Friday, August 27, 2010

Mass With Ganza

Before mass at Aimable's with Immaculee, Ryan Aimable and Souda. Below are Nikki, Tim and Souda.

From there we went to mass at Immaculee’s cousin Ganza’s church. He is a quiet man with a hearty laugh. Ganza is a Jesuit priest. There is such power in his presence. Remember connecting to the Jewish traditions and practices at Emily’s Bat Mitzvah? This was like that for me only multiplied many times. We sort of prepared for the mass by sharing informally about our experiences here. I practiced reading some scripture I was to share in mass. Portia practiced the second reading. There is a retreat center at this church and we hung out in sort of a large living room before the service. On the wall was a picture showing three priests who were killed here during the genocide. I wish I knew their stories.

The mass itself was in a small room. Chairs around a table (the altar) in a semi-circle. We practiced a few songs before mass. Most in English. Ganza wanted to say his first mass in English for us. It was hushed, solemn. We could hear the city sounds through the open windows. It was just our little group with another priest and a “priest to be” in attendance. The mass itself was very much like what I remember from all those years ago when I went to Catholic church. Lots of memorized prayers and responses including the Apostle’s Creed and the Our Father. Even though it has been a very long time since I have been to mass, the responses and prayers came forth automatically. There were long times when Ganza spoke directly to us. His message was love and forgiveness, strength that comes through mercy. Many of his prayers were spontaneous. He thanked us over and over for coming to Rwanda. He asked us to tell the world about what we see here. He said we were brave for coming. I didn’t feel brave. When I thought of all of the pain these beautiful people have gone through and their willingness to reconcile… That is bravery (video - Rwanda, No Bravery). Stepping out of my little comfort zone to come to stay with these wonderful people does not seem brave when I consider Rwandans.

With Ganza after Mass. A wonderful man in brave times.

Ganza prayed for the Tutsi and the Hutu. He prayed for people in conflicts all over Africa. His prayers spun out in an ever widening circle until it encompassed the world. I wish so much that I could have recorded the sermon, the whole service really because I can’t remember the exact words. Prayers for thanksgiving. Prayers that we might be the best people we can be and use our goodness to make the world a better place. Prayers of hope. Prayers of love.

Aimable's House

Immaculee, Aimable and Ryan

We went to Immaculee’s brother Aimable’s house (uh-mob-lay) after the memorial. His wife, Souda (sp?) and their little two year old boy, Ryan, just spent six weeks with Immaculee in NYC. Their reunion was wonderful. Aimable is a vet and has taken the week off to spend with us. He was the sole survivor among Immaculee's family. He is quiet and laid back. He and Souda have another child on the way. We hung out at their house with neighborhood kids flocking over to see us. We had Fantas (soda) and decompressed after going to the Genocide Memorial. I went outside and took a few pictures of the kids from the neighborhood and Ryan. Immaculee’s older daughter Nikki is also with us. She seems happy to be here if a little disinterested in the goings on of the adults. I think she is ten or eleven. Aimable is very hospitable and, of course, enjoys Immaculee’s presence. He is quite accepting and encouraging. I think Immaculee has only come with one other group of Americans before and I sense that they were a little afraid of everything.

Back To Rwanda

Back three years ago to that magical trip to the heart of Africa, to that notebook that started as a long letter and never knew it would be a blog When I first posted this my sister wrote, "How did these people learn to smile again? Now that is an example of real human strength." I agree. After what happened to their country, after a genocide in which over a million people were killed, How could one learn to smile again? I think it had a lot to do with the children. No single group is more resilient than the children...

I wrote this after visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial.


The Kigali memorial is on the side of a hill. Looking down and across the valley you see very poor homes. Row on row, corrugated roofs packed tightly together. When we think of the poor in America it really isn’t like this. As we drove down the winding hill and through the streets people were everywhere. Women in brightly colored wraps carrying firewood on their heads, children in ragged clothes playing soccer with something – not a soccer ball. One old man with no eyes being lovingly led by a very little one, maybe five or six. Well dressed people too. Business suits, colorful shirts and blouses, high heels. Such a wide assortment. Just like everywhere I suppose. Most seem happy. That big old smile was everywhere. So many smiles here. Among the many unforgettable images that smile is the best.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Little Prince

Last year I had to think hard to figure out the perfect end of the year read-aloud for my 3rd grade class. We had been together for two years. I knew them from the beginning of second grade. Most of them had my friend Jennifer for Kindergarten and first grade. Jennifer is kind and nurturing and funny and the best teacher any child could ever have. When they stepped into my classroom (soon to be our classroom) on their first day of second grade they couldn’t have known what to expect. Here is this older guy with a gray beard. They had seen me with my former class, but no one really knew me. It was probably a hard transition.

Over those two years we became like family. That is a LOT of time to be together. Six or seven hours a day for 180 days per year for two years. We got to know each other well. There were lots of laughs, lots of great times – and some tough times too. We composed and sang songs, learned complicated math, SC history, wrote countless stories, researched, presented, were amazed by science… The one thing that was constant through every single day was read-aloud. During our time together I read Charlotte’s Web, Shiloh, The Prince of the Pond, Hatchet, Sarah, Plain and Tall and many more. And those were just the chapter books.

Every day after lunch and recess we would pile into the room and get drinks and cool down and sit in front of the easy chair. I would light a candle, we would turn out the lights and recite the Shel Silverstein “Invitation” poem…

If you are a dreamer, come in.

If you are a dreamer,

A wisher,

A liar,

A hope-er

A pray-er

A magic bean buyer

If you are a pretender,

Then sit by my fire.

For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.

Come in!

Come in!

All would be quiet and we would dive in to story. We shared the stories of our lives as well, but read-aloud? It was a special time of day. It was a constant. Even when it was hard to get the kids settled, or if a lesson went lousy, or if some of us were cranky… read aloud would draw us together just like family. It was a shared experience. The characters were people we came to know, and some, to love. There were tears over read alouds. My old friend and professor Jerry Harste said, “If you can’t cry, then you can’t read.” And we did cry.

So at the end of the school year, at the end our two years together, I wanted to select just the right book. I thought back to The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry. I remember reading it aloud to Heidi when we were young and I remember us both really loving it. That would be it then. My final gift to this wonderful group of friends – family really. I would read this book, which gave me so much to think about as a young man. We only had a couple weeks left and it is a shortish book. Perfect.

I hadn’t read it in many years. It is kind of a strange book. For one thing the plot is unusual. Not quite science fiction, definitely fantasy, not much action (we had just finished reading Hatchet and Stone Fox which were realistic fiction, fairly easy to follow and had lots of action). It is the story of a little boy who lives on a tiny planet with just a rose and a couple of small volcanoes. He decides to travel away from his own place to explore the solar system. He meets a bunch of extremely strange people on his way to earth; a drunk…

“Why are you drinking?” demanded the little prince.

“So that I may forget,” replied the tippler.

“Forget what?” inquired the little prince, who already felt sorry for him.

“Forget that I am ashamed,” the tippler confessed, hanging his head.

“Ashamed of what?” insisted the little prince, who wanted to help him.

“Ashamed of drinking!”

A lamplighter whose planet it so small that he must constantly light and put out his lamp…

“When he lights his street lamp, it is as if he brought one more star to life, or one flower. When he puts out his lamp, he sends the flower, or the star, to sleep. That is a beautiful occupation. And since it is beautiful, it is truly useful.”

And a king in desperate need of a subject…

“Sire--over what do you rule?”

“Over everything,” said the king, with magnificent simplicity.

“Over everything?”

The king made a gesture, which took in his planet, the other planets, and all the stars.

“Over all that?” asked the little prince.

“Over all that,” the king answered.

There are others he meets on his way to earth. It is a metaphorical book. While the main character is a charming little boy, it is not a children’s book per se.

At first as I read, my students were patient and asked all kinds of good questions. But after a few days of listening to this book they were disinterested. Distracted. It seemed to me that this wasn’t a good fit – no matter how great I thought it was years earlier. I was willing to give it up too. With only a few days left, I said that we could read great picture books for read-aloud time. Several students adamantly said NO! to that. We had started this book and we were going to finish it.

I am glad we did. There are passages in this book that contain so much wisdom and beauty. The first time I read the book it was a borrowed copy. There were a few wonderful passages underlined by the owner. Those same passages were underlined in other copies from other readers. If you own this book, and you were to underline just a few lines, my guess is that you would underline the same ones.

At one point in the story, the Prince, in his wanderings, meets a fox. It is a chance meeting but they are intrigued with each other, if a little frightened.

“To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

“If you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life.”

“You have hair like the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”

And so the Little Prince comes at a regular time and comes a little bit closer to the fox each day. They gradually come to love and appreciate each other. They have tamed each other. And it is lovely.

Then the time comes for the Little Prince to move on. He knows that they will never see each other again. The fox is sad and happy at once. He tells the Prince that things once ordinary, like wind in the wheat, have been changed for him for now he will be reminded of his friend who had tamed him. The fox leaves his Prince with a bit of wisdom as a parting gift. And the Little Prince repeats it so he can remember it exactly.

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

When I meet a new group of students, and watch the old class move to another classroom, I have to remember that we must tame each other if we are going to be family. I have taught with many other teachers who don’t tame their classes or get tamed by them. They go through the day-to-day and turn the page and-do-what-comes-next. In some ways I am sorry for those teachers and those children. For they don’t know how essential it is to tame one another.

This rhythm of moving from class to class, year to year is one I have grown accustomed to. But it is tricky to constantly move in and out of the lives of so many beautiful, intriguing people; to watch them grow up, and move away. It is wonderful to see the adolescents, young adults and adults they become. And it is fulfilling. At the beginning of our time together I must remember to meet at the same time each day, to gradually come a little bit closer, to look into their eyes a little bit at a time so as not to frighten them, and to realize that taming and being tamed – while not strictly taught in methods classes – may be one of the most important things about living as a teacher.

Wait for a time, exactly under the star. Then, if a little man appears who laughs, who has golden hair and who refuses to answer questions, you will know who he is. If this should happen, please comfort me. Send me word that he has come back.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Don't Blink

In our culture, leaving home is as natural as coming home from the hospital as a newborn. It is what happens to most of us as we become adults. For those lucky enough to go to college, it happens around age 18. Kids are born to us, they spend most of their formative years learning how to be, how to get along, who they are and who they will become. Then they leave us to find out who they really are, who they really want to be. They find the path that will take them onward into their future. It really is the way it should be. Then why am I feeling so blue?

Today we move Devin, our 18 year old, into his dorm at the University of South Carolina. We‘re opting for the later shift, hoping that most of the kids will be moved in already. He is moving in with is best friend, a guy he went to high school with, who he spent his free time with for years. His bedroom is packed with what he will take with him. His modest clothes, his stereo, his computer, his new little microwave, new sheets, towels and blankets, his bathroom “caddy” for shampoo, soap, etc. It is the stuff of moving away, of being on your own, of independence. It’s a good thing, right? Then why, when I was vacuuming the hallway this morning and I passed that pile of his new and old possessions, was I so sad? It’s not like he’s moving very far. It is only a thirty-five-minute drive. Heidi takes it every day she goes into campus to work. It’s not like he won’t be coming home some weekends or that he won’t be coming back for winter break and summer vacation next year.

I’ll still see him. I’ll still call him and meet him for dinner (although Heidi suggested that I don’t call so much as text message, “It’s how most kids communicate these days.”).

But it won’t be the same. It will never be the same again. Devin will not be living here. He’ll be back, but it will more like visiting. So…

There are all these thoughts running through my mind. All of these concerns. All these questions. Have I done a good job as a parent? Have done what I could to teach him right from wrong? Does he know not to lie? Is he grateful? Does he know how to pray? Did I do all that I could to make sure that Devin is kind, responsible, safe? Have I been a good role model? Have I told him enough that I love him. Have I shown him? Does he know that I am there for him no matter what?

Heidi said that she was listening to a radio station yesterday where there is a lot of call-in kind of talk. A woman asked about advice for parents who just had their first baby. One response that stuck with Heidi was simply, “Don’t blink.”

I blinked, you guys. Because it was just such a short time ago that we brought Devin home after his adoption. And we weren't sure what to do with a new baby - except to love him. Devin was going to the lake with me in his diaper to watch the sunset, and I was chasing him around our beloved tree in a suped up game of peek-a-boo. I could make him laugh from his little belly. I can see those loose blond curls and bright blue eyes. I can hear that laugh. It is the most beautiful music.

It was just a short time ago that he was playing with his baby brother’s toes when we brought Colin home from the hospital; when he could catch a butterfly with his bare hands. I remember when he gave up his beloved bottle and we made a solemn ceremony out of it and when he rode a bike for the first time and when he introduced himself at the area pool with, “I’m Devin, and I’m an amazing child.” I remember when he cried when he caught a lizard but broke off its tail. And when he caught his first few fish off the dock.
I remember when he went to Kindergarten and I caught a glimpse of him at school outside on a really hot day practicing for a fire drill. The sight of him so grown up, patiently waiting in the uncomfortable heat for his teacher and his classmates to get it right so they could go inside. He didn’t know I was watching him. He had gone from little-preschool-kid-cute to little-boy handsome. And I remember thinking, where is Devin? Where did that preschool boy go? And I cried. Not in loss or sorrow. In amazement I guess.

I remember us singing silly songs on the way home from school in the car and reading bedtime stories and our secret handshake before bed. Pokemon cards and video games, shell collections and rock collections. Marco polo, pogo sticks and soccer in the meadow.

Then skateboards and loud music and having a girlfriend. Then high school and his first car and his first job and proms and a broken heart. Heidi and I started going to bed earlier. Devin stayed out later.

I remember the feelings I had on the day my dad dropped me off at IU. I tried to be tough, but it was scary – this new freedom. Dev must be having some of the same thoughts. Freedom is great, but it is scary too. He can come and go as he pleases, but he’ll have to get himself up in the morning. He can come in at night when he wants but he won’t get to kiss his mom good night like has always done. He’ll make wonderful new friends, but he won’t be living in his old hood near his beloved lake.

And I blinked, you guys, because he is moving away today. It’s not like I didn’t see it coming. We have been planning for this day for his whole life. But it’s here and it came too fast and I am going to miss living with him and I don’t know what to do with these emotions.

I write for many reasons: to understand, to organize, to feel, to remember, to envision, to hope. I guess it is for all these reasons that I am writing this.

Don’t blink.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

30 Years

Have you ever noticed how people always seem to want what they don’t have? It must be part of the human condition. I was getting my hair cut the other day and there was this guy. He must have been about 40. He had sort of wavy light brown hair. It reminded me of my dad’s hair. He was complaining to the stylist that he just wanted straight hair. She told him that if she cut it a little shorter that it wouldn’t be wavy. But he didn’t want to wear it short. He actually wanted it longer but he didn’t want the wave. She was patient. I’m sure that a big part of her job is exercising this kind of patience.

That is the kind of business that specializes in catering to people who don’t want what they have and want what they don’t have. People with straight hair want wavy hair, those with curly hair often want it straight. A lot of people don’t like their hair color so they get into coloring it and having to keep up with their given color sneaking back out at the roots. When their hair begins to turn gray, they want to cover it so they can look younger. Ah, but those silver hairs keep showing up down below.

Many people wish they were taller, or shorter, more muscular or thinner. Some people change their eye color with contacts, whiten their teeth, go to tanning beds for that “healthy glow” (can you say melanoma?)

When I was not yet a teenager, I wanted to be old enough to drive. When I was a freshman in high school I wanted to be a senior, then I wanted to be in college, then I wanted to be 21. Many of us cling to 29 like it is the end of our youth. Then 39. Then 49. Now that I’m older I wouldn’t mind being as little younger. 49 actually looks pretty good to me from this perspective.

In a few days it will be our 30th wedding anniversary. 30 years! I can’t really get my head around it. Heidi and I have been through so much together. We met when we were just 18. For me it was pretty close to love at first sight. 30 years. Our wedding day in Bloomington, IN was hot. The air conditioning didn’t work in the little chapel where we were married. It didn’t matter a bit. Our lives stretched endlessly into the distance. We were young. We had adventures ahead and love in our hearts.

30 years. Looking back I do not know where the time went.

Some people, a lot of people, wish for things to be different along the way. I think the divorce rate is around 50% in America. It may be even higher than that. And a lot of people who stay married aren’t very happy. Many of my friends who got married when we did are divorced. Maybe they are happy. I hope so.

There are some things about myself that I wouldn’t mind changing. The gray beard certainly makes me look my age. It would be cool if I didn’t have to wear glasses. I wouldn’t mind losing 10 pounds. But when I look at Heidi I am so glad that she is just the way she is. She is brilliant, and fair and thinks deeply about the world. She is spiritual in the best possible way and cares about social justice. She is selfless and giving and a wonderful, thoughtful, loving mother.

Her bright green eyes may have faded some over all these years. They still shine. She has a little silver running through her hair in the back. She wouldn’t color it. Her freckles have faded just a little, but they still make her unique and so incredibly beautiful. Her smile lines are deeper, but her smile – it still lights up a room. And it lights up my life.

30 years? The best part of those 30 years was that I was loved by Heidi Mills. I am so blessed.