Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Discerning Calls: To Teach or Not?

Divine People in this World!

I wrote and asked oodles of you for your prayers and support last week regarding this most recent invitation to return to the classroom as a teaching artist. Basically, I was wrestling with: Should I? Should I not?

Plagued, I was. Blessed I was! As the question, or invitation to return --ON MY OWN TERMS -- seemed an absolute gift from God. It was! It is! As it gave me this great opportunity to revisit why I left the classroom in the first place and entertain the question, "Could I return, given the right conditions?"


Short answer: Nope. I cannot. But thank you very much!

Seriously! Thank you Tiffany Ingham Moore for inviting me to work with your team at Southwest High School. And thank you faith community and family around the globe for your good thoughts, prayers and loving queries.

Here's how I arrived at my decision.
Let me rephrase that:
Here's how God lead me to an answer:

Tuesday evening, following Monday's request for discernment support, I attended mass at the Visitation Monastery in North Minneapolis. Oh! It was a delightfully small ensemble of us gathered that evening in the living room of the Girard House to pray together and break open scripture, share bread, stories, and faith. As we waited for Bishop Pates to arrive to lead us in our service, I had the great pleasure of visiting with Linda, a dear friend and neighbor to the nuns, who I have grown close to over the past two years in my journey as a Visitation Companion.

On this evening, I made a simple inquiry into Linda's life and world, and what came pouring forth was something that would move me to a place of stillness, deep woe, ache, overwhelming wonder and love, anger and need for prayer....

Linda began by sharing bits from her day and her work as a foster mother. She told of the schedule she keeps the babes on, the routine of care, meals, naps, play, etc. All things she navigates in the course of her 6am - 8pm child-care hours.

It didn't seem a "chalant" thing (ie, it wasn't uttered in a nonchalant manner) that a challenge of her day existed in tending to the touching activities of one of the three year olds. It seems that this new child in her care (actually, her grandchild) had been inappropriately reaching and connecting with a one-year old babe in the house. By "inappropriate," Linda explained that it was of a sexually charged nature that this three year old went toward the 12 month old. Linda said she had to be super attentive. It made sense, though to her, she shared, because the toddler, her grandchild, had come just recently from another foster situation where she in fact had been inappropriately touched by a five year old. Linda said she couldn't afford to turn her head. She had to pay close attention.

After a short beat, my friend offered up the explanation that the 5 year old had been molested. This child was touched wrongly by a 12 year old.

And the dominoes in my heart tumbled:
Where does it stop?
Where did it begin?
Who is to blame?
What does a mother do?
What is foster care?
Who are we as witnesses?
Who am I as teacher?
What will come of this 3 year old? The 5 year old? The 12-year old? That baby of only 12 months? Will this be something they know of? Or will it recede in their bones? Will the residual scar or memory keep them from success? Will they know love? Will they know forgiveness? What is appropriate touch? What is appropriate? Where is God in this? What am I to do, other than pray?

The cycles of abuse and first hand knowledge of such terror were being shared here by my friend, before mass, in the space of simply waiting for service to start. Yes, all the while waiting for our priest and Bishop to arrive, this story came forward....

Linda didn't stop there. When we located ourselves in the living room, next to one another on the sofa, she shared of her recent trip to Omaha to tend to her other grandchildren and daughter's family. Her 14 year old grandson had been shot, and Linda went to spend a week next to him in the hospital. Last summer, her other grandson was murdered. After Linda left the bedside of her grandchild on Friday, her son-in-law was then murdered, shot in the drive through of Taco Bell.

Did I mention that this was the before-mass conversation?

Friends, I have to take a break here, and admit: I don't how to write about this stuff. I'm not sure it's even okay to. I'm not clear on what I'm supposed to note and what I'm supposed to leave alone. Trusting my heart here is really tough, too, because what I'm listening to is a person's life! This isn't just a "here's my day at the office" story. Or "Here's what I had for lunch." Or "Here's my tale of who came over to watch a movie last night and how much we laughed and cried." Good God! Would it be that! But no! This is a friend sharing something that is tragic! It's a kind of first-person witness to terror! This is an account of violence and death and overwhelming sorrow. And who am I to share this with anyone?

All I know is: it stops me squarely in my tracks.
I don't know any other way through this, but to write it down. And pray. And I guess that's what this blog is: my attempt at praying through the witness and navigation of life's circumstances, post-teaching in Minneapolis Public Schools.


That was Tuesday night of my week in discernment.

Then there was Wednesday. Hold everything. Because that was only part one of God working through the week and circumstances to speak to me.

Wednesday included an encounter with two former students of mine, that I'll just simply refer to as “Hungry” and “Poor.”

These beautiful young people showed up in the wake of a chance opening in my day, and asked that I might help them out. You can sort what they needed. Hungry wanted food. Poor wanted money. And Melissa, given her free time and suddenly free afternoon thought, "Why not? God, is this what I am supposed to be tending to?"

It seemed fairly so. I just tried to pay attention, love and trust in that moment and that I’d be lead.

Please note: I don't mean to take a flippant turn here in the telling of this tale of discernment, but that's kind of where I go: to flipping out! Because what ensued on Wednesday was pure insanity! Well, not PURE insanity, but surely a bit on the "this-makes-no-sense" scale of things!

Poor asked that I drive him to get a check for $15,000. I don't question this young man ever on such details, for the simple fact that I'm not quite sure that I'll ever get a straight answer. I choose to simply acknowledge the request for help, without pushing for details. In this case, he needed a ride to collect a check. I have a car. I thought, "Okay. This is reasonable and easy enough, and I'm free to do this with him. God be with us."

What I didn't expect was Hungry wanting to tag along. And that was because I didn't know Hungry was hungry. I thought perhaps she was just bored.

But we set out, and this is the course of things:

1. We needed to first stop and collect Poor's Driver's License. (Presumably to collect check and cash it. It was at a location in North Minneapolis, and not in this young man's person for whatever reason.)
2. Then we needed to go to St. Louis Park, the originally agreed upon destination.
3. Poor forgot the address. He asked to use my phone, since his day time minutes were out. I agreed for an agreed upon time limit. He called to check on address, as Hungry, in the back seat was chiming in her recollection of where this sizeable check was located. There was a dispute over the location, but I was trusting we’d get there. (How can one not know where a $15,000 check is?)
4. We drive. And drive.
5. The address we go to is in the middle of a residential neighborhood. This feels very strange and wrong. I have questions that start to scream in my head.
6. Poor goes to the door of house to inquire about the check. He encounters a man and a dog.
7. When he returns to the car, he is spouting death threats to the owner of the house.
8. Hungry in the back seat starts rallying, "I told you it wasn't that address!" I find the calmest voice in my body and ask, "What is this check for? Who is it from? An employer? What was the job? Or is this from a government organization? What?" Poor shares now that this is something he is doing as a favor for another person, a girl, who just moved to Texas. I cannot really hear any more. I put the car in drive. I ask God to give me patience.

9. Next, we try the address Hungry recalls. It is also wrong.
10. I turn the car around and point us to the closest commercial area I see. We pull into a strip mall, and as I'm getting ready to announce this adventure of aid is to be over, when Poor announces, "THIS IS IT! That's the name of the person I'm supposed to get the check from! It's there on the marquis." We are at a law office.
11. When Poor goes in to collect check, I start asking Hungry how life is, what's going on with her, etc. I feel God must be in this moment, and perhaps this dear is along for the ride so that we might simply have this time to visit and learn from one another. As we wait for Poor, Hungry confesses her identity to me, and her recent string of bad luck with living, family, work, and grocery shopping. She hasn't eaten today, and won’t have money until a week from Friday.
12. Poor returns, without a check, and shares that the lawyer – who is holding the check - is in arbitration and won't be out for 45 minutes.
13. I announce that we are going home!

Deep breathe. The trip is not over. What happens next is surreal. As I turn up MPR, and we listen to the news of the Utah Senator who propositioned another man in the bathroom of the Minneapolis/ St. Paul airport. In the space of our ten minute trip home, Poor and Hungry end up in a screaming match that feels like a 45 minute debate on ethics and leadership, on who should lose their job, how one should conduct themselves in any work position, and who is at fault. I enter feebly into this with questions about having compassion and not judging others, that go un-addressed.

All I want in those last moments in the car, is that compassion happen for me. I realize that I have to take care of myself, that these two are battling demons as large as the names I’ve given them, or come to see them as in the days since, and I cannot solve any of their problems. All I can do is witness. Pray. Love. Take care of myself.

And so: in the space of about another four hours that day, I realize that I cannot go back into a classroom. It is through a weepy, wondering, wanting, woeful conversation with my friend Colette, that I’m coached back to clarity:

“Melissa, ” Coey says, “You are clear. No amount of money offered to you is going to be enough. You don’t want to live like this, working through these stories, or thinking you have to solve them. Ask yourself, ‘What is your free time for?’”

And good God, there was the voice of God in my friend, Ms. Colette Deharpporte! She was helping me acknowledge my own kind of hard-wiring. My own frail infrastructure that is simultaneously weak and strong, and has a tendency to get tripped up, fried, broken down when I encounter such circumstances in our world. Yeah, I get to this place that manifests as unhealthy anger and rage as I think somehow I need to FIX humanity! I know that even though I cannot fix anyone or anything, that I cannot place myself in situations as educator where my task and challenge is to instruct and offer, shape or inspire a being toward a better place.

Ack! Tough. Too tough! And that’s NOT what I’ve been called to do.

I’m here as a witness. As a writer. As a person of prayer and love and compassion. I’m an aspiring “Warrior of non-aggression”, as the Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron refers to this; someone called to enter the fire and not have to put it out, but simply pay attention, take note and hold compassion and love in the flames of great injustice, woe, poverty, war, hunger, sorrow. I’m here to witness. Not teach or have to overcome anything. Someone else much greater than me already has done that. No need for bad sequels.


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