Friday, August 26, 2011

Two Weeks

It's Friday night and I'm finally going to get a full night's sleep. All I can really say about these past two weeks is that I've survived. That's all. I have simply survived. Everything inside of me wants to quit and walk away. When kids are mocking me or fighting in the hallways, I think, "I don't need this _____" and I want to just walk out the door. I want to leave WITH ALL THAT IS INSIDE OF ME. However, there is Someone else inside of me, spurring me on. I can't walk out on what God has called me to do. And as one of just three male teacher in this school, I don't want to be like almost every other male in almost every student's life and just walk out. Honestly, the desire to not walk out on these kids is the ONLY thing keeping me here. I have NO IDEA how I'll EVER teach anything.

I have seen things these past two weeks that I can't even begin to explain. I can't believe that the richest nation in the history of the world can allow their kids to be in a system like what I'm seeing. Dear God, how can we treat our poor in this way?

Of the past 14 days, I have only NOT cried for two of them, tonight being the second. I don't mean just a few tears, I mean pounding the table and sobbing. I just can't explain what I've experienced. Last Saturday, it took everything I had to just get off the couch, make breakfast and take Dawson to the park.

To try to summarize a few things, I've got some categories that might give a tiny glimpse of what I've experienced.

One of the other male teachers, a TFA teacher, has an interesting group of 6th grade girls. These girls enjoy calling him a "dumb cracker."

I had a kid turn and flash me a half cute, half devilish smile and try to sprint out of the school building. He got caught at the door, though.

On Thursday, as I stood in the midst of the swirling hurricane that is my classroom at the end of the day, I had the thought, "no one would ever believe what I'm seeing if I told them." So, I decided to get out my camera and record it. I just stood there, video recording my classroom. Of course, kids freak out because I could show their parents the video, so the kids started crawling back out from under their desks, releasing their classmates from headlocks and actually doing part of what they were supposed to be doing. Due to liability issues, I can't post the video online.

After spending two weeks with one group of kids, I will now begin teaching the kids that are at a 4th grade reading and math level. I have a classroom full of 5th grade textbooks and nothing for 4th grade. I don't know who is in my class or where my 5th grade kids will be going. It all starts Monday. I wish I could also video the mass chaos, and I mean mass chaos, that will be happening in the halls of our school on Monday. Sometimes the only way to deal with the stress and anxiety is to just laugh.

My fellow 5th grade teacher had a nervous breakdown. She got two days off and went to the doctor. She tried to quit, but TFA wouldn't let her. She's back and looking better. After school today, I said, "you usually look like you've been hit by a MAC truck, today you look like it was just a pickup that hit you. So it's getting better."

Two days ago, as about 200 kids were squeezing through a tiny opening in a chain link fence to get onto the bus, the older kids literally trampled the kindergartners. Seriously, ran OVER them.

Last week, while I was having a breakdown and sobbing in the office, I saw a girl try to attack our principal. It took about four people to restrain her.

I'm not eating much because of the stress. I'm losing a lot of weight and looking pretty sick. But I'm just not hungry because of the tension that is always in my body. I REALLY need some anti-anxiety medicine. I have trouble breathing when picking my class up in the morning.

The Superintendent of the KCMO School District, who had been working very hard to bring about reform, resigned on Tuesday night. And the poor continue to be forgotten and ignored.

The kids have no playground equipment. I did however, thanks to some money that one of Erin's coworkers gave to us, buy them some playground balls.

There are roaches and rats in my classroom.

Kids have to walk across major intersections, along busy streets with no sidewalks and through parks full of drug dealers to get to school. Seriously. How can that be okay?

Two kids who are way behind and really need to learn are about to get suspended for fighting in my classroom, putting them even further behind.

During worship last Sunday a line from one of our songs made me sit down and begin weeping. It was the line, "break my heart with what breaks yours." If I hurt to see how these kids are treated by our system, how must the God of justice, mercy and compassion feel? Who will have to answer for how we've treated our nation's poor?

My wife. Seriously, I would not still be standing if it wasn't for her. She's running the entire house, planning all kinds of things for my lessons, packing my lunches and ironing my clothes while also propping me up emotionally. Erin has always been a great ministry partner, but she has gone beyond even what I knew she could do. She is also supporting and encouraging the other 3 TFA teachers on my hall, too. She is simply amazing.

Just kissing Dawson's blond head and hugging his little body keeps me going. I've been home by 7 amost every night to spend an hour with him. I need to be with my boy.

Just little things here and there. Last Friday, I got them all to walk in a line without talking, for about 2 minutes. Also last Friday, when I said, "I have an announcement to make" (regarding reading to a Kindergarten class) one student blurted out, "Mr. Miller, are you quitting?" I was so shocked by the question, I just laughed. I just can't be another male who walks out on them.

I greet the kids at the door, have them look me in the eye and shake my hand. One boy refused to do it. "I don't touch other guys' hands." I told him that in my classroom we shake the teachers hand and until he's ready to do that, he needs to sit in the back of the room. About a half hour later he came up and shook my hand. I almost cried. I then had a big classroom celebration to "welcome" him to our class for the day.

As the two kids about to be suspended stormed past me leaving school today, I gave them the candy I had just given to the rest of the class. They were so angry and wouldn't look at me. I had them stop, gave them the candy and said, "this is for no reason other than you're my students and I care about you. I'll be back on Monday." I saw a tiny crack in that hard exterior.

People whom I haven't heard from in a long time (and close friends and family) call or text me to reassure me they're praying for me. Honestly, I feel almost forgotten by God sometimes. But things like the financial gifts, prayers and other really simple acts of kindness are the tiny shreds of hope onto which I cling for strength. God has NOT abandoned me, nor these kids and I'm where I'm supposed to be.

The speech teacher across the hall who watched 5 different teachers rotate through my classroom last year keeps reassuring me that I'm doing a good job and that she's seeing progress. When she saw me break down and cry the other day, she slipped note in my door that said, "you're doing a good job and I wouldn't say that if it weren't true."

I watch a few of the veteran teachers who can really do it. I sit in their classrooms during my plan time. It's so amazing to watch.

At art class, I watched my 17 boys act like little angels. The art teacher assured me, "I've been doing this for 20 years, you've been doing it for 7 days. Just keep going."

Most of the teachers there are Christ-followers. The other day, as I broke down and cried as soon as my students left, a veteran teacher put her arms around me and prayed for me. These "vets" are always praying for us "newbies." They are amazing to watch. They pray for us, give us advice and mostly just refuse to let us quit. One teacher told me I not only need to pray before and after school (and I do pray during my 50 minute drive, I pray to have the strength to just walk through the doors of the school) but to pray during the day. To ask God to give me wisdom and strength. Today, I was staring at some kids who were "acting the fool" and thinking some not nice thoughts about them. I started praying, "Jesus, show me how you see them." And my brow softened, I stopped glaring at them and I saw hurting little kids who are loved by Jesus. Then someone did something stupid and I got pissed again. But I saw them with the right eyes, for just a moment.

I could write all night, but I've got to go to bed. I am finally going to take a Sabbath rest tomorrow. I must do it. Sabbath is a reminder that even when I stop working (and I have SO MUCH to do) God continues to run the world. Of course, very few of my plans ever work anyway.

So tomorrow is cleaining the house, taking Dawson to the park and spending the evening with my wife. Last weekend showed me how much strength I can get from just sleeping, eating and talking with some friends.

Not sure when I'll be able to post again...

Monday, August 15, 2011

My Last First Day

It is 11:15 and I've FINALLY finished planning for tomorrow. Even though I have to get up at 5:15, I wanted to take the time to journal about today.

Today was my last ever first day of teaching. Thank goodness.

I cried a bit on my way to class, out of the excitement and vision for my kids. I cried on the way home out of sheer frustration, exhaustion and sense of being overwhelmed.
Since last Monday, I've probably only had about 5 hours that I wasn't sleeping or working. I'm NOT exaggerating.

This is insane.

And today was insane. We started the day with an incomprehensible crash course in how the day would work. The day ended with me releasing my students at the wrong time to the wrong places. In between we had cockroaches coming from the ceiling, indoor recess because of rain, a flooded boys bathroom, a boy punching the chalkboard, several kids sleeping on their desk and a terrible feedback (due to Friday's lighting strike) from the PA every time the Principal spoke, hurting the kids' ears and preventing us from knowing when and where to release the students.

But a bit of good / funny news. 1) I got asked twice if I was the Principal. Both times I laughed. One mom said, "you just look like a Principal."
2)In the one stretch in which all kids were paying attention, I got to give a speech about the importance of succeeding academically so one can graduate from college.
3) The SPED teacher across the hall told me that compared to last year's first day, I had GREAT first day. Of course, the classroom I'm currently in had 5 different teachers last year.

I can't promise I'll ever get my students to behave or even learn something. But I can promise I'm not going anywhere.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

My Boy is Reading!

Dawson is reading!

I wrote down this great memory of which I wanted to hold on to on Dawson's blog. Link

Still Lifting

Over the past year or so, the intensity of my weight-lifting has dropped significantly. I still lift but not as frequent and not as intense as before.

About two months ago, my sister showed me this article from the Hy-Vee corporate magazine. I was glad to read that my former work-out partner is still going strong. Interesting read.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

I Dreamed a Dream of Comfort

My first week working in the KCMSD has been a difficult week. We are being trained to teach in a way that is going to require, to quote a TFA teacher about to begin her second year, "A TON of work." Without going into a bunch of details, I'm going to be overseeing the academic growth of about 100 students and spending crazy amounts of hours developing projects and recording student performance in various tracking devices while writing my lesson plans from nearly scratch. Just one of those three challenges would be difficult, but all three will be... Well, I'm still in denial.
Add to that a salary that will barely allow me to pay our mortgage and a 50 minute commute to and from work. Well, it's going to be a VERY difficult year.

This rather stark reality reminded me of some daydreaming I was doing about 3 or 4 years ago. I can vividly remember taking a first-time guest coffee mug to a family who lived in a large house just south of town. Their house and the others around, were nestled into some clearings in a beautiful wooded area. At that time, Erin and I were a DINKS couple (Dual Income No Kids). And while neither of us were earning a very large salary, we were being very intentional about saving and investing every possible dollar. While visiting that house, I remember thinking, "if Erin and I continue on our current financial path (at that time we were both working full time - not making a lot but being very careful with our money and making some serious financial headway) we could eventually buy a house like this." Pre-parenthood vacations and Dave Ramsey-inspired attempts to pay extra on our house was getting me in the mindset of "live like on one else now, so that later you can live like no one else." A Dave Ramsey line that basically means scrimp now and live-it-up later. At that time, we were definitely on the "like no one else" path toward the American Dream. Honestly, I was quite blinded by that dream.

But while I was busy dreaming about the future, God was using our "years of plenty" to prepare us (like Joseph and Egypt in Genesis) for "years of want."

In the book Crazy Love, a book which has impacted me greatly, author Francis Chan observed that when travelling, Christians often pray for a "safe travel." And while Chan didn't write that there is anything wrong with a safe journey, he did point out that many Christians are concerned with taking the safe path. But if you look at Jesus' teaching, his examples and the examples of the early Christians - a life of following Jesus is to be anything but safe. I was getting too focused on safe and comfortable and God needed to bluntly remind me of the type of life he's called me to. A life that will do the crazy, risky, outside-the-comfort-zone type of things that will reach the people no one else is reaching. Things like starting a new church with no money and no people because I knew it was the best way to reach those not yet in a church.

The reality I need to continue to accept is that God never intended for my life to be simple and comfortable. I am to be living in such a way that I can sense his guidance toward the next Kingdom adventure. I am to be sensitive enough that when he re-directs me, a re-direction like this teaching gig, I obey. I am to be selfless enough that I follow his guidance, no matter the personal cost.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

In Matthew 16:24 we read Jesus' statement, "If anyone wants to be my disciple, he must deny himself, pick up his cross and follow me."

These thoughts had been going on in my head but it all became clear for me last night while watching the Les Mis 25th anniversary concert, I had a bit of an epiphany. I had a bit of an epiphany while watching "I Dreamed a Dream." This song is sung by Fantine, one of the many tragic characters in Victor Hugo's novel.

To say that Fantine's life was neither easy nor comfortable would be an understatement. And while Fantine was a fictional person, her character is based upon many of Miserable Ones who lived in extreme poverty during the European revolutions of 1848. I've been reading the book 1848: Year of Revolutions about this time period and it's hard to imagine the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" and the desperate poverty that caused the Miserable Ones (English for Les Miserables) to revolt.

Not only was a I reminded that my life is not to be comfortable. I was also reminded that even with our current financial situation, I am still among the "haves" of the world. I am tempted to feel sorry for myself only when I compare myself to the few in our world who are more comfortable than myself.

I didn't have to fight for survival in a 19th century Parisian slum. I don't have to eek out a miserable existence as one of the underclass in modern-day India. Most relevant to my current situation, I wasn't born into the inner cities that are forgotten by (at best) and oppressed (at worst) by the "haves" of our society. I wasn't born into the financial, educational and social situations into which most of my soon-to-be students were born. I wasn't born as the subset social group of the richest nation in the world destined to be ignored and trampled on by the rest of society. I've heard it said that if the gap continues to widen, our nation is headed toward an apartheid existence. No matter what my paycheck may read, I was born into privilege.

I was also born again into the Kingdom of God. And for that reason, I must continually reject comfort and move toward the cross. The life of following Jesus is not a life turned in on itself. Rather, it is a life lived with an outward-focus. A life lived in the footsteps of the crucified Savior.

I'm glad God woke me up from that dream before it was too late. I'm glad to move out of my comfort zone and into a life that matters.

Just for kicks, here is the
Glee version of "I Dreamed a Dream."

A letter I sent to my congressmen

In response to this blog post, I printed out the letter below and sent it to my 2 senators and 1 congressman.

Aug 6, 2011

Representative Kevin Yoder
Cannon House Office Building, Room 214
Independence Avenue and 1st Street, SE
Washington, DC 20515-1603

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ Representative Yoder,

As people of faith, we are committed to fiscal responsibility and
shared sacrifice. We are also committed to resist budget cuts that
undermine the lives, dignity, and rights of poor and vulnerable people.
Therefore, we join with others to form a Circle of Protection around
programs that meet the essential needs of hungry and poor people at
home and abroad.

1. The nation needs to substantially reduce future deficits, but not at
the expense of hungry and poor people.

2. Programs focused on reducing poverty should not be cut. They should
be made as effective as possible, but not cut.

3. We urge our leaders to protect and improve poverty-focused
development and humanitarian assistance to promote a better, safer

4. National leaders must review and consider tax revenues, military
spending, and entitlements in the search for ways to share sacrifice
and cut deficits.

5. A fundamental task is to create jobs and spur economic growth.
Decent jobs at decent wages are the best path out of poverty, and
restoring growth is a powerful way to reduce deficits.

6. The budget debate has a central moral dimension. Christians are
asking how we protect "the least of these." "What would
Jesus cut?" "How do we share sacrifice?"

7. As believers, we turn to God with prayer and fasting, to ask for
guidance as our nation makes decisions about our priorities as a

8. God continues to shower our nation and the world with blessings. As
Christians, we are rooted in the love of God in Jesus.

Affirmed and signed by,

Mr. Donald Miller
31310 W 172nd Ter
Gardner, KS 66030-9202

Monday, August 1, 2011

I'm awake

Saturday afternoon, as I was driving home from the Kansas City airport with my wife beside me and my son in the car seat behind me, I experienced a somewhat familiar sensation. I experienced the sensation you get when you wake up from a terrible dream and slowly come to the realization that it was only a nightmare and that you are laying in the warmth and comfort of your own bed. I had that sensation Saturday afternoon.

It's as if I fell into a nightmare filled sleep on Sunday afternoon, June 26th as I watched my wife and son walk away from me at the Kansas City airport. I was awoken from that nightmare in almost the same spot in the aiport, staring at a mom and boy for a couple seconds before realings, "that's Erin and Dawson" and then holding them and crying with joy. In between those two events was a five week long nightmarish blur of insanely difficult, confusing, frustrating and exhausting days broken only by naps in the middle of the night (rather than a full-night's sleep) and a few hours of light and rest on Saturday afternoons. The common thread of all those days however, being the variation of dull ache to all-out heartache of missing my family. But while driving home my car, with my family, to my house, I awoke to the safety and warmth of the real world again. I turned to Erin and told her everything I just posted above. While I know that my time at the LA institute was more than a terrible dream, I'm glad it's all in the past now. I've survived and I'll NEVER do that again.

On Tuesday begins my actual job as a 5th grade teacher for Goerge Melcher Elementary. I'm about to experience the agonizing ordeal of being a first-year teacher. But I'm ready. Bring it on. I just read a line from War and Peace that fits this new challenge. It was stated by Pierre while recounting his terrible but life-altering experience as a prisoner of war in Napoleon's army. "They say: 'sufferings are misfortunes.' said Pierre. 'But if at once, this minute, I was asked, would I remain what I was before I was taken prisoner, or go through it all again, I should say, for God's sake let me rather be a prisoner and eat horseflesh again. We imagine that as soon as we are torn out of our habitual path all is over, but it is only the beginning of something new and good. As long as there is life, there is happiness. There is a great deal, a great deal before us. That I say to you,' he said, turning to Natasha."