Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Better than Average

Yesterday was ridiculous.  I felt like a parent who had company over and my children just didn't know how to behave.  Any time you bring someone new into your "home" you are acutely aware of everything going on around you.  Every temper tantrum, every bad word, every smart aleck remark, every lost battle.  The one time you want them to show off, they act up, and you're left trying to decide whether to shrug or apologize.

How do you explain love?  How do you teach someone to love a group of people the way you do?  "Hey, meet my family.  Ok.  Go love them."

It is surprisingly easier than it may seem.

In Don Miller's Blue Like Jazz he says, when explaining his new found love for jazz music, "Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way."

So that is what I do.  That is my job, my mission, my passion.  To show others how to love, just by doing.  Leading the way, just with my actions.  Which is why if you follow me into that gym, into that cafeteria, into that classroom, the only preparation you're going to get is a role call.  

Because I can't tell you how to love them.  I can just show you how I do.

One boy was running around, or more like running away from a leader.  Two had switched names with each other and there was really no way to tell who was who at any given moment.  One was slurping applesauce from a cup and the fifth grade girls were on a whole other level.  

Another one of my older fourth graders was stepping up in a major way.  I put my new friend with him to work on subtracting fractions.  Usually, this kid is notorious for getting halfway through his homework and complaining about wanting to go to the gym.  He usually storms through a door or slams a stack of books, huffing and puffing.  Yesterday, however, he sat down.  Jaw set.  Bent over a few really hard math problems, and worked diligently until he was done.

It was heavy on my heart to let him know how proud of him I was.  I think I told him at least three times yesterday. But what was even more important to me, was that he heard me telling someone else.  So I sat down next to my friend who had been helping him, and I told her a little bit about F.  About his leadership skills, about what a good athlete he was, about how excellent his attitude had been lately.  How proud we were of him.  I watched the light flicker in his eyes even though he refused to make eye contact with either one of us.  And he only tightened up a little when I gave him a really big hug.  

Cultivating leadership is one of our greatest goals.

One day, Frank will change the world.  Just wait.  

One of my babies, the one who I've consistently had the most progress with, was throwing a temper tantrum over work pages his teacher had assigned.  He has a C in the class.  Because he wasn't turning his work in.  Every assignment he turns in, he gets full credit for.  100's fill up the columns on his sheet.  But each 0 brings his grade down dramatically.  Tears streamed down his face.  He was calling us stupid, his face all tightened up and his body stiff.  He's a small fourth grader, and more often than not all it takes is a big hug or a good tickle to get him back in shape.  But not yesterday.

Yesterday he was fighting all his demons.

Marcus finally came into the room.  He explained to Mary and me what was exactly going on with the homework and patiently stood there as T crossed his arms tight over his chest and hot tears slid down his cheeks.  We were all stupid, the little guy said.  We were all bossy.  We were giving him too much work.  

Finally Marcus looked at him and said, "You have a C, T.  That's average.  T, do you want to be average?"

And I saw it.

I always see it eventually.  

Looking back on your own life, think about those moments, which jolt you awake.  Which demand your attention and cause you to lift your head.  The moment when something clicks, something falls into place, something finally makes sense.  Maybe you're lucky enough to remember.  Maybe you've been lucky enough to see it happen in a child.

Do you want to be average?

I left the room.  Reduce stimulation, reduce distraction.  Promote organization and focus.  Encourage and correct and redirect.  That's our job.  

When the day was over, homework packed up, trash thrown away, most of the lights turned off, I went to find Mary and T.  They were putting his books away in his backpack.  The tears were dried on his face and the light was back in his eyes.  I looked at Mary for confirmation.  

"He did great, Miss Anna," she said.  "He finished everything I told him to and even started on another page.  He's so good at this, and I'm not just saying that."

I smiled and looked to T.  "Is that right, little man?" He nodded rapidly with his jaw set, like he always does.  I squatted down and pressed my forehead up against his.  (Think Boy Meets World.  Sometimes, you have to get really close to get someone's attention.  Sometimes you have to make physical contact to get your point across.) 

"Do know how much I love you?"

He nodded and both our heads moved.

"Do you know that I think you're one of the smartest boys I know?"


"Do you know how proud I am that you finished, even when we had such a bad day?"


"Can I get a hug?"

He threw his arms around my waist and squeezed tight and then reached up and kissed my cheek.  "I love you, Miss Anna."  

I sent him to hug Mary and we walked down to the gym together.

This is my life, friends.  


Today I am wondering if you want to be average?

How badly do you crave excellence?  

What kind of leader do you want to be?

Can you look at me square in the eye, tell me your name, and shake my hand -- proud of yourself and who you're becoming?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


I am supposed to be writing a paper.  I feel like that's all I do anymore.  Almost halfway through the hardest semester of my undergrad education, I am so close.  The only thing keeping me from losing my mind is that now I can say I "graduate this year".  The end is in sight.  And every reflection paper, every 8 am class, every lit review gets me one step closer.

I am one of the lucky ones.  Sometimes I have to remind myself of that, when things get really sticky and complicated.  I am one of them -- the lucky ones.  The lucky ones who knows exactly what she wants to do with her life.  A lucky one who knows exactly why her heart beats.  One of the lucky ones who has found her purpose.

I question it on a daily basis.  What I do is not fun.

Seeing children come to school in clothes that don't fit, with bellies empty, begging for attention.  Watching parents sit by idly.  Or worse, abuse and violate.  Too many selfish adults permeate my daily life.  Reeking of the drugs, which consume their livelihood.  Absorbed with skewed priorities, voices harsh, hands quick.  I see school systems, which lack adequate funding.  I see impatient or under-resourced teachers.  I see teenagers, already being stolen by a lost society.  I see independence in the faces and behaviors of five year olds.  And codependence in the faces of their caretakers.

What I see... on a daily basis... breaks my heart.

But something happens to me.  When I drive into that neighborhood.  When someone asks me about urban poverty.  When the topic of community development is brought to the table.  When discussing foster care and behavior modification.

Something inside of me catches fire.  And if you've ever see me there, you know what I'm talking about. Unless you've seen me with my children, you haven't seen the real me.  Unless you've been there with me, or sat across the table from me as I talk about it, you don't know who I am.

I chose to spend my Valentine's Day with some of them.  Dark, cold night walking up and down the streets of my most beloved neighborhood.  We ran straight into a group of teenagers who were smoking weed.  I was tired of knocking on unfamiliar, unopened doors and all a few of us wanted to do was stand in the street with these kids.  High or not.  That's where I wanted to be.

Chaos draws me.  I am drawn in, consumed by, enchanted with the chaos and noise of the inner city.  Its erratic rhythm matches up with something inside of me.  I am not sure which happens.  I'd like to think that my presence helps bring cadence and tempo to the craziness.  But I laugh, knowing it's their craziness, which brings life to me.

We walked into a house with one of my sweet boys from camp.  Two little boys in pajama pants, shirtless.  Inches taller than I remember.  Little sister playing with a deflated balloon in the living room.  Valentine's Day equalled too much sugar, too much energy.  The chaos pulled at me.

I am in my last year of undergrad.  In practical application classes, preparing for a final practicum.  Learning how to research problems and issues I am passionate about. I am painfully single-minded. A one-track mind, devotedly focused in one direction.  Their faces push me.  All comes back to them.  Whether it's macro practice, advocacy.  Community development.  Micro work.  Clinical work.

I am doing what I am doing because of five little boys who ran down Maxwell Street at midnight, far away from home.  I do this because of the three week old baby I was handed, while pit bulls guarded the marijuana in the next room.  Because of him.  Launching himself off the porch into my arms.

I do this because of words like "celebration".

I stood at work the other day and talked to a woman who had just had her house broken into.  Electrical box taken down, all the copper stolen.  She had come to get yogurt because there was no heat in her house.  She wanted some company, I think.  I had been working alone for four hours.  I needed it too.

She tentatively approached a subject some people would be appalled at.  Some people would, and will, argue to the death.

She told me she wasn't as mad about the break-in, as she was upset that we'd created such a system that this is what people resort to.

We talked about human dignity.  About what really makes people rich.

She had found someone, in me.  She asked about what I do.  And I watched her whole face soften as I told her.  She asked about my life.  About my current situation and circumstances.  Empathy and compassion lit up her whole face.

And I kept thinking, we need more people like you.

Which was what she told me when she finished her yogurt and got ready to leave.  She walked behind the counter, told me her name, and hugged me tight.  Told me she was proud of me.  That the world was lucky to have me.  That my children were lucky to have me.

Funny, I thought.  I was thinking the same thing about you.

What I do brings me face to face with angels and demons on a daily basis.

The war that is waged before my very eyes exhausts me.  The chaos that draws me, is a struggle.  A struggle for power, for authority, for dominance, for foundation.  Something is trying to hold its ground that we are trying to pry loose.  

My life is about the loosening and the binding.

About reading Dr. Seuss and anger management.  About mediation and hugs.  About gaining trust and the powerful confrontation of what has tried to take root.

And every time I come face to face with this life that I've chosen, I know this is the one thing I did right.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


This is the place where I tell my secrets.

I sit in a mezzanine, strangely comfortable here.  Isn't that typical for me.  It takes me so long to get here, to this place where I can sink, settle.  It's almost as if I forget to look.  Forget to test and question, try it on for size.  So I've been sitting in the wide, over-lit, cold cafeteria.  When I could have been here.  The rain drives me to new places.  To new shelter.  I am hiding.  Sweet solitude.

I've been having nightmares.

And I haven't been writing here, because I'm not ready to talk about it yet.

I've been telling you my secrets for years and you may have never known.  But I don't know how to dance around anymore.  How do I build words around the things I don't want to share anymore?  How do I express myself, release the pressure, relieve the tension, without divulging more than I need to.  More than I'm ready to?

I have so much work to do.  But these words are a barrier, built up, and preventing productivity.

There's a new rhythm inside of me.  Rapid.  Praying for its strength.  Praying for its growth.  This rhythm is guiding me and re-shaping me in a way I had not anticipated.  In some ways, it is stronger than my own heartbeat.  More powerful.