At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Monday, May 27, 2013

To Brad, With Thanks and Tears

We spent four industrious, busy, soul-teaching years in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was there that my teaching ability became more refined and enhanced and I learned how to teach--as C.S. Lewis put it--in the hallway of Christian consensus rather than a room of a particular view. My wife Christy displayed incredible diligence in caring for our son Joshua's pronounced medical needs, and we got to know University of Virginia Medical Center very well as a result. Our daughter Lindsay was born there, sharing a birthday with the revered Thomas Jefferson (April 13th) and managing to enter the world on the 100th anniversary of the opening of the hospital (and we didn't get a discount!).

Overall, I got to know many wonderful young men and women there when I taught at the Covenant School. I can honestly say that--as a group--no cluster of students I've ever encountered worked as hard academically as they did. I had great relationships with a number of them through class, through coaching soccer and baseball, through sponsoring the Rock-Paper-Scissors Society which I created (don't ask). Some, though, rose above the rest as individuals of excellence, honor, trust, and faith.

Bradley Thomas Arms was one such student.

Brad was in my eleventh grade Bible class my first year at Covenant, and we saw a lot of each other each day, given that he was a solid player on our varsity soccer team. He wasn't a loud talker, but he led by example, and you knew that if he was in the defensive zone, a goal for the opponent would be hard to come by. In excellent physical condition, he kept going full speed toward the end of the game when others wilted. In class, he never quit even when his academic schedule was especially daunting. On one quiz, he had a rare bad grade. I asked him if he had had a few rough nights in a row and he said yes. In fact, that quiz had been the third that day in addition to three tests. I said, "Brad, why didn't you tell me? I'd have given you a one-day extension." Brad looked me in the eye, shook his head, and said, "It's my responsibility. No excuses, sir."

Good heavens, I wish students today had a tenth of Brad Arms in them. The educational landscape would be transformed overnight.

The twin pillars of responsibility and honor were front and center for Brad. The 9/11 attacks only steeled that resolve. He attended the University of Georgia (who could blame him for such a fine choice?) but went into the Marines, choosing to serve his country with an unshakeable belief in freedom and duty. Every once in awhile, he was back in Charlottesville, and each time he stopped by my room to check in on me. The last time I saw him was in April 2004, after I had announced I was leaving to take a ministry position in North Carolina. He came in to say hello, and we shook hands, parting for what would be the last time, though neither of us realized it. Looking back, I wondered if he liked returning to his roots in case there wasn't a next time.

In November of that year, I received an email in the midst of a busy Saturday, replete with sermon preparation and fine-tuning the liturgy for Sunday worship. It was a sad announcement that two days before, Brad and his team came under fire in Fallujah, Iraq. A sniper's bullet caught him, and despite the best efforts of his fellow soldiers, he died. I screamed in sadness and anger, then composed myself and staggered into the kitchen, tearfully giving the tragic news to my wife.

Many deaths have affected me greatly. Our dear, sweet son Jordan was the most devastating, of course. All my grandparents have passed on. My friend John Graham at the end of my sophomore year of high school...that hit me between the eyes. But as this Memorial Day approached, my thoughts return time and again to Brad, to the man that he was, the example that shone forth from within him. Taken too soon, yet he died in honorable fashion. He believed in an ideal greater than himself. As the video shown above tells us, he was resolute in the belief that God had a plan for him, no matter what that looked like from the perspective of others. And in truth, the lives and well-being of people around him he raised higher than his own. It was a sacrifice he firmly believed was worth making.

One sacrifice among many, but it's one that I remember well and I'm profoundly grateful for having known Brad and intersected with his journey. Today is a day for thanksgiving and tears. Both are appropriate in equal measure this day, which should not be limited to mere barbecue, burgers, and beer.

Thank you, Brad, and to every soldier who gave all so that we might continue to walk in liberty's light.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Moving On (A Reflection on Transition)

Today was the last day of school. I gave my Ethics and New Testament exams and--after a faculty luncheon--then ran some of them through the Scan-Tron machine and went on home. It's really be a remarkable year. My Ethics students were especially memorable this year...excitable without being obnoxious. My colleagues and I have some good ideas for future years. And to top it off, within four hours of getting home, we heard a knock on the door: Two students of mine dropped by wondering if I wanted to play whiffle ball.

It's been that kind of year.

But it's been a different sort of year because of where we've been headed. In coming years, my school faces significant opportunities and marked challenges (which I won't get into now), but one major upcoming change is worth noting: After 28 years as headmaster at Westminster Christian Academy, Mr. Jim Marsh is stepping aside. To put that into perspective, within months of Jim's first day on the job at Westminster, the Kansas City Royals won their only World Series--and have not returned to the postseason since. Jim has other opportunities, rather than a traditional retirement--in front of him, but his departure meant the hard work of a search committee this past year to call Dr. Tom Stoner as our new headmaster at Westminster.

28 years. That's quite a while.

Under Jim's leadership, Westminster has grown significantly, built a new state-of-the-art campus, and has restructured and refined its curriculum. He has hired all but two of the present faculty at Westminster. For many people, it is difficult to imagine Westminster without Jim.

And yet that day must come at some point. In some cases, the time in leadership isn't long enough, because the leader might have just a few good years left but circumstances intervene (Winston Churchill, for example). Other times, the leader builds a kingdom and should have stepped down before  the rot below the surface exploded (e.g. Joe Paterno's coaching career at Penn State and the Jerry Sandusky scandal).

All this wonderment really masks the true issue: What do we need to keep before us during moments of transition such as these?

Answer: Everything can be just fine.

If you take the Old Testament seriously--which I do--there's a passing-of-the-torch moment that occurs at the end of the book of Deuteronomy. Moses dies. That's Moses--plucked from the Nile River, procurator of plagues, waver of the staff over the Red Sea, and benevolent prophetic ruler over the thousands of citizens of the Hebrew nation during their trek from Egypt to the verge of the promised land of Canaan. After 40 years of leadership, Moses dies before he can enter the promised territory.

The torch passes to Joshua, a tested soldier but nowhere near Moses' aura, from the standpoint of many. Yet he's God's choice. And what the deuce does God tell Joshua to do? Mourn? No. Strategize? No (although Joshua employed military strategy later to good effect). God says, "Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore, arise. Cross this Jordan (River), you and all these people..." In short, leadership changes. The vision doesn't. The mission won't falter. What matters is not the person in the driver's seat. Success doesn't happen because you have a certain personality in the driver's seat. It occurs when the leader is a man or woman of integrity and obedience, who believes, does, and inspires what is right, noble, and true.

Jim will be missed by many at Westminster. And yet, Westminster will be fine, as will many schools, churches, businesses, and other institutions that go through similar waters. The questions we must ask are "What does God require?" and then "How do we rightly pursue that good?"

And it always helps to remember that God goes before the situation. As he told Joshua, "Every place where the sole of your foot treads, I have given it to you."

God knows where you're headed. Move on toward it. It's that simple.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Art Imitates Life, or Murder in the House of God

A couple weeks ago, I had breakfast with colleague and good friend L.B. Graham. Every once in a while, we trek over to McDonald's to discuss life, writing, and the behind-the-scenes details at school over some high protein items on the dollar menu. It's a tradition we've kept up whenever we that started with Saturday morning breakfast runs in seminary when the Des Peres McDonald's stubbornly kept its TV on CNN, much to our annoyance.

L.B. is a fine teacher, superb department chairman (our department meetings are only as long as absolutely needed), trusted friend, and a fine writer. Whenever we catch an hour or two to talk, the conversation inevitably turns to writing and the trimmings that come along with it. We plow through details of contracts, compare notes on our publishers (mainly because I never pass up a chance to praise my own publisher), and where we are with our respective storylines. After a bit, L.B. asked me if I was having difficulty being patient waiting for my autumn release date for Litany of Secrets. I said, "Well, yeah. It'd be nice to fast forward to November, but it is what it is." I paused, chewing on a bit of my sausage McMuffin, before I finally gushed--oblivious to those around us, "Man, it's so surreal to have a murder story take place at a seminary!"

Thankfully, no one at the tables surrounding us heard me. Then again, the average age of the crowd made me place them as eyewitnesses to King David's conquest of Jerusalem. L.B. chuckled, though, completely understanding where I was coming from. If I could wrap it up in one sentence, it would be: The perceived safe haven is a gold mine for a murder mystery.

Maybe "gold mine" is going a bit far. It's all too painful for some at our alma mater, Covenant Theological Seminary, that a murder took place there years ago. A nurse from Scotland, Elizabeth Mackintosh, was on campus working toward a counseling degree. From all indications she was having a relatively blissful time of pursuing her degree. All until March 26, 1990, when she was found strangled and stabbed in a stall in the men's bathroom on the lower level of CTS's chapel.

I wasn't a student there at the time, but people still whispered about the Mackintosh murder during my days in St. Louis. It was surreal indeed to take Hebrew, church history, Greek, and theology courses on that same downstairs level. Strange, of course, to--on more than one occasion--use that same bathroom. Even more sobering to recall that a seminary student was the primary suspect for some time in a case that ran cold and never closed its fingers around a guilty party.

I have to confess that the Mackintosh murder came to mind when I began the first volume in the Cameron Ballack mystery series. Not that I'm plowing new literary ground by any means: P.D. James sent Commander Adam Dalgliesh to St. Anselm's College on the English coast in Death in Holy Orders. But the gritty and sad reality of past tragedy did pave the way for my setting in the forthcoming Litany of Secrets. It doesn't represent Covenant Seminary by any stretch. My setting is a bucolic enclave in rural St. Charles County where the Eastern Orthodox Church trains its priests. But nonetheless I felt a sense of realism when writing the novel, because this has happened before.

It happened in a way that provoked people to say this shouldn't happen. Murder in the house of God? No way! This should be a safe haven. But to me, that hope is overridden by a greater truism. Whatever you call it--sin, wickedness, evil, brokenness, transgression, fallenness...splashes over a lot more than we can imagine. Murder in the house of God shocks us because of where it takes place, but it shouldn't shock us, mainly because of who we are.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Rules of the Relationship Road

Of all the mercurial paths I see running through the high school world, the pursuit of love and dating relationships takes the cake. A teacher has the unique perspective of watching the tentative movements of boy toward girl (and vice versa) as well as the train wrecks of unions that never should exist in the first place.

It was a couple months ago that I was finishing up a unit on marriage, divorce, dating, and relationships with my Ethics classes that I decided some closing thoughts were in order. Of course, what could I say that could bear any weight? My dating life in high school was practically non-existent. I was turned down by four different girls for senior prom. The closest I would come to getting a date was actually eating a fruit of the same name. Everything I've learned about relationships has been by trial and error...basically trials that led to errors that bring on more trials which lead to...well, you get the drift.

But one night of cranial clarity and thoughts from the heart wrought my rules of dating, relationships, and life itself. I shared them with my students, set up as ten rules for the ladies, ten for the guys, and five more for both genders.

Like 'em or not, here they are:

For the ladies

1. Repeat after me: "You are loved" Trust completely that God truly loves you before you go looking for a guy who will love you. It makes all the difference. Stop looking for love in the wrong places for the wrong reasons.

2. You are less beautiful than you think and more beautiful than you believe Sin and lack of character makes you ugly, not your looks. Makeup, clothing, and attitude can't change that. God can. Trust him.

3. Ask what controls your search for love Is it fear, loneliness, demand for approval, desire for sex, or something else? What idols might be keeping you from letting God's unconditional love capture you?

4. Deal with your daddy issues If your dad is/was abusive or absent, don't allow that to control your search for love. If you have a good and protective dad, he's not God, either! You're not looking for a dad-replacement or a dad-duplicate. You have a perfect Heavenly Father already.

5. Know when it's not worth it (a) If a guy doesn't reciprocate your interest, ignore him. He's not worth it. (b) If a guy if physically or verbally abusive, avoid him. If you are dating such a jerk, then leave him. (c) If you've been dating a guy for a long time [say post-college for 2-3 years], and he hasn't popped the question, then leave him, because he is never going to commit.

6. Respect guys and push them to be leaders The natural inclination of godly women is to encourage godly men to be who God intended them to be. Be honest, be clear, and be the wind in your man's sails.

7. Dress to kill...the evil desires within guy's hearts. Dress modestly. Do not draw attention to what is only available to your future husband. I'm not saying you have to dress like an Amish pastor's wife. But you need to check your heart for motives as you dress.

8. Pursue your opportunities Women have more opportunities now than they've had in the past. So go after the best education you can and be able to provide for yourself. Don't drop out of your chances and assume you'll be a teen dream prom queen that'll get scooped up by a guy and you'll never have to work again.

9. Be an encourager You don't have to go overboard on this, but every once in awhile, let the guy know what he's doing right. Thank him for his kindness, his listening skills, and anything else that truly matters. Be specific. They won't admit it, but guys are very insecure souls and they really want to know when they are doing the right thing and making you happy.

10. Purity is worth defending You are God's true love. Don't give it away cheaply. If a guy tries to take your purity from you, tell him no. And if he tries again, slap him. Hard. And if he still doesn't get it, round up some guys who care, and send them after him to beat the living crap out of him. Because God loves you that much.

Now for the guys...I love you, but you need to brace yourselves

1. You are pigs I get it. You're adolescents. It's a time when you feel you should sow your immaturity without consequence...making filthy jokes about girls' bodies, playing the pull-my-finger gag, etc. You know what? It's stupid. You're being an idiot. Grow up. Be a man.

2. But you are redeemable pigs Winston Churchill switched political parties. Alice Cooper became a Christian. And I grew to love medium-rare steak. Anything can happen and anyone can change. It begins when you admit you've been less than God intended you to be and telling your immaturity to stick it. And then apologize to all the females you've turned off by your behavior. That's at least a start.

3. A word about temptation I get it. It's tough to maintain the right thing. We're easily tempted and it doesn't take much. But caving in to it doesn't make you a man. It means you're undisciplined. Going after easy women means you're lazy. Seducing a girl makes you a coward, not a stud. Real men are none of the above. Real men rely on God to keep them honorable.

4. Roll with it, baby! So you don't like how women expect you to read their minds, they glances, and their nuanced behavior and you feel lost? Big deal. Get over it. It's not going to change. Even if you fail in the attempt, girls will respect you for trying to understand them and will admire you [even if they tell you the exact opposite].

5. Be the knight in shining armor Open doors for girls. Make eye contact when you speak with them. Put down your iPhone when you're in conversation with them. If they drop something, pick it up for them. Give up your seat for them. Limit the texting and focus on more one-on-one face time. And every now and then, tell them they look very nice today [without expecting anything in return].

6. Want to be attractive? It has very little to do with looks and a lot to do with the heart. Do things, even the most menial tasks, for them. In marriage, that will mean doing an armload of stuff around the house [even laundry and emptying the dishwasher]. Teenage guys, this also means not taking a girl's stuff [phone, keys, etc.] and playing keep-away as a joke.

7. Post-breakup attitude Some girls might not want to continue dating you. This means they will break up with you. When this happens, take it like a man! Don't ask "Why?" incessantly. Don't whine. Definitely DON'T CRY! Don't buy the "It's not you, it's me" line (the girl is just being nice). Don't ask, "Is it something I did?", because it probably is. Just man up, wish her well, and get on with your life.

8. Take the bull by the horns For the absolute love of St. Jude, when you ask a girl out, be direct! And don't do the "I was wondering...if you weren't doing anything else on Friday night..." way of asking her out. Make a girl know 100% that you are interested in her, not like a seventh-round draft choice.

9. A woman is good to look at, but that woman must be your wife and only your wife! You will treasure her and honor her or your life will be a godforsaken almighty train wreck. Adultery makes you a shameful idiot (that's Biblical). Pornography makes you a shameless coward (that's indisputable). Faithfulness and tenderness makes you a man (that's right)!

10. This will save you a lot of trouble! Get to know your girlfriend's father. Look him in the eye and shake his hand firmly. Enjoy what he enjoys. Converse with him. Find out what he likes to eat and make it as often as he wants it (especially if it is dessert). Trust me, guys...this is at least half the battle. You win this and you have the wind at your back!

And finally, five bonus shots for both genders

5. Nerves are part of the game Butterflies are part of the dating and relationship scene. Situational fear will always be there. It might seem as daunting as trying to push over a Coke machine the size of Mt. Everest, but you can do it! (Even if it takes eight hours to ask the girl out, but that was my problem the first time I asked Christy out.)

4. A word about break-ups (a) After three dates, breakups need to be face-to-face. (b) Love is like a body, and one of the most important parts of the body is the colon. It needs to flush out the crap or things get toxic. The same thing goes for relationships. Toxic relationships need to be flushed out. (c) Be honest ("I don't think we're compatible" or "I think we're going in different directions") but not nasty brutal ("You're an emotionally constipated abyss of worthlessness" or "I don't enjoy being with you because you bore me to tears"). (d) Breakups are not the end of the world. They tend to be God's way of unleashing you from a set of chains so that you are free to move toward true happiness.

3. Be responsible So you don't want your life to get drastically sidetracked by an unintended pregnancy? It's real simple: Keep your hockey uniform on and you won't have to worry about the puck getting shot by the goalie and getting into the net.

2. Same stride, same pace, make sure The most critical moment of any relationship that clicks is the magic known as the RDT...the Relationship Defining Talk. It means establishing where you are with each other and implying where things are going without explicitly saying so. This is the moment when your souls start melting together.

1. And the number-one piece of advice you can take to heart as you move through the dating universe...Never--and I mean ever!--continue to date someone whom you know--beyond the shadow of a doubt--that you ultimately would never want to marry. You're better off marching onward toward the one God is preparing for you to dance with throughout your life.

You're welcome.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Reading Reviews: Peter Tremayne

One of the more pleasant surprises in reading occurs when you find a jewel that has flown under your radar for some time. Back in March I was at our local public library (a blessing indeed when you have one less than a mile from your home) feverishly completing my taxes because I felt competent enough to crunch through the 1040, Schedule A, and the other demonic host of federal forms without the direction of my accountant. Taking a break from the sheaves of receipts and charitable donation spreadsheets, I walked along the bookshelves at the end of the fiction section (where else?) and noticed a slew of volumes in Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma mysteries. After subsequently working through his first and fifth novels in the series (Absolution by Murder, The Spider's Web), I discovered one of his recent books goes back to the time period in between the two I read. While Absolution by Murder takes place at the Synod of Whitby in seventh-century Wales, and The Spider's Web in the early medieval kingdom of Ireland, Behold a Pale Horse (Minotaur Books, 2011) shows Sister Fidelma caught in the waves of intrigue at the Abbey of Bobium north of Genoa, Italy.

Tremayne creates a compelling character in Sister Fidelma. The sister of a reigning king in Ireland in the 600s, Fidelma is both a religieux (dedicated to the work of the church) and a dalaigh (an advocate of the laws of Ireland). Her shrewd and logical mind grasps details small and great, noticing microscopic matters and the weaving together of the big picture. Her fiery determination matches her flaming red hair and reveals her as a sleuthing force to be reckoned with. Idealistic more than pragmatic, Fidelma rarely thinks about consequences and tends to barge into areas that most would avoid. Whether verbally grilling an archbishop or abbot, a king or queen, an aged physician or pagan lord, Fidelma knows one speed only. Little wonder that there is a Sister Fidelma Society of devoted admirers of Tremayne's protagonist.

As one who studied Celtic history at the university level, Tremayne ably paints a compelling and vivid setting. One can practically inhale the scents of an abbey refectory at dinner, the incense used during vespers in the chapel, the manure of a feudal lord's stables, or the salt spray of the ocean. His concise but helpful prologues help sketch the lay of the land in the Irish church of Fidelma's days. Tremayne utilizes careful research and a multitude of details, but the forest is never overly tree-infested and he gives the reader room to breathe. The plot moves along and never slogs down in a quagmire of facts and figures.

Not everyone will be a Tremayne fan. There are occasions when several names of characters bear high similarity to each other. When I read Behold a Pale Horse, I had to write down and delineate many characters whose names begin with 'W' as I had difficulty keeping them straight. But Tremayne makes up for this by telling a whopping good yarn that lights the path for the reader without giving away the essentials of the mystery. In this, he avoids the oversimplication of many other writers on one hand and the postmodern excess of an Umberto Eco on the other. The Sister Fidelma series can be read in order, but they are also satisfying as stand-alone novels. Either way, Tremayne is worth checking out. Some time spent in the company of Sister Fidelma is time well spent.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Louis C.K. and A Word to the Wise

My colleague Dan Legters showed this video at a faculty meeting a couple years back.

To get to where Louis C.K. (from the FX show "Louie") starts talking, go to the 35-second mark, and once Louis is done around 4:20, stop it (couple of instances of objectionable language afterward with the laptop comedians).

It's well worth it (if you can ignore the people in the lower-left hand corner)...He makes some great point about how--even though technology has made our lives easier--what has entered in is a sense of entitlement where the world owes us a ton.

One curse word from Louis C.K. is bleeped out, for those of you worried about language.

What do you think? What to do about the double-edged sword of our lives made easier but our spirits becoming more filled with discontent and covetousness?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Students are People, not Commodities

I think it only fair that--since I've successfully fought off today's migraine and because tonight's array of NHL playoff games are going to be considerably less intense than tomorrow night's Montreal-Ottawa encounter--I try to pull some thoughts together for a post. Something has been swirling around in my head since last week's "An Open Letter to Teachers". At that time I had some musings banging around in my head, but it was difficult to string them into coherent prose. But tonight, with my migraine behind me and some ham steak in my belly, I feel ready.

I know that it's an unfortunate reality that many people today view private education as a business. Yes, budgets need to be set and approved, not to mention followed. Headmasters have to carry the load of being a public, visionary face that can attract $$$ (tuition only covers so much of the pie). Parents themselves can approach the whole educational venture as a transactional piece of work. They send their kids, their kids do a (reasonable) amount of work, and the expectation is they will be rewarded with a diploma (and maybe an outstanding GPA) that will lead to entry into a quality college and eventually a high-paying job.

The common thread in all of this? Economic language. Not that it's a bad thing per se, but it bears watching.

All of this can ooze into the pysche of teachers. We are encouraged, both externally by our administrators and internally by self-motivation, to pour ourselves into our students. This can be particularly poignant in secondary education, which ideally moves kids toward more independence they will require in the halls of college and university. But lately I've noticed it's easy for the economic language that is taking over education to seep into our relationships with our students.

I've sat through many an in-service, start-of-the-year faculty meeting, or teacher devotional time in many schools when teachers have talked about what they love about teaching. And the language they use is very telling. For example...

"My time in teaching has been incredibly rewarding..."

"I love to invest in kids and in their lives..."

"Your child's performance is improving..." (A favorite at parent-teacher conferences)

There are other sound bites. And understand, I'm guilty of using those statements at times, but I've become convicted that they betray a certain default mode we teachers need to expunge.

My question is "Why the financial language?"

Students are people, not commodities. They are special creations made in God's image, not financial capital.

Our students are individuals who we mentor, not stock that we "invest in".

Our students are human beings we are called to shepherd toward their calling, not primarily objects that we drive toward improvement.

Our students are potentially heroic mortals whom we can inspire to do great things and be great people, not a portfolio of knowledge that we find "rewarding", as if our vocation was all about some sort of self-worth payoff (If that was the case, the prophet Jeremiah would have been a miserable failure).

In short, our students are people whom we can treasure and love and to whom we bear the reality of God's smile.

They are not commodities.

Maybe we don't need a reality check, but a language check. And maybe that will reveal what on earth we are in the classroom for.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Saturday's Apology

Eventually you find you can't keep up the pace you set originally. I ran in the University City 5K on Memorial Day 1995 and of course, I was in the front cluster when the starting gun went off. Now, of the meager number of races that I've run, this race had the most insane beginning. The first half-mile was a satanic incline that took out your legs. Nonetheless, I swiftly shot near the front of the pack, hoping for the inevitable leveling off of Delmar Boulevard. I was still among the front-runners at the first mile marker (no small feat for a Clydesdale of my size) and one of the timekeepers called out, "Five minutes, twenty seconds!"

To which my soul said to me, "Five-twenty? What the devil are you doing up there?"

At which point I promptly hit the wall. Mentally and physically, I seized up, and it took until the third and final mile of the race before I could muster a comeback down the stretch. Although I finished with my best time ever for a 5K (20 minutes, 53 seconds for the record), I knew I had committed a cardinal error at the race's start. I had outstripped my common sense and gone at a faster pace than I should.

And now, eighteen years later, I have to confess to doing it again.

It was ridiculous to expect I could put out a high volume of blog posts every day. I was approaching today, remembering that Saturday is my book review day, when I grimly realized I would not have completed my reading of Peter Tremayne's Behold A Pale Horse in time to comment on it. I had become exhausted trying to average a blog post a day. Now I worry if even three posts a week is too much. Hard to say, although that pace is much more do-able.

I was encouraged recently by a tweet from Donald Miller (of Blue Like Jazz fame) when he asked if our aim was to have more Twitter followers or better content when we tweet. I drew this wisdom parallel to Sacred Chaos and firmly believe that what truly matters is not the volume on my blog but the quality of what goes on it.

So...the reading reviews will continue, but they might not be every Saturday. The number of posts will range per week, but I at least am thankful for this wake-up call, one to be a more effective writer over an insanely consistent one.

In the meantime, keep looking out for what winds up here.

Friday, May 3, 2013

An Open Letter to Teachers

I'm sure there were some in the educational field who might have resonated with my earlier post from Wednesday this week, complete with some firm yet hopeful encouragements for those of us with children in school. But now the business of exhortation bends back on our profession. Yes, we can't run from it either.

Drum roll, please. My Ten Commandments for teachers.

1. Sometimes it's not about the lesson. There are many days when our victory is not in working through a Shakespearean sonnet in wistful, inspiring fashion. It is not going to be the time when we thunderously deliver the Pythagorean theorem to our geometry students. There are going to be those occasions when the meaningful event of the day will be when you sit with an introverted freshman at lunch and make their day. Or when you hand back a paper a student think she's bombed and your constructive comments and encouragement thrill her soul. And there are those times when you notice that kid in the fourth row who hasn't smiled in three days and you turn a phrase into a joke and his dour aura vaporizes into a belly laugh, all because you said to yourself, "I don't care if everyone gets it or not, I just need to break that face and make him smile." Very often these times--not your PowerPoint on Charlesmagne--will be the moments that students remember.

2. Keep ALL your correspondence: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I'll take these in reverse order. In the rare epochs of parental discord and frustration, make sure you document, document, document. Administrators don't like surprises, and you need to wallpaper your rear end with enough clear communication to cover Windsor Castle. If a principal or department chairperson happens to observe you in action and they write out some pointed, constructive criticism, make sure you hold on to that. Come back to those words once in a awhile and keep them in front of you, not for humiliation but for motivation. When you do improve in pedagogy, it helps to have a marker from the past to see how far you've traveled. And...hold on to every kind note, every glowing email, and every card of overflowing gratitude. You'll have some dark days in this profession, and sometimes the thing that gets you through the valley of the shadow of death is a trip down memory lane.

3. Physical health is essential. In Latin, the phrase is Mens sana in corpore sano. A sound mind in a sound body. You don't have to compete in the Ironman Triathalon, but some form of regular exercise is critical for whooshing out the storm and stress of the work day. As Reese Witherspoon said in Legally Blonde (and I'm already cringing at the knowledge I'm quoting from that movie in a serious blog post), "Exercise gives you endorphins; endorphins make you happy!" Some sort of commitment to physical wellness has ripple effects into mental and emotional goodies, as well. It centers you and empowers you for the teaching task ahead in all its twists and turns.

4. Laugh. Students need to realize that even if education isn't always fun, it's always interesting. But the teacher sets the pace in this regard, and there is nothing fact, it's downright helpful once a week to show a YouTube clip of epic painful fails, a three-minute video compilation from Wipeout, or tell them a funny story about bumbling criminals or something from the Darwin Awards. It breaks up the pace of the school day and reassures students there is a wider life to which we are connected, and it can be downright hilarious. Often, our kids are craving that sort of tonic.

5. Read. It doesn't matter why. Read something in your subject area. Read fiction to escape from the present grind. Read something about woodworking or small engine maintenance. Read for professional development, read to others, read to be entertained. Trade paperbacks, hardcovers, Kindle, Nook, iPad. Whatever the reason, be engaged in reading. We carry more of this activity into the classroom than we know, and the more intellectually equipped we are, the better. I've already spoken to the need for fit bodies, but we also need fat minds as well.

6. Don't create hate. You might not be able to control if someone will thoroughly enjoy your subject. Kids tend to have various gifts and abilities that can bring about a "lean" in one area or another. But I am convinced that we can control if a student will hate our subject. Teachers who put forth sneering demeanors, bitter (rather than constructive) sarcasm and joking, and are exhibiting exasperation toward perceived student confusion instead of viewing it as curiosity and wonder...these folks threaten to consign their classes to the ash heap of memories. And another thing: Overloading on homework, tests, and papers? You'd better have a good reason to act as if your class is the only one that exists, and I haven't heard such a reason yet.

7. Your students are NOT your most important community. During the fall of 2000, I was running on fumes. Our son Joshua was in the hospital with dehydration and respiratory issues. Christy was with him at the hospital most of the time, but the day came when I needed to call a sub and be there for and with her. My headmaster at the time, Ron Sykes, was quick to affirm that was the right thing to do when he gently told me, "Remember, what you've got going on there with your family is more important than what you've got going on here at school." He hit the nail on the head. A teacher's primary relationships with family need to be in shape. How we approach others will inform how we treat our students. I Timothy 3 says that an elder in the church "must manage his own household well." It makes sense that the primary bonds for a teacher need nurturing, too.

8. Rules without relationships equal rebellion. I'm not promoting anarchy here. Of course, you need a behavioral framework. In most schools, this is called the student-parent handbook. By all means be consistent in dealing with infractions. But it helps to keep things simple. I tell my students every year it all comes down to four major areas: Be prepared (have all your stuff), be on time (tardies and absences are bad), look like you're supposed to (dress code), and act like you're supposed to (respect to teacher and others). But if students view a teacher primarily as a judge and not an ally or advocate for their success, there's a problem. The teacher whose number-one passion is law and order rather than teaching tends to lean toward martial law, which breeds its own particular issues.

9. Be real. Students can smell a fake a long distance away. They don't want someone who wears a mask. They want someone whom they know they can trust, whose word means something, and who embraces their own shortcomings and difficulties. Not that every day is the proper time to emote, but it's critical to realize that teachers be genuine and authentic without sacrificing their authority. Last November, I read a short story to my class. It was on the fourth anniversary of our son Jordan's death and I shared the story with my Ethics students because I had written it from Jordan's perspective as if he was having a conversation with Jesus in heaven. Many students were visibly moved. One in particular brushed her tears, came up afterward and hugged me and said, "Thank you for opening up to us." In reality, that's what students want: openness. It's not the easiest thing to find today.

10. Enjoy this. In business, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. You get one shot at parenting your own kids. And as far as teaching goes, you have a grand opportunity to live it up every day. Of course, in five, ten, twenty years, you may be doing something completely different. But you will always remember your teaching days. There will always be moments that drive you crazy. The political machinery can send you over the edge. Parents may baffle you. You won't get along with every single one of your co-workers. But ultimately, the habitat you can (and should) truly enjoy is that classroom with your students. All the other aspects of teaching can vacillate; the classroom community should be a constant. Trust me on this, my friends: From our profession, we help create every other profession. We have lasting, ongoing impact. If that doesn't juice your chops, what are you doing in education?


11. Write a letter. Yes, seriously. Not an email. Not a text message. A letter. On stationery or official school letterhead. And do the following. Once a year, think back to a teacher who inspired you, pushed you, mentored you, or connected with you. Go back through the memories, the stories, the defining events of your class. And thank him or her. You never know when your words might be the perfect tonic for someone who is going through professional doubts or personal darkness. We teachers latch onto encouragement like Jimi Hendrix latched onto a guitar. It's an exercise well worth it. And maybe you'll find your former students-turned-teachers doing likewise, as well.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

An Open Letter to Parents of Students

Admissions policy at Christian schools may not be everyone's cup of tea (neither was I expecting it to be in my last post), but there are other matters that strike a little more close to home.

Not everyone thinks about school policy, but chances are that a vast number of adults fall into the category "parents of students". As a teacher, I've met with many parents over the years--in fact, I am both a teacher and a parents of students--and have been in a unique position to observe what works and what doesn't. What I've done over the last few days is think through some realities that we who are parents of students should keep in mind when dealing with teachers and the entire educational system. In short, what follows are my Ten Commandments to Parents. And keep in mind, I'm preaching these to myself as well.

1. Start your kids off right early. From the time your wee one flees the womb to the time he or she enters school and even beyond that first day in educational splendor, you are the primary teacher for your children. This means you are in a unique position to read to them; to teach them colors, shapes, and numbers; to teach them how to tell time (yes, my mom taught me how to read a clock before I entered kindergarten); to take them to the park and point out trees, birds, and other surroundings that will open their eyes to something beyond an XBox. The parent is the archbishop of a child's intellectual curiosity and stimulation. The earlier you instill a love of learning in your child, they will have a better chance of academic success, practical precocity, and emotional intelligence.

2. Rumor cuts both ways. If you want to know what's going on in your child's classroom, the easy thing to do would be attend a class. Or read the class syllabus. There are a host of ways to gather legitimate information. When your child tells you that something occurred in class today, by all means take their words into account. However, there's something you should know. Your child--if he or she is my student--can have a tendency to talk about many things that happen at home. Every year--in and out--I always propose this (somewhat) funny compromise: If you believe 10 percent of what your child says goes on in class, I'll believe only 10 percent of what your child says goes on at home.

3. Be involved in each school year from the start, not just when there are problems. Teachers listen more carefully and more generously to parents who show a genuine interest in their child's welfare from the first day. This creates a workable atmosphere that is conducive to working through any future choppy waters. Parents who dive-bomb into a perceived crisis like a Louisiana mosquito into a sumo wrestler's love handles are welcome to attempt that tactic. However, if these moments tend to be the first time the teacher has encountered the parent of said child all year, it is not so much gracious conversation as it is grinding confrontation. The level of your involvement sends a powerful message to your child's teacher(s). Don't blow it.

4. Ask, don't demand. A disconcerting trend within the past two years is an increasing lack of grace amongst certain segments of the parental population (Note: I said certain segments, not a wide swath). I received a recent email from a parent, noting that their daughter was going to a funeral the next day. No problem, and I would have given grace an any assignments to be turned in. But the parent proceeded to tell me that--not ask if--her daughter would be waiting for a few days to turn in her project that was due. Again, that would have been my decision anyway, but when she told me what I was going to do rather than asking me if I could please grant some latitude, it did leave a bad taste in my mouth. And consider this: The way you do or do not extend understanding, professionalism, and kindness gets passed down in some measure to your children. Just sayin'.

5. Put away the cell phone. When you are in a conference with me, please don't text someone else or take a call unless a loved one is passing a kidney stone the size of Manitoba. Parent-teacher conferences are set up as a limited amount of time, not indefinite eons. And would you want me to respond to your questions and inquiries about your child's welfare by checking my phone?

6. The classroom is a safe zone, not a cocoon of utopia. My job as a teacher, especially in Ethics class where many competing viewpoints and nuances get thrown around the classroom, is to make certain that students are allowed to express their opinions without being reviled. It does NOT mean that your child is immune from counter-arguments. It does NOT mean that when someone says something, it is automatically an airtight, strong point to which Socrates himself would genuflect in obesiance. Disagreement is part of life. The biblical phrase is "iron sharpeneth iron." My ultimate aim is not someone's personal validation of emotional warmth and fuzziness; the job of a teacher is to (a) draw out [from the Latin educare] the foundational elements of thinking within a child and (b) shepherd that child through the pastures of knowledge with wisdom so that (c) they reach the ultimate goal of knowing, believing, and applying the truth. The classroom is a beautiful haven through which winds an upward incline of pursuit.

7. Think about what we could be doing. Granted, there are some teachers who are in this business to draw a paycheck, and that's it. Some may have the personality of Kristen Stewart on a truckload of downers. Some might lose an intellectual argument with a hole-punching machine. But the super-majority of colleagues I've had over nearly a decade and a half are highly motivated, supremely enthusiastic, pleasantly engaging folks who believe that teaching is not ultimately something they have to do, but it's something they get to do. And if your child has had a number of talented teachers who breathe the craft of what I call edutainment (educational entertainment), chances are these teachers are talented enough to do well in a number of other fields. Places that pay a salary much higher than education. Your child doesn't have to have such teachers, but he or she gets to have them. That should be a cause for celebration. Exceptional teachers who keep teaching are evidence of God's lavish grace.

8. Liking your child is distinct from loving your child. I once received a communication from one parent who was bemoaning a disconnect between myself and his son. Now, I was not aware that such a disconnect existed. If it genuinely did, I wanted to see what could be done. But the parent bewailed that the child was very distressed because he felt I didn't like him. Now, it wasn't true. I enjoyed his son very much and we do get along quite well. And keep in mind, teachers are for your kids and believe in them and want the best for them. However--and hear me out--teachers are not paid to like their students. The quality and depth of teacher-student relationships are NOT automatic, but earned. Would I be forced to like a student who was shiftless, cheated on a major exam, showed no interest in learning, and was disrespectful to myself and others? I think not. But on the other hand, I do believe that every teacher should love their students. That is, we should want the best for them, have a burning desire to see them succeed, wish them well, and be willing to do what it properly takes to assist them become quality young men and women. Loving our students in this way is automatic; liking them is earned. It's always helpful for teachers to hear this, encapsulated in the wisdom of my mentor Tom Foley: "We are teachers of truth, and God will give us relationships."

9. Grades are not the issue. I honestly do not care what messages get pumped through our win-at-all-costs culture. I do not give a rip if ninety percent of the planet votes in favor of a referendum that says, "Grades are what matter." I get it: We'd rather have a higher GPA than lower. No student should tank their efforts and say it'll all come out in the wash. We should desire excellence in all that we do, and it's great to aspire to be better than we were before...All that being said: Grades are not THE issue. A student with a 3.93 GPA can lack integrity, learn things at a surface level, and just view a diploma as a steppingstone to increasing wealth and material possessions. But such a soul might have no love of learning, no passion for plunging the depths of wisdom and free inquiry, no curiosity of knowing for the sheer sake of knowing, and no thirst for what this journey of life reveals about his own soul and God himself. Who you are becoming is infinitely more critical than the specific grade you got in American Literature or Honors Chemistry.

10. Relax. Of course your children have not realized their full potential yet. They have not "arrived" yet. They are stumbling through various mistakes, moral gaffes, and academic screwups. Relax. They'll work through them. Wherever "there" is, your kids will reach it eventually. You have only one shot at being a parent. Enjoy your children. Yes, there are snapshots of when you tear your hair out, but they are nothing compared to the epic motion picture of what your kids can accomplish and what God can do through them. Just chill. God can take care of and love them more than you can ever imagine.