Monday, December 31, 2012

さよなら, 2012!

There is an hour and a half left in 2012 on the West Coast of the United States.  Japan is already more than halfway through January 1st.  As the year comes to a close, I now take the opportunity to reflect on another year gone by.

It was a difficult year.  2011 was a year of some fairly major tragedies in Japan and in the CAJ community, and much of 2012 was spent in the wake of that intense emotional exhaustion.  For me personally, there were stretches of spiritual dryness, of loneliness and of uncertainty about my calling.  My family grieved the loss of my Grandma Emma in May.  October, November and December were perhaps the busiest months of my life so far, and saw me spread more thin than ever before (and consequently, more on edge and stressed out than ever before).  It was a year of challenging, sometimes painful lessons.

Still, such lessons also meant that it was a year of growth and learning for me.  I found a church-home in Japan.  I was chosen by the class of 2012 to speak at their graduation, an honor that I will always treasure.  I'm learning more about my strengths, weaknesses and capabilities as a teacher.  I made a lot of progress in my Japanese language study.  All in all, I feel like I learned more about what it means to be an adult, and more importantly, what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

My New Year's Resolutions from last year were to exercise more often, which I kept up pretty consistently between August and mid-November (until I got fairly sick and had to stop); to cook more often (which I've done regularly since getting my own apartment in late July); to continue writing (which I've done, though admittedly less consistently than last year).

This is the first time in my life where I've actually had any degree of success in following my New Year's Resolutions.  I'll try to keep up the work that I've started with exercise, cooking and writing, but my main resolution for the coming year has to do with finances.

I'm not a big spender by any means--honestly, I probably spend more money on coffee than anything else.  Still, in talking with my dad today, I realized that I do not have a clue about budgeting my money or keeping track of my earnings or expenditures.  As each passing year brings me closer to responsibilities as a husband and father (LORD willing!), it's imperative that I learn how to keep track of what I'm earning and spending.  So, in the coming days, I will create a monthly budget that will serve more of an organizational purpose than anything else (since I live fairly frugally), but may also moderate my Tully's intake at the same time.

Tough as 2012 was, I'm excited to begin 2013.  I'll turn 27 this year.  I'll very likely participate in an intensive language course for part of the summer.  I'll continue to deepen my involvement at church and build friendships in that context.  I'll continue to grow as a teacher and develop my curriculum.  I genuinely believe that this will be a good year.

LORD, in this coming year, and in all that I do, say and think, abide with me.

Here we go!

As families grow up

In the scheme of my entire vacation, the moment would have appeared inconsequential at first glance:

Mom, Dad, Ben, Lea and I were purchasing tickets for the Keystone Ferry to Port Townsend, on our way to pick up Ben's girlfriend Hilary.  The man in the ticket kiosk asked if any of us were under 18 and of course, Dad said that no, none of us were under 18.

How on earth is that possible?  When did that happen?

The thought struck me then, and has continued to occupy my mind since.  Lea, the youngest of the Gibson kids, will turn 20 in a matter of days.  Ben is 24, and I'm 26.  It registered with me in that moment that we were traveling as a family of grown-ups.  None of us is a permanent resident of our parent's home, the home of our childhood, any longer.  We live our day-to-day lives in very different settings, separated by land and sea, and had the privilege to converge on this special place for a few fleeting days to celebrate Christmas together.

The last time we'd taken a ferry together was in the Summer of 2010, on our way to a favorite vacation spot on Vancouver Island.  Our family trips to the cabin by the beach were a beloved tradition, and 2010 marked our 5th trip to the cabin in 7 years, a 7 years that saw me pass from high school to college to a career overseas, my brother, from high school to college, and my sister from middle to high school.   The trip had become an ingrained part of our family routine, but we have not returned to the cabin since 2010.  Perhaps those days are behind us, as even simply spending time under the same roof has become tougher to coordinate.

Rather than mourn the apparent end of those family trips, and the moments of security that come from all being part of the same household, I find myself celebrating the time we spend together as a family, regardless of what we're doing.  Even sitting around the kitchen table together is harmony to be treasured.

As I prepare to return to Japan, I am so incredibly grateful that for 10 days, we could share meals, sing songs, worship at church, watch movies, play games, and simply sit around the table together as a family, no matter how much we've grown up or how far away we've settled.  Thank you, LORD!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Good News for Thirsty Souls

I wrote this Advent reflection for my home-church's Advent blog:

Proverbs 25:25
Like cold water to a weary soul is good news from a distant land.

Wilderness Camp is a yearly tradition at the school that I work at: during the first week of October, small teams of 11th graders embark upon a four-day backpacking trip into the woods and mountains surrounding Tokyo.  One inevitable take-away from the days of hiking and camping is a list of things the students had previously taken for granted.  Usually topping the list is water.  As trails steepen and the sweat starts to pour, water-breaks not only become a want, but a need.  
Tired, sore and dehydrated, the way forward seems impossible, the next peak just a little too steep.  Water refreshes the thirsting, weary body, and enables the exhausted sojourner to press on.
What an apt analogy to describe the arrival of good news!  Though Solomon’s kingdom enjoyed peace and prosperity, Israel’s position between major world powers was never entirely secure.  Sandwiched between powerful and vast ancient civilizations, the Israelites lived in the midst of tensions over land, resources and cultural differences that must have seemed so much bigger than them.  Surely their call to bless the nations seemed at times out of reach while living in expectation not of good news, but of invasion or rumors of invasion!
Yet the news that we now reflect upon in this Advent season was not merely good news; it was the best news!  Notably, the news wasn’t arriving in Bethlehem from a distant land; rather, Bethlehem was the epicenter and the news was to be broadcast to many distant lands, world over!  Millennia of stumbling, weariness and hopelessness arrived at that moment to receive nothing less than history’s greatest water-break.  We persevere today in the renewal and refreshment of the good news of Christ.  Quenched with this knowledge, our thirst slaked by Christ’s spirit, we push on, secure in the trust that the hike is not impossible.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


A crisp view of the mountains far to the North.  Rolling fields.  The faint scent of evergreen on the air.  The vast blue skies.  The vast cloudy skies.  The many shades of green on the landscape.  The sounds and smells of farm animals coated for winter.  The warmth of a full house.  The bubbling and soft blinking of the lights on the tree.  The familiar prayer spoken five voices strong.  The impromptu harmonies around guitar or piano.  The shared laughter of siblings reunited.

Only 3 more days... I am looking forward to it.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


The age-old icebreaker asks, "Would you rather be an expert in one area, or sort of knowledgable in a lot of areas?"

One only needs to look at the popularity of liberal arts education to figure out how Western culture as a whole would answer this question.  Being a "Renaissance Man/Woman" is a desirable goal... it also seems to be a goal which many believe is within their reach.  This mentality extends beyond the walls of our schools and universities: Surf n' Turf was architected specifically for those who reject having to choose between seafood and beef; Neapolitan ice cream for those stymied by the choice between chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.  Michael Scott of The Office famously reflected on whether he'd rather be loved or feared by his employees: "Easy: both.  I want people to be afraid of how much they love me."

One of our rallying cries as not only modern culture, but as humans is "I want it all!"

So when does this mentality become an unhealthy and destructive thing?  Generally speaking, I find my liberal arts background to have been worthwhile.  I've got diverse interests, and reasonably diverse gifts (I say reasonably because there are none from the left side of the brain but many from the right side).  However, what I've come up against recently is a recognition that by trying to accomplish everything, I'm actually damaging my ability to accomplish anything.

Case in point: Trying to figure out my future in Japan.  I want to invest intensive time into learning Japanese, and the best opportunity to do so is during the summer once CAJ's school-year finishes.  I want to do this because I want to stay in Japan long-term, and I strongly value the ability to communicate and understand what's going on around me.

I also want to go back to school to pursue a Master's degree in education.  I feel like I'm running up against the limits of my professional growth with the amount of education that I have.  I deeply desire to learn how to be a better teacher, and to pursue research and studies about how best to establish and maintain a Humanities classroom.  Once again, this is a goal that I must pursue outside of the CAJ school-year.

Recognizing that I wish to stay in Japan, I could look into Master's options that run during summers only, starting from this coming summer: I would travel to the States after CAJ finishes its school year, take classes and then be back in time for the new school year.  This fits in with my goal to stay in Japan long-term and certainly seems appealing from a financial stand-point (paying for something like a Master's degree would be easier with a steady paycheck coming in).

However, it would effectively prevent me from diving into intensive language study for several years, as my summers would be committed already.

So, the other option would be to look into year-round Master's programs.  As I've signed on for another year at CAJ at least, this would put the start date in 2014, and allow me to study Japanese this coming summer.  However, it would mean leaving Japan for likely two years as I pursue my degree.  This does not fit with my goal to stay in Japan long-term, and may even render an intensive summer of language study useless by the time I do return to Japan (and if I were to return to Japan).

As the Japanese would say, "どうしよう".  It's a seeming catch-22, and a direct result of me wanting to accomplish more at once than I can physically accomplish.  It's left me stumped, and in roughly a month of wrestling with this decision, I'm no closer to knowing what I want to do.

Perhaps I need to accept that I cannot do it all, and just accept that I'm going to have to let one thing or the other go right now.  Not that this makes the decision any easier...

Thursday, November 29, 2012

In the clear?

Man, I feel like I've been through the ringer this past week.  The problem with having an immune system that programs itself to only get sick 2 or 3 times a year is that when I do get sick, I REALLY crash and burn.  And the problem with this happening while I'm still in school, as opposed to vacation is that I still need to try to do my job and live my day-to-day life through all of it.  Somehow, on vacation, I can manage to skate through illness without collateral damages... that seems to be tougher to do when school's still on.

This week has sort of seen me all over the board: Monday was the hyper, mile-a-minute chattering that always heralds the onset of a fever for me.  Tuesday, I didn't even leave my apartment.  Wednesday, I was emotional, sensitive, and picking fights I probably should have left alone, and today (following only 3 hours of sleep last night due to my cough), I was in a strange, whimsical, profound mood, but definitely sleep-deprived.

As I sit here writing this post, I am still coughing and wheezing.  I hope it eases up soon. One doesn't truly value health until they get sick... and this is, unfortunately, a cyclical truth:  Every time I recover from a bad virus, I am grateful for my health for a while... and then I forget; take health for granted and complain.

This time, I'm going to try to be consistently grateful for good health... and as part and parcel of that, I want to go out of my way to keep myself healthy, to view my good health as something I am responsible to care for and maintain.  I manage to figure out new pieces of what it means to be a responsible, independent adult every year, but I never manage to have all of the pieces in place at once. Life, one of these days, I'll figure you out, just you wait...

Monday, November 26, 2012


The past few weeks have been more of a question of "when" than "if".  WHEN will I crash?  WHEN will I get sick?  WHEN will my stress, busy schedule and busyness-induced lack of care for myself collide?

I would have put my money on Christmas break.  Typically, I can hold out until then (at least, that was always my pattern in college and my first years of teaching).  This year, it was Thanksgiving... and unfortunately, a 3-day weekend was not enough time for me to recover... in fact, I'm feeling worse now, despite a weekend of pretty solid rest and sleep.

So, again, I ask for prayers.  I hope to one day blog about more cheerful and lighthearted topics, but I'm afraid that this is not the evening where that happens.  Perhaps I'll take to more creative writing over Christmas break... but for now, I just want to get over this stupid fever/cold/whatever.

Thanks for praying--

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Riff on Psalm 130:6

My soul waits for the Lord,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Even when I am tired,
My soul waits for the Lord.

Even when I am discouraged,
My soul waits for the Lord.

When it feels as though I can't win,
My soul waits for the Lord.

When I feel like even my best ideas fall flat,
My soul waits for the Lord.

When I feel abandoned,
My soul waits for the Lord.

Though I feel stretched beyond my limits,
My soul waits for the Lord.

Though I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders,
My soul waits for the Lord.

Though I feel backed into a corner,
My soul waits for the Lord.

Though my ambitious plans seem out of reach,
My soul waits for the Lord.

When I'd rather just run away,
My soul waits for the Lord.

When the time I invest in my job seems in vain,
My soul waits for the Lord.

When my best efforts come up short,
My soul waits for the Lord.

Even when I begin to doubt myself,
My soul waits for the Lord.

Even when I cry out in anger and frustration,
My soul waits for the Lord.

My soul waits for the Lord,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
More than watchmen wait for the morning.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Teacher's Christmas List

Today, the recognition dawned on me that Christmas vacation is exactly one month away.  To be honest, the past month and a half (really, since the week after Wilderness Camp) has been the most exhausting of my teaching career thus far, for a wide variety of reasons.  Under normal circumstances, I'd choose being in class over being on vacation any day, but at the moment, I'm feeling more than a little mentally drained, which makes vacation actually look desirable for a change.

All of this got me thinking: Professionally, what are my Christmas wishes?  Putting aside practicality, what would I want most, as a teacher?  Here's what I came up with:

1) The perfect Master's program.  I've talked in the past about wanting to learn more about curriculum and instruction.  Specifically, I'd love to complete a Master's in which I could study the benefits of a Humanities-style education (over and against keeping History and English class separate).  I enjoy teaching my Humanities curriculum, but I feel like in order to keep growing that curriculum and growing in my ability to teach it, I need to spend some time as a graduate student, researching and discussing curriculum, instruction and pedagogy.  Ideally, this would be an on-site program and not online, as I really do benefit from being in a live classroom setting.

2) Speech class.  I'd love to teach a speech elective.  Speech was one of the most important classes I took in high school (though for most of the semester, it was certainly not my favorite class), and I think I'd do a good job at teaching it.  I'd also enjoy teaching a storytelling class, though perhaps it would be possible to incorporate storytelling into a speech curriculum.  This would require adding an hour to the day, and then using that hour to create an 8th period in the school day.

3) Newspaper advising.  I've heard some of my students talking about reviving "The Evergreen", CAJ's on-again/off-again school paper.  I've got years of journalistic experience behind me, having spent 6 years of my life on a school newspaper staff in high school and college.  I have experience as a reporter, a page/layout editor, a photographer, a cartoonist and a columnist.  I would LOVE to be a part of the learning process for these students, since I know a lot about print journalism and still have a passion for it, though I ultimately decided that teaching was my calling.  There's just that whole time thing... only 24 hours in a day.

4) Reacting to the Past.  I occasionally build simulations and mock trials into my existing curriculum, but with the need to balance coverage and un-coverage in courses intended to be surveys of U.S. History/Lit or World History, I cannot afford to linger for too long on a single event or time period in history.  A course dedicated to simulations (such as the "Reacting to the Past" series) would provide freedom to dive all the more deeply into historical events and develop high level critical thinking skills.  It would also be interesting to see what kind of crowd a Junior/Senior history elective might draw.

The obstacle to all of these is a frustrating lack of hours in the day, and days in the week.  I think I may spend a little time over Christmas break just researching options for a Master's, since that's less a function of adding hours to the day and more of finding an opportune time to take a break from teaching.  As for those others... well, I can just keep wishing for a time-turner, I suppose.

Monday, November 12, 2012


A clear sense of calling is a powerful thing.  It was a clear sense of calling that brought me to Japan, and a clear sense of calling that led me to stay this long.  As I described in a recent post, I feel like I'm sort of drifting now, or waiting.  There are some days when I feel that sense of calling to stay here, to invest in language training, to gear up for the long haul... there are also some days when I wonder.

Tonight, for example... the "what if's" sprang to my mind as I thought about the year after next.  Two years ago, I'd been looking at the possibility of going back to school for a Master's this year.  Here I am now, no closer to even thinking about my Master's than I was two years ago... and perhaps even further back in the process, as I was at least searching for schools two years ago.  I know I want to come back for another year at CAJ--I established a good relationship with the class of 2015 when I taught them as freshmen and want to work with them again next year when they are Juniors.  I want to see that teaching relationship through.  But beyond that... the thought sprang to mind that perhaps the year after next might be an opportune time to take a leave and pursue my graduate education.

It was just an idea; I don't really know if that's what I want... it could even be that the whole idea will seem ridiculous to me tomorrow or a few days from now.

I feel a little bit like I'm in the middle of a giant maze, and I've got so many options for paths that I could take.  Sometimes I wish that God would drop more bread-crumbs to show me which way to go.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Something Positive, Something to Keep Me Anchored

Day after day; one week fading into the next; seasons changing and years marching on... The longer I teach, the more the routine of the school-year turns time into an utter blur.  I love teaching, so it's a fast blur... but all the same, it is much too easy to get caught in the current and forget to enjoy the moment or even recognize the present.

I've learned that it is important to have a life outside of school; some anchor to keep me grounded in time and place while the school-year rushes on.  Having a planned disruption to the usual routine of CAJ life is most welcome and helpful in keeping time from getting away from me.

Church has provided me with this anchor.  I wrote a year ago about how I was hoping to become more involved at Grace City Church.  Due to a combination of shyness, lack of comfort with the Japanese language and frankly, laziness, it took me until April before I started attending weekly, and it wasn't until June that I started making friends.  Of course, I was away for the summer, but upon returning, I resolved to dive in.  I'm so glad I did.

My desire is to be helpful and to serve, and I have strived to assist regularly with set-up before church.  Today marked my first Sunday helping to lead worship by singing on the worship team.  I am so completely grateful to the pastors and leaders within the church for these opportunities to develop a role within this wonderful community.  I've made friends and I've also made mentors--those valuable folks who are just enough older than me to really speak wisdom and encouragement into my life, yet from a position that's not too far distant from mine.  I've had countless opportunities to meet new people, many of whom do not speak English.  This has required me to put to use the Japanese language training of summers past, and I have been able to maintain some of what I've learned, and I've been challenged to continue my language training in earnest.

Most of all, I'm being fed spiritually... really, for the first time since I moved to Japan.  When I was supervising JAM, I was trying to pour myself out, into the lives of my JAM leaders and the middle schoolers, but was not putting myself in a church situation where I would be fed and where I could grow.  I still struggle with the self-care that I think I should be engaging in given how often my job requires me to care for others, but the opportunity to worship and hear solid Biblical preaching regularly makes a big difference.

This feels like yet another step in the process of making myself at home in Japan for more than just the short-term.  I grew up hearing my parents talk about the value of church and the community we had in our small Wiser Lake Chapel congregation.  Last year, I heard my brother talk about the value of the church community he had while spending a year tutoring at a public school in Denver.  Only now that I've found and plugged into such a church community myself do I understand the value of which they spoke.

I'm ever-grateful for Grace City, for the pastors, and for the friends I've made and have yet to make, and  above all I am grateful to God who has allowed me to become part of a community outside of the routine of school.  Time still seems to be flowing at a dangerous clip, but I feel like I am able to withstand the current and enjoy the now that God is giving me.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Summer Language Training

On the one hand, it feels too early to start thinking about summer.  On the other hand, I need to purchase a return ticket to Japan for the end of Christmas break, and must make a decision soon about whether that will be a round-trip ticket (like I've done in the past, the second part of the ticket being a return to the States in June), or a one-way ticket.

I'm fairly certain it will be a one-way ticket this year.  I'm currently looking at a variety of options for summer language programs in Japan.  The most attractive one so far is a program offered through OMF (Overseas Missionary Fellowship), a complete immersion course in Hokkaido.  There are also several options locally in Tokyo that I'm looking into, as the Hokkaido option gives preference to missionaries with OMF and is very much dependent on how much space is available during the summer--something that the staff will not know until April or so.

Either way, I know for a fact that my only hope for making any kind of clear progress in my Japanese language training is to take the opportunity to do an immersive program during the summer.  Too much of my daily life during the regular school-year is spent speaking and listening to English to make real headway--it'll take diving in deep over the summer, and diving in deep in a setting where I cannot just revert to speaking English at home each evening.

I've already invested several thousand dollars into my Japanese language education over the past few years, and I want to continue to honor that initial investment by building on my language training.  I admire the missionaries I know who are fluent in Japanese, or at least comfortably conversational.  I want that for myself, and now have a clearer since of what it will take to reach that point.  Please wish me luck and pray for me as I begin to fill out applications and wait for results.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Waiting for my real life to begin

Today, I filled out the ballot that my parents sent me for the upcoming general elections.  This, of course, included voting for president.  I won't go in to the details of who I voted for, sufficed to say that I don't much care for either Mr. Romney or Mr. Obama, and that the ads I've seen from both sides, as well as the debate that I watched, have caused me to despair.

What occupied much of my thought as I filled out the ballot was just how strange it was to be voting in yet another presidential election.  Last time I voted, I was in the home-stretch of my student teaching, still technically a college student.  I was in Iowa.  I was 22.  90% of the Japanese I knew was brand names.

Now I'm 26, coming up on four full years of teaching at CAJ.  It occurred to me that life abroad is all I know as a working adult.  This is my reality, and there would be a learning curve if I moved anywhere else (U.S. included).

When I moved to Japan, I more or less assumed that it would be a short stay--a brief chapter of my life.

I'll work in the LRC for 6 months and then go back to the states to start my career as a classroom teacher.

I'll teach at CAJ for three years to build up experience in an international school and then return to the states to pursue a Master's.


I still need to figure out what to do about my Master's, but the longer I've stayed in Japan, the less I want to leave.  While we're in school as children, and on through college, our lives our marked by distinct milestones that we can look ahead to at fixed points in time: moving from elementary to middle school, middle to high school; high school graduation; college graduation.

Now, there's no fixed point I'm looking ahead to; I've never broken out of the earth's orbit and simply drifted through space, but I'm guessing the feeling is similar.

Progress used to be defined by completing choreographed stages, but now the choreography is on my shoulders and I must decide what progress will mean.  I feel like I'm still waiting, as I grew so accustomed to doing in school.  What am I waiting for?  My gut instinct, as I mulled this over earlier today, was to say "real life", but "real life" started 4 years ago (26 years ago if you want to get technical).  So, why the feeling of waiting, then?

I don't have the answer to this... I just have the question, and I feel better when I put the question into writing.

Some additional questions that I can't help but wonder about:
Where will I be when I fill out my next presidential ballot?  Will I be mailing it overseas again?  Will I still be waiting for whatever it is I'm waiting for?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

All who are thirsty, all who are weak

It has been far too long since I last wrote a substantial post.  I've been busy.

That's actually a colossal understatement.  I've been swamped.

...and it hasn't been good for me.

I'll be the first to admit that I tend to go a little stir-crazy when I have too much free-time; when I've got too much time on my hands, I tend to fall into old patterns of laziness or procrastination.  Yet, the place I'm at right now is not all that productive, either.  Right now, I'm spread so completely thin that I am every bit as slow in finishing what I need to finish as if I had put things off.

Actually, what scares me more than the lack of productivity is the lack of time to rest and grow in the LORD.  I have not had a true Sabbath in nearly two months.  I've had SUNDAYS, yes, but those are partly dedicated to prep and grading, as well as the myriad new responsibilities I've gotten involved in at church.  Necessary, but not restful in the least.

I hadn't even realized the spiritual dry spell I'd been going through until my brother asked me a while back if I was taking any time just to meditate on the Word and to pray.

I replied that, well, I do devotions, but as I tend to do them last thing before bed, I speed through them so I can just go to sleep.

Truth is, I've not taken time out for the relationship that I profess to be the most important one in my life... and the impact of this has been terrifying.  I consider myself a fairly hopeful person, but I don't know that I've ever felt quite so hopeless as I have over the past few weeks.

I've had times of heavy work and stress before, but in the past I'd always carved out enough time for prayer and for nurturing my relationship with God that those stresses had stayed more or less in perspective.  Without God, stress is terrifying.  Without God, stress seems unbeatable; insurmountable.  Without God, accomplishing the tasks I need to accomplish lacks victory; instead it just feels like a quick breath before the next wave hits.

I've been approaching my stress all wrong.  I need to start by being still and trusting; laying my cares and my burdens at His feet and then simply listening.  That requires time... and time requires letting go of things that I think are necessary.  Here's the fact: if it's not God, it's not necessary, no matter how pressing it may seem.

My goal as this month ends, and a new month begins is to set aside time... to not merely make devotions an item on a checklist to be finished as quickly as possible.  Growing a relationship requires time; time to speak and time to listen.

I suspect this will not be natural or easy for me, given where I'm at right now... but it is vital, and it will be my victory over the stress, exhaustion and feeling of profound weariness and weakness that I've been fighting through recently.

Please join me in praying for a renewal in my heart and soul, whatever it takes.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Wilderness Camp, Fall 2012

Another year of Wilderness Camp come and gone!  Here are the things that have been on my mind since I got back yesterday:

My History with Hiking:
For all the time I spent outdoors as a child, I was never much into camping.  On the odd occasion I would try to sleep outside, I’d always change my mind after about an hour of trying to fall asleep and head back inside to my warm bed.  I enjoyed hiking, but every hike I did up until my Senior year of high school was simply a day hike: packing light, hiking with the intent of returning home for a warm dinner.  The first overnight hike I did, up and down Mt. Excelsior in late October 2003, was miserable: the peak was at 5712 feet (1741 meters) and the entire hike was done through several feet of snow... with snow falling as we were hiking.  Our cabin at the top was not well-insulated and all I remember is the feeling that I couldn’t stop my teeth from chattering as I tried to fall asleep.  The whole hike, up and down, took less than 24 hours.  It remains, to this day, THE most demanding physical experience I’ve ever been through, and is not something I’d ever do again.  

3rd year as a leader:
With this background in mind, I sometimes marvel at the fact that I’ve become a Wilderness Camp regular at CAJ.  Yesterday, I returned from my 3rd trip up into the mountains of Western Tokyo and I fully intend to go again next year... and it is not out of a sense of duty or resignation to the inevitable; I genuinely enjoy Wilderness Camp and I am wholeheartedly looking forward to going again.  

This year, I was technically the senior adult leader.  My co-leader, Victor, is several years younger than me, and this was his first time going as a teacher (he himself went as a CAJ student years back).  Yet I say “technically” because Victor has a wealth of experience with the outdoors and with camping--experience I am very much still trying to build.  Needless to say, I was grateful to have a co-leader who was comfortable with so many of the technical aspects of camping.  This was even reflected in the nicknames we were given by our team: the juniors called Victor “Breath of Life” in reference to his ability to stoke a fire by blowing on it.  They called me “Spice of Life” because, in the juniors' words, I "kept things interesting and fun".  This is the 3rd time in three years where I’ve received this exact feedback from my team--of course I’d love to someday be recognized for having expertise and knowledge about camping, but building to this takes time, and I must not forget that being the “Spice”, setting a positive tone, is important too. 

Team Platypus:
My team this year, “Team Platypus”, was an outstanding and fun bunch.  Everyone was excited and enthusiastic from the moment the teams were announced, and this dynamic carried all the way through the experience.  We had quite the variety on the team--some who loved hiking and others for whom this was their first time setting foot on a mountain.  Even the expectations about the experience varied wildly: one guy remarked afterwards that he thought the whole thing was going to be a lot more challenging, while one girl said that she underestimated just how challenging it would be.  Still, through all of this, our team managed to bond and encourage each other every step of the way.  We pushed through the exhausting and steep stretches (stairs... so many stairs), and several of the guys were faithful about going back and grabbing several of the girls’ packs after making it to the top themselves.  Together, we marveled at the beauty around us while we were not on the move.  Sleep was scarce as the team talked late into each night, building inside jokes and getting to know each other outside of the typical school setting.  
For my part, I always enjoy getting to know the students in this slightly different context.  Even though it’s only one group and roughly 1/5 of the entire class, I come away feeling like I understand each class so much better having gotten to know a handful well.  This year is no exception--the class of 2014, I am finding, has a close-knit family feeling to it.  They are like siblings: They tease each other a lot, but it’s rarely mean-spirited (and someone is always quick to point out if a comment crosses the line), and there’s genuine affection behind the statement “(insert name or personal pronoun here) is so weird”, which seems to be a class motto of sorts.  I can’t really compare them to other classes I’ve taught--as I’m finding with each passing year, every class is a completely different entity than the one before it.  What matters is that this class is fun to work with and to be around--I’ll miss them next year!

I feel like the mark of a good year of Wilderness Camp is one in which the students say that they would consider hiking again (even if only a day-hike) and also in which they hesitate to part ways from their teammates.  Such was the case this year: our team’s final debrief felt as though each student was trying to cling to those last few moments, talking through as many of the team jokes, challenges and memories as they could before we said our final prayer, took our final picture and went our separate ways.  I want to learn how to be more intentional in facilitating this--I think I have the ability to unite and rally people; to give authentic opportunities for team-building and bonding--but it’s not a process I’ve ever really reflected on or broken down.  This is something I’ll be thinking and praying about over the next year, because if each team could part on the note that Team Platypus did, life would be good, and I’d love to develop the ability to facilitate this more purposefully.  

Highlights from the trip:
This post is rather haphazard compared to the three-part saga I wrote on the experience last year, and this is because I feel like it would be redundant to do a blow-by-blow of the entire hike.  In a nutshell: 

-No wrong turns this year!
-The best quote of the whole trip was one girl asking a guy in the group if he planned to take his future family hiking.  When he said yes, she replied that God had just told her that he was not “the one”.  
-The waterfall on the first day was beautiful (especially one point where the sun was shining through the trees in such a way that it looked like strands of heaven had fixed themselves to the rocks and trees around us).  
-The waterfall felt steeper this year for some reason.  
-Day 2 felt way shorter than it did last year.  No rain makes hiking feel faster.
-Another thing that makes hiking feel faster: a talkative team!  There was a constant stream of jokes, riddles, singing and general conversation that made the days fly by.
-I was not expecting that typhoon on night 2--it was not on any of the weather forecasts I’d been checking as of Tuesday morning.  Likewise, it was supposed to rain all night on our final night and instead we had clear skies and stars: weather in Tokyo can change in an instant.  
-Rain aside, the weather on the mountains was mild at the worst.  In fact, it was unseasonably hot most of the time. 
-We saw a mountain goat!
-Singing praise songs and hymns around the fire on top of 日の出山 on the 3rd night was one of the best experiences in my life.  
-Aside from one moment in the night when I woke up with ants crawling all over my face, sleeping outside under the stars (and with a view of the Tokyo city lights just in front of me) on the 3rd night was another highlight of my life.  
-It was a good year.  Can’t wait to go again!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Vacation Awaits

Every year, there seems to be a bit of a struggle to line up enough teachers to accompany the Juniors on their School Without Walls excursion, a four-day (3 night) hiking trip in the mountains of Western Tokyo.  This doesn't surprise me, but it does make me a little sad.  I can understand the reaction that so many have when asked if they are willing to spend the better part of a week outside hiking and camping--there's much that simply will not be comfortable or luxurious.

And yet... for those who decline, it is a colossal missed opportunity.  For me, it is an opportunity to rest and relax.  Yes--those are two of the first verbs that come to mind when I think of Wilderness Camp, and they are likely just the opposite of what most who avoid Wilderness Camp would expect of the experience.

Perhaps a lot of this feeling has to do with my background: Being from the countryside, I never once expected to live in a big city, let alone one of the biggest cities in the world.  Yet, here I am, and I love it.  I always imagined that I'd feel confined and claustrophobic living in the city, and that I'd long for fresh air to fill my lungs, or for the color green to sprout from the concrete field before me.  The truth is, I don't even think about the lack of space, the possibility of air pollution or the fact that the color green is underrepresented.  I don't think about these things, that is, until I leave the city--I guess I'm getting better at being content with where I am.  For whatever reason, the stresses, worries and sometimes-hectic pace of my job do not follow me out of the city.  It doesn't matter if I'm sleeping on concrete in a rainstorm, or putting in long days of hiking--being in the woods feels like a vacation.  The prep I need to do and the papers I need to grade have not disappeared, but they stayed behind... in the woods, in the moment, there are only the most fundamental tasks of hiking, preparing meals, and supervising the Juniors as they learn firsthand about servant-leadership.

As I take a break to write this from a work-load that seems tonight to be insurmountable, I can't help but look forward to getting out of the city and hiking hills that, while challenging, I know can be conquered.

Thursday, September 27, 2012


I enjoy my classes every day, but today was especially fun: there was laughter in every single class period--laughter that was still on-task (or at the very least, not too far off-task).  I feel like moments where the students can laugh together are vital to building the atmosphere of trust and peace that I want to build... so much the better if the laughter stems from the activities or content of the class!*  It's a good feeling, as a teacher, to know that moments of my class are providing a bonding experience for the students; that as they study, and work on projects and presentations together, their relationships to each other are being deepened.  It's a good feeling because it doesn't always happen that way.  Sometimes students bond over the hatred of a class, teacher or assignment, which generates a negative atmosphere.  Sometimes, the students don't bond at all, but fight.  When students can work hard and at the same time have fun and enjoy each other's company, it's a tremendous blessing.  My original Humanities crew can still recall inside jokes that formed during our study of Native American creation myths, The Crucible, Amistad, Custer, vocabulary, the atomic bomb, and many other moments.  While other details and lessons may fade, those that are rooted in class camaraderie and laughter are the ones that will remain vivid and memorable for years to come.  I feel like such moments are starting to develop in each of my classes this year.

I couldn't suppress my smile as I sat and reflected on this at lunch-time--my morning classes had gone well, I was looking forward to my afternoon English class, and as I ate a quiet lunch at a picnic table in the school plaza, a gentle breeze picked up.  It was the most at peace I'd felt in a long time.

*Well, within reason.  I'd feel awful if we were studying something really heavy and serious and my choice of teaching method or activities became a colossal joke.  

Sunday, September 23, 2012



For every conversation I have in Japanese, there are two versions of the conversation happening:
1) The words that I am actually speaking;
2) The words that I want to speak; the thoughts and feelings I want to express:

I grew up on a farm, 10 minutes outside a town of 10,000 people.  To me, when I was growing up, THAT was a big city.  Imagine what a big change it was for me to move to Tokyo!  My experiences in life have probably been vastly different than yours, yet I am in Tokyo by my choice.  I love America, and I love the country-side, but I'm glad I'm here in Japan--this is where I need to be.

I wish I had the words to tell about the amazing series of events that brought me here.  I never planned on living overseas, and especially not in one of the biggest cities in the world, but God is amazing and powerful.  Would you believe me if I said that I didn't know I would be moving to Japan less than 3 weeks before I actually moved here?  God can call us to new places and new circumstances at any time, and I learned that I need to be ready for His call.

I never planned on staying in Japan... until March 11.  That day, and the days that followed, changed everything for me.  I didn't just see or hear about the grief people were feeling; I felt it, too.  A part of my heart now belongs to Japan and it always will.  I didn't leave after the earthquake when so many other foreigners did leave.  Before the earthquake, I wasn't planning on staying.  Now, I'm not planning on leaving.  Though Japan is not my home-country, it has become my home for this time in my life.

I am sorry if my silence feels rude.  I want to speak, and I want to listen... I just don't have the words to say.  I spend as much time as I can in addition to my job studying and practicing Japanese, but it is not easy.  

I try so hard to listen, to catch every single word that I sometimes feel like I'm going to pull a muscle in my ears or maybe my brain.  It is very frustrating for me to not understand a language.  I love words; love speaking, reading, and writing in my native English.  Words have always come easily for me until now.  Don't worry, I am not stupid--the learning process is just taking a long time.  Please be patient with me.

Thank you for allowing me to speak with you, and to practice my Japanese.  Thank you for welcoming me into your country and helping me to feel at home here.  I sincerely hope that one day, I'll be able to speak to you in fluent Japanese, and that I will be able to listen and to express myself exactly as I want to.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Tama Hills, 9/22/12

In addition to being my 4th full year of teaching, this is also my 4th year of coaching and assisting with Cross Country.  It's amazing how different each season is from the one before, and how a program builds and fluctuates.

Over the course of these 4 seasons, I witnessed the rise of one of the strongest guys' teams in CAJ history, watched them win the Far East tournament in 2010 and then have since watched the team rebuild itself, virtually from the ground up into something respectable (though not as strong as the 2010 crew).  The best adjective I could use to describe the current guys' team is new.  Most of the guys are running cross country for the first time this year.  A few are returning for their second year, and only two, Seniors, incidentally, have run for three years or more.  The difference is not so much in potential as it is in mindset--since only two of our eleven guys were part of the 2010 championship team, only two were a part of the atmosphere of extreme dedication and hard work that the runners on that team created.  Thus, what was assumed two years ago can no longer be assumed.  I don't mean to say that these guys do not work hard; simply that as a team, they are still figuring out the sport; still searching for a love for running and searching for an intrinsic reason to devote themselves to the team.

The girls had won the Asia Pacific Championship in 2008, the year before I started coaching.  Up till now, the girls teams I had worked with were in more or less the same place as the guys' team now; rebuilding, trying to figure out motivation and dedication as a team.  This year, the potential is shining through.

Same goes for the middle school boys--over the past 3 seasons, a core group has come up through the ranks from 6th grade to 8th grade, learning how to run, how to work hard, how to be a team.  This season, they are seeing the fruits of their hard work.

The middle school girls struggle to field a team at all--I blame volleyball (no offense, volleyball coaches), since volleyball in middle school doesn't cut anyone and it is the "fancy", "flashy" indoor sport (I'm not bitter, not at all).  We had two solid 6th graders last year... neither of whom could return this season for reasons beyond their control.  Now we have 3 solid 6th graders.  I keep thinking that if we put all 5 together, we'd have a pretty good team.  Maybe next season...

Here are the top finishers from each race today:

Middle School boys (Tama 3.3k course):

26. Kenji J. 14:37
27. Kenta S. 14:38
28. Yeol R. 14:39
41. Callum M. 15:22
50. Rees M. 16:15

Middle School girls (Tama 3.3k course):

71. Keziah S. 19:43
72. Maya Y. 20:01

High School Girls (Tama 3.3k course):

8. Runa S. 14:28
14. Ria K. 14:52
19. Misaki N. 15:08
31. Naomi N. 15:42
61. Jessie S. 18:39

High School Boys (Tama 4.4k course)

7. Tsubasa K. 16:32
8. Kye A. 16:39
43. Eito O. 19:26
53. Treje Y. 20:31
57. Isaiah S. 20:36
58. YoungJun K. 20:38

Though we were unable to beat ASIJ (American School in Japan) and ISSH (International School of Sacred Heart), our runners had a strong showing today with lots of personal records (and most at least had season bests).  I'm grateful to be a part of this program and I hope I can continue to work with cross country for years to come.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

And now, a song about differentiated instruction and meeting the needs of a diverse classroom...

I wrote this as an "exit-out-the-door" card for a Professional Development seminar on expanding/developing English Language Learner instruction at CAJ; the prompt I chose was a RAFT (Role, Audience, Format, Topic) where the role was "student", the audience was "teacher", the format was "song" and the topic was "What you need to do for us."

In a nutshell, I had to write a song from the perspective of a student about what English Language Learner students need from the teacher, incorporating concepts from the past two days.  We had a half-hour to write our exit cards, so I used the tune of "Piano Man" by Billy Joel to create this (which I was then asked to sing for all my colleagues).  Writing and singing this made me a little nostalgic for all the times I did similar assignments back in high school: I LOVED it when teachers assigned song-writing as an option!  I need to think about how I can provide assessment opportunities for my students that will not only allow them to show their learning but also will inspire and energize them the way assignments like this one did (and still do) for me:

“You’re the teacher, man!”
(to the tune of Piano Man)  

It’s 8:30 on a Tuesday
Me and my friends shuffle in,
We had a rough day in class yesterday,
and now we must do it again.

Mr. Gibson says “Write me an essay!
About how civilization began.
You should talk about culture and geography, too,
oh and discuss the nature of man.”

Oh lah-dah-da-dee-dah dah
Lah-dah dee dee daa-da-daaa

Give us a hand, you’re the teacher, man!
Break down for us, what you mean,
Cuz nature means trees,
And I can’t help but freeze because
my first line is “well, trees are green!”

“Now Takeshi”, he says, “I’ve been thinking,
Maybe an essay’s too rough.
But you’re good at art,
(and I’ve got a kind heart)
So a poster should be enough.”

But then he tells all of my classmates
That writing is a valuable skill
Which we’ll carry for life
and will minimize strife;
So while they charge ahead, I’ll stand still?

Give me a hand, you’re the teacher, man!
Don’t dumb down your standards for me,
Cuz I’ve got a good mind,
and good ideas, you’ll find,
If you’d strategize to set them free!

“Class, I just came back from a seminar,
about how to teach like a pro.
When it started, I was all arrogant, 
but there was much I didn’t know.

All of you in here learn differently,
and I need to change how I teach
Because 'one size fits all'
is just dropping the ball.
And leaving success out of reach.”

Well, thank you for changing your teaching, man,
My competency, I can show.
Though I may never be ambi-lingual,
I can demonstrate all that I know.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Runner's High

After the first Cross Country practice of the year, and the second, and the third, I tell my middle school runners to hang in there.

"These are the most difficult practices of the year," I tell them.

"You mean we'll never run any further than this?" Someone inevitably interprets what I said in this way.

"No, we'll run a little more each week.  It just gets easier the more you run."

And it does.  Those first work-outs, when you are trying to start running regularly, are brutal.

Why would anyone do this for fun?  Why put my body through such abuse?

Still, there's a recognition that each practice builds on the last.  We look ahead to a time when we'll be stronger and when we'll be able to keep running; and not only keep running, but to ENJOY running!

From my vantage point as a 4th year teacher, I can say that teaching is much the same way.  My first year of teaching, like that first week of practice, was more painful and uncomfortable than fun.  There were many times when I was tempted to give up; many times when I felt like quitting would be the  wisest decision.  Just as the experienced runners must seem super-human to a fledgling runner, the experienced teachers seemed to me to be gifted in ways that I wasn't; that I'd never be.

I'm so glad I kept pushing through.

Each week of running sees the runner growing in strength, speed and endurance; the runner can travel further and faster, and more efficiently.  As a teacher, each year has seen me growing, developing in understanding and ability.

It's not to say that all will be smooth sailing... as one of my better high school runners discovered last week, it is still possible to have a bad race no matter how experienced a runner you are.  I shared with her the story of my last cross country race, which I ran not knowing I was sick with strep throat--I remember the feeling that I couldn't get a full breath, that my joints and muscles were sticky, sluggish and in pain, and more than anything else, the feeling of not being able to do better even though I knew I could.

My mistake in high school was that I gave up.  In both my running and my teaching, I've resolved not to give up, even when I have a bad race; even when that class comes along who just seems impossible to connect with.  I keep running even in the hard times because I look forward to the best, and the best is worth it:

Feeling as though I am flying; taking long, yet quick strides over pavement, rubber, dirt, grass and gravel.  Feeling the burn of my calf muscles breaking down with every step, but not caring because I know I'll recover and emerge stronger and faster still.  Feeling the endorphins lift my spirits and push me on to the end.

This is the runner's high; this is the feeling that runners actually become addicted to, to the point that they go through withdrawal symptoms on a day when they are unable to run.

This is the point that I've hit in my teaching--it's still hard work, and I honestly feel like I'm doing more hard work now than I ever did in my first two years, and I'm doing it more efficiently.  I feel like I'm flying.  I enjoy every moment, and feel withdrawal on the days when I'm not teaching.

The great thing is, this isn't where it ends for a runner: it's not as though growth ceases at this point--the runner must still push hard, and in so doing, will continue to grow, to become faster and stronger.

So will I, as a teacher--I still have much growing to do, and so many opportunities before me in which I can grow.  I'm so grateful that I've hit my stride; the stage where the hard work involved feels natural and necessary, even enjoyable.

As far as I'm concerned, they can just push the finish line back a mile or two... or 2000.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Faithlessness or Rebellion?

Today, I opted to listen to Fukuda-Sensei's sermon without an English-translation headset.  I don't do this every Sunday, since I wind up missing so many details along the way, but Fukuda-Sensei is an engaging and animated preacher so I feel like I probably miss out a little bit when I just listen to the headset, too.  My hope is to one day have strong enough kikitori (listening comprehension) skills in Japanese that I'll never need to use the headset again... for now, the occasional Sunday will have to do.

While I am unsure if it was a main point, one point that Fukuda-Sensei made that I caught and that really struck me was that Moses had actually seen God's back, yet still disobeyed God's instructions for drawing water out of the rock later on.

We (well... I know I) tend to say "if only God would show Himself to me as He did to Moses.  THEN, I would stop being a lazy follower; stop being luke-warm; stop being disobedient."  Yet, the account of Moses' disobedience at Meribah takes such a mindset head-on and points out that even a man who had dialogued directly with God on numerous occasions and had in fact, seen God's physical presence could be every bit as untrusting and disobedient as modern believers.  The problem, then, may have less to do with a lack of certainty about God's existence and presence in our lives, and more to do with a lack of proper respect for this fact.  Bear in mind that we all have eternity placed in our hearts--all humans, regardless of who they are, have a built-in awareness of their creator; a God-shaped hole in their hearts that can only be filled with a life spent pursuing God (though it is often spent pursuing other, ill-fitting and ultimately unsatisfying things).  The bottom line is, on some level (perhaps undetectable to even ourselves) we know God exists, and we know He is worthy of glory.  However, our hearts are rebellious and we choose to fight or flee much more easily than we choose to follow.

Asking for a sign; asking for God to reveal Himself may seem like an earnest and sensible prayer, but perhaps the more important prayer is that our hearts are transformed to follow and obey a God who has already revealed Himself to us, time and time again.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Plans to Prosper, Not to Harm

What's interesting about teaching as a job is that even though I have the exact same schedule as last year, this year couldn't be more different.  On paper, teaching looks repetitive, but in practice, the variety is endless.

I deeply appreciate my students this year because their energy and their willingness to invest in my vision for the classroom makes my job fun.  I look forward to each new day of school, and can say with all honesty that there is not a single class in my line-up that I dread.  Each class period (well, two periods in the case of Humanities) is different from the others, but all are genuinely enjoyable.  A healthy classroom environment makes a world of difference for both the students and the teachers... it motivates me to put my all into planning and grading, gives me energy for each day and gives me perspective when something doesn't go the way I'd planned (as a healthy class will be understanding and forgiving).

Beyond the classroom, I feel like I'm finally starting to find avenues for making good friendships and plugging into community.  Don't get me wrong--I love CAJ and the community around it.  That said, I feel like I'm not all that close to the other young teachers (there was a pretty solid group of us two school-years ago, but that has dissolved as about half that group has since left CAJ).  At this point, I don't feel like CAJ is where I'm going to build deep relationships with peers.  I feel like I'm closer to the older staff members than I am to the colleagues who are my age.  Maybe this is preparation for me to one day be for younger staff what those older colleagues have been for me...

This was much tougher for me to accept last year, as I was often lonely and wishing for friendship and community that wasn't materializing despite several attempts on my part to create it.  This year, I've plugged into my church community at Grace City in Ginza, and, as they say, that has made all the difference.  I attended GCC sporadically over the course of the last school-year, tentatively testing the waters.  I appreciated the preaching and the worship but for whatever reason, held off on getting to know people until several months ago.  I think it was mostly shyness on my part, shyness being a quality in myself that I really do just forget about while I'm working a job that tends to amplify the small part of my personality that is outgoing.  In any case, I'm glad I got over the shyness because being a part of the church community at Grace City has been wonderful.  I've done dinner and games with friends, I am involved with weekly set-up at the church, and I'm becoming more comfortable introducing myself to new people and talking after church (usually in Japanese).  I feel at home there.

Also, on Saturday, I had the privilege of reuniting with a friend/classmate from high school, and his wife, who are currently stationed at an Air Force Base here in Tokyo.  I gave them a tour of the school, and enjoyed dinner/a round of "Settlers of Cataan" with them, as well as hours of good conversation.  This is the second time I've met up with a high school friend in Tokyo, and another old friend will be coming to serve on base in Tokyo early next year.  This is a circumstance that I never foresaw when I moved to Japan several years ago--amazing how small the world is and how God allows people to stay connected even after years apart.  Though we're now part of different communities and circles of friends, I am grateful for the opportunity to renew old friendships with the occasional evening out.  It is indeed a blessing.

All in all, the difference this year is a feeling of settling in.  Until last year, I'd always thought of Japan as "just a stop" on the journey, and even last year carried a feeling of impermanence as I knew my roommate would likely be gone this year and therefore I'd be in search of a new place to live.  This year, there's none of that.  Less loneliness, less uncertainty, more root-placing.  "'For I know the plans I have for you', declares the LORD..."

Friday, August 31, 2012

Growing Old-ish

I'm starting to feel my age a little bit.  Now, before anyone older than me takes exception to that statement, I'll put your fears to rest: Yes, I know I'm still in my mid-20s and that I'm still technically a young adult.

Still, there were a number of moments over the past week that made me feel not-so-young.  One such moment came when one of my Juniors mentioned that SHE felt old working as a TA in a 5th grade classroom.  The Juniors are 10 years younger than me.  When I was their age, they would have been in 1st grade.  While I realize that their saying they feel old is about as ridiculous as my saying I feel old must sound to people 10 years older than me, it still does boggle my mind that these students of mine have students that they themselves are responsible for.  Students who make them feel "old".  The ripple effect of this whole thing makes me feel like I need a hip replacement, false teeth and one of those clippers that trims nose and ear hair.

Oh, and then Cross Country makes me feel really old.  I've got a bunch of 6th graders this year.  This current crop of 6th graders would've been born in 2000-2001, approximately.  There are several people I went to school with who dropped out of school and had children that year and the year after.  Granted, that was not the norm by any means, and most of my former classmates who have children either have infants or toddlers (and a majority don't even have kids yet), but the fact is, there are still people my age, people I know, who are the parents of 6th graders (or just a little younger).

When I started teaching, I thought it was amusing that so many of my students were around the same age as my sister, who was still in high school at the time.  What a drastic jump this is, though.  It simultaneously makes me realize how unready I'd be for parenthood and also makes me realize that I cannot put off thinking about dating, marriage and children forever.

26 never felt so old until now.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

One Week Down

Today marked a week of school completed.  I asked my Humanities class how many felt like it had gone by really quickly, like "how could it be a week gone by already?"  Only several raised their hands.  Most raised their hands when I asked how many felt like a lot longer than a week.

Interesting how different people experience time differently.  For the large number who are starting to feel time dragging with the school routine back in session, I am going to have to do my part and redouble my efforts to keep my classes relevant and interesting; I packed a lot into this first week of class--too much, I think, and till today didn't really give my class a chance to catch their breath.  I need to...... s.l.ow. d..o..w..n.. and allow time to absorb, reflect, process.  I'm finding there is no certain recipe for good teaching or a good class--there are things I should do, of course, and characteristics I should nurture in myself as a teacher, but ultimately, I need to read each class as they come in and figure out how best to reach them.

I like this new group of Juniors.  They are easy-going and good-natured.  They are not complainers, and willingly do whatever task is set before them.  I need to be careful not to burn them out this early in the game  (My hours of summer planning, I'm finding, has resulted in more good ideas than I actually have physical time for and so my main job as I follow my plans through the school-year will be to prune things back to a point that will still stretch the kids and help them to grow, but will not bury or exhaust them.  It's a tough balance to strike).  My Humanities class already has 6 separate assignments in the grade book--I think it took me a month last year to get to that number :P.  Time to ease up, and remind myself that coverage isn't why I teach... I need to allow time for uncoverage, deep thought,  reflection.

Fortunately, this group seems responsive and easy to work with, so finding a good balance to the work-load should not be too difficult.  And, the start to the year with the freshmen has been good, too.  The first two days were quiet, but I've had them doing storytelling practice the past two days (practicing to tell various creation myths) and that seems to have created at least a basic level of comfortability, and I noticed many more students being animated and expressive in their practicing today.

I'm working harder than ever.  Too hard, I think--after several hours of work at school two evenings ago, I started getting strange twinges and pains in my chest and tonight, I'm barely functioning due to sheer exhaustion... (maybe another sign that I need to ease the heck up with the pace that I'm setting).  That aside, the actual teaching has never felt so easy--I'm a long ways past the terror and bewilderment I felt nearly every day during my first full year in 2009-2010.  This is a job I love, and far from being a place that I am apprehensive about stepping into, the classroom is THE place I want to be.  Each day when 6th period ends, I start looking forward to 2nd period the next day.  This may also be a signal that I need to start actively building a personal life.  Hmm.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

And we're off!

On Thursday, I began my 4th full year of teaching.  Considering that stress, heavy work-loads, and bad experiences in the classroom drive a number of teachers out of the profession during the first couple of years, I feel some sense of accomplishment in being at this point.  I recognize that I am nearing the end of my "new teacher" phase--never have I had a feeling of being quite this settled and at peace (even though I've still been working hard on prep).  In the past, my hard work was accompanied by a sense of panic and apprehension at whether or not what I was planning was actually any good.  This time, I am fairly confident in my ability to plan, and if a particular plan turns out not to work as well as I thought, I have other ideas and activities that I can implement without a whole lot of hassle at a moment's notice.  In those early days, I always felt for some reason as though my reputation and relationship with the class were at stake with every activity, with everything I said.  Perhaps that was true, and perhaps not--either way, I just don't worry that much anymore.  One mom came up to me after school on Friday and told me how much her son was looking forward to my class: "So many of his older friends told him to take your class and kept saying 'Oh, Mr. Gibson is such a good teacher'."

Of course, I know that such a complement fails to give credit to the wonderful students I've had who gave me a chance to grow and improve, but perception is a powerful thing.  I'm always conscious to verbally acknowledge that the good moments I've had in the classroom have been as much (if not more) because of the students as because of personal ability on my part.  Still, it's comforting and exciting to know that I'm perceived as a good teacher.  It has led me to realize that the world is not at stake every time I open my mouth or plan an activity.  If something doesn't go well, I'll try again with an assumption of trust between myself and my students;  trust that what I do and how I teach holds their best interests at heart and that I will do my best to put things right if anything goes wrong.  

It is tough to recognize growth while we're in the midst of growing--typically it is later that we recognize it, and by comparison to how we were before.  Each August finds me in a different place, further along than I was several months before in June, and much further along than I was the previous August.  I'm eager to see how this year goes, and how both I and my students will be grown through the experiences we'll have together.  

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


The stage is set: it's hours until curtain, and I've just finished making sure the props are in place to create the setting for the first scene, a classroom.  It's my fourth time doing this show; it's one of my favorites, though I don't think I've ever managed to give the same performance twice--each time I tweak my emphasis and my blocking, I add pauses to underscore poignant moments that I hadn't recognized in the previous show and I change my dynamics to try and interpret lines differently, trying to find the delivery that works best.  Sometimes I even try different accents!  Usually, I don't keep the accent for very long.

I'm not the star of the show.

I'm just the stage manager.

But, I'm the first one on stage and I have the first lines of the production--all of this to set the stage for the wonderful ensemble cast, where each character is as important as the next.

Sometimes it's a cast of 18, sometimes 28.  Sometimes it's a living room-style comedy with a tight-knit but quirky family.  Sometimes, it's a bustling marketplace scene, with singing vendors, dancing street urchins, stone-faced constables, and always a group waiting for the first train out of the town (which has started to feel a bit too small with all of its singing vendors, dancing street urchins and stone-faced constables).

The catch is, they don't realize they are the stars of the show.  The actors and actresses show up, thinking that they or their parents have paid for tickets and that they will sit back and watch, and maybe it wasn't even their idea to go to the stupid show and now they're stuck.  Little do they know that they'll be handed scripts and told to perform, to be the show they thought they were destined to watch.  The script doesn't even have words, just a summary of how each scene should end, approximately--the details and the characterization?  All up to the cast.

I make sure the actors have the props they need.  I make the scene changes happen.  I occasionally help actors think of what to say or do next when they get stuck.  Sometimes, I am deus ex machina, but honestly, that gets boring if its overdone and what character development can happen then, anyway?

I hand out stage notes and I coach on delivery and remind the cast to please avoid having their backs to the audience.  I drop into scenes from time to time; sometimes, I am basil exposition, sometimes comic relief, sometimes the stern judge for the dramatic courtroom scene.  However, I prefer to help from the wings as the cast makes the show their own.

There are moments of mirth and laughter, moments of frustration and rage, moments of human grief and sorrow and moments of joy that are beyond description.  When the actors and actresses take their bow at the end, they close the show as very different people than the unsuspecting audience who came in so much earlier.  I cannot claim credit--that goes to the director who knew each actor, each actress, before the show started, knew their lines, knew their thoughts, knew the plot long before the performance even started.  Heck, I didn't know any of that stuff!  So when the curtain closes on each new performance, I stand grateful and admiring of my faithful cast who impressed me so much and my director who makes the show and each outstanding performance possible.

As I make one final adjustment and push a desk closer to stage right, it occurs to me that I have the best job on earth.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Learning How I Learn Best

Developing self-awareness is in vogue.  Not that anybody would have argued that it was a bad thing, mind you--it just seems as though more energy is being devoted to helping people develop self-awareness earlier and earlier: personality profiles, multiple intelligences, learning styles tests, you name it!  Perhaps it's amplified somewhat at CAJ, where a lot of emphasis is placed on the students developing self-awareness as Third Culture Kids (TCKs) as is, and so we as teachers go in with the mentality that a few more questionnaires and tests really won't hurt.  Students complain that the tests are redundant or inaccurate; sometimes they are, this is true.  However, when the results of several such tests are taken together, with a good measure of reflection and thought thrown in, the students actually end up knowing a lot about how they learn and what conditions they need in order to learn most effectively.

I guess Lynden Christian tried to do this a little bit while I was a student, but I think we took less tests (I remember the Myers-Briggs for sure) and never really coupled the tests with any kind of follow-through or reflection on the results.  I could have told you that words were my strongest ally in the classroom, but that would have been it.  Most of what I now know about my learning style, I've had to scratch out through experience.

Here are a few realizations that I've come to recently:

1. I can't follow directions that are only spoken.  If someone tells me what to do, and it involves multiple steps, I'll get hung up on one of the steps as they are listing the directions, and miss out on a lot of other stuff.

2. If someone shows me how to do something (whether it's mechanical or on a computer), I will likely need them to show me several times, coupled with me actually going through the process along with them to practice.  My first two summer jobs (Premier Agendas, doing typesetting work and Haggen, stocking shelves) were terribly discouraging and frustrating because I found that my bosses/supervisors were often frustrated with what they perceived to be my incompetence.  I always felt self-conscious about asking several times to be shown how to do something, and I could tell that asking wore down on my supervisors after the 3rd or 4th time, but I also knew that it was the only way I'd learn how to do my job well.  It's given me a degree of patience with students who need to ask me how to do something several times before they get it.

3. If I have written directions (particularly well-written and clear directions), I can accomplish even fairly complex tasks on the first attempt.  I honestly think that my summers at Premier and Haggen would have been downright enjoyable if there had been written directions for the basic routines and duties of my job.

4. I need to punctuate long meetings or classes with time to stretch and move around.  I didn't realize this about myself in high school or college, but have noticed it more and more as I've taken summer classes and as I sit through a variety of different meetings as a teacher: I will zone out, get antsy or fall asleep if there's no opportunity to stand and stretch every so often.  Fortunately, teacher's meetings are usually led by teachers who have the sophistication to know that even teachers can't sit still forever.  While summer classes could likely be a mixed bag, with tenured professors who don't belong in the teaching profession lecturing incessantly in some ill-lit rooms (I'm assuming), I've had fairly good professors who either incorporate activities that involve moving or who give periodic breaks during which the students can stretch or take a short walk.  I need this, and classes or meetings where no such opportunity is presented will ultimately be a loss in my book.

5. I need a basic level of noise and activity happening around me in order to work most productively.  This is actually the lesson I've learned most recently, based on the past (almost) 3 weeks of curriculum work and planning at Tully's.  I spent about 40 hours at Tully's for the purpose of work, and I'd say about 95% of that time was focused and productive.  This stands in stark contrast to my trying to work in my apartment (productive less than half the time) and working at school with all of my colleagues back last Friday (barely productive).  I find that I can't work effectively if I'm in a setting that is too quiet, as I find the silence stuffy and stifling.  Weirdly enough, it's not a quick-fix just to turn on the TV or play music in the background: I find this distracting, and will often end up watching TV or listening to the music and not working.  I need the background noise of a public place.  BUT (and this is a big BUT), I can't be surrounded by friends or people I know, like I was at CAJ last Friday.  I can't count how many times I left my desk to go find and talk to people.  Likewise, the 5% of my Tully's time that was unproductive came from occasions when I'd started working and someone I knew had come in and started chatting with me.  Generally, though, Tully's has struck a good balance: not too noisy or distractingly filled with friends; at the same time, not too quiet or isolated.  It's some of the best planning that I've ever done, and on the heels of my resolution to eat out less this year, I'm actually resolving to spend MORE time at Tully's.  If I make a small iced tea a part of my evening routine, it will be an entirely reasonable price to pay for a very good and reliable work-space.

It's fun and exciting to arrive at such realizations--it makes me feel less self-conscious about what I'd always thought of as shortcomings and limitations, as I know that this is simply how I learn and how I function and that there's a mode of operations that will bring out the best in even me.  Let the games begin!

Friday, August 17, 2012

One Year

It was one year ago today that I decided to dust off my Blogspot account, which I hadn't used in months.  I had been thinking through how I would introduce myself to my students on the first day of class, and decided that it was a given that I'd say I loved to write.  Then I thought, "how often do I actually write?"  Writing a few Facebook notes or blog-posts each year hardly deserved a mention.

The truth was, I really did love writing, but I had not been particularly disciplined in making it a habit, and so my love for writing was by no means evident.  I resolved that if I would be trying to impart a love for writing to my students, I needed to actively model that love.

It hasn't been smooth, and I haven't been consistent: you'll notice that there are long stretches during which I posted infrequently (particularly the first few months of 2012 and then the summer months).  Yet, I do inevitably return to my writing before too much time passes--and I've made it to the one-year mark with a degree of regularity.  I hope to maintain this regularity over the course of the coming year--I may dial back the frequency for fear that I'll start repeating myself.  One goal that I have for myself in this coming year is to push myself to do more creative writing: following in the vein of the poetry I wrote this past year, as well as the short story about my childhood adventures on the farm.

I realize that many perceive blogging as technological narcissism, and either avoid it or engage in it but ironically on those grounds... and perhaps that's true... but I choose to see my sharing of what I write as a means of building the rare relationship between a writer and audience; to create an atmosphere of accountability in that I'll take my resolutions and my professed values as seriously as I claim to; and yes, a little of the narcissistic hope that what I say is important and may be worth my reader's time.

Above all, though, I hope this blog makes obvious and contagious my love for the written word, and my desire to develop and exercise this gift for the glory of the One who blessed me with it.  I hope that this, more than anything, continues to be my motivation and my drive for writing.

Monday, August 13, 2012


Any job well done starts with a goal, and a question: how can I reach that goal?  Defeatists might suggest removing the "how" but making it a question of "can" or "can't" essentially answers the question as it is asked.

We look at the box and then the heap of pieces; look at the scene before us and then the blank canvas; the music and then the keys and synapses fire at a million miles an hour, faster than we can possibly detect to figure out how we'll put together the puzzle, paint the picture or play the prelude.  The process is a matter of care, of patience, of practice and muscle memory as we build, as we create.

Perhaps we'll finish and realize that we're short of the goal we set out for, but even then, it's a question of "how" and not "can", and we must learn from the job we've done and acknowledge that no task given our full effort and attention can be called a complete waste.

When we return to the drawing board or sit on the piano bench, we find ourselves stronger, quicker and the goal closer, clearer.  Little do we realize that the goal we strive for is greater than the puzzle box, the dazzling sunset or the complex sheets of music; and too often we forget that grace remains when our efforts come up short.  Still, we strive, for to strive is to be human.