Rebecca Burtram

Blog

Coming Up for Air

A couple days ago, two memories appeared in my Facebook feed. The combination represents some of the best moments of a fifteen year career combined with the reason I left, and I struggle to reconcile the two. 

The first post, from six years ago, contained photos of gifts and thank you cards from students telling me how much they loved me/my class. The second displayed an article I wrote last year titled “An Angry Teacher and Mr. Rogers.” The article had over three thousand shares on Facebook after LoveWhatMatters.com picked it up.

I left teaching six months ago, and the posts stirred a mixture of emotions in me. Disappointment, joy, pride, and a touch of anger all came rushing in.

I had always vowed to leave teaching before I became one of the teachers who was bitter and angry. I left a bit too late. But I had never stopped caring, wanting the kids to succeed, or loving the challenge of finding a new way to bring the content to life.

The passion that kept me afloat was also what wore me out.

I couldn’t stop the frustration of working against a system that disregarded everything research shows us concerning adolescent development. Our administration stripped the teachers of the tools necessary to help students succeed and then blamed the teachers when kids struggled.

I was sinking, and I knew I had to come up for air.

To help you understand what many of teachers are experiencing, I want you to picture a lifeguard attempting to get a drowning swimmer to shore. Even though the individual can’t swim on his own, he doesn’t see the point of going to shore and flails about violently as the lifeguard attempts to save him. The crowds on the shore yell about how they feel the lifeguard should be doing the job differently (seeing as they have children in the water on a yacht who are doing just fine and not at risk of drowning at all). And just as the lifeguard is getting through to the drowning individual, her supervisor throws her a pair of flippers made of cement. The swimmer drowns and nearly takes the lifeguard under with him. Everyone blames the lifeguard. 

So, yeah, it feels good to breathe again. And with each breath I am finally coming to a place where I can begin to release some of the frustration and acknowledge all that I lost when I left my career.

I feel sorrow and relief. As I paddle through the sea of emotion, I breathe in gratitude for where I am now and slowly exhale the pain of separation.

I will use my next breath to say a prayer for all those trying to swim with cement flippers.

TEACHING

A Convergence of Small Things

After writing for an hour to try to define how I have been feeling recently, I found a common thread: I am uneasy, sad, worried, etc. because life is forcing me to acknowledge, once again, how little control I actually have. 

All the small things have converged in a great conspiracy to teach me yet another lesson on surrender.

I won’t try to bring all the pieces together for you, but I will focus on two areas because they will bring us to the words of my father, and I think he captures best where I should be, and where I hope to end up when I finish processing my emotions on the page.

First, the daily rhythm of our home has gone from a tight beat to an erratic pulse. No one is on the same schedule, and screens have gone from something we were told to keep our children from to something we require them to focus on for at least eight hours a day. I grieve for the deeply unhealthy lifestyle my children are forced into by an already broken academic system that is now trying to function in a world that cannot decide how to to proceed. My kids have lost community, sports, dances, and all sense of normalcy, and they have been asked to pretend that the life they have been handed isn’t total and complete shit. We simply have to make the best of where we are, but I see the toll it takes on the people I love most. And I, as their mother, can do so little to fix it. 

Second, my own mother has been in the hospital with COVID-19 since Wednesday. We think she will be released today, and even this relief is not enough to sweep away the fear that comes with a deep understanding of how little the world listens when we tell it what to do. On day six, we know her health has been restored, but earlier on, the undercurrent of fear left me unsettled and searching for a way to steady myself. Outwardly, I went through my days little indication of concern because I was mostly certain her outcome would be positive, but there was always a part of me that was deeply afraid of what I might lose. 

This brings me now to my father’s words. He sent them to me last night because he too turned to the act of writing to bring order to his emotions. Due to hospital protocols preventing visitors, my mother has been alone at the hospital, and my father has been quarantined at home. When I read his words, I know that this is not a response to 6 days alone. This is a response to contemplating a life of solitude. This is a reconciling of the fear of losing his life-long companion at Christmas. And here is where he found his peace: 

Imprisoned 

Imprison me with your love and care. Hem me in with walls of mercy. Capture me with the wonders of who you are. Surround me, Mighty Angels, to resist the Evil One. 

Let my praises echo off the four walls of your compassionate confinement. 

May I find my solitude reveals your presence. I am not alone in this cell of existence. May the peace of your presence preserve my mind and emotion. You are with me in my minute world. 

My solitary confinement becomes contentment. My heart and soul burst forth with joy at your wisdom at placing me this cube of aloneness. I searched the oceans and mountains looking for you, and, amazingly, I find you in smallness! 

You amaze me God! How simple you can be. 

Since I cannot ascend to comprehend you, you come down to me in simplicity. Indeed, a little child shall lead them. Let the little ones come to you and forbid them not. Forgive us for our obfuscation. All I really know is that you are near. You will never leave, nor forsake me. That’s all I really need to know!

When my father processes, he comes to the understanding that holds us together. He comes back to the knowledge of Immanuel, God with us: the peaceful mystery of a God so big becoming so small in order to prevent us from ever walking alone. 

This is God back in the garden with man, a baby in a manager, a man strung out on a cross, and a presence beyond the veil. It’s the beauty and the suffering. There is nothing more powerful than presence, and when we can grab hold of that everything comes back into place. 

The lack of control ceases to present itself as chaos. Instead, it becomes peace. We don’t have to solve the unsolvable problems of the world, and we don’t have to fear the unknown future. We can take one step at a time knowing the one who controls it all walks beside us.

LEARNING

God, Change Something

Desperate Prayer

We often pray because we desperately want something to change. We pray the suffocating marriage in which each person feels desperately alone will change. We pray the diagnosis, the weather, our awful bosses, or our finances will change.

We know prayer changes things, so we pray and we pray. We just don’t know when, why, or how the change will take place.

The theology of prayer is complex, as it should be considering we are talking to one who is complicated beyond comprehension.

However, I wish I had a formula for prayer that worked the same every time. Well, I actually wish the formula worked the same for me every time. I am not sure I want everyone’s prayers answered. If everyone prays like me, then some pretty dumb requests are going out there that we don’t all want answered.

So I just want mine answered every time and everyone else’s when God, in his infinite wisdom, is working everything together for the greatest good of all people.

Self-Focused Prayer

Oh, I sound like my prayers are selfish? Yeah, I’m pretty sure that is a common theme in most prayers. We want things to change for us and the people we love or the people whose lives will somehow impact our own. We are oh so human praying to an infinite God asking him for finite things to make our own lives easier or better.

We don’t pray desperately for the poverty that is devastating a 3rd world country. We pray tame, rational, calm prayers for those countries when we see a video our go on a missions trip, but over time we stop praying even though the situation is the same.

We only pray the passionate and persistent prayers for situations that impact our lives the most. We beg and we plead when it is our lives in turmoil. We persist until something gives or we lose faith in the power of prayer.

Frustrated Prayer

This is why I am frustrated by what I understand best about prayer: prayer changes me.

I’ve begun to pray, “God, change the situation. Please don’t just change me.”

However, his answer continues to come most frequently in a change in my perspective, my ability to see the good, or my comprehension of his greatness in the scenario.

It’s so annoying, and it’s also exactly what I need.

But sometimes I grow tired of changing. Maybe this is why I often resist my husband’s theology on prayer. He believes the purpose of prayer is to bring us into alignment with the work of God and not for us to bring God into alignment with our wills.

Of course he is right. Again… so annoying.

Both/And Prayer

But I also think prayer isn’t an either or. I don’t think God only tells us to pray because it will bring us into alignment with his will, or he only tells us to pray because our prayers will be powerful and cause circumstances to change. I think it is both and. Meaning it is both those things and more.

I believe Jesus wasn’t lying when he said, “You don’t have enough faith. I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible” (Matthew 17:20).

I believe in a God that does move actual, physical mountains through prayer. I never doubt his ability to heal the individual with cancer or to break the patterns of the addict in an instant. But I also don’t know his will for each situation and how it will impact the much bigger picture. So I don’t know how to pray with complete faith that I am praying his will when I ask for his divine intervention.

This is why I need prayer that changes me. I need prayer because it aligns my will to God’s will. His will is always best. And he wants us to come to home again and again with everything that matters to us. He isn’t angered or annoyed by our desire to see him intervene. It pleases him to meet our needs and to give us good gifts (Matthew 7:11).

Of course I always think physical healing or instantaneous freedom from addiction is good, but I can only see the good in front of me.

God sees the impacts and the outcomes that ripple out for the entire world for all time. I’m pretty sure he knows more of what needs to change than I do. So sometimes I am the one being changed in prayer, and sometimes God changes my circumstances.

Surrendered Prayer

As I surrender each situation in prayer and ask God to take control, I always change.

God doesn’t need me to surrender the situations to him. He is always in control. The surrender is for me. I am the one who after praying long enough just might come to a place of peace, understanding, or hope.

He knows what mountains need to move and which ones need to stay right where they are. He gives us the chance to get in line with his will. Then we can pray with confidence, with faith unshakeable, for the mountain to move.

So I will pray, “God, won’t you please change something, even if it’s me?” And some days the mountains will shift and some days it will be my heart. But every day, God will work all things together for his glory and our good.

CHURCH PLANTING

A Makeover Story

Everybody loves a makeover story because we love to see the change from a broken down house or poorly coiffed individual into a home with curb appeal and a person glowing with confidence.

What we don’t enjoy nearly as much is the process. Or maybe I’m just talking about how I feel and assuming others feel the same. I never watch home renovation shows all the way through. I watch the beginning and skip to the end. I want to see the beauty, but I often like to skip what it takes to get there.

At this moment, we are in the middle of updating our kitchen. I live in chaos.

Our outdated kitchen was livable, but it needed a facelift as well as some functional repairs. My husband took down two walls, ripped up the flooring, removed the appliances, took out the sink, removed sections of cabinets, and even emptied every shelf when he took the cabinet doors off.

Everything had to be broken down and/or exposed in order to make the repairs and updates necessary. It’s a messy and uncomfortable process that I wish we could fast forward through. But there are no shortcuts.

When we first began to seek counseling, my husband was told, “People stay the same until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of the change.” We didn’t like the kitchen very much from the moment we moved first saw our home, but we could live with it. So we did.

But eventually, we became fed up with the burner that was impossible to adjust the heat on correctly, the dishwasher that ran for hours, the backsplash peeling off the wall, and the water damage under the sink. We needed change because the tools we had weren’t holding up to the demands of daily life.

This is how most of us live. We have coping skills and patterns that we know aren’t exactly healthy, but they are good enough to get us by most days. Eventually though, the demands of daily life become greater than our capacity to meet them well, and we have two choices: we can continue trying to use our outdated and somewhat broken down systems, or we can go through the work of personal renovation.

The problem is that renovation is messy and sometimes painful. It never happens as fast as we would like, and going through the process is difficult. We want to jump ahead to the end product. But there are no shortcuts.

In his book Changes That Heal, Dr. Henry Cloud says that we need three ingredients to become healthy: grace, truth, and TIME. I emphasize time because that is the hardest part for me.

I want to fast forward through the part where everything is laid bare and the rebuilding of each section one at a time. I struggle to sit in the discomfort required to own my flaws. I forget to open myself to grace when I find an area of my life is not fixed yet. I want to jump ahead to the finished product.

So to practice the art of giving time. Today’s post does not end resolved. Instead, it ends in the middle of the process. There are no shortcuts. If we want updated, beautiful kitchens or healthy emotional systems, we need to practice walking through the process, no matter how long it takes.

God,

Please help us to uncover the areas where we can grow, and teach us to be patient and loving to ourselves in the mess. Help us to look to you for our hope and our healing. Teach us to do what we can and to surrender the rest to you and your timing.

Amen

LEARNING

When We See Graves

As I head into Easter weekend, something I recently posted on Facebook runs through my head again and again:

He defies our expectations. We see graves, and he sees resurrection stories.

Good Friday was the ultimate picture of unmet expectations. To those present, the cross was a crushing disappointment. On that day, the cross looked like betrayal, shattered dreams, and death.

We get that because it is so easy to see the graves. Dreams of getting married and starting a family slip away, earning enough to evade debt overwhelms, marriages drift apart until chasms can’t be crossed, the mirror doesn’t reflect what you want to see, and dreams vanish in moments of failure.

It’s less easy to see the hope of resurrection.

Romans 8:28, which is really about seeing beyond the graves says, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (NLT).

The word that trips me up is everything. Really, God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love him? But what about my boss undercutting my work? God is going to use that? Or what about the person being forced to stay home without an income because of coronavirus? How does this everything work? There have to be some exceptions, right? I mean a grave is a grave. It is the end of the story.

And this is why the story of a man dying on cross still translates today to a culture completely removed from the sacrificial system. We ALL understand the pain and the loss. We all get what the disciples felt when their hopes and dreams died in front of them.

But Easter weekend doesn’t end on Good Friday.

Although the story looks over, it has a surprise ending on the third day. Actually, that isn’t even the real ending. It is the beginning of hope.

When we see graves, God sees resurrection stories waiting to happen.

Whatever grave you are staring down today, it isn’t the end. The story is just getting started. Easter is coming.

LEARNING

Where Do We Go From Here?

I think we can all agree that life does not look anything like we expected it to right now.

I recently received a lengthy, heartfelt email from a student whose message can be summarized in one question, “What’s the point?” She expressed the lost desperation a lot of people are feeling right now as they mourn unmet expectations.

As a teacher of 140+ seniors, I regularly receive emails from students expressing the disappointment with all they lost when Virginia schools closed their doors for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. Prom, senior picnic, final sports seasons, graduation ceremony, etc–everything they had been looking forward to was taken away in an instant.

Students aren’t the only ones feeling lost and disillusioned as the impacts of COVID-19 ripple out. My Facebook feed is full of parents with heartache over what their children are missing out on this year, small business owners concerned over lost revenue, out of work individuals not sure what to do next, and media messages about people in other countries who are unable to receive proper housing and nutrition due to social and economic shutdowns.

As I said, life doesn’t look the way people expected it would. I mean, seriously, no one thought they would spend the spring confined to their homes hoarding toilet paper.

But unmet expectations, failed dreams, and loss of life and security are not new events. They are built into the human experience, and we can continue to live full, peace filled lives if we accept the reality of the now, embrace the mystery of why, and move forward each day.

Accept the Reality of Now

Feel the feels, cry the tears, and ask the “whys?” We have to acknowledge the disappointments, the hurts, and things that did not come to be. We can’t skip this component of accepting reality, but we also can’t allow it to be our singular modus operandi. Our focus must shift from what is not to what is.

If we spend all our time analyzing and grieving what is not, we will miss the experience and the joy of what is.

It is easy to spend all day thinking about the things that are not happening right now and the uncertainty of the future. But life doesn’t stop, and we can’t skip ahead. We can join the card game, go for the walk, and have the conversations with friends and family. We can be here now.

Jesus was well aware of the battles we would fight in our minds, and he gave us instructions on how to live with peace:

34 “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.

Matthew 6:34 (MSG)

We, as people, have done this before; at least I know I have. This is not the first time in my life when expectations and reality did not line up and I had to figure out how to keep living.

When I had two miscarriages, I felt the losses deeply. I even went off the deep end a bit and created more disappointments. But then I had to look at where I was and make a choice to live there instead of where I’d hoped I would be.

I couldn’t lock myself in a room and spend my whole life grieving the losses or trying to control the future, so I fought the fights, cried the tears, laughed at the jokes, ate the meals, ran the trails, graded the papers, and found joy in the now.

Live today with a focus on the beauty of what is happening in your home. It won’t all be perfection, but it will be life. Chose to see the gift of now.

Embrace the Mystery

With hard work, determination, and a bit of luck, we can make good things happen and achieve all kinds of goals. So we often begin to think our control over ourselves means we can also control the world around us.

When something big disrupts it all, we begin the futile search for answers to the “whys?”–Why me? Why now? Why did this have to happen? Why….? Because we think that knowing the answers will restore order and give us a sense of control.

The truth is we do not have, we have never had, and we never will have all the answers. Sometimes “why?” just stays “why?”

How’s that for calming your anxiety? lol

BUT… The mystery is the beautiful part. It is the part where we rest. It’s the part where we surrender to the mystery of “a peace that passes all understanding.”

I believe God is in control, he knows the bigger picture, and he loves us. I may not be able to understand all of who he is or how what is happening can work out for good, but I do know I can trust him. I can release the illusion that I can control my circumstances and rest in his hands.

I can control me and my thinking. That is all.

When I embrace the mystery, I find it easier to accept the reality of now. I don’t need all the answers because I trust the one who is beyond understanding to work all things together for good.

The apostle Paul tells us how to embrace the mystery:

Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.

Philipians 4:6-7 (MSG)

We can rest without knowing all the answers because we know the one who is sovereign.*

Move Forward

This is the short and simple one because we can do it each day.

We don’t have to have a perfect plan for what life will look like a year, or even a month, from now. We simply need to assess where we are in the moment and decide what the next step forward is. We don’t need all the steps, just the next one.

I can’t help but use the Frozen II song. It’s just so spot on:

I won’t look too far ahead
It’s too much for me to take
But break it down to this next breath
This next step
This next choice is one that I can make

“The Next Right Thing” Frozen II soundtrack

When you don’t know what else to do, do the next right thing. Then rinse and repeat. Every day, take a step forward.

All through life we will encounter times when our expectations and reality don’t line up. There will be many times where things don’t go how we hope or dream. In those moments we must remember the lessons we are learning in this pandemic season.

We can’t change the past, we don’t have all the answers, and the future is impossible to predict. But we can accept where we are, embrace the mystery, and move forward each day.

*If trusting God in the pain feels too hard right now, I encourage you to read Our Broken Hallelujahs. You are not alone in your hurt and doubt.

TEACHING

An Angry Teacher and Mr. Rogers

I am angry.

Well, I was angry. Or I still am. I don’t know in this moment. I had planned to write a post to process my anger when I woke up yesterday. I was going to be open about the fact that I find myself swearing and venting and spewing grossness from inside because I have let anger take my peace, and I was hoping that the grace would come in the confessing.

But then I went to see Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and I don’t know anymore.

Instead of angry, I feel sad or healed… or maybe convicted. It might be all these emotions together. It’s just that I watched a man live with such love and tenderness, and it melted the undercurrent of rage within me.

Lately, I’ve been frustrated, tired, and worn out. I feel walked on, unseen, and undervalued in my place of work. And just when I thought my environment couldn’t get worse, it did.

Then I sat in the theater, and Mr. Rogers looked right at me. He demonstrated how to love and how to carry the weight and to manage the anger.

And as I watched, I wondered if I’d completely lost focus of why I do what I do. I wondered if I had started to measure my work against the wrong standards.

I’ve been trying to fix a broken educational system and banging my head against walls that are only likely to be built higher and thicker. I see the students, but the system sees only numbers and a need to present an image of success regardless of the reality. Of my 140+ students, about 75 have been completely failed by our system, and I am losing myself trying to pull them from the undertow and teach them how to “student.”

But after tonight, I am wondering about how to go back to focusing first on making every student feel seen, heard, and valued.

I can’t undo in one year 12 years of reinforcing poor educational habits, but I can be the one who says, “I like you as you are / Without a doubt or question / Or even a suggestion / Cause I like you as you are,” when a student is spiraling out of control and reacting in fear and anger to the statement that he needs to change anything about his actions.

You may ask why I would say the lyrics to one of Mr. Roger’s songs to students who are defiant, apathetic, or disrespectful, and the answer is simple: grace.

There is something about looking people in the eyes and seeing them.

I often ask students to stand still and look me in the eyes when I call them into the hall to discuss behaviors. You would be amazed by how many find this task incredibly difficult.

When our eyes meet, they know I see them, not a number, and they see me, not a system. I give them the boundaries and a chance to return.

But God, grace is so tiring.

I am so tired, and I needed Fred Rogers to remind me that grace doesn’t run out. There isn’t a limited supply.

A few years ago, I started to tell my students that they are here on purpose, with a purpose and that they each have value simply by the fact that they were created. Somewhere this year, I’ve forgotten how to teach that lesson.


I’ve told them I love them and I want them to succeed, but I have gotten hung up on helping them succeed and allowed the bigger lesson to sit on the sidelines.

There is a scene in which Mr. Rogers tells Mr. Vogel to be silent for one full minute and think about all the people who have loved him to make him who he is. I want to be one of the people my students would think of.

I want them to look back and say, she really loved me, even when I didn’t deserve it. Or she really loved me whether I did well in her class or not. Or she really loved me enough to tell me to get my head out of my butt and keep trying. Or… I don’t know really. I just know that I can teach these kids comma usage and that they matter at the same time.

Sometimes I get it right, but sometimes I allow my anger and frustration with all the brokenness to build and overcrowd the heart of grace.

And I’ve been banging on all the low keys on the piano for so long it’s hard to remember the other notes are there waiting to be played.

I want to go back to praying for my students in the moment of silence at the start of the day:

“God, help me show them your love today.”

And I want to let the pain of thoughtless words from leadership slip away instead of allowing them to scab and scar… and block the flow of my beating heart.

I am a mess right now. I am a tired mess.

God, help me to get it right tomorrow. Give me grace again for another day.

TEACHING

Grief Is an Ocean I Don’t Want to Swim

I missed a funeral on Saturday.

I am just dipping my toes in to begin to try to process this grief. This is a loss that occurred before it occurred. This is pain mixed with deeper pain, and I am probably trying to process it with the emotional reasoning that research says became frozen in time. So the little girl in me has not wanted to work through this yet. But I know I should.

But first…

I spent the week in Ocean Isle Beach. I sat beside the vast expanse of salt and power. Sometimes I walked or played where the warm (yes, warm) water barely came to my ankles, and sometimes I went deep enough to allow myself to be submerged by bending my knees or laying myself down. But something you should know about me is that I never went deep enough to get where I couldn’t easily stand and hold my head above the water.

I allowed waves to hit me head on, turned my back and braced for them, ran against them, swam over their breaking and foam, or, when I was feeling particularly brave or adventurous, I jumped with them and let them carry me toward the shore.

This has been my life of grieving. I mostly choose to sit beside it, aware of its power and presence. And when I have entered in, I have been constantly cognizant of the dangers of being swept away in the salty waters of a vast expanse beyond my capability to fully comprehend.

Two and a half weeks ago, I spent my Saturday by my aunt’s hospital bed. I was conflicted in grief and a longing for relief. I wish I could say it was only her relief that I longed for. But I won’t lie to you.

I could feel that I had stepped into the water, and I was unsure of what the waves might look like or how to respond. I didn’t know whether to jump into them or turn my back as they came. I didn’t know how far to step out because I couldn’t see the bottom and the sandy floor could have dropped beneath me.

God, I remember the joy and the fear of her home.

I am a little girl running through the living room and down to the basement and up again. I am grabbing mini hotdogs on toothpicks (which Margaret knew I loved and made sure were there for me), playing games with my cousins, and anticipating what Christmas gift Aunt Margaret and Uncle Gerrry have given me this year.

I loved the standard box of lifesavers we would get as an added treat. I vividly remember a large stuffed animal mouse that wore an apron with three pockets, and there was a baby mouse in each pocket. I loved the noise and the crowded space of her home and the bustle of family moving, laughing, and celebrating.

But there is more, and I freeze up as I even begin to try to type. I am pacing the shoreline, and anger and fear are creeping in. I am sinking before I even step in.

I’m a little girl in their bathroom, and he walks in and the memory ends. I am crying in the camper because I am the youngest and have to go to bed first, and he walks in and the memory ends. I think I am playing hide and go seek. I’m a sitting on the dryer, but the memory is fear instead of joy.

And this is the grief I cannot grasp. This is the rhubbarb’s bitter sweet from her garden while I sit at the kitchen table and listen to my mother and her talk and laugh. This is the sunlit back porch and the shadowy corners.

There are no boundaries once I step in. There is only vast ocean.

And everything is mixed together as I grieve all that has been lost. I loved Aunt Margaret. But my children did not know her.

When Gerry passed away, I felt almost nothing. But it gave me a freedom to visit Margaret again–too late. Her mind and her body were going. I had lost her long ago, and time with her in the nursing home was only a puddle that had formed on the shores, left from the tide.

At the end, salty water trickled down my cheeks at her hospital bedside as my sister sang “It Is Well with My Soul” and we raised our voices with her for the chorus.

I knew this was my last time with her and that I loved her.

I loved her, and I battled with her choice to stay with a man that caused us all to lose so much. And I waded in the water while looking in her eyes and singing a melody of prayer.

The waves are a salty mix of power, refreshing, fear, and release.

God, make it well with my soul as I explore waters deep.

LEARNING

To All the Students I’ve Loved Before

I fall in love every year, and every year I am left with a full, broken heart.

The First Impression

If you recall the first few days, I tried to balance fanning my feathers and beating my chest. I had to win your interest and show that I was the boss.

I learned your name along with anywhere between 70 and well over 100 other new names by playing clever games and using good old fashioned repetition– the key to memorization.

In the first few weeks, we made small bonds through ice breakers and lessons geared to learning who you were.

If you had me in recent years, you wrote me a journal within our first week together. Although I was still struggling to match the words you wrote to the face in my room, I was also falling in love.

By the end of reading your frank, funny, sweet, sassy, sloppy, carefully crafted words, I knew I was done for.

Within hours, I was head over heels in love with you and a bunch of other kids who didn’t have the slightest clue who I was besides the lady who said “silencio” or that she won’t accept late work and that your phone needs to be out of sight, out of mind when you are in her classroom.

Remember? You said:

“I collect sneakers. Each shoe I own has some type of story or some type of sentimental value to me.”

” I wish my friends knew I see them as family, not as friends.”

“Something that drives me insane is my family. They drive me absolutely crazy. Not in a joking way either. I would rather not get into it too much, but out of everything they make me depressed more than happy. But I can’t speak to them about it either”

“One thing most people can’t tell about me is that I am actually pretty “shy,” so that also means my social skills aren’t top tier.”

“I am extremely extroverted.”

“I am actually very passionate about current hot topics in politics such as gun control and women’s rights. I guess I would say I’m an activist.”

“I am a very straight to the point guy, I’m a realist. In history class I was a very depressing person to be around because I would only say the truth.”

“I try to do only things indoors because I’m super Irish and I burn too easy.”

You and your classmates are clearly wonderful creatures, but I didn’t really know it yet. Looking back at your words from the first week, I laugh and say, “Yes, that is so …(you).”

You didn’t lie to me. You were exactly who you said you would be, and I love you all the more for it.

The Budding Relationship

Now, let’s not pretend it was all rainbows and sunshine.

Sometimes, you were so mad at me for not letting you use Snapchat, watch Netflix, turn in work late, or because I made you do work you just didn’t want to do.

We had class discussions, wrote papers, read stories, wrote papers, practiced grammar, wrote more papers, created amazing presentations with cakes and songs… and anything you could come up with under the sun, and wrote more papers.

Unless I taught you Spanish. Then we played games and talked, everyday. Seriously. That is all we did. It was awesome. Games in Spanish and conversations in Spanish, and you left… knowing Spanish. What a life.

But I’m sort of stuck on all the words I’ve read right now. I’m kind of stuck on all your stories. I am having a hard time moving on.

The Break Up

“I don’t want it to end.”

That is what you (or one of the other students who had me… who this is also written to) said. On the last day together, after you clicked submit on your last paper, you said, “Mrs. Burtram, I don’t want it to end.”

I didn’t show how much this filled and crushed me in that moment, and it stuck with me all day, all weekend, and all week. I imagine it will always be with me.

It is another year of breaking up summed up in six simple words.

But you need the break up.

You are ready to go conquer the world and write some pretty kick ass essays while you do it… if I do say so myself.

And I am over here like the kid in Lassie or Benji or whatever movie it is that has a scene where the little boy is yelling at the dog to just go because it is better for the dog, but it is tearing the kid up and he is crying… Don’t get too picky about the details of the scene or which movie it came from. I am clearly emotional about all this right now, and I will cut you if you correct me. Also, I said, a bad word. Get over it. I am busy processing a break up with not one, but 100 loves for the millionth time in my life, and I don’t know if my heart can take it anymore. I don’t even have the energy to fix my poor sentence structure and terrible word choice. Don’t ask me to filter.

Questioning Everything

Why do I do it to myself?

Each year it gets harder and harder, and I’m not sure I can do another first day.

I stand by the whiteboard looking at a sea of strangers and ask myself, “Rebecca, do you have it in you to love like you did the year before?”

In that moment I don’t know if I have what it takes to truly know the wonderful mysteries sitting before me. I know they will baffle, thrill, and annoy me to no end. They’ll give me a thousand stories to tell my husband and my friends about the clever, stupid, rude, or sweet things they will do all year long. But then the last day will come, and I’ll be thinking, “I don’t want it to end,” and some pain in the butt kid will actually say it right out loud.

AND I WILL BE DONE FOR.

Moving Forward

So maybe I need to sit on the couch and ugly cry while eating a tub of ice cream, go for a really long run, never leave my house again, or maybe I should do the thing I have worked so hard to teach many of you to do. Maybe I need to write.

So I wrote you a letter to let you see a glimpse of how much you have meant to me.

You probably don’t know that it’s definitely about you because you think I am only talking about that one student from my first year teaching Spanish who always seemed to make me laugh or the kid from this year who clearly loved to write. But you are wrong. It’s about him, her, and you.

You have conspired to fill my heart then walk away, just like all the students I have loved before.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Go spread the love and spread your wings. You are unique and amazing, but I will love again.

LEARNING

The Passing of Life

Today I am thinking about the passing of life–both the passing of time while we are here and the passing from this life to the next.

How bitter and painful both can be for many, yet how sweet and joyous all the same.

I watched Endgame this evening, and I cried with a room full of strangers.

Isn’t that beautiful? We sat in the dark next to our friends or families but also with people we have never seen before and may never see again, and we felt it ALL together. We wept, some of us loudly and openly, and some stifled back the tears with tight throats and hot eyelids… and some *cough *cough my husband *cough *cough laughed at the absurdity of the rest of us joined in grief at the loss of a fictional life.

But I loved the weird unity of it. We were lost in the story of a fight to save humanity, and we shared our humanity as we wept together in the dark.

I don’t know how it came up, but we told our kids stories from their births on the way to dinner. Maybe we felt life bursting in the rawness of our emotions after laughing, crying, and cheering for flawed heroes. Or maybe we were just thinking about how we used to eat at Red Robin a lot more when we first started our family.

We told about how the night Ella was born we had met Jon’s parents for a relaxed dinner at Red Robin in order to send Kaleb, who was days from turning two, home with them. We reminisced about Jon watching football at home and taking a long walk with me at half time. We took a loop that required us to hop a fence to be almost home or go back the two miles we had already come. With some help, I hopped the fence…. the day I delivered Ella. Her birth was calm and easy. But we also told about when Kaleb was taken to the NICU shortly after he was born and the fear and uncertainty we felt as we were forced to wait in the hallway while the nurses switched shifts before we could go in to see him. We laughed at how many times we have already told the kids Annalyn’s birth story because her story captures her stubborn will to do things her own way.

I was so young in these stories. How distant and sweet those crazy, fun, heart pounding, and heart filling moments seem.

When we returned home this evening, I read the news that a christian, female author, far more successful than me, who was born the same year as I was just died from what started as the flu.

No rhyme. No reason.

And this caused me to pause. The need to process the passing of life couldn’t be held back any longer. The need to think and feel it all pushed me to the keyboard, where my inner world finds its way out.

I think of the mess of my home I am constantly trying to overcome- the mountains of laundry, the random junk left on the dining room table by my children (placed there to drive me momentarily insane), the soap scum on my pretty glass shower walls, and the cat litter that escapes the box on the daily. I think of how much of my life is spent worrying about these things. I think of the stress of my work environment and the dreams I keep setting on the shelf for another day because I have my whole life ahead of me, and I do. I have my whole life ahead of me.

I smile as I write this and Annalyn skates back and forth on the back deck… because she is a skater girl now. It’s all a jumble of feels–heart bursting, heart rending, heart racing, feels.

I am just taking it in and feeling all the feels.

I am desperate to embrace the moment and live in the now, but I am also aware that life is so big and potentially so long… and maybe I don’t need to sweat the little stuff and could give even more grace… to me and to others because whether my life is much longer or suddenly over, no one will care if I weighed ten extra pounds, what my career was, or if the counters were clean and the cabinets organized. No. They will care only that I loved them.

And yet, I love them so much better when I feel the calm and peace of a world with everything in place. And that is the lie I believe- that I can put life into order… that I have control… that there is rhyme and reason.

And so I pray that God will help me to pass this life well.

A skater girl and her dog
Who I AM
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