Diego Turned Angel

On Child's Level.pngI’ve never considered myself to be certifiably insane, but – deciding to be a long-term sub for the last month of the school year? – maybe I should reconsider the state of my mental health.

After I resigned from my cushy (and soul-numbing) corporate job in April, I took a three-week long term substitute teaching assignment at a nearby elementary school. I figured it would be a good opportunity to learn some key teaching skills before I started my full-time teaching job in August. And I was right.

What I hadn’t taken into consideration were the facts that:

  • These 5th graders in my class had already finished their state testing and so felt like there was no more learning to be done.
  • They believed that they ruled the world (as the oldest grade in their school).
  • Summer (and graduation from elementary school) was less than one month away.
  • It was a Title I school.
  • I had basically zero experience with classroom management.

Suffice it to say, I nearly died those first few days. I had kids threaten to have their parents sue me when I said the wrong thing, had kids tell me they hated me and I was the worst teacher ever, had parents calling in wanting a parent-teacher conference because they believed their child was being bullied, had to get a counselor involved because a fifth grade boy was following girls into the bathroom and touching them inappropriately… It. Was. Madness.

But I survived. And I am better for it. And, looking back, it was actually a lot of fun. Because – for the first time in nearly eight years – I actually had purpose. I actually felt challenged. And I finally made an impact.

Diego was one of the kids I nearly sent to ISS the first day I subbed. He talked incessantly and, as soon as I got the class calmed down and on task, he (as a natural leader and the class clown) had the power to get them all off task again. I felt like I was constantly battling him for the class’s attention.

And Victor. He was the most simultaneously hateful, cynical, apathetic person I have ever met in my entire life. He loved to argue with me in front of the class just for argument’s sake. He knew I couldn’t physically touch him, so he openly defied me on a daily basis when I asked to speak with him privately outside. He refused to go in the hallway, and I couldn’t physically force him, so for a long time, I lost the daily battles of power struggle with Victor – the most arrogant, abrasive student I can imagine I will ever have in decades of teaching.

But as the weeks went on and I learned students’ names and personalities and values and insecurities, I slowly learned how to individualize not only my teaching but also my motivation and discipline of each one.

On my last week of subbing, the students were supposed to be engaging in silent reading time. Diego repeatedly got off task, reading out loud in an intentionally loud voice and distracting other students. When I asked him to read silently, he claimed not to be able to read without saying the words out loud (this was a lie). He – like Victor – refused to go into the hall with me, so I knelt down on his level and whispered to him quietly.

“Diego,” I sighed. “I know you think I don’t like you, but I do. I think you’re adorable. You’re smart, funny and a natural leader. You have so much potential!”

I shrugged my shoulders and continued as I knelt beside his desk on his eye level. “You are not a bad kid. But right now you are making bad choices. I can see the kind of man you could be, and I really want to see you reach your full potential. You are natural leader with a lot of power to do a lot of good in the world. But in order to do that, you need to start making better choices.”

To my surprise, Diego’s eyes started to water. He was tearing up, and I realized he probably had never been told by anyone that he had potential; that he had value and worth and power to do good in the world. So I went on, “It’s really up to you. I only have a few days left here, so it won’t affect me either way. But every day, you make choices that have consequences, and those can be good or bad consequences. I hope for your sake – and the world’s – you choose good.”

Diego just hung his head and wouldn’t make eye contact with me after that, so I left him alone, but he was surprisingly quiet the rest of the day.

The next morning, the class was working individually on a math worksheet, and – to my surprise – Diego raised his hand and asked for help understanding how to add fractions. He’d never expressed interest in learning before. Encouraged, I knelt by his desk and gently explained to him how to find common denominators so he could add (or subtract) fractions easily. I watched the lightbulb flash in his eyes as he “got” it, and he worked a few problems on his own to show me that he understood the concept.

Later that afternoon, some girls got in trouble for selling homemade “slime” (that ended up clogging the school toilets), and a lot of the kids – exposed to this entrepreneurial spirit for perhaps the first time – were trying to figure out how they could make some side money selling something at school. Diego came up to me and asked simply, “Will you give me five dollars?”

“Why would I give you five dollars?” I asked, not unkindly.

Diego looked thoughtful. “What if I gave you something?”

“Like what?” I asked, forcing him to think through what he was asking.

“Hmm… like a cake?” he suggested.

“That sounds nice,” I told him. “What kind of cake?”

He furrowed his brow, thinking hard. “Maybe chocolate or strawberry?”

I smiled. “Diego, if you bring me a chocolate cake tomorrow, I will give you five dollars.”

I had little to no expectation that the little man who’d given me so much trouble would actually follow through in baking a cake, but the next morning, Diego bounded into my room, beaming with delight he tried to hide a bit as he dashed up to me holding a little 9″x9″ foil pan.

“I brought it!” he exclaimed, and I peeled back the foil to see chocolate icing covering what looked like a homemade box cake.

I smiled at him and pulled a $5 from my wallet. “Here you go,” I told him. “You earned it!” His delight as he accepted the money made me smile all the more.

In retrospect, I probably couldn’t have done that exchange with Diego if I was a full-time teacher or if I hadn’t been about to leave that school campus, but I’m thankful for the way it worked out because not only did I finally make a meaningful, positive connection with a formerly disruptive student, but Diego also learned some important lessons about entrepreneurship, determination, and the power of our choices. He finally had someone show him tough love and believe in him for becoming more than he was.

The next day was my last day, and I had essentially no hope for a reconciliation with Victor, but even he surprised me. Early in the day, I kept Victor outside of the computer lab to talk with him before he went in. I gave him a similar speech to the one I’d given Diego, and like the other boy, Victor started to tear up. I don’t think either one had ever experienced a loving “I believe you for better” heart-to-heart. And at the end of that school day, Victor – the thorn in my side and bane of my existence – was the first to volunteer to stack chairs on the desks before recess. He picked up loose papers and helped me tidy up the classroom without being asked, and my heart was warmed by his transformation.

After a tough few weeks, God gave me two amazing reminders of why I’m going into teaching. It’s going to be hard but good. It’s going to be challenging but worth it. There are days I will want to cry in frustration, but I believe there will be great purpose and impact on individual lives. And that’s what I want to be about in this next year and in this next season of life.

A few weeks later, Seth and I were at dinner with some friends – old and new – and one of the new girls asked what I did for a living. After a few moments, we made the connection that she had formerly been a teacher at the elementary school where I’d subbed. “Oh my gosh! You’re THAT sub! I heard you did an amazing job, and all the teachers there want to have you back as the sub for their classrooms!”

I smiled and thanked her, storing up those words in my heart. As we drove away in his truck hours later, Seth turned to me and said with a squeeze of my hand, “Your reputation precedes you. I’m proud to have you by my side.”

I’m glad to be there. It’s nice to be appreciated.

Authentically Aurora

Babes in Joyland

christmas-children

For nearly ten years now, I’ve felt that birthdays don’t seem as special as they used to. Easter isn’t as exciting, Halloween isn’t as thrilling, and Christmas isn’t as magical as I remember as a child.

I’m looking forward to someday having children of my own and getting to see the holidays afresh through their eyes. But in the meantime, I am blessed to volunteer with the kids ministry at church, and just my brief interactions with them have already made my holidays happier this year.

At Thanksgiving while cooking with my dad, we were watching my nieces play, and he reminded me of when my own little brother was about three. At our family Thanksgiving, Dad encouraged us to count our blessings, and my adorable little brother – with his big, brown eyes and long eyelashes – scrunched up his face in distress, his lower lip trembling. “But Dad,” he cried in his sweet little voice, “I can’t count that high!”

My Dad smiled at the retelling and admitted to me, “I still feel that way.” We are so profoundly blessed.

This past Sunday at church while teaching the elementary kids some Christmas carols, one little girl named Kennedy came and sat in my lap. Halfway through one of the songs, she turned around and told me innocently, “You’re making my eyes water.”

Surprised, I asked her why. She wiped her eyes and whispered in a broken voice, “It’s just so beautiful.”

I want to be that in awe of Christmas. Of music. Of community. Of our God. To sit in wonder – to have faith like a child – that is my prayer for this Christmas.

Authentically Aurora

 

Overqualified to Love?

concert-tickets

I absolutely love teaching Sunday school. It’s part of what made me realize I wanted to pursue a career in teaching. Granted, 7- and 8-year old church kids are very different from the broad spectrum of angsty junior highers I’m planning to educate in math, but I expect that the experience of relationship-building and investing in the next generation will be rewarding all the same.

One of the greatest parts about being involved with kids’ ministry at my church is that I have genuinely developed relationships with my girls. I’ve had multiple parents ask for my contact information because their daughters requested to have me as a babysitter. And almost nothing fills my heart with more joy than getting to babysit these sweet girls during the week.

Most of the moms are relieved to have a reliable babysitter (and overjoyed when they find out I do it for free), but when Cristin’s girls started to beg me to babysit, she was hesitant to ask me. This is because Cristin knows that I have an engineering degree and work at a major oil company. When she finally did ask me, she was almost embarrassed, saying, “It’s okay if you don’t want to. I know you are way overqualified for this.”

I wanted to hug her. Overqualified? To love on your sweet girls? To feed them dinner and play games with them and tuck them into bed? No. No one can be overqualified to love. It is a part of the human condition – the most beautiful part, really – to pour our hearts into serving one another; an outpouring of love.

Our schedules never seemed to align, but finally – finally! – the day Seth and I got back from California, Cristin and I agreed that I would come to babysit that evening. Cristin’s sister was in town with her children, making for a total of 6 kids to babysit, ranging in age from 2 to 12. Cristin knows Seth from church, so she suggested, “You can bring Seth along if you like. I trust him, and it might be more fun for the two of you to watch six kids together!”

I thought it was a great idea, so Seth and I got home from California, unpacked our bags and prepared to drive over to Cristin’s for a really fun date night of babysitting together. We were legitimately excited, so when Cristin called to cancel last-minute, I was disappointed.

“Two of the girls just started throwing up,” she told me. “It looks like I’ll be staying home tonight. You and Seth go enjoy your evening.”

I didn’t mind taking care of sick kids, but I thought Seth might not be too keen on that, so I explained the situation to him. Without even prompting him with my own opinions on the matter, Seth replied back, “Let’s go over anyway! I don’t mind taking care of sick kids.” One of many reasons I adore this man.

Cristin really appreciated our willingness to still babysit depite the kids’ illness, but she insisted that her kids would be more comfortable having Mommy take care of them. “My sister and I were going to a concert tonight, and we’d hate for the tickets to go to waste. Would you two be interested in going?” And she named a Christian rock band that is a favorite of Seth’s. This was a concert he and I had talked about going to see, but tickets were sold out. Are you serious?

Cristin and I went through the whole “We couldn’t take those tickets” … “At least let us pay you for them” … “Alright, if you insist” conversation, and soon Seth and I were in Cristin’s driveway to pick up our tickets for our newly renovated date night.

Cristin welcomed us inside, and we walked as a group to the various bathrooms of the house where each of her girls was bent over a toilet and wrapped in a bath robe. My poor babies. I got down on my knees and hugged them tightly and was surprised at myself when I started tearing up. I love these girls so much, as if they are my very own.

Back downstairs, Cristin handed each of us plates of homemade mustard salmon with green beans and a side of garlic bread. She’d already made us dinner as a thank you for babysitting; now she was sending us to a dream concert with dinner to go. Seth and I were astonished. Over the course of an hour, we’d gone from planning to babysit 6 sick kids to getting free dinner and concert tickets to one of our favorite bands. And all we did was say yes.

Authentically Aurora

Offering Our Bodies

screen-shot-2016-10-02-at-2-50-26-pmOne of the more hedonistic reasons I teach Sunday school (and am studying to become a teacher) is the pure entertainment value of being around kids.

This morning at church, while taking up the offering the kids had brought to Sunday school, one little boy without anything to put into the jar called out, “I am an offering!” All the leaders laughed and then smiled at one another because he’s right.

In the bible we read that after David acted out as an adulterer with Bathsheba and murderer of her husband Uriah (the bible = the original soap opera), David wrote Psalm 51 as a way of repentance:

You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
    You do not want a burnt offering.
 The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
    You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.

And later in the New Testament, the apostle Paul elaborates on this concept when he writes in Romans 12: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Long ago, the Israelites worshipped God by providing “burnt offerings” of slaughtered animals, but under our New Covenant in light of Jesus’ sacrifice, we walk out our days as “living sacrifices” when we die to our selfish, sinful natures and choose to live righteously.

We’ve been learning about God being our Provider, so at the end of our lesson, all of my girls were given a sheet of paper where they could write or draw something they are struggling to trust God to provide. Over half of my group simply wrote the word, “Nothing.”

It must be nice to be seven.

Authentically Aurora

In Favor of Teaching

those-who-can-do-supercommittee-quoteThe blogosphere tends to be a very supportive place, but in the real world, I get a lot of confused looks or straight-up negativity when people find out that I’m looking into becoming a teacher.

Since I have an engineering degree and successful career therein, people cannot understand why I would leave a cushy, corporate job for the world of education. They have preconceived expectations of my career path based on my background and cannot fathom why I would voluntarily leave a comfortable job in favor of teaching.

Many people subscribe to the old adage “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”, and teachers tend to be compensated accordingly. But not all compensation is financial. And after seven years in corporate America, I submit to you that a more accurate idiom is: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, form a supercommittee.”

I am still volunteering to teach Sunday school a few times a month at my church, and I was recently asked to become an elementary school Team Leader, meaning I will not only continue teaching but also take on more of an administrative, leadership role coordinating the other volunteers. Although it can be stressful at times, teaching these sweet kids at church remains one of my highlights each week.

Last Sunday, we talked about the Creation account – how God created not only the earth but also plants and animals; man and woman. When Mia, one of my 2nd grade girls, heard this story (for possibly the first time), she looked down at her arms and stroked her tanned forearm with a tentative finger, whispering out loud in wonderment, “I’m made from clay?”

We talked more about the creation of Adam and Eve; then Mia asked me privately, “Miss Aurora, is Jesus God?” After hearing about God the Father creating the universe and everything in it, she was confused about the role of Jesus in relation to the Father. The Trinity is a difficult concept even for mature Christians, so I pointed to Mia’s water bottle in an effort to give her a practical, visual explanation of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

ozarka6ozMia and I removed the lid of her water bottle, exploring the three parts comprising the water bottle: the bottle itself, the cap and the water within the bottle. All three are separate, but they come together to create the water bottle, just as the Trinity is One God, Three Persons.

A few minutes after my explanation, the girls were working on a craft activity when another girl – Lillian – asked about Jesus. All on her own, Mia picked up her water bottle and explained the Trinity to Lillian just as I had explained it to her minutes earlier! My heart swelled within me to see little Mia teaching Lillian about God. I got to see the exponential effect of Matthew 28:19 lived out right in front of me over the course of mere minutes.

Near the end of our time together, Mia had another question for me. “Miss Aurora, is God invisible?”

I answered her, “Right now He is, but someday we’ll see Him.”

Mia pointed to the purple mat we were sitting on. “Is God sitting right here?” I explained Matthew 18:20 to her and suggested that we could pray and ask God to be with us.

I went on to share with Mia that sometimes – especially if I’m sad – I ask God to sit with me and hold my hand.

Mia’s big brown us looked up at me, and she blinked innocently. “Does He say yes?”

“Yes,” I told her with a hug and a smile. “He always says yes.”

Authentically Aurora

Paris – Day 5

Sunday was our planned day trip to Versailles, so Rachel and I got up early and started our morning at Kozy, a breakfast cafe she’d found on Yelp. It was unremarkable and fairly westernized, with hipster chalkboard menus hung on the walls and written entirely in English. Regardless, any morning begun with a latte and chocolate croissant is a good morning!

We finished breakfast, walked to the Metro, bought our RER C tickets and got on the train for the anticipated hour-long ride. At the Javel stop, we were surprised to spot the original Statue of Liberty out the window. Pretty cool.

IMG_6405.jpg

Once at Versailles, we found it to be beautiful but crowded. Our Paris Museum Passes were supposed to gain us entrance to the Palace and Gardens, but at the gate to the gardens, we were told we had to buy an additional ticket for entry since the water show would be held later that evening. I argued with the attendant that their website said water shows were only on Saturdays (it was Sunday), and anyway, that day’s show was at 8:30 PM and it was only 10:00 AM. We would be long gone by the time the water show started.

The ticket puncher wouldn’t budge, so Rachel and I went to the nearby Versailles Cafe to burn off some steam. But the line was out the door. So we went to the Versailles Laduree. They would only sell a minimum of six macaroons at a time; customers had to buy an entire box at once. Beaten down, we got in line for the Palace. Over an hour later, we made it inside, where we waited in yet another line to go through security.

IMG_6560.jpg

The Palace was ornate but, in my opinion, not worth waiting for. Even the Hall of Mirrors – the entire reason I wanted to visit Versailles – was so full of people that the effect of the potential majesty was lost. The grandeur of the famous glass and crystal hall was diminished by all the madding crowds.

I also made the observation that all the paintings were of wars, French nobility or Greek mythology. One of the rooms is even called the Apollo room, but there is nothing remotely biblical throughout the Versailles Palace, at least not that I could see. I found that curious, considering how prominent biblical paintings and sculptures are throughout the rest of Europe, regardless of what the current inhabitants believe.

Ready to leave Versailles the instant the tour was over, Rachel and I took the train back into town and had lunch on Rue Cler. I ordered a Cobb Salad from Cafe Central; then we both got Nutella ice cream cones, which we took to a nearby park where little French children were playing, climbing trees and splashing water on each other from the fountainhead. It was interesting watching the French children play; they were very adventurous and active (and frequently without pants…?). Although we were in the midst of Paris, they acted like rural kids would in the States.

IMG_6645.jpg

We continued on to the grassy area around Les Invalides, where I laid in the grass for a while before putting in earbuds and walking around the park, quietly singing worship music over the people there. I felt the void of having missed my church community that morning, and I longed for God to be praised in this place.

IMG_6651.jpg

It was a beautiful day – sunny and 75 – so Rachel and I walked to Place de la Concorde; then through the Carrousel Garden and Tuileries Garden. We made it back to the greenery around the Louvre, where we were joined by Thomas and sat talking for a while before heading home to our Airbnb. As before, the Metro skipped over our Passy stop (perhaps it only stops at certain stations after a certain hour of the evening?), so we again walked home from Trocadero, rewarding ourselves with much-needed hot showers after climbing the 127 steps to our shared room. And then? Sweet sleep.

Authentically Aurora

Mouths of Babes

Cherry LipsPeople love to be outraged. The public loves a scandal, and individuals are always looking for opportunities to be offended. As a general populace, we live for rallying behind causes, speaking our disgust of the latest societal indignation at every turn and posting impassioned commentary on social media whenever possible.

But how many people turn their words into action? Are we an impassioned people for nothing more than the sake of our own amusement? Is it simply entertaining to discuss the latest humanitarian crisis or political affront? How many of us are legitimately invested in putting action to our outrage?

In an effort to be a woman of action – a woman who seeks to genuinely make an impact in the areas where my heart is stirred – I have recently gotten involved with a local organization that aids refugees in our city with learning English, navigating the citizenship process, and ultimately finding sustainable jobs by which they can support their families.

Over the past couple of months, I have developed a welcome packet for refugees in our city, outlining a number of 1-12 week training programs that equip graduates with various nationally recognized certificates that will allow them to qualify for different jobs in our city. Some careers included are more technical and some are more service-oriented, but regardless of the job category, I have ensured that I outlined not only the time requirement but also the cost of the program as well as the anticipated annual income of each of the career paths listed.

The director of the organization, a 30-something named Justin, reached out to me a couple of weeks ago and invited me over for dinner with his wife and two children. “You’ve done so much work for our organization,” he told me, “But I’ve never even met you in person! Please come over for dinner as our way of thanking you. Our family would love to get to know you.”

So I went. Justin’s wife made a delicious sweet potato and black bean chili (seriously, one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted), and after a fun dinner of getting to know each other, we moved into the living room where Justin and his wife started telling me some of the amazing success stories from their organization’s efforts this year. While his parents talked, four-year-old Josiah (the elder of Justin’s two sons) climbed up into my lap on the couch. Surprised but pleased, I stroked his soft, baby-fine hair while I listened to his parents.

In the middle of one of his dad’s stories, Josiah suddenly crawled out of my lap, turned around to face me, and interrupted his dad mid-sentence.

“Do you got a lie?” The four-year-old was looking directly at me, brow furrowed.

“Excuse me, what?” I wasn’t quite sure what he was asking or how to respond to his sudden question.

“Do you GOT a LIE?” Josiah asked with emphasis, putting his tiny hands on either side of my face to look deeply into my eyes.

Slightly concerned, I glanced at his dad, and Justin translated for me. “He’s asking you if you’re believing a lie.”

“Oh. No. I don’t think I’m believing any lies, Josiah.” I directed my answer to the young boy. “What lie to you think I’m believing?”

At this point, Josiah had lost interest, turning away from me to play with a blue light saber he found on the living room floor. Between swishing noises he made with his mouth, Josiah responded to my question in his high-pitched voice, “That God won’t provide.”

My eyes widened in shock. What kind of four-year-old makes that kind of comment?!

Justin, less shocked than I was at his son’s declaration, prodded him further. “What does Aurora not think God will provide for her?”

Josiah continued running around the living room, waving his light saber around and making accompanying sword-fighting noises with his pursed lips. He didn’t even look up when his tiny voice spoke the words of truth: “A husband.”

I nearly fell off the couch. My eyes bugged out, staring at Josiah and then his dad. Justin got up from his chair, went to a bookshelf and picked up a small black notebook and a pen. He scribbled away in his notebook, detailing yet another story to tell Josiah when his son got older.

As Justin bent over this journal of sorts, he asked his son another question. “And why is that a lie, Josiah?”

Josiah looked up at me this time when he answered. “Because He will.”

Goosebumps raced up and down my arms. Trying to take it all in, I glanced at Josiah’s mom; then back at Justin when he directed his next question to me. “Do you receive that, Aurora? Do you believe God will provide you with a husband?”

“I do,” I told him, and the words echoed in my mind like a wedding vow; a foreshadowing of things to come; of something spoken and promised and sealed.

In that moment, the lights went out. I looked around, wondering what in the world was happening now, but by the moonlight I spotted Josiah in the kitchen by the light switch. His mom asked him, “Josiah, why are you turning out the lights?”

“Because it’s time to anoint her.”

I gave up on being shocked. This child was other-wordly.

Justin just chucked. Apparently this was normal behavior for his son. “Okay, get the oil.” And then, to me, “Are you okay with this?” I just nodded.

So Josiah reappeared in the living room with a small glass bowl of oil while his mom lit some candles around the room. Josiah handed me his blue light saber, now lit up in the blackness, and he told me it could be my own personal candle while he prayed for me.

Josiah silently dipped his thumb in the oil, spread the oil in a horizontal line across my forehead, and – at his dad’s prompting – said a quick prayer that God would heal my heart and that I would trust God’s provision for a husband. And just like that, the light saber was snatched out of my hand, and the swooshing noises started again as Josiah decided it was time to play with his little brother, the two of them dancing around the carpet in a mock battle.

I was astonished by how quickly Josiah switched from solemn speaker of truth to rambunctious little boy. He is a special child, and although I am still processing all that took place that unexpected evening, I felt touched to have gotten a glimpse of the Holy Spirit’s working in that young boy. His parents are doing what they can to step into the hurt and chaos of the refugee crisis, and Josiah himself is, in his own way, also doing what he can – in ways he may not even understand yet – to bring hope and healing.

“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” -Psalm 8

Authentically Aurora

Sweet Potato Black Bean Chili Recipe