Characters Who Read

When I was young, I LOVED Sara Crewe.

She’s the protagonist in A Little Princess.

Mostly, what I loved about her was that she was different from her peers, kind, and imaginative.

Sara Crewe, was a character who shaped my character.

Then, there was Dorothy Jane on a little-known TV show called The Torkelsons.

And Anne with an ‘e’.

All young girls who are different, kind, and imaginative…

I’ve finally read The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and it occurred to me that my different, kind, and imaginative characters are changing. They aren’t what they used to be… Charlie is different, kind, and imaginative, but in a messier way than my fictional role models were. Sara, Dorothy Jane, and Anne all faced moral dilemmas, and chose to be “good kids.” Charlie’s drug abuse and physical violence against a bully were almost non-events… insignificant in a story of depression and moral depravity.

And yet, he’s the role-model our different, kind, and imaginative kids turn to. He epitomizes what it means to be outside of the “teenage wasteland” because he is self-aware, thoughtful, intelligent… and I wonder if our attempts to see the world more completely, with depth and empathy, have caused us to over-complicate morality. Charlie is a “good person” who does naughty things. He even does them sometimes with a “good heart,” which pisses me off. Although morality is certainly complex, I’m disappointed that my students are offered such an anti-hero role model.

Where is the Sara Crewe, who, starving and exhausted, offered her last piece of bread to a stranger who needed it?

While I understand that the world has changed, and current YA literature reflects the times, I also wish we had a few true heroes, who struggle, but ultimately stand up for what is right – who would struggle with decisions that Charlie hardly even notices, because he’s too busy getting high and kicking ass.

I want more than The Perks of Being a Wallflower for the kids, with whom I spend most of my life. I want better than Charlie. :-(

The Call of the Void

I was speaking with a student last week, and she told me something cool that I thought I should share with you all:

L’appel du vide

This is French and refers to the psychological thing where perfectly sane folks stand on the edge of something tall and have secret thoughts about jumping. These are non-suicidal, not anxious people, and yet, they experience a distinct “L’appel du vide” or “Call of the Void.”

While this is a perfectly normal thing that people experience, I’ve come to the conclusion that I experience it more than most you… Ever since I went on that cruise a few years ago, and stood on the back of the boat, thinking about how no one would even know for hours that I was bobbing up and down miles behind in the ocean (and, okay, probably dead, but I promise that’s not even a tiny part of the call I felt).

“L’appel du vide” doesn’t just have to apply to the desire to literally jump, but I think it can also describe a figurative desire to jump into the void… which I feel almost every day.

The void of tattoos…

The void of men who ride motorcycles and/or play guitar…

The void of saying what I really think when it would be entirely inappropriate to do so…

The void of whatever…

And I think I combat it the way everyone does; I get as close to the edge as I safely can, and then, if that’s not satisfying enough, I dye my hair or leave the country for a bit.

I was also thinking of this as I read all of the stuff I have to read for Bible study/Surge nowadays. (Allow me to brag for a moment –> I’m all caught up despite starting two weeks late). This week’s reading was about sin, and my thoughts on the void got all stirred in with the theology of sin, and I started to think about the call of sin and how the angsty, unrestfull, urge toward the void feels an awful lot like the urge towards sin.

“L’apel du vide”…

I think I need another tattoo. :-)

Being a Barbarian

Jenn didn’t have a coach or a training program; she didn’t even own a watch. She just rolled out of bed every morning, downed a veggie burger, and ran as far and as fast as she felt like, which usually turned out to be about twenty miles…

‘I’ve never really discussed this with anyone because it sounds pretentious, but I started running ultras to become a better person… I thought if you could run one hundred miles, you’d be in this Zen state. You’d be a fucking Buddha, bringing peace and a smile to the world. It didn’t work in my case – I’m the same old punk-ass as before – but there’s always that hope that it will turn you into the person you want to be, a better, more peaceful person.’

‘When I’m out on a long run… the only thing in life that matters is finishing the run. For once, my brain isn’t going blehblehbleh all the time. Everything quiets down, and the only thing going on is pure flow. It’s just me and the movement and the motion. That’s what I love – just being a barbarian, running through the woods.'”

Weekly McDougall Born to Run 148-149

With all my heart, no… but yes?

Do you remember that part at the beginning of Gladiator where Marcus Aurelius tries to get Maximus to take over the empire after his death? That moment has been with me ever since I first saw the movie as a teenager. It’s beautiful because Maximus responds to an offer of great power and glory by saying, “With all my heart, no.”

I always thought that was a lovely statement about what a heart should be.

Of course, a heart shouldn’t be power or glory-seeking, but I also look at that scene with fresh eyes as an adult, because our General Maximus was far more self-seeking than he seemed to be at first glance… it seemed like he was this dude with a great heart, who was turning away from selfish gain, but I’ve begun to think that he was actually incredibly selfish because he intended to go home and let the empire fall into the hands of a terrible coward and despot.

A long time ago, I wasn’t asked to join Surge Tables, which is this training thing that churches use sometimes to prepare leaders of Bible studies. Part of the reason I wasn’t asked to join was because of my singleness. Part of the reason was probably lack of resources. And, finally, part of the reason was that I wanted to join and said so. Me wanting to join looked to others like I was grasping for position and power. However, in reality, I was really afraid of not filling my week with community, study, and the church because I know what a brain does when it’s not occupied with Jesus. I spent a fair amount of time after the not being asked to join, making sure I hadn’t been grasping for power and that it was all just a misunderstanding, which, while I certainly feel judged and misunderstood for it, it was.

When I think about Surge now, I get wonky in my brain because I sometimes really don’t want to give lead anything in the church ever again. I learned from experience how difficult ministry really can be, and I’m not sure I’d wish that on even the best-equipped and most committed Christians I know. It’s a blessing, under which good men often crumble (as evidenced recently in Mark Driscoll).

Since Surge was the only small group/bible study available at that church at that time, I was disappointed in being excluded because there wasn’t anything else in which I could participate instead. So, I was jolted out of living my life completely in the church, every night of the week, hosting events at my house more than once a week, going to two Bible studies a week, praying with people, getting coffee with them, discipling them, etc… I went from that to realizing that the church didn’t want to train me, saw my voice as obnoxious, would have preferred I focus on finding a man rather than on God, etc… I did a lot of work establishing a solitary relationship with God, enduring without the church, and I discovered that I did okay.

I still wish she’d been  inclusive, though. Because her tendency to exclude those who are too liberal, too single, too wicked, too different, too alternative, too whatever, often makes her “an enemy to conversion, rather than its friend” (Matt Chandler – “A Shepherd and His Unregenerate Sheep”).

Then, I got an email from my pastor encouraging me to participate in Surge. Different church. Different circumstances. Same leadership training program.

It’s been four (ish) years now, since I was painfully disconnected from the church, and although I believe the church can and should be so woven into my life that it hurts when I’m amputated from it… I’m also intimately familiar with the slow and torturous recovery process that comes after being involuntarily removed from a body to which I thought I belonged.

So I know the right answer is yes – of course I want to be a part of Surge. Of course I want to be grafted back in. Of course I want God to use me completely and uninhibitedly.

But I find my heart wanting answer something more along the lines of, “With all my heart, no.” With all my heart – I’d rather stay at home, far-removed from the front lines, comfortably maintaining the relationships that claimed me even when the church judged me unsuitable.

Is there anything in this world that’s harder than trusting the church? Being intentionally vulnerable with her, for her, and in spite of her?

My life recently has looked an awful lot like it did before that whole mess. I’ve been writing and reading the way I did before, believing I might get my book published, for real. I’ve been drinking coffee. I’ve been running and even fitting into my clothes from back when I was five years younger and the smallest of my life. I’ve been taking notes at church – not just on sticky notes that I throw away because they’re meaningless when I go back to them after a week or so… but rather, in the margins of my old NASB, in ink. I’ve been energetic and looking forward to each new day. Work has been a means to an end, rather than most of what I do and who I am. I’m not quite to the point where I can listen as well as I once did, caring more for others than for myself, but I’m getting there. I’m still, “God, please just hit me with a car,” every-once-in-awhile, but not nearly so often or despairingly as I had been.

And I’ve been praying that God would provide some things for me… things like new accountability, new people and their opinions – to challenge my beliefs, etc… things that all seem to be inherently embedded in Surge.

So, how could I say no? How could I even reluctantly say yes? Where’s my Christian Hedonism?

After our first meeting, I walked away un-intimidated by the volume of reading and study required of me, the time I’ll have to commit, or the long, weekly drive I’ll be making in a car that really has no reason to continue running… I find that the most difficult part of this whole thing is the prospect of letting others know me –> making my prayer requests personal, avoiding vagueness in my weekly goals, and saying what I actually think. There are folks to whom I entrust myself because they are closer than family and my friendships with them have withstood the tests of time and trial. These folks, I’ve got to entrust myself to without any assurances. With all my heart, no! No! NO NO NO!

… but yes.

The Power of a Pacer

I admit, I cried through like 25% of Born to Run (I’m a sap). The parts that got to me were always the ones where one person did something difficult to help another person finish the race.

… Jenn wobbled into the aid station. She stood in front of the food table, stupid with fatigue, too tired to eat and too fuzzy-headed to decide what to do instead. All she knew was if she sat down, she wouldn’t get back up.

‘Let’s go, Mook!’ someone shouted.

Billy had just arrived and was pulling off his jacket. Underneath, he had on surf shorts and a rock band T-shirt with the sleeves torn off. Some marathoners are thrilled when a friend paces them through the last two or three miles; Billy was jumping in for the full marathon. Jenn felt her spirits rising. The Bonehead. What a guy.

‘You want some more pizza?’ Billy asked.

‘Ugh. No way.’

‘All right. Ready?’

‘Right on.’

The two of them set off down the trail. Jenn ran silently, still feeling awful and debating whether to return to the aid station and quit. Billy coaxed her along just by being there. Jenn struggled through one mile, then another, and something strange began to happen: her despair was replace by elation, by the feeling that damn, how cool it was to be wandering this amazing wilderness under a burning sunset, feeling free and naked and fast, the forest breeze cooling their sweating skin.

By 10:30 that night, Jenn and Billy had passed every other runner in the woods except one. Jenn didn’t just finish; she was the second runner overall and the fastest woman to ever run the course, breaking the old record by three hours…”

Your weekly McDougall Born to Run (147).

The Absurdity of my Job

Allow me to describe what my job is:

In August every year, 30 or so 14-yr-olds (Times 5) are randomly assigned to spend an hour a day with me for about 36 weeks of the year. A few of them intend to be hostile towards me regardless of what I do. A few of them are heavily medicated because they are pretty much incapable of sitting still (even though that’s most of what’s required of them). A few of them are illegally, but voluntarily heavily-medicated on whatever is available to them via older siblings, friends, parents, etc… Many of them didn’t learn the things they were required to learn in their previous years. Some have never read a book. Few of them have had note-worthy face-to-face interactions with their parents, or any adults. Few of them have any sense of social convention or morality. They have histories with one-another that include injury and drama. Some of them don’t speak English. Some have documented disabilities that keep them from performing at the level of their IQs. Many of them are attired for a day at the beach, because, for some inexplicable reason, children cannot be deprived of spirit week after spirit week after spirit week. Heaven forbid we refuse to entertain them while they’re in our care. One of them is probably personally impacted by devastating illness, themselves facing regular treatments for Cancer, or possibly just observing a parent undergoing chemo.

Sadly, that’s a very normal classroom. And I accept that my job is to take 30 or so kids I’ve never met (times 5), who are in the midst of hormonal, technological, and societal confusion, make them respect me (if not admire and even like me personally), respect each other, and tolerate (if not love) reading, infuse some magic into their lives, and overcome the hundreds of unforeseeable and daunting obstacles placed in my way throughout the year, not the least of which will likely be at least a few of their parents.

A week or two ago, though, my job was just a little too absurd even for me.

It was a Thursday.

On Thursdays, my freshman classes participate in the time-honored tradition of SSR. They bring books of their own choosing and read them quietly. It’s my favorite day of the week, because, if I’ve kept up with grading all week, I get to spend three hours of paid work time reading, only occasionally interrupted by, “May I go to the restroom?” to which my answer is, “Yes, you may use the pass that I printed for you, explained how to use, and even wrote your name on so that you would never have to ask me to go the restroom.” Because, let’s face it, I shouldn’t be subjected to knowledge of every instance when a student needs to poop.

SSR is usually pretty glorious once I’ve got them trained to be quietly and look at their books (even if they refuse to read).

However, in one of my classes on one particular Thursday, I got my kiddos quiet and reading, propped my feet on my desk (yep, I’m that kind of teacher), and opened my Dickens. One of the students near me was breathing a little bit too hard, and making whimpering-like noises, but she’s our Special Ed. student who probably shouldn’t be mainstreamed, but is, so I ignored it, hoping the Marquis would face vengeance for running poor folks over with his carriage.

“Excuse me, Ms. James?”


Two very pretty and normally quiet girls have approached my desk.

“Can we talk to you outside for a second?”

Fully aware of the absurdity of my job, I rarely leave the room during class time because things can go wrong real quick. While I’m just on the other side of the door, things almost never go wrong, thank God, but it’s entirely possible that one kid could punch another, someone could throw a condom across the room, or other unforeseeable shenanigans could ensue. Still, students don’t often ask for private conversations with me unless there’s a dire need for it. Also, these two girls aren’t the types to ask without cause.

We step out in the hall.

“We noticed that (Sped. Student) has a big red spot on her pants. She must be on her period, and we thought we should tell you before anyone has the chance to make fun of her or embarrass her.”

I think I probably just looked at them without saying anything for a few moments.

“Thank you for telling me,” I said, and sent them back to their desks.

In my brain, I had a moment of, Is my job really so absurd that it’s my responsibility to deal with a teenager’s feminine hygiene mishap? and Bodily fluids are the reason I teach high school rather than elementary… really? REALLY? and I’ve known this girl for exactly two weeks. What the Hell? and I suppose it’s better this happened in my class than in a dude’s class.

Now, okay, in my 7 years of teaching, I’ve encountered pretty disgusting stuff in the realms of vomit, publicly and involuntarily popped bacne, and exposed student flesh, but I’d honestly rather discover that a student has painted on my desk with poop than deal with this one. One of my recurring teacher nightmares at the beginning of every school year is that a student I don’t know walks into my room naked in the middle of silent reading. However, I’d rather deal with that than try to figure out how to get this girl (who is wearing white shorts by the way) out of a room of unforgiving little shits without them noticing the plum-sized red circle that, though I hadn’t noticed before, is uber-visible.

I’ve since learned that other teachers have encountered the same awkward issue and even have a plan for how to deal: They notify the girl, then create a diversion to the tune of, “Hey, class, look at this cool thing on my desk. Everyone gather around!” and the girl slips out of the room.

I ended up writing a nurse’s pass for the girl, whispering to her to join me in the hall, then walking between her and the class in an attempt to shield her from their view as we exited.

We get into the hall, I tactfully tell her what’s going on, and she proceeds to tell me graphically about how impossible this is because she’s “just changed.”

I explain to her that, not only is it possible, but I certainly wouldn’t know she was on her period if there wasn’t some sort of problem. I tell her to go to the nurse’s office because they have spare clothes there and maybe they can give her some P.E. shorts or something.

She suggests that it’ll be okay because there’s only one class left in the day and she’ll likely be sitting during that class.

I was pretty much on the verge of telling her to do whatever the hell she wanted, but instead exerted a little authority and told her she had to go to the nurse’s office. She asked me if there was enough time left in the class period, to which I was like, YES. GO. PLEASE, GO. JUST GO.

And she finally went.

And it all worked out. The nurse gave her an enormous shirt that hung down almost to the bottom of her shorts, so she looked completely unstylish, but who really cares? I haven’t heard any talk about it since then, but I think it’s important that you know how much it bothers me that I had to leave 29 or so, untrustworthy, unkempt miscreants alone to take care of something I never, in all of my life, imagined I’d ever be obligated to deal with.


And make sure they know how to care for their vomit, pimples, poop, feminine hygiene, and ALL OTHER BODILY FUNCTIONS without teacher assistance.

I’m just saying, none of my education classes covered anything of this nature – I’m not qualified to take care of it.

Lesson Two of the Thinking

Think easy, light, smooth, and fast. You start with easy, because if that’s all you get, that ain’t so bad. Then work on light. Make it effortless, like you don’t give a shit how high the hill is or how far you’ve got to go. When you’ve practiced that so long that you forget you’re practicing, you work on making it smoooooth.You won’t have to worry about the last one – you get those three and you’ll be fast,” (111).

Your weekly McDougall Born to Run. I’ve added “fun” between “easy” and “light” in my thoughts. It seems to help with “easy.” :-)