paperwork. I feel like an intern in a lot of ways, but I’m enjoying learning about the work that goes into this process. It’s practical, it’s confusing, and it’s going so well that I left my job in retail two days ago just to be able to give more time to the office work.

Everything I do is fill-in-the-blank work. And some of it is detective work. Although my supervisor, meets with the case workers of clients to get initial information from them, it’s usually messy and full of gaps. That’s where I come in. I fill in as much as I can gather. I turn field notes and scribbles into a neat, presentable green card application. Believe it or not, even the most basic information can become confusing on an 18 page application for each individual. But, I study it, make it work, and print it all out. Finally, my supervisor meets with the clients one final time to review the finished paperwork with them and get final signatures before sending it all off to the USCIS.

It’s not unusual to see 8 or 10 cases in a family. But I’ll be honest, cases this large usually come with a unique set of challenges and messiness. And the 10 cases I worked on for one family last week was exactly as predicted: challenging and messy.

Yes, I filled out ten 18-page green card applications. Yes, it took me all week. Yes, there were a ton of gaps to fill in and no, I didn’t do all of it correctly.

What I could gather, and assume, is the total case included a grandmother, 2 parents, and 7 children. Their birthdates ranged from 1949 to 2015. All of the children had been born and raised in the refugee camp before they were given the golden ticket opportunity to resettle in America in summer 2016.

The thing with these applications is they are very detailed. The application wants to know about your birthdate and alien number, it wants to know about your parents (deceased or not) and your children, and it wants to know about where you lived in the past and what your intentions are for the future.

Unfortunately, the grandmother didn’t know any of the birthdays or whereabouts of 5 of her 6 children and the family had spent 20 years in the tents at the refugee camp.

Despite its obstacles, I felt like I had completed and printed pretty accurate copies of the applications for the clients to sign. After my supervisor’s final meeting with the clients, I flipped through the pages‚ just to make one final clean-up of the files before packing them away in the priority mail package.

I came across the application for the youngest baby. The information about her parents was marked out, and in its place was the name of one of the girls I assumed was her sister. I asked my supervisor about it, and apologized for the mix up.

“Oh, yeah. The baby is a granddaughter. Her mother is one of the children. She was raped, and all they know about the father is his first name,” he told me.

“Oh,” I uttered, not really sure of what else to say. He assured me the mix-up wasn’t my fault, and the way he talked about it made me certain this wasn’t the first time he’s come across this.

But I was shocked. There was nothing to put on the line for the father, other than a name. And for the mother, I checked her birthday again. She was born in 2000. And my heart broke when I realized she was only 14 or 15 when she got pregnant, 15 or 16 when she went into labor at the same refugee camp she had been born in. I couldn’t erase the number from my mind as I thought about the tears that must have been shed. Even now, I can’t pretend to know that I understand what this family has gone through.

I’ll be honest, some cases and families I come across are more painful than others. Even just the birthdates and address histories have the power to break your heart. It’s the most black and white evidence that the world is not okay. This one was one of those times.

Reaching for the box with USCIS’s addressed written on the outside, I paper-clipped the health records, applications, and passport photos for each of the 10 people together. I know I shouldn’t because it more painful and personal, but I peeked at each of the 10 photos before sealing them away. The faces staring in each photo were straight, which is to be expected in a headshot of this nature. But even in a 2×2 inch square, I could feel a deep sadness written over each face. In the wrinkles from years of worry and the scars from years of warfare, I saw a history of a people that I’ll never be able to understand. I saw stories of heartache and terror. I saw a mourning for a peaceful, joyous world that we hope for in faith only.

It’s only paperwork, and they’re people I’ll probably never get to wrap my arms around. But, I can’t shake the thought: it’s the most black and white evidence that there is something deeply, painfully wrong in our world.

 

– – –

 

Quiet Time

I heard that Nehemiah spent 3 times longer in prayer than he did physically building the wall. As a goer and a doer, this realization hits me to the core.

It’s hard to sit still. It feels like there’s never enough time. It feels like the burdens to lift up to Him are too numerous to count.

But earlier this week, I got to my classroom early.

I chose to sit still. I chose to make enough time. I chose to take it one burden at a time, starting with the classroom of students I was about to greet.

I can’t say that anything extraordinary happened in the classroom hour to follow. However, I was so aware of the Peace and Love working to create a space of trust in our midst. I watched as my students created some of the most complex sentences they’ve ever fought to make, and my heart was full of thanks for a Father who cares about them abundantly more than even I can.

May this work never be only about English. May this work be a testament to the Love and Light that satisfies the soul in a way that no world-language or first-world country ever can.

A fake mustache, jumping rope, and some figs.

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Shelby

One of the greatest positive reinforcement tools in the after-school program is the use of tickets. Lots and lots of tickets. We love to reward good behavior, no matter how small or big the steps are. And when a student gets 30 tickets, they get to pick a prize out of the prize box.

My students have two modes: work hard and quietly and get all the tickets. Or run around and get none. Most days there is no in between. We’re working on that.

One of the girls in my class is a small Tanzanian girl named Shelby. She’s so tiny that she’ll fit in a large tote (I know because I’ve watched her do it), but she has one of those kinds of smiles that’ll leave wrinkles around her eyes one day and makes you want to smile too. She’s just adorable. There’s no other way to describe her. She adds so much to our class, and I’m glad to be her teacher.

Well, my sweet student Shelby earned a peek in the prize box on Thursday. She turned in her tickets with pride, and began rummaging through the box. She flipped through Skittles, Frozen notebooks, knitted winter hats, a box of Christmas lights. She passed chocolate and headphones. She thought quietly, and I was beginning to think she didn’t see anything she wanted.

“These,” she said suddenly. And in her hand—of all the things in that small treasure box—was an 8 pack of stick-on mustaches.

“Those?” I asked, a little surprised. She nodded, and walked away. And that was that. I erased her name off the prize list on the board, and turned to finish gathering up the rest of class to go home.

As the rest of the class continued to finish cleaning up and packing up, I heard Shelby’s little voice. “Teacher, why won’t these work? Why are they broken?” I glanced over to see her standing with a mustache in hand, the backing still attached. “Take the white piece off,” I said to her, motioning over the heads of half a dozen students moving and cleaning around me. I felt bad that I couldn’t show her how the white paper protects the sticky part, and I hoped she could figure it out on her own.

In some ways, cleaning and packing up is the hardest part of the day. Don’t ask me how that works. All I know is it’s usually chaotic and loud and still messy after they leave. I’m realizing the hardest balance in this job is giving each student the undivided attention they need from me as a teacher, while also keeping enough focus on the whole class so it doesn’t blow up.

Within a few minutes, it was as good as it was going to get. I had the van key in hand and was heading toward the door as I corralled all the students to get in the line, ready to take them home.

I turned around just in time to see sweet Shelby walking toward the line. I did a double take. I realized that a large, black, handlebar mustache was nestled under her nose. Seriously. Home girl was walking around with a fake mustache on her face and so much chill. It was way too big for her face, and nearly blended in with her skin, but she didn’t even seem to notice. She didn’t have a care in the world, and I smiled because she had figured out how to “fix” it on her own. And also because she’s still adorable.

I hope that I still know her when she’s older. I want her to know that when she was in middle school, she won a pack of stick-on mustaches and wore one home.

I hope she never changes.

 

– – –

 

Darcy

During our time in the gym this week, I played a couple games of soccer-ish/volleyball-ish/football-ish with my friend Millie. But one night, I somehow got roped into… jumping rope.

I saw one of my Muslim students, Darcy, and a friend tossing the rope in the air. I don’t know much about this game, but I do know that with such a long rope, it works best with at least 3 people: two to toss the rope, and one to jump it. So, I ran over to them hoping to be that third person.

“Want some help?” I asked. They smiled and nodded excitedly. I took the rope from Darcy’s hand, and encouraged her to jump. I was surprised by how many times she jumped and how quickly she could. Actually, I was amazed. Jumping rope is not my talent, and I love that there are people in the world who can do it, do it well, and enjoy it.

Some other girls came and left, and I remained at my post, tossing the rope and clapping for each girl that finished.

Darcy, in all her kindness and helpfulness, yelled to me as another girl stepped away from the rope, “You try!” She pointed at me, and I laughed, trying to convince her that I was only there to help. Not to take away from their game.

“I want you to play!” I told her.

“Awh, Teacher, come on. We want you to jump!” she said.

And that was it. I had to open up about my embarrassing confession.

“Well, actually, Darcy… I’m not good at jumping rope. That’s why I want you to play. I’m no good,” I told her.

“Awwwwwh, just try! I’ll teach you!” she smiled, totally unmoved by this confession that I assumed would be the epitome of embarrassment in middle school circles.

What else was I to do? So I tried.

I traded off the rope to another girl, and took my stand in the center of it. Darcy yelled, “Go!” and I began jumping. I made it around one full time before getting my feet in a tangle.

“See? I’m not good at this. Here, you try again,” I told her, trying to give my position away.

“Come on, you can do it. Try it like this,” she said, showing me the perfect jumping height. I tried the jump, and we laughed because I realized how high my knees came in the air and how heavy my feet hit every time. Anyone who has ever called me graceful, has never seen me jumping rope with middle schoolers. My jumps looked goofy compared to Darcy’s quiet, small jumps.

So, I tried again with the rope. My knees were still too high and my feet still landed too heavy. But this time, I made it around 2 or 3 times. As soon as the rope stopped, I tried to get away from it. I gave Darcy every excuse why I wasn’t good enough for it.

“You can do it, teacher. Just try it again. I know you can do it!” Darcy said, smiling. I believed her, so I gave it a couple more tries. And every single time, she encouraged me to keep going because she believed I could do it. She told me so.

At some point, I looked to her and said, “Darcy, you’re my teacher now! Teacher, student,” I said, pointing at her and then to myself. She smiled from ear to ear and giggled, and I knew that there was no way I could ever explain to her how true that really was.

I have learned, and continue to learn, so much from my students—even the littlest of things like learning to jump rope. And I don’t take a single moment for granted.

 

– – –

 

The Big Class

One of my favorite questions to ask my students is this, “What are your dreams?”

It’s a question of reflection and hope. It’s a question of safety that mirrors the face of this nation we live in together. When I ask this question, every few months or so, I do it to remind my students that they’re worthy of hopes, they’re capable of seemingly impossible tasks, and they’re no longer bound to survival mode only. I don’t believe America is the saving grace every person in humanity needs; however, I will recognize that the questions we ask about our future here reflect our liberty and luxury.

My students come from places where their hopes for the future were safety, food, and shelter. They lived to survive; there was not an option to thrive. And for most in America, we don’t have to hope for those things. We assume we have them, and then hope for luxuries. We have what we need to survive, and then we focus on thriving.

When I asked this question this time, they paused. Linda said wants to drive a car one day, and Lucy said that she wants to buy a house.

A Sudanese woman, named Stephanie, looked surprised. She said–

“Teacher, I’m in America. This is my dream.”

Although I’m an advocate for hopes, visions, and dreams for a better future, I’m also learning to be content. My students live with a quiet hope and a genuine contentment. They humble me and remind me that things and accomplishments are not the definitions of our lives.

I will be learning and re-learning this lesson far past my teaching days. I have no doubt.

 

– – –

 

Charity

The youngest Somali sister I teach, Charity, is only 19 years old. She works in a factory every day, and is one of my most faithful students. She’s never cancelled class, and she’s always on time.

I have been teaching her and her sister, Farhia, about jobs. We learned job titles last week, and began looking at job ads this week. The sisters are young, and I can’t see them wanting to stay in their factory job, knowing little English, for their entire lives. I know they want so much more, and in their position, the process of wanting more begins with knowing the opportunities and how to get there.

On Monday, only Charity came to class. I’m always so impressed by how quickly she can learn and use information, and Monday was no exception. At the end of class, she told me so simply, “Teacher, I want to go to college. Next year, I want to go.”

We talked for a few minutes about it. She told me that she wants to be a nurse, and that’s why she wants to learn English. I was honest with her—I told her she has to work hard. I explained that she knows small words, but we want her to learn big words and sentences. I explained that college is a lot of reading and writing in English, and being a nurse is a lot of speaking in English. She’s smart, but there’s still more to learn.

But, I immediately told her that I believe in her too.

“You can do it. I want to help you do it,” I told her. And now, I’m wondering what this task looks like of getting a refugee student’s English to the point of being ready for the university level in the relatively near future. I don’t want to let her down. I believe in her too much to let her down.

 

– – –

 

Sara & Milad

Sara and Milad—my Monday morning class—told me last week they had a food stamp interview, and needed to reschedule the next week’s class. We made plans to meet on Tuesday instead. I’m used to rescheduling for appointments like this, so it was no problem. Just a few days later though over last weekend though, Sara texted to tell me the appointment was delayed. “My dear teacher…” she began the message, just to tell me we could in fact meet at our usual time on Monday. Again, I’m used to changing plans on a whim. It was no problem.

I showed up bright and early on Monday morning, and we began our lesson. I had just finished presenting the new material, part 1 of the 3 part lesson, when the phone rang. Sara answered, put it on speaker phone, and then handed the phone to me.

“Hello, I’m calling from DHS to do the interview,” the voice said.

“Do you have an interpreter?” I immediately asked.

“Can’t you do it?” she responded.

Interpreters get paid upwards of $50 an hour, and for an interview like this, I couldn’t risk my limited ability to communicate in complex thoughts and sentences to hinder the process. I told the woman no. “I’m only the English teacher, and we’re learning how to say the months today,” I told her simply. She got the point. She asked what language interpreter we needed and I told her 3 times: Arabic or Kurdish Badini. Arabic or Kurdish Badini. Arabic or Kurdish Badini.

And just like that, she hung up. We were all confused, because we had understood that the interview would be delayed. We also didn’t know when she would call back. So, we continued on with our lesson the best we could, knowing it could be interrupted at any moment.

Fifteen minutes later, the woman called back again. She asked for the language, and I told her for the fourth time: Arabic or Kurdish Badini. “Okay, hang on,” she said, putting us on hold. We continued our lesson for another 10 minutes to the sound of hold-music playing over the speaker phone. I already knew I’d have to reteach everything we were learning today, because our focus was not on the class. Our focus was on that phone and that somewhat unexpected interview.

The music stopped, and the woman immediately called back. For a third time. This time, she had an interpreter. And I can’t even adequately put into words the chaos that followed in the couple minutes following.

In case it’s been a few years (or since middle school) since you were in a three-way call, it’s overwhelming enough with only 3 native speakers casually talking. And I realized I was about to witness a three-way phone call between a DHS representative, an interpreter, and 2 nonnative people in a formal interview. I honestly just wanted to pack up and leave then.

The woman asked about Sara and Milad’s family—number of kids, etc. She asked about Milad’s job, and he explained that he’s a school custodian. Everything was going as well as it could—until she asked about Sara’s job.

“She doesn’t work,” the interpreter communicated.

“Why not?” the woman said.

“Her language is not good. She studies. We have a baby at home,” they explained.

Well, that’s not enough. She has to have 30 hours of activity a week,” the woman said, her tone changing.

“Oh, English class. She goes to class. She studies,” they responded.

“We need verification of that,” the woman said shortly.

Sara is in two classes: mine and another offered through another organization. They tried to give the DHS representative the address of the other class, and she simply said it wasn’t in their system. At this point, not even the interpreter was helping.

I grabbed the phone, and gave her the address of the other class. The tone changed again, and it became quieter. I wondered why I hadn’t spoken up sooner and why I didn’t even want to speak up now. They probably didn’t even realize I was still there.

“I need the verification forms signed and faxed. Here’s my fax number,” she said. There was a mumbling of thanks and goodbyes exchanged, and the call ended.

And just like that, it was silent in the room. I was already 15 minutes past our class’ end time, but I could tell by the look on Sara and Milad’s face that they knew the call hadn’t gone well. Milad simply said, “We tried.”

I left quietly, ashamed that I hadn’t helped them more and sad that their chances for help from other places weren’t looking good. I didn’t know what to say, other than to encourage them to keep trying and to not give up.

I don’t want to turn this post into an argument about politics, nor is that ever my intention in this field. Certainly, there are political and legal aspects of this line of work, but above that, there are people involved. And that’s what I want to talk about. People and their stories and their feelings and the very things that are woven into each and every human that make us mirror the Image of a God bigger than we are.

However, I can’t help but wonder: what does that phone call say about our system and what does it say about my advocacy?

Sara and Milad obviously can’t afford childcare, nor do they know people nearby who can watch the baby for little to no money. Sara’s language skills might be struggling, but she is taking 2 classes a week to practice. And even though 2 times a week isn’t much, they’re free classes and could be the only ones she’s able to go to with Milad’s work schedule and the 5 children they have.

My students are the most hardworking people; Sara and Milad are no exception. They are working hard in their parent roles, their English student roles. They are working hard to learn a language, learn a culture, build a safe life abundant with opportunity for their children. They’re working without the luxuries of having been born or placed in a place of opportunity; they’re working after they have already worked hard to come to this place of opportunity. They’re doing so much more than a signed verification paper can show.

How can a system step in to literally interrupt one of the couple hours a week that they get to practice what they’re learning—the very thing that the fuss of the phone call centered on—just to say they’re not doing enough?

This phone call hasn’t left my mind all week. For two reasons.

One,

I don’t know understand how it’s so easy to refuse help to vulnerable, trying people. No matter what language tumbles off our lips, no matter whose signature is on the paycheck, and no matter what activities fill our verification form—I don’t understand how we can boil down someone’s worthiness to receive help without considering that maybe the answer won’t fit on a single piece of paper or signature line.

And two,

I wasted an opportunity to help my students in a very real, tangible way. When I was in a moment to speak up, to be a true advocate, I sat in waiting. To be honest, I don’t even know what I had been waiting for. I knew the answer to every question DHS had asked. All I needed was to speak up. But instead, I chose to sit and wait. I regret that.

Before I left, Sara and Milad asked me to sign that verification form. I knew they were several hours short, and they did too. “It’s not enough,” Milad mumbled.

To be honest, I didn’t know how to tell them that it’s not fair. What they’ve had to endure, and what they continue to face, isn’t fair. I wanted to apologize for living in a world that is cautious of hearing a person’s plea for help. And when we do hear it, we’re still reluctant and we complicate it.  

As I looked at that messy paper with too small lines, I didn’t know how to tell them: you are worth so much more than this paper. I’m so sorry we live in a world that lets us believe otherwise.

Learning about marriage, a game of catch, and a really long day.

All student names in this post have been changed in order to honor their safety and privacy. 

Alex and Mary

I meet with a Cuban couple on Saturday mornings. Actually, yesterday was the first time we’ve met in over a month because of the holidays, snow, and moving homes. But, they greeted me with smiles at the door at 9 AM and I set up to finish teaching them the alphabet.

The class is 3 hours long, and these are my lowest level students. Yes, it’s as difficult as it sounds. But, we work hard and accomplish a lot in our time together, and it’s only because they are motivated to do that on their one day off.

My favorite part of meeting with them is seeing them work together. Alex and Mary make an awesome team, and I can’t wait for the day when we can chat in English about how they met and when their story as a couple began.

Alex picks up on sounds quickly. He can correct his mistakes and remember the correction at a really impressive rate. Mary, on the other hand, needs more practice. And confidence. Always, always, always confidence.

This lesson in particular was filled with some hard sounds—Z, X, V (not B!). Our work was cut out for us, and for some sounds, we spent several minutes repeating the correct sound over and over. I was trying to be overly animated in order to illustrate the sound to Mary. I pointed to my teeth and lips, to show her step by step how to form the sounds. I practiced them with her. I made sure my voice was loud enough to be heard without confusion.

But you know what worked better than my certified, well-trained and practice teaching expertise (I say this joking, by the way)? Alex’s help.

“This,” he said, repeating the correct sound.

She’d try, and not quite get it.

“No, no. This,” he said again, repeating the correct sound.

He pointed to his teeth and lips too, repeating the sound. It was the same thing that we had already done, but this time, I got to watch. And he got to be the teacher. She’d follow him, and even though she kept falling short, he’d keep trying.

There are few things in teaching sweeter than not only watching your students grasp the concept, but to see them help their classmates get there too– especially when their classmate is their wife. It is one of the greatest acts of teamwork I’ve seen in a marriage relationship and in an ESL classroom. I was hesitant to commit to a 3 hour Saturday class at first, but Mary and Alex’s encouragement have made affirmed hundreds of times that it was worth it.

I know I’m the teacher, but I learn from my students too. Like this: in marriage, we always work together. We work to encourage each other, and to build one another closer to our goals. We don’t degrade or put each other down even when we stumble. Instead, we move forward together. We always work together. Whether meal-planning for the week, reading a new passage, or learning English, we always work together.

 

– – –

 

Kyle

When I began working with middle schoolers 3 weeks ago, I had 12 students in my class. And as of last week, I now have 15 on my roll. Meaning, my class is at full-capacity. Which is crazy and awesome and challenging and a blessing and sometimes frustrating.

Honestly, my class is pretty great. Most of my students are motivated to practice and eager to learn. I love getting to work alongside them, and encourage them. We celebrate their successes—even just something little, like helping throw the trash away—often. I give them tickets that go toward a future redemption in the prize box, and a high five. I try to never miss an opportunity to tell them I’m proud of them.

I do this because of the psychological trauma each and every one of my students are coping with, whether or not they realize it. The situations they’ve lived through have changed them and the way they think. They’re always on guard, in survival mode just trying to protect themselves. That’s too big a topic for this post though, and I’m no expert. All I know is now my role is to step in and teach them: there is a better way, and this is what it looks like.

There are a couple of students in my class who need, uhm, a little extra encouraging. These are the students who have suffered a greater deal of trauma effects from being a resettled refugee. They’re not bad, they just process classroom settings differently. I really have to work to keep them on track to our goals and tasks. I have to show them a lot of grace. I have to step into messy situations a lot, and there’s a couple of students who are usually at the center.

And that’s where we find one of my most difficult students: a 7th grader named Kyle. He makes me work hard for my money.

He makes messes, and refuses to clean it up when I ask.

He leaves the room without asking, even though our number 1 rule is make sure that teacher always knows where you are.

He plays on his phone, even when everyone around him is studying or doing homework.

Basically, he is almost never doing what he should be doing. And a lot of my energy and attention goes toward attempting to help him get back on track.

Last Tuesday, specifically, was really hard for us. I don’t even know what made it so hard, but there was so much working and motivating and failing and trying and failing again. I’ll put it this way: I got home after 7, and fell asleep (without brushing my teeth or washing my face) within an hour. I didn’t budge until the next morning.

I remember feeling so frustrated and defeated, especially during class. That’s one of the hardest feelings as a teacher: losing confidence in the middle of the class. When you’re the one setting the pace of the class, it’s crucial to know how to keep your confidence level up and to keep going even when it doesn’t feel like it’s going to work. When your hope runs dry, it’s impossible to refill it in the middle of the class. That’s where I was.

Kyle had left the room several times. He kicked the wall (not angrily. It’s just what he does sometimes). He refused to practice his reading or homework. He ran around the room, spilling his juice everywhere. He distracted his classmates.

And there I was, chasing him around. No hope. No confidence. Honestly, no desire to even be there. Not even the coveted Youtube time at the end of class—our treat for the classes who have to wait for the later buses to take them home—could save the day. It felt chaotic, and I just wanted to go home. It was the hardest day I’ve had in a long time.

Not even wanting to try to start conversations in our short free time, I sat down at Kyle’s table. I sat across from him, and as I tried to find quiet for just a moment, I heard him singing.

“I’m no longer a slave to fear. I am a child of God.”

I looked at him. His head rested on his folded arms on his desk. His red hoodie that reads “Lifeguard” was pulled over his head. His eyes looked tired as he stared at the lyrics on the screen. And he mumbled the words of an anthem about freedom from fear.

“You split the sea so I could walk right through it. My fears were drowned in perfect love.”

He continued, and I tried to tell him I like that song too. He didn’t hear me over his headphones, and I didn’t have it in me to try again. I stood up to walk around the room. I didn’t want to cry the tears I felt welling up.

I thought about those words he sang. I wondered if even though he was freed and in a safe place, he still felt trapped. I wondered if he knows that the way he acts isn’t how he was made to live, and I wondered if he felt like the change to something better just feels impossible. I wondered if he felt broken, and if he felt unloved and hated.

I wondered if he thought I hated him too for the countless trouble he’s put me through in the last 3 weeks too. Something in that moment of hearing him sing such a vulnerable song made me believe that he knows something is still wrong, and he just doesn’t know how to deal with it. And I just wanted to cry, because I know the truth: he is a human being made in the image of a wonderful God. He is loved, he is cared for, and he is not a burden to the God who made him.

I wanted to change everything right there. Not to make it easier on myself, but to free Kyle from the chains still hold him down. I wanted so badly to hug him and cry with him. I wanted to tell him that I believe in him, and that I’m here because I care. I wanted him to know that the things he’s seen and the places he’s been are not his fault—it is the fault of a fallen humanity. I wanted him to know that I hurt with him in those hard places, and that nothing he does to cope with the effects of it all could make me care about him less. Most of all, I think I just wanted to tell him that no matter what happens in our class—no matter how many messes he makes or walls he kicks– I do everything for him out of love. Because I want to see him flourish and call it crazy, but I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility.

I drove home in silence that night.

“That song probably hits home with the things he’s gone through,” Travis said. I cried, and he held me. Because I know he’s probably right. And then I fell asleep and slept for over 9 hours. It was the hardest day and the best night of sleep in a while.

 

– – –

 

Millie

On Thursday evenings, we like to spend some time with our middle schoolers in the gym. It’s a great way to close the week: they have a blast, and they get to burn off a ton of energy. Everyone wins.

The first time I was in the gym with them, I sat on the side with a student. But this time, I got up to play. I watched one of my students, Millie, throw a ball and run to catch it herself. Millie is brand new to our program, and is one of the younger girls too. She’s precious, and has become one of the hardest working students in my class.

“Millie!” I yelled, waving my hands. In middle school ministry, this outcome could go two ways: either she accepts and throws the ball to me, or she declines and literally just walks away to do something else. Thankfully, she’s not old enough or cool enough to decline yet. So, she smiled real big and tossed the rainbow bouncy ball at me.

Y’all, homegirl can throw.

The ball went zooming past me, and I ran to kick it back to her. Once I learned how capable her little body was of making me run for my money to chase the balls she threw, I got a little quicker. I’d chase, catch, kick or throw, and she’d mirror it exactly. We were having such a great time, that she decided to toss in a second ball. So basically, there was no rest break. We were chasing and catching and kicking and throwing back to back with no stop.

At one point, I yelled to her, “Millie! You’re so strong!” I pointed to my arm muscles, and she just laughed. I didn’t know if she understood my English, but I hoped the point to the arm muscle was a pretty universal sign for strength.

As we kept playing, I thought more about what I had just yelled. Millie, you’re so strong. Although I was referring to the game of catch, I realized I meant it in a much deeper way. Here was this 5th grade refugee, adjusting to life and school in America, laughing and playing a game like there wasn’t a care in the world. And just before this, she had spent over an hour practicing English, even though she had already practiced it in a school all day. If she was tired or worn thin, she gave no signs of it.

She laughed, she played, and she threw the balls with as much strength as she had accuracy in catching them too. And I couldn’t stop thinking, “Millie, you’re so strong.”

 

– – –

 

The Dream Board

My class made a dream board last week, and I’m eager to share it with you in the next few days. I have no doubt it’ll move you as much as it moved me to help them through it. It’s precious and the most tangible illustration of why I do what I do. Be on the lookout, it’s coming soon.