Friday, June 10, 2016

So Long For Now

It was the most important email I ever received.

"Are you breathing?" was how the message ended.  This question followed an explanation of a temporary job opening in the resource room at the Christian Academy in Japan, and was an invitation to serve as a six-month volunteer, as much as it was a reminder to keep breathing.

Brian VanderHaak was several months into his new position as the Head of School at CAJ, and while dealing with this staffing puzzle following the departure of a staff member who was expecting a baby, was reminded by his wife Bette that I had just completed my student teaching at Dordt College days earlier and was looking for something to do in the Spring.

Brian and Bette were good friends of my parents. Long before they lived in Japan, they had lived a five-minute drive from my mom and dad in the countryside just outside of Lynden, WA.  We attended the same church, and my brother, sister, and I grew up friends with their children.  Following their decision to move across the country to teach in Silver Spring, MD nearly 20 years ago, we would eagerly look forward to the VanderHaak family's return each year.  Their return always signaled the start of summer, as our families and several others would gather for 4th of July fireworks, church-league softball, and outdoor steak and salmon barbecues.

At this time, Brian was teaching History and Literature, and my mom would always relay to me the stories that Brian had told about his classes:
"Brian takes his students on a marching tour of Civil War battlefields."
"Brian teaches Romeo and Juliet from the perspective that they were just spoiled brats."
"Brian has his students write themselves into a chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird."
The list would go on.

I was an accomplished complainer when I was in high school, and on the rare occasion when I would bring home a legitimate grievance about my English classes, my mom would shrug and say, "I wish you could take Brian's class."

She had a point--it always sounded like Brian was doing fun and interesting things with his students, but the VanderHaaks lived on the opposite side of the country, and my frustrations were immediate and present--it just wasn't worth wondering how things were in Brian's classes.

All the same, my awareness of Brian's skill as a teacher stuck with me.  When an assignment in my sophomore year of college called for me to interview a history teacher about their use of technology in the classroom, I contacted Brian (who was by then teaching at CAJ).  When I was a senior, I tried unsuccessfully to convince the chair of the education department to let me do my student-teaching at CAJ.  And then, days after finishing my student teaching, I received that email from Brian.
Are you breathing?
I've told the story of that long road-trip from Iowa back home to Washington many times, and even now am still struck by how clear the sense of God's leading was.

Today, I finished my eighth school-year at CAJ, and Brian and Bette finished their twelfth, and final year.  At the end of July, they will move to Taiwan, where they will teach at another international school.

It was a blessing to spend the past seven and a half years with Brian and Bette, and the time has finally come to say "so long for now."

Brian and Bette prefer to serve behind the scenes.  Case in point: they spent their last day at CAJ working tirelessly in the cafeteria kitchen making and serving Navajo Tacos to the CAJ staff and their families.  They do not seek public recognition--that's not who they are.  So, I'm taking it upon myself to bring public recognition to them.

Bette has served as the art teacher for an entire generation of CAJ students.  In addition to teaching Sculpture, Ceramics, Drawing & Painting, AP Studio Art and more, she has had an indelible impact on the aesthetics of CAJ's campus, displaying student artwork in our hallways and atrium and rotating the pieces out with amazing regularity.  As a strong believer in authentic assessment, I know that this is as much a brilliant teaching strategy as it is a means of livening up our campus.  The students have invested their best for Bette knowing that the finished product will be on display, and on occasions when I ask my students to create a project for my classes, I am always astounded at the caliber of artistry that the students bring to their work, something that most are quick to attribute to their art teacher.  In addition to the student work that she faithfully displays for the community, Bette has also started several beloved traditions: a tapestry of Senior tiles (small clay tiles upon which the students etch their names, a memorable quote, and sometimes even intricate designs) in the entrance to the school, and tie-dye T-shirts for the Seniors before they leave for Thailand.  For these projects, Bette tirelessly supervises the students in the art-room and offers her advice and assistance as the students need it.

One thing I have come to find more and more remarkable as the years have gone on is just how much Bette has embraced the art and culture of Japan and drawn this not only into her teaching, but into her own hobbies as well.  Bette teaches kirie, an intricate artform that involves careful paper cutting, and these are among the pieces displayed in the hallway each year.  Bette also uses old kimono to make beautiful quilts which she has given as gifts to friends and family (as I write this, I am admiring the quilt that Tomomi and I received as a wedding present, and which is draped over our couch).

Students say that Bette is unfailingly patient, kind and calm, and I know this to be the truth.  She serves those around her quietly and uncomplainingly, and never draws attention to just how much work she does.  Whether biking one hour to help with early Saturday morning Cross Country meets, spending hours after school supervising students while they work on decorations for school events, spending a weekend preparing Thanksgiving pies, spending weeks on set design and painting for plays and musicals, or helping to organize the annual Artscape event (a region-wide display of student artwork), Bette consistently lives out servant-leadership.

Brian often says he aspires to be like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, the same at home as he is out on the street.  Brian's commitment to integrity is a large part of who he is, and clearly shaped his leadership style as the Head of School.  Though Brian's return to the classroom this fall has been a long time in coming, I firmly believe he was the right leader for our school at the right time: a time of significant demographic changes; a time of deeply examining our mission and identity as a school; a time of adjustment as CAJ changed legal status to gain greater recognition and institutional support from the Japanese government; a time of chaos and grief as we dealt with the double-punch of the earthquake in March, and then the death of a student in May of 2011.  Through all of this, Brian's gift for understanding systems and policies, his ability to remain calm under pressure, and his ability to look ahead to the future of the school were a tremendous blessing to the staff, students and community as a whole.

I owe a large part of my identity as a teacher to Brian's influence and guidance.  I will never forget when Brian called me into his office to talk to me about my upcoming staffing assignment in the Spring of 2010.  He had already told me a lot about his treasured Humanities curriculum, a course that he had designed while teaching in Maryland, which combined U.S. History and American Literature into a blended block.  The 11th grade teacher at that time was moving into more of a guidance role for the next year, and Brian entrusted the Humanities curriculum to me.

Although a school-wide focus on principles of backwards design led me to significantly remodel the curriculum in the years that followed, there are still integral pieces of my Humanities course which can be traced directly back to the files Brian handed over to me in 2010:
-Students still read "Sure, You Can Ask Me a Personal Question" by Diane Burns and then write their own poem talking back against stereotypes that they've dealt with.
-Students still act out The Crucible in class.
-We still read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
-We still discuss Agency & Victimhood
-We still write haiku with the emphasis on ku (theme), kigo (sense language) and kireji (cutting line) rather than 5-7-5.
-We still watch and discuss Atomic Café during a bigger unit on Science and Technocracy

There are other lessons and activities I have inherited and still use, I am certain, and I am grateful for Brian's mentorship.  For several years, I was even able to bring Brian in for a few days each year to show Amistad to the Humanities class and provide commentary throughout the movie.  Through these opportunities I had to watch Brian teach, long discussions about curriculum and classroom ideas, and weekly Friday morning breakfast conversations, I have enjoyed the privilege to learn from Brian, even if I missed the chance to take his classes when I was still in school myself.  While it is indeed difficult to say goodbye, Brian's students will be gaining an outstanding teacher who daily strives to live out the integrity he teaches, who brings a sense of energy and fun to the classroom, who genuinely cares for his students, and who will challenge them to pursue justice in a broken world.

Brian and Bette:
Because they are a team, and honoring them as individuals does not tell the whole story.  The word that comes to mind is hospitality.  They are among the most generous and selfless couples I know, and I have benefitted from their hospitality more times than I can count.  From giving me a place to live for two years, to long trips to and from the airport, to hundreds of delicious meals and desserts, to a Spring Break trip to Nagasaki, to many memorable vacations at their cabin near Sendai, to hours of help and preparation for my wedding, I can never repay them, save to try to live out this same hospitality in my own life.

I am breathing.  Thriving, in fact.  I have a life here I never once anticipated; a calling I wouldn't trade for the world, and a wife who I love, and who I wouldn't have met had I not received that email on a cold December morning in 2008.

I will miss Brian and Bette, who are no longer simply my parents' friends, but my own dear friends and colleagues.  I hope they know just how many lives they have blessed in their time at CAJ, and just how much.  Not a day goes by that I am not grateful.

Photo credit: Ushio Sawada


  1. These are people we all should strive to emulate -- they are transforming the world for Christ, one person at a time, and you, of anyone, the most transformed!

  2. They were a blessing in Silver Spring, and like you, we look forward to their visits here too. Thank you for the tribute.

  3. Amen! You described Brian and Bette so well. Reading your blog helped me process their departure. I am blessed to call this extraordinary couple my friends. Thank you, Nate, for putting so many of my thoughts into words. I couldn't agree with you more.