Cracks in the Mirror

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I was reviewing expectations with students and I had this picture on the PowerPoint slide. I told them about how the mirror broke, how we didn’t fix it for months until our daughter cut her finger when she was cleaning the mirror, how it was a pain to replace and how it cost a decent amount of money for a new mirror. In short, broken mirrors suck.

Yet, every time I brushed my teeth and leaned forward over the sink, I saw my comically distorted face and I smiled. It made me happy. Simply and pathetically happy.

It’s a world of broken mirrors, I told them. It’s an imperfect and fallen world where mirrors break, where technology isn’t always available and working, where standardized tests and grades are a necessity, where life intervenes on learning—or at least on getting work done.

They are largely a group of high achievers. They care deeply about their grades. They place a lot of pressure on themselves and have high expectations and standards set before them. I want to see them reach and even surpass those goals, and to help wherever I can. Like me, they have lives that sometime interfere with schooling, lives that seem at times to not want us to learn, lives that make us wish we could just stay in bed all day.

The trick, I’ve learned, is to watch for those moments where the crack in the mirror provides a holy glimpse of hope and humor. Sometimes it’s all we can do.

dr-seuss-writer-from-there-to-here-and-here-to-there-funny-things-are

The Two People in Every Room, Even If It Is Only You

This is my theory: There are always two types of people in the room, and each of them needs to hear the opposite message.

This is more likely to be true as the number of people in the room increases. However, it can be true when there is as few as one: because sometimes we need to hear contradictory words of wisdom to keep us sane and balanced.

Here are some examples of the two types of people who might be in the room:

The one over here needs to be reminded not to worry so much what other people think. Confidence, after all, not insecurity, is an attractive and desirable trait.

But the one over here needs to be reminded that he shouldn’t pick his nose in public or start clapping spontaneously in the grocery store.

This person should also be reminded not to wear a Dos Equis shirt with cut off sleeves when he's taking a selfie in the broken bathroom mirror.

This person should also be reminded not to wear a Dos Equis shirt with cut off sleeves when he’s taking a selfie in the broken bathroom mirror.

There is someone who needs to hear something like, “Chin up, things are going to be okay”; then there is someone else who should be reminded that, if you don’t change something soon, you’re screwed. There’s a student writer who needs to be told, “Just keep writing, without worrying about how things sound”; but that is terrible advice to the one who has already filled several pages and could be reminded to stop and think every once in a while before turning in a “finished draft.” There is some hurting soul who needs the reminders of grace and forgiveness; and just down the row is some smug ass in need of a little verbal slapping to straighten things out.

Exercise is healthy. You’re getting obsessed.

Write more. Write less.

Clean your house. Put down that rag before you wipe down that counter for a fourteenth time today.

Think before you act. Enough already, Hamlet: be, or don’t be, but do something.

It’s not your fault. You could have done things differently.

I try to remember the two people in every room, that my wisdom may be folly for some, that my praise to one may be condemnation to another. But more often, the two people in the room are simply the two sides of myself: the one who needs encouragement, reassurance, kindness, and a mother to spoil him; and the other who needs reprimand, discipline, orders, and someone to tell him that sleeveless shirts are only, barely, okay for working out (thanks, Kristen!).

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Who are the two people you find yourself talking to? What are the contradictory words of wisdom you need to hear?

When It Comes to FANBOYS, I’m More of A “But” Man

[This started off as a teaching post. But life has made it something much more.]

Of all the FANBOYS (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So), none is more fundamental to writing, reading, listening, and simply living than “but.” In fact, the hope of humanity and the salvation of our souls might well rest on our understanding and mastering the use of this coordinating conjunction.

You might be thinking, “But surely you are overstating it.” Or you may disagree: “But,” you will say, and then state your counterargument.

Thanks to Jeff Anderson for making these available.

Thanks to Jeff Anderson for making these available.

And I will respond, “Case closed. But I respect and appreciate your adding to the conversation.” #seewhatIdidthere?

But is fundamental. When we write (from brainstorming to revising), when we read or listen, and when we live—which is, I’m fairly convinced, pretty much always—we will be better off if we harness the power of but.

The fact that it also is a humorous homonym is just a little piece of grace to those of us juvenile to appreciate it.

It all starts at the but.

Without but we would have no literature because without conflict, there is no plot and therefore no story. Rick Wormelli, author and educator, offers a strategy for summarizing fiction, called “Somebody… wanted… but … so.” The but here represents the conflicts that arise and prevent characters from getting what they want or living the way they want to.

Here are a couple of summaries, revised to omit any but. Notice how these movies would never have been made, how conflict is necessary.

  • In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen wanted to avoid anyone close to her having to participate in the Hunger Games, so nobody volunteered and nobody had to participate.
  • In Jaws, the people of Amity Island wanted to enjoy some time at the ocean, so they went to the beach and had a lovely day.

Similarly, when I attend professional development and learn about something great I’m supposed to start doing, I want to hear about the challenges I will face, how things are going to go wrong. Because nothing works as well in real life as it does in a meeting room. Give me the but scenario so I can think about how I’ll be adapting it to the variables of my situation.

And when I am listening to a sermon, it usually only becomes a truly meaningful message once it gets to some kind of but. Consider the difference between the two following claims:

  • “God loves you, and…”
  • “God loves you, but…”

Which one piques your curiosity more? Which one is more likely to challenge you to grow?

I had students write argumentative essays last year. I had them practice on the issue of bullying. Not surprisingly, I got essays that sought to argue some version of the following claim: Bullying should be stopped. They wrote that it was mean, that it shouldn’t happen, that bullies should be punished. What they lacked was deeper understanding of the issue’s challenges:

  • But how can we really stop it?
  • But how do we actually define bullying?
  • But what happens to those we label as bullies?

Students who explored those questions and sought to address them would have much greater understanding, would write better essays, would be in a position to change the world. Those who didn’t simply mouthed platitudes.

But that is unfortunately understandable because we live in a world of “talking heads” who occasionally get paid to do just the same thing.

fox news

We can find depth with the but.

The students who wrote those essays struggled to write anything remotely essay-length. They complained they didn’t have anything to say, although it was more true to say they didn’t feel they had anything obvious or meaningful to say. They were merely passing on what they heard or knew to be true. As a teacher, I need to do more to help them think: to see exceptions, to anticipate the conflict of unintended consequences, to understand the need for clarification.

But this condition isn’t limited to eighth graders.

Many of our pundits and politicians need the same thing. Many of us, politically speaking, need it, too. If we as a nation ever hope to progress or solve even some of the relatively easier challenges facing us, we need more of the understanding that comes with but.

No matter how opposed to guns you are, it is at least necessary to spend some time thinking about a question like, “But how can we take guns from those who already legally own them and see them as a constitutional right to their personal protection?”

No matter how opposed to any sort of amnesty for illegal immigrants you are, you should have a reasonable answer for the question, “But how do we logistically and humanely deport all those who are already here and have been for a very long time?”

Two millennia ago, Jesus created quite a stir, in part because He came with the kind of clarification and redefinition that is possible with but. He said things like, “You know you’re not supposed to murder, but if you hate somebody, it’s basically the same thing.” He was also able to address uncomfortable truth: life sucks, but I overcame this life and death.

Politically, religiously, and socially, we are comfortable before the but. We’d rather not confront what comes after the but. We prefer:

  • “I haven’t murdered anybody.”
  • “The law must be followed.”
  • “We must protect the innocent.”

But when we stop there–when we do not understand or seek to be understood–our lives write nothing but pithy, platitude-filled essays.

Please don’t let your two cents all come from your but.

We all know a contrarian, the kind of person who has an issue with every little thing, who sees problems with every possibility, who contradicts every claim. These people are often looking for excuses or maybe a way to get out of a meeting sooner rather than later; they are rarely seeking understanding or solutions.

But is not only oppositional. But is clarification. But is exception. But is truth-seeking, in that it digs deeper in the search for underlying issues and maybe even common ground.

However, but is only the transition: it is up to us what to do with what comes after.

Consider: I have a problem, but it’s not the same as your problem so you don’t know what I’m going through. Or: That’s a possible solution, but nothing is really going to change.

Compared with: I have a problem, but I can still help. I have a problem, but we all struggle and need to help each other. I have a problem, but I still have so much to be thankful for. I have a problem, but at least I understand but.

But should not stop a conversation or stall an issue; but should encourage dialogue and progress towards a more informed solution. But should not divide; but should recognize differences and address them clearly.  As readers and writers, parents and children, teachers and students, citizens and leaders, social and religious beings, we can benefit from that habit of mind.


How I plan on using “Yes But No Questions” to help students think more deeply:

Devil’s Den, Broken Drawers and Third Poopers

2010 Vacation 089

I’ve written more poetically about this trip for my author page in an upcoming issue  (92) of Glimmer Train.

In 2010, we took a trip out East. One of the stops was Gettysburg, which we toured in our van, a voice from a CD providing details of the gruesome and pivotal battle, guiding us from stop to stop, one of which was Devil’s Den. The history of the place was almost entirely lost on my children, the ground no more hallowed than our back yard. To them, these were just fields. But Devil’s Den had something our back yard didn’t: giant rocks to climb and explore. They had no idea how many had suffered and died on these rocks; this was a chance to be out of the van.


Our house has one bathroom. While this indoor plumbing puts us ahead of billions of people who rely on pit toilets or less, it isn’t ideal.

In a house with only one bathroom,replacing the toilet is a time-sensitive project.

In a house with only one bathroom,replacing the toilet is a time-sensitive project.

Driving home with the family, usually by the time we turn onto our street, it isn’t unlikely for someone to call out, “I’m first for the bathroom!” This can be followed with calls of second and third, but it can also lead to some negotiations, such as who has to go worse and the particular nature of your visit, the clear logic being that number one takes less time than number two, so that now it is common to position yourself in the hierarchy of need by calling out first pee-er or first, second, or even third pooper–which is not, let me tell you, an enviable position.


For far too long, we lived with a broken drawer—the exact kind of household project I find every excuse to avoid. The metal track under the drawer kept falling off, so the drawer rested on nothing but the frame of the cabinet. It was a pain to pull out and push in, and if you weren’t careful you could pull the whole drawer right out and dump everything on the floor. It was the drawer that held, among other things, the baggies for the kids’ lunches. So each school night, when they made their lunches, they dealt with the drawer.

When the broken drawer finally snapped the cabinet board beneath, leaving a gaping hole, the project was no longer avoidable.

When the broken drawer finally snapped the cabinet board beneath, leaving a gaping hole, the project was no longer avoidable.

One night my daughter asked something like, “Why do we live with a broken drawer?” Or maybe she said, “Nobody else’s house has broken drawers.” Although, now that I think about it, she may have been more philosophical: “Why do we live in a world where drawers break?” [That is not how she remembers it.]

I turned to her and said, “I’m glad for broken drawers because they make me thankful for everything that isn’t broken.” I can be insufferable at times–and my nuggets of wisdom aren’t always appreciated.


If we aren’t careful, all the beautiful scenery and smooth-gliding drawers and indoor plumbing in our lives can belie the horrors that hallow the brokenness of this world. Yet it can all be too much at times, the suffering and the waiting. I want to protect my kids from the worst of it. I want them to jump, carefree, from rock to rock.

We haven’t shielded our children from the world. When their grandma was dying of cancer, they knew basically what we knew. When news of the outside world filters in, of killing and natural disasters, we’ll talk about it. But their lives, thank God, have been sheltered. And I’m all right with that. As long as they learn to appreciate the unbroken things and to live graciously with broken drawers and standing in line to poop.

The Recommendation I Would Most Like to Write (or have written about my own children)

Slide1No matter how often I tell students that grades are, at best, a secondary concern, they generally remain students’ (and parents’) primary focus. What follows is the letter of recommendation I would most like to be able to write for a student (or the letter I would be most proud to have written for one of my own children). Teachers, please share it with your students if you agree. Parents, let schools know these are the real standards you would like for students.


To Whom It May Concern:

I have had the pleasure of working with _____________ over the past year as his/her teacher. Seeing the growth that he/she made through consistent effort and persistence in the face of struggle, I am happy to recommend him/her for the volunteer opportunity/job/internship/other position he/she is seeking. The skills and character he/she demonstrated shows his/her readiness to tackle whatever challenges he/she may face. Class wasn’t only about completing the assignments to him/her. Class was about honing skills, exploring content, and developing into an even better person.

Although he/she received mostly B’s and C’s on tests, projects, and assignments, his/her effort and participation were always exemplary. These tests, projects, and assignments were a genuine challenge for him/her, and the grades—while not inherently impressive—are the result of genuine effort and are something to be proud of. Or maybe he/she got all A’s and was nearly perfect on everything he/she did in class. But an A was never enough, because those A’s were easily attained and he/she knew that real learning and effort were more important than getting a good grade. In other words, grades only begin to tell the story; ultimately, the thing that mattered most was improvement and challenging him/herself to do his/her best.

Even more important than academics were the consistent positive characteristics he/she demonstrated. He/she was prompt and prepared, involved and enthusiastic. He/she took pride in his/her work as could be seen in the careful formatting and neatness of even the most basic assignments. He/she respected the classroom by keeping it neat and orderly; respected others in the classroom by being kind, listening to others’ opinions, and helping others whenever possible; and respected the teacher by listening to instructions, following directions, and even at times challenging the teacher. Or maybe he/she struggled with one or more aspects of character; maybe he/she came in with some bad habits to overcome or a life that presented its own seemingly insurmountable challenges—but made such positive strides so as to make the new and improved student unrecognizable to the one who started the year.

For all these reasons—as well as the uniqueness of the individual, who brought his/her own interests, curiosity, and personality, who is comfortable, but not content, with the person he/she is and is secure enough to allow others to be themselves as well—I wholeheartedly recommend him/her.

Sincerely,

His/Her Teacher


 

How It Looks Around the Corner

I thought I was standing in a spot I’d never been, even though I’ve lived in Grand Rapids all my life.

I’d been walking around all afternoon on a writing marathon, stopping at various locations with fellow writers Erica and Colleen to write, and have a beverage. They were younger, hipper, city-dwellers, so they graciously lead me around until I finally looked up—and felt lost, displaced.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever been in this very spot,” I said, more realization than admission.

The building straight ahead, which didn’t look like anything I’d seen in Grand Rapids, reminded me of Boston—where I’d been twice, but only briefly, with my family. Very Bostonian, I may have thought, proud of myself for being so well-traveled and architecturally astute: yes, I do believe it was from the Bostonian period.

But apart from my pathetic, worldly hubris, it was oddly unsettling being in such an unexpectedly unfamiliar place, a sudden alien in my own hometown.

Then we reached the end of the street and turned the corner.

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The building in question is to the left of me. I have no idea if there is anything Bostonian about it.

A few weekends before, there was a festival with food and art and music. Streets closed to traffic filled with people walking or waiting in line forfood or listening to one band or another. I’d gone on Friday afternoon, and there, directly across the street from the corner where I was standing—my two writing companions at my side—I had been captured on local television, cramming souvlaki into my mouth.

All I had done was turn the corner and voila! I instantly went from being somewhere I’d never been to a place I’d been often—and just recently.

Of course, not really. Really I’m just pretty stupid—and unaccustomed to having a beer at lunch. But also: perspective can be a tricky little wench. She turns out the lights and silences all the voices calling out “We’re here, we are here!” And that darkness becomes our world, our past-present-future. Oh, then, if only we would turn the corner and search the wall with hopeful fingertips for that switch that would change everything.

corner

I needed the reminder this past year. Thanks for the magnet, Erica.

All I had done was turn the corner, and I went from being somewhere I’d never been to a place I’d been often—and recently.

Note to self: remember, turn the corner.

Note to my children, my students, and you, patient reader: turn the corner.