Friday, May 13, 2016

On Risk (and quite a vulnerable look into the current state of my heart.)

It started last year. She came to my little table/classroom in the too loud hallway and quickly got sassy with me in this really beautiful, ornery way that made me catch a glimpse of myself in her.

"Whoa, now sister. Take it easy and have your ears open." She made direct eye contact with me - that sparkle that people always talk about was there -- reaching out at me. I could've never known it was going to seep into my heart and plant itself firmly with no intention of leaving.

From that day forward she would tack on "sister" to just about any sentence or phrase she could when it was directed at me.

"Good morning, sister."

"Sister, I have a question on this math problem."

"What's your favorite color, sister? Your middle name, sister? Can I sit next to you on the bus, sister?"

And she became a student I not only loved dearly, but also found myself rising to defend, lovingly correct, and garnering the ability to reprimand, when necessary, with just a simple look.

She's a fourth grader now. That means she rarely comes to my table/classroom because she has surpassed the requirement for extra tutoring, but she always seems to find herself a reason to stop by. This morning she plowed into my back, full force, giggling musically.


And then ran back to her classroom.

We have cried together not just once, but many times over the course of this year in regards to me leaving. She had a bad day and we took a time out in the hallway to talk and she placed her hot, damp, tear-riddled, olive skinned face against mine and threw her body on mine, hanging on with a vice-like grip.

"What will I do when you aren't here next year to calm me down?" she whispered in my ear and then bellowed, deep and guttural, into the crook of my neck.

Oh, my little sister, but what will I do?


The swings sang a rusty, twangy, Conway Twitty-like song on the playground. The sun was warm on my cheek, my name had been screamed out across the soccer field three times in a row now, and I was taking a moment before my name would, inevitably, be called again -- most likely because of those two Turkish boys fighting over a pink football and the fierce and feisty spirit of the Julianna girl who never stepped down because a boy told her to.

And the swings kept their melody going; cacophonous in the midst of the rustled grass and occasional bird, but I took joy in their tune, anyway.

Three Hispanic sweethearts racing against their 15 minutes of recess time to get high, higher, highest on those swings, all the while, speaking fast and passionate about something sounding remarkably like the root of happiness and adolescence.

It is my last Friday like this. It just kept beating in my blood, with each thu-thump of a heart that is perpetually learning its own rhythms.

Oh, my sweet, crazy, too much attitude for your own good, middle schoolers, but what will I do?


She walked into the cafeteria in the chaos of snack time - that rush of adrenaline on a Friday between freedom from the school day and actual freedom to leave the school. She's pure grace, when she walks. She always has been. And you see her hair before you get to her heart-stopping smile - because it's all degrees of the best kind of curly and it's got a bandanna around it all in a way that most females dream about being able to accomplish.

She was a part of the first after school class I taught on my own. Her sweet nature and kind ways made me love her immediately and then we both realized we were kind of kindred, just many years and cultures separated.

She's so grown now. She's a kid, but she's growing fast; boys notice her, girls adore her, and she always finds time to come see her old teacher, kiss her on the cheek, and then head up the street to home on her own.

"Miss Steeeeeeeph," she says in her eloquent, accented speech, "I leave in less than two weeks! But I'll come see you before the last day of school is over. I promise, girrrrrrl."

She hugs and kisses me fast and hard and prances out the door.

Vivacious, full of life, spirit, but what will I do?


Humble baby girl has no idea how stunning she is; her hair is piled high in her signature 'do and she rocks Converse high tops like I dream about filling. She's still innocent; her momma protects her, has rules for her, and she follows them. And she's funny.

We talk about music, inevitably, everyday.

"Check out this new song, girl," she says, pulling out her phone that she has simply for music. And we dance and sing off key.

She is the little girl I was and wish I would've been smart enough to fight to hold on to. I see myself in her - in her smile, in her attitude, in her desire to  honor what adults in her life think and say about her.

Her rotten, but undeniably lovable, brother comes to get her and she rushes over to me and bumps my hip. "Girl, I will see you Mondaaaaay." She winks and walks away.

Little mama, but what will I do?


He is, by far, the hairiest eight year old I know. He walks, no stalks, down the hall, fists clenched at his sides, trying to look lean and mean and full of fury.

Sometimes he is all of those things and it scares me.

But the other day, they all brought stuffed animals in for a point of view assignment and he was allowed to borrow one from his homeroom teacher; he gripped it and made it dance to the corny POV song we were playing for them. It was in that moment I saw a glimpse of the little boy he should always have the permission to be.

He doesn't like me; he tells me nearly everyday. But he races to the seat next to me.

"You give me one million dollars, I answer this question," he barters. Rolling his r's in only the way a young, Turkish man can roll them. He wiggles his eyebrows and laughs. HAH-HAAAAH!

I let third grade know a couple weeks ago this was my last year with them. He looked at me, grinned the most terribly ornery and infectious smile and said, "Good! BU-BYE!" and then found a reason to reach for my arm.

Young, impossible, lovable, rotten man, but what will I do?


He is the perfectly coifed young dude. He came late in the third grade year, speaking very little English, but his clothes and hair were impeccably on point.

He started "sneaking" up behind me humming the Mission Impossible theme song (duh, duh, duh-duh, duh, duh, duh-duh . . .) about three weeks ago. It always hits the climax of the song when he throws his arms around my neck and whispers, "Hola!"

I receive a hug every morning when I walk into the room; and the Impossible Mission occurs right around lunch time every day. He enjoys asking me to repeat things in Spanish and I've realized I should only oblige when my college-level Spanish classes come back to me enough for me to know what he is asking me to say.

He hopped up, at the end of the day today, as I walked into the room and snuggled up against my side, squeezing tight, his little arms around me.

"Good weekend, Miss Steph-a-neeee." And that smile.

You little, handsome man, but what will I do?


Little sister, my middle schoolers, you full of life spirit, sweet, little mama, that lovable, rotten man, my little handsome -- you will never know the ways you shaped me. You may never understand the detailed ways you changed me. But I pray you take chances, you believe in your own power, you remain good and kind. And sweet Lord, I pray you know that, with all my guts and nerve-endings, I love each of you in impossibly large ways. And that's forever.


I am realizing, in these final days, just what I'm walking away from. And it terrifies me. More often than not, they make me crazy, but their little arms and mighty voices - always fighting to be heard and embraced in return - they've found a way of thumbprinting on my heart. And there is no coming back from that, I've come to see.

Without question, what I am stepping in to is by design, crafted intricately for me by a King that knew just how hard and painful this was all going to be. These very moments - with the sneak attacks and the tears of confusion - He placed them in the rise of my story so long ago.

So I will trust Him. I will trust this new page.

But I will go into it slightly tender; the days to come will be doused in the bitter and the sweet. It is a strange and wondrous thing to want to bottle and capture so many personalities and little loves to keep with you forever.

I just started this book today called Wild and Free and in the Foreward it says, "God designed us for adventure because He knew following Him would be one. . . . It isn't wild in rebellion; it is wild in obedience. And it isn't free to do whatever we want; it is free to do whatever He calls us to do."

And then, "Risking for God is the greatest choice you will ever make."

Y'all, when I accepted that job back in September, I accepted it as a girl who was feeling more like the shell of her former self than a woman who was following a calling. I felt Jesus, no question, leading me to that decision, and I felt His assurance as I said yes. But I was under a horribly bad assumption that I could no longer love my current job, or allow myself to think about what I might miss, because then it meant I wasn't all in with the next one.

You know what they say about assumptions . . .

And in transparency and vulnerability, guys? I wasted a lot of time this year wishing for May to be done and June to arrive because I had convinced myself, I had believed a story in my head, that I couldn't be joyful in the current job while anticipating joyfully the next one.

And now May is preparing her leave and she is ushering June in and I am the most complicated and beautiful trembling mix of terrified and utterly hopeful.

These characters you've just met, they're just a few of the multitude. And each of them, for better or for worse, has altered the map of my heart and the trajectory of my future.

God designed us for adventure; my time at Ruskin has been to the brim full of it. And I will carry each of these kids, each of these memories, and the friendships I've built ,with me forward. They're stuck with me, whether they enjoy it or not.

Risk is a good choice, it turns out. And this is such a blatant, thrumming, intoxicating risk. This job is all I've known since college. My coworkers and these children, they've become my family. It is a harrowing, terrifying, sometimes crippling, risk of a leap. But I'm all in.

I'm in because, in these last days, I've realized that this was all molding me for this next step. Each beautiful, obnoxious, laughable minute of this has been preparation.

But what will I do?

I'll keep coming back. I'll fight like hell to maintain what I've been privileged to build these last four years within the walls of an elementary school. I'll choose to show up. And I'll keep showing up.

He called me to this four years ago and now He is calling me to the next adventure in His name. And I'm in.

Because risk is a four-letter word I can't be afraid of any longer.

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