Learning from Ms. Norman: Guest Post at You Are Here Stories

I do a lot of thinking about teaching and teachers. You know because I write about it a lot. This is the first year that I ever have really considered NOT teaching. This is scary for me. I have been a teacher or teacher in training since I was 18. I was going to change the world one 15 year old at a time. I was going to win all the teacher of the year awards and I was going to WIN AT LIFE. Now. Now I am trying to figure out if this is a phase, if I am winning at life, or if I am being called elsewhere. Writing about how my identity is linked to the place of my classroom is helping me sort it out, also it give me ALL THE FEELS. 

Teaching is one of the only professions where no one uses a first name, at least at any school I’ve ever worked at. Generally, the adults in my building even refer to each other as Mr. or Ms., for continuity’s sake, which means most of the kids don’t even know our first names.

Very occasionally, a student will see me in public and call out my name. I know before I see who is shouting that they are my student. Just hearing someone shout “Hey, Ms. Norman” puts me immediately into teacher mode, even in the middle of the grocery store.

I like Ms. Norman. I like my classroom and I like who I am in it. I have carefully curated the furniture (spray painted funky colors) and the posters (MLK, Mother Theresa, Ghandi), just as I have carefully curated the persona that is Ms. Norman. In fact, sometimes I wish Abby could be a little more like her.

Read the rest here

Clean Breaks: My introduction to the Mudroom

I met Tammy in person this November, over Indian food with a number of people I love and respect. She told me of this vision she had of a place that says there was room for everyone, and she meant it. Tammy is the real deal. She says what she means and she means what she says. I think there are likely to be some growing pains, I hope there are. (Growing pains means growth, and I am hoping for growth of this place. I think there is a lot of fertile soil here.) I trust Tammy to deal with those pains honestly, humbly, prayerfully. I am very honored to be writing in this space.

So honored in fact I gave them a story that is very close to my heart. We left our beloved church over Christmas. It was needed but it was heart breaking. I don’t know that I have ever heard of leaving a church well, but I think we managed it. Here is the beginning of that story.
“He’s lucky, it was a clean break.”

People say this sometimes, when a leg or arm or ankle is broken. I teach high school and I am always surprised at how often my students end up injured, often seriously.

“It was good that the break was clean.”

How can a break be good? I’ve never broken a bone, but my understanding is that it hurts like hell.

A month ago we left the church we had served in, and loved with for seven years. We had been with that church for 7 good years. 7 big years. That church grew us, and grew with us, and prayed for us and with us while we bought a house, had two babies, transitioned to three different schools, started a PhD program and struggled and grew in our faith.

Faith growing can be tricky sometimes. I wanted to believe that I could prune and shape my faith so that it looked like what I expected it to, but that isn’t quite how it works. There were branches that stopped bearing fruit, and others that sprung out alive and vibrant in the most unexpected places. I became a creative in that church. I met Jesus there over and over again.

But slowly, slowly, our family and our understanding of God grew into a shape that didn’t fit into the greenhouse it was raised in. We prayed and circled and prayed and thought and waited and got frustrated at the waiting, and prayed and yelled and met and prayed.

And then . . . and then it was time to go. So we met again, and prayed some more. It was just time.

For the rest, Please join me in the Mudroom, where there is space to be messy. 

All Schools are Full of Humans

In a former life I was a speech and debate coach. I was working in a school that everyone was trying to get out of, including (some days) me. But like every “bad” school everywhere there were good kids who were looking for good things to do. So I did the best I could to get about 8 kids prepared, got the bussing in order, and showed up at 5 am to get the kids to a school on the other side of town.

None of us knew what we were doing, least of all me. We were walking into the front doors, headed to the cafeteria. One of my students stopped dead and looked around. With his head tipped back and his eyes wide, he inhaled like he had walked into a bakery. “Damn, Ms. Norman, someone must really care about these white kid.”

I didn’t even bother to tell him to hush. He was right. Someone did really care about those white kids, and it showed.

I was reminded of this story last week, when the Humans of New York asked a kid about the person he was most inspired by and he named his principal. She sounded pretty amazing and even I was inspired by her. I was reminded that the school to prison pipeline is a real thing and that me showing up every day to my job matters.

The story took off and pretty soon the people of Humans of New York started a campaign (one that might raise over a million dollars). I am super impressed with this campaign for this one reason. They asked the principal what would best serve the community, and then they followed her lead. I know that there are bad principals out there. Trust me, I have worked for them. But most people who work at high needs schools are remarkably passionate people. Most schools I have encountered are run by principals as passionate as Ms. Lopez, people who are dreaming big and wanting the best for their students. Even if I disagree with the vision, they have one. Teachers are teaching their brains out and still falling short because the resources just aren’t there.

I am glad that the kids of Bridges Academy are getting to go to Harvard. I am glad they have a summer program starting and a college scholarship fund. Those kids desperately need those things. I am grateful that people care enough to give these kids these opportunities.

But, I am also angry.

I am angry that it takes a professional picture and a clever story from a super hip Facebook page to get people to give to a really cool school initiative.

I am angry that the money was raised in 45 minutes, like it isn’t a big deal, like of course we can do that. I am angry that the Principal probably knew exactly what she wanted for years, and she couldn’t get it.

I am angry that the system is set up so that some kids get to go to schools where trips to Harvard aren’t a big deal, and some kids go to schools where the teacher is buying their own pre-k snacks. 

I am angry because every single high-needs teacher and principal I have ever known has amazing ideas like this. They know that their kids come from places that people just get stuck in. They know that the kids need a bigger vision. They almost always have a dream project that they would love to have funded if some dude with a camera came by and made the world care.

And I am angry that the education of the under-privileged has become some pet project, some thing that people chip in for, rather than being something that we do as a society because it is the right thing to do. We are willing to give a certain school a certain dollar amount for a good idea because it makes us feel good. We are willing to be the heroes to a group of kids caught in the school to prison pipeline, but we aren’t willing to systematically fund the programs that would prevent the whole pipeline to begin with.

I am angry that we already know what works. We know that high risk kids needs summer programs and field trips that just get them out of the neighborhood, but most schools don’t get those things because… well, before this week I would have said that there isn’t enough to go around. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Those resources are sometimes there.

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I am very glad that these kids are getting everything their principal says they need. But I am left wondering why in the world it takes a snazzy photo to get us all there. I love Humans of New York. I think they do good work. I am willing to bet that the schools in your neighborhood are full of humans too. Humans who are just as deserving of resources. The humans in your neighborhood school deserve the chance for someone to sit down with their community stakeholders (the principal is a good place to start along with some key teachers) and ask them, What do you need? and then find a way to do that.

I wish that story left me with as much hope as it has left some of you. Instead I am left with the words of my student. Damn, someone really must care about those Humans of New York kids.

Feelings Need Felt and not Fixed

I am feeling my feelings. This may seem like an obvious choice, what else would I do with my feelings? Well, as it turns out I was doing a lot of things with my feelings.

  • Eating them
  • Avoiding them
  • Yelling about things that were not the feelings I was not feeling
  • Making decisions so that I could avoid them
  • Talking about things that were not my feelings
  • Crying about minor inconveniences
  • Watching a lot of episodes of Gilmore Girls in a row

Not all the time. I am, generally speaking, a fully functioning adult. This list is a little embarrassing just laid out like that. (Look at me! Feeling the feelings.) But I noticed that a lot of my energy was going to going around, over, under, when the best option was through. This doesn’t mean I think all my feelings are totally valid or even great. It just means I am letting myself feel them, and then I decide what should be done about them.

It has mostly been working out for me, this business of feeling my feelings. I have a lot more energy to actually do the things I want to do, and I have quit a couple of things because they always make me feel like crap (I’m looking at you, stat checking and Facebook stalking.) I went back to Target with both my girls to snag the last weighted hula-hoop because leaving it behind made me feel like I had really missed out on something good, and I have been using it every day because it makes me feel a little silly, but really free.

But I have been experiencing a snag. A thing I was not expecting but is certainly definitely happening. I am getting better about it, but the easiest way for me to feel my feelings is to talk through my feelings (extrovert problems). And when I talk about my feelings people want to fix them. All this month people have been telling me how to fix it.

  • You thing you need to remember is
  • The way you should think about that is
  • You should definitely
  • You should not have
  • You can’t keep

And on and on. I know they are trying to help. I know they are doing it because they love me. I know I am probably making people a little uncomfortable with my big feelings in response to small talk. (Hey man, you are the one that asked me how I am.) I am learning that feeling my feelings, acknowledging them to myself does not mean I must acknowledge them to other people.

I don’t need anyone to fix my feelings, and most surprisingly (even to myself) I don’t even want them to.

This is shocking to me because I have spent the last few months wanting someone to fix it, wanting to not feel it anymore. I have been praying that God would FIX IT ALREADY. And all through advent and Christmas, God has been reminding me that He is with me. That He sees me. That I am not forgotten. But He hasn’t really fixed anything.

I have quickly learned to treasure the people in my life who hear my feelings and tell me that they are witnessing my pain. I am wondering if the fixers aren’t giving me what I have once communicated I wanted. I am thinking about how to be the hands and feet of Jesus. I am becoming aware at how often I have wanted to fix someone else’s feelings. Sometimes because it made them feel bad, but often because those feelings made me feel bad. I am learning that they don’t need me to fix it. I am learning that I don’t want anyone to fix it.

I am learning to feel my feelings, and I am learning what an extraordinary gift it is, to have a God who is with me while I do that.

Fighting Back with Joy by pictures of puppies

I’m a pack animal. My students were picking what they wanted to be re-incarnated as, Lion! Otter! Something that FLIES! when their heads turned my way. I shrugged, “I guess it is un-cool but I really only want to be what I am. So, if I were re-incarnated into an animal, I would hope it would be as a labrador retriever. I just want a cozy place to sleep, a full tummy, and my people with me. It will be my job to make sure they are safe and happy.”

That is really all I want out of life, to be withmy people and make sure they are safe and happy. And I like being patted on the head occasionally too. I need my people. I need my people, and I need my people to need me.

I think Margaret Feinberg is a bit of a pack animal herself. In her new book, Fight Back with Joy she talks about getting  a cancer diagnoses and asking her friends to remind her to find joy. Her people meet her in a hundred different ways. Text messages, red balloons, an article about the enormity of a cows tongue. They meet her with rides and grocercy store giftcards and notes to say they are praying. She speaks, in the first chapters of the book, about the strength and joy her people brought her.

And I was thinking of the joy that these services probably brought her friends.

November and December were dark around here, and one of my friends noticed. I got a text that when I got home I was to go upstairs. The girls would be fed, bathed and put to bed, and dinner would be delivered to me. They saw how much I needed a break, and I got it. The joy this brought me was remarkable, but so was the smile on my friend’s face when she showed up at my door. It was a joy to her to do this thing for me.

I am awesome in a crisis. I show up, with dinner. I tell you you have to go to bed and I won’t hear another word about it. I take your crying baby so you can pee. I bring you chocolate and wine. I am like Mary Freaking Poppins with the occasional swear.

At least, I used to be. But then I had babies and a full time job, and things are just a little crazier than I want them to be. I often can’t show up with dinner and the news that I will be babysitting tonight, even if I want to, and most of the time I do want to. But I let the, I can’t do everything, move into, so I may as well not do anything. Which is simply dumb. People don’t want a five course meal, they want to know that I am with them, because that is what brings people joy.


Margaret goes on to say that joy is our destiny, it is what God created us for, and we often are able to be joy to each other. I cheat everyone out of joy when I decide not to show up in a smaller capacity if I can’t show up in a big one. So, I am declaring that I am showing up.

By mailing a five dollar starbucks giftcard if I am too far to go get coffee

By texting, tweeting, facebook messaging, emailing people what I really think about them (that they are AWESOME!)

By sending hilarious pictures of my face (you should see the gallery on my phone).

By calling and letting the girls sing them a song.

By dropping a picture of a puppy on their facebook wall.

By calling and having take out delivered (Turns out you don’t have to be in the same city to get a meal covered.)

By sending real mail.

I’m showing up because I am a pack animal, but also because life has been brutal lately, and sometimes the only thing to do is to fight back with joy, and these things bring me joy.

highly reccomend this book after reading the first bit. This isn’t some fluffy rainbows and butterflies joy is so easy stuff. Margaret is giving us the honest and beautiful truth. Check out her video.

I still believe in teaching, a note from the trenches

My friends and I used to talk about how many kids we will have taught when we finally retire, how many of those kids we really had a personal connection with, how many of those kids we perhaps also impacted their families. We used to talk about perfecting our craft, what we did last year, what we want to do better.

Sometimes we would talk about our perfect classrooms. The furniture, the books, the assignments, the schedule. We would laugh and start sentences with “When I am in charge….” knowing that we would never be in charge because in charge meant you don’t get to be in the classroom anymore and who would want to do that? Being a teacher was exhausting, but worth it. We were fed by it. We were good at it.

We still are good at it, the teaching part anyway. We are good at connecting with the kids, and communicating with the parents. We are good at coming up with creative assignments, and getting kids to really think about our subject and the world, about themselves and what they think.

But those are not the things that we are being asked to do. That is no longer what being a teacher is about. Those things that we are good at, that fed us, those are now things we do if we can squeeze it in.

There are emails to respond to and tests to be built, in a certain format in a certain program that we need to use. This year lecture is out of fashion it isn’t “student centered” enough, even if the data they are currently asking for shows the students learn well when I lecture.

So I have to figure out how to deliver information that is in my head, that needs to be in my student’s head into those heads without telling them. Youtube, readings, anything but lecture, even if I have spent the last 6 years perfecting the jokes in my “intro to Shakespeare” slideshow that also has all the information the state includes on the test.

I’m not opposed to oversight. I get why people would want to make sure that teachers are doing a good job. I think education is really important. That is after all, why I became a teacher. I just wish I still liked my job. I wish it made sense, the things that are being mandated. I wish I believed in the system still. I still believe in education. I still believe in teaching. I just wish I still was doing that.

On Crying in Church

We started going to a new church. I think for some people this isn’t really a thing. They do it every few years, or every few months. They don’t start so they don’t ever make it to the new part. There are just churches, one old one new.

We aren’t like that. My parents still go to the church they found when they were just married. They tried out three and ended up at one because they served communion every week and the choir spent the majority of their time sitting with the rest of the parishioners. That was that. I know every inch of that church building. It is as much a home to me as the house my parents have yet to move out of.

I had every intention of having that story. I know that for some it is heresy, but for me, well, I really hope to grow up to be like my mom. I wanted to stay. I was hoping to stay. I planned on it, really.

So here I am, not staying, looking for new, feeling out if perhaps we had found it. I told God when I left that I needed somewhere to land. God does not always agree with me about what my needs are. It seems this time, perhaps we agree. And I am sitting in the historic sanctuary, filled with light and art, but not quite enough heat. Historic, it seems, is synonymous with drafty. And I am crying. Not just a few tears, really crying, silently.

It suddenly occurs to me, as my shoulders shake and I try not to breathe too loudly, that the congregation that has met me warmly does not know that when the Spirit moves, I weep.

Once, while praying in front of my (old? Is it still mine? former?) congregation, after reading the Scripture, something broke inside and I started crying before I could get out the “amen.” I managed it and then walked all the way down the side aisle and out the back door. Someone found me outside and told me it was good. That my broken prayer ministered to them that day in a way that a well thought out sermon never could.

I miss that easy comradery. I miss people knowing that crying is just another way I worship. I guess I miss being known. But this takes time, the knowing, the being known, these things take time. And I am sad for that, so I cry.

I sit in this quiet sanctuary and actively remind myself that it is right and good to feel whatever it is what I need to feel, and cry some more. I wipe away the tears the best I can so that no one else will feel weird when we are passing the peace.

I manage to keep it together until the final hymns and the communion. The breaking of the bread always breaks off some of the hard pieces inside, and I am again undone. This new church has communion every week, so I figure they will get used to this faster. At least I hope so.

I think about how I cry in movie theaters, at plays, in my home, sometimes when I read a particularly beautiful passage out loud to my students. I often cry when I am tired, and almost always when I am watching Parenthood. I think about how I like that about myself, that the feelings come freely and easily if I let them. I think about how I want to be in a church where the crying and the laughing just come when they come.

I figure I am only in charge of myself. So I go to the prayer corner after the service is over and I ask for prayer. I start crying before I even finish my request. By the end of the halted and sometimes awkward prayer (can you blame her? I mean, this new girl is just crying all over), the pray-er has tears in her eyes. She tells me that she too is a tired mom with too much on her plate. She tells me she will remember me this week, and I believe her. And I am crying again, because I am grateful.