It’s only been a couple years, but somehow it seems longer – and somehow much shorter. Two years after stepping in front of a classroom for the first time, that part of my journey is coming to an end. Soon I will be back to a different kind of teaching, as a pastor, leaving this role of teaching, which I have discovered to be a different kind of pastoring.
Living on only in my memories and a few hastily-scribbled notes will be several hundred kids whose lives have been woven briefly into mine. If my whole life were to be displayed as a tapestry, this time, these kids, would be mere threads…yet they would stand out bright in the midst of an otherwise dark spot somewhere in the middle of that image.
As is the norm for substitutes, most of my assignments were for just a day or maybe two. Often, my role seemed more babysitter or classroom monitor than teacher. The day was a success if no one got hurt; if they actually learned history or math or what “obligation” means, that was a bonus. My biggest hope on those days was that students would have what a mentor of mine calls collisions with righteousness: a fresh breath, a teacher who didn’t belittle him; a teacher who saw through her teenage mask to the value and potential hidden within.
But twice I was given the chance to be with classes for multiple weeks, first with fourth graders and then with seventh. Each time I got to know more than a hundred students, learning their names, matching them to faces that will long be engraved on my heart. I learned how hard is the work of a teacher – work that goes far beyond the labor of planning lessons, clawing coherent sentences out of kids who prefer video games and sports and dance over agriculture and urbanization in medieval China.
I learned how important are those moments of going off topic—”bird walks,” some teachers call them—because those bird walks just might take us into territory that one kid out of 130 needs to see to give them life and hope. I’ve been able to talk graciously about homosexuality and comparative religion. We’ve scratched the surface of human trafficking and how a 12-year-old might learn tips from the samurai to protect herself against an adult aggressor. I’ve tried to break the awe kids seemed to have about seppuku, the ritual suicide practiced by samurai to guard their honor; and encouraged kids to speak up when a friend says they’re having thoughts of suicide. (That one may have been effective far more quickly than I ever dreamed.)
And, of course, we’ve had some fun. While role playing scenes from Imperial China we met the fictitious Empress Ping Pong (or was it Empress Ping from the Pong Dynasty?). When we moved to Central America to learn about the Maya and the civilizations that influenced them, like the Olmec, we met an anthropologist named Don, immortalized in a familiar song: “Olmec Donald had a farm….” We’ve learned about cultural exchange, cultural diffusion … and, well, cultural confusion (which is what happens when seventh graders suggest that Europe’s knights were led by people from Japan!).
Teaching has been a cultural immersion for me. I’ve had students from Mexico, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Germany, Japan, Philippines, and a few from the U.S. I’ve learned, almost, to say good morning in Arabic – which sent the 12-year-old twin girls from Syria who tried teaching me into near hysterics when I repeated exactly what I heard! (Thank you is much easier: shukran.) I was introduced to Frankenstein by a class of Honors English students. I laughed with a fourth grader who learned for the first time that the cute dogs with the bad reputation are called pit bulls, not pipples! (But if I were ever to get one, I’d name it Pipples.)
When I stepped out of the classroom on my last day, I said good-bye not just to the 127 kids I’ve been with most recently, but to all those who have loved, accepted, laughed with, and maybe even learned with me: Cassie, Clara, Nick. Emma and Emily. “Mad Dog” Madison, Duncan, Mohammed, Muhammed, Yousif (all of them!). The 3rd graders from Ms. Bradbury’s class, 10th grade Honors English students at Christian High, all the kids in 3rd through 8th grades at Fuerte and Hillsdale and LFCS. The students at my daughters’ (and niece’s) school who call me not just Mr. Ehle, but Father, Dad, and Uncle Randy.
To all of you, I say: Thank you. Gracias. Danke. Arigato. Merci. Shukran.