Each morning, I spend time reading, praying, and meditating. This morning I started reading the book of Joshua in the Bible. I came across a line in verse five that resonated with me.
“I will not fail you or forsake you.”
I underlined that portion of the verse and meditated on it briefly before gathering cookies for Maggie’s classmates, my cup of coffee, car keys, and cell phone. I whisked Maggie out the door and cranked up the heat. It’s that time of year when I feel false hope about autumn coming until about 10 a.m. By noon, I’m sweating and shedding my sweater.
After dropping Maggie off at school, I returned home to a peaceful, quiet house. We live in the woods, and the sunlight strives to shine through the grove of trees on the eastern hill. The verse I selected came back to me as I stood staring at the sun.
“I will not fail you or forsake you.”
God isn’t failing or forsaking the leaves on those trees and has provided them with exactly the right amount of moisture since spring. God doesn’t fail the trees either; the only trees that fall are those ready to die, decaying at the core. I looked at the light reflecting off the dew on our grass and spider webs in the forest. He maintains the smallest bits of creation we overlook.
Of course he is not forsaking me either.
He provides me with just the right clients at the right time. Last week, one of my favorite clients notified me that this year, funding wasn’t available to hire me. My heart sank. A few hours later, a potential client called me and said he was ready to start working together. Maybe that timing was coincidental; I prefer to view it as providential. God always knows what I need when I need it, even if it’s just to confirm that He’s going before me and planning in love.
God is not failing or forsaking me.
I worried off and on for a year about how my daughter would adjust to starting kindergarten. Each time these fears came to mind, I attempted to let go and trust God. Sometimes I felt relief. Other times I wasn’t sure God would come through for me, even though His track record is stellar. But of course He came through. She was placed in a classroom with the most caring, committed, and well-trained teacher I know. She’s thriving. I’ve seen huge leaps in her ability to write and communicate in just three weeks’ time. And almost every day when I pick her up from school, she yells with glee, “This was the best day EVER!”
God is not forsaking or failing my child.
There is no space for fear when I focus on the ways God has come through for me in the past.
There is no room for fear when I focus on how God is providing for me today either.
“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
My spiritual mentor has told me this on numerous occasions. The saying proved true in my journey to finding my spiritual mentor, and it proved true when finding my career mentor, too.
In 2005, I attended the Arkansas Association of Colleges and Employers conference. In addition to meeting other fabulous speakers—people who would be key to my success and landmarks in my career journey—I met Samantha Hartley, Founder and President of Enlightened Marketing. Her story and vision inspired me. A few months later, after relocating to central Arkansas, I decided to go beyond the typical follow-up after a conference (a LinkedIn invitation and message stating how much I enjoyed her presentation) and contact her to invite her to lunch. She said yes.
I held back the first time we met even though I probably wanted to beg for assistance. I didn’t want to scare the poor woman off! I’m sure I still sounded like a wayward child (I was). I truly had no idea what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go in life. In addition, my personal life was in shambles. I could find no peace and stability in my career until I found personal and spiritual peace and stability; Samantha recognized this and even pointed this out at the time. Samantha offered some ideas and suggestions, but our initial meeting was more about getting to know one another, as it should have been.
Over the next few years, we kept in touch and met a few times face to face. Samantha’s guidance was crucial. My career goals ran the gamut. I was good at everything, highly adaptable, a quick study, and stuck at a certain salary range. I kept leaving jobs in hopes of greener grass, and finding similar stubble. I couldn’t figure out my missteps until one morning over pancakes when Samantha encouraged me to create what I call my vision card. I lacked vision—and I kept accepting positions that weren’t aligned with my passion, my values, or my goals. As soon as I fixed the problems that presented themselves, I became bored, and I moved on.
Samantha asked me to create a vision board. However, I’m not really into pictures as much as I am into words, and she said that was okay. So my board because a card, and when I pictured a big display of images, the images were just words. So I wrote down all the words I envisioned.
Something beautiful is happening in my life right now. On this journey of life, I’m finding that each time I look back at my vision card, my current position aligns even more closely with the words written on it.
I don’t believe in coincidences.
I believe this is a direct result of planned and thoughtful decision-making, of saying no to interviews, of listening to my gut, of stepping away from situations that feel wrong or incomplete and stepping closer to situations and people that feel right and that align more closely with my values and goals.
If Samantha were not in my life, and were not willing to thoughtfully consider each question I ask her before responding and provide such excellent mentorship—without asking anything in return, except that I give to others—I might still feel like an aimless soul rather than a purpose-driven woman.
Thank you for breaking me in back when I turned 22. There was nothing Taylor Swift about it. Your dad and I tied the knot three weeks after I graduated from college and three weeks after my birthday, and I frantically searched for employment while serving as your stepmom. I felt like I was playing house sometimes, the way my sisters and I played Barbies as kids. Ken and Barbie smooch and hug and ride in the Barbie convertible, and then they get married, and they have a baby, and then what?
I learned the then what from you. No matter what obstacles your dad and I faced in our marriage, I always enjoyed being your stepmom. I loved taking you grocery shopping when you were five years old and answering your bazillion questions about produce and spaghetti and magazines. I obtained a great repertoire of bumblebee, elephant, and duck songs because of you. I got a big kick out of playing Tooth Fairy and helping you learn how to do backbends and make macaroni and cheese and use the washing machine and dryer. I remember the summer after second grade when I realized you lacked some important skills, and I decided to make it my mission to teach you to become more self-sufficient. You were so open to learning new things. I remember you telling your mom and Meme and Papaw about every new accomplishment over the phone, beaming with pride from ear to ear.
Your willingness to learn never waned. We had The Talk in bits and pieces beginning at age five. I was always candid with you, telling you enough to satisfy your curiosity but not enough to bore you to tears. That strategy seemed to work. I also promised to tell you the truth no matter what, and I never wavered on that promise, and I still haven’t, even though we both know there have been some times when it would have been easier and softer if I’d lied. Because of your willingness to learn, and my willingness to be honest, we’ve made a pretty good team.
Fast forward to 2015. You’re finishing up your sophomore year of college, and I teach students the exact same age as you, my Lizard. Of course, I also teach non-traditional students, too.
Talk about having my life flash before my eyes at work every single day.
I see you in so many of my students. Here are a few examples.
There’s Hannah, a beautiful spirit who is seriously perpetual sunshine to everyone who knows her. She reminds me of how I feel around you from the first minute you pull into my driveway until the minute you drive away.
There’s Nathan, a jokester on the outside with a serious interior he tries to disguise from his classmates most of the time—sound like anyone you know? This guy even donned a tutu once during a demonstration speech to help a fellow student out. I have proof of this beautiful moment :). I only taught him for one semester, but he was certainly one of the most memorable students I’ve ever taught.
There are Charmstrong and Lcreighton, two little cuties I came to know outside of class before they became my students. They are both just adorbs (are you proud of me for using that term, Liz?) and often send me pictures of Edna Mode of The Incredibles, who they believe I emulate, in the middle of my lectures. They have filled a little bit of the Lizard void in my heart and life by walking with me to class and laughing with me and reminding me that I’m not THAT old.
There’s Crystal, who I have known for decades and had the pleasure to teach last fall. She has faced more than her share of obstacles but has chosen to become better, not bitter.
There’s Sheila, a non-traditional student who loves her family more than anything. She is also a total survivor and fighter. She has earned her spot in my heart and has proven herself to be hard-working and diligent even when it would have been easier to drop out of school. These are qualities I see in you, too, Liz.
And then there’s Lauren, who lost her lifelong love this semester. She is now raising their baby alone and is persevering against all odds. She’ll graduate in two days with honors. She will not allow others’ choices and tragedies to dictate the direction of her life.
And this, my Lizard, is what I hope for you, too.
With all that you have taught me about being a teacher, Liz, and with all that my students continually teach me about being a mom, I’m not sure why I’m being paid to teach. The least I can do is pour my very best self into my teaching, and offer my very best self to Maggie every day as her mom.
Happy Mother’s Day, Liz, to you and to all my babies.
This piece was written by my former professor, who I like to consider one of my writing mentors, Dr. Teresa Burns Murphy, as a tribute to her parents. They will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary this month. Happy anniversary to a couple who obviously understand what it takes to love others well.
My parents were both teachers, so there were lessons galore at our house. I’ve written the following two stories to illustrate what I learned from each parent before I even “formally” started school.
From My Father
My sister, Liz, and I were tucked in our warm bed when the pre-dawn stillness of our house was rattled by the sound of a ringing phone. I lay awake, listening to my dad’s voice as he took the call, paying close attention for clues as to the identity of the caller. Then I heard the sounds of my dad’s footsteps coming into the room Liz and I shared.
“Teresa,” my dad said. “I’ve got to drive the bus this morning. Do you want to go with me?”
Did I ever! I sprang out of bed and into my clothes. The caller had been the superintendent of the school where my dad taught, informing him that one of the bus drivers was ill, asking if he could take that driver’s morning route. In those days, there were no requirements for school bus drivers to have a commercial license. They just had to have enough nerve to navigate the twists and turns of rural Arkansas back roads while ferrying a group of school kids. I knew driving the bus was an unwelcome chore for my dad, but I was always thrilled when he got the call because there was a chance that I would get to ride with him.
I followed my dad out to his car, and we took off through the streets of our small town. Lights in the houses along the road that led to the school flickered on as their inhabitants woke up and prepared for the day ahead. The school building where my dad taught was not yet illuminated when we arrived at the space out front where he parked his car. Together, we walked to the area where the buses were kept and then we were off.
I could barely contain my excitement as I slid into the seat behind my dad. To me, this was as good as a carnival ride, particularly the moment we left the familiar streets of our town, and the bus lurched onto the gravel road where most of the kids on the route lived. Sometimes, we stopped for a single kid standing in front of a house tucked far back into the woods. Other times, we collected a whole family of kids, often having to wait a few extra minutes while one of them, struggling into his or her coat, ran across the yard having perhaps overslept or lingered too long at the breakfast table. Always, when my dad gave the silver handle a yank, and the bus doors whooshed open, the kids’ voices registered both surprise and delight to see “Mr. Burns” at the wheel of their bus. As they made their way to their seats, some of the kids even spoke to me, and I basked in the glow of these older kids’ attention.
Those bus rides added texture to my mostly monotonous days. Since I wasn’t yet old enough to attend school, my dad had to drive me back home when the bus ride was over. In retrospect, I’m sure it would have been much easier for him to have tiptoed quietly out of our house, leaving me in my bed, garnering a few moments of peace and quiet before embarking on his task of driving the bus. But he didn’t. He invited me to go along on the journey, and I am all the richer for it – gaining in those few hours a glimpse of my dad’s world beyond the confines of our home.
From My Mother
The year I turned four, my sister, Liz, turned six. That fall, she not only got to go to first grade, she also got to move out of the nursery at church and into a regular Sunday school class. I knew there was no way I could go to school with her. There were laws against that; but, I felt I had a good chance of joining her Sunday school class. After all, this was church where you weren’t supposed to be a respecter of persons. Of course, it didn’t hurt that my mother was going to be teaching Liz’s class.
I was sick of staying in the nursery with a bunch of babies and coloring those Bible story sheets using broken crayons worn down to a dull rounded shape, most of them with their paper wrappers peeled completely off. Some of the crayons were even pocked with teeth marks where either the babies or nervous preschoolers had chewed on them. I just didn’t think I could take another year of coloring with those gross crayons or pushing thread through those silly little sewing cards and being lumped in with a bunch of drooling, bawling babies while Liz joined the big kids in a class where they’d have actual lessons. While my mother was no push-over, I felt it was worth a shot to begin my begging campaign to join her class.
“Pleeeeease,” I pleaded. “Please, let me move up to Liz’s Sunday school class.”
I’m sure my mother finally grew tired of hearing my pitiful appeals because she reluctantly said, “Okay, but only on one condition. You have to do the work that the older kids do.”
Even though I wasn’t at all sure I could meet that demand, the vision of myself spending another year in that nursery propelled me to promise my mother that I would do everything the older kids did.
I was beyond excited that first Sunday morning when I got to walk right past the nursery and into the first grade Sunday school classroom. The other kids eyed me suspiciously, but they didn’t say anything for fear of making a bad impression on my mother. When my mother announced that our first lesson was to learn the books of the Old Testament, my crisp enthusiasm wilted. I was hoping we’d learn some Bible verses, preferably short ones like, “Jesus wept,” or even the books of the New Testament. At least I could actually pronounce those names. I wanted to whine, but I knew a complaint would send me straight back to the nursery, so I kept my mouth shut and focused on the assignment.
All week, I pestered my mother to go over the names of the books of the Old Testament with me. This would have been going the extra mile for any mother, but my mother was completing her B.A. in English at Arkansas (now Lyon) College. So in addition to dealing with regular motherly things – like preparing meals, doing laundry, and refereeing fights between Liz and me, she had tons of homework to do. Still, she listened night after night as I stammered over all those names until I could say them without missing a single one.
I could barely sit still in my chair the next Sunday morning. When my mother asked if anybody could say the books of the Old Testament, I shot my pudgy hand in the air. My mother looked from face to face, but no one else moved except to narrow their eyes at me.
Finally, my mother said, “Okay, Teresa.”
To my amazement, I said them all from Genesis to Malachi, and then I held out my hand. My mother’s pledge to pay fifty cents to the students who could reel off all those Old Testament books just sweetened the deal. She smiled as she plopped the two quarters into my open palm, while the older kids looked on with what I’m sure were unchristian thoughts roiling through their brains.
Who cared what they thought? With my mother’s help, I had learned that tenacity plus hard work could equal success even for an underdog like me.
From Both My Parents
Both of my parents took the time to teach me many other lessons, and they continue to teach me lessons even now. Some of these lessons have been easy to learn. Others, well, let’s just say I’m still working on them. Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from them is the lesson of commitment. Throughout our lives, my parents have remained committed to my brother, Rob, to my sister, Liz, and to me. And, they have remained committed to each other for many, many years. This month, my parents will celebrate their sixtieth wedding anniversary. The symbol for that year is a diamond. This hardest of gemstones was known to the ancient Greeks as adamas, the same word they used for anything that was indestructible or unmovable. My parents’ love for their family and for each other has been both enduring and constant, and that has been the most important lesson of all.
Today’s post is by my friend Amber Hood, who is one of the most generous and compassionate people I know. I’m not sure if her students know how blessed they are to know her!
Most of us know “The Gift of the Magi” by O Henry. It’s about a young couple that doesn’t have very much money at Christmas. The wife sells her hair to buy her husband a chain for his watch, but the husband sells his watch to buy hair combs for his wife. This week, my 7th grade creative writing students and I read this story. One of my sweet kiddos sitting next to me provided a running commentary as I read aloud.
“Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining.”
“Mmm, girl. You get that hair, girl. Work it.” He pretended to play with invisible long wavy hair.
“’I buy hair,’ said Madame Sofronie.”
“What is happening? No! Don’t do it, Della! Don’t do it!”
I read to the end, and he flipped his papers over in disgust. “What do you think?” I said.
“That was a terrible story! Those people are poor! Why would you read that to us?”
I figured he’d appreciate the lesson once he started on the assignment. I wrote on the board, “Are Della and Jim wise gift givers or unwise? Give three reasons. Support your answers with evidence from the text.”
Without exception, all of my students agreed that Della and Jim were wise. The students articulated thoughtful responses about generosity, sacrifice, the true spirit of Christmas, and love. These have always been the themes I think of too when reading the story, and I’ve always felt it was a powerful message.
But the sad story of Della and Jim seemed to really stick with that one little boy, and I found it once again sticking to me too. My kiddo had a point. As much as I love that story, it isn’t very happy, is it? Christmas stories should be happy like getting the bad guys in Home Alone or eating syrup on spaghetti like in Elf. The original Christmas story is the happiest of all with kings bringing gifts and the skies filling up with angels singing and a shining star and a newborn baby who doesn’t even cry. When it comes down to it, Della and Jim don’t actually have a very merry Christmas, do they? I thought that maybe I shouldn’t have read the story. Many of my students are impoverished themselves. They understand Della’s and Jim’s sacrifice. They know what it is to be generous having been on both sides of it. And they are children, so they understand what it means to love sometimes even more than their teacher does.
In looking at the story again, I started to think more about Della’s hair and Jim’s watch, which before had always seemed like arbitrary props to help O. Henry make his way to the plot twist and life lesson combo at the end. Now, though, I realize Della’s hair is synonymous with her feminine charms that at the turn of the century would have been one of the most important things about her, and Jim’s watch is the only wealth he has. Without her hair, O. Henry calls Della “truant;” she’s in “ravages.” She’s damaged. Without his watch, Jim has no status symbols. Where does our pair now belong? On the outset, they seem to have lost their worth according to society. But, my 7th graders insist Jim and Della did the right thing. What could this mean? That it’s okay to not fit into a societal standard? That it’s okay if you don’t seem to have much significance to what society deems significant? In fact, not only is it okay to be lost or losing, it might even be wise. This damage isn’t something that makes us merely tolerable– it’s how God intended. It’s our pain and our imperfections and our lack of gold pocket watches and even our baldness that make us precisely who we are supposed to be.
*Day 26 in the Dear Gratitude project is by yours truly again–only four more days of this project left!*
You have shaped who I am, and you’ve shaped what I do.
Thank you, Beverly Cleary, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ann M. Martin, E.B. White, Francine Pascal, and the rest of you who wrote the children’s literature I still love. I carried your creations with me everywhere. I crawled under my bed, books in hand, with a flashlight night after night. I fell asleep there, midway through a fascinating story that transported me to Wilbur’s pen or to Sweet Valley High or to the woods of Minnesota.
Because of you, I started writing my own stories, complete with intricate concrete descriptions of characters and settings. I stole phrases from you and learned to incorporate figures of speech and theme and symbols into my stories. My mom thought I was a genius; I’m sure my stories weren’t much better than any other fifth grader’s. But her encouragement led me to write more, and as my former creative writing professor, Andrea Hollander, wrote on my poems countless times: “Keep writing!”
So I did.
I kept reading, too, because I discovered more of you as I grew older, and reading your words helped me write my own. I developed my own taste for literature, and I pooh-poohed the notion that I ought to read classics for the sake of reading classics. I probably annoyed my college professors at the small, private, liberal arts school I attended, who touted the likes of Faulkner and Shakespeare incessantly. I had no real use for those guys. I knew what I liked, and I did my best to avoid wasting time reading things I didn’t like. I tried reading awful books like Wuthering Heights on multiple occasions–my mom always taught me to try something more than once before deciding to cross it off my list. Those same professors introduced me to some of you who are now my favorites–Cormac McCarthy, Sherwood Anderson, Chaucer, Nye, Kinnell, Wordsworth, and Steinbeck.
I stopped spending time with all of you after graduation. I was sick of you, honestly. I needed a break.
I took one for several years. Then you, Tolkien, reminded me how wonderful it felt to curl up in a warm blanket on a cold night, mug of steaming cocoa in hand, and turn the musty pages of an old book to the tune of my cat’s contented purr. I was hooked again. I started reading all the books I’d bought in college but had only half-read due to time constraints. To my surprise, I liked some of them. I formed relationships with more of you–Welty and Joyce, to name a few. I dug into non-fiction, too, and my perceptions of the world were altered by you: John Eldredge, Wendell Berry, and Dan Allender.
Thanks to all of you–writers who moved me–I decided to go back to school to pursue my Master’s in English Language and Literature. And now I’m teaching students how to write, how to use words as tools, how to shape the world with language.
Thank you, writers. Thank you for teaching me, inspiring me, transporting me, entertaining me, and changing me.
I hope my words do the same for someone else someday.
*It’s hard to believe Day 22 of the Dear Gratitude project has arrived! Only eight more days of letters from eight more wonderful guest writers. Today’s post is by LaDonna Busby, a friend and fellow church member.*
This thank you is long overdue, and it is going to someone long dead. Why do we wait to express our gratitude to those who cross our paths in this life? We need to remember to say thank you, even if we have to send letters read by someone other than the intended person. So here goes:
Dear Mrs. McGrath,
I wonder if you ever knew what a wonderful gift you gave me – something that I have cherished my whole life long. You introduced me to READING! For that great gift, I want to say thank you, and I am sorry it has taken me over 50 years to express this gratitude.
Oh, the people and places you enabled me to meet and visit. I still remember you patiently helping us to learn “Look Jane, look. See Spot run. Oh, look Jane, see Spot.”
Thus began my adventures with some sweet characters, some not so sweet. Many are like dear friends when I think of them. Amy, Beth, Meg and Jo from Little Women – each one a different personality woven into a story that young girls can enjoy even today. I still have a treasured copy of that book. There were so many others – The Bobbsey Twins (Bert and Nan, Flossie and Freddie); Laura Ingalls; Hester Prynne from “The Scarlet Letter”, Jane Eyre; David Copperfield; Romeo and Juliet; Tom Sawyer, and the list could go on and on.
Not only did I get to know some wonderful characters, but I also got to travel without even leaving my cozy chair. Through reading I have traveled the world over, learning many interesting things, seeing so many beautiful places – even if only in my mind and imagination. Of course not all places are wonderful, but I traveled where the books took me. Nowadays, a lot of my reading is about places of trouble and sadness. Places of war, poverty and cruelty – but I read on filled with hope that some time I will read that things have improved for some country or its people.
Your gift has blessed my life in so many ways. Reading is so important to me. I have been able to read the letters sent by my brother when he was in Vietnam. There have been cards – birthday, anniversary, get well, thank yous, invitations, and notes of sympathy. Just think what I would have missed if I had not been able to read.
I am able to read the Bible. Through my reading of scripture, I have become stronger in my faith. My faith is so important to me, and I cannot imagine being unable to read the Word of God. The Bible is filled with stories, characters and places. You can read it over and over, each time getting something new and powerful from the reading.
I passed on this gift to my daughter, Susan, who loves to read. I don’t quite like her choice of books – she loves the author Stephen King – but I am happy to see her read. Now we are passing this love along to her sons. The oldest had quite a struggle learning to read – but thanks to a compassionate and caring teacher, like you, he conquered that mountain and now loves to read. So, you see your gift to me just keeps going and going.
I wish I had gone back to Mitchell Elementary and thanked you. When we are young, we don’t think to do things like that; it is only as we begin to mature that we realize what has been given to us. Thank you, Mrs. McGrath, for being my 1st Grade teacher. You were a kind and gentle woman who helped many children to begin a journey that will last their whole lives. Please know, there is at least this one student who will forever be grateful.