Rewrites

“So, what’s up with this paper?” my students ask, wafting in from the hall and settling in their desks with a nonchalance only possible after lunch, when a free afternoon beckons and “we can only handle school if it’s relaxed” is the motto of the hour. Don’t ask too much of us; it’s sixth period.

The paper in question was a disaster. I knew it as I graded the first few, writing essentially the same question on each one:

If (CHARACTER) is a symbol of (IDEA), then what statement does Nathaniel Hawthorne make about (IDEA) with what happens to (CHARACTER)?

I had pressed on–circling the egregious haunting of passive voice, writing “Too much plot” next to topic sentences–like a grading automaton, for all 33 of my honors students’ papers. Now, a week later, I have to tell them the hard truth: These weren’t good. Redemption is possible, but it will take hard, meticulous work.

“The papers,” I reply, noncommittal. “We’ll talk about them.”

“First period said they were really bad.”

The students of first period, alert traitors that they are, reveal all secrets, utterly powerless in the face of the insistent question, “What are we doing in English today?” Doubtless they answered, “Hearing about how bad our papers were.”

I begin by sharing their collective strengths, commenting how it was clear that they’d actually read The Scarlet Letter, itself an arduous task, and that this was a difficult book and their comprehension alone is commendable. Then I compliment their proofreading. Following these consolations, we begin examining the cracks: flawed thesis statements and careless topic sentences, along with an overall misunderstanding of the concept of symbolism.

I’ve thought a great deal about failure in the last few weeks. As I share with my students, I’m no stranger to it. Though I could share about the math tests on which I’ve scored in the low 20 percents, today it’s far more relevant to reveal that I, too, have earned a C or a D, here and there, (gasp!) on an essay. And while I’ve forgotten most of the A grades I ever received, I still remember the exact contents (or lack thereof) of those horrid papers.

Educators discuss “rewrites” and “retakes” to exhaustion, curious about the consequences to the students of being given a second chance with their “final” assessments. As I reflect on my own failures, however, I realize that the ones from which I’ve learned the most–in school, in relationships, in cooking, everywhere–were the ones that involved going back and redeeming my mistakes.

I’m always eager to leave the crimes behind, hoping that everything will take care of itself. That the bad paper’s grade consequence will diminish in importance as more grades fill the spreadsheet. That the harsh words will be forgotten, buried under better ones, before I have to apologize. That I can call the cookies “muffins” to explain their having half the required amount of sugar. Just don’t make me go back, I sometimes plead. I don’t want to worry about this anymore.

But the going back is where the learning happens. Though it’s not standard academic practice, it happens that the essays on which I did worst, both in high school and college, were ones that I was required to rewrite. It was a tortuous process, involving in each case sitting with the instructor and then rehashing material I hadn’t bothered much with in the first place. I remember sitting down with a sigh, putting my mind and fingers back to the work of rebuilding, hoping to do better this time. I did, and I’m a stronger writer for it.

That’s what I hope to teach my students this week, with their returned essays. “They’re not great, these papers,” I tell them. “There’s no other way to say it, really. But you’ll do better next time. And I’ll help you, don’t worry. We’re in this together.”

Failure is important, I tell them, but only if you look at it the right way. Almost everyone writes one bad paper, but you’ll keep writing them, again and again, unless you learn from this one. It’s only when we acknowledge our failures, when we look them straight in their lackluster faces, that we can see a way forward, a way to repair, to apologize, or to start over. Only then can we move on, leaving the failures gracefully in the past to seek a better next time.

Leaving The Woods

Autumn at the classroom window

Autumn at the classroom window

“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand… Our life is like a German Confederacy, made up of petty states, with its boundary forever fluctuating, so that even a German cannot tell you how it is bounded at any moment.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Wednesday, the rain pours on the suddenly brilliant Black Forest as my students begin, in high-school voices hesitant about 19th-century prose, to read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Nine years into this teaching adventure, there is still almost nothing I love more than hearing familiar words read by the well-loved voices of my students. Each year around this time, we stumble into the Transcendentalists, hurtling out of the end-of-quarter busyness marked by The Scarlet Letter, final dress rehearsals for the school play, and fall sports tournaments that this year took our students to northern Germany and northern Italy. We are tired.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” they read, pausing charmingly over the five syllables of deliberately, pronouncing it with the care due its meaning. “And not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear…”

The forest, dying in a blaze of color, calls to me as I sit at my desk, listening to my students. It would take very little persuasion today for me to hole up in a cabin by a pond, spending my days watching ants and the ripples on the surface of the water, charting the change of seasons and their effect on my soul. If I’m honest, Thoreau’s life is more tempting to me than any living celebrity, than the educated affluence of Bill Gates, the  happy-go-lucky fame of Taylor Swift or the powerful potential of a political figure. I’d rather be Thoreau than any of them.

“If I told you that you could abandon school, and gave you a cabin with food to live in, how many of you would do this?” I ask my students. Half a dozen hands go up.

“Is there wi-fi?” someone asks.

“No, no wi-fi. You only get what Thoreau had. Books, paper, pen, food. That’s it.”

They think about it, and keep their hands raised.

We long for simplicity, the one or two affairs that Thoreau wrote of. We think of the cabin by the lake, the unburdening of responsibility, as a glorious freedom. How happy we’d be to just get away. How often have we said it, thought it?

John Green, a young adult author beloved by my students and me, once said that “Truth resists simplicity.” I agree, and then some. Community, relationship, responsibility, calling–much of life resists simplicity. If we’re engaged in this journey with other travelers, it’s inevitable that every turn will greet us with complexity.

Both my virtual and literal desks this week are emblems of my complexity. There are blueprints for the Christmas Banquet, drawings of centerpieces and stage design that will come to three-dimensional life in the next two weeks. There are lesson plans and handouts, waiting to be printed and executed. Shopping lists and dinner plans lurk somewhere, waiting for a shopping trip. An ever-growing list of students to recommend for college demands my attention. Somewhere in the corner there’s a number, signaling the number of words I should have written by the end of today for the novel I’m trying to write this month, both as a personal challenge and point of connection with one of my new students who is undertaking the same task. Complexity.

The desk itself represents only the inanimate entities desiring my attention, giving no picture of the living, breathing people who walk in several times a day, or the commitments that keep me traveling the school from first bell to last. Living in relationship, whether work or family or church bodies, will always be complex.

And yet, at the root of it we’re still called to simplicity. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” Jesus asks us. First. Rooted in this simple longing for Christ, we can reach far into the details of life. Without the roots, we’ll be torn apart by the winds around us, tossed by every new task and person we meet. Without the roots, the complexity will force us to the woods.

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there,” Thoreau wrote, my students read. “Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”

Even Thoreau left the woods. And while we can and must withdraw into solitude sometimes, spending time reconnecting to our rootedness in the love of Christ, we can’t stay in the woods forever. Resisting the simplicity of isolation, we’re called to community, to the beautiful, tricky complexity of knowing and serving one another in the body of Christ.

Juniors read Thoreau on a crisp November day.

Juniors read Thoreau on a crisp November day.

November: News, Thanks and Prayers

Harbstmesse

News and Dates:

  • November 6-8: BFA middle and high school performs High School Musical
  • November 9: Maugenhard Thanksgiving
  • November 10: Winter sports begin (Basketball and Wrestling)
  • November 22: Christmas Banquet
  • Curriculum for November: Transcendentalism, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

I’m Thankful For:

  • Erika and Aron Ruderman, whose wedding I had the honor of attending in October. Thankful for the blessing of your friendship and a sweet time with family in Washington.
  • A spectacular autumn in the Black Forest, complete with warm, golden days and runs through the forest.
  • New roles at BFA, which have allowed us to interact with staff and students in different settings. This month has brought me to the BFA middle school twice for observations, where it was a delight to see new teachers loving, serving and instructing.
  • G5 Evangelische Gemeinde, the German church where Timmy and I have been attending since the beginning of the school year. Thankful for this warm community of believers, connecting us to the body of Christ in this nation we call home.
  • The Class of 2016, my new juniors, full of life, energy and good questions.

Please Be In Prayer For:

  • Christmas Banquet. As Student Council advisors, Timmy and I are responsible for putting on this year’s Christmas Banquet. This involves coordinating adult and student volunteers, serving dinner for 300+ people, and turning our school into a winter wonderland for the evening. Pray for the details that go into this event, and that it would be fun evening that celebrates the community here.
  • Health. Both Timmy and I have been struggling with sickness these last few weeks. Pray that we’d be able to rest effectively in our “down time,” so that we can recover our strength. Pray also for the community, as these darker, busier days are when cold and flu tend to strike the community.

Thank you all for your encouragement and support, which makes our ministry here possible! If you have a prayer request or questions about life or ministry in Germany, or if you’d like to become a financial partner in our ministry, email me at kristi.dahlstrom@gmail.com.

Peace in Christ,

Kristi & Timmy

Only If

Small Group BirthdayI wasn’t going to lead a small group this year.

I remember this Thursday night, as I climb the stairs of one of my senior small group girls’ homes, ready to partake in the birthday feast that the girls have prepared for me and my co-leader, Allison, whose birthday is one day before mine. Earlier this week, the hostess sent out an email to the small group:

“Alright guys so small groups this week at my house! For us girls, let’s meet at the school around 6 and for Kristi and Allison, come over to my house around 6:45ish.  It’s gonna be a great birthday celebration!! Can’t wait!”

So we arrive tonight, after long days and weeks filled with travel (for me) and play practice (for Drama Teacher Alli), to have dinner with five eighteen-year-old girls, themselves wading through the busyness of senior year with all of its essays, leadership and college plans.

I wasn’t going to do this, I think to myself, and I had good reasons. Far from being dissatisfied with my experience as a small group leader over the last four years at BFA, it was an amazing experience. With my roommate and co-leader, Emily, I was able to walk with six girls on a journey of faith and friendship, seeing them mature from giggly ninth graders–obsessed with Justin Bieber and the newest trends in America–to young adults of maturity and grace, looking ahead to see how they can live out their relationship with Christ in brand-new settings. It was an incredible four years, not always easy but always filled with reminders that Christ had brought these girls into our life for this season, as He gave us specific words to speak into each of their lives. I love these girls, and I miss them every day.

Sometime last winter, I remember saying to myself, I won’t sign up for another group next year. It would only be for a year, anyway. Never one for definitive statements, I countered a few minutes later in my self-negotiation. The only way I would do it would be if it were a senior group. Whose leaders were leaving. And only if someone asked me specifically. I’m not telling anyone about this. I didn’t even think of it as a prayer, at the time. Just a resolution.

It was the knowledge that my six girls would be gone that made me worry that I wasn’t sure I had “space” for a new group in my heart. To an extent, I fret about this every fall, feeling that I can’t possibly love this new class as much as the ones who are now a grade older. I feared it would be worse with a small group. If I’d spent four years investing in these six girls, how much would I have left to give to another group, especially one I’d be with for only a year?

To which God said: Ha. Plenty.

In late spring, Allison emailed me. Her request read like the formula of my non-prayer from a few months earlier. I have this group of seniors. And I’ll be here in the fall, but not in the spring. Could you help? She listed the girls, students that I was currently teaching in my junior English class, and my heart melted. Of course it would happen like this. God knew.

And that’s what I’m thinking about as we sit around with bowls of pasta and cake, talking about their trip to Italy last week. They tell about bonding on the beach outside their hotel, about seeing these sights that they’d been waiting all their lives to see. They talk about the future, how tangled and complex it looks from their vantage points, and I understand. Not just what they’re going through–future complexity that looks much like what we’re wading through these days–but how deeply beautiful and intricate are God’s plans. For these hours and days I’m spending in this valley, and all the lives He’s woven up with mine. For these months and years He’s given to me, and the steps He’s still waiting to reveal.

October: News, Thanks and Prayers

Out for dinner with the Maug boys!

Out for dinner with the Maug boys!

News and Dates:

  • October 2-10: Timmy in Rome with the seniors
  • October 2-6: Junior trip to Normandy
  • October 1-4: Freshman exchange with a Christian school in the Netherlands
  • October 6: Freshman and Sophomore trips to the WWI trenches and French concentration camps
  • October 13: My 30th birthday!
  • October 31: Herbstmesse

I’m Thankful For:

  • A New Small Group and Allison, my co-leader. Looking forward to sharing life with these excellent senior women this year!
  • Visits from Parents in August and September. So good to show them around this part of the world and spend some restful time with them.
  • A New Role at BFA this year, mentoring new teachers. Exciting to spend time in so many different classrooms, seeing these teachers devote energy and care to their material and students.
  • Autumn in Kandern, always spectacular and earlier this year than ever. Can we hope for some snow this winter?

Please Be In Prayer For:

  • Travel. As you can see, our students are scattering all over Europe in the next week or so. I’ll also have the opportunity to travel to the U.S. for a wedding next week. Pray that these trips go smoothly, for health and safety for all.
  • Future Plans. Pray for Timmy and me as we continue to seek guidance regarding the future. Pray that God will make it clear to us where we should be next year, opening and closing doors as He sees fit.

Thank you all for your encouragement and support, which makes our ministry here possible! If you have a prayer request or questions about life or ministry in Germany, or if you’d like to become a financial partner in our ministry, email me at kristi.dahlstrom@gmail.com.

Peace in Christ,

Kristi & Timmy

Töpfer

IMG_1483“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” Ephesians 3:20-21

IMG_1479It starts to rain on Sunday afternoon, as we weave our way through the quiet crowds and costly tables. The Kandern Töpfermarkt, a pottery fair that takes place two weeks after the raucous and delicious Budenfest, is in town this weekend. From all over Europe, potters and ceramicists have brought their wares, filling our Blumenplatz with tables laden with cups, bowls, pitchers, and lamps of every color, shape and size imaginable.

This is my fourth year at the pottery market. My first year, I missed it because of a trip to Austria, but every year since I’ve returned, a pleasant ritual that marks autumn in Kandern. I remember the first time, coming down with Emily after a hike in the forest, late summer still pouring light and warmth into the little square. We wandered around, bent on purchasing the perfect cup, deciding after much deliberation to purchase tall, cylindrical mugs in blue and beige. That same year, a handsome new RA I barely knew bought himself a green mug, declared it the perfect one, and suggested that we have coffee and compare purchases. Today, I poured coffee into that same green mug and passed it to him across the breakfast table.

IMG_1475As we circle the market, I realize that it’s laced with all sorts of memories now. I see the orange and brown plates that Alyssa used to collect, or the blue and yellow mug whose older brother sat on Becky’s desk. I pass baskets holding cups that my three roommates and I have bought in earlier years, mugs that smiled down from cabinets and shelves, waiting for tea or coffee, waiting for the evenings when they’d all be used. Everywhere I look, familiar patterns, colors and forms stand out, recalling people and occasions when I’ve seen them before. It’s a fragile hall of visual echoes, a parade of memories in ceramic form.

This little market–a traveling event that visits us each September–embodies the community we’ve found here over the last four years. This is my fifth fall in Kandern, and this place has become home. It isn’t perfect, full of the same flaws and worries that I’ve found everywhere else, that I’ve brought everywhere else. And yet I’m thankful, struck in an overwhelming sense that God has created something beautiful around me over the last four years.

IMG_1488We’re beginning our last year in Kandern, at least for a while, and we don’t yet know what happens next. It could be that this next year is an intermission between two long acts in our green valley. Or we might be in the final movement of Kandern life, poised to begin something new, in a fresh new place. We wait, we pray, we listen, hoping for guidance in our next steps. Perhaps it should be agonizing or frightening, but it isn’t.

Because I can look around this pottery market and see what God has done here, with us, over the last four years. I can see dinners with friends, coffee with students, hikes in the forest and conversations in the classroom. I see my students coming in early on winter mornings to make tea before first period, cupping their hands around steaming mugs as we read Whitman, Twain, Fitzgerald. It’s all so much more than I expected, more than I even asked for. With God, it seems what He gives me is always more, better. I can’t see the next home yet, over the high, green pass of June 2015, but I know that God walks before us, making a way, reminding me that the view is glorious if I’ll keep following Him. It’s likely that next September won’t include the Kandern Töpfermarkt, but for today I’m thankful, looking back at what He’s done, ahead in the knowledge that He’s with us.

Of Prayer {From A Puddle of Yogurt}

“Do you know what this means?”

He pushes his workbook over to where I’m sitting on a couch in Maugenhard’s living room. I’ve helped set up an ice cream sundae bar tonight, and made a blueberry coffee cake now in the refrigerator, ready for Maug’s dorm mom to toss in the oven tomorrow morning. Now I’m sitting in a busy rectangle of boys, all in various states of studying. I squint down at the workbook, and realize the instructions requiring interpretation are in German. That’s a new one.

“Actually… yes. It means… Complete these sentences. Actually, it means Make whole these sentences,” I comment with a smile. The nuance of the language isn’t as interesting to him as it is to me, but he seems emboldened by the translation. He asks about a few more words, and I ask him how he, a French speaker living in Israel, came to be in second-year German.

“Took it in France. Seventh grade. So… I’m missing some words.”

I nod, understanding, and he points down to a new word.

“How about this one?”

“Um… dauert means lasts, sort of. Like, How long does it last?”

“You know your German, Mrs. Gaster.”

I can only laugh and shake my head, because lately that’s not how I’ve been feeling. At all.

Flash back a few days, to when I ran errands around town after school. There was the insurance agency, where I needed to cancel insurance I thought I’d already cancelled, before I got a bill for said insurance in the mail. Then the cobbler, who told me he could not fix my defective new Birkenstocks, at least not with the original… whatever the German word for buckles was. I never found out. In any case, I’d have to return them, a mail-order process involving a double-sided form I can’t really read, all to explain that yes, I’d like the same model in the same size, just not backwards-buckling.

This errand-venture ended at the grocery store, usually a haven of mastery. I understand this place, Hieber’s, which is a size of an average Seattle local grocer. I know where most things are. I even negotiated–in German–the exchange of a bag of quinoa a few weeks ago, when a newly-purchased supply proved full of moths. I’ve got this, I said like a crazy person, reassuring myself that I know something of the language and culture I’ve spent four years with.

Except that when I reached up for a pail of yogurt, on a top shelf well above my head, it brought its poorly-placed neighbor crashing down to the floor. This second pail exploded, sending yogurt and plastic shards everywhere–the floor, the dairy shelves, my feet in their flip-flops. I was marooned in a white sea, speechless.

And every German word escaped me. What does one say, stranded in a puddle of yogurt? What would I even say in EnglishJogurt… um… fallen? Gefallen? Kaput? Who even knows?

I stood there for a while, catching the raised eyebrows of other customers, but unfortunately no store employees. Several minutes later, an off-duty cashier spied my predicament. Just as I opened my mouth to ask the question I didn’t know how to ask, she said, in German, “I’ll get someone to help.” Hilfe–help. That’s the word I was looking for.

I stood around a while longer, stood in the yogurt as friends, neighbors, colleagues walked by, eyeing me sympathetically, until a large floor zamboni and roll of paper towels came to my rescue. I went home crestfallen, yogurt-covered, tired.

This week at Black Forest Academy, Dr. Richard Alan Farmer has been speaking with our students–each morning in a special chapel before school–about prayer. Different types, postures, reasons for prayer, which he calls “conversations with Papa.”

I love this. And my struggles with language lately make me think of prayer and its many varieties. On occasion, like with the quinoa, I know exactly what to ask for, with just the right words, and I am overjoyed when God responds to me, right away, exactly as I expect. More often, though, I find myself crying Puddle-of-Yogurt Prayers, cries of my heart when I can’t find the words. And while I may find myself endlessly frustrated with my own inept grammar and sparse vocabulary in German, God isn’t so picky. How marvelous to know that He hears, He knows, He understands.

Even when I’ve been feeling particularly speechless.

On Time

Time, the brunt of many metaphors.

Time is money. Time is a father or a ghoul. Time flies and crawls, always when you’d rather he doesn’t.

School began today at Black Forest Academy, with the same flag-bearing pageantry that’s brought tears to my eyes for each of the last four years. This time, my fifth, was perhaps the most poignant of all. I know more now than I ever have, so each carried flag waves a story at me, not only of its hold but of siblings, homes, nations, histories and futures that they’ve written into English papers or murmured into conversation. I think about time as I watch them, how the years spent in this place have embedded these stories and people in my heart. Time does that, but so does attention.

The hours, still far from empty, are different, as my assignment at BFA has changed this year.  Gone are the regimented days filled with classes and students, governed by the imperious tri-tone of school bells. I have only two Honors American Literature classes this year, 100 minutes a day with the vocation I understand best. In addition to that, I’m coordinating mentoring and training for our new teachers, and assisting Timmy with Student Council advising. Both roles require more flexible scheduling, hence the lighter teaching load this year.

A new year means a new office, with a freshly-decorated bulletin board and a view of the river. I’ve never spent much time here. With five sections of junior English, I’d run in and out  to take phone calls or print assignments, but mostly I lived in my classroom, either vibrant with students or calmly empty. Now I’m surrounded by busy colleagues, teaching math and music and English, immersed in conversation and questions, with ringing phones to answer and lost students to assist. “You’re here!” exclaimed a fellow English teacher, finding me working at my corner desk. “You’re never here! This is fun!”

Reading through Harry Wong’s First Days of School today, I encountered his warning against teacher isolation. He admonishes new teachers to ask for help, and veterans to welcome collaboration. It was fitting to read it today, as I try to understand–and sometimes remember–what it means to support new teachers. What did I want when I was just starting out? How could someone have helped me? Who did help?

And I remember that it was people who had time. They were unpressured people, whether colleagues or supervisors, who would set aside their own busyness to step into the chaos of my beginning-teacher world and walk beside me, with a listening ear and judicious advice. I remember one who would make copies for me, and another who went to Staples to buy the school supplies that I needed in my new classroom (that year a conference room in the Library). They didn’t take the reins or shower me with handouts. They were just there.

These hours in the humming staffroom are the unexpected gift of this year. A change in teaching schedule and the graduation of my small group along with the Class of 2014 have left me with plenty of time, unscheduled and available. Suddenly I find myself able–as I’ve seldom been for the last three years–to listen and to help, to learn what it means to be truly hospitable in the workplace. It won’t be structured or predictable, not the cyclical creativity of lesson planning and grading. But I’ll be able to listen, to figure out how the laminator works, to sit by the river and hear about a day. And for that, unfamiliar as it is to my classroom-dwelling soul, I’m grateful.

September: News, Thanks and Prayers

Student Council 2014-15

Student Council 2014-15

News and Dates:

  • September 2: First Day of School
  • September 12: 2014 Fall Party
  • September 15-19: Spiritual Emphasis Week
  • September 17: Kandern Impact Day
  • Timmy has agreed to fill in this year as a teacher in the PE Department, teaching two sections of PE in addition to his role as Student Council Coordinator

I’m Thankful For:

  • Student Council 2014-15, thirteen energetic and engaging students who are eager to serve God and our school this year as student leaders.
  • New and old friends, coming to Kandern in this busy season
  • Rest together, for Timmy and me, at the end of this summer apart
  • My colleagues, fellow teachers at BFA who inspire, teach and challenge me daily.

Please Be In Prayer For:

  • Fall Party 2014. Our first event with Student Council, this evening offers students the opportunity to dress up in crazy costumes and play games, building community at the beginning of the year. Pray that this event goes smoothly, that students work together as they plan and promote, and that the event is welcoming and inclusive, especially for new students as they get to know the community.
  • New Staff. We’re beginning the year again with about 65 new staff members. Pray for me as I work specifically with the new faculty, helping them to make a smooth transition to teaching at BFA.

Thank you all for your encouragement and support, which makes our ministry here possible! If you have a prayer request or questions about life or ministry in Germany, or if you’d like to become a financial partner in our ministry, email me at kristi.dahlstrom@gmail.com.

Peace in Christ,

Kristi & Timmy

On Patience: Teaching, Risotto & Two Dots

It’s nearly the end of summer, and I’m making risotto. The setup requires half a dozen steps, but after a while it’s just pouring white wine and broth onto rice, stirring for a while, and thinking while the liquid soaks into the tender monochrome pearls. So I’m thinking, not as distracted as I’d usually be by my excellent ingredients, the crisp apples and smoky bacon waiting to jump into the action. I’m thinking about patience, slowness. And, to my equal embarrassment and amusement, I’m thinking about a computer game, Two Dots, that I played for a while this summer, until I finished the last level this afternoon.

“What do you do all summer?”

Since it’s been ages since I’ve been out in the grown-up world where people work all four seasons, I seldom hear this question delivered with the tones of accusation or scorn that get teachers so riled up that they have to create BuzzFeed lists or Pinterest memes justifying their summer vacations. I read these lists all the time, though, posted by my colleagues, little missives that remind everyone that we, the teachers, spend our summers planning for the year, catching up on professional development, or even getting jobs to supplement our incomes. To which I respond: Yes, but…

…it’s still summer. At least for me, for now, summer looks a lot like it always has.

I tend to divide summers into Nothing and Something. This has little to do with how exciting a summer was–it was a Nothing summer in which I climbed Mt. Rainier, and a Something summer in which I worked as a filing clerk in an insurance agency–but rather how easy it is to describe the summer. The quicker the reply, the more something that summer. The Nothing summers are often long and slow, with brief intervals of intense busyness. By this definition, this was a Nothing summer, in which I vacillated between my empty German village and the fullness of Italy, Austria, Switzerland and Spangdahlem Air Base.

So what did I do? I traveled a bit. When I wasn’t traveling, I did other things. If I were feeling defensive, I could tell about the online class I took, or the orientation program I planned for the new faculty at BFA. I could list the motley titles that accompanied me on approximately 24 hours of train-riding over the last month. I could show Instagram photos of recipes tried. All good things, ingredients to a full summer.

But I also played this computer game. As in, I played the whole game. I have never done this before, and chances are slim that I’ll do it again. I’m not a teenager; I didn’t play for hours a day. I did pick it up between chapters and emails, waiting for pizza dough to rise or the train to arrive. I read some reviews of this game, since I’m the sort who loves reviews, and discovered two distinct camps. There were those who found the game–which is a series of puzzles, divided into levels–”impossible” or its more spiteful counterpart “purely based on luck.” These reviews always garnered a calm response from the other camp: “It’s not impossible. You just have to be patient. Keep trying.”

Teaching can be like that. A series of challenges, some so seemingly insurmountable that we’re tempted to call them impossible, or ascribe success to “pure luck” rather than learned skill. I’ve always been thankful to have mentors and peers who remind me that teaching, like any other skill, requires practice and patience. From both students and teacher, to learn we must risk failing in pursuit of growth, and a space where that kind of risk is safe must be a place of grace, of patience. It’s the grace that God gives to us as we learn, and the grace we’re asked to extend back to ourselves and on to our students.

This isn’t how I always think of patience, the capacity to keep at something for a good while, willing to fail a bit in pursuit of success. But there is a sort of expectancy there, knowing that if I remain present, continuing to “show up” through the challenges of life, God can make something wonderful. Like an essay that makes sense, or a classroom in which learning and community mellow into something beautiful. Like this risotto, done to creamy perfection only if I stick with it, paying attention and stirring the afternoon away.