Saturday, February 25, 2017

Encountering Grace and Truth

We went into February 23rd with tempered expectations: after all, how many babies actually arrive on the due-date?

Tomomi's weekly checkup that morning seemed to confirm that we would be waiting a while longer, though perhaps not as long as we feared--the doctor told Tomomi that if the baby had not arrived by Sunday, they would induce labor on Monday.

Still, I was a ball of nervous energy at school that day, and checked my phone compulsively for the message from Tomomi.

My students seemed almost as jumpy as me--when I put on my jacket to go out and get lunch, one girl asked if the baby was coming.  Later, as I checked my phone, another student asked, "is it time?"

Tomomi and I had recently started taking long afternoon walks based on the belief that regular exercise might speed things along (and, if we're being honest, to help me burn off the nervous energy).  I came home at 4:15, ready to go for a long walk when I found Tomomi standing hunched, eyes closed, leaning on the arm of the couch for support, breathing sharply.  

"Contraction?" I asked.

She nodded.

"This is different than before, isn't it?"


Half a minute later, she visibly relaxed, sat down on the couch, and tapped the screen of her phone.  I sat down next to her.

"They started earlier this afternoon." She pointed at her phone, on which she had been tracking the contractions.  For the past hour or so, they had been coming every 8-15 minutes.  

"I don't suppose you're up for a walk today?"

"I don't think so.  I need to finish making dinner, anyway."  Tomomi had been slicing vegetables for crock-pot curry when the contractions had started several hours earlier, and the whole process had become a start-and-stop effort since then. 

I offered to help, but Tomomi told me that she needed the distraction, that sitting and waiting for the next contraction was kind of scary. 

"Is it kind of like when you have the hiccups and you spend the time between hiccups worrying about the next hiccup?"  Before I had even finished asking the question, I felt foolish.  Had I really compared labor pains to the hiccups?

But Tomomi just smiled patiently.  "Yeah, kind of like that."

Over the next two hours, the contractions kept coming, though they were still between 8 and 12 minutes apart.  Each time a contraction would hit, Tomomi would stop what she was doing and take a knee.  By the time we sat down to eat, I had the distinct feeling that we were in for a long night.  

We ate Tomomi's delicious chicken curry and watched an episode of House on Netflix.  For the record, I do not recommend watching House when you are anticipating a trip to the hospital.

As we were finishing our dinner, we received a Facebook message from our friend and downstairs neighbor Kiko, who offered to bring us up a plate of pepper beef and rice.  This turned out to be sharp instinct on Kiko's part--she knew it was the due-date and that we might need extra meals soon, but when she came up to drop off the plate and saw Tomomi's face as a contraction hit, she told us that it looked like the real deal, and that Tomomi should take a bath and then call the hospital.  Kiko also prayed over us, which was a tremendous encouragement. 

So, I ran Tomomi a bath, and put together notes for a substitute teacher for the next day, just in case.  Afterwards, Tomomi called the hospital, who told us to be there by 9 pm.  I sent my sub request, and emailed my students to let them know I wouldn't be in school the next day.  Tomomi had already packed a travel bag for her hospital stay a few weeks earlier, but double-checked to make sure she had everything she needed.  

We then walked the 15 minutes to the hospital--Tomomi felt like she could handle that, and she powered through four contractions on the way, the first and last of which occurred precisely as we walked out the door of our apartment, as precisely as we arrived at the hospital, respectively.  

Friends had cautioned us not to be disappointed if we were sent home, whether due to false labor, or to arriving when the labor was still in too early of a stage to stay, so I mentally prepared myself for this possibility as the midwife monitored the contractions.  

After 30 minutes of waiting in the hall, the midwife summoned me back to a labor-delivery room, explaining that the baby was on its way.  She predicted that the baby would arrive by the next morning, "hopefully by 7am".  

The contractions were still 6-8 minutes apart, and the midwife's prediction was not terribly encouraging.  

The contractions became more severe, and the image I'd concocted of spending the night sitting at the head of the bed, holding Tomomi's hand soon shattered.  Instead, my job became to push forcefully against Tomomi's lower back during each contraction, as that was where the pain seemed to radiate from.  The midwife helpfully demonstrated how to time the pushing and how to coach Tomomi on the breathing, and this became my one valuable contribution--at first, every 6-8 minutes, but eventually, every 3-5 minutes.  I gained a new appreciation for the term "labor"--I cannot even imagine the hard work that Tomomi was doing, but I know that I worked up a sweat and sore muscles as I swiftly took my position at Tomomi's back with each contraction to push her lower back and try to help her through.  (And just to be clear, when I say 'push', I mean PUSHING with all my might.  I tried just pressing her back, but Tomomi made it clear right away that I needed to put some real force into the motion). 

The midwife returned just after midnight to check Tomomi's progress.  She was a stern, but patient and calm woman who looked to be in her 50s, and seemed as though not much could surprise her.  However, I thought I noted a hint of surprise as she checked the read-out from the monitor.  She explained that everything was moving along quickly and that the baby would arrive sooner than she had predicted. 

Several friends later suggested to me that the quicker pace meant that probably labor was a little bit more intense and painful than if it had progressed as slowly as the midwife had originally thought.  This realization gave me all the more admiration for what Tomomi accomplished.

Early in the evening, we were able to talk and joke between contractions, but it became clear after midnight that trying to lighten the mood with a joke would not be terribly helpful.  Instead, with each rest, I handed her water bottle to her, told her she was doing an amazing job, and prayed with her.  Eventually, there wasn't even time for that, and it even became challenging to catch my breath between contractions, myself.  

One time, when a particularly big contraction ended, we heard a woman in the room next door shrieking in pain.  Tomomi and I just looked at each other--was that what we had ahead of us?  Several minutes later, we heard a baby's cries coming from that same room.  

Tomomi managed to say "I envy her" before another wave of pain hit.  

There are a few things I'll never forget about those hours: how warm the room was (we agreed that it was too warm), how dry the air was (we both came away with scratchy throats), and the quiet classical music playing over the room speaker, which seemed so jarringly incongruous with the intensity of each contraction.  

At some point just before 2am, the midwife returned and asked me to wait in the hall while they set up the room for delivery.  I came back in, and four or five big pushes later, Emma Sophia Gibson entered the world, at 2:37 am. 

The first moment I saw my daughter was indescribable--I started crying almost immediately, and looked at Tomomi, who had a look of total joy on her face for the first time since labor had started. 

Tomomi looked Emma over as she held her in her arms, turned to me and grinned.  "Black wins."

We'd had a running bet about whether her hair would be black or red, and the odds weren't exactly in my favor to begin with (curse you, finicky redhead allele!).  To be fair, on later inspection, we realized that her hair was a dark shade of brown with some light brown streaks.  

I was then promptly ushered out to the hall, so that the midwife and nurses could check Emma over, and tend to Tomomi's battle-wounds.  

I Facebook messaged my parents and emailed my brother and sister, telling them her name and sending a picture I'd snapped as Tomomi held her.

When I was allowed back into the room, the nurses snapped a family photo of the three of us, and gave us some time with Emma, before taking her to the hospital nursery so that Tomomi could rest.  

The next few hours were surreal--we were both still feeling some adrenaline, and talked and joked about the labor.  Then, Tomomi began to nod off, and I sent out emails to friends, students, and the CAJ community.

Soon enough, I began feeling drowsy, too.  However, there was no place to sleep, and so I spent a tedious hour or so sitting in the overly warm, dry delivery room wondering what to do.  When Tomomi woke up, she asked a nurse if there was a place I could sleep.  Unfortunately, there wasn't--not without a prior reservation, and I wondered silently whether anyone could actually predict something like this enough in advance to make a reservation.  So, I kissed Tomomi goodnight, told her she had done an amazing job, and I was proud of her, and I loved her, before walking home in a stupor.

There's much more I could say about my precious Emma, but I really just wanted to write about the hours leading up to her birth--the labor and the delivery--before it becomes a blurry memory.  

I'll close by sharing the email I sent out to the CAJ community and posted on Facebook:

恵真 (Emma) Sophia Gibson was born at 2:35 am this morning, Friday, February 24!
She weighs 3046 g (6.7 lbs).

Her name has special significance:
We chose the kanji 恵 (pronounced 'eh'), which means grace, and 真 (pronounced 'ma'), which means truth. "Growing in Grace & Truth" has been our school theme this year at CAJ, and it is indeed what we hope for our daughter as she grows. Emma was also my grandmother's name, and she lived a life marked by grace and truth. It's a blessing beyond measure to make my daughter--her great-grand daughter--her namesake.

Sophia, we chose because we desire for our daughter to grow in wisdom, along with grace and truth, qualities we believe to be inextricably bound to one another. We also liked the sound of the name "Emma Sophia"--that was an English teacher thing ;-)

Mother and daughter are resting after a long night, and although I cannot claim to have done any of the hard work, I feel in need of a rest too. We are so incredibly grateful for all of your prayers throughout the pregnancy, and covet your prayers as we begin life as a new family of three!


The evening of February 23rd and the wee hours of February 24th are a night I will never, ever forget.  I'm so grateful to God for bringing us safely through, and bringing Emma into this world.  Now begins the new adventure called parenthood.  I'm terrified, I'm ill-equipped, but I couldn't be more excited!

Our first family picture!

Emma-chan, 30 minutes old

Emma-chan, 36 hours old

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Making the World a Little Smaller

It never ceases to astound me that as connected as our world is by modern technology, our classrooms can still feel like islands.

Several years ago, I read Curriculum 21 by Heidi Hayes Jacobs for a Master's course.  Jacobs puts forth a compelling vision of what education ought to look like in the 21st century, and describes what various schools and teachers are currently doing to make that vision a reality.  Naturally, technology featured prominently in several chapters, including the recommendation that communication technology be used to connect students with other people around the world.

I wonder how many of us have connections we simply haven't recognized.  Several years ago, while my brother was teaching high school math on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation through Teach For America, I had the idea to have him talk to my students on Google's video chat.  I hooked my laptop up to the projector, and he joined our class for 40 minutes to talk about his experiences.  In a curricular sense, the activity was an after-thought.  I hadn't prepped my students, and did not have a clear theme in the unit that I was teaching, other than "Native Americans have had it rough".  Fun as it was to bring my brother into my classroom from halfway around the world, I missed opportunity after opportunity to really make his virtual visit count.

We did it again the next year, and even had the opportunity to talk to several of his students, who were as curious to talk to a class full of international school students in Japan as my students were to talk to Lakota students in South Dakota.  That opportunity made the experience more meaningful than the year before, but again, the idea lacked sound curricular context.

After that year, my brother's contract with Teach for America wrapped up, and he embarked on his Master's degree.  I didn't think to utilize his knowledge and experiences again for a couple years.

This year, as my brother began to apply to law schools, having finished his Master's degree, he told me that one direction he was considering was to study Native American policy.  His time living and working with the Lakota people had profoundly impacted him, and it was clear that the plight of Native Americans today was still very much on his mind and heart.  Everything clicked into place in that instant.  In the two years since I had last invited him to talk to my students, I had developed a unit exploring issues connected to Agency and Victimhood, and it occurred to me that my brother would have keen insights into what agency does and does not look like for Native Americans today.

I was already planning to have my students examine slavery and women's suffrage as case-studies in this unit, and from there it was not too much work to carve out time for the historical and contemporary issues facing Native Americans as a third case study.  I had my students research and present on Lakota history, culture, boarding schools/assimilation efforts, contemporary social issues, political structure and modern day activism.  They presented in groups on Monday, and my brother talked to the students on Tuesday.

This was far more interactive than the previous conversations had been.  My brother started by briefly describing what he did during his two years on the reservation, but after that, the floor was open for my students to ask questions.  One student asked whether the government's heavy involvement was hindering the Lakota from improving their situation.  Another student asked whether or not it was right for the people to resist the government.  Another student asked what my brother thought the first step needed to be to effect real change.

The discussion was steeped in the thinking my students had done on agency leading up to this point, and this lent all the more weight to my brother talking about how his goal was essentially to teach himself out of a job, to see more Lakota aspire to become teachers.  He talked about the importance of humility when coming from a place of privilege, being able to put aside one's own agenda and listen and learn from those you are working with.  He talked about the complexity of the relationship between the tribe and the federal government, and the need for thought and care.

It was an organic high point to a unit that had been spent wrestling with complicated issues.

I would not have been able to teach my students what my brother taught them--I could lay the groundwork and guide the discussions along the way, but I have never lived or worked in a situation like the one on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  I needed somebody who had.

Herein lies the power of communication technology in the classroom: the act of Skyping with someone on the other side of the world, in and of itself, is fascinating and personally enriching, but it may not have inherent value to the curriculum.  However, if teachers are able to discern when and where an expert's perspective, or a first-hand perspective will complete the picture the teacher is trying to create in the unit, they ought to consider whether or not they know anybody who can provide that perspective.

Ideally, teachers will look for ways to make new connections and build a portfolio of human resources, but that is not where we need to start.  We need to start by thinking through the connections we already have, whether near or far, and then taking steps to make the world just a little bit smaller.