Say yes

I found myself whispering, too, even though I wasn’t the one hiding in a closet while a drunken man beat on the door.

“Bridgett, it’s okay. You’ll be okay. You do not have to answer that door. DO NOT answer the door, okay?”

Bridgett cried snotty tears on the other end of the phone.

“But why won’t Tim just wake up? I don’t want to be here! I don’t want to be here!”

At fourteen years-old, I felt helpless to rescue the nine year-old little girl whose alcoholic stepfather had passed out on the couch. His friend knew she was inside the trailer and seemed determined to enter the home. I may not have been old enough to understand everything, but I knew enough to know something was sinister; when a child expresses that level of fear, reality lives in it.

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay

So I just talked to her, sitting in the hallway of my parents’ home, cradling the old white phone—yes, attached to a cord, which was attached to the wall. In the middle of July, my parents were working, and without transportation, I couldn’t physically rescue her. But I could make her feel a little less alone and give her the option of not answering the door that day.

Ten years later, I worked for a TRiO program at a private liberal arts college. My job included helping underprivileged high school students excel academically and prepare for college. I supervised tutors, coordinated records with high school counselors, taught summer courses in writing, literature, and ACT prep material, and much more. I didn’t go to work expecting a student to disclose his homosexuality to me (he’d never disclosed it to anyone else before).

Jon, an attractive young man, sauntered into my office on a hot June afternoon.

“Miss Bethany, I’m pretty sure I’m gay.”

Deep breathing. Lots of deep breathing. A very beloved friend in college had chosen me to disclose similar information during college, and I’d blown it. I mean, I had ROYALLY blown it and had responded terribly, making a joke of the entire situation because I felt uncomfortable. I always wished I could go back in time to respond differently; I just didn’t know any better at age 18. This was clearly God offering me a chance for redemption.

“Oh, Jon, that’s a major thing. Have you told other people? Do your parents know?” The kid was only 16.

“No. No one knows except my… well, sort of my boyfriend.”

More deep breathing. Trying to do the deep breathing without looking like Kristin Wiig on Saturday Night Live.

“Okay. I’m glad you told me. Do you need to talk about it?”

The lock on the floodgates broke wide open. I listened to his story for about 30 minutes. At the end of his story, I referred him to the counseling coordinator. When he left my office, I felt spent and grateful.

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Toga party for Oral Communication, 2015

Fast forward another decade. While teaching college as an adjunct English instructor, I discovered students feel more safe writing out their secret horrors, traumas, and worries than they do talking about them (try encouraging a college student to schedule an appointment with a paid professional counselor or student services worker and check out the non-verbal response). And what do I teach? English composition and oral communication courses.

Since 2013, I’ve been gasping, crying, and praying while grading certain essays—and not just due to poor grammar and mechanics.

In 2014, I taught Esther, a beautiful non-traditional student. She worked odd jobs to support her children and family. After the semester ended, we kept in touch. She stopped by periodically with books for my daughter, cookies or other baked treats, and cards. She couldn’t afford these gifts, yet she gave anyway. Recently, her dream man (boyfriend) became abusive within their relationship.

“Miss Bethany, I just want you to know you were right… I love you, and I want you to know I’m taking care of myself.”

I shared my experience, strength, and hope with her and suggested options for self-care and protection.

“Esther, no matter what you do, I will always be here for you and love you.”

I could fill an entire book with stories like these (with names changed, of course).

I read an article recently about keeping the awe in our lives. I don’t know how to get rid of it because God keeps using me. God never stops tapping on my shoulder and whispering in my ear.

“Right here.”

Every time, I’m blown away. I absolutely can’t breathe for at least a moment because I recognize if I move when He says move, something miraculous happens. What will it be? I don’t know! It’s a mystery. I love it. I just take action—which many times redeems my own past—and God fits me into a gigantic unfinished puzzle.

Let me never say no. Please God, let me say yes. Let me never refuse the opportunity to use whatever You have given me to help someone in need. Let my gratitude for my own redemption fuel me when I feel afraid, hesitant, or greedy.

 

Day 14: Dear students

*It’s Day 14 of the Dear Gratitude project. Today, I’m sharing a letter to my students. There is no way I could ever thank each of them individually for all they’ve added to my life. I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach today, and I look forward to teaching for years to come, hopefully!*

Dear students,

Humoring my students, Halloween 2013

Humoring my students, Halloween 2013

Thank you for teaching me. At Youth Home, you taught me that playing softball and Skip Bo is more therapeutic than sitting around in a circle and rehashing your childhood trauma. At Arkansas Baptist High School, you taught me that sometimes, my initial judgments are dead wrong. I remember thinking that you, the girl in my English class with long, dark hair and glasses who sat quietly in the back of the room, were surely naïve. I later learned that you were struggling with trying to end an illicit relationship. And the boy with red hair and sullen attitude who drew pictures of poop for me—you taught me that bad kids might require more work, but they’re often more fun to teach.

Thank you for making me laugh and helping me relax. When I walked into my classroom and saw one of you hanging out the window chasing after sneakers tossed outside by another boy, I threw my hands up and laughed (before meting out necessary detention duty). When I tried to punish one of you, a troublemaker and rebel with absolutely no cause, by commanding you to pull your desk to the front of the classroom next to mine, you smiled and were genuinely excited about the opportunity to sit next to me and tell me stories. I had to smile back. When I showed up to class the first day this semester, one of you mentioned that I bore a scary resemblance to Velma from Scooby Doo. You proceeded to ask me to incorporate the phrase “Jenkies!” into my lectures. I had much more fun lecturing that day than I would have otherwise.

Thank you for reminding me that I’m not perfect. When I gave you a handout with a typo on it, and then counted off for the same errors in your essays, you called me on it and accepted my apology (along with corrected scores, of course). Thank you for asking me really difficult questions that I could never anticipate. You force me to go home and reread the textbook and to dig through every nook and cranny of every piece of literature before presenting it in the classroom. You keep me humble and remind me that six years of studying English doesn’t give me all the answers.

Thank you for owning up to your mistakes. When you, the vivacious and tender-hearted 16 year-old girl who’d plagiarized her entire paper, admitted to plagiarizing and begged for a second chance, I believed that your generation might not be so misguided after all. When you begin whining about how difficult it’s been to prepare your speech, and then admit that you stayed up all night playing video games, I’m relieved by your honesty.

Thank you for refusing to own up to your mistakes. When you, the boy with the big blue eyes who seemed to be on a mission to make my life miserable that year, stood in front of me and denied using SparkNotes, even though I held an identical copy of your paper (printed out from SparkNotes) in my hands, I felt incredibly disappointed and angered. But I learned, from you and others who made similar choices, that I couldn’t control you, and that was okay. I had to let you learn from your mistakes, whether you admitted them or not. And when I saw you 10 years later, same blue eyes minus the negative attitude, you told me you were sorry for being such a turd. That apology meant more to me than if you’d admitted to cheating way back when.

Thank you for persevering. I have watched you, my sole student from Central America, go to the writing lab over and over and over again to earn points missed due to grammatical errors. This boosts my spirit. You embody the American dream. You remind me that no matter where my students start, they can improve and become better writers than native English speakers who don’t put forth the same effort. Thank you, single moms in my English Composition class, for staying up late to write your essays and for showing up to class even though you have difficulty juggling class with bottles and sniffles. You remind me of my mom and her amazing journey through college as a single mom of four young daughters.

Thank you for hating English. Thank you, boy who never makes eye contact with me and who dons a baseball cap to class every single day, for sighing in disgust when asked if you enjoyed reading the poem “Thanks” by Yusef Komunyakaa. Thank you, boy with curly blonde hair who complains that reading interferes with your fishing time, for reminding me that not everyone in the world enjoys the arts and humanities as much as I do. All of you who hate to read and write push me to find ways to make learning more interesting and engaging.

Thank you for loving to write. When you, the quietest student in class, submitted a personal narrative essay about owning your first car, I was blown away by your innate ability to write well. You incorporated allusions I’d never fathomed. I am grateful for my own professors who saw raw talent in me and encouraged me to keep writing. I am motivated to do the same for you.

Thank you for making me feel younger and for simultaneously reminding me how old I really am. Thanks, APPLE students, for laughing at my dance moves in the van on field trips. Thanks, college students, for complimenting me on my hipster dress and boots combo and, on the same day, for staring at me blankly when I asked all of you if you remember Milli Vanilli or not. Thank you for assuming that I use Snapchat. I’d never heard of it. Thanks for being surprised that I do not own a smart phone. Thank you for referring to me as “an old English teacher.” I view all of you the same way I view my former stepdaughter, Liz. Seeing the gigantic oyster of a world splayed in front of you reminds me that, though I may be 15 years older than you, I’m not too old to have more adventures, to travel the world again, or to try something new.

Thank you for showing me who you are. Thank you, Jewish student whom I have not heard from in over a decade, for explaining your beliefs to me and accepting our differences of opinion so deftly. Thank you, sweet student with bipolar disorder, for opening up to me and letting me be part of the path that healed you. Thank you, gay student who needed guidance, for allowing me to listen to you. You had no idea that you were allowing me to make a living amends to my friend who I’d responded to so horribly years before in a similar situation. Thank you, turtle-loving girl, for visiting me repeatedly and serving as a ray of sunshine during a truly dark time in my life. Thank you, my Andrew who was taken from this world much too soon, for explaining to me why dead white men were your heroes. As a young, troubled black man, I’m still astonished at your ability to put your own pain aside long enough to care for others and to lead your peers. Thank you, nerdy gamer boy, for confiding in me last week about trying to kill yourself in high school. You broke my heart. But when I listened to you explain the importance of communication, and the reasons you now refuse to sit around texting, I felt surprised and proud of you. When you talked about how much joy you feel when you volunteer at church, I understood that you are no longer an empty shell of a person. And please don’t worry about only having two dates thus far—someday, women will appreciate your interest in having real conversations, and your luck will turn around.

Thank you for proving to me that there’s still some good in the world.

Thank you for giving me hope.

Thank you for teaching me more than I could ever teach you.