Spoken Word Poetry: Reconciling My Apartment Complex

My brother in-law, Pat, sent me this poem after we had a conversation a few weeks ago about moving into an apartment complex. It's a beautiful piece about community that really hit me between the eyes. As a teacher, I always say I value community, and I encourage my students to engage in their community.

But engaging in community is not my first inclination. By nature I am an introvert; I prefer a night at home with my husband over a crowded room full of people. I'm self-conscious, and I think that makes me a little self-absorbed. And as I listened to this poem I found myself desiring a certain lack of restraint with my neighbors. I want to drop the cynicism that so often frames my perception when I meet new people so that I can engage more fully.

That's my hope with this new move--to engage with my neighbors on a deeper level....now I just need a place to live ;)


Finding Certainty Among Uncertain Times

God's been teaching me a lot in the past few weeks. Early this week I listened to a sermon from Christ Community Church about idolatry (it's the earlier one from Gavin Johnson if you want to listen), and it convicted me to think hard about what "good things I'm turning into God things." Then we attended our friends'/housemates' small group where we focused on Isaiah 40-43, and the concept of God being the one true God--absolute truth--and how that should change us. If we believe that God is who He says He is, then we have certain responsibilities. We talked a bit about how to talk with believers and non-believers about this idea of God being absolute truth. In addition to these great truths, another more common truth I've been dwelling on lately is the awesome certainty that comes with being a believer.

Many of you know how uncertain the Helzer lives are right now. We've had to swallow our pride and live with friends for an undefined length of time as we wait for our house in Ogallala to sell; adoption stuff is up in the air out of our control; we're both stepping into new jobs soon; and one of our vehicles is (we think) on its last leg. We've been overwhelmed. After working on our budget for a few hours this week, we realized that unless we sell our house, we don't have enough money even to rent a cheap place here in Omaha. It was a breaking point for us. I think we both just wanted to get mad and maybe even go to sleep to avoid thinking about it all, but instead we laid on the floor, closed our eyes, held hands, and prayed. We praised God for the blessings He's given us and prayed for peace amidst these crazy times. We prayed for wisdom to make tough decisions, and we prayed that God would use this season to grow us as a couple. I'm not going to lie and say that I've felt instant peace since then because I've still felt a bit lost and hopeless. But one thing God's revealed to me in the last few weeks is that even though things might be unstable in my life, there's one thing that's steady: Him.

Here are a few scriptures I've been considering lately:

Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I gave Egypt as a ransom for your freedom; I gave Ethiopia and Seba in your place. Others were given in exchange for you. I traded their lives for yours because your are precious to me. You are honored, and I love you. --Isaiah 43:1-4

While this scripture is God's message to the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah, I take great comfort in the truths it carries even today.

Most of Psalm 119 has been an encouragement to me, but it's long. So, I'll only quote a few verses:

My suffering was good for me, for it taught me to pay attention to your decrees. Your instructions are more valuable to me than millions in gold and silver. --Psalm 119:71-72

I am worn out waiting for your rescue, but I have put my hope in your word. My eyes are straining to see your promises come true. When will you comfort me? I am shriveled like a wineskin in the smoke, but I have not forgotten to obey your decrees. --Psalm 119: 81-84

I have suffered much, O Lord; restore my life again as you promised. Lord, accept my offering of praise and teach me your regulations. My life constantly hangs in the balance, but I will not stop obeying your instructions. --Psalm 119: 107-109

The teaching of your word gives light, so even the simple can understand. I pant with expectation, longing for your commands. Come and show me your mercy, as you do for all who love your name. Guide my steps by your word, so I will not be overcome by evil. --Psalm 119: 130-133

The Burden of a Public Proclaimation

Sometimes I really wonder whether or not I should write about my faith walk on this blog. Writing is obviously my way of processing life, but the problem with making this kind of writing public is the accountability that comes with it. There is no way for me to be perfect. I try to live my faith, but no matter how hard I try---I often fail. And I fail publicly. I don't want to be another Christian hypocrite---but let's face it, often unintentionally, I am. Sometimes I'm guilty of living a life of excess relying too much on material things to make me happy or running my mouth to an excess. Sometimes I fail to invest in human relationships. Sometimes I make life all about me and not about God. It's a glorious burden to be a follower of Christ. While we have a responsibility to proclaim boldly, we're also called to live differently from how the rest of the world lives, and I have troubles maintaining consistency with the way I live. This burden reaches beyond faith---anytime we publicly proclaim a lifestyle, belief, value, etc. we have an accountability. When we identify with a particular organization, there are expectations that come along with that identification. It's tough to live up to all of these expectations. I suspect I'm not the only poor sap who struggles with this....I don't know. Just a few rambling thoughts for the morning before I break down some scripture I've been learning from this week....


If I Should Have a Son

Author's Note: This piece has been a long time coming. Earlier this year I ran across this TED Talks video from poet Sarah Kay where she performs her piece, If I Should Have a Daughter (see below). I fell in love with the poem instantly. Much later this school year my English 9 students had some great conversations about society's expectations of girls---and many of my 9th grade young men surprised me with the maturity in their comments. One of my boys stated poignantly, "I'm attracted to girls who are more natural, the ones who don't wear make up," and right then I thought, man, if I have a son--I want him to be like so many of these young men I have in my class. This summer I finally got time to sit down and write the piece in response to both of these incidents. I should also preface that I realize this is all a bit idealistic of me--but I've always been one to dream big....

If I should have a son I will be sure he knows we will always be here. His dad and I will not leave him like so many parents do. We will stay and remain firm, and though we won’t have all the right answers and make all the right choices, he will know we love him. And later, much later, he’ll want the same for his own family.

I’ll teach him that he was divinely and wonderfully created, and though he was adopted, his momma loved him more than words. She loved him so much she made the difficult choice to grow him and then give him to us so he could have all he needed. I’ll let him ask questions about her. And I’ll work to keep her involved in his life, and I’ll be sure he knows that she is his mom just like I am his mom.

I will teach him that to be strong does not not require hours in the weightroom; instead it requires openness to feel, to respond, to engage, to love, and to stand firm on his convictions when all around him the sand shifts.

I’m gonna be sure he opens doors for me so on that day long in the future when he picks up a girl for a date, he does the same without thinking. And when he drops her off, he will walk her to the door, thank her parents, and shake her father’s hand for allowing him the privilege to date their daughter. I wanna teach him to look beyond makeup and clothes, to see each girl as beautiful and unique and worthy of his respect. When that first girl breaks his heart, his dad and I will be there to comfort him. We will not let him speak hate out of hurt or turn to destructive outlets to ease the pain. We’ll teach him to get back up though he might not want to. And if he should choose to marry, he’ll pick a wife who loves Jesus and serves others before herself, who brings out the best in him and helps soften all those not so awesome qualities.

“Because you are a man, you have the responsibility to lead well” I will tell him. And he won’t like it because some of his friends will neglect this responsibility and it will require him to be different, to be bold during the tough moments when he’ll want to give in like the other “cool” guys. And he’ll mess up and take wrong turns. But we won’t yell at him, even though we’ll want to. We’ll help him examine the situation and find out where he slipped up so he won’t make the same mistake too many times.

I will raise my little man to be decent towards others, to be genuine, and when that one boy in his English class doesn’t get picked for a group because he smells funny and talks different, I want him to reach out to him and say, “Come work with me.” And later on in life when it would be easy to slip into a middle class comfort zone, I will encourage him to step out and into tension so he doesn’t remain stagnant and close-minded.

When he asks a thousand questions a day, and when he questions my rules, I will breathe deeply ten times reminding myself that to question is to learn. “What else do you wonder?” I’ll ask.

And when life catches up with him, and he feels too tired to take another step, I’ll teach him to go another mile. I’ll run alongside him in this marathon and help him fight past the wall of exhaustion that so often paralyzes because giving up is not an option.


'Ya Heard?

This summer I've been soaking up some good tunes to get me through a tough class and to keep me occupied on my many trips from Ogallala to Omaha, or Omaha to Lincoln, etc. Thanks to NPR and Spotify, I've stumbled across some solid tracks and albums. Here's what's been flowing from my earbuds lately (along with a bit of my rambling commentary):
  • "Americana" from Neil Young and Crazy Horse--I have to say, this record is best enjoyed driving on an open road--think some highway that passes through a small town every seven miles. It's a bit of a dark twist on the traditional folk songs we all know---like Travel On, This Land is Your Land, Oh Susannah, etc. The songs are still recognizable; they're just roughed up a bit with a Neil Young flare.
  • "The Only Place" by Best Coast---I heard this band for the first time last night on WBEZ Chicago's Sound Opinions broadcasted on Omaha Public Radio. I fell in love right away. Her pop voice and catchy melodies make it the perfect summer album. Normally I'm skeptical of poppy music, but the depth of her lyrics make the album endearing.
  • Sun Kil Moon's "Among the Leaves"--I loved this band when I was an angst ridden teenage girl. I loved that nobody knew who the band was, and I loved the lead singer's, Mark Kozelek, smooth, haunting voice. It's one of those that hangs in the air like a stale cigarette. This is a great late night album paired well with low lighting and coffee (as cliche as that sounds). I read a review recently that criticized the sullen nature of the album as well as the reflective insights on aging---perhaps my recent struggle with growing older is what's drawn me to the album. This album does have some strong language, so proceed with caution if you're sensitive to that sort of thing.
  • And if these don't fit your fancy, here are a few more artists I've been digging on this summer: Band of Horses, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Sean Hayes, and Brandi Carlile.
Happy listening!


Master Helzer--Squared

Today marked a monumental step for Nate and me: we finished our Masters Degrees! Nate passed his comps a few weeks ago and had his last class today to earn a Masters in Music Education. And I passed my comps on Monday and deposited my thesis (Nate always giggles when I say this because it sounds like deposit my feces....he's so grown-up) today on UNL's Digital Commons website to earn my MA in English. The kind people in Graduate Studies gave me this little button:

If you can't read it, the button says: Congratulate me, I just completed my thesis! It's not near as cool or monumental as my sister in-law's button she received for completing her dissertation, but I'm still pretty tickled about reaching this next step. We started our programs in the summer of 2009. Nate has taken courses every summer since then, and I plugged away taking at least 6 hours each school year and 6 hours each summer (with the exception of this summer). I started the thesis process this fall by reading through a stack of books to finally stumble my way into a solid topic: Using Place Conscious Education and Social Action to Plug the "Rural Brain Drain." After four years of juggling, it's weird to be done. We both commented on the way home that we'll miss the interaction each summer with highly motivated, quality teachers. They pushed us to evaluate our own classroom practices and become better teachers. Our Master's programs gave us more than a few steps over on the salary schedule: they gave us each a professional network, reinforced our decision to become teachers, and gave us a strong desire to learn. I think in the next year or two we'll find our way back in the college classroom because we're nerdy like that :)

Graduation is August 10th at UNL, and though it seems that many people don't walk at their own graduations anymore--Nate and I have decided to be there. It's a big accomplishment that we did together, and it's our way of celebrating. So if any of you will be in the Lincoln area that evening, give me a call. We're just planning on going out for dinner, but we'd love to have you join us!


Social Justice in Omaha Part II

Here's the second part to my previous post:

Q: What kinds of social justice issues do you face as an educator? What does that look like?
A: One big issue that I think all teachers face is that our classrooms are diverse, but the tests were so bound to by the government don’t take these diversities into consideration. While there is a need for standards in education, the current method of assessing these standards only looks at a very select skill on one particular day of a student’s life in order to determine if this student is “proficient” and if teachers are “proficient”. These test don’t take into consideration the whole student. They don’t reveal how far a student really has come in his/her learning. Our current assessments are stifling for both teachers and students (they often result in canned curricula that is separate from the real world) and the consequences of these assessments on districts often cause districts and teachers to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do.

Q: Are these issues specific to your classes or are these issues that most educators face?
A: I think this is an issue most educators face. Unfortunately some are just not aware of it. They haven’t been encouraged to be critical of these practices.

Q: Why should these matter the Omaha community? Why is this significant for the Omaha Metro Area?
A: As I mentioned, I’m new to Omaha---so I’m coming at this with a pretty limited viewpoint. However, a more equitable society should be important to each community. If we don’t learn to see the potential in all people, then we will continue to commit acts of injustice. We’ll continue to treat people unfairly, we’ll continue to remain divided by class and race...injustice is a vicious cycle. Omaha won’t reach its own potential as a community if we don’t learn to value one another’s potential.

Q: How do you approach the issue of social justice in your classroom? Why does this matter to you and your students?
A: I’m not perfect, but I try to set up a just classroom; one that is nurturing to all students and is a safe place for them to grow, create, and engage. We do a lot of character building activities and character study through the literature we read, the essays we write, and the disscussions we have. I always tell my students that I want them to leave my classroom a better person. I try to treat them fairly and I expect them to offer this same courtesy to their classmates. And I want them to be critical, so in relation to the literature we read, we discuss a lot of current events and socially relevant topics that explore injustice. Of course, I have to teach them how to discuss how to challenge one another civilly. We also discuss what might be the most effective way to speak back to injustice. It’s important me to teach this way because, it’s the right thing to do. Many students don’t learn these skills at home, and these are skills necessary to be a critical and participatory adult. I don’t want them to get caught up in a circle of apathy because that’s no way to live. I want them to learn how to live well in their communities (wherever they end up).

Q: What might justice look like in education? Can you paint me a picture of that?
A: Going back to one of my teaching role models, Linda Christensen, I think justice in education or life in general, might start with believing in people’s potential. When we are able to look past surface level and when we look at each person (no matter their appearances or their past) and truly believe they have potential and value, then our actions will change. We’ll start treating people more fairly. We’ll start teaching to each individual student, we’ll make education relevant to students’ lives and the lives they’ll take on in the future, we’ll start trusting our teachers more, and maybe we’ll begin to eliminate draconian educational policies.

Social Justice in Omaha Part I

Tonight I have the awesome privilege to help out our friend Micah with a project he's doing to promote social justice in Omaha. He and a crew are interviewing a few people tonight about their experiences and views on social justice; they'll use some of the clips to create a video to show at the church Micah works at (Christ Community) for a sermon on social justice. I would say that social justice is a fairly contentious issue among many evangelical Christians because of the connotations of liberalism that it arouses in peoples' minds. So, I'm interested in seeing the final product. I'm humbled that Micah asked if he could interview me to get my perspective about social justice in education because I really don't see myself as doing something out of the ordinary; I teach the way I do because it's just the right thing to do. Plus, I feel like most of what I've done from my classroom is to the credit of other people. I've learned to teach from so many other great educators.

Today I sat down for a few hours to process through the questions that Micah will ask tonight. In typical type-A English teacher fashion, I typed out all of my responses...so, I thought it would be interesting blogging material. My responses are long, so I'll break this into two posts.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your story and background? How did you end up in Omaha and how has Social Justice become a topic of interest to you?
A: In the fall I’ll be starting my fifth year of teaching high school English. My teaching experience so far has been in rural school settings in western Nebraska. I took interest in social justice primarily because of my experiences in my graduate work with the Nebraska Writing Project at UNL. I took classes with some of the best teachers in the state, and these people pushed me to think more deeply about education. Teaching is more than tests, it’s more than standards; the best teachers present their students with a diverse perspective of the world and then give them chances to and push them to think critically in order to develop their own opinions of the world, to be able to articulate these clearly and logically, and then to equip them to act. This kind of teaching is tough and it’s messy and it’s not always valued by administrators, teachers, students, communites, or educational policies. As one of my teaching role models, Linda Christensen from the Oregon Writing Project says, "Social justice is at the core of my work because it is a belief in people's potential.” I think why I took interest in social justice and continue to find ways to bring this work into my classroom is because it takes on this belief that everyone has potential (which I think is a good starting point for social justice), and as a teacher, it’s my responsibility to tap into this potential in students. It’s my job to find their potential and help nurture it. It’s just the right thing to do.

As far as how I got to Omaha, my husband and I have enjoyed small town, rural living, but as we got closer to growing our family through adoption, we decided that we wanted our kids to grow up in a culturally rich area. So we began searching for jobs and were blessed enough to land here.

Q: Tell me more about the work you've been doing with Social Justice in the classroom? What does that look like?
A: Originally I started small by introducing a variety of writers into my classroom. I moved from a primarily white dead-guy curriculum to one that included women writers and writers of different backgrounds and cultures as a way to introduce my primarily white students’ eyes to other ways of living and being in the world. I also introduced lots of non-fiction articles that discussed issues I thought kids needed to think about: issues like race, gender, oppression, activism, etc. Eventually by the time I left Ogallala, my 9th grade curriculum included an entire quarter devoted to social action where kids studied the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s four steps to non-violent direct action in his text Letter from a Birmingham Jail. My students interviewed local changemakers in our own community to capture their stories and then make them public via stories on our class blog, and then they were required to make some sort of positive impact on their community using their passions, talents, and resources. Their projects were research based as I required them to do some initial digging through primary and secondary sources to see if their project was valid. Their culminating activity was to create a visual presentation of their research to prove why their project was necessary to complete, the vocabulary learned along the way, and photos of themselves in action, as well as a summary of what they planned to do next. They planned a project night similar to a traditional science fair, and they invited community members to attend via business letters. The two years I did this was a success--I had close to a 100% completion rate, and this year over 100 community members attended our project night to support students in their own form of social action.