I Am Not a Teacher

Yesterday I realized that I had completely neglected this blog in the last frenzied month of church preparations for Pascha and my last-ever grad school project: an online portfolio with more hoops than an 18th-century petticoat. Sorry, everyone (all four of you!)  I’m still too brain-dead for new material, but you might enjoy this piece I wrote for the Philosophy of Education section of my portfolio.  I was feeling a little rebellious and not very philosophical when I wrote it, but hey, maybe that will make me stand out:

I am not a teacher. I am a B-grade comic, telling jokes that swoop over my audience’s head, waiting patiently for the punch line to sink in and sometimes stooping so low as to explain the irony for the momentary pleasure of their laughter.  Enduring mostly-good-natured heckling because really, any attention is better than no attention when you’re trying to drag a class by its recalcitrant heels through the murky depths of Shakespeare.  Ignoring Fred Jones’ advice and bopping till I drop, day after day: playing silly video clips, exposing my ignorance of pop culture and enduring barrages of personal questions (Did you ever get in trouble in school? What does your husband do?  Do you like our class the best?) in an effort to win their amusement and, by extension, their attention.

I am not a teacher; more often I am a grizzled police officer worn down by my own optimism.  Excuse me, ma’am?  Do you know how late that homework assignment is?  Well, I hate to do it, but I’m going to have to write you up.  Ten percent per day.  Oh, I know I’ll hear from your mother about this, but the law is the law, and I’m bound to protect and serve.  To protect you from mediocrity, from indolence and the deadly threat of just skating by – from yourselves and the society that seeks to possess you.  And to serve you with justice, the stomach-tightening justice of knowing you were wrong and the sweet elation of doing it right, on time, in spite of all the other responsibilities and commitments you had to fulfill last night and this morning.  I can sniff out a wandering eye during a test and an intimidating eyeroll during a group project, and both will incur my wrath.  Be fair.  Be kind.  Or else.

I am not a teacher: I am your secretary. I will post grades and administer make-up quizzes and attend required meetings even when they are hopelessly irrelevant.  I will fill out forms and make you fill out forms and file the forms against some unnamed future day of reckoning.  I will remind you two or three or sixteen times about which assignments are due; I will repeat myself even when I have sworn not to; I will keep track of who is in the bathroom and who is at the nurse’s and who just got diagnosed with a learning disability and needs to take her tests in Guidance, and who can’t take her test at all because she just whacked her head in the bathroom and feels dizzy, or left her books at home and – no, please, no tears – just can’t do it today, Mrs. Lowe, please

In fact, if anything I am a psychologist, drying the tears of self-discovery and double-crossing the more wily among you who won’t go down without a fight.  I can trick you into enjoying the act of revision.  I can guilt you into a grudging respect for the Dark Romantics.  I hear your prayers for one another and the whole world; I see your defeated faces when you’ve just failed a quiz; I understand your frustration with the SAT and your parents and global warming, all buttressed by rising estrogen levels.  We talk about whose fault it is when a student doesn’t know the answers, and sometimes it’s mine.  We close our eyes and imagine a long staircase, count down the steps to enter the office of your brain, open the right drawer and folder and spread out the impressions and notes and then walk back up, open our eyes and KNOW we are ready for the test.  We overcome shyness in front of a group, and your smile after you’ve haltingly spit out your four index cards about the literary devices in Bret Harte’s short story is more engulfing than a sumo wrestler’s hug (that would be a simile of sorts, but you don’t have to keep track since it was mine.)

I am not a teacher but a student myself: I learn from you every day what never to do (leave the room, even for half a minute) what to save for special days (food and the computer lab, but not together) and what to do over and over again (smile and be patient.)  I attend classes on my own even when not required, hoping that by learning French or Byzantine notation I can put myself back in your shoes long enough to understand you, and thus to reach you more fully.  I tell my own stories of late-night papers and last-minute projects, yawn-inducing professors and grades that I totally did not deserve: after my class, grad school will be a picnic.

I am not a teacher.  How could I be?  That would mean I am somehow worthy of the sweet (and sour) faces and clear (and cluttered) minds that fill the seats in front of me, day after day – that I can be trusted to lead them in the right way with loving firmness, to give them a (proverbial!) slap in the face when they need it and a cautious pat on the back when they don’t.  (Touching is not recommended, not for liability reasons but because it is guaranteed to bring tears, and then it’s back to the couch for a heart-to-heart instead of grading those vocab quizzes and making up a rubric for the next class’ presentation.) 

I am not a teacher, but I will do whatever I can to make sure you get an education.  And I will hope and pray that it was enough.

Part Parent

“… and what about this last section?” I ask.  

“It’s Writing.  Sentence Improvement.”

“So how will you do these?”

“Read the sentence first to see if anything sounds off.  Then trim it — cross out interrupters, prepositional phrases and modifiers.  Eliminate the wrong answers.  Guess if I have to.

“How many will you do?”

“At least half, but they go easy to hard, so if I need to I’ll skip the last ones.”

“Very good.”  I close the book.  “I think you’re ready.”

“Thank you,” she says, and she means it. “This helped, like, so much.”

I walk her out to the living room, say goodbye to her dad.  “I’ll miss seeing you — ” I say, and mean it just as much.

“I know; me, too,” she laughs.

“I’m proud of you,” I finish.  “I know you’re going to do a great job.  Let me know how it goes.”

“We’ll call you with the results,” her dad says, as they close the door.  “Thanks again.”

I wave, turn on the porch light, lock the deadbolt behind them.  

That fluttery feeling — out in the real world, what will happen? Will she meet her goals?  Did I do my job?

This must be what it’s like, interrupts my subconscious.  Being a parent.

Scenes from the First Day

I awake well rested.  I get ready in a quiet house, make the bed.  Morning prayers: I read the name of each student, wondering what they will look like, what they will say, what they will think of me.

They are huge classes: last year my largest class was 15, and this year my smallest is 17.  Every chair is filled, even the ones by the windows.  Rain blows in and soaks their backs.  They squeal and run for cover, kicking their backpacks in front of them.

They enter to index cards — one on each desk.  The assignment is on the projector: name, interests, English history (grade, most and least favorite part) and the clincher: a 10-word summary of a story they heard recently.  “Anything that caught your attention,” I say.  “It could be funny, gross, sad, or just strange.”  They hem and haw and whine.  “I can’t think of anything!  My life is so boring!” I remind them that they’ve lived through a hurricane and an earthquake in the last week, and a flood is forming in the streets outside as we speak.

It’s uncomfortably warm; I quickly pin up my hair and am glad I wore a black shirt.

We pass out textbooks — as many as ten per student.  Their groaning turns to laughter as I ask, “Raise your hand if you have TOO MANY books on your desk!”  They ask if they have to bring every book to every class. “Yes,” I say solemnly, “And you have to carry them on your head, too.”  I don’t care what Todd Whitaker says about sarcasm; it works if you know how to use it properly.

The opening exercise is a huge hit.  They highlight dutifully and enjoy reading their selected phrases along with me (this is one of the most powerful ways to begin analysis of any piece of writing, and yes, I stole it from another teacher.)  They have lots of questions, lots of ideas.  They talk about parents and friends who have lost jobs and houses.  They demonstrate how much they learned and overheard during the last presidential campaign, and during the last year of school — referencing simile, climax and conflict as elements of the “story” the author is telling.

“Mrs. Lowe,” one student pipes up, smiling.  “Can I be your favorite student?”  I ask about her cooking skills. “That’s a high priority if you’re considering the position.”  Now they all want to tell me about their cooking skills.  “I can make cheesecake!”  “I make the BEST cookies!”  

I spend as little time on the syllabus as possible, but because I am organized, I don’t need to.  They read and sign the class policies, which include expectations for both students and teacher — “I expect you to hold me to these as I will hold you to them,” I say, without a trace of a smile this time, meeting and holding each gaze in turn.  “I will demonstrate respect, responsibility and passion in this classroom.  You will do the same.”

So thirsty.  I always forget how much talking there is in teaching.  I will not leave the room to get a drink, even though it would be easy.  This is my classroom.  I am in charge.  End of story.

Every ten minutes or so, to lighten the mood as much as to learn their names, I reshuffle the stack of cards in my hand and call on another student to tell her story.  A little brother who has an imaginary friend.  A dream about red turtles and a shooting star.  A dog who went out for her last walk, came home and dropped down dead.  After the laughter and murmurs of sympathy, we address the story itself: why is it memorable? What do we love about it? How does it compare to what we will read this year?

Gently, I hold their collective hand through the quarter syllabi that show each and every assignment.  Next class: vocabulary and an oral quiz on summer reading.  After that, they’re on their own to remember and complete their work.  But I know you can handle it, I say.  

“I have to say,” says one student as I leave the room, “That was a fun class.”  As I enter the next: “I’ve heard great things about you, Mrs. Lowe.”

Of course every day won’t be like this.  But thank you, Lord, for letting this be the first.

A Tale of Two Portraits: Part II

Welcome to the new Teacher | Children | Well!

This painting also came to me without my asking for it.  The story is much shorter and simpler, though: one day after a service, a gentleman from our church approached me and said he’d liked the image of me looking down at the music from the chanter’s stand at the front of the church.  Could he take some photos and create a portrait?

I was honored, but not surprised: I’m used to extraordinary and undeserved blessings pouring over me every time I open my mouth in the sanctuary. They began the moment I started learning to chant and haven’t stopped since, growing in fact more intense, almost unbearable, over the years.

Like so many profound experiences, this one had a prosaic beginning: I was lonely.  After two years at a soul-sucking school, during which I hardly had time for basic grooming, I was suddenly thrust into a normal working schedule. From nine to five I worked at a corporate job, and from five to nine I sat at home and wondered what to do with myself and my life.  I went out a little, with new friends and dates, but mostly I missed my old life, even the incredible stress that had at least kept me busy.

There was a deeper struggle, too, about faith (why had I been through that?) and vocation (what would happen next?) And both began to come together when my dearest friend agreed to teach me to chant.  I had heard the ethereal Byzantine melodies over and over, their haunting cadences and complex truths driving themselves right through me, and I wanted to be able to sing them too.

The strange thing is that, really, I didn’t have a nice voice before I learned to chant.  I could sing on key, thanks to my piano training, but it wasn’t beautiful.  I am sometimes shocked, even now, when I hear recordings of myself: who is that person? I wonder.  It is certainly not me; I could never do that.  And when I look at this portrait, I have a similar feeling – she is not me at all, but the person I wish I were, graceful, humble, consumed by infinite love.  I become her for fleeting snatches of time when I am wrapped in the beauty and power of an ancient hymn.  John caught her for a moment, but by the time I looked up, she was gone.

Only by forgetting ourselves can we ever become who we were created to be.  I find this in music, in art, and in this lowly space, where I plug away at the daunting task of expression because it is so intoxicating, every once in awhile, to have done it well.  Having just completed five hundred entries here, I wanted to celebrate with something new that would inspire me to continue creating; and in this portrait, I think I have found it.

How Far is Too Far?

I'm on the phone with a furious father, about halfway through what will turn out to be a 45-minute conversation:
Me: Well, your daughter has basically stopped turning in assignments.  She's absent a lot, and when she's in school she spends a lot of time in the Guidance office, so she's been missing most of my classes too.  That's why her grade is so low.

Him: But you know she's not like this.  She's usually a great student.

Me: That was true during the first semester, yes.  I know she's been going through a lot of personal stuff; I've been getting your notes.

Him: I just don't understand why you didn't call me as soon as this started happening!

Me: Well, I have lots of other students, several of whom are also struggling, so it's hard to keep track of --

Him: So you just pick and choose who you'll help?  That sounds like a great system.

The sad truth is that I felt wounded when I heard these words.  Deep down, I wished I could have been more alert to his daughter's sliding grade.  Of course, he could have checked the online grade report, updated weekly; or he could have simply asked her, seeing as though he spends (ostensibly) many more hours with her each day than I do.

Besides, it's not my responsibility to be so closely attuned to each student as to know what constitutes a period of blase carelessness and what's cause for real concern.  Right?

I don't know.  I don't know where my job ends and my life begins.  I don't know what's reasonable to expect for the small sum I'm paid each month.  Four classes, plus prep, plus grading.  Plus thinking about them, worrying about them, on the weekends and in the early morning hours when I should be getting more sleep.  Plus phone calls like this one, while my soup grows cold on the table, condensation forming on the outside of my untouched water glass.

This piece -- yet another hard-hitting last-pager from the Week -- haunted me for all of those reasons.  It's not the fact that the teacher in question deals with much heavier issues than any of the blessedly sheltered students I see each day.  It's casual remarks like these:
My main gripe with Nicole was that she fell asleep in class. Each morning—bang!—her head hit the desk. Waking her was like waking a badger. Nicole’s unmarried mother, it turned out, worked nights, so Nicole would slip out with friends every evening, sometimes staying out until 3 AM, and then show up in class exhausted, surly, and hungry.

After a dozen calls home, her mother finally got back to me. Your daughter is staying out late, I reported. The voice at the other end of the phone sounded abashed and bone-weary. “I know, I know, I’m sorry,” she repeated over and over. “I’ll talk to her. I’m sorry.”

For a short time, things got better. Nicole’s grades started to improve. Encouraged, I hectored and cajoled and praised her every small effort. She was an innately bright girl who might, if I dragged her by the heels, eventually survive the rigors of a community college.

When a student falls asleep in my class, I generally let her be, figuring that 1) calling her out for it would be cruel, and 2) chances are she needs it more than whatever nonsense I'm spewing out that particular morning, anyway.  But taking that kind of personal interest in a student -- a student who appears to be one of many helped by this incredibly selfless and kind educator?  It's humbling.  Embarrassing, even.

And so I swallow and tell the father I'm sorry, that I will watch her more carefully.  I'll watch them all, as carefully as I can.

The Greatest Gift

On the last day of my second decade, I stood in front of my students and asked them about perspective.  Technically, I was opening the class with a journal prompt, something designed to loosen their minds from the tight grip of the thesis statement and get them thinking in a more free-flowing way.  At the same time, I was giving myself some space, time to take attendance and prepare for class while they worked busily at their computer screens.

But really, what was I doing?  I needed their advice.  When I turned twenty I was not much older than them, but the next day I would be nearly twice their age.  I didn't feel any older than I did on my first day in the classroom -- or, for that matter, the first day of my own junior year of high school -- and, in fact, many of the same insecurities and ambivalences remain.  What purpose has my life served thus far?  What do I have to show for the intervening years I've spent wandering and occasionally doing something of value?  Am I really helping anyone?  Is any of this worth it?

"Get up," said the journal prompt.  "No, really.  Get up and move to a different desk, next to a different person."  There were groans from all corners of the lab as the students realized I meant it.  They negotiated chairs and backpacks and binders and settled in with a friendly poke or shy smile for their new neighbor.  "Now look around, from your new seat, and think about the last time you experienced a change in perspective.  What caused it (A new dress?  A special birthday?  The redesigned box of your favorite cereal?) and what did you learn from your new point of view?"

Their fingers flew for the next ten minutes, and when I asked for volunteers to share, quite a few hands went up.  One girl had spent her first afternoon in rush-hour traffic the day before, and when she arrived home cranky and out of sorts, she realized suddenly what her father had gone through for years, and forgave him for his own grumpiness.  Another got a ride home with her father, whose truck can't fit in the garage, so he parked under a tree instead; as she got out, she suddenly saw the grass littered with pink and white petals as if for the first time, and felt the reproach of the natural world she tends to ignore when she's in school.  "I yelled and threw my arms in the air and rolled down the hill just for fun."

We pray and move on to the day's lesson.  Preparing for disappointment, I ask for a show of hands: who read the assignment sheet and prepared their homework, a rough draft of a personal memoir?  Everyone except one, a student who had the forethought to come by during break.  I direct them to read and comment on each other's work, and as they do so, I come around to do the same for each one.

Their first memoir assignment was mediocre, and I am expecting more of the same.  What I read shocks me.  They have just finished discussing an excerpt from Angela's Ashes; they commented on McCourt's breezy, conversational style and humorous use of run-on sentences and quasi-dialogue.  And they have used it in their own work with great success.  Two students have me in tears -- one about the day she learned of a friend's eating disorder, the other about a family friend's death.  Descriptive, chaotic images pile on top of each other, re-creating the fabric of grief in a compelling and brutal manner.  I read another and am suddenly shrieking with laughter, thumping the table as I read the final lines: the kindergartner who smuggled a secret item to school and went to the bathroom just before Show and Tell only to emerge buck naked, wearing her mother's bra strapped around her head.  "Ta-daaaa!"

Another has written eloquently about the high that accompanies performance: afterward, shaken, she wonders, what just happened?  Then she hears the applause and knows.  I did a good job.  Everything is right. She thinks it's trite and melodramatic, but I disagree.  "Anyone who has performed from the heart has experienced what you describe.  It's beautiful.  Thank you for sharing it."

My heart is so full from their stories, each one a votive offering inviting me into their minds and souls.  They don't know that tomorrow is my birthday.  But they have just given me the greatest gift I could imagine.  Like a performer, I am shocked by the results of my efforts to engage them; I leave the dim classroom and walk into the hall, flooded with light and  gratitude.  I helped them.  This is why I am here.

A Tough Time

These next few posts will probably be a little scattered.  I'm digging through the mammoth pile of papers I accumulated last year (I do not exaggerate -- it's the size of a third-grader) and finding lots of interesting things.

The first comes from a youth event Rob and I orchestrated several years ago.  We would love to be more involved with the youth program, but time is always the problem.  This particular instance was a bit of an anomaly; I'd just read Unhooked and was desperate to do something for the girls in my parish who, while maybe not as extreme as the subject of Laura Stepp's investigation, definitely needed help.  We decided to separate into boys and girls, with three leaders each -- one dating, one single and one married -- and give the kids a chance to talk.

I'm not sure what happened behind the guys' door, but the girls had a good discussion.  We started by having them all write questions or problems down -- what were they most struggling with?  What did they want to talk about?  These neat little squares are what I discovered today, folded up in the bottom of my inbox:

  • Finding / Demanding respect from a guy all the time.

  • How do you know when your ready to date some-one!

  • When people don't understand what you feel like.

  • Do you think birth control is considered abortion?

  • There is this guy I know that has "gone out" with most of the girls in our group (which is pretty big) but they don't really do anything. I think it's kind of pointless!

  • You can never be in charge of a relationship.

  • Finding a guy that is actually truly INTERESTED, in more than sex.

  • Nobody ever confides in you.

  • Why do you even have to "like" guys at all.  It's annoying!

While some of them made me laugh and some made me sigh, they all made me very grateful to be an adult.  I wouldn't go back to high school for anything.

A Kind Person

As a student, I looked forward to the end of the year with almost-uncontainable excitement.  As a teacher, I find it downright depressing.  All year, you've struggled to provide the best quality lessons, materials, strategies and encouragement to help your students learn.  At the end of the year, you see failures all around: the Literature student who has simply stopped turning work in because she's so far behind she knows summer school is in her future; the SAT student who still doesn't know how many sections are on the test; the Journalism student who thinks learning about world events was a waste of time because it wasn't relevant to her high-school existence.  There are successes, too, but they seem less glaring, especially to someone with standards as high as mine.

This year I had all my students fill out an anonymous, online survey about their experiences in my class.  I do this for every class I teach, but this was the first year I'd been able to tabulate the responses instantly (thanks, SurveyMonkey!) and I think the students felt more free to be honest when they knew I couldn't decipher handwriting.

The responses were mixed, as they always are.  There were plenty of good comments; many of the students said I was "knowledgeable," "enthusiastic," and willing to help them.  But there were also plenty of negatives.  They largely rejected my attempts at context-based vocabulary and wanted to go back to the inane, rote-memorization workbooks. I moved too fast; I didn't review enough for the quizzes; the assignments were "childish." Some wanted more test questions that resembled actual SAT problems; some were furious at me for including any at all.

One student in particular gave me basement-level ratings all the way through.  I think I know who it was; we got off on the wrong foot after an early  helicopter-mom confrontation, and although we were able to joke around with each other in class, I sensed her resentment and apathy.

However, at the end, under "What are the teacher's best qualities?" she wrote: "She is a kind person."

For me, that made it worth it.  I can't please everybody, and I can't even help everybody, especially those who don't want to be helped.  But I can be kind.  And if I've done that, it was a good year.

Pink Girls and Beyond

One of the most frustrating things about being a writer is the lack of honest, blunt opinions.  People who love you tell you it's wonderful.  People who don't love you sometimes give you a limited compliment; sometimes they invent a platitude (I've actually heard that line at the end of Sideways, the one about "a great book" with "no place for it right now.")  But mostly, they just ignore you.  This is the worst thing they could possibly do, but I've come to expect and even accept it.  So when you get a real compliment, you hang onto it.

After my first year of classroom teaching, I wrote a piece for my school's alumni magazine.  It was a half-rant, half-rhapsody about teenage girls and how wonderful and frustrating they were to teach.  At the time, I wasn't at all sure I would ever teach again, so it was a sort of swan song, just in case.  A little like my friend Chris' (sadly, his piece has now been archived and costs money to view, but you can take my word for it that it was compelling and true-to-life.)

That summer, I asked my dear friend Terry for some advice.  I wanted to write more, but I was lost about how to do it.  Getting into the business is a lot like getting into acting or fine art: you have to know someone, or preferably, know a lot of people.  What should I do?  I wondered.

Terry is nothing if not direct.  "I think you should write more about the Pink Girls."

At first I didn't know what he meant.  Then he started suggesting reading material: Reviving Ophelia, A Return to Modesty, I am Charlotte Simmons, unhooked.  I read them all, but I had more questions than answers.  Mainly: What on earth was going on in the minds and hearts of these women, who were barely younger than me but appeared unable to take part in a healthy, normal relationship of any sort?

Of the four, I think unhooked resonated most clearly with me.  I could sense the author's concern, shock and bewilderment in every page, all emotions with which I could sympathize.  I wrote the author, Laura Sessions Stepp, and wound up in an extended e-mail and phone conversation that continued sporadically over a few years' time.

It's been simmering for several years now, boiling over every now and again when I hear another story of serial hookup followed by serious heartbreak.  So when I had the opportunity to write about an issue of social justice for my current class, Child & Adolescent Development, I jumped.  The paper is much too long to post here, but I'll give you a teaser in preparation for the next few posts, which will contain controversy-laden excerpts (having done my research, I'm prepared to be attacked, as has everyone who's written about this from a point of view I admire:)
It’s no secret that teenagers tend to be emotional, volatile and insecure, or that they take evident pleasure in flouting the rules set for them by parents, teachers and other authority figures.  The last decade, however, has revealed a disturbing trend among adolescents that persists well into young adulthood: the replacement of healthy short- and long-term relationships with episodes of unplanned, emotionally-detached physical contact called “hookups.”

Sex is easier than ever for teenagers; we live in one of the most permissive societies in history, in which sexual innuendo permeates even the children’s entertainment market.  As a result, teenage pregnancies are on the rise for the first time in over a decade. I believe this is because our sex-education programs (some of which begin in elementary school) are falling short in a crucial area: emotions and relationships.  We are failing our young women by denying them models of healthy relationships, experiences they can learn from and build on, and forums where they can define for themselves what they want out of a partnership.  In denying them the tools they need to negotiate in relationships, we as a society have essentially set them up for continual failure, and only through a focused effort to reverse these conditions can we hope to change the pattern for future generations.

How bad is it, really?  You have no idea.  Stay tuned.

A King, a Prophet and a Priest

No, they didn't walk into a bar.  They just made me think.

Tomorrow is the first of 11 days when I will be at church every evening for several hours.  There are a few days when I will practically wake up and fall asleep there.  In short, Lent is coming to an end.  And as you can probably tell from my sadly-neglected blog, it's been harder and harder in the last few weeks to come up with something to say.

Lent is a time of growth – it involves taking a hard look at yourself and making some changes, throwing out things to which you're attached and clinging to what is true and good.  It's a time of prayer, thought, and sacrifice, and those things aren't very easy or entertaining to write about.  It’s a time of testing, as I can always count on a major catastrophe or two to send me reeling, and one in particular has kept that promise this year.

But all this has been good for me in countless ways.  More than “good for me;” I’ve actually felt blessed by it.  Being sustained by grace, day after day, is a rare and precious experience. I marvel at the complexity of this message of hope I’m about to share, one that spanned many days and was borne by a diverse cast of characters. Yet it was obviously intended for me – it’s what I needed to hear, what I needed to learn.

From a king: “Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.”  I’m slowly working my way through the Old Testament on CD, and I realized last week that I hadn’t read Ecclesiastes since college.  It’s an amazing story of a king who had all the world had to offer, yet realized how worthless it all was without some central meaning.

Why do we flee sorrow?  Why do we tell each other to smile, put on a brave face, project the appearance of success?  Pain is such a crucial, beautiful, beneficial part of life.  As I read the rough drafts of my students’ term papers last week, I was stuck by how many of the world’s most formidable literary talents had lives that were wracked by sorrow: illness, rejection, guilt, struggles, death.  To a person, these writers turned their sorrows into keenly incisive works that speak plainly of the human experience.  This is why literature, and all of art, is so moving to us.  We are fallen.  It’s a fallen world.

From a prophet: “[Food] will taste so much deeper, more intense.  Everything will feel that way for awhile.  You’ll feel more alive.  You should probably try to hang onto that feeling for as long as you can.  It’s a gift.”  It might be a bit of a stretch to call a fictional character a prophet, but I think that’s his closest title.  I heard this while watching The Mentalist, a formulaic detective drama that for some reason is awfully compelling.  I am mainly drawn to the title character, a man who has undergone a traumatic loss and is consumed with a desire for revenge, coupled with an unbearable grief that he largely hides from those around him.  I call him a prophet because he is able to understand others at a level far beyond ordinary humans, but the sad irony is that he isn’t able to understand himself – or isn’t willing to.

In this situation, he is speaking to a girl who has just lost her mother.  I love the simplicity of his speech, and the fact that he doesn’t pull punches with her, telling her it will be all right or her mother is in a better place – but also doesn’t apologize for what he can’t control.  Having been through an even worse experience himself, he is serenely circumspect – seeing everything and taking this experience for what it’s worth.  Her mother is dead.  This experience will change her.  The change could be a good thing.

From a priest: Man’s punishments from the Fall were really second chances for humans to restore communion with God. We work the earth in toil, but we enjoy the fruits of our labors. We bring forth children in pain, but we still desire each other.  We have knowledge of pain, but also knowledge of a source of healing.

That’s a paraphrase from the Lenten retreat I attended last weekend with Fr. Theodore Dorrance; I vowed I would not take notes during this retreat, since I never re-read them anyway and I felt I could listen more deeply if I wasn’t concentrating on writing everything down.  But I didn’t need to write it to remember the impact of what he said.  What an illumination!  Even our greatest punishment – what makes us uniquely human, our suffering and alienation – can be viewed as a gift.  If we were self-sufficient, we wouldn’t need God.  I rejoice in my infirmities as a means for acquiring even greater healing.

Lent draws to a close.  It was a good Lent, if only for these three small things – things that have helped me to see clearly, to be stretched, to cut away the excess and feel freer from the world.