I’ve worked with a lot of students since I began teaching in 1987. Not just different nationalities, but students who came with all kinds of challenges and strengths. I marveled at the myriad personalities that I got to work with — some malleable, trusting and easy going, others requiring a more sensitive approach to get them to open up, still others needing me to grow a thicker skin and nerves of steel. I’ve seen it all, the whole spectrum and then some. Many have come to mind in reflection in this past year, always with gratitude for all they taught me, especially the challenges.
Now, at St. Aidan’s, I’ve been privileged to work with a new type of student — the new Canadian who must learn to speak English. I have worked with these young people since last fall, and have enjoyed the challenge of introducing a new alphabet, with new sounds, to them. Some have already accepted their new status and are more than ready to learn, others are still longing for their homeland and reluctant. I’m sure I barely understand the effects of the reasons they fled their country to begin with.
The long, fancy explanations teachers are so fond of giving, as a “sage on a stage,” no longer work (oh wait, they never did). Now I depend on gestures, simple words and acting to get the meanings out. Sometimes I get smiles of comprehension, other times I get puzzled looks. How do you explain that the letter “a” is sometimes long, sometimes short? Or that “c” can be pronounced two ways? English seems cruel with all its exceptions and rules that break.
Once, I brought an Arabic/English picture dictionary from the library to go over with Stephania, a new student from Eritrea. She showed her alphabet and it was a good exercise in empathy for me. The characters of that language all seemed the same to me, the subtle differences incomprehensible to me but no doubt plain to her. I imitated the sounds Stephania spoke, but when she corrected how I said them, I didn’t understand my mistake. I tried to say them the way she did, thinking I’d aced it, but she kept shaking her head in laughter.
I’ve often remembered that experience when I see students struggle with what seems obvious to me. For example, it never occurred to me before how similar the letters “t” and “f” look. Explaining something once doesn’t do the trick, it is a process that will be years in the making as they acquire a new language and a new culture. Any successful connection that occurs during a lesson is a joy.
I’ve been a “new language learner” myself in the last year, as I’ve navigated my way through leaving full time teaching. My new dialect is the language of the “second half of life”. In the first half of life, I was preoccupied, as people rightly are before their 50’s, with establishing myself — career, home ownership, parenting…building a proper platform for my life. The game was all about establishing an identity. In teaching, I took courses, learned the latest programs, taught after school and lunch clubs, bravely staged concerts, and said yes to a lot of extras, as many, many teachers do. Life was all about the word “more”.
Now life has become about less rather than more, and I am in the midst of a paradox with the new language I’m learning. Where my old language said, “Work hard. White knuckle your way through,” the new language is gently encouraging me to begin letting go, reminding me that less might translate to more.
Until I was faced with the task of letting go, I didn’t know how tightly I’d been hanging on, as if it was the only identity I could have. But as I’ve been letting go, I feel I am gaining more in an upside down way. Saying no to the busy life I once led has felt like a loss, but there is new life springing up as well.
Author Richard Rohr describes this paradox beautifully in the phrase (and book) “Falling Upward”. At first glance, falling hardly seems to describe the first half of life. Isn’t it all about rising, achieving, accomplishing, and performing? I think falling refers, not to the first half of life, but to our transition into the second half of life. I didn’t have to manufacture the falling part, it happened when I couldn’t do it anymore. I think this must come naturally in every life. Letting go feels like falling, and falling always involves suffering of some kind. Suffering is never fun, but headaches have served to topple the illusion that I was in control, or that I could even build a tower of success. My little kingdom had to fail me.
I’m so grateful I’ve heard God call me to a kingdom greater than my small self, which in Christian language Jesus calls the Kingdom of God. It’s what Rohr meant by the phrase “falling upward”. Now it’s no longer about me looking good, or making money. The picture has grown smaller in some ways, but in the most important ways, life has gotten bigger.
I hope and pray that my life will have more of an inner generativity. God in the second half of life is showing me a way to do this as I’m writing and editing more than I ever have. Most days it feels like chicken scratches, but I’ve heard a clear call that this is where God has called me to. When I write, I feel like I am falling upward, falling towards God, falling in love. I feel I am where God wants me to be.
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. John 12:24