Cards, Roller Skating, and Dancing

My last living grandparent is dying.

I have been blessed in my life to know 5 grandparents. My mother’s parents, my father’s parents, and my grandfather’s mom, whom I affectionately called, “grandma grapes”, because at one point it was difficult for me to say “grandma great”.

So, over the years, they have passed away, and I have been left with my dad’s Dad, whom I call “Papa.”

Papa’s passing will be probably the hardest thing for me to experience, even though I know he has lived a long life (he just turned 95!) and in some ways is probably quite lonely, seeing so many people he loved and cared for pass away before him. I am sure it is hard to handle at times. One might wonder at the impression they are leaving on the world. Would anyone remember, if so many you grew up with passed on before you?

But for 35 years ago, he made a huge impression on at least one life. A small one, especially in the beginning, when he could put my head in his hand and stretch me out to just the crook of his elbow….

See, some girls dance with their fathers. They play cards with their parents, and they learn dangerous activities on wheels from their friends, perhaps.

My dad didn’t dance – in fact, when my parents got married, they didn’t have a dance at the rehearsal. I say “didn’t” instead of “doesn’t” because he did happen to learn to dance for my sister’s wedding, years ago.

My parents played Life, Monopoly, and Trivial Pursuit with me as I was growing up. I recall a set of Old Maid and Uno being played as well. Card games, the only ones I recall playing at home were “Go Fish” and “War”.

And as for dangerous activities on wheels? By the time I was old enough to be influenced by friends, I was already a pro. Papa taught me to roller skate when I was 3.

Papa danced with me.

Papa taught me to play Gin Rummy.

More than that, Papa taught me about giving. He is one of the most generous people I know. He is not perfect – far from it, but I know he had a giving heart.

So when I found out that he has lung cancer and it is near his heart, and one of the lobes of his lungs is not operating like it should, I felt that I needed to be generous with my time.

It just so happens, I, a teacher, have a 4 day weekend. I had appointments, but they can be moved. Friends will understand if I reschedule.

It took an hour, tops. I moved my weekend around to see the man that for years would give me books of poetry, sometimes even on my birthday. The man who would take me to the indoor swimming pool during the summer, (the only pool I was allowed to go to). The man who made Mac and Cheese from scratch because I wanted mac and cheese, and he wanted to be generous. I remember it was really good, even though I don’t remember how he made it.

There are so many stories I could say about Papa, and in the future I may, but for now I will tell this one:

Tonight, I sat in his little room that my aunt made for him when he moved in with her. We watched Cash Cab because I wanted to. We watched the Olympics because I wanted to. He was practically ready for bed when I showed up, but then changed and eventually we ate in the kitchen and talked.

I felt so blessed to be mostly caught up with grading, and able to sit in the kitchen and talk with Papa. I asked him what he loved most about Grandma, and he smiled and said, “She always just said what she was thinking. You never had to guess.” Then sure enough, he told me stories of meeting Grandma – stories I’ve heard so many times, I could tell them.

But I can never tell them as good as he can, even while he pauses to take a breath and keep on track of his thought. I can never tell them in the deep, gruff but somehow lighthearted voice he has. I can never point with finger so huge I marveled at them when I was small. I can never smile in that way that crinkles his eyes and laugh in the way that shakes his shoulders and makes him cough.

Well, actually, I can. Of all the things I’ve inherited from my grandpa, including my hearing loss, ADHD, and (lack of) height, one of the more obvious ones is my smile, and my laugh.

I hope I have inherited his generous heart as well, and I can take it and do with it what God wills.

Love transcends, and love transforms. I will remember roller skating and dancing and playing gin rummy, but not because these activities were particularly fun (even though they were), I will remember them because of the man who was generous with his time, his heart, his smiles and laughter. I learned many things from my parents, they are amazing people.

But I learned the magic of a generous heart from Papa.


Where Joy has led me

The other night, my school had their yearly Advent program. For parents, it was lovely and beautiful. For teachers, it was also incredibly chaotic. And loud. So, so, loud.

Imagine, if you will, 150+ kids in a large room waiting for their turn to sing in front of their parents. The Nebraska Volleyball game was being shown, several groups of kids had come together to play various card games.

Here I was, one of many teachers in the midst of the chaos.

One of my students asks if I have cards. I know why he’s asking: just that afternoon, during school, we played an epic game of war, just us two, in the midst of similar chaos. I realize he wants to play again. He has several students his own age to play with, but he wants to play card war with me. Part of me (the adult? part of me) considers dismissing him to go play with others. That is what the other teachers would do – or I assume, because no other students ask teachers to play cards. Am I supposed to be above playing cards with a 12 year old? The other part of me, the one that has grown as I have gotten older, smiles and takes out a pack of cards while asking if he wants to play War again.

If you walked into that room and saw me playing cards with my students while other teachers grade papers (which is something I probably should have been doing – I procrastinate too much) or watch the volleyball game, or attempt to control the chaos, you might have several opinions on the type of teacher I am.

But if you knew me as a teacher in my first year of teaching, you would wonder what had happened to me.

I would, quite honestly, answer you: Joy. Joy happened to me.

I have been teaching middle school science since 2011. When I started out, it was more important for me to be heard and listened to. This isn’t a bad thing – I still think it is important for me to be heard and listened to, but back then, I displayed it by being unapproachable and stern.

After a year or two, I began to feel jealous of my coworkers that knew things about my students that I didn’t. They had relationships with these kids that I didn’t have. For a while I dismissed it as a result of the subject matter they taught (journaling in Language Arts opens kids up more) or the vocation they had in life (being a mother, they were just more motherly and caring. I wasn’t like that). In fact, the first time a student hugged me I was shocked and concerned for how their peers might treat them. Not a very warm response.

After 4 years at the same school and with the same kids, you can’t help but develop relationships, so I started to let go of my dismissive attitude, bit by bit.

Moving to another job had a whole new set of challenges. I was teaching Middle school science still, but these were new kids and I didn’t have the relationships with them. I didn’t know how to form them very well. I still struggled with trying to be the stern, no nonsense, teacher and the compassionate understanding teacher. I didn’t know how to make these two  things work together.

During this second teaching job, I didn’t feel like a good teacher at all. I was either too much or not enough. It didn’t help that my prayer and spiritual life were not good. In fact, it probably made things worse.

Flash forward to now. I am in my third teaching job, still a middle school science teacher, and I will often listen to stories from students about their weekend, or what they were thinking about, or what interests them. Sometimes they are in my homeroom, sometimes they are not.

I have come to this place, where I start the day with a smile for each kid (whether I feel like it or not), not out of years of experience or study, but hours of prayer and grace that have filled me with Joy for what I do and who I do it for.

Joy is in the part of me that doesn’t care that there are papers to grade and chaos to control; that wants to play card games with my students.

When I am struggling to feel adequate in this world, this part of me is the childish, not grown up part of me that people could judge me for. When I have spent time in prayer and find myself closer to God, this part of me is “child-like”, filled with joy and looking at another person and seeing a child who wants to connect and be loved.  “Let them come to me” and I will smile at them. “Let them come to me” and I will play cards with them.  “Let them come to me” and I will show them they are loved, even if they are just my students.

*Matthew 19:14