Our new HOME!

It's been a year since we moved, but we've finally been able to purchase a home! I bet we walked through or drove by (and decided not to walk in!) 15-20 homes; after several heated conversations and some compromise, we finally agreed on one. When we walked into the home, Nate and I both knew right away that it was "the one."

Nate really wanted to be a few blocks from Burke, and I wanted to be in Midtown--but we purchased a home in northwest Omaha. It was a bit difficult for me to compromise and agree to looking in this area because I feel like I'm more conscientious about little things than most. But when we considered the needs of our future family (however unpredictable it is), we felt like this was a good area for us. The neighborhood is filled with mature trees (we have an excellent climbing tree in our front yard...as soon as the rain stops, I'm shimming up that bad boy!), diverse families, a park and pool down the street, a soccer and baseball/softball complex a few blocks away, and running trails less than a mile from here. Plus, it's only a ten minute drive for Nate to get to work. The neighborhood is quiet and is tucked away from any major street. 

The house itself is nothing fancy, and it needs a bit of work (we'll be staining the deck and painting the exterior in a few summers...so mark your calendars!), but it's comfortable and inviting. We moved in this last weekend, and after a few days of utter madness, it is finally feeling like our home. Fortunately, we didn't have to do any major work; with the help of our families, we painted nearly every nook and cranny in the house. The only thing left to do is to hang stuff on the walls...it's probably my least favorite part of moving because I'm just not patient or careful enough, and Nate is. So it's a frustrating experience for us!  One of the selling points for us in this house is the massive fenced-in backyard. After nearly a year of being outside on a leash, Sampson has enjoyed the last few days outside on the deck or in the yard flirting with the miniature Dachshund next door. A bonus for us was the basketball hoop in the driveway; needless to say, I've been teaching Nate a thing or two about basketball.

We're excited about the possibilites this new house might allow for! 


Second guessing

I haven't really thought twice about resigning from my teaching job at Gretna...until this weekend. Well, to be fair and honest, a few weeks ago I panicked while driving to school one morning as I thought about not having a definite salary--but today was the first day that I really wondered if resigning was the "right" thing to do.

I have felt like a terrible teacher this year. My personal life has been in such disarray this year, and I feel like it's really caused me to take a step back in the classroom. This chaos coupled with learning the ropes of a new district that works hard to hold kids accountable, left me scrambling. I pride myself in the connections I've been able to make with students during my teaching career. But this year I feel like I merely survived without really getting through to my students. I feel like I've cheated them, and I've often wondered if I've done any good.

I gave a final test on Friday to my juniors. The last question asked them to reveal what this course (English 11 CP) has led them to think more deeply about; many of the responses surprised me. Much of our literature and writing has led us to converse about indifference, intolerance, and empathy. More kids than I expected wrote about how they think about how what they say or do will impact someone else. Some wrote about the lessons they learned about society and the world around them. Others wrote about how challenging the course was, how hard they had to work, and how much they actually had to think about the material. A few left notes of appreciation for me. And because I'm a bleeding heart, many of these responses made me cry. Sure, it's my job to teach these kids English, to make sure they read and write well and are prepared for college. But the most important part of my job, the one I take the most seriously, is teaching my kids how to be humane individuals who look at the world with eyes wide open, who see themselves as individuals capable of making a difference. One of the most rewarding experiences of being a teacher for me is knowing that a kid has picked up on the "secondary" curriculum. I took photos of a few of my favorite responses to the last question on the final so I could keep them. Here are just three of these:

 And as I graded these, I wondered if I had made the right decision to resign. So much of my identity has been wrapped up into my job as an English teacher; it's difficult to imagine life without this.

I lamented to my parents on Friday night about this very concern, but my dad reminded me to remain level-headed about it all. He explained that I decided to leave this job for good and honorable reasons and not to get so wrapped up in the emotions of the end of a year. Simple advice, but it was what I need to hear. I know next year will be difficult to be out of the classroom doing what I love, but I have faith that God has bigger plans for our family. This is not the end of my teaching career. It's just a break in it.


A Picture of Courage

Currently my juniors are wrapping up the year with the memoir Night. If you haven't read this gripping account of Elie Wiesel's struggle to survive in a concentration camp during WWII, you must add it to your summer reading list. My students' final is to compose an ekphrastic poem (poetry that speaks to art) on the subject of intolerance. They had to first find an image that displayed an act of intolerance or action against intolerance, some image that really spoke to them and evoked a sense of emotion. I think this was frightening waters for many students because we (society and school) have taught them to stuff their emotions down. The day we searched for images, there were many misty eyes in my room.

Much of our reading this year has, in some way, led us to an exploration of the dangers of intolerance or indifference. As an example piece, the other junior teacher and I had our students study the poem "To the Little Polish Boy Standing With His Arms Up" by another Holocaust survivor, Peter Fischl. He wrote the poem in response to a photograph he saw in Life magazine. You can read the full text here; but you also should watch him read his poem (at the end of this post) as his reading is packed with emotion. I cried the day I showed it to my students. On Monday, we'll all be showing the images we picked and then performing our poems for the class. I'm excited to see what the kids produce.

I always try and write alongside the kids, so here's my attempt at ekphrastic poetry (shout out to Bob for helping me revise!):

A Picture of Courage

She is a picture of courage.
16 years old, books held tightly to her breast,
left arm at her side--
her dark skin a contrast to her starched white dress.
The white dress covering the darkness
of her skin--
a storm hidden in clouds.
She tries to look collected and unphased,
but her eyebrows tell a different story--
furrowed and to a point, dipping below the sunglasses
that mask the rage in her eyes.

She is a picture of courage.

She moves towards those coveted doors--
Central High School--
a mob following close behind
yet keeping their distance
as if her skin color were contagious.

She is a picture of courage.

A white woman is five paces behind,
her face scrunched into a scream--
a fit of rage, hurling words that sting worse
than shattered glass.

I wonder if this woman, this grown white woman,
knows that her face will be made famous--
not for its natural beauty,
but for its display of hatred.
Will her children see this and
fear this very rage will be unleashed on them?
I hope her children ask her why she is so angry
at this black girl, five paces ahead,
16 years old, books held tightly to her breast,
left arm at her side--
her dark skin a contrast to her starched white dress--
the girl who tries to look collected and unphased
by their mother’s indignation.

And when their mother stumbles on an answer
to their question, as she chokes on the logic
behind her own madness,
I hope they realize
she was wrong.  
I  hope they realize that the world is not
better off as one monochromatic image like this photo.
I hope they see the world as better off
in technicolor.

Don't forget to watch Peter Fischl read his poem!


What I should have said

It was a warm fall day during my seventh grade year. A few friends and I decided to linger after school to watch the boys football team practice. I was sporting a new pair of orange Nike basketball shorts that I was especially proud of. A few of us stood at the fence, our noses pressed to the chain link fence separating us from 60 pubescent, stinky boys when I was caught off guard and soon found my orange Nike shorts now bunched around my ankles. I had been depantsed...in front of the ENTIRE 7th and 8th grade boys football team. I played it cool, of course, and casually hiked up my britches like it was no big thing. Then, I sprinted after my depantser like it was no big thing. This was my most embarrassing moment...until today.

This afternoon I was honored at the state capital with a teaching award that I actually received in the fall. The organization who gave the award had their big ceremony today, so they invited all the award winners for the year so they could re-present the awards. The guy who organized it all mentioned in his email that I could say a few things if I wanted. I assumed it would be an intimate gathering of 15-20 teachers, most of whom I knew, so I didn't put much thought into the event. When Nate and I arrived, though, the room was filled with kids and their parents, two fairly famous poets, and several teachers. I had forgotten that this event also doubled as an awards ceremony for a student poetry contest. There were WAY more people here than I imagined. Plus, the room was beautiful and felt formal...and suddenly this thing I wasn't worried about, became increasingly frightening.

You see, I took my public speaking course as an independent study at a community college because I'm so terrified of it. In high school, I stumbled, sweated, and shook through every speech. And the older I get, the more my phobia of the act grows. Scanning the program, I noticed that I was first up out of all the teachers to receive an award. I quickly began thinking of things to say when I went up to get my award, and all I could think of saying was, "Teaching is cool." Who says that?!? I thought and thought, and still had nothing. Suddenly I heard my name called. I walked to the front of the room to receive the award; the director stepped away from the mic, and said, "Feel free to say a few words." I took a step toward the mic--still far enough away from it, looked at the crowd, and suddenly went blank. About fifteen awkward seconds passed where I just stared into the crowd. Then I muttered, "Nah, I'm good." The director laughed and made some joke about how it's a good thing I'm not a speech teacher. Mortified, I slinked back to my chair, my cheeks hot from embarrassment. Of course, the other teachers being recognized casually sauntered up to receive their awards sharing a few words of wisdom with us, leaving me feeling like the biggest idiot in the room.

Epic fail.

I just hope the people in attendance today didn't think I was the most ungrateful teacher on the planet; hopefully they saw my nerves and awkwardness and forgave me for my lack of eloquence.

Now that I've had some time to think about it all, though, here's what I should have said:

"I'll keep this brief since microphones and public speaking terrify me, but I'd like to first thank all the students I've had in Grant, Ogallala, and Gretna who have taught me what it really means to be a teacher. They taught me (and still teach me) that teaching is more about relationships than about testing and grades. Next, I'd like to thank the teachers who have helped shape me into the teacher I am today. My husband, Nate--a fellow teacher--, and my colleagues in the Nebraska Writing Project remind me to teach with passion and be a voice for students and teachers. Thanks for the honor."

Of course, it's easy to think of this 8 hours later from behind a computer...

Week 4 of 10

We're approaching the halfway point of our foster training; our first home visit is a week from today. A good chunk of our paperwork is submitted with just a few lingering things to complete and fill out. The most difficult component to complete: the letter to a future foster/adoptive child and one to his/her biological parents. We were assigned to write a short letter introducing ourselves to a potential child who might be placed in our home and then one to his/her parents. I thought writing our profile letter for adoption was difficult, but I struggled to find the words for the letter to a future child. What can I even say that would make a child feel even slightly comfortable with the thought of moving into a stranger's home? Writing to the parents was a killer. How do  I reassure future biological parents who will more than likely resent us for "taking their child" that we will do what we can to be good "in the meantime" parents for their kids?

The deeper we get into our training, the more empathy I gain for biological parents whose kids are placed in foster care and foster kids. We did an "imagine if" exercise last week where we were asked to close our eyes and imagine what it would be like if we were to go through the process of being removed from our home and placed in someone else's home. The thought of hypothetically being placed in someone else's home freaked me out. I can't imagine the emotions foster kids experience as they work to process being removed, adjusting to a new family with new rules, hoping to go home and return to what feels natural, etc.

I am also learning the importance of knowing the strengths and needs of our family so we can be realistic about the situations we open ourselves to. I'm a bleeding-heart, so it's easy for me to bite off more than I can chew in order to help others. A huge part of me wants to adopt or foster a ridiculous amount of children. But the more we learn, the more level-headed I become. While I want so badly to have kids in our home by July or August (which we could probably have if we fostered), I also know that Nate and I have a desire to be forever parents to children. There are several kids who are currently in foster care but are free and clear for adoption, but from what I hear, it might take a bit more time for these kids to be placed into our home. Of course, the agency doesn't want to rush the transition for these kiddos, so it seems like it might be a slower, deliberate process (which is good). I guess I'm learning to slow down a bit and really think this through.

The Helzer home will be in a huge flux of chaos in the coming weeks as we wrap up a school year (13 days left for me!), pack up our apartment, and move into a new home (20 days until we close!), and continue our foster training. Pray that we'd keep our sanity among the crazy!