Thank You

I had my first panic attack when I was 8 years old in the middle of a swim meet. I remember exacatly how it felt; as if I was still underwater eventhough I had turned my face to breathe. My hands were shaking, my body aching, my chest tight. I mistakenly labeled it an asthma attack because I didn’t have the words to express that my out of control feelings had manifested into a full on anxiety attack. 

It wasn’t until recently, as a young adult, that I have been able to look back and recognize the extent of my anxiety over the years. Moments of intense fear and doubt and stress that I now have the vocabulary to call anxiety. I know that I am not unique in this nor am I naive enough to believe that my struggle with anxiety is as crippling as it is for some. But I am self aware enough to realize that my anxiety is more than just the poor stress management of a type A personality. 

The past 6 months or so have been the hardest of my life. I am exhausted in every area; physically, emotionally, spiritually, socially. And in that exhaustion, my anxiety thrives. It’s this weight on my chest, a shake in my hands, a catch in my voice. It is blinding and frustrating and isolating. All I want to do is lie face down on the floor and let my anxiety envelop me, squeezing with it’s powerful grip, dictating my worth (or lack there of). 

But, in this dark, dark season of my life, the most amazing thing has happened; people have been lying with me. Through text messages and Snapchats and FaceTimes. Through meals shared and art appreciated and concerts. Through hugs and prayers and  words of encouragement. Through conversations about God and football and teaching. Through generous, genuine acts of love, I have not been on the floor alone. My anxiety often tells me just that…that I am alone in these hard times. But I have seen in such a beautiful way that I am not. 

I am fine. I really, truly am. And I don’t share these honest thoughts to gain sympathy or as a cry for attention. I share because even in this difficult time, the silver lining is so great, the love I’ve been shown is so deep, that I can’t help but be grateful. Thank you thank you thank you for not letting me lie on the floor alone. 

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Chemistry and Accounting and Pigs

My first career goal was pig farmer. I remember showing up to career day during elementary school in overalls, hair up in curly blonde pig tails, toting my expansive pigs-only stuffed animal collection. Bless my poor mother’s soul; I’m sure she received a few strange looks from the other mama’s whose children were dressed much more sensibly as nurses and firefighters. Curiously, I had no interest in raising pork (I frankly had no real concept of people eating pigs), I just wanted to live like a barefoot hippie on a farm surrounded with pigs as my profession.

Soon, though, I realized that pig farming the way I wanted to do it didn’t really exist, so I set my sights on the next logical career: architecture. I consumed Frank Lloyd Wright books as a fourth grader and spent hours filling notebooks with floor plans for houses and stores and, because God loves a little bit of foreshadowing, schools. I jumped to pediatric pulmonologist when I realized how much math was involved in architecture and then I floundered during my early high school years when I discovered that anything remotely medical makes me vomit.

Teaching was an accident. I never had a magical “this is why I’m going to be a teacher” moment, no sudden epiphany or life-changing conversation with a mentor or touching experience with a child. I just felt this slow, steady tug towards teaching. I fought it HARD. I wanted more, I wanted different; teaching was too boring for someone like me (I laugh now at the ignorance of High School Sarah because teaching is the most exciting job there is). And besides, I had no teachers in my family tree. My college major orientation class made it apparent that ALL teachers go into teaching because their moms and grandmas and great-grandmas were all teachers. It’s a legacy thing, and teaching just isn’t really in my DNA.

Except it is.

As luck would have it, I come from a line of accidental educators.

My grandfather, Pawpaw, was a farm boy from Iowa. He served in the 101st Airborne Division and the 77th Special Forces in the late 1950’s, loved motorcycles, and working on cars. But he had an itch for something more. My mom tells me that education always mattered to him; he felt the weight of it and worked hard to pass that importance on to his children. Pawpaw practiced what he preached and, after years of working as a chemist in various industries, he got his master’s in science education to become a chemistry professor. He was rough and hands-on and sharp as a tack. He lit the spark.

My mom never thought she’d be a teacher, and I’m sure if you asked her today, she would be quick to assert that she isn’t one even now. But, let me assure you, she is. After high school, she set her mind on completing two degrees (accounting and computer science) in three and half years. The chaos of life swirled and, about a decade ago, she landed at a high school working as the treasurer. But on a boarding school campus, one must wear a multitude of hats, and that’s where the educator fire started to burn. Over her years at GCA, she’s taught classes, led youth leadership groups, and chaperoned trips all over the country. She’s tough; ask any one of the students she has mentored. But her students will also tell you she has the biggest heart, the biggest passion to educate as many kids as possible.

And then there’s me. I didn’t have to make a big career change to find my soul’s purpose. But teaching still feels very much like the happy accident it was for my grandfather and my mother. I’ve always felt offbeat, a little too much and still not enough, just different. And somehow, teaching affirms all of those uncertainties. The spark in my grandfather, the fire in my mother, has turned into a full-on inferno in me. And, as that passion for education burns within me, I can finally see it now. My DNA is indeed wired to teach; hands made to scribble on the board, voice made to shake with excitement, arms made to comfort playground tumbles, feet made to pace the classroom. Like my mother and grandfather before me, God created my heart to beat for the quest for more. Giving in to that calling was the best decision I have ever made.

And I can always retire on a pig farm.

On Monsters

Most kids believe in monsters at one time or another. There’s a thousand different iterations of the Boogey Man across the globe and without a doubt, we’ve all been a little spooked by the idea of him. Maybe an older cousin told a creepy story or a late-night movie lodged an image or a book from the top shelf gave us an idea; make-believe monsters seem to make their way into our lives.

But there are some children who do not have the luxury of make-believe. There are some children who know monsters to be very real.

Six of my fifteen students are Burmese refugees. They are Karen, an ethic minority group that has been at war with the Burmese/Myanmar government since 1949. This conflict is one of the world’s longest running civil wars, and it’s one that you’ve probably never heard of. Karen people have a beautiful, complicated, vast history that I’m slowly learning. But theirs is a history marred with war.

Two of my babies sat down with me today and delineated some of the horrors of the conflict. Through big, bubbly smiles they told me about things no ten year old should have any concept of. They talked about the torture that children would endure if they were taken by the Burmese. They recounted stories of uncles loosing limbs, of fathers being captured, of grandparents they never knew because of landmines. In childlike language, they spoke of concern for little girls at the mercy of Burmese soldiers.

They talked about monsters.

“Miss Theus,” one of the boys asked, “my dad can still go to Heaven, right? He’s killed people, but only bad guys.” And then, beaming with pride, “My dad is a general in the army (the Karen National Liberation Army). He’s very important in my country.” My heart burst. Of course he can go to Heaven. Of course you’re proud of him. Of course you want to be like him. Oh no, please don’t think about going back. Oh no, please don’t join the army too. Oh no, please don’t try to avenge your uncle’s death. Oh no, please don’t go hunting monsters.

They told me about their Boogey Man, a creature something like our American Big Foot. This ominous being leaves huge footprints in its wake and will eat you if he catches you.

“When you have to go to the bathroom at night, you have to take a spear with you,” one of my boys told me.

“Yeah,” a girl chimed in, “And you have to run. There’s no lights and it’s very dark.”

Running from a boogey man is a whole lot easier than running from a guerilla solider.

Blessedly, my babies came to America when they were all about five years old. And God has worked through some amazing people here to keep them in school. Their lives are okay now; significantly fewer monsters. But the monsters still haunt them, I know.

Sitting there listening to my students talk about the violence of their homeland, the terror of their past, I couldn’t help but think of the uncertainty of their futures. The odds are against them. Success will be hard-fought, and the battle starts now, in my fourth grade classroom. I love them I love them I love them and I want to fight all of their monsters, to fix all of their problems, to right all of the wrongs done against them in their short lives.

One of the boys said it so simply: “I just want peace for my people. I want them to have freedom and a place to live.” When Jesus comes, my child, when Jesus comes. No more monsters then.

 

On #goals

I used to really hate the Proverbs 31 Woman. I mean, the whole passage starts off with “A wife of noble character who can find?” Some guy complaining about how he can’t find a good girl; instantly I’m turning the page. And don’t even get me started with all the “She makes linen garments” and “She brings her husband good” stuff. This Proverbs 31 chick always seemed so demure and passive and put together in ways that I could never be. She is perfect and I am a hurricane.

But recently, God has been working on this stubborn, sassy heart of mine and I’ve begun to see her in a different light. I used to get really caught up on the fact that she is only appreciated in the context of her husband. I am a Strong Independent Woman; how am I supposed to relate to this woman? But I think all of that husband stuff is secondary to who she is.

She is hardworking and determined. She is a provider. She has a generous heart. She is talented. She is strong and dignified. And then there’s the part that I’m pretty sure God put in there just for me: She laughs without fear of the future.

There’s this popular hashtag on social media, #goals, that people like to use to indicate that something is an inspiration to them. #couplegoals or #fitnessgoals or #teachergoals; the list goes on. It’s a compliment, an indication of admiration.

The Proverbs 31 Woman is real #goals. It’s so wonderfully cliché of me to even say, but oh my goodness, I mean it. I no longer see her as a conservative’s attempt to tone me down but rather as an inspiration to work towards. Who better to aspire to be than this amazing, God-fearing woman? The way I read it, she’s intense and passionate and driven and I’d bet you money that she was a hurricane just like me. 

 

On Finding Home

Out on the playground of my elementary school, there’s this big old tree that’s really a whole bunch of trees all smooshed up and growing together. The roots of the tree are tangled around each other, stretching out towards all corners of the grassy yard, like hands reaching for something more. I love that tree. I spent many a recess hiding between its multitude of trunks or balancing on the roots or sitting at its feet. That tree is beautiful, so rooted and firm in its existence.

Your twenties are a weird time. Everything you once knew to be true is somehow not quite right anymore. The axis of your life is just a bit too tilted all of a sudden. There’s so much uncertainty and questioning and rootlessness.

People like to say that young people are selfish. We are on some Grand Quest to Find Ourselves, they claim, concerned mainly with following the whims of our wanderlust and doing weird things to our hair and living in tiny houses.

But I don’t think that’s it. I don’t think we’re being selfish at all.

I think we’re all just looking for home again. We are trying to combat that rootlessness, that untethered feeling we’re all fighting. We left home, and worked so hard to do so, but now we’re a little lost. We’re looking for comfort and familiarity and love. We’re looking for home.

Through the affected haze of grandeur that my generation loves to hide under, we recognize one harsh reality: we can’t go back home. The home we once knew has changed too much, or we’ve changed too much, or we’ve both changed and not in the same way. We have so much fondness for our childhood homes, for our roots, but now at twenty two, we have to try to find home on our own.

And so we travel and dream and pray to God to make some sort of real connection in this over-connected world. We’re not on a quest to find ourselves; we’re on a journey to find a place to land.

I’ll be honest with you; it’s a pretty daunting journey. It’s hard to navigate the new and different and stressful to pick out the pieces that bring you closer to home. It’s a patchwork quilt of experiences and passions and missteps sewn together with hard, hard work.

For me, it’s gold glitter tape and homemade stickers. It’s driving (finally, finally driving) all alone and singing fearlessly. Or when my heart stops for just a second at the thought of holding a child’s hand through their final breath. Or those people who look at me and really see me and say “Where have you been my whole life?” Or discovering the music my dad listened to as a kid. That’s my home. I have found comfort in my quirks, familiarity in using my gifts, and love in unexpected friendships.

Every time I go back to my mom’s, I drive past that tree. It’s smaller now than in my memories, and looking barer each year, but it’s still there, roots tangled deep into the earth. More than anything, I want to turn my patchwork quilt into that tree. I want to be rooted, confident in who God created me to be.

Your twenties are a weird time and I think that’s how it’s supposed to be. Because when we finally do find it, home, oh how sweet it will be.

Dear Jack

IMG_7027Today you are 8 years old. It simultaneously feels like an eternity and no time at all since you were born. I still vividly remember standing at home in my kitchen and getting the call from our dad that you were almost here.

I was baking cookies. And I was terrified. I didn’t know how to be a big sister. I didn’t know if I could open my heart up to a little brother. I didn’t know if I could handle the changes you would bring to our family.

Oh how silly I had been. You have filled a spot in my heart I didn’t realize was missing. You are the most magical combination of all the things I love; of Daddy, of your mama, of Rebecca, of Molly. I see so much of myself in you, too, but thankfully only the good bits.

I hate more than anything that I haven’t spent every day of the past 8 years with you. Life is weird and families are complicated, but somehow you’ve always known that and you’ve always understood. Thank you for that.

It has been, and will continue to be, the greatest privilege to grow up with you. I am at my weirdest when I’m with you, and I mean that in the best way possible. Never change.

Love,

Sarah