She’s Still There

When was a time in your life when you felt the most hope?

That’s the question Chrystal Evans Hurst asks in her new book She’s Still There: Rescuing the Girl in You. Hurst posits that if we ask that person, the person we were who was full of hope about our future, we will find the answer to whatever we are questioning right now in our lives. Because she’s still here. We just need to go and ask her what she thinks.

I haven’t read Hurst’s book but this premise resonates with me. I’ve just moved house with my family, back to a place where I have grasped for hope and held hope and lost hope in equal measures. I’m at a career crossroads, juggling the hot potato of what it is I still want to be when I grow up. So I’m taking Hurst’s advice. I’m going to go find that girl and rescue her.

***

There are a couple iterations of Kendra who had a lot of hope.

Flower girlin w/ my cousin Li’l Ry. Grandpa + Auntie Nora behind us.

The first I can remember is Young Kendra who spent a lot of time with her grandparents. They really were the most loving forces you could imagine. Doting, good-humored, and completely enamored of their family. Also, they thought a heaping bowl of Rocky Road ice cream was a totes appropriate pre-bedtime snack. I spent countless afternoons and overnights at my grandparents’ houses. I felt secure and loved and could not imagine a world that would be so cruel so as to eclipse the warmth of my grandparents. I only have one living grandparent now. I called my Granny today. She wasn’t home. But it still felt good to be able to call her. A baby step in my rescue mission.

kendrahighschoolgrad Another Hopeful Kendra can be found in Recent High School Graduate Kendra and the summer that followed. An idyll, that season. I was so glad to be done with the drudgery of high school, the negativity and sadness that had clouded my purview for the last few years prior. Also, I was still working at Dairy Queen and you CANNOT BEAT full access to a walk-in cooler with whole vats of boulders of Reese Cup goodness. When I think about visiting that Kendra, it’s honestly hard to imagine how unobstructed her view was. She wouldn’t know how she’d have her heart shattered in the coming year. She would think college would be all about studying interesting topics and taking study breaks to watch 80’s rom-coms with her roomies. And yet she’d probably still tell me something valuable, which is, to pursue that which interests me, and to try new things even if it’s uncomfortable because otherwise how will we ever grow and how will we ever figure out what we want to be when we grow up?

I usually resist notions of having to rescue ourselves because it sounds unnecessarily dramatic. However, I understand Hurst’s urgency in that for so many of us, we’ve buried that person along with our hope. We’ve become jaded. We’ve forgotten what it is to believe in our ability to THRIVE rather than merely survive.

And you? Do you have someone you need to rescue? What will he/she say to you when you find him/her? She’s still there, and so is he.

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Six Years a Southerner

“Looks like Michelangelo is getting a bath,” said the dad, bending over the grate where his offspring had wedged an action figure into a ground sewage stream. “Do y’all understand how this happened?”

One of the funniest scenes during our time in the South played out within the first month of our arrival, some six years ago. Loverpants and I still laugh when we walk by this spot in front of the Tennessee Aquarium, a destination that is the heart of Chattanooga’s renaissance as a Southern city. We think how the aquarium houses pods and plants and all manner of sea and river creatures. It also the little-known bathhouse of ninja turtles.

My own immersion into the South was almost as abrupt as Michelangelo’s. We arrived to our rented ranch house on three acres and felt the distinct awe of our new rural-burbia life, waking up to the sounds of cows mooing when only days prior, we had known only tinkering shopping carts rattling down city blocks, the siren cry of ambulances so familiar we barely noticed. We were soon introduced as newcomers to my workplace. We were awkward and unwieldy. Baby Girl couldn’t find her sleep groove for weeks. I couldn’t find time to lesson plan. Loverpants couldn’t find an office space to lease. Little Man couldn’t find his walking feet.

But then we did. We found ourselves doing life in the South as people who worked and churched and bought Aretha Frankenstein pancake mix to make at home on Sunday mornings. The difference, I think, is that finding a rhythm is not the same as finding a fit, which is how I would classify my time in the South. Just because Michelangelo is placed in the gutter and he stays there doesn’t mean he belongs there.

I have not found belonging in the South. This is not a criticism of the South, just a witness to my experience. Mercifully, though, I have found pockets of being known and that has been the great treasure of my life here.

Belonging in the South, specifically in a more junior city, specifically in a conservative religious community, requires a certain extroversion that eludes me. Small talk is currency in this environment where one mills in small concentric circles of interconnected folks. I am allergic to small talk so I am most likely to enter into conversation with, “I cannot freaking believe I am buying sex ed talk books for my kid already,” rather than preferred pleasantries about the weather. There is also a pervasive lack of directness that is borne of the aforementioned interconnected network. If good fences make good neighbors, then a lack of fencing can lead to a superficial neighborliness. Being authentic, after all, is a liability. And being authentic in one social circle where any misdeeds in one patch might bleed into another can leave us defenseless. The need to “play nice” at the expense of addressing conflict or wrong behavior is something I’ve observed too often. My natural bent is to be as direct as possible, even if it is hard. So whenever I have found others willing to join me to climb the chutes and slide down the ladders of directness, I have desired to call those people my kin.

There are a whole host of other aspects that I have found so foreign about the South (The expression “might could.” The frequent use of styrofoam in restaurants. The lack of sprinkler parks in spite of the heat much of the year). But if I dwell on these things then I fail to see the good and to celebrate the great things about the American Southeast (Publix Grocery Stores, hallelujah! The lushness of spring. Savannah/Tybee Island. Charleston. Birmingham. Nashville. Memphis. Crepe Myrtles. Sitting in the bleachers for Used Car Night at a minor league baseball game in the fall). There is so much to adore about this region that has been our home for six years, this city that has, at turns confused and enchanted us.

We will return to the Northeast from whence we came, with children six years older, with wisdom poured like a fine wine aged six years. And we will be glad for the friends we have made, the places we have served, the houses where we have worshiped.  We will count it all a blessing to not only have gotten wet but to have been fully immersed like Michelangelo in the sewer, with passersby asking if y’all knew how it happened.

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On the first time you learned your student passed away

The Facebook page was eerie, like seeing the faded lettering of an erstwhile business still on the brick storefront. It said, “Remembering Francis Angelo,” and my stomach dropped. I don’t know why this student came across my mind this morning but it occurred to me I hadn’t seen him come up on my feed in recent months. I’d wondered if he had beaten cancer, gotten married, launched his own gubernatorial campaign.

But instead the timeline had ceased and all that was left in its wake were digital artifacts. A video of the thank you speech he gave at a fundraiser his friends must have thrown him before he received his transplant. It was a wonderful speech, casual but sincere-sounding, and then he pivoted and proposed to his girlfriend.

He died just weeks later. He didn’t get to run for office, using his superb writing abilities. He didn’t get to say his vows, in sickness and in health, pinned to all the hopes of  many more years of health with his beloved. I wonder if he got to see his brother come home from the Army before he passed.

I’m sure much has been written and eulogized about Frank already, so I will not heap more platitudes onto the pile. I think the part that feels heaviest to carry, though, is that he was the first student I ever had in the first class I ever taught, and he is now the first student whose death I have learned about. And I learned of his death in such an inorganic way that it was difficult to process. How he was once sitting in my class, reading texts I can no longer remember, but whose Boston accent I surely can, and how he was so young and how this was all so flipping unfair.

As a teacher, you don’t necessarily know your students better than their friends and surely not their parents, but there is something distinct about a teacher’s encounter with the people she teaches. The relationship is an evaluative one, certainly. But it is also one that must be built on trust in order to thrive, to have some measure of success. Simply by virtue of being a student, a student asks of the teacher, Will you treat me fairly, will you challenge me appropriately, will you remember me after the last grades are turned in? In turn, a teacher asks, We are going to read hard texts, will you follow me outside of what is comfortable? Do you respect me enough to listen and receive? Will you remember the things we learn long after the final grades are filed?

I came to know my students in all the ways a teacher does: discussions and tests and groveling e-mails to excuse their tardies. These are not necessarily singular to the profession of teaching, but they are privileges I enjoyed.

I want to dig up a paper Frank wrote and send it to his parents, offer them one more tactile artifact of his originality and accomplishment. But then I remember that they are his parents and their treasures are unique to the unending bond of love they have for their son.

I? Was only his teacher. What I’ve learned over many semesters in college classrooms is that this is sacred, too, in a way that maybe only a teacher can know.

nye desk 2

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