Milý Okurky. . . (A letter to my students)

Last Days in Prague

Dear students,

On Tuesday we had to say ‘Goodbye.’ For some of you, this was easy – you were excited about the next step of your lives, your summer plans, or even just getting home for lunch. For some of you, the last day of school was tougher. You were torn between a past that you loved and a future you’re unsure about (no matter how excited you may be for it to come). And then, not all of us got to say ‘goodbye,’ did we? That happens too.

For me, the hardest part of the day was walking down the first floor hallway for the last time. You know the one – it runs along the ninth grade classrooms from the lunch hall to the big staircase at the end of the school. All those big windows let light come washing onto the smooth floors and across your lovely picture boards. I’ve been dreading that walk for a year and a half. I go that way every day after lunch to get to my office. Really, the day I realized how hard it would be to walk through this hallway on the last day of June was the day I realized how much I was falling in love with you and your school.

But the day did have to come and, even though you’ve already moved along with your summer plans, I want to say just a few things. Think of it as one last little piece of love from your teacher to help you through the next few years.

Be ready to smile.

I know Mondays are hard and it’s easy to be glum when you get bad marks or lose your phone (or someone hides your phone and doesn’t say where! . . . Honzo. . . ). But smiling is a way to fight back. Happiness is not something we find, it’s something we make. Smiling – even when you don’t really feel like it – is the first step. And I think you’ll discover that if you smile at people, they’ll smile back. That’s called human connection and we don’t do it enough. But more importantly, your smile will have an effect on those around you. Your smiles have gotten me through some really difficult days. The person I am today is made up of tiny pieces of the people you have been for the last two years. You have shaped me by our shared experiences and you’ll continue to shape those around you for as long as you live! We humans share this planet and we will influence each other, for better or for worse. Remember that and decide: how do you want to shape people? If all you ever give the world is a smile every day, it will be a brighter place.

Be kind.

This one is tough. Being kind isn’t easy and it isn’t glamorous. It certainly isn’t cool. But you know what? It is one of the greatest things you will ever learn. Learn to be nice to people you don’t like. Learn to keep quiet when you want to say something funny at the expense of someone else’s feelings. Learn not to laugh when a friend is down, no matter how funny it might seem to you – help them back up instead. I know this might sound boring to you. It’s not. Kindness is both a gift and an adventure, and only the bravest will ever know its fullest depths. It is the most underappreciated form of goodness and heroism that exists. There is no glory in being kind – only the reward of helping another person. And that is enough, trust me.

Don’t complain about lunch.

We can all agree that not every lunch in school is a good lunch. I particularly struggle with the fish dishes. Gag. But someone made that food. Someone paid money so that you could eat it. And someone much hungrier than you is going without lunch at all today. This isn’t meant to make you feel guilty, only to remind you to appreciate what you’ve been given. Appreciation is something you’ll struggle with your whole life. Start now. Start by thanking God for food to eat, friends to eat it with, and a school to eat it in. The best part about this is that the more you appreciate what you have, the fuller life will seem to you. Richness and joy will leak out of every mundane activity and colorless possession and you’ll discover an entire world that most people will never notice because they never learned appreciation.

Work hard.

Duh. Turn in your homework. Study for tests. Get good marks. But hard work won’t do you any good if you’re not doing it for a purpose. And I don’t mean, “Mom is happy when I have good marks,” or “I need to get into a good high school.” Work hard because you can. What a gift it is to learn! What a privilege it is to fill our minds! God has given us the most amazing capacity to grow and expand! It can be a struggle and you won’t always win, but I want you to try. I want you to aim to grow yourself into the brightest, smartest, hardest-working person you can be – but don’t do it for me! Do it for yourself. Do it because you owe your humanity the very minimum respect of cultivating your mind, body and soul to the best of your ability.

Don’t give up on yourself.

I’ve seen some of you quit. I’ve seen you come to a wall that you didn’t think you could climb. Can I tell you something? Watching you give up on yourselves is the hardest part of my job – worse than grading papers (or losing students on the metro. . . Petře. . .). Thomas Edison (inventor of the light bulb) once said, “I didn’t fail – I found a thousand ways not to make a light bulb!” And after thousands of tries, he finally succeeded. And all those failures added to his character – they made him a stronger person. The key is to keep trying, because, ultimately, our greatest successes are not what we accomplish but who we become. Become someone who doesn’t quit.

Don’t give up on others.

There have been a few times in the last few years when I’ve thought, “I’m not meant to be a teacher – I can’t do this.” (One of these times may definitely have followed the ping-pong incident). Do you know why I didn’t quit? Because you wouldn’t let me. Every time I got worn down, you picked me right back up. We need people to believe in us. We need to believe in others – and not just with things like school and work! Growing up is hard and we all make mistakes. Be patient with your friends. Forgive. Forget. Work together. Don’t give up on those around you who are struggling to find themselves – and I mean everyone, not just our friends. Everyone. Our faith in humanity is much too fragile. Learn to sympathize, learn to respect the struggles of others, learn to lift people up.

Follow your road.

Leaving school has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It breaks my heart to go. A lot of people have been asking me, “When will you come back?” And the truth is, I don’t know if I will come back. Who can know the future but God? On Tuesday, when someone asked me when I’d be coming back to Prague, a dear teacher took my face in her soft hands, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Your life is ahead of you.” I needed to hear that. I needed someone to tell me that it’s okay to say ‘goodbye.’ Love and friendship are not bound by space and time. So follow your road. Go where you need to go. The people who love you most will be waiting for your return or simply praying for your safe journey, wherever it takes you.

Keep your heart open.

I want to thank you for letting me into your school. You can’t know how I scared I was when I first came to Prague. I didn’t understand anything anyone said. I wasn’t used to the rules and customs here. And I kept getting lost on the stairwell! Most of all, I was scared of letting everyone down, of being a bad teacher. Nebyla jsem špatná učitelka, žejo? I could not have made it through the last two years without your help. You have been so kind to me. You have been so much fun to work with. And you believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself anymore. If anything, you were my teachers and I was your most adoring student – and I always will be. I want you to know that you have been my greatest adventure. I also want you to know that it’s okay to love your new teacher the way you have loved me. People come and go – that’s life. But there is no end to the amount of love we can give. Don’t let the pain of an ending keep you away from the beauty of a beginning. All things do end, eventually. Keep your heart open for whoever needs a home there. And be ready to love everyone – no matter where they come from or where they’re going.

It took me less than 90 seconds to walk from one end of that hallway to the other. The school was quiet – the way it is in the afternoon when you’re all tucked away in your last classes of the day and everyone is sleepy from a full lunch. For that 90 seconds, I thought about all my favorite moments in this school. The first snowfall, Halloween, learning our Christmas songs, the Garden Party. I thought of all your little triumphs and all your dreams, your fears and hopes and crazy ideas – pieces of yourselves that you’ve given me. What an honor to have been your teacher!

But before I knew it, the hallway ended. The view around the corner spread out before my eyes and, looking backwards, the hall lay still and silent.

Life happens quickly. It’s over before we know it. Don’t waste a moment, don’t miss a beat. Remember that you won’t always have the chance to say ‘goodbye,’ so live each moment expressing your love for those around you – let there never be a doubt in their minds how much they mean to you. I hope, I hope, I have been able to express just how much you have meant to me.

But above all, don’t be afraid. The world needs brave people who will be kind, fair and loving.

Are you ready?

Best of luck,

Your Teacher, Mary

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St. Patrick’s Christmas Tree

I think maybe it’s time I explain why my Christmas tree is still up. In March.

Believe it or not, I have a reason beyond just my usual inability to adapt to real, adult responsibilities, like folding my towels or emptying my trash instead of just starting a new bag and letting the full ones pile up in the corner (the key to making this work is to use decorative bags – if it doesn’t look like trash anymore, what’s the harm?).

But in order to explain why my Christmas tree is still standing atop my accordion case, I first have to tell you three short stories.

The first story is about the day I should have taken my tree down. The second story is about the day I tried to take my tree down. And the third story is about St. Patrick’s Day.

*The First Story*

January 5, 2015

It wasn’t snowing anymore, but the moisture in the air made the earth seem colder than it probably was as we waited at the bus stop. Jerry had agreed to take Sarah to the airport because I had to teach, but she wanted to walk me down to my bus to say ‘goodbye.’ Sarah is one of the few people in the world who knows the bulk of my fears and insecurities, and still chooses to associate with me in public. She knows that I have a paranoia about odd-numbered years and ‘people grease’ (don’t ask) and she knew that the year looming in front of us was currently winning the Mary v. Adult Life war. But she didn’t chide or even console. She just stood there in her pretty red coat, keeping my mind off the cold and the worries of tomorrow with her quiet, comforting presence.

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I waited for Sarah to come to Prague for a year. We first started planning the Christmas before when I was home for Deborah’s wedding. One night we drove to the beach, armed with a thermos of hot chocolate and pockets full of jelly beans (my idea), and I said she just needed to come visit me already. We decided December would work best, so I began my 12-month vigil. Sarah didn’t just come for Christmas – she was Christmas. She was a slice of home, a piece of something I’m sure about: that there will always be people I love waiting for me somewhere.

So when I boarded the bus and watched her fade away in the foggy back window, I mentally set ‘Christmas’ on my calendar to whenever I next get to see that pretty face.

When I got home that evening, tired and lonely, I found my room spotless and one last Christmas gift on my bed with a handwritten note (I wasn’t able to find any of my pens for several weeks after this, but being able to see the floor again was kind of cool).

I decided then that I couldn’t take down my tree just yet. It was the last piece of Sarah that I had left, the last piece of Christmas and 2014 and home – the last promise of everything being ‘alright’ for just a moment.

*The Second Story*

January 18, 2015

This was the day I meant to take the tree down. I ripped down just about everything else in my room. In my defense, it had been a tough week. It seems that I get in trouble as much as (if not more than) my students. Our extremely intimidating Vice Head had to come into my class to tell me we were being too loud. I forgot to update my public transit pass and rode as a černý pasažér – “black passenger” – for three days without knowing it, followed by an hour wait in a freezing metro to get a new pass. I came face-to-face with the fact that distance puts strain on relationships and (finally) with the fact that when this school year ends, I have to leave Prague (I’m now reminded of that on a weekly basis from teary-eyed fourth graders begging me to stay. Talk about a guilt-trip). Feeling haunted by my odd-numbered year and my complete void of plans for my return home, I broke down and binged on cheap Czech candy and popcorn because I’m still unable to handle life like a grown-up.

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Adult life was kicking this poor expat in the shins and it hurt. So on Sunday afternoon, down came my paper lanterns and my picture posters. My seashells and bottles found themselves shoved onto a shelf out of the way in my desperate attempt to ‘start fresh.’ But the tree I could not take down. I tried. I thought about it for about two seconds. But with the lights on and all my earrings, beads and bobbles mailed to me from folks back home, and the handmade Czech ornaments (gifts from friends over the past two years here), it didn’t look like a tree as much as it looked like a piece of dry land to climb up on. A little piece of safety decorated with my past, my present and tiny promises of my future. It was both the home I have begun to long for immensely and the home I’ve been creating here in Prague. But mostly it was the reminder of the hope I clung to: somewhere in the world, there will always be people I love waiting for me.

So as I made plans to burn my paper lanterns, I let the tree stay up.

*The Third Story*

March 17, 2015

Today was the day I planned to put the tree away. Valentine’s came and went, and even though I did put hearts on my window, I couldn’t bring myself to take down the tree. It had to be today. It had to be St. Patrick’s Day.

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As you may have noticed by now, the tree has become a lot more than just a piece of plastic strung with lights and cheap jewelry. I’ve been trying to figure out myself why this darn tree means so much to me.

I found the answer in cookies.

No, this is not another story where Mary makes bad food choices. It’s about our St. Patrick’s Day party for the Girl’s Club our church puts on. We played Irish folk music, decked everything out in green and made rainbow cookies. Fittingly, we told the story of Noah during our devotional – another story of a rainbow, but one much more valuable than a pot of gold. The first rainbow was a promise from God to Noah, I explained to the girls. It was a sign of God’s faithfulness.

“As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.”
Genesis 8:22

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When the girls went home and the last of the cookie dough scraps had been cleaned up, I made myself a cup of tea (okay, okay, it turned into three cups, but just because I haven’t mastered portion control yet) and watched the rain trickle down the window pane as the last few Irish folk songs played out on the CD.

God has been faithful to me. Looking back over the short span of my existence, even in the darkest, most unsure moments, he has been there holding me fast. But he knows that my anxious heart is prone to wander. He knows that humans are weak and walk easily away from what they cannot see. So he gave us rainbows. He gave us a visible reminder of his love for us and of his faithfulness.

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My Christmas tree, I think, is an important reminder for me. It’s a visible promise of a hope for a future that isn’t as dark and lonely as it can sometimes feel. No matter where I am in the world, there is a God who loves me.

And as long as God’s faithfulness stands, so will my Christmas tree.

For Goodness’ Sake

There it was, laying face up on my chair like a cheery piece of sunshine. Unaware that it was Valentine’s Day – or even what that meant – 2nd grade-Mary bent down to examine the token of friendship bestowed anonymously to each member of first period choir class. She was floored, as any eight year old would be by a purple card with pink hearts and a cheap lollipop glued to the top. But instead of delight, she felt jealousy. She was envious of those girls who had something to give out, who had the power to make people feel special with their flimsy purple cutouts and cheap candy, because she had nothing.

IMG_0325That was my introduction to Valentine’s Day, a holiday I have always loved because I’m a hopeless romantic and because CHOCOLATE AND PINK EVERYTHING.

Obviously, the first thing this proves, is that even eight-year olds have a sin nature, and mine hasn’t changed much since 1998. I have always been a little obsessed with being the ‘goodest’ person in the room, not for goodness’ sake, but for my own vanity.

In 2013, Sarah and I – stranded at a drugstore in Irvine – bought several bags of those cheap Valentines cards and heart-shaped pops. We sat on a curb in the parking lot and signed every single one, and then handed them out to our friends. It took most of the weekend, but it was the best Valentine’s Day adventures ever. Partly because I do genuinely enjoy giving, but also partly because I relished the powers of bestowing ‘specialness’ upon those I deemed deserving of a Valentine and being worshiped as an exceedingly thoughtful and kind human being in return.

How we do set ourselves up as gods.

That was the last decent Valentine’s Day I had. The day has expectations attached to it and frankly, I found myself buying chocolate in bulk for personal consumption after hours at Target more than once. It’s just hard for any day (let alone one that parades around in red teddy bears and CHOCOLATE AND PINK EVERYTHING) to live up to the standards we set – a day where we feel completely loved and special. Ha, a day about us, essentially. (Ergo, I don’t feel as guilty as I should about the buying of chocolate en masse on my own at midnight).

Valentine’s isn’t really celebrated as pompously in the Czech Republic as it is in the USA. But I decided to make the best of it this year anyway, because you can’t waste an opportunity to put hearts on every available surface.

I got up early to make mini cinnamon rolls (pink, because, obviously). Despite my turbulent history in the kitchen, they came out alright – fluffy and sticky and sweet enough to not need frosting (which I forgot to make because, obviously).

I cleaned the kitchen and the living room, stuck little hearts on the window and piled craft supplies on the dining room table.

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Once a month, my church here in Prague hosts a ‘Girl’s Club’ for 11-13 year olds. I do a lot of the organizing and prepare the devotional. Many of the girls who come are from the school I teach at. It’s a really good opportunity for them to practice English because my Czech taps out after ten minutes, but Marilyn helps with translation when needed, especially for the Bible study.

The girls arrived promptly at ten o’clock, coming up to our front door, bundled in hats and mittens. It’s cold outside.

Warm cups of fruit tea (pink!) were passed around in flowered china mugs. They sat around the coffee table for a few minutes, thawing out by the fire, as I tried to explain what cinnamon rolls are (because they don’t exist in this country).

Then it was on to the craft: puff monsters. These are direct proof that some good things do come from the hours I spend on pinterest. In 45 minutes, eight girls went through all four skein’s of red, white, purple and pink yarn. Most of the fake eyes were used and a lot of the brightly threaded pipe cleaners. Lots of giggling, lots of nimble fingers, lots of focused eyes. Once they got going, talking faded out as they concentrated on winding string, tying knots, and placing pipe-cleaner. I’ve become a firm believe in crafts. Working with your hands. Producing something that you can give. What a lost art – giving.

The table looked like a colored thread factory ransacked by chimpanzees by the time we moved on to the devotional. Honestly, it’s a good look for a table.

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Bibles opened to John where we read about the woman at the well. It was sweet to see girls learning how to find things in the Bible, many for the first time. Numbers for pages, numbers for chapters, numbers for verses.

The woman at the well has become a relatable character for me as I get older and lose more and more of my self-righteousness. I see a lot of myself in her. Five husbands? I can see a parallel universe where that ends up being me. Desperate for love, desperate for fulfillment, desperate for meaning. And in my community, meaning and purpose for women is marriage. That’s what we’re taught. Family. Raising the next generation. And I want it. I want that. I want to be wanted and to mean something to someone and to have an important, fulfilling job – to have a purpose.

So that’s what we talked about, me and these little girls. Love and purpose. Did the woman at the well find what she was looking for?

No.

Did all those relationships make her happy?

No.

What changed?

We opened up to my favorite Psalm (139) and read about God – because some of these girls know nothing about Him. We read that God knows us better than we know ourselves, that we can’t hide from him. We read that he formed us, created us by hand, unique. And we read that he can lead us in ‘the way everlasting.’

What changed? She was found by God. She was saved. She was shown her purpose – to glorify God! What does she do? She goes back into town and tells everyone about the man at the well and through her testimony, others are led to Christ.

That’s purpose.

We answered questions and closed in prayer. Tea was refilled and several girls made me promise to send them the recipe for the cinnamon rolls.

Then on with the hats and mittens. Out the door into the cold. Literally, the most perfect little Valentine’s Day morning ever.

I spent a half hour washing mugs and sweeping up bits of colored yarn. Time to think about Valentine’s Day and the sweetest party I’ve ever been to.

This year has been so different for me. I keep telling my Mom it’s because I’m not in the American pressure cooker that insists you’re not anybody unless you have somebody. But it’s the same everywhere, really.

What changed?

When did this day stop evolving around me?

I think what happened was moving to Prague. It was seeing that my life will feel like an unsatisfactory let-down – like a boring Valentine’s Day – if my focus is myself. Not that moving across the world helped me focus on and serve God better – I could have done that in San Diego. But I have no excuses here. My faults are spread out like butter across bread for everyone at the table to see. Vanity visibly gets in the way of my work here so I’ve learned to keep it at bay. And God is faithful. He has shown me that my best efforts to be gracious and good, when they have been to please myself or impress someone else, feel empty and fake. He has shown me that when I labor for him, his glorification is reward in itself.

So, like the woman at the well, I find my purpose. I find my fulfillment. I find love at its very source, in its truest form.

And Valentine’s becomes special in a way I could never have imagined. Not because I’ve learned how to be a better giver, but because I understand what it means to lay your heart before the Lord as a humble receiver.

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