Give me stories lest I die

I’ve lost my stories, and it’s really bothering me.

I didn’t realize until I started changing jobs that I’d come to rely on the steady diet of stories I was getting out of my teaching experiences.  And now I’m starving.

Back up, I don’t want this to sound too weird. Let me explain. 

I’m no gifted storyteller. Pretty much every one of my friends is a better joke teller than I am. I like the momentary attention of telling a funny story to a circle of close friends, but when I’m honest with myself (usually that happens at night as I’m falling asleep, or in the morning as I move from hazy dreamland to uncaffienated semi-consciousness) I know that I’m a middlin’ storyteller at best. Hearing people like my North Georgia father-in-law spin a yarn about guys named Walkin Tom and Shine go on adventures in Appalachia just reminds me of how much I stand to learn about wit, hyperbole, irony, pacing, and understatement.

So I’m not talking about those stories.

When I began teaching, in 2002, I discovered a wealth of stories. Like Boris Karloff’s Grinch, my heart great three sizes that first year, expanding again and again to wrap its arms around the children in my classroom. It was achingly hard, teaching was, but it was deep and rich and satisfying in its difficulty. Some moments were very hard, they were formative, they left deep impressions that changed who I was at my very core.

I’m not talking about those stories either, though I treasure the lives that intersected ours so hard they left skid marks.

I am talking about the daily tales that emerge from a teacher’s experience. They’re scattered throughout my digital existence now; probably not even able to find them all to put them in one place. But they each started with a line like “Today in class, So-n-So said…..” or “You won’t believe what happened in 3rd period!”…. or “I thought I was going to die of laughter but I managed to hold myself together when…..”

I stored a few student gems in my Facebook "About Me" section. I'm glad this survived the umpteenth reviewing of the FB interface. I'd forgotten many of these till I took this screen shot just now...
I stored a few student gems in my Facebook “About Me” section. I’m glad this survived the umpteenth reviewing of the FB interface. I’d forgotten many of these till I took this screen shot just now…

For 7 hours a day, we lived life together, our little learning community. We ate lunch at the same tables, swapped stories, talked about shows on TV or games we were playing or books or current events.  There were arguments in class and out of class about politics or anime or sports teams. I was exposed to a million YouTube videos and memes and songs and pop culture references that I would have otherwise missed.  (Trogdor!)

It was a wealth of stories, and I drank in every one, relishing the opportunity at the end of a day or week to fall into a chair near a co-teacher to rant for a minute, or sit at a table in McGees with a pint on a late Thursday afternoon and hear Jack launch into a story with “These kids are driving me to drink!” (He was kidding. Mostly.)

When I left teaching in 2012, I felt like Abraham heading out to a foreign land not knowing where he was going, just that he was supposed to go.  It was time to leave. I knew that.  And I finally got a job with people who fit what I was looking for in a new coworker tribe: interesting, caring, witty, creative.

But I did notice, rather quickly, the spigot of stories had slowed its output to a trickle. I came home with enough material to retell some witty banter from the day and discuss a bit of interoffice, not-very-important-so-of-course-we’ve-got-to-discuss-it drama.

But that was it.

That first year at Erskine was hard, partly because I had to wean myself off the stories. I didn’t have the rich interaction with students like I’d been used to for a decade. So I had to recalibrate my sensors to detect interest in the work we were doing as an office, in the projects we discussed, in learning to think better and listen more effectively and ask better questions.  But deep down, I still knew that nothing was replacing the stories.

Four years later – aka, now – I launched out again, this time charting a course toward academic/student support within higher education. It feels good to be back in education proper again; not that I disliked marketing and creative direction – I learned a ton and liked it a lot – but I like being able to think and write about education and not feel guilty that I wasn’t hired to think and write about it on company time.

But the past month has been hard. Very hard.  My new job came wth 5 weeks of training, mostly in isolation. I appreciate the investment of time and care; I feel very prepared for what they’re asking me to do. (Thumbs up.)  But there are very few stories to be had in this job.  I met some great people during the initial week of training, and some of their stories have become threads in my view of the world.  But my daily work is quite tactical, not narrative, not strategic.  And not rich with interpersonal interaction.

Self-reflection and self-awareness take time and effort and mostly just experience. Sometimes we discover what we need during its absence, not its abundance.

I have learned that I crave the kind of work that sends me home at night tired and occasionally annoyed but always with a handful of tales worth telling.  I’m not trying to carve out a career as Garrison Keillor or a stand-up comedian. But I’ve learned that if my work doesn’t bring me close enough to people to learn something about them and begin to overlap their worlds, I begin to starve.

Good to know.

 

Worth your time to read

A few good reads to kick off your week. One should never approach Monday without a good read around.

To kick off, this piece by Kutter Callaway of Fuller Seminary really hit home with me today when I read it in a back issue of Fuller Magazine that we got at work a few months ago. (Yeah, I know, I’m behind.)  He discusses the way that chronic pain distorts our view of reality, usually attacking our sense of hope the most viciously. And how Christians dealing with chronic pain gain insight into the hope offered by the Gospel. A powerful read.

Restoring Hope: Being Weak and Becoming Well – Fuller Studio

*****
From the same issue of Fuller Magazine come two excellent pieces about Christians and hospitality. This ancient set of practices has worn very thin in our modern age, and these scholars take time to explain why Christians should pursue hospitality even more fervently now.  In fact, hospitality might create a space where Christians and Muslims can gather on common ground. 

Restoring Hospitality: A Blessing for Visitor and Host – Fuller Studio

A Moratorium on Hospitality? – Fuller Studio

*****
Time is not just money. It’s also power.  And one of the significant discrepancies between working women and working men lies in their access to uninterrupted free time to think, create, or connect.

This article by Brigid Schulte gives a name to the fragmented craziness that women experience as they try to juggle work, parenting, and marriage:  leisure confetti.  

While many working men are able to access blocks of uninterrupted time, most women — especially mothers — get their leisure time only in snatches, and even then it’s dirtied with the mental anxiety of carpool logistics, supper planning, family scheduling, budgeting, etc.

Confetti. You can’t build or create anything or even feel like a real human being if the only time you get to yourself comes in scraps.

Brigid Schulte: Why time is a feminist issue

*****
I never talk on the phone much now, and aside from my teenaged spurt of nightly phone sessions with my best friends (or calls home during my college days), I’ve never been a huge phone talker.  Texting was (and is) a god-send: concise communication that people can read when they’re ready, apart from the disruption of a ringing phone.

This Slate writer disagrees, and wonders if we’ve lost something…

The Death of the Telephone Call |Slate

*****
This next one may make some folks mad…. but that’s not my intention. In fact, I’d like to post this as much to invite critique as suggest alliance.  But I think Americans need to turn a critical (in the sense of objective / evaluation) eye on football. It’s a dangerous game – one that grinds up the bodies (and brains) of players for the violent pleasure of the masses. This bothers me.

And here, this author suggests an even more troubling link – that the US military is happy to keep Americans confusing patriotism with team loyalty, to see football as  a kind of American war.

I’m not a peacenik but it doesn’t take a 60s hippie conscience to question whether Americans can tell the difference between patriotism and nationalism, between bandwagon-riding mob behavior and common sense.

How the NFL Sells – and Unabashedly Benefits From – the Inextricable Link Between Football and War |The Cauldron (Sports Illustrated)

*****
A powerful reminder that ministry which sees the recipients as “needy” will fail to be as successful as it should be.

“Do you want to know why we love him [another missionary]? He needs us. The rest of you have never needed us.”

What’s Wrong with Western Missionaries? | DesiringGod

*****
I may not be in a classroom any more (an experience that I genuinely miss pretty often), but I want everyone to read this wonderful piece directed to young teachers.  It’s a great reminder of why I taught, and why I want to spend my life trying to make education better.

In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer suggests that we teach who we are and thus, no matter what we teach, our students judge us as “good” or not according to how we communicate who we are.

Letter to a Young High School Teacher | Comment Magazine

 

I’ll be back with some book reviews soon. Currently reading 2 or 3 that have been good reads for sure.

Not even a nutshell

Hamlet:
To me [Denmark] is a prison.

Rosencrantz:
Why then your ambition makes it one. ‘Tis too narrow
for your mind.

Hamlet:
O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a
king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.

Guildenstern:
Which dreams indeed are ambition, for the very
substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.

**********
I haven’t been writing here in a while, you may have noticed.

And me being me, this is substance for introspection, then a shrug, then a long absence.

Two things are at work. One, I’ve been through an upheaval  with work. Until that’s settled, I don’t have much to say about the stuff that’s been eating up most of my mental space and energy for the past several months.

Two, I genuinely question whether I’ve got anything much worth saying, or at least much worth taking your time to read.

An upside of being a generalist and associative thinker is that I know a little bit about a billion things, and I love connecting ideas and people in ways that hadn’t occurred to anyone else yet.  The downside is that I have little patience to dig in and write long thought pieces about current issues or the wit to crack wise about said issues or the attention span to wrangle through some knotty problem that everyone else seems all hot about.

Honestly, I spend a lot of time inside my head managing the daily tasks that don’t make much fodder for good writing. And while that in itself may be a sign that I need to change some stuff about my life, it doesn’t really give me anything to say right now.

I’d like to think that I occasionally have thoughts that others find useful. But increasingly I find that others are already saying most of those things, and better.  I started my first blog (on Xanga … oh my) in 2005, when I’d barely cracked 30 and thought I had Things To Say.

Now that I’m older, I find that I don’t really have much to say at all, and I probably never did.

I also miss the community and interaction that I had back in the Xanga days. We were a small bunch, and my followers usually knew me in person or had become internet friends because we read and commented on each other’s blogs.  Posts were fun because they kicked up some dust (or a dust storm occasionally)…. you had to avoid the drama but at least there was some life, yannow?

But WordPress is a big town, and there’s no conversation here really.  Occasionally my FB posts of these entries spark a comment or two, but even that is rare in a world where Facebook adjusts its algorithm weekly (it seems) so that nobody ever gets a news feed worth reading.

Yeah, I’ll admit it. I miss “the old days.”  I guess I’m that old now…. #getoffmylawn

*****
I’d like to think that there’s a good discipline to writing every day, so I may yet take up the habit for the sake of my own sentence craft. I write so much less now that I’m not teaching, and one should never let writing skills get too rusty.

Clearly this is at odds with everything I wrote earlier.

So you can see my conundrum.🙂

 

Letter to a Young High School Teacher | Comment Magazine

We teach who we are.

Teaching isn’t as much about the what as it is about the who – who you are as a teacher is communicated more thoroughly than any ‘content’ in the lesson plan.

Source: Letter to a Young High School Teacher | Comment Magazine

This is a great read. Had to share.

 

Hugo 2016 wrap-up

Here are the winners of the 2016 Hugo Awards | The Verge

Thrilled that my top picks (or #2 pick, in one case) in the major categories for the Hugo were awarded top honors yesterday. Especially thrilled that good writing came out on top, from a variety of perspectives and backgrounds and cultures.

Please go check out the year’s winners if you need some new books in your life.  In some cases, I found all the nominees in one category to be good reads – I noted that in my reviews:

Novel: The Fifth Season (review)

Novel: Uprooted (review)

Novellas

Novelettes

Short Stories

Why I mentor

As an exercise to wrap up the training this week, I’m supposed to draft my personal mission statement / elevator speech explanation of why I mentor at WGU.

I’m an educator. It’s what I do. It’s what I am.

When I was a kid, I used to pretend sometimes that I was a teacher, and play-act teaching in front of a classroom. This happened alongside pretending to be a lot of other things, like a doctor or a missionary, so I never put much stock in it. In fact, once I got it in my head that I was going to be a missionary, I pretty much stopped looking at any other options.

But now, looking back at myself, it’s no surprise that eventually the teaching profession came and found me. Literally, that’s exactly what happened.  An acquaintance in our area called us up one day and asked us to come talk with him. He was working at a tiny, new little school in the area and they were looking to start a high school. They needed teachers who would commit to at least 4 years, to put a stop to faculty turnover. And they wanted teachers who had a broad liberal arts background and a knack for education. Dennis felt that we had both, so he asked us to apply for teaching jobs. And we did.

The decade I spent teaching was the single most life-altering experience I’ve had. It changed me more than my religious conversion, more than meeting my husband and getting married, more than traveling to Europe when I was 22, more than losing both my parents by the time I turned 25.

Everything about my world changed when I became a teacher.  My M.Ed. program at Covenant drove that change even harder, challenging everything I thought I understood theologically and practically and professionally in the realm of education.

My students rocked my world.  I learned to laugh, cry, suffer, rejoice, and fear with  and for them. I grew up during that decade.  I gained a ton of confidence in myself and in my students. I loved them fiercely and unashamedly. I’m still proud of that.

Leaving the classroom was hard, but it was also right. I had to grow. I had to go away to see more of the world because the classroom had become too small. So these past four years in communications and higher education were needed and valuable. I sharpened a whole set of skills that would otherwise still be dormant. I needed to rub shoulders with new people. It was uncomfortable and scary, but it was necessary or I would never believe myself when I say now, I know that my life’s work lies in education.

For me, teaching is relational. You cannot claim to have succeeded with a student if you merely dumped information into their brains. Any computer can do that with a mere Google search.  I’ve never bought into the idea that lecturing or assigning papers equals giving students a “good education.”  Education should radically alter the learner and the teacher. Both stand side-by-side in the learning space, struggling to make meaning of this broken world.

When I say teaching is relational, I mean that education happens in the context of interpersonal interactions, both with peers and with the teacher. While it’s theoretically possible for someone to be entirely self-taught, those individuals are extremely rare. Humans crave companionship and community. We work better as a team than as individuals. Lone wolves get eaten.

So why am I a student mentor at WGU when that position radically redefines the role of a faculty member (in ways that make many uncomfortable)?

Because the learners who have the deepest needs are the learners who most benefit from personal, caring education. They benefit the most from education that happens within a relationship. 

Not all students should adopt online education as their model. It doesn’t work for everybody. I’m not sold on the idea that WGU is the right choice for an 18 year old with little life experience. By definition, competency-based education requires that the learner bring some competencies to the table. And few teens have lived broadly enough to learn from The School of Hard Knocks.

But many adults have.  The ones who started college but had to drop out, the ones who never saw themselves as smart enough to make it through a degree, the ones for whom school was a prison because the lessons put before them had little connection to the lives they lived.  For these students – often underserved and haunted by the spectres of broken dreams and failure – an education grounded in a relationship may be the only way they escape the poverty and limited opportunities delegated to those who do not walk through an employer’s door with a diploma in hand.

WGU wants to make a difference in the lives of those students, and in those for whom graduate credentials would otherwise be out of reach.  This is a mission I can put my weight behind, and the fact that WGU’s model grounds students’ learning in a mentor relationship seals the deal.

Teaching is relational. And that is why I mentor students at WGU.

 

Good night, sweetheart, well it’s time to go

I hate goodbyes. It’s better to say “see you next time,” because that leaves all kinds of hope shimmering in the sunlight.

It’s hard to leave something, somewhere – wherever you’ve found yourself for the last while, working and building and arguing and creating. But to everything there is a season, says the Preacher. And this is one of those times.

So I packed up my things today, looked around one more time, gave some hugs. Walked out of my (former) office, bit back some tears, already missing the tall ceiling, not missing the steamy 80 degrees on the thermostat in the summer because our AC can’t keep up, missing the witty conversation I won’t be a part of tomorrow morning, not missing the mundane tasks of office life.

It’s hard to leave people. Really, that’s what always gets me. Places can be beautiful or fun or memorable or breathtaking or functional or inspiring and all that … but People. People are what make this world tick, yannow?  And the four of us had some amazing moments.

Seriously. We were a comedy machine. Just turn the spigot a quarter turn — give us a funny word, an odd last name, an obscure movie reference, a quote from Monty Python, a raised eyebrow, a ridiculous request from some office across campus — and we were off to the Comedy Races.

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There’s that time the guys quoted like whole sections of The Holy Grail, so much that we could theme our Student Appreciation Day around the crazy Brits. (See photo, above.)

There were the snatches of ideas for improv sketches that we knew we’d never actually do, but it was fun to imagine doing them…..
– “What if email spam filters became sentient, and actually explained why you were getting that email about penis enhancement but the expense reports from downstairs were always MIA?”
– “What is the waiting room like outside Hell? Are there snacks? A coffee machine? Decent chairs?”
– And does Heaven have an Orientation session where God or some angel answers all the questions they’ve collected for the past 10,000 years, so they don’t have to answer them individually?  “For a presentation on the Noaic Flood, head to Room A at 3pm. For evil and war, a panel discussion will take place in Room B at 5pm. To locate the socks missing from your dryer, see the Steward on Aisle 10.”
– “What if we created a newsletter for campus but called it “Ill-Health Times?” (This was after the sudden rush of “good health” updates from HR on “Wellness Wednesdays.”)
– “Why isn’t there Yelp for drug dealers?”  “Maybe there is but we don’t know anything about it.”
– “What about the Rituals Help Desk, where upset pagans call to complain that they’ve sacrificed the chicken and smeared the blood in a precise 8 foot circle, but no demon ever showed up?”

We kicked around endless ideas for mind games, cackling with glee when we were able to end a sentence perfectly as soon as the boss crossed the threshold and paused, wondering if we’d stopped talking on his account. (Honestly, Cliff, almost never. I promise.)  And I had other great partners in crime: Tobe & I ran experiments to see how many “dapper” comments we could toss toward Cliff before he’d react visibly.  She and her team had whole books of codewords they’d use in text or snapchat to refer to particular coworkers.

And sometimes I’d laugh so hard the whole hallway would hear me, because I do that occasionally, and it’s stupidly loud and probably annoying to half the planet. …But to the other half of the planet, since they all heard me too, I hope you smiled. Laughter is good for your spirit. You should have laugh-cries at least once a month week. Does wonders for your outlook.

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I totally screwed up my chance to look badass in this photo. Still kinda chagrined about that. Everybody else is so…Whovian…and I’m standing here grinning like a damn puppy. *rolls eyes*

It’s hard to leave a job you’ve worked at for, say, 4 years. I finally know what I’m doing. Heaven knows it took a solid year for me to even begin to feel like I had a handle on things. Impostor Syndrome – it’s a thing.  Leaving the classroom for a new field made me very insecure.  I didn’t know business culture, didn’t know the marketing lingo, didn’t know the work I was supposed to be doing. I watched, observed, studied every word and gesture so I could claw my way out of the feeling that I didn’t belong there. ….Those were unsettling times.

That, and fighting off waves of fear that I’d made a mistake by leaving teaching, the one job I felt called to do, even if it seemed like I had good reasons. And regret – because it’s a visceral gut-punch not to be with your students who have come to campus for a tour. I know that leaving my classroom in 2012 was the right move because I was bored. But I had to come to know that in my bones, in my head, in my gut, in my hands, in my heart.

This was good. Change was good. I needed to grow. I needed to realize that I should have been actually planning for a career this whole time, but who knew? Nearly every married woman in my address book has dropped out of work or left their original ambitions to be a mother. Few have gone back after their kids grew up. How was I to know in my 20s that I would not also trade work for parenting?  (And in the world where I grew up, there is no higher sacrifice than that a woman lay down her life’s work for her children.) (Leaves the rest of us in a pickle, doesn’t it?)

So I’ve learned some things.

One, I’m a good designer and creative director, but I still talk too much in every meeting. (Working on it!)  I leap too quickly to solutions and skip some of the discovery steps to good design thinking and problem solving… but I’m working on that too. It was great to have such creative thinkers working alongside me. Creativity cannot exist in a vacuum. It thrives within collaboration.

It’s at Erskine that I learned how much I love creative directing, even more than designing. It’s like getting to hold the wheel of a powerful machine, one that can produce amazing wonders like museum exhibits:

Two, teamwork is hard to achieve but still vitally important. Working in a silo is bad. Also, team “culture” is everything. As the dude said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” He’s right.

Three, if I can ever spend my days as the literary bartender/barista in the 21st century version of a Parisian intellectual salon, I will know that I’ve hit the career lottery.  I want to talk to people about what they want to do, and then help them make their ideas better. That’s it, really.

Fourth, you need to go do the work that will bring you joy and deep satisfaction. But sometimes employment doesn’t fill that deep hole. Yet you can still find joy in the moment, in the people around you, in a sense of accomplishment. And when you cannot do that any longer, when you’ve explored to the very edges of the day’s work and there are no worlds left to conquer, it’s probably time to find a new challenge.

Fifth, seize every opportunity to get to know people, to find those kindred souls tucked in other parts of the organization, the people who understand that laughter is medicine and kindness is golden and friends are really hard to find once you’re an adult, and hold on to those people. Because they’re priceless. Go “do life” with them.

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We “did some life” at the beach with these people a few weeks ago. No, the ocean isn’t running downhill. It’s a cool hipster angle. Hand-crafted, even. Artisanal.

I’m going to miss many things about my work at this little college in Due West. It’s a special place that’s impossible to understand until you’ve walked a mile in its shoes. Wouldn’t trade the last four years for anything….

And that’s why I cried most of my drive home. S’Ok, though. Something new is coming.

 

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