April: News, Thanks and Prayers

 

On the tube in London!

On the tube in London!

News and Dates:

  • March 27-April 13: Spring Break
  • April 23: Senior Transition Day
  • April 24: Sadie Hawkins Swing Dance & BFA’s Got Talent
  • April 25: Home soccer games and track meet
  • Curriculum for April: The Glass Menagerie, Modern poetry

I’m Thankful For:

  • Traveling with students to London last month. We had a wonderful time exploring museums as a culminating trip with the AP English and European History students. Love exploring with our students!
  • A restful spring break, with time to relax and work on preparing our house for transitioning in June.
  • Great friends with whom we’re delighted to share this season of life in Kandern.

Please Be In Prayer For:

  • Moving Plans. Pray for Timmy and me as we prepare to move our belongings into storage for the next year. Pray for wisdom in what to keep and what to sell, along with the details of moving, packing and cleaning to be done before we leave in June.
  • Professional Development. Starting this April, I’ll be taking a class in differentiation and literacy through Seattle Pacific University’s ProCert program. Pray for focus and energy as I balance this class with my teaching responsibilities.
  • Chaplaincy Training. Pray for Timmy as he will be leaving for further chaplaincy training with the Air Force toward the end of April. Pray for safety, health and the learning that he’ll experience while there in South Carolina for the month of May.

We are as ever deeply thankful for your prayers, encouragement and financial partnership, all of which make 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

A Million Right Turns

Making a butter dish! Photo: Donna Dahlstrom

Making a butter dish!
Photo: Donna Dahlstrom

“I don’t get attached until after it’s trimmed,” my classmate tells me, looking up with apprehension from the pottery wheel across from me, where she’s just finished shaping a tiny cup.

It’s seventh period in the ceramics room, where I spend the ends of most days taking Ceramics 3 as a student. Though I’ve taken the classes slowly–three in the last four years–I’ve come to love these sweet hours in the clay studio, times full of creativity and casual, pleasant conversation with students I love. This semester has seen us beginning to make–or throw, in ceramic terms–ever more complicated forms on the pottery wheel.

Mom with her finished pot.

Mom with her finished pot.

The language of pottery is familiar to me. I grew up listening to my mother tell stories about her own ceramics classes in high school and college, and saw their artifacts all over the house. In our retreat-center days, I remember watching-dozens of times–an anonymous potter’s hands on an evangelical video that drew heavily on the metaphor of Potter & Clay. Towards the end of my own college career, Mom went back to take more ceramics classes at Seattle Pacific University, filling our cupboards with earthy bowls in blue, green and grey. When the opportunity came for me to “audit” the classes at Black Forest Academy, taught by two dear friends, I jumped at the chance.

Still, I know what she means, my classmate leaning over her just-finished cup. My own work today has been uneven. One cup with an uneven rim slumped over before I could even get it off the wheel, and now I hold my breath as I slice this one–still imperfect–off the slowly rotating surface. It will have to dry, first right-side up and then upside-down, before I can even approach my classmate’s least favorite step, trimming the bottom into a smooth, grooved foot.

Jennifer throws in her studio.

Jennifer throws in her studio.

I recall a conversation I had with my mother in September, when she came to visit and spend the day with Jen and me in the studio. “There’s just so many points it could go wrong,” she said then. “From when you’re throwing it at first, to moving it, to drying, to trimming.”

“And you still have to glaze it,” I had sighed, citing my least favorite part. “You could want it to look one way, and then it could–well, look like anything else.”

Mom laughed. “Now you understand!”

I did then, and the thought has lingered ever since. Here’s something that we do–for fun–at which we can be thwarted half a dozen different ways before the end. There’s so much that can go wrong.

I’m drawn to metaphor–perhaps more than is good for me or anyone–and tempted to think beyond pots. How much of life consists of such endeavors, projects threatened by disasters, seen or unseen. What if? But that could… How will I know if…? If I’m looking hard enough, trouble is lurking everywhere, enough to make it feel like a miracle that anything works out, ever.

1185700_10205290413484064_565090307768442962_nMy own cup comes off of the wheel in reasonably good shape, and I set it in the cupboard to dry, turning my attention to the finished pieces that line the shelves around the room.  I have things to glaze, but I don’t like glazing, so I stare at the glazing done by others. Even some of my own work catches my eye.

I remember what I thought each piece would look like, almost never the abstractly-colored pieces that ended up warm in my hands. Sometimes my vision of perfection was met, but seldom. Occasionally this ended in disappointment, just another wrong turn, but more often something unexpectedly beautiful emerged from the flames. More interesting and complex than I could have planned for, glaze works mysterious magic without the help my imagination.

Practice and plan though we might, we can’t always avoid the ways things go wrong. This has never seemed more true than this last week in Germany, as every day brought a horrible new revelation of a plane that crashed for a reason no one ever worried about. It’s as if one of our whirling hunks of clay flew off and caught fire spontaneously. We hadn’t even thought of that.

The glaze, though, is the rest of the metaphor. There are many ways that everything can go wrong, but just as many unforeseen ways for it to go right. I can’t avoid every wrong turn by worrying, but I’ll miss many of the right ones if I’m not paying attention. A million serendipitous turns have taken my breath away with their unforeseen joy, a rightness infinitely better than the right I’d been planning. And though I’m still not wild about glazing, that imprecise variable, it’s brought more beauty than heartbreak when I’m willing to step back and see it.

Walking Towards Waterfalls

HikingThe trail turns steeply upward once we’ve left the road.

We’ve been walking along a creek in Lenk, Switzerland for a while, carefully skirting the edges of the path to avoid marring the smooth grooves of the langlauf, or cross-county skiing tracks. Now, the signs take us off the wide, flat track, into deep snow that clings to the side of a ridge.

It’s a brilliantly sunny Saturday in the Berner Oberland region of the Alps, where the entire student body and an entourage of about 50 adults have retreated for a weekend of laughter, teaching and worship in the mountains. I jump at the chance to go hiking after lunch, falling in line near the back of an enthusiastic group of students, eager to hike “to the waterfall.” That none of us have ever been there is no concern; we trust our guide, and besides, this waterfall is rumored to be frozen. We concoct grand visions in our imaginations, visions that now pull us up the hill.

IMG_3492I’ve grown up in the mountains, so this walk is familiar. Even after I left the Cascades behind for the hills of Seattle–Phinney Ridge, Crown Hill and Queen Anne–I’d get away every chance I could, seizing invitations to camp, hike and rock climb in the summer, to snowshoe and ski in the winter. I’ve never been on this particular path before, seen this particular waterfall, but I know what this feels like, sinking into snow up to my knees, peering up a wooded slope and searching for the horizon of the summit.

When we crest the hill, coming out onto a wide, snowy field occupied only by an icicle-edged barn, the students can talk and breath again. The path widens, and we walk side by side. I hear from a new junior about her home in Albania, the place she knows best of all. Former students ask me for book recommendations, and want to know why I became an English teacher. A senior tells me about her old school in Central Asia, which this year was performing a musical she loved.

IMG_3506“I used to do that,” she says. “The musicals.”

“Do you miss it?” I ask.

She nods thoughtfully. In many ways, she reflects, BFA offers opportunities she wouldn’t have had back there. But yes, it’s hard to leave it behind. Always hard to leave behind.

Our path takes us up a wide, gentle valley, as we follow painted poles through the snowy wilderness. I strikes me that I don’t know where we’re going, but I can imagine it, because I’ve been places like it before. My students, international and less lovers of the outdoors than I, have only seen frozen waterfalls on the Internet and, well, Frozen.

The same, I suppose, is true of the paths that they’re walking on now. I could imagine what college would be like, because I chose to go to one in the same city where I’d grown up. I hadn’t been a student, but I could readily picture the transition. The seniors I talk to as we walk through the snow, they’re applying to universities all over the world, many in countries and states where they’ve never even visited. One young woman tells me that she and her siblings live on three different continents.

“How is that?” I ask her.

“It’s… hard. But when we are together,” she adds with a grin. “Then it’s very special. Very close.”

IMG_3507I’ve been volunteering this year with a women’s mentoring ministry called Walking Together. When we named the ministry, we discussed how the most important mentorship often springs from our willingness to come alongside one another in whatever circumstances fill our lives.

As staff at Black Forest Academy, we wonder often what we can do to prepare our students for the transition away from here, how we can equip them with the faith, joy and strength to make them resilient followers of Christ wherever they go next. The short answer, I think, is that we can’t. We’re not the sources of faith, joy or strength. The best we can do is keep walking with them towards frozen waterfalls and foreign lands, sharing our lives and pointing them back to Christ, their strength and joy wherever they go next.

March: News, Thanks and Prayers

With my small group on High School Retreat in Lenk, Switzerland

With my small group on High School Retreat in Lenk, Switzerland

 

News and Dates:

  • March 9: Spring sports begin
  • March 19-23: AP English and European History field trip to London
  • March 20: End of Quarter 3
  • March 27-April 13: Spring Break
  • Curriculum for March: American author research project, The Glass Menagerie
  • Timmy has recently received word that he’ll be attending a reserve chaplaincy training in South Carolina for the month of May. This is an exciting and important step for him in his service with the Air Force Reserve, allowing him to more fully engage in service on base here in Germany.

I’m Thankful For:

  • High School Retreat and the many prayers that brought about a rich weekend together in the mountains, full of fun, conversation and transformation.
  • Holly Dahlstrom and Chris Prairie, who were able to visit us in February. Wonderful to have sister bonding time together in this special place!
  • Mark and Susan Powell, the heads of TeachBeyond’s Member Care team here in Kandern, for the wisdom, care and friendship that they have shown to us this year.
  • The BFA Junior Class, students full of humor and good questions, for filling my days with laughter and thought.
  • Our parents, and the wisdom and support they’ve shown us as we plan for our furlough in the U.S.

Please Be In Prayer For:

  • Health. BFA continues to struggle through the cold and flu season, so pray that both staff and students would get the rest they need to recover fully.
  • Student Mentoring. Both Timmy and I serve as mentors to several students on campus. This brings great opportunity for conversations regarding faith and future, as our students navigate very real questions about how to follow Christ into adulthood. Pray that we would be good examples for them, and that we would turn to the Holy Spirit for guidance in these conversations.

I’ve been so thankful for the emails of encouragement, the financial partnership and for the prayers I know cover us, making 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

Professionally Curious

DebateI’m walking in circles these days, dizzy spirals around the library under the rounded hangar ceiling of our school. Once in a while I’ll pause by a computer and a student, stopping to give advice or ask a question, but most often its a leisurely drift, digital eavesdropping on the eleventh-graders as they start their research projects.

My students are researching American authors in the next few weeks, looking into the backgrounds, distinctive styles and far-reaching influence of these writers. I asked them to pick someone that they either already loved or had wondered about. Like the juniors themselves, the author choices were diverse–encompassing Edgar Allan Poe and Laura Ingalls Wilder, Charles Schulz and Ralph Ellison–and we laugh at the selections hanging on the classroom wall. “These authors,” I told them, “Will become your friends. You’ll feel like you know them by the time you’re done.”

A frustrated sigh arrests my pacing.

“Um, Mrs. Gaster?” a student beckons. “I can’t really find anything about Louisa May Alcott’s influence on the world. Except, like, fan fiction. Um… did she maybe not have any influence?”

“What do you mean?” I ask, trying to avoid giving away the answer that seems so obvious to me, that Louisa May Alcott had–continues to have–an enormous influence on the world.

“Well, I can’t find anything about her,” my student sighs.

I point out a few directions she could take, exploring the film adaptations still beloved by many, or searching for recent revivals on Broadway and a web series on Youtube, then sit down to do some investigation myself.

A Google search, the simple kind that I tell my students won’t work, brings up an NPR segment and a New York Times article. Saving the segment for later, I read the article while my students tap away at their computers, getting up every few minutes to answer a new question.

“Does this site look reliable? I’m not sure if he’s really an expert.

“Um, do you know how to cite a chapter of a book that’s online? I mean, it’s a book, but it’s also online.”

“My computer… it’s just not working. Like, it starts to work. And then it just… doesn’t.”

As I told my students a few days ago, I only did one research paper entirely without the Internet, a project on Oregon in the fourth grade. The rest were Internet-aided, so I’ve walked before them through evaluating websites for reliability and citing complicated electronic resources correctly. Like them, I’m by generation a millennial, used to constant information at my fingertips, and I love it.

I didn’t always love research. Watching them, I’m remember the author that I once got to know. We never became friends, strictly, but I did have a strong feeling of compassion for Fyodor Dostoevsky, for his unhappy childhood and near-execution, author of dark romance and unfinished family drama. Predictably, I’d loved reading the books themselves, but the extra research seemed like torture then, endless hours of searching for a paltry stack of notes that hadn’t come out of my own infinite imagination. Some fifteen years or so later, I find that I’m more interested in the background of these books than I used to be, and can spend hours getting lost behind the scenes.

Perhaps this is my mind’s coming of age, in which imagination and facts finally coexist, instead of battling for my energy. Where once I’d rather spend every moment creating my own worlds, now I can’t get enough of exploring this one. I still love writing and reading fiction, but I’m finding real life just as engaging lately. This article on Little Women is fantastic, explaining why not only the first but also the second and third books in the series are worth reading in the 21st century.

Lately, “I’m not sure,” has become one of my favorite answers as a teacher. How did Emily Dickinson die? Why didn’t e.e. cummings use capital letters? Because “I’m not sure” is the beginning of a search, and the pleasure of finding out is greater than any false pride in my own expertise. I recently told a class of juniors that curiosity was one of the most important qualities they could have in school. In the end, I said, what you know is a little less important than whether or not you want to know more. There’s always more to know.

Finishing the Times article, I email it to my skeptical Alcott Scholar, as another student turns around at her desk to tell me that Steinbeck’s dog ate the first draft of Of Mice and Men.

“So he had to handwrite it all over,” she adds, stricken with sadness for this literary master. “I had to tell you that.”

There’s always more to know.

Debate 2

Gluten & Gatsby

Working on sugar cookie houses for our small group Valentine's Day party.

Working on sugar cookie houses for our small group Valentine’s Day party.

‘Tis the night before “school Valentine’s Day”–known by everyone else as Friday, or to the superstitious as Friday the 13th–and I’m baking cookies. Everyone, it seems, needs cookies tomorrow. There are some for my sixth period class, a tiny collection of eight students who managed to hold the best debate on whether Gatsby truly loved Daisy. There will also be cookies for my senior small group girls, these ones individually wrapped and stashed in mailboxes before the school day begins. And finally, there are cookies for my own household, for Timmy and for my sister, Holly and her boyfriend, Chris, who are visiting us for the weekend.

It’s been a week of baking, actually. Sunday saw the creation of seven heart-shaped pizzas and Monday several dozen cookies rectangles for the building of “sugar cookie houses” at our small group Valentine’s Day party. It’s been busy, a week that has consumed several hours and about twenty cups of flour. And I love baking, so I only mind a little.

I say a little because I’m about six weeks into my second attempt at giving up all things gluten. The first attempt was years ago, in Seattle, and I was moderately successful until I moved to Germany, land of salted soft pretzels and Bauernbrot, the crusty farm bread that comes steaming from local bakeries early each morning. I gleefully consumed wheat products for four years without much consequence, resuming my cookie and bread baking habits along the way, until December, when a variety of health problems prompted me to begin another gluten fast.

I love baking, love the experimentation and mystery of it, even love the precision required as compared to the looser standards of ordinary cooking. When I renounced wheat at the beginning of December, I knew that it would be baking bread that I missed the most. Even eating it was second to the rhythmic and meditative habit of creating it from scratch.

Heart-shaped pizza!

Heart-shaped pizza!

The first few trays of chocolate chip cookies come out the oven very nearly perfect. Golden, chewy, with their chocolate chunks molten and just barely holding their shape. I slide them onto the stove, wishing I could have one. With a sigh, I reach for the gluten-free flour and put together a small batch. They look about right, but they’re not the same, even warm and straight from the oven. They’re not perfect.

A few weeks ago, I followed a Pinterest tip regarding gluten-free Nutella braided bread, whose molten, golden whorls of chocolate looked too good to be true. It literally was too good, and my attempt ended with a sigh as I pulled the heavy, dense disaster from the oven. I wanted it to be one way, and it wasn’t.

Beginning the second semester of American Literature with a new group of students, I’m finding myself thinking again of foiled expectations and unfulfilled longing. Though Of Mice and Men is and always will be the saddest book I teach, The Great Gatsby is almost as hopeless in its tragedy. My attempts to bake perfect cookies and bread, more stubborn than stoic, mirror Jay Gatsby’s folly, not Lennie and George’s hapless disaster.

Our sugar cookie castle tower.

Our sugar cookie castle tower.

Though melodramatic to the point of silliness,  one of the greater tragedies of The Great Gatsby is its hero’s inability to form new impressions, to look wide-eyed and open-armed into an unknown future, because of a crippling obsession with the past. A man who wanted nothing less than a perfect repetition of a perfect past, Gatsby could never find a happy future. Nothing, in the end, would be as good as what he’d already experienced. And while I’ll get over the (hopefully temporary) loss of wheat products and their associated mediocre cookies, I have to be cautious about falling into nostalgic holes, not looking ahead for the delight in looking back.

I nibble on the corner of a gluten-free chocolate chip cookie, hot from the oven. It doesn’t taste the same as the others, those cookies I’ve been working on for the last twenty-five years or so. Still, it’s not bad. Honestly, how could anything made mostly of butter and chocolate taste bad? Just different. With another bite, I resolve to look ahead, to new ingredients, new homes, and whatever other newness lies ahead. After all, we’re not made for mastering just one recipe, or sailing just one horizon. There are many lives to be lived.

February: News, Thanks and Prayers

 

 

Enjoying New Years' raclette with my small group!

Enjoying New Years’ raclette with my small group!

News and Dates:

  • February 6-7: Final BFA home basketball games
  • February 9: Small group Valentine’s Day Party
  • February 12-16: Holly Dahlstrom visiting Kandern!
  • February 13: Timmy and I speaking in High School Chapel
  • February 27-March 1: High School Retreat in Switzerland
  • Timmy recently went up to Spangdahlem Air Base for his interview towards becoming a full Air Force Reserve Chaplain. He passed with flying colors, and is now awaiting final appointment to begin serving a few days a month as a reservist on base.
  • We will both be sharing in High School Chapel on February 13, speaking about love, our journey of relationship and how God continues to shape us in marriage.
  • Curriculum for February: The Great Gatsby, modern American poetry

I’m Thankful For:

  • A new semester, giving staff and students a “fresh start” in grades, attitudes, classroom procedures and goals.
  • The Great Gatsby, for delivering in lyric prose and deeply flawed characters the usual array of interesting conversations about wealth, aspiration and the nature of love.
  • Pinterest, providing a cornucopia of delicious recipes that have made my recent transition into gluten- and dairy-free life more adventurous and manageable.
  • Ceramics 3, a class I’m able to take this semester, providing time for both rewarding self-care and informal connection with students as we create masterpieces in clay.

Please Be In Prayer For:

  • High School RetreatBe praying for our student body as they go to Switzerland at the end of this month, that they would be receptive to the messages they hear and eager to engage with their small groups in prayer and discussion. Pray also for safety and health as we travel together to the mountains.
  • Future Plans. Continue to pray for Timmy and I as we develop plans for our year in the States, and pray about future roles here in Kandern.

Thank you for all the many ways in which you encourage us in our ministry here, making our life in Germany possible with your prayer and financial support. 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

End Zones & Time Zones

Seattle SeahawksI was seventeen the first time I watched the Super Bowl all the way through.

I’m sure it was on other years, but I could never be bothered to watch. I’d float in for the halftime show or a few commercials. The game itself felt endless, piles of people crawling across the field, lacking the precision of baseball, the speed of basketball, or the precise single-mindedness of soccer. Had I been alive during the “Heidi Bowl” of 1968, I would have cheered when the game flickered off in overtime, giving way to an actual story, for once.

But when I was a senior in high school, the New England Patriots were playing the St. Louis Rams in a pre-Katrina Superdome, with a pre-everything, second-season Tom Brady. I’d recently decided that Gordon College, just outside of Boston, held the key to my future. With this destiny in mind, I decided to watch the Super Bowl. If I was going to be a New Englander, I best start cheering for my team.

And cheer I did. I remember little of the actual game now. (Honestly, if I remembered any specific plays it would be a miracle. Even this summer’s glorious final World Cup match has become a faint and distant memory.) U2 performed the halftime show, as the names of those killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks–just five months prior–scrolled on a giant screen behind them. The Patriots won, possibly in overtime.

When I came to Ballard High School the next day, where I was a copy editor for our school newspaper, I proofread the final draft of that month’s paper, and discovered a hole in the Sports section.

“Someone, write an article on the Super Bowl,” the Editor-in-Chief commanded. No response. “Didn’t anyone watch it?” Apathetic shrugs all around.

“I watched it,” I replied, breaking the silence as skeptical classmates turned to look at me.

“Really?” He raised his eyebrows, then shrugged. “OK, fine. Kristi, you write it.”

It was my first and last sports article, 200 words I’m still proud of writing. I think it is cut out somewhere, buried in a box in my parents’ garage. The first Super Bowl I cared about.

Of course, life didn’t turn out that way. A week later I visited Gordon, and a few months later I decided to stay in Seattle, picking my parents’ alma mater, Seattle Pacific University, for mostly financial reasons. I never became a Patriots fan, except in “lesser of two evils” scenarios.

I did watch more Super Bowls, though. I watched in 2005, when the Seahawks went to their first championship ever, losing to the Steelers under referee-related circumstances that my Ingraham ninth-graders wailed about loudly the next morning. After mocking my colleagues and students here in Germany for three years for the nonsense of staying up all night on a Sunday, last February I set my alarm for midnight and watched (most of) Seattle’s victory over Denver.

I still don’t love football, still find it agonizingly slow at times. I still choose sleep over watching most nights, even when, like during the NFC Championship, that proves to be a terrible decision. But a few magical times a year, football connects me with home, with family and friends, a giant cause that we all care about together. It’s just a game, of course, hardly the most critical cause in the world, but it’s something, a link of excitement to a city full of people I love.

With just about everyone in Seattle, I’ll be watching the Super Bowl again this year. And this time, I won’t be rooting for the Patriots.

Days on Days

“Snow is falling, snow on snow…”

“In the Bleak Midwinter,” Christina Rosetti

It’s been snowing for two hours in Kandern. Apparently, two hours of steady snow is all it takes to transform the town from dingy winter to snowglobe splendor. It wasn’t promising when it began, this storm, just a few errant flakes escaping the clouds to melt on the sidewalks. But now, the silent covering turns our world into a dusky blue, and an end is nowhere in sight. Beautiful.

While I’d usually seize a snowfall to go for a walk, it’s getting dark and I’m feeling tired, so I sit down to answer an email instead. The inquiry came from a former student yesterday, now in college, who is considering becoming a secondary teacher. What advice did I have? What should he consider? And how did I become a teacher in the first place?

And without a moment to gather my thoughts, I’m sitting in my parents’ dining room, biting my lip while my potential student teaching supervisor, Kristin, looks over my sparse resume.

“I have some concerns,” she said, looking up at me.

“Um, OK?”

“Your grades, for one.”

I tried to remember the exact decimal I’d put on the paper, failing to see where I could have given offense.

“I… my grades are…” I stammered.

“Really good,” she finished. “They might be too good.”

“Too good,” I repeated blankly.

“You do well in school. In the classroom, you might not do so well. You’ll fail. Things will go wrong. Often. Sometimes it will be your fault, sometimes not, but it will happen. I need to know that you can keep going anyway.”

This is what I was afraid of–most afraid of. That after all these years of wanting to be a teacher, it wouldn’t go as I expected. Or hoped. That somehow it would all fall apart. I nodded, hesitant.

That was the beginning of a long journey of grace. Grace from her, the grace she demanded that I give to myself as a novice teacher, the grace I doled out to my students and sometimes received from them. That’s what I write to my former student now. Learning to be a teacher is learning from a thousand mistakes, from the hard days, from the experiments that melt into the past like the first snowflakes on the sidewalk.

It’s always a privilege to hear from students–and news that they’re pursuing teaching is enormously exciting–but I finish the email thankful, most of all, for the chance to reflect. My students began their second semester on Monday with reflection, looking back on what they’ve learned this year and making “resolutions” for how they’d still like to grow. I asked them, as I do every few months, to consider why they’re here and why “we spend so much time reading, discussing and writing about things that never even happened.” It’s important to think, to remember the why of what we’re doing as much as the how.

It took a long time for me to become a teacher, I write. But eventually, all of those difficult days built up, and it got easier. I learned. Like anything worth doing–like starting a marriage or a family, like learning a language or to ride a bicycle–it is both extremely hard and extremely good.

As I’ve spent the year meeting with new and new-to-BFA teachers, these are the lessons that I remember. That it takes time to grow into anything, whether it’s a new vocation, a new relationship, a new home. That, in the end, sometimes it’s simply an accumulation of intentional days–days full of risk, experimentation and grace–that makes us teachers, wives, German speakers, bike riders.

The snow covers the trees, the fenceposts, the grass now, draping them all in white. The white of Gatsby’s party tent, or Miss Havisham’s wedding dress. All those snowflakes, so small alone, have fallen into seamless beauty.

The Learn’d Astronomer

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Walt Whitman

WhitmanThe first Monday after Christmas, my students are bent over their textbooks, reading the poetry of Walt Whitman aloud. With no explanation for who Walt Whitman was or how he liked to write, I’ve instructed them to read the selected bits of “Song of Myself”–classroom-appropriate excerpts, though still bizarre and unsettling–back and forth in pairs. When finished, they are to discuss the questions on the overhead:

  1. What stanzas are the most surprising or interesting to you? Why?
  2. What “rules” of poetry is he following? What rules is he breaking?
  3. What kind of person do you imagine him to be?

As I walk around the room, I hear rather more surprised giggles and shudders than I expected. So far it’s been a year of explaining punchlines–spending hours laying foundations for why this book or that poem is important, funny, interesting, ironic–so I’m pleased to see them engaging with something without much introduction.

When we come back together as a class, the first two questions uncover more questions than answers (Why did he write this? What does he mean by “I am the poet of a woman”? What even is poetry? Does this really count?). The third, however, provokes the most interesting images.

“If he walked in here, what would he be like?” I prompt them.

My usually reticent class of juniors erupts with hypotheses:

“He’d be smoking a cigar!”

“He’d be a… what are they called? Oh, he’d be a hippie.”

“He’d be one of those people who really care about a handshake. He’d had a good handshake, I think.”

“He’d definitely be calling everyone ‘son’ or ‘sport,’ or something.”

All this from a few stanzas of an image-rich and narcissistic 19th-century poem. It strikes me once again that teenagers get less credit than they deserve. I had a professor in college who doubted that teenagers could truly study literature (apparently forgetting that half of her students were still teenagers, and a solid third were studying to become teachers), saying with a shrug that maybe books could only be enjoyed, not truly understood by high school students.

Confession: There are days I that wonder. Days that I spend hours dreaming up how to make Hawthorne more interesting or Emerson more transparent, or planning how to introduce The Great Gatsby so that my students give it a chance. Teaching a chronological survey of American Literature, I spend the whole first quarter of each year explaining (and sometimes apologizing for) archaic language. Wouldn’t it be easier to read things they like? Books that are accessible, or poems that have helpful rhyme and easy metaphor. Surely there’s value in that, though not the value of shared tradition or intellectual challenge.

Instead, I teach Walt Whitman to young people who may not understand it, and discover for the thousandth time that understanding can take many forms. They may not be ready to write their doctoral theses on Leaves of Grass, but they know our Walt, walking through the door with a firm handshake and a genial manner.

When they’ve finished with “Song of Myself,” they begin on “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” After most of them have read the eight lines, I hear an exclamation of delight from the front of the room.

“Hey, I actually get that one! I understood a poem!”

“What’s he saying?” I ask him.

“He was in school, listening to a lecture on stars, and he got bored. So he went outside to look at the stars. It’s about, you know, experienceLiving, you know.”

I remember their imaginary friend Walt, their chorus of voices mesmerized by his odd ode to himself. I could have lectured, could have taught the poem. Instead, they read it, looking up at the stars until they understood. Or understood enough for now.

And today it’s the small epiphanies I love.