Month: November 2018

Exit 223. I can learn something from the way that they lived their lives.

Death.  Never an easy topic to discuss.

Comic book writer Stan Lee, the creator of Spider-Man, the X-Men, and many other superheroes, died a couple weeks ago.  I recently saw the movie Bohemian Rhapsody, based on the true story of Freddie Mercury and the band Queen.  Freddie was only 45 when he died, and yesterday was the anniversary of Freddie’s passing in 1991.  My pastor knows another pastor in the same denomination whose toddler granddaughter recently died unexpectedly and suddenly.  And, hitting closer to home, a friend from the church I went to when I first moved here lost his battle with cancer this weekend.  He was only 30; he was in the college group at church when I first started going there, and his older brother was one of my first friends when I moved here.

I feel especially bad because this guy and I had kind of grown apart.  We didn’t argue or have a falling-out or anything like that; we just grew apart from natural causes as life took us in different directions.  The same thing happened with me and his brother, who no longer lives in California.  I’ve grown apart from a lot of people over the course of my life, and I’ve always told myself that no one is in the wrong here, that growing apart is just a natural part of life.  But now I have to accept the fact that it had been well over a year since I had seen him face to face and now I won’t get to see him again.

Death also always makes me wish I had known people better in their lifetimes.  Like I said, my deceased friend and I didn’t really run in the same circles anymore.  Similarly, at the memorial service for another acquaintance who died unexpectedly in 2012, I learned all kinds of things about him that I never would have expected.  And, as I have written before, I didn’t really discover Queen’s music until the months just after Freddie Mercury’s death.  But I can still appreciate everything and everyone in my life now, because I never know what will happen in the future.

And I can learn something from those who pass away and the way that they lived their lives.  In the case of my friend who had cancer, he was one of the nicest people anyone would ever meet, being kind to all of those around him and committed to knowing God and living for him.  And that is something we can all learn from.

Exit 222. Celebrating what we have in common and working together.

Recently, I was invited to a large worship and prayer event at a church about 40 miles from me.  I found myself a little nervous walking in.  I had no idea what to expect.  I had never been to this church before, I didn’t know how big of a crowd there would be at this thing, and most importantly, I didn’t know where to go off the top of my head.  The person who invited me described where she would be, and I found her pretty easily, and the rest of the night was great.  But this got me thinking, trying to figure out why I was so nervous in that situation.

I think I was mostly just afraid of the possibility that I was going to wander into the wrong room and find myself horribly out of place.  I’ve seen that happen from both ends, wandering into the wrong room myself and having to excuse myself and go find where I’m supposed to be, or being in some sort of group, meeting, or class, and seeing someone else wander in thinking that they are in a different group from the one I am actually in, and discovering it much later.

I specifically remember one such experience along these lines, although technically I was in the right place that time.  It was 2005, during my four months on the road.  I was in a rural area in the Ozarks in southern Missouri for several days. I was visiting two people in the area who lived about 10 miles apart but didn’t know each other.  Let’s see, I should give these people names… “Pherkad” is a friend from college, and “Rho Serpentis” is someone I knew online and had not met in person before this trip.  (We lost touch a year or two later.  I don’t remember exactly why… I think she met a guy and stopped being online all the time.)  For much of the time I was in the area, I went back and forth, spending some of the time with Pherkad and her husband, some of the time with Rho Serpentis, and some of the time alone, depending on who wasn’t working or in class (Rho was a college student at the time).

One of the more interesting experiences of my travels of 2005 was getting to experience so many different kinds of churches.  If I was staying with friends who went to church on a Sunday, or on a Wednesday if their church had a mid-week service (which apparently is very common in the South and Midwest but rare among the churches I’ve been to in California), then I would go to church with them.  Otherwise, I’d just kind of randomly pick one.  But that’s not part of this story.  I was going to go to church with Pherkad and her husband on Wednesday night, and Rho was going to come with me.  But Pherkad and her husband weren’t going to be in the service, because they were going to be volunteering with children’s church.

So we got there, Pherkad and her husband went off to go work with the children, and Rho and I sat down.  A couple minutes later, I knew something was not normal.  Apparently this week wasn’t a regular service, it was the church’s annual business meeting.  And being that I was just visiting, I had never been to that church before, most likely never would again, I felt very out of place.  The meeting dragged on and on and on for an hour and a half, and when Pherkad and her husband finally got back, they apologized profusely for making us sit through all of that when we didn’t really know much about what was going on with their church.  I probably should have said something, or left, but I didn’t want to make a scene or look any more out of place than I already was.

I did learn something from that experience, though.  One of the major issues being debated by that church at that time was whether or not to use Awana as their children’s curriculum.  I hadn’t had a lot of experience up close with Awana specifically, but I had heard of it, and I knew that a lot of churches used it for their children’s programs.  I didn’t see why anyone would have a problem with it.  But a number of people in this church’s business meeting kept bringing up the fact that Awana was a separate organization not specifically affiliated with their denomination.

This all made me kind of sad.  My experiences with Christianity up to that point mostly had not included such toxic nitpicking over the minor differences between denominations.  The different branches of Christianity have so many important things in common, but Christianity as a whole is torn apart by people who argue over the things that aren’t really worth arguing about.  And many people tend to treat any little disagreement as a line separating those who are real Christians from those who will burn in hell.  They don’t realize that all of this does more harm than good and turns people away from Christianity as a whole.  And the situation hasn’t really changed… in the 13-plus years since this happened, I have seen many other times where Christians disagree over issues that do not affect how they respond to Jesus’ message of salvation, and mistreat each other because of it.

So all of that didn’t really have anything to do with the event I attended last night.  I didn’t end up in the wrong room, and it didn’t end up being a church business meeting.  And appropriately enough, this was an event that had people from many churches all over the area.  But all of that just got me thinking about denominations and different branches of Christianity… and how maybe we need to spend more time celebrating what we have in common and working together, rather than calling each other names.

 

Exit 221. The best I can with the life I’ve been given.

Recently, one of my friends shared on Facebook that her daughter was pregnant, and that she was going to be a grandmother for the first time. This announcement was significant to me because of how I know this grandmother-to-be: she was in my high school graduating class.

I’ve known for years that this moment would be coming soon, and I’ve been dreading it. Having children was never on my radar, I’ve always felt like I was missing out on something special because of that, and now I’m old enough to be theoretically having grandchildren. It’s quite likely that she isn’t even the first grandparent in our graduating class. Quite a few of my classmates already have adult children (we’re in our early 40s currently), and at least three-fourths of my classmates I have heard nothing from since we graduated. I know of people my age and younger who have older spouses and step-grandchildren, and I know of someone in the class a year older than us who was a grandmother at age 39. But it hits home a little more when it’s someone whom I’m actually in social media contact with.

I’ve been dreading this because it is just a reminder of the fact that having children has never been something to consider for me, which in turn is a reminder of my failure to form or have a romantic relationship. I am constantly surrounded by reminders of this, and it makes me feel like there is something wrong with me.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. I can just keep doing the best I can with the life I’ve been given. And I have plenty of reminders of experiences I’ve had, and continue to have, that wouldn’t be possible had I had children. This isn’t what I naturally think about first when this happens, but I need to learn to change my thinking.

And besides, most of the greatest human beings who ever lived weren’t like everyone else.

Exit 220. No memory of this kid.

Every year, on the first day of school, I give my students an assignment where they answer some questions about themselves.  It gives me a chance to do some necessary paperwork while they are writing, but it also gives me a chance to learn a little bit about who is in my class that year.

One of the questions I ask is who lives at your house.  That way, I can see if a student has a large family, or if they live with both parents, or if a relative other than Mom or Dad is raising them.  I added to that question two years ago: “If anyone in your house has had me as a teacher, circle their name.”  I looked at my class list that year and saw a few familiar last names, most likely younger siblings of students I had had before, and by that point I had been at the school long enough that I was probably going to be getting younger siblings of students I knew every year until I retired (unless I end up at a different school for whatever reason).  So I added this, just in case there were any students whose siblings I knew but I didn’t notice that they were related.

Students aren’t good at following directions, of course.  I’ve had a few students just see the words “circle their name” underlined, and they circle the names of everyone in their family.  And the reverse happens too; I had one this year name her older sister on that paper and not circle her name even though her sister was in fact in my class.  Whether this was due to not circling the name or just not knowing whether her sister had been in my class and being too lazy to ask, I don’t know.  With this student, it could have gone either way.

Sometimes I can tell right away when a student has an older sibling whom I know.  This year, there is one boy in my class who very much resembles a girl from three years earlier with the same last name, except that he’s a dude and not built like a gymnast.  On the first day of school, I told him a funny story involving his sister and a protractor, which he said he remembered hearing about back when it happened.

One girl this year circled her older brother’s name.  I just assumed it was a mistake.  The name didn’t seem familiar, and it’s a fairly distinct last name that I would have remembered.  I never asked her whether it was a mistake or not.  But about a week ago, a student sitting next to this girl mentioned that she had heard stories about me from an older friend who was in my class last year.  I just kind of chuckled.  The girl who had circled her brother’s name then said, “My brother told me he liked having you as a teacher.”

I made some noncommittal remark, something like “That’s good, I’m glad.”  But that really got me thinking.  Apparently this girl did in fact have a brother who was in my class, and I had no memory of this kid.  I thought maybe he never actually had my class.  Maybe his friends were in my class, so he knew who I was.  Maybe he was a student who liked to hang out in my room after school and do homework, because I’ve had students do that sometimes some years.  Or maybe he came to the club that I sponsor once a week after school.  But surely I would have remembered him if he had actually been in my class.

I got curious a few days ago.  I clicked on the archives of previous years of the student information system and started checking class lists, going back to the first year I was at that school.  And eventually I found him.  The girl was right, and I was wrong.  He was in my class, in 2015-16, my second year at this school.

And I had no memory of this kid.

That was a pretty memorable class, too.  Some of the students I remember the best were in the same class as him, the same period in the same year.  Like Protractor Girl.  And the student who sat a few rows behind me at a Kings game once.  And one of the handful of students who have been consistently in touch with me since they left the school.  And the daughter of a coworker who had a hilarious quote about one lesson that I’ve shared with every class since.  But I don’t remember this kid at all.

I feel bad when I realize that there are former students who I don’t remember.  A few years ago, I wrote (warning: there are a few of you with whom I’ve discussed some of my fiction writing other than what has appeared on this site, and clicking the following link may contain spoilers about the events that inspired that writing) about a particularly memorable experience about forgetting a former student.  But in that case, eleven years had passed in the time since I had had that student, and I had moved.  This time, it was not nearly as long, and I’m still at the same school, with his sister in my class right now.

I just got out the yearbook from his year to see what this kid looked like.  And he wasn’t there.  That made this whole thing look even more creepy at first… but probably not, he was probably just absent on picture day.  I found his picture in the yearbook for a different year, though.  And he still doesn’t really look familiar, except for the fact that I can see the resemblance to his sister who is in my class right now.  While I was looking through the yearbook, though, I saw so many other names and faces whom I hadn’t thought about in years.

I’m sure I’m not the only teacher who goes through this.  I’m sure it’s perfectly normal, after having 140-150 students every year, that I’m not going to remember every single one.  It just makes me feel bad.

I don’t spend a whole lot of time reading those papers about my students.  Maybe I should get them back out every few months as I get to know the students.  And in the meantime, I’m glad that this student thought I was a good teacher, even though I don’t feel like one since I don’t remember him.