I’ve got to be honest. Writing is hard. I’m not complaining, because I love to do it, but it’s either feast or famine. At least it’s that way with me. I either have 456 ideas of things to write about, or NOTHING at all. This week has been one of those blank page, writer’s block weeks. I could think of topics in which to give opinions, but then realized if I wrote about those things, I would come off sounding like Andy Rooney, and I certainly don’t want to be given the label of “chief complainer.” Because my attitude hasn’t been the best, I actually thought maybe I’d skip posting a blog this week, but decided that wasn’t an option since I’ve made a commitment to keep doing this. And that’s sort of how this revelation came to me…
As always, just when I think I’m washed up as a writer, an idea comes to me. And when it does, I realize it comes from a pretty impressive source.
Several days ago, I was driving to work for the long awaited last day of summer school. I was listening to a local Christian radio station with Matthew West singing, “All In,” and I found myself concentrating on the first words of the song,
“My feet are frozen on this middle ground,
the water’s warm here but the fire’s gone out…”
I continued to listen and when it got to the chorus, he sang,
“I’m going all in, headfirst into the deep end.
I hear You calling and this time the fear won’t win.
I’m going all in.”
Great song, I thought, as I continued down Highway 64, plotting my next stop at the gas station in Overton, where I’d buy my morning motivator, a mixture of half real Coke and half Coke Zero. Before you start wondering why I’m even mentioning that, there is a reason. Just wait. You’ll see…
When that song ended, another followed. No commercial and no commentary. Just straight to the next song which was Casting Crowns singing, “Somewhere in the Middle.”
“Somewhere between the hot and the cold,
Somewhere between the new and the old,
Somewhere between who I am and who I used to be, Somewhere in the middle, you’ll find me.”
I was beginning to see a theme here.
Wow. Both songs were about being in the middle.
I think not.
And in that instant, I knew I had found my topic. The Middle. I knew that through those two songs, God had given me something to write about. My mind began racing, and in a matter of 15 seconds, I had a zillion ideas popping through my head. And I love that feeling! It’s so much better than the “vacancy sign” that had previously been flashing in my mind.
Before I knew it, I was at the gas station, and like a professional bartender, was mixing my drink(s) to perfection. As I set them down on the counter, the lady exclaimed, “Two drinks today?” That’s when you know you’re a regular and/or you have a problem. I had unintentionally become the “Norm” of the Cefco Station in Overton, Texas. I laughed and paid for my motivation (my vice) and got back in my car (and FYI, before you judge me, one of the drinks was for Brian). This minutia is important. Hang on. You’ll see.
When I arrived at work, I readied the classroom for testing. It was the final day of summer school, and students were taking the STAAR reading test. For. The. Third. Time. That had been my task this summer. To prepare them for the assessment, which they would hopefully pass this time around. Frankly, I wasn’t very excited about having to teach this group, especially since the gig began the Monday morning after my son’s Saturday wedding. I was exhausted, and wanted nothing more than to spend the day catching up on my sleep. BUT, my plans were different, and I had to find some kind of enthusiasm to motivate myself (other than a mixed fountain drink).
Summer school lasted for 10 days. We read. We answered questions. We went over the released tests. Day in, day out. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
BUT a funny thing happened along the way. I found myself looking forward to seeing these students; the kids who had a third chance at something. The kids who had been labeled in some way or another along the way. I had been given an opportunity to look at them in a new way. Summer school gave me the opportunity to see them through different eyes. These kids showed up. They didn’t get to sleep in and enjoy the first days of summer vacation. They had to sit in a classroom, and think. And try. And you know what? They didn’t complain. They did what was asked of them, and by-golly, they wormed their way into my heart. I had known them since they were 6th graders, but this atmosphere was different. It allowed me to get to know more about them. To learn more about the lives they lead and the situations they deal with.
I didn’t realize until the second-to-the-last day, how much they had touched my heart. Over the 10 days, both sides had invested in something, and the common cause brought us closer together. On that second-to-last day, I encountered a student who became frustrated. He was taking the Math STAAR for the third time, and it became obvious that what began as confidence, had dwindled into defeat in a matter of minutes. I tried to talk to the student, but he wasn’t having it. He was angry, and tired, and basically done. I had used all the magical counseling strategies I kept in my back pocket, and finally decided to let him just sit there, hoping he would rebound quickly. As I continued “actively monitoring,” my eyes welled up with tears. I felt his pain, and my heart was broken for him. How frustrating is this whole thing? The pressure of testing once is enough, but when you do it 2 more times, and face the possibility of retention if you don’t make a certain score, that’s a lot. Even for the bravest of the brave.
After a break, and several pep talks from others, the student continued, and completed the test. I’m not sure how he will end up doing, but he rallied, and finished, and for that I am very proud.
On the last day of summer school, as I gave the reading test and time ticked down, I found that I wasn’t in a hurry for it to end. Sure, I was glad that I would be able to start my summer routine, and begin the projects I had previously planned, but I became a little misty as I watched these students give it their all, transitioning their way into high school. I think in the beginning, I was looking for a “Breakfast Club” experience where I would be dealing with kids who didn’t pass the test, missed a lot of school and were sometimes even in trouble. I was to be the “Richard Vernon” (disciplinarian/warm body) of the group. I was to do the time along with these kids and mark the days off my calendar. But by the end of the 10 days, these students made me feel like John Keating from “Dead Poet’s Society.” No, they didn’t stand up on the desk and yell, “Oh,Captain! My Captain!” but they did thank me for helping them. And all I really did was encourage them and believe in them.
So what did I learn? And what does this have to do with “the middle”?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all aspects of my life, and what I’ve realized is it’s so easy to stay in the comfort zone, to remain in the middle, rather than stepping out and making a stand, or choosing happiness, or giving in to pain. Our lives are made up of thousands of dichotomies–joy and pain, hot and cold, big and little, tall and short, shallow and deep, happy and sad. We live a life of extremes, and sometimes, I think it just takes less effort to remain where we are rather than reaching for the place we truly want to be–the place where our purpose lies. I believe that we accept that our lives are “ok” and mediocrity then creeps in. We pitch a tent and from that place we keep things on “medium.” We aren’t hot or cold. We’re stuck in the middle and living our lives like Goldilocks.
There are things about the middle that I like. I enjoy sitting in the middle of friends, and I love the television sitcom, “The Middle.” In fact, Frankie Heck is one of my favorites. She is real, and so many moms can relate to her being overwhelmed with kids and life. She relieves her stress by squirting canned frosting into her mouth! She’s my kind of girl! The thing I like about Frankie is that she tries. She doesn’t always get things the way she wants them, and many times she completely messes up, but it’s in those times that important lessons are learned. She’s either on top, or at the bottom, but rarely is she ever just sitting in the middle.
One of my favorite things Frankie ever said was to her daughter, Sue, who was constantly trying out for everything– cheerleader, twirler, and the volleyball team, just to name a few– and she never ever made anything (except Cross Country, because it was referred to as “no cut” Cross Country). Frankie was encouraging Sue to join the church youth group and she said, “After all, there are no tryouts for Jesus.” What a great thought! We have already made that team! And by grace, it’s a “no cut” team as long as we remain faithful and continue in the Word, working every day to be better–trying not to mess up, and seeking forgiveness when we do. BUT we need to move out of the middle. Out of our comfort zone. In everything we do, we need to aim for the top, and not settle for OK. When we start listening, and looking, and we slow down and get still, it’s amazing what we can learn.
I’m thankful for that morning drive, and for those two songs, and for God giving me the words, and the ideas, and the gift to share my thoughts. I take zero credit for any of this. I have finally realized that this is something I want to do, and I think it’s my purpose in this season of my life. So I am stepping out of the middle, with my aim high. I may not become a household name or make a dime on this new adventure, but my prayer is that my words can be used to inspire, laugh, motivate, help, comfort, or simply make others realize they aren’t alone in their own battles, insecurities, or struggles. And in that place where we are all alike, I pray that we also embrace the ways we’re different, and how we can use our differences and our unique gifts to bring joy to others. After all, just like “the breakfast club,” each of us is a brain, and an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal (well, maybe not that last one).
So if you ever find yourself somewhere between “The Breakfast Club” and “Dead Poets Society,” decide which way you want to go. Do you want to expect nothing from others, and accept them where you THINK they are, or do you want to look beyond the labels, and get to know people on a different level?
As for me, I’m going to start stretching and warming up so I’m ready to jump on that desktop and exclaim, “Oh, Captain! My Captain!” I don’t want to stay in the same place and accept things as they are while watching the world go by. I don’t want to do the same things out of habit, because it’s easier that way. Exhibit A: the gas station and buying a fountain drink every morning. It’s predictable, expected, and has become a routine. And for crying out loud, I can’t even commit to real Coke or Coke Zero! You know what? It’s time to shake things up, and start drinking water instead (a topic for which I’m sure I’ll be writing about: the caffeine detox, better known as the tenth circle of hell).
I understand that many times, one must experience pain to understand joy, and feel sad in order to know true happiness. Life is full of extremes, and each dichotomy depends on the other in order for us to fully experience our realm of emotions. To truly know yourself, the extremes are necessary. But, the wonderful thing about this is when you understand yourself, you begin understanding others. And that’s something we need more of. Understanding. Compassion. Empathy. Kindness. Dedication. And middle school kids, who unknowingly change your life.
As I close, instead of writing a letter to Mr. Vernon like the end of “The Breakfast Club,” I’ll write to my principal:
Dear Mr. Keith,
I thought you just wanted a warm body to sit and “do time” with students. I had no idea you had bigger plans. Thanks for seeing more in me than I saw in myself.
a John Keating wanna-be