The Trenches of Teaching

I’ve always been fascinated by the two great wars: World Wars 1 and 2, and keep revisiting these unforgettable events in history in cycles.

I’ll never forget the novel ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks with its terribly vivid descriptions of the horrors of trench warfare in the First World War. Troops would be stuck for weeks in narrow trenches which became their bedrooms, toilets, recreation rooms, asylums and very, very often graves. One thing I had never thought about until I read Sebastian Faulks’ book is the stench; not just of unwashed bodies, but of rotting corpses and dysentery, that would waft through the air in the lulls between fighting, and the intimacy, vulnerability and bonds of friendship formed between soldiers who shared these conditions. For one who knows about these two wars only third hand, it still fills me with horror when I imagine life during that time, and I feel saddened by the fact that the memory of those times and the unanswered questions and lessons to be learned are fading. You can a watch a video in the link below.

Trench Life in World War 1

Why am I writing this? What have trenches got to do with teaching? Are classrooms a war zone of pointlessness? Not really. Trenches are narrow places, where every sense is bombarded with intimate knowledge. Sometimes classrooms feel like this; where teachers and students work so closely that the intimacy becomes something that they cherish all their lives, or flee from for the rest of their lives.

ww1-trench

A World War 1 trench that shows how narrow the space was and how closely soldiers lived and fought.

I’ve never met a teacher who wasn’t tired. When you try to provide the best lessons you can give with dark circles under your eyes, often in resistant or disruptive atmospheres, often with sickness controlled by a quick, popped pill, I know it takes its toll. And that hurts me, and makes me feel that teachers are heroes second only to parents, and the songs of both need to be sung. You can go home after a hard day with the persistent feeling that your intestines are on display like streamers, and the smells and tastes of the classes take days to fade, like the fatigue

that sets
into
the very bones.

And whether your classroom is a battleground, or a haven of refuge, if you’re a teacher who likes to get their hands dirty, you’ll know all about the

Trenches of Teaching,
those narrow
spaces
where
teachers
are up against
students’ faces;
where nothing is secret;
where each sees
the whites of the other’s eyes;
faults, worst moments,
weaknesses and taints, all,
laid out in stark detail.

Where strengths and abilities
sound out now strident, now jarring trumpet blasts,
in the midst of the pipes
of patience, sweetness and compassion,
where acts of legendary heroism
and profound sacrifice
rub shoulders
with acts of unbelievable cowardice
and extraordinary malice;

Where friends stand faithful
and get teachers’ trench foot,
and are marred for life,
when dysentery runs at the mouths
of old and young,
and where one can end up
before a firing squad
for falling asleep on duty
at the playground.

Trenches of Teaching,
where the best and worst
of Students and Teachers,
are laid bare,
and there is no hiding,
no running, no evading
the true colours of who we are.

Selah

Yes, those very same
Trenches of Teaching
are the forges
where miracles are wrought,
where the Kingdom of God comes,
where all the colours bleed into one
perfect, bright, white Rainbow,
where spiders turn into butterflies,
and grapes grow on briars;
where Transformation stirs to Life,
where the Lion and the Lamb
lie down beside each other…

If teachers would not give up,
and turn cynical,
bitter and sour-shriveled;
if teachers learned to stoke
and farm their passion;
if teachers did not see
the need to stop being generous;
if teachers loved their students
right to the very end;
if teachers remained learners,
who saw their own lack

and knew when to withdraw
for the Spirit of God
to do His quiet work in the Heart.

I’m in the middle of a week of struggling to find a solution to the constant disruptions in the class, and my efforts seem to have awakened a hornets’ nest. I’m deeply thankful for friends, colleagues and a principal who share these precious trenches with me, who have my back, and who are on their knees alongside me, and who understand the heart of what I’m doing. I was battling with thoughts whether I should have compromised, just let the disruptions carry on and accept them as part of a teacher’s life, but then I came across a post this morning from a man, Stevenson Stockman, whose poetry I love (you’ll find his blog ‘Soul Surmise’ in the list of blogs under those worth reading on the side), and two lines from that post leaped out and wrapped me in a strong, loving embrace, and whispered in my ear, ‘You are there for such an hour as this.’

And so are we all, in all our unique situations.

He longs for those who enter the Kingdom to head further up and further in. He longs that they would grow up again and head out into that Kingdom, to discover the dangerous terrain that God would long to redeem. (Stevenson Stockman)

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Oasis

Long ago (it now seems like an age), when I used to live in Mumbai (Bombay to us at that time), there was a place I used to love to visit during the angst of late teens and early twenties. It was an area then called Nana Chowk, and in that area was a compound called the John Wilson Education Society Compound. In that compound Operation Mobilisation had its base. Ray and Christa Eicher used to live there with their family before they moved to Mussoorie in Uttarakhand. Ray and Christa played important roles in answering some of my questions when I was searching for meaning in life, but what was really the magnet, was the warmth, welcome and hospitality, the feeling of home and hearth, that they would exude with their God-given ability to make you feel like you were the most special person in the world. They became more than parents to me and have remained so to this day, Ray going to be with the Lord three months ago, notwithstanding. I got to know many of the O.M. team then living there, some of whom became more like brothers than friends.

Those were special moments, even after the Eichers left for Mussoorie. Looking forward to stopping by for a chat (often dinner) and chai with the O.M.ers, listening to Neil Diamond with my dear friend Romy, talking about life, praying together, asking questions about difficult passages in the Bible, I used to feel like it was an oasis in the busyness of Mumbai life. It was a place where life filled to the brim (as Neil Diamond says in his song Brooklyn Roads), as we sat on the grassy lawn and chatted, prayed together, laughed and shared our lives into the evening, and often the night. The O.M. base was aptly named Elim, after the oasis of 12 wells and 70 date palms, where the Israelites camped after leaving Egypt and before heading into the wilderness.

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An Oasis in the middle of Delhi – Lodhi Gardens!

Today, we took our little Bible study group to Lodhi Gardens for a picnic, and later, as we were heading out of the park, we decided to spend some time in the bonsai garden, and in that quiet, tucked away corner, I feasted on the sight of leaf and bark, trunk and root. It was then the appreciation of this truly wonderful place: the oasis of Lodhi Gardens in the hostility and busyness of Delhi, dawned on me. I’m grateful for the oases that God keeps and makes available in our lives; oases that give us encouragement, refreshment, beauty and rest in the midst of the pressure of life. It was a beautiful day, gentle golden sunshine, everything green and verdant. It was possible to do as Steve Stockman says in his beautiful poem to his wife Janice on their 20th anniversary:

Yes, we’ll find a place for us to stop

To look, to listen and to learn

Allow our candle just a little flicker

Instead of that pressurised burn.

You can listen to the full poem arranged by him and Sam Hill in their 2001 album Grace Notes below. And you can scroll down and enjoy the photos while you’re listening. I hope the photos and the poem bless you and give you a little oasis to come away to, where God is more than happy to meet and chat.

 

 

The See-Saw of Change

Life is full of see-saws.

Experiences come that range from the traumatic to the ridiculous. One moment we could be laughing at something funny and a little later we may be horrified by an accident on the road. I remember vividly a drive down to Gurgaon for a meeting many years ago with my dear friend Stefan. We were idly chatting, possibly cracking some of our infamous puns; I can’t quite remember now. Suddenly, there was a screech of tyres, and as I turned in the direction of the sound, I caught the glimpse (never to be forgotten) of the body of a person being thrown at least 10 feet up in the air. Stefan who had seen more than I had, said that he had seen the man who was a traffic attendant, trying to stop some children who were on the other side from crossing the freeway. Putting the two scenes together, it seems that the man saved them by almost certainly losing his life. There was no mention of it in the papers the next day. A violent, shocking mundane incident, not warranting anyone’s notice. From pun to pain with no transition to prepare one. See-saw. It cast a pall.

My days have been messy, hunkered down in the trenches of teaching. Trenches of teaching…that’s quite the next post I think. Keep a lookout for that one coming up! Anyway, I’m in the thick of the battle with unhelpful habits, disruptions, distractions, interrupted learning, non-compliances, and the euphoria of seeing unmistakable change, growth, impact, learning and transformation. The situation is perplexing; like a rich crop of golden wheat growing, choking; entangled with weeds. Is it order sown in the midst of chaos, or chaos sown in the midst of order? I’m spending day after day meeting with students, trying to understand them, trying to motivate them, get them to consider change, develop a taste for order; trying to give them a vision of something much greater…often with seemingly little success. And then others to whom I speak one word of appreciation or encouragement, and they light up, suffused with pleasure, and try so very hard, it brings tears to my eyes. See-saw. Days when you’re not quite sure whether you got it right or wrong.

balance

Trying to balance books while collecting them from my class.

At home, Dad astonishes us by his appetite. The man who, for the last several years, had been eating less and less food, coming down to being finicky about eating more than one chapati in a day, with a handful of rice that would fit in the palm of my hand, is now eating at the least, 6 chapatis, and about half a plateful of rice that a normal man would eat, along with vegetables and other things that I cook. The beauty is he has no idea of how much he’s eating since it’s all blended. Again I’m grateful to God who has so graciously heard prayer for my dad and turned things around for us as a family. A slow see from a saw! The breaking of dawn from the see-saw of day and night.

Yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised and encouraged to hear many affirmations from the Bridges Grade 8 students who saw change happening in the class, which being in the trenches, I couldn’t see! And conversations with Dan and Dilip, friends and brothers, with their encouragement, quiet suggestions and perspectives, have been important reference points in this building and ploughing work in people’s lives. And then my other friend and colleague Raj, shared a video with me about how the reintroduction of wolves (which are primary predators) caused the rejuvenation and revival of Yellowstone National Park. You can watch the video below.

Raj showed me an allegory of how what is often considered negative is an important agent of growth and transformation, with the context of how God uses such people and events to shape us and others. The video and the conversations all fitted together, as I began to realize that see-sawing does not mean that change is not happening, or even that growth is not happening. It’s a bit like a tug o’ war that we’re in trying to move ourselves, people and situations into a better place. There is always opposition when we go for things that please God.

I have the most wonderful opportunity now to continue to work on my own dreams as a teacher, personality, style and character, and the shadow of hope continues to be cast by students and situations that I’m involved with. The fields are ripe for harvest, but labourers are few who are faithful. None of us are a mistake or in any situation by coincidence. The cultivation of hope often see-saws, and teachers, parents, pastors, social workers and doctors know this truth very, very well.

He shall walk, and walk and weep, bearing the handful of seed; he shall come and come with singing, bearing his sheaves… Psalm 126:6

This is the promise of God, that it isn’t labour in vain or futility. We may well be the only person in someone’s life who is holding out hope to them.

Selah.

The Cultivation of Hope

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been reflecting on hope through the many events unfolding every day, and as the reality of hope asserts itself more and more through the incredible grace and kindness of a loving God, I begin to ask the question: then how can I have the shadow of hope’s reality always fall on me? Or rather, how can I live in the shadow of hope’s reality?

fields

The beautiful pattern of farmland!

Well, it seems that I have to explore the agriculture of hope! Every farmer plans his planting even before he has started harvesting. This is the wisdom and mystery of the ploughman overtaking the reaper. I need to cultivate hope; plant it wherever I can so that it yields a continuous harvest. Have I been doing that? And how would I continue to do that?

I was reading about an organisation that has a vision of reaching out in whatever capacity their expertise offers to end hunger, and came across the amazing statement in their Rural Compassion section, that they find the state of consistently poor counties in their national zone unacceptable. Unacceptable! That little word and the worldview that comes attendant with it is one of the two sides of the crux of the matter. People who find things unacceptable do things about them because they have a dream of what they should be. And people who have a dream of what should be, try to do something about seeing it become real, and fire up other people about it.

As I think back about anytime I have successfully cultivated hope, it has always been in the context of finding something unacceptable, and then engaging with trying to do something about it, and often the resulting transformation has brought unexpected hope. Or being so much on fire with something exciting or wonderful, that it has resulted in working hard to share that with others, again, often resulting in an influx of hope and succeeding transformation. One is the experience of pain, and the other, the experience of passion; they seem to be the two great tools for a cultivator of hope.

It’s not a coincidence that I’ve always loved farmland and livestock, and I couldn’t resist sharing some of these beautiful images of farms.

lanscape_with_farmland__1829-1834

Landscape with Farmland, 1832 – Theodore Rousseau

Constable, John, 1776-1837; Golding Constable's Kitchen Garden

Golding Constable’s Kitchen Garden – John Constable 1776 – 1837

malham-6939

Yorkshire dales – Malham

wheat-country-saskatchewan_288-286

Canadian wheat fields

hills-and-fields

Farming the dells

Indian villages for slideshow supplied by John Parker

And closer to home, the familiar Indian fields

So, it makes me think of how I am planting in people’s lives, what I am sowing to draw forth hope from hardened ground, how I am ploughing to soften the soil of worldviews and habits that have become unyielding and harmful, and how I can be a channel of God’s great grace towards us hardened human beings.

I had thought of building on this thought with my grade 8 students, looking for new ways to plant ‘hope seeds’, but the pollution in Delhi reached such epic ranges that the Delhi government suddenly declared three days of holidays for all schools of every type. How effective that would be is entirely another story. Which right-minded person would think that young folk would stay cooped up indoors for three entire days?? But I suddenly became free in the mornings for three days, and a quiet voice whispered in my ear that this was a gift of respite and rest from a wise and loving Father, and that it would be good to ‘come away’.

I decided to ‘retreat’ and use the free time to reflect, pray and take God’s counsel in various situations, even as Psalm 126:6 came to mind, with its beautiful poetry in its original form:

He shall walk, and walk and weep,

Bearing the handful of seed:

He shall come, and come with singing,

Bearing his sheaves…

With the unpredictability of life, it makes sense to take counsel with the Great Farmer and Cultivator of our lives to know what to do with the farmland entrusted to our care, so that we may have the joy of an abundant harvest, a sound tilling, and a good sowing.

Looking for Substance in Hope

birds-eye-viewAnother one of Hina’s photos that caught my attention. There was something about the pigeon that I was trying to define. Reflecting on today’s events in the classroom, it struck me that the pigeon seemed comfortable, aloof, separated from the daily worries of traffic, crows, irate humans, finding food and being rejected by a potential mate.

And my day, the perfect antithesis; hectic, messy, tiring, hungry, not knowing whether students would reject my efforts to reach out to them, trying to avoid being stressed by the multiple interruptions that were preventing my completing trains of activity, and brain actually giving up with still 30 minutes left to teach.

It seems funny thinking about it now, but I would much rather have the jungle of being alive than the sterility of being aloof and comfortable.

However, I kept thinking about the picture of the silhouette in yesterday’s post ‘The Substance of Hope’ and reorienting myself to be patient with the students. I called one on one meetings with three of the boys and organised a meeting tomorrow with one of the parents. In all of these, thinking back, I can see shadows of the presence of change being cast, shadows of substance that I can work with. The shadows might be faint, but they’re unmistakably there. And that is encouraging.

But one boy baffled me. The lack of verbal response and apparent feeling were very concerning, and I came out of the meeting very disturbed and wondering what I needed to do with him.

the-making-of-a-man

I remembered an image I had created on Chaoscope that had captured some of the labour and difficulty involved in the transformation of people’s lives.

On reflection, I think the presence of this boy is important. He keeps me dependent not on my own perceptions and beliefs, but to look to God, pull back and wait, to listen to Him. After all, he is someone unavoidable in my life that God has brought, and if He has brought, surely He will give grace and power enough to deal with him in a way that God wants.

And the greater question is whether there is a shadow being cast of the substance of change in my own life by God shaping me to be a teacher after His own heart. After years of teaching, I feel like I’m back on the anvil, unlearning and being reshaped.

And that is a very good thing.

It means I have a future, and if I have a future, it means I have much hope. And I hope this will encourage you to see a future and have hope in your life too.

 

The Substance of Hope

Hina, a colleague and a friend, had taken some photos that were interesting, and one of them gave me the idea for this post.

silouhette

The Shadow of Substance

Yesterday was a day of peaking frustrations and great encouragement. Deadlock with the boys forming the troublesome core of the class; a seeming inability on my part to arouse them to aspire to better things and break out of destructive patterns.

Then later in the day… a quietly excited Dr. Jayakumar (David to the rest of us), the principal of Bridges Academy, sharing what many children wrote about the impact of the school in their lives; unmistakable evidence of many unseen things growing and developing in the children who have dropped almost out of the sky into our care. Here are some comments from different kids (I haven’t changed the grammar) –

“Before I come to Bridges Academy there was no school to accept me because I was refugee, and also 14 years old. But by this school I am able to study, to go to college, even I hope to achieve my goal. Now I feel strong to achieve my goal, even that much that I am say whether I run, walk, or crawl, I will set my goals and achieve them.”

“Before I didn’t have self confidence. Right now I can talk in front of many people. Every day learn new things.”

“When I wasn’t in this school, I think I was not serious about my dreams… I got to know that I’m not serious, but I have to be serious. It was like it woke me up from my dreams. After that I’m really serious about my life and dreams.”

“The positivity of teachers and thought for the days really influenced me. I was not positive always, but now I’m mostly all the time positive.”

“The teachers make me feel I can do something better for my life…Now I can tell everyone that I’m studying at the level I want to study, and it’s changed my life.”

“I’ve learned to be punctual, following the rules of a school and how to be a gentleman…”

There are many more, and writing them all would make a very much longer post than it already is.

After David shared this, I made a comment about needing to take up the issue with the boys who seemed to have avoided meeting me at the end of the day. The comment cut a jagged tangent to the hope in what David was sharing, and later I realised that I had been given a choice to follow a particular line of thought, and I had made a bad one. In the face of such obvious impact, I had chosen to continue to dwell on the problems, rather than notice and dwell on the hope.

rose

Rose of Hope – seeing the pattern form out of the chaos. Image rendered in Chaoscope and worked on in Paint.NET.

The reality of hope has been in my thoughts again and again. Right there in the midst of difficulty after difficulty, surrounded by weeds, grows the precious crop, the cultivated grain. That boy in the picture above is just a silhouette. JUST a silhouette?! He has substance enough to cast a shadow and block out the light! How can he be JUST a silhouette??

That’s the point. I think I sometimes make the very real hope of things to come into something less than it is, just as we sometimes think that a silhouette is somehow less than it is, that is, something substantial enough to block out the light and cast a shadow. David’s stories were the shadow of things not yet seen, but real enough to block out the light. When the shadow can give us such a thrill, imagine what seeing the reality will be like? How can you dream if you don’t have hope? And how can you have hope if it’s not real?

Today, the residue of that choice of dwelling on the problems fairly well ruined my morning with the class and unless I quickly regain the hope that is from God, and see a future in the troublesome boys, I may lose them due to my own inability to retain hope.

Well, I’ve got to look for the shadow, and wait patiently until I see it, until the patterns start to form, not just in the cooperative students, but also in the others, whose presence with us is surely not a coincidence.