Thursday, July 25, 2013

a break in the clouds

This is long.  It is rambling.  And it is somewhat repetitious.  It is mostly a place for me to get things out of my head.  (Because there is already not enough room in there as it is!) The pictures are some I've taken this summer.  You can read as much or as little into them as you wish!

 The last year or so have had some rough patches.  But right now - and for the past few months - there seems to be a "break in the clouds" and I will take that for the gift that it is.

I have blogged about some of the events that have taken place in the last few months, but to do so as the tapestry is still being woven has left some gaps and missing threads.  I truly have felt like I was watching someone else's life unfold, and it has been amazing for me to watch.  

School has been bad for a long time.  It has gradually gotten that way, over a matter of years.  Our 'demographics' have changed.  A "failing" school nearby was closed a few years ago, and we absorbed many of those kids when we were already struggling to keep above water.  No one ever answered our SOS calls. The people I have worked with have, for the most part, been awesome, and that is one reason why I have stayed.  I think that happens in many struggling schools - the teachers band together and support each other because they don't get the support from anywhere or anyone else.  So while things were challenging, this school year was the first time ever in the 24 years that I had been at the school that I requested a transfer (requesting to transfer is NOT the same thing as actually getting a just opens the door for you to pursue it).

This past year, I regularly calculated the amount of days remaining until retirement.  The formula went something like (3.5 x 182) + r, if r = the number of days remaining in the year.  I never purchase alcohol and rarely drink, but this year by the Thursday of testing week, I was rummaging in the kitchen drawers for a corkscrew.  I was sure the pain in my neck and shoulders would require professional assistance.  I could barely turn my head or tilt my head back to drink.  

Married life has also not been all sunshine and rainbows for some time now. Without dragging all of that out, lets just say that someone's expectations exceeded someone else's capacity to give.  And that some people seem happiest when they are miserable.  And that misery seems to expect company.  

In  mid April our principal stood before the school board and explained that she needed to be able to pick her own team of teachers and that she needed teachers that could teach these "children of poverty".  The school board, by a narrow margin, granted her permission to "reconstitute" her staff.  We would all need to reapply for our jobs and be interviewed if we wished to stay.  Having been told earlier in faculty meetings that we need to "own" the students' lack of achievement, it was the proverbial final slap in the face for many.  All of the blood, sweat, and tears we had given for years was so unappreciated.

I assumed that I would stay.  I had my reasons.  I had *only* 3.5 years remaining.  I didn't want to start over somewhere else.  I didn't want to move.  Better to stay with what you know than to go with what you don't know.  But truth be told, you can boil those reasons down to two:  fear and laziness.  

The pain and stress in my shoulders and neck intensified.

Nearly a week later - on April 23 - I was at daily Mass at the church near my school.  The first reading that day was from the Acts of the Apostles, and the first few sentences were something along the lines of the good that happened because of those who were scattered by persecution.  The Gospel spreading because of those who were persecuted.  This resonated with me, because by that point, it had become apparent that many on our faculty (good)  were going to choose to leave (scatter) because of the attitude and treatment (persecution) they had received.  

It was NOT a lightening-bolt moment.  It was just a quiet, "hmmm, that's interesting" moment.  I was at a point where I didn't even realize that I had a decision to make.  I just assumed it would be made for me.  If the principal wanted me, I would stay; and if not, I would go.  There is adoration after Mass on Tuesdays, and I had a few minutes before I had to be at school, so I stayed.  I jotted a few questions in my journal.  I said a quick prayer to be open to God's plan.  But I wasn't planning on making any life-changing decisions - at least not that day.  I had no idea what opening the door just a little bit had done.

When I got to school, I chatted with a co-teacher friend about 8th grade math and inquired about her plans for the coming year.  She was not returning.  I went on about my business for the day.  I can not explain what happened, but sometime before lunch, the thought formed in my head, "You do not have to come back here next year." (Was it that quiet whispering voice of God?)  By the time I went on lunch duty, I heard those words coming out of my mouth, "I'm not coming back here next year!"  And it felt good! 

As I drove home from school that day, I noted that I could turn my head without pain.  That, alone, was confirmation of my decision.  It has been nearly 3 months since that day, and that pain, that stress has NOT returned to my body.  One of my co-workers noted later that it "sounded like a healing".  Maybe it was!

I walked into my house, dropped my keys on the counter and said to my husband, "I'm not going back there next year."  "Good," was his reply.

The next day I went to Mass at my own parish.  I am sure the homily was not very memorable to most who attended that day, but all I could say when he finished was "wow!"  My good priest, had chosen to preach on how we hear the Spirit.  It starts as a seed planted in the Liturgy (just like at Mass yesterday).  Then it is nourished by prayer (staying for Adoration) and in talking with others (like my friend before school and other teachers during the day).  "We seldom hear God speak to us in a booming voice" (I sure didn't), he went on.  The Spirit works through ordinary things.  The more he said, the bigger my smile got.  It was as if he had been following me the day before.  I had to email him and tell him "thank you", even though I'm sure his homily was in no way intentional...more like following the Spirit.  More confirmation.

As I told my co-workers of my decision in the following days, I received responses ranging from high-fives to sadness to questioning if it was really God that I was hearing.  One of my favorite responses was from our 80-something year old clerk...the only person who has been there longer than me.  "Good for you!" she said.  The next morning, I found a fortune-cookie sized slip of paper in my box from her.  I taped it to an index card and stuck it on the door to the cabinet behind my desk.

As the year drew to a close, my co-workers and I began to dream of what might await us beyond our current situations.  There were a huge number of resignations and retirements during the school year throughout our system, so chances were excellent that there would be some desirable positions available.  If we chose to be displaced, we had to be placed somewhere, and we had first choice of what would be available.

"Don't work for a woman." (that piece of advice from a woman)
"Get off of this side of town." (From our campus cop)
"It's a matter of you choosing who you want to work for."
 "Don't go to a 'D' or 'F' school."
"You might like a mild/moderate class."  (from my friend who taught the mild/moderate class at our school)
"I think I might like a school where children actually bring pencils to school."
"My dream school will have its own Brainpop account," I messaged a co-worker one night.  "Way to dream big," she replied.
"I want a  good boss," I had texted one of my old [good] bosses.

"Where are you going?  What are you going to do?" people would ask.  "I don't know," I would reply with a smile.  "They have to put me somewhere and I'm sure God has a plan that is better than mine.  I'm sure wherever I end up, there will be a reason."  I stuck with that line throughout.  "God has a plan."  People would tell me that they were praying for me to get a "good school" and I would ask them to simply pray for me to know the "right one" when it presented itself.  But truthfully almost anything had to be better.

On May 6, ironically the first day of Teacher Appreciation Week, at a faculty meeting that lasted past 5 pm, as a huge roach crawled across the ceiling in our library, we were given papers to sign indicating whether we would (a) reapply for our jobs (b) voluntarily be displaced or (c) resign or retire.  Nearly 2/3 of the faculty checked the second option.  Only 6 core teachers of 19 asked to stay, and one of those has since accepted a job in another system.  Words like "blindsided" were whispered in the coming days, but I don't know if that was really the case.  However, I am glad the task of filling the shoes of those that chose to leave is not mine.  Other schools are gaining some wonderful teachers.

The next day, I returned to Mass at the church near my school.  "Sometimes it is better not to stay," said the pastor in his homily.  The Biblical reference was to the Ascension of Jesus, who could not stay with His Apostles,  but the application to my life was too obvious to be missed.  I had to hug him after Mass.  After 24 years, I had chosen not to stay.  More confirmation.

Married life continued to limp along.  Things were seemingly calm on the surface, but the anger and resentment leap out of any writing I did at that time.  My good confessor had told me months earlier to offer the anger to God every day.  He said it wasn't wrong to be angry, but to offer it so that Jesus could help me channel it.  And every day, to ask God to help me be as patient with   as God is with me.  And so I did.  About mid-May, with all the other stresses of special ed paperwork and moving and planning my last Honors night, my frustration with married life was overwhelming.  "I can't fix it. Only God can," were the words that ended a long, ranting journal entry - I guess that is where I channeled the anger.  Those are true words.  In our weakness is often when God's power is shown.  

Maybe it was that day, or maybe it was a few days later, I stood in front of the tabernacle in the quiet, empty church, and told God the same thing:  "I can't fix it.  You show me what I need to do, but you are going to have to handle the rest, Lord, because I am fresh out of ideas. You made him.  He's yours.  You fix him."  I think sometimes God gets right on those prayers...the prayers of desperation or surrender.  It didn't take him long before he showed me what I could do.  It was something I knew already, but haven't done nearly enough of.  I have had the sense for quite some time, that "this kind only comes out by prayer."

Later that morning, I met up with one of my favorite substitute teachers at school.  She is an older black lady, and there has been a connection from almost the first time she subbed for someone in my classroom.  We have had good conversations, and I love talking to her.  So that particular morning, I went out of my way to visit with her while she was standing outside of a classroom.  She started to tell me about a book that she had gotten the night before from her church library (where I had just visited hours earlier)  that she could NOT put down.  "The Power of  a Praying Wife," she said.  "Please, you HAVE to read it," she begged.   "OK, God, I hear you," I thought.  When I got home that evening, I dug out the Amazon Gift Card I had gotten for Christmas, downloaded the book, and began to read.  It was good.

Sunset over the Mississippi River 7.9.13

The school year was wrapping up.  Packing picked up steam.  The week before Mother's Day, I had placed a box on one of the desks in my classroom and labeled it "Give Away Box".  I explained to my students that they could take anything they wanted out of that box. Two items that were placed in there early on were a half burned candle in a cute container, and a kind of ugly yellow flowery coffee mug that I had used to hold pens and pencils.  Things I neither wanted to throw in the garbage or move.  Two different kids plucked them out of the box, and each kid asked me if I had some wrapping paper.  They were so proud to have something for their moms for Mother's Day.  It was sad and sweet all at the same time.

The Give Away box became two, and then covered a couple of desks, too.  I have a friend starting her own homeschooling business, so her husband came and picked up much of it.  I emptied filing cabinets (except for one drawer I had no idea what to do with).  I bagged the contents of my desk in ZipLocs and wiped out the drawers.  The closet gradually emptied.  I threw away so many things.  Finally it was done. The room echoed. There was a little twinge of sadness, but mostly relief.

I had heard about a potential opening at a middle school 4 minutes from my house.  It met one or two of the requirements on my list.  It was a mild moderate class in the back of the school somewhere.  I dropped off a resume and a cover letter and even interviewed with the principal, but the teacher who was leaving had not yet resigned.  I did what I could to make that job happen, but it did not.  So I assumed God's answer on that one was "no".

When Human Resources began to make the long-awaited phone calls, I once again found myself in the quiet church.  All along, I had prayed to know the right job when it came along, but now it was crunch time.  "How will I know?" I asked out loud to the good Lord.  There was silence.  But I clicked open my journal (it is on my iPad and is one of the best things ever).  I made 2 lists:  Jobs I Would Say Yes To and Jobs I Would Say No To.  There were 4 on each list.

Finally, I called HR, because they didn't seem to be calling me, and they started fumbling around for openings I was qualified for.  There were not many.  A self-contained class at School J, I automatically dismissed because it was "too far" to drive.  Others I said "no" to because they were worse than what I had left.  Nothing on my "yes list" was offered.  There was one more - one that I had put on my "no" list. But it seemed like the lesser of the evils being offered.  So in the heat of the moment, I accepted it.

When I met with the principal that afternoon, I found out that I had not gotten the whole story from HR, and that I would also be teaching 2 regular subjects in addition to 2 Special Ed classes.  I regretted the choice almost immediately.  The planning and paperwork would have been epic.  The next morning, June 21, I set to work trying to find out if the spot at School J was still available.  I emailed the principal.  I called.  I put the address in my GPS and drove to the school.  Took the chance that someone would be there, and ran into the principal and another staff member.  It felt right.  By that afternoon, the change had been made and I was elated.

As the weeks have passed, I have had time to process it, and check the items off of my wish list.

  • Male principal. (Don't work for a woman.) Check.
  • On the other side of town.  I think it is the furthest point away from my old school.  Check.
  • Not a D or F school.  It's a D, oh well. (Editing to Add:  In October new "grades" came out, and the school improved to a "C")
  • A Mild/Moderate class.  Check.
  • In the back of the school, out of the drama. There is a garden outside my door.  Check.
  • At a school where kids bring pencils. To be determined.
  • With its own Brain Pop account. I checked it out, and it worked!  Check.  
  • Principal with a soul.  I have heard promising things.  Check.
  • Decent supervisor.  Again, I have heard good things.  Probably a check.  (Editing to Add:  Check.)
When I look at that list and see that God answered my prayers, pretty much down to the most ridiculous detail of having its own BrainPop account, I am in awe.  (There is still something in the back of my mind that thinks that may all go out the window when actual people show up, but for now, I am going with gratitude and answered prayers.)

Sometime in the midst of this, things began to be better on the homefront.  It is a superficial kind of better, but I will take that for now.  It is a happier attitude, acceptance, a smile.   I do not know why.  I don't know if it is prayer, or medications, or a reaction to my lack of stress.  But whatever the cause, it is something to be grateful for.

I am looking forward to the coming school year with hope, instead of dread.  God is so very good!

11/29/13 Editing to add:  When the "School Report Cards" were issued in October, my new school moved up from a "D" school to a "C" school.  Now even that can be checked off of the list.  Everything I asked for, I received, through no merit of my own.  Glory be to God!