When You Need It the Most, Part II

God’s grace turns defeat into victory, tragedy into triumph, and weakness into strength by providing real power over circumstances.

I have found over my time teaching that one of the hardest things to do is keep teaching on the days when you find yourself overwhelmed with what is going on in your own personal life. It’s a hard struggle of fighting back tears and still finding the energy for each class, answering questions and finding reasons to smile. When I was living in Ghana I used to think, “Some days are harder than others. Thank God for ice cream.” Now, I think that some days are harder than others. Thank you, Lord, for allowing my students to anchor me.

Today was a heavy day. I got news at lunch that was personally devastating to me. I could not fight back the overwhelming feeling of sinking into a pit of despair, having given what I believed was my all in the circumstance. And I sat at my desk and cried. Even worse, I proceeded to finish an entire box of Girl Scout cookies I had recently purchased. I called my mom, and could barely blubber out how I was feeling, and her words, as usual, helped to bandage the pain a little. But fresh wounds are hard to stop bleeding, and as the clock ticked closer to 6th period, I began to panic about how I would possibly keep teaching for two more periods. Of course I had to, though. I always tell my students when they are unhappy that they are not the only one in the room who has brought some type of burden with them that day, and they still had to work through the myriad of life’s curveballs and unexplained sadness. Therefore, I would do the same. So I wiped my face with my scarf, since all the tissues in the immediate vicinity were gone, and took several deep breaths to calm myself. I should say that 6th period is ‘that’ period for me, the one that likes to try my patience and makes me wonder why they wanted to come to class if they did not mean to learn. But I’ve been working tirelessly on getting them together. However, I can’t say I had high hopes they would help me in that moment feel any better. I was wrong.

It was one of the best classes I have had with them. We were reading “A Litany for Survival” by Audre Lorde, and they really identified with the reoccurring theme that “we were not meant to survive.” And with each passing moment of excitement from the students over questions answered, discussions started, and even checking each other when someone became off task, I found that I did not have to force myself to smile–it just came naturally. Because when I need it the most, I always find the joy in the pit that was always there. I just need to look harder sometimes.

So, even when floods of tears threaten to sweep me away into lands of despair and deep pits, I have my anchor in the form of God and his vessels He sends me in Room 3085.

Another Parisian Winter

Two years ago I spent the winter holidays in Paris with my parents and one of my older brothers Scott. It was really special experiencing and exploring parts of Europe with my family for the first time. So I was definitely excited to go back to Paris with the rest of my family. It was the last stop on our European holiday and it would be our longest stop as well. We had originally planned to go to either Brussels or London, but with time and being tired, we decided to just relax in Paris and see the nearby sites in Versailles.

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It was also amusing for me to be back in a city I had been two previous times. I liked looking back at the pictures and seeing how changed or the same places were, and what new things I still had to discover. There was always something more, something unique to discover with each place I had been to before, and that’s what I love so much about taking journeys. It’s not so much about the travel, but the actual journey I take to get there and while I am there.

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Versailles was one new place for me, though. I wish that we could have seen Versailles in the spring or summer–flowers and trees blooming and birds singing in the skies. But it was still a very beautiful place, even in the midst of a cold winter and closed off areas. Plus it was fun being silly in the gardens with my siblings.

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We rang in the New Year in Paris at a restaurant called Indiana Cafe because we thought it would be ironic. It had a face of a  Native American on the menu though so I think they were going for a different angle. Either way, with red wine in hand and happiness on our tongues, we rang in another year, that will hopefully bring as much fond memories as those two weeks in Europe had brought us all.

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Where Beer is Cheaper than Water, and Boots are Just the Right Price

I love Prague. Prague was…magical. I think that’s the only word that I can think of to describe how I felt as I walked around immersed in the beautiful holiday decorations, smells, and sites of the old city. There were Christmas villages in the other cities, but I felt immersed in a Christmas village in Prague.

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we spent our time there maneuvering through the myriad of side streets that opened into picturesque squares and market places. The fruits of our diligent explorative nature were shops where we spent our time using the favorable exchange rate to buy gifts for ourselves and friends. I made away with a pair of booties that I adore, for less than I would pay anywhere in the states for such quality shoes.

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We decided to go on this locally guided tour called Prague in a Day to see some of the big sites. Our tour guide was a very eccentric older woman who spoke at many points throughout the day about how she wished Americans were more cosmopolitan and less conservative. It was amusing to say the least. Her ability to spout off facts without once ever referring to any paper or notes was astonishing. My favorite part of the day was when we went to Prague Castle. The bus ride up to where the castle is filled our eyes with remarkable shots of the city skyline and the river. We drank hot coffee as we toured around the castle grounds in order to keep warm on the chilly Czech day. That particular point in the tour ended with a traditional Czech lunch in a heated tent outside a restaurant, so we could still enjoy the views through the clear, plastic walls of the tent.

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After the castle we took a scenic walk along the Charles Bridge. I have never been on a more crowded pedestrian bridge in my life. Despite the crowd, it was still a welcoming foot journey, as we were able to see a variety of street artists and performers, who never cease to entertain me. Once we were on the other side, safe from shoulder-to-shoulder traffic, we made our way to the “Prague Venice,” where we had a boat tour on the river, which included my favorite find of the trip: hot wine. I can’t say that it was my last mug of the deliciously hot, spiced beverage either.

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The rest of our time in Prague was spent exploring on our own. We ate lots of treats, watched the apostles come out of the clock, and went on a dinner cruise. The greatest find though, may have to be the beer that Oliver, Jordan, Scott and I stumbled upon at a tiny, dive bar across the street from our hotel: Chicago Piano Bar. We wanted to try the Pilsner Urquell that is advertised literally on every street corner, but the bartender (who would become someone who quite enjoyed hanging out with) said they did not carry it because he was not a fan and much rather would drink another locally made beer: Staropramen. He was right. Staropramen became our drink of choice, and we even gave him our address on a card so he could write to us and send us some. I’ll certainly miss nights of wondering around the streets, drinking Staropramen in a warm booth, and smelling the sweet smells of Christmastime all around me.

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The Importance of Sharing ‘Stories of Self’

“I’m tired of being normal. I’m tired of being inner city. I’m ready to be somebody else’s inspiration.” –Anonymous student going on Boston college tour

I noted in one of my last blog posts that I don’t often talk with my students in detail about the fact that I went to Harvard, for a variety of reasons. It wasn’t until recently that I was faced with a moment in which I was strongly reminded that there is power in sharing stories of self beyond any lessons that one can often teach in the classroom. And there are times in which I just need to be more open and vulnerable with students who need to hear it.

It happened at the last meeting we had for the students going on our college tour in Boston in March. We had broken up into small groups to get to know one another better (I have only taught one of the students who is going on the trip). We went around and talked about what we were involved with and what going on the trip meant for us. I was blown away by the powerful narratives the students were sharing and how strongly they felt toward the trip and how it would open their eyes to new opportunities. I had to smile because I see so much of myself in these incredibly gifted and driven 24 students that are going to Boston. Their denouncement of the little life had initially set on their plate was boldly palpable in the room.

However, when we got to them asking me questions about college life and applying, one of the girls shyly began asking the question that would drive the rest of our conversation in that circle. She told me that she had recently seen a movie and in it the lead character was an admissions officer at a prestigious university. She continued that all the applications she was reading and accepting were from wealthy, well-connected youth. So she wanted to know if students like her really had a chance and were ever really accepted to prestigious universities.

When I said I had to smile because I see so much of myself in them, I also had to feel a pain shoot through my heart because, again, they reminded me so much of myself. It is natural in the face of a life that you know is already more than anyone thought you would live, but not quite what you have always seen of these schools from a distance, to believe that you will be overlooked, cast aside to make room for the ones who ‘fit.’ I stared at her for a moment, knowing the moment well when you have to decide if you truly believe that you are, without a doubt and casting aside the differences, just as deserving of an opportunity as anyone else.

After what seemed like an eternity, I slowly began to talk to the group. I began by telling them that those thoughts are the reasons those schools do not have the types of students who have excelled against the odds in an environment that can literally kill them, because they feel like they won’t get in. I told them that yes, people like you get in, and I know that because I did it. It may not be the exact circumstances, but the same truth that where I’m from, people hardly even go to college, let alone some of the best universities this country has to offer. It’s the same truth that I had a family that I did not want to let down, and a father who worked two jobs tirelessly, but still would not be able to afford a private college’s tuition. But there’s always a way when you believe that you can make a way. And as the words flowed from my lips about where I came from, and not being from a high income household, I felt truly connected to those students. And later when a girl pulled me outside to cry on my shoulder to tell me that she did not believe she deserved to be on the trip because her GPA was not as high as others, and I cried there in the hallway with her myself, telling her that it doesn’t matter if you think a door was opened by mistake, you have to walk through it and know that there’s something in you that makes you unique enough to make it. And I told her about times that I found myself wondering if I had what it took when others around me seemed more prepared, and just knowing that nothing I really wanted would come easy. It was a day of outpouring; a day of sharing life’s battles fought and won. And what I saw in the eyes of the students were faces eager to hear a story that made them believe just a little more that the words that they speak about themselves of what they want for the future can one day be true. That as I hope to be an inspiration for them, moving beyond normal and into a realm of knowing I can change myself into what I want to be, that they too one day can do the same.

Change Doesn’t Happen Overnight- Reflections on MLK Day

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

                        -Martin Luther King, Jr.

When Nelson Mandela died, I played a tribute video for him in my classes. One of my students turned to me with a shocked face and said, “Ms. how do you expect us to know who Nelson Mandela is? Everyone we learn about in history is white. The only black people we learn about is MLK and Rosa Parks, and now sometimes Obama. But all the other black people are slaves in our book.”

When that student said she didn’t care about white men on horseback killing each other, but wanted to learn about herself and what her people went through and have done, it really touched my heart. I asked her what she knew about Martin Luther King Jr, who I was especially interested in knowing her knowledge of. She said she knew he was black and that he had made speeches about our rights–the most basic of knowledge of a deeply involved and engaging man.

In a speech, Martin Luther King Jr said the following on education:

“…It seems to me that education has a two-fold function to perform in the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture. Education must enable a man to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the ligitimate goals of his life.

“Education must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda.

“At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.

We live in a time that has been broken by attempts at quick fixes, commitments to social media over social enterprises and social movements, and a history that has become merely that–just history.

What King understood almost better than anyone else was that deeply engrained societal issues took time and hands-on effort to solve. He had people who joined his movement knowing that they may not live to see the fruits of their labor, but one day their children or their grandchildren would. We care mainly for immediate gratification. I see it each day when we switch from one type of education reform to the next, not waiting to see if it can solve a problem that was started decades ago in the classroom.

Nothing is just the way it is because it happened so today. Modern day institutionalized and systematic inequalities and issues stem from deeply rooted historical events and decisions. When I think about King’s quote about the arc of the moral universe being long but it bending toward justice, I think about my own work in the classroom and my attempt to help save my students from being invaded by “half truths, prejudices, and propaganda.” It’s a job that takes daily work and daily reminding to even have the smallest of victories now, that I hope will pay off in bigger victories later when they begin to question the very fabrics and concretes of the life they’ve been told has to be theirs.

I hear you still Dr. King, and I will do my best to march that long road with you, even still today.

It’s All Greek to Me (And I LOVE It)

“Greek customs such as wine drinking were regarded as worthy of imitation by other cultures. So the ships that carried Greek wine were carrying Greek civilization, distributing it around the Mediterranean and beyond, one amphora at a time.”

I feel blessed to have spent Christmas with all my siblings and my parents, on a cruise to three Greek islands, water of the Saronic Gulf glistening in the sun. Athens was the city I was most excited for on the trip since I had never been there unlike Rome and Paris, and I just love history. The hotel we stayed at had rows of orange trees lining the streets and was around the corner from the Parthenon and all the other sites of the ancient agora. Mom, Liv, and I went one morning and we had to climb the hill to get to the top where all the sites were. It’s interesting to think that Greeks did this all the time. We met up with the boys later, and then they did the same journey. The scenery up top was breathtaking, and as I breathed in the crisp, cold air at the top with the wonders of the ancient world around me, I was more content than at any other point on the trip. This world is indeed filled with awe-inspiring beauty, and humans have been gifted by God with the ability to make incredible structures for years.

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On Christmas morning, we boarded a day cruise to three islands off the coast of Athens. It was a wonderful journey, except for one part in the middle when the ways got choppy and those sensitive to the sea got a bit sick. Oliver and I had to brave a perilous journey of walking around the ship to get food from the buffet. But beyond that rough patch, the rest of the journey was smooth sailing. We explored the island of Hydra, which was very small and had no vehicles on it. The two larger islands had pistachio and orange groves, and beautiful scenery. On Poros we climbed up to the top of the clock tower and took photos on the heights of jagged rocks. On the largest island mom, Liv, and I took a carriage ride through the city in order to see the pistachio farms. It was a lovely day. And that night, we had Christmas dinner at an authentic Greek restaurant with piled on delicious food and views of the ruins at night.

 

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Everything about Greece was excellently laid out in our plan. The closeness of our hotel to everything, the ability to walk and enjoy the authentic Greek parts of the city, and most of all, it helped us celebrate the holiday of giving and love together. Thank you Lord for your indescribable gifts and your presence. wmomatdinner greekrestaurant

 

 

Too Many Gelato Flavors, Not Enough Time

I’m finally getting around to sorting through the hundreds of photographs I took on my two week European adventure with my family this past holiday season. And finally getting around to writing about it. The entire trip was nothing short of an amazing time, filled with lots of adventure and relaxation alike.

The first stop on our trip was Rome and the Vatican City. It was back to countries with super tiny elevators, wifi you had to pay for, and tourism taxes. But it was beautiful. We had so many great pizzas (the potato pizza was my favorite), coffees, and gelato. I LOVE gelato, and was so excited to be back in the country that makes me drool for more gelato. My favorite flavors are definitely straciatella and nociotella (especially when in the same bowl), but I branched out to try a few more flavors this time around. I know my friend Scott would be proud of the amount of gelato I consumed. My first time ever in Rome was with him when we studied abroad together in Spain and we stopped every few feet at a gelato place because we had to check to see if it was indeed the ‘world’s best gelato.’ It was our tourist duty.

We walked a lot in Rome and took in all the sites of the Christmas village in Piazza Navona and the Spanish Steps. Trevi Fountain at night was even more beautiful than when I had first seen it during the day. I tossed another coin inside the gorgeous fountain, as the first time I had done it indeed had brought me right back to Rome four years later. Oliver and I got separated from the group for some time and made our way through the winding streets of the city, stopping to video ourselves, while I convinced Oliver that every fountain or statue we saw was the most important one we had seen yet. That was also the start of our mission to get a roasted chestnut vendor to sell us just two chestnuts. We never wanted the whole bag, just one or two. (We were finally successful in Prague and decided we did not like them.)

We spent one lovely day at the Vatican with one of the craziest, yet extremely knowledgeable tour guides I had ever had. I usually buck the tour guide trend, but I have to admit that I will never look at art the same again, and for that, I am grateful. He gave us an eye for the appropriate critique of what we saw. After the Vatican Museums, we made our way to St. Peter’s Basilica where I helped Oliver go on a quest to find Holy Water. After we finally found it and corked it up in a vial, we all went to a nearby restaurant and ate pasta, pizza, and drank wine, as the night settled in around us. It was a great weekend start to our vacation.

Next stop: Athens for Christmas.

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