Thursday, June 12, 2014

The End of an Era

"It's the end of an era," I say dramatically, holding the back of my hand to my forehead. The 6th graders chuckle, and after a final prayer of blessing, they rush out of the room down to the gym, yearbooks firmly clutched in their hands. The 8th graders emerge from their final exams more slowly. Some are high giving their classmates; others silently lay their heads on a friend's shoulder, the grief of the upcoming good-byes too much for words right now. The gym and courtyard are both abuzz with activity, from a game of Knock Out to the colored pens flying across the table for yearbook signatures, everyone is outside. Everyone is looking for closure on this, our last day of school.

I may have been joking about the end of the an era, but the end of every year at BFA sort of feels that way. As I watch the camaraderie and the hugs upon hugs, I remember the good times - the Annie Jr. play, the fun debates in class when EL finally found her voice, the success in Paris and Rome with the History team, DF's baptism just one month ago. Not that there were no struggles along the way either. Having to play peacekeeper between two feuding students, trying to get a new addition up to speed in the social studies when he didn't even want to be here, and walking through the receiving of bad news with friends are never easy tasks. But looking at the 8th graders today warms a little fuzzy spot in my heart.

IK isn't the same person he was three years ago. He even smiles at me when I hand him his popsicle. HG approaches her studies with a much cooler head. KP has grown into his own skin, and HK is still a quirky character but with a maturity that would have been hard to imagine 20 months ago. They change so much, and I mourn the loss of them as my students when things are just getting to be so good (as every year). This is the day when I have to face the fact that my time with them really is at an end. They will move on to high school, and it's good. It's time. But they definitely take a piece of my heart with them.

Monday, June 2, 2014

History Competition Part 2: Rome Edition

The day had finally arrived. The garlic coated the Italian air, my students' bellies were full of pasta and gelato from the night before, JS's Bee semi-finalist medal hung proudly around his neck from the day before, and we were all sitting in the chapel of St. Stephen's eyeing our competition. The teams who had done this before were obvious. They were laughing lightly, waving to old friends across the room, and hoisting their mascot lemon high on each other's shoulders. It was clear we were an odd phenomenon to many of these international schools. A favorite memory has to be overhearing MS (not a missionary kid) trying to explain to a new friend how BFA operated. "They still have missionaries?!" the kid asked incredulously.

At that moment, the founder of the IHBB (International History Bee & Bowl) came out to greet us and review the rules once again. I glanced down the aisle at my 6 students who had heard this quite a few times by now, but they still sat enraptured and focused. The signal to start came very suddenly, and we were off to our first of five preliminary rounds.

Round 1 was read by the British-accented Richard whom we remembered from our time in Paris. With questions and categories such as "Medieval terms," "World War 1," and "Rome's enemies," we owned that round and breathed a sigh of relief that at least we wouldn't go home complete losers - every Middle Schooler's worst nightmare, right? Round 2 was interesting because the buzzers didn't work, and we had to rely on knocking. Things were a little fishy when one of our opponents kept answering aloud before waiting to see if he truly had knocked first, and I sat in the back of the room with my blood pumping harder than I care to admit. The game ended in a tie, but fortunately we won the tie breaker. Relieved, we moved on to Round 3, our strongest, and in a room where the buzzers were working! Round 4 saw our one defeat of the preliminaries. The opponents were an average of 1-2 years older than us, though they were extremely kind and gracious toward us. Round 5 was solid as we swept the other team for another win. Our 4-1 record set us up well for the afternoon as we were seated third out of eight Junior Varsity teams.

After some gelato for strength, we returned to St. Stephen's for the Semi-Finals. It took us a while to find our room, which frazzled some of my students and made me sweat. The heat hid my nervousness nicely. Another one of our contacts from Switzerland read the competition for this round, and it's the most nerve-racking thing to know that your students know the answers and hear the other team buzz in first time and time again. It was an extremely close match, but in the end we lost by merely 30 points. Heads held high, the students collected their bronze Semi-Finalist plaque, marking our third place.

In our last few hours in Rome, we were able to take in a few sights, particularly the Colloseum, and eat some more pizza and gelato while collected the sun on our skin. The kids were great, and I along with my colleague Brittany Mann couldn't be more proud of their accomplishments and the humility with which they pulled it off. Perhaps next year, that gold plaque will be ours, and if not, then at least I hope our witness will leave an indelible mark.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Newest Custer

So many updates from the last week to write, but here's the most beautiful one:
My newest family member and first nephew: Baby Jake. I can't stop smiling!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

First End-of-Year Thoughts

I found this quote this morning in a Commentary:

"How preferable is the service of God to all other services! And in serving him, we are not called to live and die to ourselves, but unto Christ, whose we are, and whom we ought to serve."

We are hurtling toward the end of the year like a rocket into space, and sometimes it feels just as out of control and aimless as I imagine a rocket ride might. However, there is always a target, and the many months of preparation and teaching, chiseling and encouraging will come to fruition in the next four weeks. I hope.

Nerves are raw though, and emotions are running high, especially as I allow myself to recognize that I will be missing out on all "these wonderful things" next year. It's easy for me to slip into cynicism and to only see the sacrifice rather than the rewards. Rarely does my work here at BFA feel like the "dying" part of service but usually the "living" part. And yet, it is definitely service.

That is the part of the quote that struck a chord with me. I am not here merely because I love TCK's or love teaching or wanted to meet a need. I'm here because the one whom I serve placed me here. To be fully at his disposal is to allow him to move me around like a chess piece - if that would be his will. Thankfully, my Master is kind and knows my heart and has seen fit to place me in a work situation I adore, but what if that were to change? What if this next year holds more "death" than "life" (speaking very metaphorically)? That doesn't make him any less kind or sovereign. It means that I am still his and he is requesting my service to him take place on another continent (or two) for a while.

Today, this quote makes me rejoice. Because service outside my comfort zone done to him is still preferable to all other services! Joy in the Journey.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Where my Heart Lives

It has been 14 years since I left Austria, and still my soul feels slightly more alive inside its borders than perhaps anywhere else, even if it no longer quite feels like home. Here's a mini attempt to capture some of my love.


A Year in Red-White-Red

Fluttering red banners beckon the brave
“Slide up my oil-slicked May tree”
Double-headed eagle soaring above
White-tipped Alps studded with mountain goats
Cowbells echoing blissfully from Alms
Summer’s delight to hike 800-year old masonry

Trade in Holundersaft below fountainheads
For red-leafed glory on pressed wool jackets
Eating Speck on spacious pastures with view
Toward white sails dotting the lake
October bells peal the approach of coffee time
Reminding of seasons, tradition, and apple strudel

Forcing chins deeper into felted red scarves
Old-style wooden sled drags behind
Leading to mugs of Jägertee on the mountain,
Where knees knock to accordion music
Beats count out stars scintillating like diamonds
Across the snow-white playing field

Melt into warm white rays of March
Bouncing off onion-domed steeples
Drink from the glacier-purified brook to
Twirl my flowered Dirndl at Salamanca’s feast
Catching red embers of fire masters
And repeat again colored stripes of home

Photo credit: jessgibbsphotography.com

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Day in the Life of a History Teacher: Competition Day

I checked my watch again while Brittany stopped the group to check directions. Were we going to make it? We studied the French street signs cluttered with extra letters no one pronounces, and finally found a match on our google-map printout. “This way,” I confidently announced to the 6 middle schoolers and 2 parent chaperones in tow behind us, and off we went, our suitcases clattering over the otherwise silent cobblestones. Few Parisians are out early on a Sunday morning, yet here we were heading to school on our weekend so that we could take part in our first ever International History Bee & Bowl. The name itself sounded intimidating. As we trudged on, I could hear HW say for the seventeenth time this morning, “I’m so nervous!” LW was pale; she had refused to eat breakfast, claiming that her stomach was too tight and would reject it.

“Do you think we have a chance at Rome?” JS asked next to me. Rome. That is where the European Championships will be held, and it had become synonymous in our minds with victory. “One competition at a time,” I smiled back at him. I didn’t want to acknowledge my own ambivalence of whether or not I wanted to think about Rome, let alone whether or not I thought we stood a chance today.

Brittany suddenly halted again, and the street fell eerily silent. “Are there stairs anywhere?” she asked, turning her map sideways. The middle schoolers immediately fanned out, and DE was the first to find them. “Over here!” he shouted loudly, only to be shushed by the European-born MK’s, whose worst fear is the disapproving glance of a stern adult. (Sidenote: We met him later on the train. Boo.) We raced down the stairs, the Seine River glittering just in view, and finally located the elusive International School of Paris. We had arrived with 2 minutes to spare for registration. The competition could begin.

Other students lined the halls and tables and eyed us curiously in our matching royal blue t-shirts, proudly proclaiming BFA across the front. Exuding more confidence than I felt at the moment, I signed the forms and filled in names, grateful for a task to have. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched HW redo her braid yet again and then ask AD if she could braid her long blond hair as well. Instructions were given, teams formed, rooms filled, and before I could even pat each student on the back one more time, they were gone. Out of sight. Out of my control. There was nothing more I could do for them now. Nothing else to teach, no word of encouragement I could speak one last time. It was up to them, and I wrung my hands in prayer, Brittany and I grimacing at each other across the room.
Seven hours passed in this manner. Rounds were won; rounds were lost. I was given the job of Reader, and often it was apart from any of my students. I waved through windows and watched with pits - yes several - in my stomach as they buzzed and either half-rose out of their chairs or half-sunk down into their depths. Friends were made. HW had braided every girl’s hair by the end of the day, and MS spent lunch in the corner with his new buddies.

Suddenly, in a flash, it was time for the Finals. We checked the standings on the Master sheet, and JS had qualified for the Bee Finals at the Junior Varsity level while MS and LW had qualified for the Middle school level. We had all qualified for the Bowl finals. Cheers ensued, and we headed to the gym where an intimidating table was set up at the front, and the buzzers stood waiting. I perched as far back as I could so that other teachers wouldn’t notice my constant shifting positions, and where I couldn't be accused of cheating if I mouthed the answers silently to myself.

MS took 1st place for the Middle schoolers followed by the 1st runner-up, LW, and JS put up a valiant fight before winning 1st place at the Junior Varsity level as well. There was no holding back DE as he hooted and hollered embarrassingly, but his teammates didn’t seem to mind as much anymore. The individuals beamed in their medals, holding their prize chocolate, but the day wasn’t over. The team competition still stood before us.

The students took their place at the front table; Brittany, the parents, and I all adjusted our camera settings, but I was too flighty to take pictures, so I put mine away again. Deciding I needed a new seat, I readjusted myself twenty times and cracked every knuckle twice as the questions began to fly at the students. “Name the first Holy Roman Emperor crowned on Christmas Day, 800 AD.” “Charlemagne.” “What word is given to describe the somewhat aggressive expansion of nations into other parts of the world to start colonies and – .“ “Imperialism.” “Name the Christian apostle who denied Christ three times – .” “Peter!”

It was neck and neck. I moaned when they missed what seemed to me easy questions but cheered when they surprised me and got ones we had never studied. (English sheep?!?) And just as quickly as it had all begun, it was over. BFA had won!

I was in complete shock and wanted to rush the table. The ever-composed Brittany gave me a hug, and we received the plaque, raising it high for pictures and accolades of the other schools. MS’s buddies came up to shake his hand. “See you in Rome,” they declared, and he smiled back at them. “Will you braid my hair again in Rome,” Adita asked HW. “Of course!!!” HW replied, all nervousness replaced by bright smiles. We walked composed back up to the room where all our suitcases were being stored, the students congenially shaking hands and congratulating other winners as well.

And then we walked into our room, and all decorum went out the window. Whooping erupted, and I was surrounded by bouncing blue t-shirts who were chanting, “We’re going to Rome! We’re going to Rome!” (Stay tuned for a Rome blog following May 24-25.)

Monday, March 17, 2014

Annie Jr: a view from backstage


I put my finger to my lips, and immediately my little protégé shrinks back, mimicking my gesture and ducking a little further into the shadows. Any second now, eight orphans are going to come belting off the stage, and those of us whose costumes are head-to-toe black will replace them in the darkness that follows. It is our job to unstick the self-made bunkbeds and carry them out into the alley in as little time as possible. During yesterday’s practice – the first with the actual beds and screens – it took us nearly 5 full minutes. About 3 minutes longer than desired.

My stomach is in knots, and for the tenth time, I whisper to Jacob and John exactly what their duties are when the lights go off. For the tenth time they humor me and nod dutifully before peering back through our makeshift window to spy onto the world of a 1930’s orphanage. Seeing the eagerness on John’s face, I allow myself a second to fully engage in the musical notes being declared on the other side of the fabric curtains. Lyrics from “It’s a Hard Knock Life” alternate with bucket slamming and sponge swinging. Sweet little Molly starts barking out orders, and it’s comical to see the others pretend fear as they scramble for mops, brooms and sheets. One broom falls over, and I make a mental note to throw it onto the bed before we take it out. The actresses playing Kate and Duffy seem to be in fine form today, their faces hardened and their voices clear. A fleece of red curls pops up above the rest as Annie jumps onto Pepper’s back, and the final chorus rings out over the captivated audience. Cheers ensue.

That is when the lights go out, and I’m jerked back to the immediacy of the present. Jacob, John, and I bolt out onto stage. My foot catches on a metal pail and sends it flying, but fortunately, the continued clapping of our adoring parents and colleagues masks the noise. Beds are jerked apart, sheets flung over shoulders, and beds whipped off the stage in just over 2 minutes. Sweat beads coat my palms, making me nearly lose my grip on the beds. When the music cues and the lights flood the set once again where Annie is getting ready to sing “Tomorrow,” I exhale deeply before glancing at the list of what will come next. Just as I’m getting ready to whisper-yell new instructions at John, I catch the look of wonderment on his face. It’s so perfect, so pure. His mind is fully engaged with the scene unfolding before him, even if he’s seen it multiple times in practice. Annie demands to be watched, heard, and enjoyed. My heart physically softens. The instructions can wait, at least another 2 minutes or so. Rather, I take a seat, breathe deeply, find my own hole in the fabric to peek through, and join John, ever the dark shadows behind the scenes.