I have just returned from a three day, thousand or so mile workshop journey, presenting in Akron, Ohio, Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and Columbus, Ohio. Each leg of the trip was a four hour drive, so I had plenty of time to think about things. A constant theme that arose between sessions and exotic dinners with charming women (Sindi, Lena, Trish) was that I am so, so blessed. Every second of that trip spent with others was wonderful, every second was engaging and exciting, and every second was spent in the presence of people who appreciated my talents and enthusiasm. I am so, so blessed but I do have some things to catch up on.
My daugher Sindi is often asked what it is exactly that I do, especially after she extols one of my trips or projects. I think for awhile the she might even have wondered if I was a spy or a secret agent. She hears stories about Africa, Palestine, London, Jordan, Yemen, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Jamaica, even Oklahoma. No wonder she is confused. But at the end of the day, I am a man who is desperately trying to expend the tremendous gifts God has given me, not wanting to leave an ounce of it here when I leave. Not an ounce!
This past week through the second week of this coming January is a good indication of my profession - scattered, diverse, and wonderful.
Tuesday night, I taught my developmental math course and we were working on factoring trinomials. The class is composed of mainly older, non-traditional students who were not classically prepared for college. There is a group in the class that has been working hard, and are likely to be successful if they keep working hard. This particular evening, I had them alternate and come to the board to work problems in pairs. I loved watching them scramble, laugh, scratch their heads, try to predict the next question in the book they would have to do. I love too, to tease them, give them a hard time, push them. There is one young woman in particular that I am concerned about. She is maybe thirty, a married mother of three who is really trying. But what intrigues me is that she is on the verge of emerging as a college student, and it could still go both ways. I prod her, support her, call her out, keep her alive every second I can - it is so clear to me for some of these students, how such a small difference can determine everything. I pray she will make it, and if she doesn't, it won't be for my lack of efforts. I love this work, and I really feel God's grace in the classroom!
After a four hour drive the next day, I found myself in my daughter's International Baccalaureate class in Akron, Ohio lecturing about memory and advanced study skills. This was a far different environment: twenty five kids destined to do well in life, but probably bogged down in temporal problems - a bit of awkwardness, nerdiness, interest contrary to the sensibilities of a common seventeen year old, etc.....a wonderful group for me though. As I proceeded through my presentation, they interacted willingly, and I had a lot of fun coaxing them towards answers, teasing them gently. The light in their eyes, their cautious but eager smiles lifted me as I moved through material I had presented a thousand times before, literally making the session unique - all theirs and mine. There was a blind student in the front row, perpetually smiling and typing on some sort of machine as I went on. I worked hard to create as many visual images as I could, and i was very happy as he participated often. The class was a concert, and I was directing it - I moved about, trying to strategically involve as many as I could, rewarding the brave, cajoling the reluctant. I was tired after two hours, but honestly so. I walked away smiling, wondering how many middle aged men get to have so much fun with a room full of teenagers!
After another four hour drive, I found myself in Northeast Indiana doing a workshop for a group of professionals working with Junior Achievement in the area. I sat through their board meeting, smiling at their dedication and the fun they had together. When I got up to present, I was in a great mood probably because I knew they were a close group and I could have some fun with them. I was in the enviable position of being able to show them some cool stuff (lots of memory techniques) in a friendly environment (sans exams) and we had fun. Over the years, I have learned to discern quickly those I can tease and have fun with, and I did. And they gave for what they got! We spent two hours in a quixotic mix of laughter, intrigue, wonder, mock indignation, excitement and ease. I felt like a modestly attired middle-aged rock star, diving into an audience ready to catch me, ready to learn and share - I am still amazed I get paid to do this sort of thing honestly.
I am back now, teaching that math class for the next month or so, battling with them, their futures at stake. Between classes I will work on policies and programs designed to impact larger numbers of students, giving them the chance, or semblance of, to succeed despite their challenges. I will present some of this at conferences, at other schools, with other peers. I will do research, review data, talk to colleagues in an effort to magnify the effects of our individual efforts - not sexy work, but I feel the connection to this and the individual students I see day to day in the hallways.
In a few months, I will fly to Jordan to work with Palestinian teachers working in the camps there and in Palestine. It will take everything I have (always does) to keep my composure, to direct and teach the sessions, for next to every thought I have is the faces of those children these wonderful people serve, their hopes and dreams, their living conditions, their neglect by a world pampered in its own sense of philanthropy. It is hard to teach someone who you respect more than yourself, someone who sacrifices more than you, someone who has to fight ten times harder to afford themselves the basic right to dignity - hard to teach. But I will, and I will feel that grace of God every second I am there - the chance to share with these teachers who will travel back to the camps and quietly go about the business of salvaging any bits of hope for a future for hundreds of thousands of children. It tries to overwhelm me, never does in their presence, just late at night, early in morning, anytime I remember my two years in a camp, anytime my heart aches to change the world.
Despite the solemnity involved, we will have a great time - we will laugh and we will work hard. I will smile knowing the exponential effect anything we accomplish will have in the country. UNRWA (the United Nations Relief Works Agency) provides such a important and critical service to the Palestinian children in the Middle East, that any humble contribution I make feels so good, drafting as it were, on their good work. I was so honored to learn they appreciate my work, and welcome me back.
Somewhere in the middle of my Middle Eastern trip though, I will take a break for myself and stop off at a modest apartment near the Second Circle in Jabal Amman. There I will "borrow" three children from their mother for the day. Amani, Sara, Yazan and I will go to the mall, walk everywhere, race up and down between stores, disrupting the far too dignified Ammanis, and the kids will tolerate my pathetic Arabic and pretend that I really won't take them into the toy store before we leave. I will work hard to dislodge Amani's perpetual grace, to elicit that ever reluctant smile from the serious Sara, and to make sure that Yazan never, ever exits the bottom of the escalator before I do at any cost. We will stop at McDonalds and explore happy meals, my main objective being to get Sara to eat it all. Finally, we will go by the FunPlace where they will scramble over big plastic obstacles, jump into seas of small rubber balls, and scoot down a twisted slide dozens of times. Yazan will fight his way to the top of the slide then wait till I acknowledge his sweet smile before he launches down. I will do all of this for me - just for me. Whatever benefits these beautiful fatherless children glean is gravy.
This is me, this is what I do. My bank account is not enviable, the viability of a comfortable retirement always in jeopardy, and my resume is a bit loose and scattered. Many have suffered though - well if losing part of me to this journey is punishment, then yes, they have suffered. I took my oldest daughter Kesho on a date a month ago, working to restore a decade lost relationship and it was very nice. On my way out the door to drive up to see her, I grabbed a few of my trophies I had been given in service to others and gave them to her to share with her sister Sindi, realizing how much they had been neglected while I helped the rest of the world. It felt good to pass them on, a partial atonement if any is possible at all.
If I neglect some of these lessons of my life, when I die I suppose the world will remember a very selfish man who squandered a good part of his heart, not realizing that it wasn't a limited commodity reserved primarily for nameless strangers scattered over the world, but that there was also enough there for the people who loved him, the people who financed his career of caring with their love and unrequited patience. I don't want to leave this fragmented legacy, I truly don't.