Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Longest Day

Originally written as a Facebook note on June 21, 2011

As I write this note, I am sitting in a deck chair on a small patio attached to our family’s brand new (well, to me anyway… I guess it’s actually been finished for close to a year) garage. I’m facing east, where only the snow-capped peak of Mount Baker is visible over what must be the only layer of clouds in an otherwise perfectly clear pale blue sky. Although it’s 8 pm, it is still daylight, and the sun won’t set for another hour and a half. Today is June 21st, the longest day of the year and the first day of summer (traditionally known as the solstice).

Actually, the clouds around Baker cleared up minutes after I wrote this paragraph

Of course, “longest day of the year” is a superlative that seems inappropriate for a day so tranquil, so serene. In fact, this quiet day seemed to pass quicker than most. Longest day? Pssht. Reflecting on the past 6 months, I could easily assign the distinction of “longest day” to a number of other days; days with significantly less hours of sunlight.

Friday, March 11 was such a day. As my 6th period English students left my classroom at 2:42 pm, I thought that my day was winding down (and that was even anticipating a 4 hour drive up to the mountains with over 30 Middle Schoolers for a Youth Group snow retreat!). Earlier that day, in introducing a discussion about chaos theory, I had my Humanities class do an exercise in which they created a collective story, line by line, advancing the plot by trying to think of the worst case scenario; the most chaotic, disastrous outcome of the previous line that they possibly could.

Even in my wildest imagination trying to think of horrible scenarios, I never would have guessed that my day was only getting started at 2:42, that one of the most powerful earthquakes in recorded history would end so many lives, destroy so many homes, upset so much of the routine and even physically move Japan by a matter of meters. I never would have guessed that I’d spend the evening comforting, cooking for and waiting with hundreds of students who were waiting to hear from their parents that it was okay to go home. I never would have guessed that I’d have to cancel the youth retreat that my high school leaders had spent months planning for. I never would have guessed that so much destruction could be caused by a natural disaster—even a bad one. I never would have guessed that an event that lasted only a few minutes on that day would dictate so much of what hundreds of millions of people (myself included) would think about and talk about for the next few months. March 11 was a long day.

Thursday, March 24 was also a long day. I was in Thailand with 45 Seniors and 5 colleagues. We were already emotionally exhausted from the events of Mar. 11, the earthquake and tsunami still not yet 2 weeks past. We were exhausted by the aftermath of Mar. 11—heart-rending footage of a devastated Sendai, a week without school, long lines at gas stations and convenience stores, empty shelves just about everywhere, and of course the confusing, contradictory and often panic-ridden reports of nuclear crisis at the Fukushima plant. We were in Thailand to work, to provide a unique ministry to hill-tribe children at the Ban Sanportong School as we played with the kids and laid the foundations for new school facilities, but being on solid ground again felt like a vacation of sorts.

Thursday, March 24 had felt like a fairly low-key, quiet day as we had returned to the Maekok River Village Resort from two intense days of work and play at the school. The CAJ students had done some team-building exercises, biked, and played games in the pool, and by that evening it was feeling very much like an average, non-descript day gone by in the blink of an eye. Then, at 8:56 p.m. as we gathered near the Sala (gym) for evening devotions, the ground began to shake. Hard. Almost as hard, it seemed, as it had just 13 days before, which was ludicrous since so many of us had confidently labeled that first quake as a “once-in-a-lifetime-type-thing”. We knew, based on our experiences of the previous few weeks, that this was not a small quake, that this was not normal. All over again, we were shaken and scared.

I know that many students were emotional as we did our evening devotionals, but I can only speak for myself when I say that I fell apart. I’d tried so hard to be the strong teacher, unfazed and stoic in the face of extraordinary circumstances. I’d put on a brave face every time I had spoken to my students in the days following the first quake, chosen the boldest words as I composed what I hoped were inspirational emails, and tried to conduct my online classes with a “devil-may-care” flair that said “not even an earthquake can stop me from teaching you SLAM poetry!” In short, I thought I was fine, that I was somehow above the high tensions and emotions of a major trauma. The Thai quake (actually centered in Myanmar, roughly 80 km away and well over 7M) brought me down to earth. I started to sob uncontrollably as we sang our praise songs; wracking, heaving sobs that shook my body. I literally hadn’t cried so hard since I was a toddler. I left the gym with Mrs. Spalink, the school nurse, and as I calmed down, I tried to articulate what I was feeling. Mostly it was a sense of bewilderment. Why would we be the ones (perhaps the ONLY ones in the world) who had to go through these two earthquakes? It all seemed so weird and so random and as I processed out loud, I concluded that we would be better equipped to comfort and help others who had been through disasters. After nearly 40 minutes of crying and talking to a very patient Mrs. Spalink (to whom I am still incredibly grateful), I returned to the gym to find so many students experiencing similar emotions: the bewilderment, the sadness and pain, but also the joy and faith in God’s larger plans and purposes.

It was my night to do room-checks and make sure the students had their lights out on time. In talking with my colleagues, we agreed that though the students did need to get a good night of sleep, it was a night to be flexible, gentle and nurturing to those who wanted to stay up and talk, worship or pray. So, my strategy for enforcing “lights out” was fairly straightforward: stopping by each room, and praying for each group of guys before turning off the lights myself. My prayer was simple: thanking God for our safety, and praying that we would trust that no matter what, living or dying, we were secure in God’s hands.

That, too, was a long day… and little did I know as I said that prayer, that one of the boys who I’d prayed for would die in a tragic motorcycle accident just over two months later.

This happened on May 31, and frankly, most of that day is a blur in my mind. I was supervising my Humanities class while they worked on their final project when I received the news. Damon, a co-worker, called me out in the hall to talk to me and the students were joking that I was in trouble, and I’m sure I joked back. I really don’t remember. What I do remember was Damon telling me that he had bad news that I needed to hear before the students did and that it would feel like a bomb going off. He was right. He asked if I’d be okay once he told me, and though I was reeling (and feeling as though I’d been punched in the gut and had the wind knocked out of me), I felt like I could keep my composure. I went to the lab and told several students working there to return to the classroom as there was some fairly heavy, bad news that they needed to hear. I sat in stunned silence with my kids for the next 40 minutes. Some left the room to cry, some forced themselves to finish their annotated bibliographies, and some just sat quietly.

I could hear a girl, likely a Senior, wailing in the hall, crying out “Why?! Why Taizor?! Why now?!” I am not sure who it was, but that cry will stick with me for the rest of my life because that was exactly what my heart was crying out at the time. When the bell rang, I managed to choke out an apology to my students for not having something inspirational to say, for not having a quick and easy explanation. I told them to take care of themselves and also to care for their grieving senpai, the seniors. I wandered for a while, first to the Learning Resource Center, where the Seniors had gathered and then to the auditorium, where many Juniors and underclassmen were sitting. I talked with several students and several other teachers and together we wrestled with the “why” question, cried, and prayed. After lunch, many guys (and some girls) joined in a large game of pick-up softball. I played too, and with my students, cheered and laughed for the duration of that half-hour lunch break. Emotions are such a strange thing. That evening, I went out to dinner at kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi) with some friends and spoke of the morning’s events as though they were distant, ancient history. Of course, as I was reminded during a powerful, tearful farewell chapel for the Seniors the next day, this would be an event that would weigh heavily on my heart and mind for some time and it will be years before this truly becomes “ancient history” for me, if ever. Even as I write this note, I confess that I’m still in the midst of processing what it meant for me as a teacher to lose a student, what it must have meant for colleagues who had taught him for longer than I had and what it must have meant for the Seniors to lose someone so close. May 31 was a long day.

Moments before sunset

9:35 pm

As I wrap up this note, the time is 9:35 p.m. I took a break in the middle of writing the previous section to go for a walk and watch the sun set. The sun disappeared behind the horizon at 9:15, but there’s still daylight left. On this day, I don’t think the sky will be mostly dark until after 10. It’s still warm out, too—right around 70˚. I love summer. I think that God gives us days like this one to refresh ourselves, to reflect on the “long days” that we’ve been through, rejoice in His Sovereignty and look to the future with hope. As the days get shorter from hereon out in 2011, I will trust that God will bear me through even the longest of days as He has so far, even when I don’t understand.

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