Monday, September 19, 2011

Reflections from Teaching After 9/11

We are now a week removed from the ten year anniversary of 9/11.  Like most people, I also have a memory of where I was when I heard the news.  It was already a sad day at CHCA because many of us were leaving late morning to attend the funeral of a beloved parent.  The juxtaposition of mourning at a funeral mixed with  pockets of discussion and concern over the day's events created a surreal mood.  The weeks after were somber and anxious at the high school, as they were most places around the country. 

The week before the anniversary, I was talking to a class of seniors about what I perceived as a level of cynicism higher than I would expect in a group of high school students.  When I asked them where their youthful idealism was, they answered rather matter-of-factly that they had been raised in the shadow of 9/11 and they did not perceive the world as a place where idealism matched their reality.  I don't know if that attitude was a reflection on the psyche of their generation or was the outcome of the media build-up to the anniversary.  But without a doubt, we all have anecdotal, every day evidences of how our world has changed since that day.

One of the most concrete changes that I have seen has been the shift to a new Other. Let me explain.  Sociologists describe how cultures/groups define themselves to some degree by who they are not, or who is the "other" or outsider.  As someone who grew up in the 70's and 80's, the other was the U.S.S.R.  They became the foil to what it meant to be a freedom- and God-loving American.  They were the enemy.  They were evil.  But with the fall of the "Evil Empire," beginning with the wall in Berlin and the crumbling of the former Soviet empire, we went nearly a decade without a clearly defined, one-size-fits-all enemy.  All that changed on September 11, 2001.

I heard Jonathon Z. Smith, the great religionist and scholar of education at the University of Chicago say that it is the job of the educator to take the thing that is close to the student and move it far away and take what is far removed and bring it close.  Only then do we begin to see our topics of study (and our world for that matter) in clearer focus.  In a popular culture that easily propagandizes our views of Arabs generally and Muslims specifically, our educating students in history, politics, religion, and theology becomes all the more important.  In the teaching that I've done here, I haven't seen a greater shift in students' thinking on a topic than when I've taught  a four week unit on Islam. Our students' cultural influences have so strongly shaped them in their understanding of who is "not us" and why, that they struggle to understand what Islam actually stands for and how all religions have complex histories and diverse cultural manifestations (even our own).  So who is the other and what should my attitude and response be to them?  That is an extremely relevant question in post-9/11 America, both as a citizen in a democratic country that is founded on freedom of religion and as a Christian who follows a Master who calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who curse us.  In fact one could argue that Jesus calls us to reject the entire reality of keeping an outsider as other.  The religious authorities of his day were troubled by the fact that He had no such boundaries.

I will never forget in September 2001 when a colleague who was teaching the World Religions class at the time, still took the class to the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati off of Tylersville Road.  Our Muslim neighbors were shocked.  With the continual threats they received via phone and mail and the constant harrassment of many Muslims and Arabs across the country, they expected us to cancel the visit like all of the other pre-arranged tours.  But when our group arrived with flowers and a letter of support, they were moved beyond words.  And our students learned something very important that day that transcended media images and cultural rhetoric.  I'm happy to say our Western World Religions class still visits the Islamic Center.  And sometimes our hosts still make mention of that visit in 2001.  And I hope as our students learn about cultures, religions and differences, they also learn about how God calls us to be in the world.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

An Electronic Recommendation

The social media phenomenon has changed the way we communicate and connect with people.  Blogs such as this one is a case in point.  Facebook, Twitter, Linkdin all connect us with people around the world.  I find myself reading the thoughts, insights, and quips of all kinds of people from celebrities to former classmates and local friends, to friends of friends who comment on wall posts of people I know.  So with that said, I pass on to you a blog of the Asbury Seminary president, Timothy Tennent, passed on to me from the email of a colleague and friend.  I've been ruminating on his words for the past week.  And rather than rehash it via my own thoughts and perspectives, I pass it on as is.  Enjoy!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day

While there is something to be said for the school year schedule of my childhood, where school officially started the day after Labor Day, I have come to enjoy the long holiday weekend after a couple weeks under the belt.  The rigor of a school day is a shock to the system after a summer away for teachers and students alike.  So after nine days of school, a three day weekend comes at a nice time!

We have had a spectacular first two weeks of school! This past week--our first five day week of the year--we celebrated our Opening Convocation on Sunday and had our first chapel on Wednesday. Our record enrollment was obvious when I looked up at the crowd in the theater during chapel. With students, faculty, and parents in attendance, there was barely an empty seat. We had a great time of worship and Mr. Salkil began the first series of the year, speaking on being a follower of Jesus and not just a fan. Thursday afternoon Encore sang the National Anthem at the Reds game.

Friday began with Picture Day which always adds a certain level of chaos. But overall it was another smooth day.  After we talked at our opening assembly about students owning the culture, the students have risen to a new level of excellence.  I've been observing students picking up after themselves, taking care of each other, and seniors helping out freshmen.  Amazingly, we are two weeks into the school year and there has not been a single detention! 

After school we had the Hall of Excellence dinner where Kevin Nead and Casey Carpenter were inducted into the Hall.  I remember both of them not only as outstanding swimmers but as special students and human beings as well.  I taught both of them multiple years in the Christian Studies department and we were able to share a lot of great memories at the event.  Leaving the near 100 degree weather at the dinner, I got to spend a little time at the New Family Tailgate inside the school before the game (enjoying a little AC as well).  We have so many new families this year, tables were set up in the Theater Commons, Cafeteria, and the Miracle Commons!  It was great to catch up with so many of the new high school families. 

It might have been the beginning of September, but the early evening air felt like the dead of summer.  We had been monitoring the temperature of the field all day to make sure that it was safe for the game.  And while it reached 160 degrees (!) during the afternoon, the combination of hosing down the field and the setting sun reduced the temperature to 89-103 degrees before game time.  Then with a packed stadium, we all watched as the Leap Frogs, a special unit of the Navy Seals, parachuted into the stadium with the game ball.  It was a moment to remember.  And with an early lead, all was right with the world!  The second half didn't go quite how we would have liked, but it was still a very special evening for the entire community. 

If this past week is any indication, this looks to be a very special year.  But as much as I'm enjoying the start of the year, I still appreciate a nice Labor Day respite.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Opening Convocation

We had a wonderful time of celebration and worship, commemorating our new school year and the installation of the Class of 2012 as the seniors who will move our community forward this school year.This was the fourth year of our tradition of beginning our school year with a service and I think it was by far our best. Watching our seniors march into the beautiful sacred space at St. Margaret of York dressed in their gowns was a moving experience. I had the privilege of offering a charge to our student body and especially to our seniors. Below are my remarks.

Put on Christ
Galatians 3:23-29

I actually want to begin with an apology. To the good number of parents who have approached me over the past week about the emotional shock and anxiety caused by seeing your daughter or son in a Graduation gown the first week of school, creating panic over the year ahead, college visits, selecting a college, and leaving your home to enter the great wide world—I am deeply sorry. That was not at all my intent. To be honest, I didn’t see that coming. Next year, we will send out that email in June to order gowns with something like a surgeon general’s warning about how this email and its consequences may be damaging to your short term emotional health.

To be honest, I did want the effect—just not on parents. I wanted it for you, the seniors of the class of 2012. I wanted in this opening ceremony of our year for you to see vividly where it will all end up. Our year will come full circle with you marching with us the faculty, in our medieval regalia, entering your Commencement ceremony. Because in a strange way, even though you wait for it all year long, it somehow sneaks up on you. You will wonder where the year went. So I hope this moment dressed as what you are becoming, gives you pause and a sense of recognition for what this year is about. You are dressed for what you will be!

Since childhood, getting dressed has been a big deal. You probably do not remember the sense of pride you had when you were first allowed to pick out your own clothes and dress yourself. As a parent, depending on how much control you need, that can be a humorous or difficult transition. One of my kids always wanted to wear shorts and bathing suits in winter, while wool sweaters and stocking caps were typical summer fare. And that’s without mentioning the god-awful color and pattern combinations. But over time, children figure out how to dress appropriately and can do it themselves. That is the reason why in Elementary School and Middle School, we give you a uniform but in high school we assume you can pick out something appropriate to wear. Of course that doesn’t always work out either…

Another important aspect of dress related to childhood is the game or activity of “dress up.” This is basically make-believe with props. Fireman, vet, doctor, sports figures, law enforcement officers, soldiers, ballerinas—through a simple game of dress up, we were actually exploring the future, trying on for size the roles and professions as we understood them. That is why “play” is such important work for children. It is the beginning of becoming, So seniors, what if all of the emotion and sentiments that come out in the last days of your senior year, the maturity and the perspective that you will have gained or at least appropriated, what if tonight became the beginning, as you dressed up as who you will be?

We talked together on Tuesday about students taking a lead, owning our school culture, and demonstrating a level of responsibility to each other that will make CHCA a school like we’ve never seen before. Basically, we are asking you to be the kind of people who leave here as graduates, but begin by dressing up now. You’ve put on your robes. Seniors, this is your year. This is our school. I want to see each day the pride and legacy that you all make as you move this community forward.

In the third chapter of Galatians, Paul speaks of the role of law and how it is like a disciplinarian or a tutor that makes sure we do the right thing, the thing we do not actually like to do. In our passage read this evening, he makes a transition to life in Christ through faith. Rather than thinking about righteousness as a series of rules to follow, Paul reports that as we are baptized into Christ, we “put on Christ.” We are “clothed” in Christ. We are dressing up again!

In C.S. Lewis’ famous treatise, Mere Christianity, he discusses this very thing in a chapter entitled “Let’s Pretend.” He argues that as we are “dressing up as Christ,” we are pretending to be something we are not yet, but are becoming. And often times, the more we pretend, the more we realize we are no longer pretending but the action has actually become the natural response. He writes, “Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already.”

Students, faculty: just as the seniors stand as an example, as those who have put on gowns to show us who they will fully be nine months from now, I want us to “put on Christ” as we live and learn together this year. May our lives be so focused on the person of Jesus, may we relate so closely with Him, that He is ever in our minds and on our hearts. Let us put on Christ! I say that very intentionally: I don’t say to you, Let us be careful to pay more attention to all the rules in the handbook about what you should and shouldn’t do. I say, Put on Christ. If we truly do that, handbooks should take care of themselves. As we continually wrestle with what it means to be a Christ-centered institution, I would surmise that we would get a lot further into the discussion if more of us “Put on Christ.” Let us dress up. Let us pretend. Let us act out in faith what we know we are becoming. And the corollary to this is that God who saves us by His grace has begun pretending about us long before we did. God in His mercy, sees us for what we will be one day when God finishes us—not for what we are right now. God sees us for who we will be and treats us accordingly. This year, as we each “Put on Christ,” let us also see the dressing up in each other, even when we fail miserably. Students, Teachers, Parents—we are all becoming. Let us try this year to see each other as God sees us. Not as we are but as we “dress up” to be. That is why in the end, Paul writes that we are all one in Christ, every barrier and division knocked down—Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female. Trust me, Paul’s world did not look that way, but he was challenging the believers to dress up and pretend, to accept each other in a unified community. As we put on Christ, let us live out a community that learns and lives together in a faith and unity like we have never experienced here before.

Seniors, you begin tonight your end. And all of us here, let us begin to pretend we are who God is making us to be.


Saturday, August 27, 2011

On School and Gardens

It has been a wonderful first week of school. The building is full of excitement! And while many long for summer mornings of sleeping in, the place has the feeling of a big family reunion, with teachers and students all trying to catch up with colleagues, classmates, and friends. The frenetic pace of the first week is always a bit overwhelming. But that first Saturday morning of the school year is like a gift. The slow pace of the morning, a relaxing cup of coffee, letting the bustle of the first four days of the new routine fade into memory. And as I walk into my yard, I remember the other harbinger of a new school year.

Without fail, the first week of school always seems to be the hottest, driest week of the summer. And after carefully tending my garden from early spring into August, it only takes one week of leaving at dusk and returning home in the dark, to turn my small patch of Eden into something that looks like a scene from a documentary on the Dust Bowl. Tomatoes are rotting and molding on the vine, plants are browning, leaves withered, ground cracked. I pick what I can. I salvage some of the produce. I guess I'll be making more baba ganoush with the overripe eggplant. But in an odd way, this is the beauty of a school year. Because when it comes to education, that worn out, used up feeling that reminds me of my garden was my attitude about school life in the spring. As you try to keep order in the end of May, looking for signs of success, you often see more of the parched earth of students yearning for the refreshing waters of Summer. But in education, Autumn is our New Year, the Fall our Spring, where all is green and fresh and hope springs eternal. As a great friend of mine once wrote, he knew he was cut out for education because of the feeling he had when autumn rolled around; he was "renewed by the restorative effects of the Fall."

So when it comes to my garden, I'll hobble along for another couple of months, with my time and energy now devoted elsewhere. As a gardener, I know next spring will give me a new chance to be better than I am right now. But as a principal and a teacher, I look at a building of 453 bright faces, with creative and powerful minds, and I know that I've just entered a beautiful new season of growth! And what started this week will produce wonderful things over the coming nine months that will be only a beginning, because we gardeners are always surprised by where seeds germinate and what harvests will come.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The School Year is Coming!

I hope everyone is having a relaxing and refreshing summer. The school year is fast approaching! We have been back in the office planning and getting ready for the year ahead. If you check the school website, you can find details and the time schedule for August 23, the first day of school. Students can come in early that morning for their schedules and to find their lockers, but we will begin the day in the Lindner Theater at 8:00 am. In a blink of an eye, our building will be full of students again with the energy of a CHCA school day!

As always I have been doing a lot of traveling this summer. And as is the case most summers, I began my journey in my childhood home in Milwaukee, WI. It was great to reunite with my immediate family and relatives, showing my kids the places where I grew up and spent time. We went to a Brewers game together, ate frozen custard at Gilles where I worked in high school and college, and even walked around the playground of my grade school, recounting stories of kickball games and snowball fights. As a parent, there was something powerful about the intersection of my nostalgia and the insight of what my own children were experiencing in their own lives, including what will be just around the corner for them. The hopes and excitement that I felt for my children in those moments were powerful, because I understand many of the trajectories their lives will take as part of growing older. But at the same time, the details and the uniqueness of their journeys are a mystery to me, how God will shape them through the unique unfolding of their lives. And for that reason, I carry an excitement and anticipation for what lies ahead.

Many of the same emotions surround the start of a school year for me. Seniors are excited for the finish, freshmen for a beginning. Every student has expectations for the year and for themselves. They are all nervous, not knowing what it will really be like. As administrators and teachers in the building, we understand to a degree what each year looks like and how it unfolds—the emotions, the ups and downs, the inherent joys and difficulties—in a way the students can’t begin to grasp. But how the details will play out, the uniqueness of this journey, the things that will make this year truly unique and special are also a mystery in the hand of God. And so I am truly excited for another year with our students.

Please mark your calendar now and plan to join us as we celebrate the beginning of the school year and all that God will do among us at our Opening Convocation service at 6:00 PM on August 28, 2011 at St. Margaret of York. Our faculty and the class of 2012 will be marching in academic regalia and we will have the official installation of our Senior Class. It will be a wonderful time of celebration, music, worship, and prayer. Details and directions will be on the website. And please begin to pray for the year ahead and the work that God will do among us!