5 Things I learned from teaching 4th graders in the Czech Republic

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My first day teaching in Prague was probably one of the most nerve-racking of my short existence. I spoke exactly four words in Czech and knew my fourth graders would have limited English abilities. Because Murphy’s Laws about the universe are cringingly on-point, I got lost on my way to school, so the hallways were empty as I ran through them to find the fourth-grade classroom. Giggles erupted when I entered, disheveled, nervous and late. Twenty-two sets of eyes watched me with curiosity and amusement as I timidly made my way to the front of the room. I pulled out my vastly inadequate lesson plan, took a deep breath, and began the most torturous, terrifying, tremendous two years of my life.

When teaching, it is only natural that we also learn, but I had no idea just how much of an education I would get from those fourth-graders.

1. Words are our least important form of communication.

My first lesson was that words matter very little, although that’s strange to admit that as an English teacher. Children use their whole bodies to communicate, twisting themselves into knots as they tell stories and ask questions. Every movement is unchecked and unfiltered, the sincere, subconscious expressions of a child’s thoughts and feelings. It’s intimidating, only because as adults we spend so much time crafting our body language into socially appropriate constructs that mask those feelings. I learned quickly that I had to lose that mask, because saying, “Stop! Don’t do that!” or “Yes! Good job!” made no impact, even on students who vaguely understood what the phrases meant in English. Far more effective were the moments I knelt down next to a student and made eye-contact on their level, or gave someone’s hand a little squeeze when they seemed nervous about speaking in front of the class. Sincerity became our classroom translator.

2. A spoonful of sugar really does make a difference.

My teaching experience was minimal before taking the full-time position in the Czech elementary school. Aside from the ‘new job’ adjustments, there was the cultural learning curve. Things like ‘inside shoes’ and student-teacher etiquette, not to mention the vast array of Czech cuss words that I would learn from students all too quickly, had me frantically double-checking my every move. My greatest fear was that a teacher would walk in on one of my classes just in time to see my students playing toss with someone’s shoes, sandwich or school keys as I would be desperately trying to make everyone get off their desks and sit in chairs like normal people. Sometimes being a teacher feels like playing whack-a-mole – as soon as you get one kid down, another one pops up. Particularly endearing was their habit of hiding in the cupboards, behind the chalkboard or under my desk at the beginning of each lesson. One boy managed to remain undetected in a rolled-up wall map for half of class before he finally fell over and came spilling out. So when the school Head told me that a city inspector was coming to sit in on one of my classes, I justifiably panicked. Shockingly, when the inspector took a seat in the back of the classroom, all of my students suddenly became angels. Everyone stayed in their seats. Not a hair was pulled nor a pen thrown. They even got through singing the Hokey-Pokey without someone deciding to put “in” something inappropriate or dangerous. But as we finished the lesson, as the inspector gave me a smile on her way out the door, as the class exploded once again into chaos, releasing all the pent-up energy, I realized that our perfect lesson may also have been our most boring one. And I’d gladly sacrifice perfection for the sake of a little joy.

3. You can’t be everyone’s hero.

But that’s not to say that all of my ventures in teaching have been success stories. A hard truth about teaching – and about life – is that you can’t be everyone’s hero. You can’t swoop in and magically fix everything. Although most of my fourth-graders flocked around me like ducklings when I entered the cafeteria (as the only American teacher in school, I was the local celebrity), begging for high-fives and shouting out their much-rehearsed, “Hello!”s and “How are you?”s, there were a few who would turn their shoulders so I couldn’t see their faces. They were the same ones I struggled with in class and sent home with poor marks in their report books. I ignored it for a while – give it time, right? But one day, one of those students accused me of not being fair in a classroom squabble and had to hide his face in his sleeve, embarrassed by the tears streaming down his cheeks. Czechs have a very strong sense of ‘fairness’ and to allow violations to the balance of justice is a heavy crime. I sat down and tried to explain why I had to do what I did. I tried to tell him that I understand how hard it is to be a student sometimes, but when I reached over to give him a reassuring pat on the back, he jerked away. He wasn’t the only one who cried that afternoon. I was the bad guy in this situation and there was nothing I could do to change that for him. No amount of explaining would fix the image of the unfair teacher he saw me as. Alone in my office, I finally faced a fact I should have learned in high school. Not everyone is going to like you. Not everyone will want your help.

4. Everyday is a new start.

The amazing thing about ten-year olds is their ability to bounce back. I walked into one lesson to find all my little pupils up in arms because the class ‘sweetheart’ had unwisely told her best friend who her class-crush was, and her best friend proceeded to make the information public (proving that human nature is essentially the same, the world over). The jeers and tears had to be stopped and more than one broken-heart had to be mended before we could begin our regularly scheduled program. I assumed there would be a changing of the seating arrangements the next day – after such a political upheaval, I hadn’t expected any of the old alliances to be intact. But there they all were, laughing and sharing the last bites of their snacks, as if yesterday had never happened. That must be why kids are able to survive an institution as mentally and emotionally arduous as elementary school. You have to be able to start fresh everyday with the same innocence and trust and hope you had the day before, no matter what has happened.

5. If your heart doesn’t break a few times, you’re not using it right.

I knew I wasn’t going to be in Prague forever. I knew getting attached was a bad idea. The plan was to be distant, respectable, forgettable. But as I watched the teachers who remained aloof – whatever their reasons – and as I tried it myself, I realized how difficult it is to do what we do without putting our whole hearts out there. As a teacher, you have to be ready to listen to excited whispers, laugh at silly jokes you don’t understand, and hug little people who need to know that someone sees them. That’s just it. You have to see your students. You have to show them that you care, which means you have to actually care. It took me a year on the other side of the world to realize just how great our capacity is, as humans, to love. It took me a year with some very rowdy ten-year olds, who have hearts with ever-open doors and incalculable room for affection, to understand that some things cannot be lost, only added to. And that may be the most important thing I’ve learned from these children. Without even speaking the same language, twenty-two fourth-graders taught me the importance of loving people, no matter how briefly.

My first (disaster) field trip

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It’s only been in the last few months, as I continue to make gains in my Czech language ability and as staff becomes more short-handed, that the school has given me responsibilities that I would previously have been considered unequipped for. These include lunchroom duty, subbing classes and, most recently, leading a field trip.

The eighth and ninth grade classes were “going to the theater” on Friday and as 9.B’s class teacher was unavailable to accompany them, I was chosen to go instead.

This was an incredibly huge deal for me. Not that I haven’t been on field trips before. I have helped on zoo visits, amusement park trips and museum tours. But I was never in charge, see. I was never fully and solely responsible for the health and safety of the students.

And that is kind of a big deal.

I suppose some of my worry was born out of the fact that it had been a tough week. I really don’t want to go into details, but it included a ping-pong table during a class I was subbing and a sharp reprimand from the Vice Head (mortifying for someone who is a strict abider of rules). To make matters worse, the Vice Head speaks no English, so when I went to her office to apologize, I had to write the Czech word for “irresponsible” on the palm of my hand and refer back to it during the peak of my contrite confession which sort of took away the “umph” of my speech and added to the “aaawwkward.”

Anyway, it was with this stressful, I-must-prove-myself monster crawling up my backbone that I ran into school on Friday morning. I had no sooner buzzed myself through the teacher’s entrance that I realized, in my haste to arrive on-time, I had completely forgotten that trips to the theater usually have a dress-code. Looking down at my jeans, I could feel the monster inside me groaning exasperatedly.

In my defense, when I first heard about the trip I assumed it was to the movies. It’s fairly common for class teachers to take their students to see a film a few times a year and when we say, “I’m going to the theater” in America, we really mean the movies (because, let’s be honest, who actually goes to the theater? We’re just not that cultured). Czechs, however, call ‘the movies’ the cinema and save ‘theater’ for the actual theater. Even though I knew this, and I knew it was a theater-theater we were going to, my brain had already locked “movies” into my brain under the wardrobe file.

If I am anything besides a strict abider of rules, it is an over-dresser. Ask anyone who went to high school with me. In fact, I’d been dressing nicely all week (and thought to myself on Friday morning, Wow, it’s been such a long time since I’ve worn jeans!). The horror, the sheer horror, of greeting the other teachers in their nice, black dresses while wearing jeans . . . Words fail me.

The students couldn’t have cared less and the other teachers were nice about it. Like, no one judged me, but I’m sure they subconsciously made note of my ineptitude in their mental files the way I had stored “movie theater” in mine.

I collected my kids – there were twelve of them – and we set off after the other classes towards the bus stop. They weren’t dressed for the theater either, but then they are just students. “We are supposed to be the examples,” said one teacher, sweetly, in what was meant to be a comforting reassurance. She went on to explain all the rules of being a field trip leader. “If you’re going up the escalator, they go first, but if you’re going down, you go first. If you’re getting on the metro, they go first, but you should be the first one off. You walk in front unless you’re crossing a street…” The list seemed endless and suddenly my jeans weren’t the only thing I was worried about.

I could feel myself crusting over. It’s a sad side-effect of a bad week. Whenever I feel like I’ve been failing as a teacher I become a little stricter, a little more sullen, just to prove that I can do the job. I’m not sure if it does anything except frustrate my students and make me feel more miserable.

The new teacher got her eighth graders onto the bus without a problem (yes, I’m not the new teacher anymore. There goes my last excuse for not being able to do this job well). She’s lovely, by the way. Young, but not as young as me. Pretty, but in a casual way. Strict and funny. Experienced and fresh. And, of course, dressed like someone taking their class to the theater, which I was not. I like her a lot, but in this moment, I felt my inner monster turning green with pathetic envy.

Half my students hadn’t eaten breakfast and begged me to let them grab a to-go slice of pizza once we got off the bus at the metro station. I said ‘no.’

Heads were counted and then we set off into the underground.

The question was the same at our stop on the red line as we crawled back into the sunlight.

“Please can we grab a slice really quickly? Please can we stop in the potraviny?”

“No.”

I was determined not to screw this up. No allowances. No toes were to come even CLOSE to the line. We would not have another ping-pong incident on our hands.

A small boy who we call the little dragon – Dračík – went running up the escalator. I called out for him to wait for the group but he just shot me a mischievous glance and kept going, two other boys trailing in his wake. I couldn’t honestly remember the rule – was I supposed to go up first or were the students? My kids were already headed in that direction but he was nearly out of sight so I tore up the escalator after him.

For those who don’t know, the escalators in Prague’s metros are extremely long and not to be messed with.

We were all out of breath when I finally caught up to him. He looked extremely satisfied with himself.

“I just want to get a piece of pizza,” he said with his snarling, lisping accent. We call him the little dragon because he acts like one. He’s always snapping his jaws at someone, licking his reptilian tongue over his pale mouth and growling under his breath. We love him, but we don’t poke him.

“You ran away after I told you to stop three times,” I managed between gasps. “There are other teachers here watching us and I have to prove that I can do this job. After the ping-pong stunt you guys pulled this week, I’d expect you’d cut me a little slack. No. You may not have pizza.

At this time, the other groups caught up with us and we all got swept away. I did notice that a few of the boys from the other classes managed to get their hands on food. My students noticed too.

We waited outside the theater for ten minutes (“Plenty of time to get pizza,” several students muttered to each other in Czech – no one realizes how much I understand these days). Finally, we all piled into the theater with a dozen other schools.

I counted them as they went up the stairs to make sure all twelve of my students made it into the auditorium.

The play was mostly in English, but that didn’t make it comprehensible. Put on primarily by student actors, the watered-down script was the weirdest, most questionable, slightly racist thing I’ve ever seen performed on stage, which included songs that weren’t sure if they were dance numbers or just opportunities to leap around stage and props that were fifty-percent imaginary. For a low-budget performance, it wasn’t so bad, but I did felt personally offended when they made light of the U.S. national anthem. Our song is not a prop, mad’am.

But I tried to keep a straight face for the duration of the performance and only say neutral sounding things when people asked me what I thought afterwards.

The groups split up on the way back to school. My class wanted to go to KFC, which was along the metro line we took to school anyway, so I agreed. It’s pretty typical for teachers to let their kids get lunch on the return trip.

I counted heads. Twelve.

We wandered into a mall at Pankrac and I told them they had 45 minutes till we would meet back at the entrance. I followed some of the girls as they wandered around the mall. I even introduced them to the wonders of Frozen Yogurt which they were pretty enchanted by. Most of the kids got cheap lunch boxes at KFC or McDonalds on the top floor in the food court.

At last we all convened by the metro doors. I counted again and we headed down into the tunnel. Dračík still had a third of his McDonalds blizzard and was taking his sweet time in finishing it. Most of it had turned into creamy slush.

“I can’t take this on the metro,” he told me as ours pulled up. It was completely packed, thanks to the post-lunch rush.

“Then toss it,” I said as I shepherded my brood toward the doors. What was the rule again? Do I go on first?

“No, there’s still some left,” he said, his voice rippling with amused defiance.

“Then hide it,” I hissed, as we got on. There was barely enough space for us and my jacket got stuck in the doors as they closed. Face pressed against the glass, I struggled to free it. The monster inside my chest was heaving in angry breaths.

And that’s when I noticed.

There, on the other side of the window, just an arm’s length from my face, was Dračík, clutching his blizzard and waving slyly with the sickest grin of self-satisfaction I have ever seen in my life.

Our metro pulled away slowly and I watched him disappear on the platform.

Dračku?” the girls next to me asked as we rushed into the dark tunnel.

I gasped audibly, to the amusement of the adults packed in tightly around us.

“I lost him!” I moaned into my hands. “I lost a student! The Vice Head is going to kill me! …I will kill him.”

Amid my students’ reassurances and the grins my fellow passengers were failing to hide, I found myself hyperventilating against the cool glass of the metro car. The little green monster inside of me loaded a pistol and held it to its head. It’s all over now. You’ve lost a student.

Stay calm, stay calm, stay calm.

When the doors opened and my class and I spilled onto the platform, I let out the groan of agony which caused the remaining passengers to loose the laughter they had been holding in. My outburst – which I had not intended to happen out loud – attracted the attention of those on the platform as well, because if you’re going to lose a child on the metro system, you may as well make a huge scene of it.

The rest of the ninth graders thought it was hilarious. What a Dračík-thing to do. Class act, he was. Oh yes.

The problem was, it was funny. This whole year I’ve struggled with the fact that I have no teacherly instincts. I’d much rather be making paper airplanes with the kids in the back of class than be up in the front teaching. In fact, if we could have a class just for making paper airplanes, that would be ideal. That’s how the whole ping-pong thing got started in the first place.

But I can’t do that. I have to be the teacher. I have to have a little crust. I have to dress up for the theater. I have to be the example. It’s my job.

So I swallowed my smile and set it to rest with my fears that the Vice Head would never let me teach again if she found out about this incident (and so soon after the ping-pong catastrophe!). With a nerve-wracking stillness, we waited for the next car which carried our dear little rascal.

He was greeted by his friends and fans with much aplomb and it was a moment before the crowd cleared and we stood face-to-face. He looked at me a little sheepishly and I looked back at him, not cruelly, but certainly without my usual twinkle.

“So,” I said in Czech (because they know I’m serious when I stop using English), “Are you finished?”

He nodded silently and I asked him to give me his ice cream cup, which he did (it was empty by this point). I tossed it in the trash and then motioned silently for the kids to make their way up to the bus stop, which they did.

For a gorgeous two minutes, everyone behaved. We got to the bus stop and waited.

Dračík was fidgeting uncomfortably and I was having trouble keeping up my real-teacher act. So I pulled him aside and explained why he’s not allowed to run off. He explained that it was just a joke. And I made him promise that next time we’d both do better – I’ll be a better teacher, he’ll be a better student. He grinned.

Someone pulled out a phone and the next thing I knew, we were taking a huge, conspicuous group selfie. So much for maintaining a teacherly anything.

We got back to school – all of us, in one piece.

I met up with the other teachers in the cafeteria and sank into a chair. Grins were exchanged at my expense.

“The Vice Head was really worried when we said you took your group back alone,” said one. “Everything went okay, right?”

At first I nodded, then I shook my head and the whole story spilled out.

“Don’t worry,” came sympathetic responses. “Once I got everyone on the metro but myself,” or, “Today, two of my boys nearly missed the bus home. It happens. It’s school.”

It’s school.

That seems to be the motto we go by. That’s what the Vice Head told me after my pitiful apology in her office on Wednesday regarding the ping-pong incident (may it rest in peace).

It’s just school. It’s just life. We learn as we go. I rarely make the same mistake twice (though when I do, it’s usually grander and more cringe-worthy the second time).

On Friday I learned that I can get a dozen fourteen-year olds from school to the theater and back. I learned that more often we have things to prove to ourselves than to others. And I learned that it’s okay to get a little lost on the metro.

Three days blind

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One of my most vivid memories of my early teens was driving home from the optometrist with my mom and oldest brother, marveling at the leaves on the trees, leaves I had never before seen. I think my mom felt like a bit of a failure for not noticing that Scott and I needed glasses – he was 16 and I was almost 13 when we finally got them. It wasn’t her fault. I hadn’t noticed either. It’s amazing how much of life you can go through without realizing you can’t really see anything.

Ten years have slipped by since the last time I went a day without contacts or glasses (the contact lenses are a horror story for another day). You can imagine my despair and the Mary-esque fit that was thrown when I realized, after tossing out my last set of contacts, that I had lost my prescription (which the eye-doctor had handed to me and said, “Now remember, don’t lose this”). To further excruciate the problem, my glasses, after four years of faithful service, split down the middle.

I pondered the level of humiliation I would face if I returned, prescription-less, to the eye-guy (a son of a colleague at school) as I taped my glasses together on my bedroom floor amid the scrapbooks, borrowed novels, colored markers, sticker pads and empty soda bottles that decorate the carpeting of my bachelorette pad. I gave myself a tentative glance in the dusty mirror propped against my wardrobe (because I can’t figure out how to hang it on the wall). The Harry Potter look de-aged me by about eight years (though the floppy shoes and cardigan probably don’t help my desperate attempts to look old enough to teach middle schoolers).

Unfortunately, the tape only worked for about six hours, after which point I resigned myself to squinting and walking as nonchalantly as possible with one hand slightly extended.

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How bad is your eyesight anyway?

Great question!

I’m not blind. Though now I have a better understanding of what exactly that might mean. I can see just fine till about the tips of my fingers, and then things begin to get fuzzy. A few feet and I can’t see the whites of people’s eyes. A few yards and their outlines become blurry. Much past that, especially if the lighting is bad, everyone looks like colorful, faceless ghosts. Reading street signs, tram numbers, or just about anything else is impossible, which makes public transportation a bit of a nightmare.

Thankfully, my first afternoon as a vision-impaired individual was spent with a friend. She’s fifteen and as clever and opinionated as she is wispy and fay-like. I was taking her out for her birthday to the only Frozen Yogurt place in Prague. I almost didn’t notice that I couldn’t see in the shopping mall. We stayed focused on things directly in front of us – shoes, clothes, jewelry, flowers.

It wasn’t until we said our goodbyes at the train station and I waited for my bus in the dimming evening that I remembered how disadvantaged I was. I squinted at each approaching bus to check the line number and rocked impatiently on my heels under the immense sensation that everyone could tell I was uncomfortable and unable to see squat.

The following day was perhaps the true test of my sightless nerves. I went to a doctor’s appointment by myself, which is a scary thing in itself. Czech hospitals are not like American ones which are equipped with cozy waiting rooms, magazines, and an easily-accessible receptionist to answer all of your questions.

Our doctor is Zbraslav is a general practitioner. You show up at the clinic and wait in the hallway outside her office in the queue of people that informally (yet very insistently) keeps track of who’s next. The receptionist is on the other side of a door that only opens from the inside.

I was supposed to have an appointment but didn’t know how to tell her. I waited in the hallway and the queue’d patients included me into their number. My name was never called. My appointment time came and went. I could feel my palms sweating.

I don’t think having functioning glasses at this point would have helped me in any way, but the fact that I knew I couldn’t see anything had already done a number on my emotional stamina. And anyone who knows me, knows I have the emotional stability of an ice cube.

In Czech, I let the woman across from me know that I had an appointment but wasn’t sure what to do. I was so nervous I could hardly think and spitting out those three-ish sentences was the hardest foreign language experience I have had to date. I’m not sure she fully understood me, but she told me to just wait with the rest of the queue.

Did you ever get lost as a kid? You’re terrified but you stand perfectly still like your parents always told you to – don’t move, they’ll find you. They always do. And as you’re standing there in this stream of people and life that is rushing by, desperately holding on to the promise that your parents will find you, you feel like the whole world knows that you’re lost. You can feel the tears coming, despite how hard you try to reason them away. It’ll be fine. I’m fine. Everything’s okay.

Sometimes you get found and you brush the fear off your face with the back of your hand. And sometimes you have the meltdown before your parents can retrace your steps. They find you sobbing like a two year old as some kind stranger attempts to comfort you, even though it’s just making life more embarrassing and miserable.

That’s how I felt.

Finally, a woman with an actual appointment showed up (right before I was supposed to go in), knocked on the door and told the receptionist she was there. Then she waited in the hall.

That’s what I should have done… I kicked myself mentally, feeling the tears rushing through my skull to the front of my eyes.

My turn in the queue came but the receptionist called the woman’s name and she got up to go in front of me. I was worried I’d missed my chance completely. My appointment had been an hour ago. What if I’d really blown it?

I quickly walked to the door where the last patient, receptionist, and the lady with the appointment were all convening.

For a moment, I tried to explain in Czech that I had been waiting, I tried to focus on eyes that I couldn’t really see, I tried… And then the moment was gone – as was my ability to speak in any language – and I just stood in the doorway sobbing. It was a meltdown of epic proportions, my friends. Just me, crying for no apparent reason in front of three perfect strangers who have managed to keep their lives together. I was so at the end of my rope, I wasn’t even as embarrassed as I should have been.

Everyone was taken aback (‘cause, duh) and they let me slip in before the woman with the appointment. After explaining what was wrong with my foot (and taking several minutes to regain my speech) the doctor looked at my sympathetically.

“I’ll take a look at your foot. It should be okay. But, why were you crying?”

Why were you crying?

I was overwhelmed? I was nervous? I’m coming off a messy couple of weeks? I can’t see anything? I haven’t learned how to be an adult yet? Pick one. None of them are great.

I walked back home in the sunshine and the fuzzy world about me became clear in a different way.

Sights melted away into sounds and smells. The feel of the brick sidewalk beneath my feet became visible for the first time and I finally saw how the orchards smell in early spring.

Why was I crying? What is wrong with being a little blind?

I spent the next 48 hours stumbling through a whole new Prague. It’s a Prague that has whispering friends around corners that you hear before you see and laughing families in restaurants behind curtained windows. Birds sing. Music plays. And where all these things come from, I’m not even sure. But they’re there, and they’re gorgeous.

I can’t make out shapes well without glasses, but colors stand out even more. The city looked like a watercolor painting, every shade dripping into the one below it, washed over by a blue river and a golden sky.

And when the light began to fade, I was the first to notice, because everything went from gold to grey and the lights turned on.

I can see lights. They look like fairies. Lampposts, bus numbers, headlights, apartment windows – they all look like bubbles of light floating in a darkness that grows deeper and deeper. The rest of the world fades away into indistinguishable shades of grey and black, but the lights get brighter, surrounding me like a grand, starry host. Even the moon was a fairy that night.

It was with some trepidation that I finally found myself back at the eye doctor, taking a new exam, getting a new set of sample contact lenses. I met up with a friend for a bite and put the contacts in at our table.

The world jumped back into view, just like it had never left, or I had never been gone. The feeling that I was a ghost like the ones I’ve been seeing, that I’m slightly invisible, vanished in a blink. And in it’s place sat the usual comfortableness of being able to see the strangers I look at, the places I go, the book titles sitting on shelves in the store.

Zbraslav from my window that night looked itself again. I could clearly make out the houses and the streetlights and the river that wound through the darkness, running its tireless course to Prague and beyond. What a gift our sight is.

And what a gift it is to lose it.

I hope I never judge someone who cries in public or has a meltdown – even adults can feel like lost little children sometimes. But I also hope that they take comfort knowing they will be found again, and will appreciate the sight of safety so much more for it.

I hope I never lose my sight again, just because it’s kind of a hassle and my mental health is already working overtime. But I also hope I don’t forget to focus on the beautiful things right in front of me that I can see, rather than worry about the dizzying world in the far-off, unclear future. I hope I never forget what it is to live in a world with light and darkness. And that for those who don’t have the proper lens, the darkness can be overwhelming and the light, a savior.

I hope I never lose sight of my Savior. When I feel myself becoming a ghost, lost in an indiscernible dance of shadows, when the tears start to brim and I stand paralyzed in fear, rooted in hope, I know my Savior will come for me. Because he always has.

Revelation 7:17

“For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water,’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”