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Thursday, May 3, 2018

Chapter 2: He's betting on your passion


I hadn’t set out to teach fifth grade.  It happened like everything else in my life: by following a detour sign.  I followed a detour sign to my husband.  I followed a detour sign to Davie.  I followed a detour sign to teach fifth grade.

My dream was to teach high school drama and direct the high school’s show.  Of course, most high schools offer only one or two theater or drama classes, so the drama teacher also teaches English.  I thought I had hit Lady Luck with a high school gig of drama, musical theater, three sophomore English classes, and Theater Director.  Theater Director came with a little extra pay.  But that was just for the two main performances.  Little did I realize how much more it involved.

Overwhelmed with grading essays proving the clichĂ© true – Johnny really can’t write – running the theater program, and taking on an abundance of “optional” extra performances, I finally had a face-to-face with our Principal.  “You could skip the cameos at the middle schools, the community centers, and even the Performing Arts Center your predecessors so diligently worked to set up,” he said, “but you might not recruit enough students and you might lose funding for the drama program.” 

“That doesn’t sound ‘optional.’  Can my pay be increased for this not-quite-optional ‘optional’ work?” 

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Greene, it can’t,” he replied.  He never calls me “Mrs. Greene.”   “We welcome and encourage your choice to continue the extra commitments developed by your predecessors, but we don’t require it, and we don’t have the funding to pay for it.” 

“So let's say I skip the optional extras and we lose students and funding?”  “You need at least fifteen students in each drama class to keep it.  If you fall below that, we’ll cut the drama class, and if you lose funding, you either work on an extra low budget or do some fundraising.” 

“Doesn’t the school want to make sure that doesn’t happen?” 

“We hope not, but don’t worry, you’ll still have a job with us if it does.”  He added with a smile, “we have plenty of English classes that need a teacher.”

Then it came.  A whisper of mystery.  On occasion, and never when I’m expecting it, a whisper comes – one not from my own mind with a message from a frequency off my radar.  The voice is soft and feminine, but who, I know not. When one comes, I call it a “whisper of mystery.”   I’ve learned not to tell too many people about them.  Even Christians who should believe in the Holy Spirit sometimes don’t trust my whispers.  They can’t discern the Holy Spirit from less trustworthy voices in their own heads, so they think I can’t either.  The Bible gives us a clue, though, in I Kings 19:11-13, when Elijah needed to discern the voice of the Lord.  The Lord was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire; He was, instead, “in a still small voice.”  Those loud, commanding voices we sometimes hear in our heads are probably not the Holy Spirit.  But if we hear “a still small voice” that is loving and nudges us into a loving direction, then we should do what Elijah did: wrap our face in a mantle and come listen to the Lord.  Some people would still say, “Well, that was Elijah, a great Hebrew prophet.  You’re not Elijah.”  So I’ve learned to keep the whispers of mystery to myself and share them only with people I can trust.  I hope I can trust you because my story’s not the same without the whisper of mystery that arrived in my conversation with the principal at that moment:  He’s betting on your passion.

I knew this was a whisper I should trust.  They’ve come since I was a little girl, and one of them saved my life.  I was eight.  My family and few other families from our church went camping by a lake.  A few people brought inner tubes and we took turns riding in them along the lake.  Off a ways, the lake narrowed and became more like a river, but it was still a gentle river, still safe, or so I thought.  When it was my turn, I was with two other kids, both older than me, twelve, and friends.  So I was a tag-along, and they left me trailing behind them.  I thought I was still following them when I reached the part that narrowed into the river. The water was so refreshing, the sky so blue, and the air so fresh from last night’s rain, I didn’t mind they left me alone.  I stretched out in my inner tube floating down the river.  Then a whisper of mystery came: Hang off to the right.  Get out by that tree.  By then, I knew the whisper and she was already my friend, but she irritated me with this instruction.  I didn’t want to get out yet.  I wanted to keep floating, but I thought since no one knew where I was, I could get out and then take my inner tube up a bit and get back in, so I obeyed her.  When I made it out and to the tree, I saw what lay before me about thirty yards ahead on the river: the start of a rocky, whitewater adventure I would never have been prepared for; then, another eighty to hundred yards beyond that came the nightmare scene: a waterfall.  Why hadn’t they told me there was a waterfall?! 

“Jazzie!  Jazzie!  Where are you?!”  I turned back and saw my dad racing toward me and I called back, “I’m here, Dad!  I’m okay!”  He raced to me like a sprinter at the finish line, picked me up, twirled me around, hugged me so hard I almost lost my breath, planted a big kiss on my cheek, and then hugged me again.  Then he let the two twelve year olds give me a hug too.  Their faces were pale, ghost--like, and one of them, head bowed, croaked, “We are so sorry,” and the other one nodded, head also down, eyes big, and face white.  I nodded, “I’m okay.”  Dad looked at them and said, “I hope you two have learned a lot from this,” and they both nodded back.  The first one spoke up again, “Jazzie gets our s’mores tonight. We are really sorry.”

I ate four s’mores that evening.  Then, lying in my sleeping bag, listening to the crickets and reviewing the image of the waterfall, I prayed thanks all night long to my whisper of mystery.  “I promise,” I vowed to her, “I will always listen to you.”

I’ve kept my promise too, and even if that was the only time she actually saved my life, she’s saved me in lots of ways lots of times.  So I knew I needed to listen to her.  What did she mean? He’s betting on your passion?  Like most of her messages, I was mystified by the meaning and had to puzzle it over.  The principle’s last words were expressed with simple objectivity and a smile, “We have plenty of English classes that need a teacher.”  He spoke it as if he didn’t care one way or another if we lost the drama program.  So, whisper, are you telling me he does want the drama program?  Anytime I call for the whisper, she doesn’t come.  She comes only when I’m not expecting her, and whenever she feels like it, so I knew she wouldn’t answer my question, but that doesn’t stop me from asking.  I turned it over in my mind again: He’s betting on your passion.  He must want the drama program, and he wants me to do everything in my power to make it strong.  He’s “betting on my passion" that I will do just that.  He doesn’t want to pay me.  He wants my passion to pay me.  Maybe my passion should say “no”?

A week later, my husband came home from work where he works as a Child Protective Services case worker, across the street from Jefferson Elementary School.  He often joins some of the teachers at lunch at the Crescent CafĂ© next door.  “Do you think you’d ever like to teach fifth grade?” he asked when he arrived home.  Where did this question come from?  “Fifth grade?  You know I’m endorsed for secondary.  I don’t have an endorsement to teach fifth grade.” 

“That might not matter.  Jefferson Elementary just lost all of its fifth grade teachers, and quite a few of the other teachers too.  Eight teachers, including all three fifth grade teachers, started the day together with a joint proclamation that they will not be renewing their contracts for next year at Jefferson Elementary.” 

“You’re kidding?  Are they that mad about the fence?” 

“They’re that mad.”

We turned on the local evening news and one of the fifth grade teachers was being interviewed: “We’ve been calling for a reasonable plan to prepare for terror emergencies, but the school barricaded our grounds like a prison.”  Then the Principal was interviewed: “We understand the teachers’ concern in light of last month’s shooting threat, but this is the most ‘reasonable’ solution we have right now.  We hope they’ll change their minds.”  “And if they don’t,” the reporter asked, “will you be able to hire eight teachers by August?”  The principle nodded, “We have a beautiful school; we have wonderful children; and we feel confident we can recruit strong, qualified teachers."  

Standing in front of the fence for an ironic jest, the reporter closed the story, “If you are looking for a teaching position, beautiful Jefferson Elementary is hiring.  I’m Rachel Snowden reporting to you from Colorado Springs.”

Rachel Snowden.  I knew a Rachel Snowden.  In fifth grade.  I looked at her again.  No, she couldn’t be the same one.  But it was a sign -- a neon, blinking detour sign.

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