Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Unseen Scars

**Below is a post that I had on my blog for a very short while.  I never posted it with the intent of it being read by people I know.  Even though I know this forum is very public, this was a post that I needed to write, but for myself only.  I want to be clear about something: This is NOT how I view myself now.  So please, do not turn this post into a pity session and please don't try to "uplift" me.  I don't need that.  Writing this post a few years ago helped me to overcome my fears and to realize I'm an amazing person.  This past does not define who I am now, and I don't let it hinder me.  Instead, I use it openly in my classroom as a lesson to my students who are being bullied or who are bullying others.
My reason for posting it now is because I keep seeing parents post things on Facebook or I hear them talking about their kids being bullied, and these parents just want to protect their kids.  But, they are doing it wrong.  First, when a parent says to a child "If you are being bullied, I give you permission to hit that kid," you are sending an incredibly horrible message to your child.  I don't care how hurt I was by these other kids, I never had the right to physically injure them.  And if your kid hits another kid at school, you are taking your child's education away from them because they will be suspended.  You are hurting them more than any bully can.  And what if that bully hits back harder than your kid?  You've just physically injured your child, too.  No amount of words can hurt and damage as badly as physically injuring someone.  And you gave them permission to do it.  Your child trusted you to give them the right answer to this problem.  There are other ways.  You just might need to get more creative.
So, here is the original post:**

This is the most difficult post I think I will ever write, but it is one I feel needs to be shared.  It is ironic to me that in my interests and pursuits, words play such an important role.  Words are powerful things.  They can create joy, fear, sorrow, elation.  They can reward, encourage, damage, and deteriorate the human soul.  I live my life by words.  I study them, use them, read them, feel them.  I love what they allow me to do.  The irony in the situation is the thing that I love so much has caused me the greatest amount of pain in my life.

Throughout my childhood, I was extensively and exhaustively bullied.  No amount of words my mother gave me could ever erase or weaken the deep cuts others gave me from their harsh criticisms and biting tongue.  You see, (there's no way to put it gently) I grew up with facial hair, bushy eyebrows, and hairy arms.  Enough so that it seemed to bother everyone I came in contact with, making them uncomfortable enough that they had to tear me down, to remind me constantly of the things that made me different.  I would lay there at night, my mother running her hand up and down my back telling me how beautiful I was, that they were just jealous of me, but I just couldn't believe her because hers was just one voice among a sea of criticisms.  She had to say those things because she was my mother and she had to love me unconditionally.  Those other voices were too loud and easily drowned her's out.

It is necessary for me to write this because I must overcome the insecurities that have followed me so many years later.  Writing is my therapy.  These words are my comfort.  So, if I make you squirm while you read this, ask yourselves why.

Below are the scenes that still haunt me to this day.

I switched schools seven times, not because we moved around a lot (we never moved once) but because I continually ran from the hateful voices.  I didn't/couldn't find my own voice to stand up to them, so I constantly moved on, hoping that a fresh start would bring acceptance.  And the more I moved, the more I realized that it must be me.  I was the common denominator and each time I never equated to any level higher than ridicule.

School buses are one of man's most hideous creations.  In seventh grade, I was tripped, shoved, forced to stand when there was room, but no one wanted me to touch them because my "hairy disease" might spread.  They called me Johnny Jones, a boy's name to match my mustache.  A girl pushed and shoved me until I had bruises on my ribs.  After that, my parents tried private school because public school wouldn't take the bullying seriously.  This was probably a terrible move in hindsight because there were less people in private school for me to try to fit in with.

In eighth grade, my "best friend" broke into my locker, threw cheese slices into every textbook and left it there throughout Christmas break so that it rotted through the pages.

I remember one time in tenth grade, a boy who I had a crush on lured me out onto the football field with the pretense that he was going to kiss me.  I remember being nervous and excited, thinking the whole time "Wow! This guy, THIS guy, this popular guy, actually likes me!"  Instead, he spit on me and ran away laughing to his friends.

One of the popular girls invited me to her birthday sleepover.  My heart soared, thinking "acceptance, finally."  Instead they stole my journal and read it aloud while I tried to take it from them.  I left and walked home in the middle of the night, shivering from humiliation.

My junior year, I pissed a boy off because he thought I had told on him for cussing in class.  I hadn't, but after slamming me and his fist into the locker next to me, he wouldn't listen to me otherwise.  To my sheer mortification, I entered my next class to a chorus of fifteen students making buzzing noises like a razor.  I couldn't run away.  I stood there, frozen in disbelief at their heartless actions.  Really?  An entire class at one time?  My heart broke that day, and as I sit here trying to type this, it still has not mended.  That day gave me my self worth for the rest of my life.  I sat down slowly in my seat, opened my textbook (which ironically was a Bible), and silently cried my heart out into it.  I couldn't even sob, it hurt so much.  As the pages of my Bible silently soaked up my tears, my poor teacher didn't realize what was going on and asked me to read.  Aloud.  Panic began to rise inside me and the girl next to me realized what was going on and tried to save me by volunteering.  The teacher insisted that I had it.  As I sat there in sheer humiliation, the boys began to snicker.  The teacher looked up, realized why I wasn't reading, and dismissed me to the bathroom where I sat on the floor the rest of the bell sobbing and hiccuping.

Even this past Halloween, as a 29 year old woman, I went back to my old neighborhood to take my nephews trick-or-treating.  I came walking around my car and ran into one of my old bullies with a group of other adults walking their children.  He got halfway down the block and yelled back "Mustachio!" and laughed, telling his friends I used to have a mustache.

People ask me all the time, why didn't you just wax it or bleach it?  Wouldn't that have been so simple.  You have to understand, I lived in constant fear of what others said and did to me.  If I did something about it, what new horrible things would they say to me?  It wouldn't change who I was or what they thought of me.  And now that I do do something about it, the scars are still there.  I cringe every time a man touches my face.  Whenever someone jokes about facial hair, all of the years come washing over me at once.  I feel as though they can see the real me under that soft skin.  I have no confidence in myself and shy away from complements because they are not meant for me.  I am angry that no one fought for me or stood up for me, not even myself.  I question my worth to others and my greatest desire is to feel the kind of love my parents give me from someone who doesn't have to, because when they are gone, who will I have?

What scares me is I know there are other people enduring a lot more than what I went through and it breaks my heart even more to know this.  I see it in the eyes of the students I teach every day.  And I want so badly to tell them not to listen.  That they are important.  But I know it is just as feeble of an attempt as what my mother used to say to me.  I am not the person they need to hear it from.  The people who should count the most in our lives don't because the masses are the ones winning out every time.  I have been trying to ignore these voices so much that I have gotten to the point that even though I don't (but I do) care what they say, I don't know how to fit in.  I have had to go my own road so many times that now I keep hearing the words "quirky" or "different" or "weird" or "special" to describe me.  Well, you know what, maybe I would just like to be like everyone else for a change.  To just fit in.  I don't want to be "that's what makes you, you.  Unique."

**I was driving down the road the other day when this post popped into my mind again.  As I sat here rereading it I thought to myself "Man, I was really hurting when I wrote this."  But then I also thought, "Wow, I have come a long way since I wrote this."  Parents, I know that you want to shield your kids from this kind of pain.  But, I'm sorry.  No matter what you do, life is going to hurt.  Teach your kids to respond appropriately to it.  Don't always stand up for them.  Show them how to stand up for themselves; teach them to have a confidence in themselves that no matter what is said to them, they will know their worth already.  Hitting someone is not going to give them this confidence.  How is hitting someone an answer they can grow up with?  This is not how mature adults handle their problems, and you are trying to train your child to be a responsible adult one day.  Take it from someone who has been bullied.  Turning the other cheek and ignoring them doesn't always work.  Running away certainly isn't the answer.  But teaching them to stand up for themselves is a powerful weapon.  Show them how to wield it properly.**

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Not Everyone Can Do My Job

It takes some people a long time to figure out what they want to do in life.  For me, it was an easy decision.  Ever since second grade I have known I wanted to be a teacher.  For half a year in first grade, my mother decided to home school me.  She realized her folly very quickly and put me in school because I needed socialization.  One of the perks though is that I got to keep all of the instructional materials from the homeschooling.  I would set up all of my stuffed animals in neat rows and "teach" them math and English.  Gaggy the fake Care Bear always got in trouble for talking too much and Ferdinand the rabbit, whose poor neck drooped to one side due to lack of stuffing, was always sent to the hallway principal's office for sleeping.

My mother always encouraged reading and for that I am grateful.  I was always the kid who got to keep the shipping box on Scholastic Book Fair day because I was taking home so many treasured chapter books.  Book It provided free pizza dinners for many nights of my childhood.  I was one of the lucky ones because, from middle school up through high school, I had amazing English teachers.  They were full of vigor and imagination and a passion for their job.  Because of their encouraging comments and my passion for teaching, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was born to be an English teacher.  I would sit in my desk watching the masters at their craft, figuring out what I liked about their styles and what I didn't think worked.  I never considered anything else.  This was my future.

Teaching comes naturally to me.  It's easy.  Which is why I found college to be so frustrating.  To this day I don't believe you can teach someone how to teach.  There are some people, quite a few actually, who just shouldn't be a teacher--which brings me to the point of this post.  Surprisingly, I have had dozens of conversations with people who claim that my job is easy and that anyone can do it.  Or, they try to one up me with their own jobs.  Oh, you are a teacher?  You should try to be an insurance seller.  You wouldn't last one day in my job.  Seriously, dude?  With training, yes, I can do your job.  For some people, it doesn't matter how smart they are, how much training they receive, how much college education they get, they should never be a teacher.  Teaching should not be a profession for the common man.  It shouldn't be something that just any ol' person can go to college and pick up.  There's a reason why most of the job-switchers don't make it as a teacher.  It works for some, yes, but those who make it could or should have been a teacher from the beginning.

I will say this again: you can't teach someone how to teach.  I was told by a college professor that I should rethink being a teacher.  Not because she had seen me teach.  Not because she had read any of my lessons. Her issue was that I was questioning everything that my university was doing with their teaching program.  At my university, you sit in a classroom most of your college career, hearing theories about things you should do.  "Well, if this happens, you can try this, but remember, it won't work in every situation."  Before teaching, I have never had to require anyone to respect me.  Classroom management should have been something hands on, not probable situations in a textbook.  In fact, the only time you get true hands on experience is after you have concluded your education.  Then, you get thrown into the tiger pit and hope that you survive still wanting to do this job.  It's ironic that a good teacher knows that the best way to check for understanding is to get the student to reproduce what you have taught them.  It is a waste of education to realize once you are done with it that teaching is not for you.  Ironically, my professor who questioned my abilities was the same person who ended up doing my student-teacher evaluations.  She later apologized and said she was wrong.  I was made to be a teacher.

I don't assume to know how to do other professions, and yet, being a teacher is a job that so many people have told me they can do and several have assumed the responsibility of telling me how to do my job.  I don't go up to a power company linesman and say "I think you are doing that wrong."  I don't stand behind my banker and say "I think you could have done that better."  I don't tell my nail salon technician "Are you sure this is the best technique?"  Maybe I'm doing life incorrectly, but I assume these people are professionals and that they know how to do their job until they prove me wrong.

Teaching is not simply a profession where you vomit up knowledge and let it pour down over the children and they magically learn.  Honestly ask yourself: How much can you take?  Can you handle 30 teens at a time (usually around 90-150 a day depending on the school), full of hormones and lacking common sense?  Can you put up with senators who have never stepped foot in your job, telling you how to perform?  Can you keep parents, principals, students, and school boards happy?   How many hats can you wear in one day?  Can you be a teacher, a psychiatrist, a friend, a parent, a disciplinarian, a comedian, a performer, an authoritarian, a clear communicator, a monitor, a janitor, a researcher, a coach, an encourager, a security guard, and so much more?  These represent the many hats of a TEACHER.  Teaching would be easy if all I did was teach.  But there's so much more to it.  

When parents leave their children in our hands, we take on their parental roles and more.  You have to make kids responsible human beings because you see them more than their parents do.  Imagine taking the role of a parent to 90 kids that you didn't choose to create yourself.  As a teacher, you are now their moral compass.  Sometimes you are there for them even when their parents can't be.  You have to understand why they are acting out, listen to their stories, protect them from themselves and others, clearly communicate to parents, remember that kids are human and have little life experience, get them to understand concepts that they don't think they need in life because they haven't had to use this knowledge yet and they already know everything anyways, and do all of this while teaching.  You have to be on your toes, constantly changing, trying to keep them focused on what you have to tell them and make them like it at the same time.  

Ask yourself: Can you do this?

I love teaching.  I LOVE my job.  I thrive off of the challenges it presents to me everyday.  It is always changing, and the rewards are tremendous.  But I have to work for them.  Everything I do will change the future of a child.  I hold a lot of power in my hands.  Think about that the next time you hear someone trying to demean this position.  You have your job because a teacher taught you the basics for you to be able to do what you do.  Therefore, this job shouldn't be for just anyone to be able to do.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The UnPerks of Being Single

Before I begin, I think it's sad I have to do this, but apparently some people are unable to figure out tone in writing (a fact that bothers me completely as an English teacher), but please keep in mind the tone of this piece is meant to be sarcastic in nature and I am in no way THIS conceited.

I have not hidden the fact that I want a person- my own person to call all mine.  It is my dream to have my father walk me down the aisle towards my person.  To have my person love and cherish me forever.  To have my person go out with me and let me show them off to others.  But let's be honest here.  There's some other pretty awesome perks that girls who already have a person get to enjoy.  As a single lady, I'm not allowed to partake in these "forbidden fruits," if you will.  They can only be had by the woman in a strong and steady relationship, probably one solidified by a ring and years of marriage.

First, the single lady cannot enjoy unshaven legs.  If you are single, you must shave, and you must keep everything shaved all the time.  I have always said that it doesn't matter how awesome a man is on a date.  Dudes, you can try REALLY hard to get into a girl's pants.  Really hard.  And sometimes, it doesn't matter how hard you try, you will never make it.  Why?  Because a girl predetermines how far you will get long before you ever set foot on her doorstep.  How far you get was determined in the shower that morning when she shaved her legs.  If she only goes as high as the knee cap, well, buddy, that's as far as you're gonna get.  Nothing stops a girl in her tracks like remembering the stubble on the inside of her thighs.

Another problematic symptom of the single:  we always have to look pretty.  We don't have our own person yet, so we have to lure them in.  My body is the fishing pole.  Here fishy fishy.  I get compliments all the time about how nice I look, and people say "It must be because you have a man in your life."  No people.  It's not because I have a man.  It's because I don't.  I have to work hard at this stuff.  Plucking and plastering and lifting and tugging.  Man-hunting preparation is tough work: throwing clothes around the room to find the perfect outfit; making sure my nails are perfectly manicured; working out to have a fit body and mind.  Men are visual creatures and you have to give them something purdy to look at first.  Then, once you've snagged 'em, you can go back to eating whatever you want, wearing yoga pants and fuzzy slippers, and having a uni-brow.

Single people get no excuses.  "Oh, you are single?  That means you are free to do everything!"  People are always assuming that because I am single, I have tons of free time.  It's the exact opposite.  See previous paragraph.  Daily (and nightly) preparation alone takes up most of my time, and scouting out dudes is a lot of work!  There's flirting, and outings, and communicating, and ignoring communication so they don't run away, and getting advice from friends, and shopping, and plotting, and crying, and so much more.  Being single is a hard life with lots of responsibilities and tasks that can't just be fluffed off.  There's no such thing as free time, so stop making poorly judged assumptions about the single community.

Single ladies have to be vigilant about stereotypes.  Having one cat is okay.  Having two... sheesh.  I don't know.... you might be on the verge of becoming the cat lady.  I think I've worked the stereotype out by owning one cat and one dog, but I've got to be careful.  I also have a huge library of books upstairs.  I'm cutting it close.

Food for couples is also so much easier.  First, there's couponing.  Restaurant coupons are not for the single.  Every coupon is for buy 1 get 1 free or half off.  There I sit in the drive-thru having an inner debate once again about the probability of being able to down two cheeseburgers because, let's face it, those things just aren't any good microwaved.  And don't even get me started on recipes.  Recipe books for one are just sad.  And trying to scale down a large recipe to fit just one person is impossible.  I have no idea how to measure out 1/16 of a teaspoon.  Both of these complaints are a moot point anyway because, don't forget, single girls have to watch their weight to snag a guy, so this means there's no "making extra" and there's no bogos.

All in all, being single is tough work if you are trying to make yourself unsingle.  On a serious note, I know that being in a relationship is also tough work.  At some point in every relationship, things start to slip.  People's bodies change.  Struggles occur.  Life happens.  Never forget to enjoy the fact that you have someone.  Never take that for granted.  Because if you do, you might find yourself on the toilet seat with no one there to get you another roll or no one to help you shave the pesky hairs in the center of your back (that last one was for single dudes... not me, fyi) or no one to blame your dirty pile of dishes on.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Finding the Happy

It's a good thing I have never been one who is afraid of sharing parts of my life with others.  Because this is another very personal post.

To say the least, life has been frustrating lately.  It has been scary.  It has been a roller coaster of ups and downs and I am riding without a safety harness.  I have been letting life happen to me instead of embracing the lessons that it is offering me.  I don't learn well from life.  I can look back at decisions I've made, and they are the same ones over and over, and yet I keep expecting different results.  I decided it's about time for me to take a moment and try to figure out how I need to change.  Because I'm tired.  Tired of being steamrolled by life.

I'm a high school teacher.  Whenever June rolls around, teachers get very excited.  They start making plans.  THIS summer is going to mark THE summer where EVERYTHING gets done.  I will turn into this amazing Martha-Stewartesque person and my house will suddenly get cleaned, I will become a baker, I will travel everywhere, I will work out every day, I will do everything I've ever wanted in this minuscule amount of time, but I can do it because I am free!  I thought I had all summer.  I was wrong.

In late June, I got a phone call from my dad.  He said that Mom was in so much pain she couldn't move, and she was being so stubborn and wouldn't go to the ER.  I went over, took one look at her, and told her she had no other option.  An argument ensued, but I won.  I was going to win that one.  We got her in the car, screaming and yelling in pain, barely able to sit up.  They diagnosed her with sciatica; a nerve was pinched and would require physical therapy.  A few days later, we returned.  She was still in excruciating pain.  This time, she had a bladder/kidney infection; oh yeah, and still sciatica.  A third visit, this time by ambulance because she couldn't move, resulted in a swift "we're sorry, but you're just going to have to let it work its way out."  Physical therapy started.  They said there is no way she can be in this much pain with this diagnosis.  They ordered an MRI and finally found the correct diagnosis: an incredibly dangerous and massive staff infection located in her spinal column and attached in three places to the muscle tissues and nerves along the outer spine.  Not sciatica.

A few days more of missed diagnoses and she would have died.  Her doctor has told her that most people with this condition never walk again.  She is lucky.  She is walking again with assistance.  They are expecting full recovery, but it is going to take a lot of time, hard work, and patience.

It is a hard thing to watch a parent struggle.  I swore up and down I wasn't strong enough to go through this, and I wasn't even the one in pain.  But it was painful.  It is the most painful thing in the world to watch.

As soon as I started thinking, "I can handle this.  I've got this Life.  Bring it on," my dad got sick.  My dad.  My rock.  My foundation in all things life.  It's now August.  My mother is in a rehabilitation home learning to walk again.  I am having to drive my dad to his doctor's appointment because over and over his doctor can't figure out why he is short of breath.  They can't diagnose why he can't walk more than 10 feet without having to sit down.  They have done chest x-rays, blood tests, poked and prodded, and come up empty-handed.

The nurse puts an oxygen monitor on my dad's finger.  It reads 77%.  She puts a different one on his finger.  "Maybe that one's broken," she says.  Still 77%.  She puts it on her own finger.  "98%."  She tells us "You need to go to the ER now."  They put him in the cardiac ward thinking he's had a mild heart attack.  I'm watching him struggle to take in every breath, hunched over, pale, and not responding to me when I speak.  I run and get the nurse.  She comes in, tries talking to him, and he looks up at me with terror in his eyes.

I have never seen my father look scared.  Ever.  He is my hero, my spider killer, my person who attacks monsters in the closet, my arm to grab onto in a scary movie.  He's not afraid of anything.  And here he is terrified.  Suddenly there are doctors and nurses everywhere.  People flying around the corners and pushing me out of the way and trying to poke him and give him oxygen and asking me about his final wishes.  His final wishes.  No no no.  I can't hear those words.  Not while I'm alone.  Not while my mother is miles away, deathly sick, too.  "Do you know his DNR orders?  Does he have a living will?  We may have to intubate him.  Does he want us to take all precautions if his heart should stop beating?"  YES!!!  A resounding YES! You do everything you can!  And then I panic.  I am standing there holding his feet, looking at his struggling body and the world is falling around me.  I cannot watch this.  I cannot be there for him right now.  I walk out into the hallway for fresh air and crumble to the floor sobbing.  He is not allowed to do this!  He is not allowed to leave me.  My father is NOT allowed to die!

I walk back in and tell him so.  Thank God my dad listens to me.  His stats go up and he starts breathing on his own.  Final diagnosis: a rare form of pneumonia.  He spent a few nights in ICU, a few days in the hospital, and took some meds at home.  Done.  All better.

My summer was filled with running around, paying bills, making sure my parents kept their house and their water on, seeing to my mother's laundry and every need, buying deodorant and bringing it to my dad in the hospital (because, good Lord, a few days without it and he was ripe), cleaning up their house and making it ready for a walker, puppysitting their dog, taking them to doctor's appointments, kicking my nephew out of the house, and trying to find sanity time for myself.  All those summer dreams?  Vanished.  No time to cook healthy meals.  Gotta eat fast food on the go.  Cleaning my house?  Psh.  No time for that.  Fun travel plans?  Plenty of travelling occurred from home, to rehab, to hospital, repeat.  Sadly, I visited all 5 floors of that hospital at some point during the summer.  I also know what you have to buy in the gift shop to be able to use your credit card: 1 soda, 1 bag of popcorn, a danish, and 4 mini candy bars from the counter.  Boom. $5.04.

I fear I am starting to sound selfish here or that I want self-pity.  That's not the purpose of this post.  First, I needed to write all of these events down.  I've told my students that the best way for me to get over something is to write about it.  So, there it is.  There's the story of my summer.  Most of it.  There's still other struggles I had, struggles that seem petty when compared to everything else.  Struggles like my dog eating a half-pound package of gummy bears, like my various dating/boy issues (that's a whole entire post by itself), like my car not passing inspection, like my mom missing my birthday, like my best friend being diagnosed with cancer, and so many more troubles that, if they had happened without all of the other major problems of my summer, I would have been able to shake them off, to take them in stride, to bear them.  Instead, they became the icing on my sagging cake.

I kept allowing life to happen TO me, and something had to give.  I needed to stop caring so much about what everyone else had.  I would sit there and look at Facebook at everyone's posts.  Oh look.  Someone else just got engaged.  Oh neat.  Someone else is having a baby.  Oh yippee.  Those are awesome vacation pictures that someone else is posting.  Oh yay.  Your boyfriend allowed you to put "in a relationship" on your page.  High five.  I was becoming bitter.

Everything in my summer was happening to others, both the good and the bad.  And I was letting life make it feel like all the bad was happening only to ME.  Finally, this morning, I was like "Dude, you gotta snap outta this.  Somethings gotta give."  So, my only solution was A) to write about it, B) try to figure out a reason for all of this while I write about it, and C) (my answer to B) start looking at everything in a better light because life is going to suck sometimes but I gotta live it and not let it bring me down.  I can't change life.  I can only change my perspective on it.

Last night, I found out that my ex is having a baby.  At first, those bitter thoughts began to crawl back into my head.  "At least someone gets their happy ending."  But, I woke up this morning with a different attitude.  Yes.  He gets his happy ending.  And good for him.  That wasn't the ending I wanted for myself anyway.  I didn't want him.  So good for him to find his happy.  Now, where is MY happy?  It's somewhere.  In the future.  Hopefully, not too far away.  So far, my happy has started with cheesy eggs and hashbrowns and a great kickball game with a game-winning kick. My happy has started with a father who is well again and a mother who is on her way to recovery.  My happy has started with knowing who my true friends and family are through their allowing me to lean on them this summer.  My happy has started with an amazing job teaching children and being there for them.  My happy has started with a clean slate in the dating world, shaking off those horrible decisions I keep making and a desire to learn from my past.  My happy has started off with puppy kisses and the ability to get out of bed this morning.  My happy has started off as a single, strong woman, with hopes and desires to be able to share it with someone who isn't a part of my happy yet.  But they will be someday.  The point is, I will have my happy.

 Life isn't going to change.  Life is still going to have its moments.  But I can change.  I can look at things from a better perspective and force it to change me for the better.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

My Rose Among Thorns

I have been holding off writing this post because there is so much I want to say and it is imperative I leave nothing out.  

I have been very lucky in life to not have had to deal with much pain.  I look at some people and wonder How do they even remember to breath after everything they have been through?  How can they even stand on two feet without the burden of their situation knocking them to their knees?  I know there will be times in my future where I will be directing these same questions at myself, that the pain I will be enduring will be so great that I will not know how to take a step forward.  This past year, I have battled with a bitterness I have never felt before- an enmity I didn't think I could possess.  It seemed as though one foundation after another was crumbling before me and I couldn't grasp at anything for a stronghold.  The shift off balance was so great that I began to lose myself and who I was, my walls and supports falling all around me.  Weeds and thorns started growing through cracks, making healing and repair impossible.  But, through all the pain and suffering, depression and despair, beauty and peace can be found.  Let me tell you about my Rose Among Thorns.

When I first met Harry Vanderford, he scared the poop out of me.  The best way to describe him is a grumpy Santa.  Tall and looming, white beard (always properly trimmed- long enough though for him to toy with it in his mouth when in deep thought, but never scraggly), glasses that slid down his nose, and a grand presence about him that exemplified a learned man.  This was a man who knew everything. And this tree-of-a-man would stand in front of my locker for hall duty at school.  My little hundred pound self would meekly approach: "Excuse me, sir.  I need to get to my locker."  He would tilt downwards, looking down over his glasses, looming over me, frowning.  Then, slowly and slightly he would take a step away to make room.  Gulp.  "Thanks."  I would go home and beg my mom to please let me change schools.  I CANNOT have that man for my Bible teacher next year!  He is so mean!  He is so scary! Please mom! Please!

Sophomore year I walked into that classroom with my bravest wits about me.  There were three girls in an entire sea of boys.  Mr. Vanderford sat at the front of the room, one leg on the floor, one propped on the desk, Bible in hand.  He said nothing.  He looked slowly over the rim of his glasses, perusing the face of each and every student, biting his lip slightly, scanning...scanning.  "Well, I see we have three roses among a bushel of thorns." Sold.  He had me.  This was going to be an amazing class.  And it was.  The things I learned, the notes I took.  Page after page of pure Biblical wisdom.  The amount of knowledge one man could contain within the confines of his brain was unbelievable.  In addition, he was fair and stood his ground.  He knew what he believed and why he believed it, and he never backed down.  A teacher first.  A preacher second.  I knew after that year was over, I needed more.  There was so much more this man could teach me.

Unfortunately, he was unable to continue teaching at my school.  The Lord led him elsewhere.  But, God wasn't ready for our paths to end there.  A few times I went to visit him at church.  On one visit, he was at the pulpit and had started to preach when, as he scanned the crowd, he came across my face.  He stopped preaching.  Right there in the middle, he was caught off guard.  With a huge smile, he apologized to the congregation and said that one of his former students was in the crowd, and he actually waved to me.  Ha ha. I have to pause to chuckle here as I envision the pastor that day, waving from the pulpit.  "Hey Pastor Harry."

Time passed and regrettably, we lost touch.  He left that church and I didn't know how to contact him.  I don't believe in serendipity.  I believe in God's plan.  I was at work and "happened" across one of my former classmates.  We chatted a bit and I asked if he knew anything about Mr. Vanderford.  He said, "Interestingly enough, I ran into him a few weeks ago at the gas station.  He said that he had started up a new church."  He gave me the name of the church- Calvary Road Baptist- and well, let's just say the rest is history.  For the past five years, my family and I have attended church under his pastor-ship.  

We had a very close relationship.  Ever since he was my teacher, I didn't care who my pastor was.  I always knew that when I got married, Mr. Vanderford would be the one to do the service (sorry future husband... whoever you are, you weren't getting a choice on the matter).  My parents and I became very active in the church.  I began leading the congregation in music at his side.  (My favorite moments were when he forgot to turn his mic off while singing to the music.  He was a better preacher than singer, folks.)  I would always begin whether the people were in their seats or not.  "They will settle down when they hear the music," he would say.  I knew the tunes that would get his feet tapping, his head nodding. Victory in Jesus, Because He Lives, Rock of Ages, Are You Washed in the Blood?, and (good Lord) anything by the Gaithers. He would give his sermon, pray, and I would come up to sing the invitation.  He always knew where to put my music stand and he knew to give a little nod when it was time to stop the music.  

I miss that little unspoken nod the most.  I miss the one-armed hugs, and the jokes about LSU, and iced tea and fried chicken, and poor grammar on the church bulletins, and the time I was too scared to throw a pie in his face because I respected him too much so he ran into my pie, and the time he called me a terrorist in the middle of the Easter Cantata, and the time he had to preach without his notes because I accidentally stole his Bible for two weeks.  Oh the fun times we had and how we would laugh and tease.  

But this man could preach like none other.  He had sermons that tied into other sermons that tied into other sermons.  He could preach for months on one verse if we let him.  So knowledgeable because he had been on the other side.  He used to be an atheist.  He knew what it was like to be an unbeliever, turned only by the grace of God.  Such beautiful, eloquent sermons that taught lessons, not just preached them "from on high."

And then there came a time when he was too weak to take the pulpit.  He had a terrible heart condition that made him eligible for a heart transplant.  But that transplant never came.  In the last weeks, God gave him the strength to give his final sermons.  These sermons were preached by a man who knew his end was near.  He wanted God to use every last bit of him.  No one dared move.  No one dared leave their seats.  These were the final words from a man who was ready to see God's face.  On Friday, September 28, 2012, Harry Vanderford saw God's face and received His blessing.

The hardest thing I have ever had to do was stand in front of the congregation on the day after his passing and lead them in song.  I stood there and crumbled before them, unable to lead.  Eventually, it was too hard to stand there and uplift a crowd when I myself was still grieving.  These songs of comfort, about seeing Jesus one day, about being tired and weary, were no longer a comfort.  They were a burden.  I was standing there waiting for his nod, for his sermons, for his instruction.  I had to step down from leading the music.

Now, months later, our church is ready to put into place a new pastor.  How to find someone to fill such an enormous position?  My heart told me over and over it cannot be done.  My heart became hardened to it.  For months, I sat in church, knowing I could not find the strength to stay there, to watch Harry be replaced.  I debated for so long about how easy it would be to go to another church.  I would miss the people dearly, but moving on was the easiest way.  I would not be surrounded by reminders, by thoughts of what would Harry do?  But this church was his dream, his vision.  Letting it crumble would do no justice.

I am not one to take change easily.  It has taken me quite some time to take my first step forward.  The success of Calvary Road was Harry's life goal.  All his paths led to that church, to that congregation, to me being a part of his life there.  No one can fill his shoes, but it's time we let someone else take on his vision.  God's vision.  The road ahead will be rocky to say the least.  It will be difficult and overgrown.  But it will be filled with the sweet fragrance of roses intertwining along the pathway.