Friday, May 19, 2017

A Life Full of Typos


            Once I failed a final in grad school.
            It made me remember the only other time in school when I’d failed a test.
            I was a sophomore in high school. It was chemistry and the test was one of those unit tests. I remember the big, red “37%” glaring at me when I flipped over the sheet on my desk.
            I remember going to the teacher—after spending one grueling hour trying not to cry during class—and begging her for an opportunity to retake it.
            She said, “I always cancel out the lowest grade. It’s likely it won’t even count.”
            But it did count. If it weren’t for the blaring, red “37%” maybe one of my Cs would have been canceled (I had plenty of those). If it weren’t for that 37%, I might have made an A that semester.
            I remembered those angry red numbers when I pulled the essay questions from the envelope as I sat in a classroom during Finals Week of grad school. I skimmed over the essay questions and realized, with dawning horror, that I was only familiar with two of the five essay questions.
            What the hell? Did I study the wrong material?
            Panic began to quicken my heart. My hands started shaking. There was nothing left to do. There was no possible way I was going to pass this final that was worth 40% of my grade.
            I only knew two of the five questions.
            So I was faced with a dilemma: Put the final back in the envelope, return it to the proctor, and walk out of there, knowing I was going to have to retake the most boring class of all time—not to mention having to dish out the money to pay for it once more.
            Or, I could answer the two questions I knew, make up some bullshit for the other three, and then pray that by some miracle I still passed this class.
            As I struggled for air, I looked around at the other test takers, hoping one of them would look up and mouth the solution to me.
            No one did.
            I squeezed the pencil. I had three hours. I was going to fail, which meant I would fail the class, but I had to try. I couldn’t—just couldn’t—give up.
            I chewed my lip and went to work.
            I used every last minute of those three hours. I answered the two familiar questions with meticulous detail, giving five references where the question only asked for three, checking and rechecking and re-writing, and rechecking again.
            Then I added some mumbo jumbo to the other three questions. I think I might have been snarky in my answers—maybe my sense of humor would earn me a point or two.
            I turned in my final with no time to spare. In a haze of shock, I left the building with the realization that my perfect attendance, high average on book quizzes, and As on my papers were not enough.
            All that work, only to fail in the final (literal final) hour.
            And the image of the blaring red “37%” from high school popped into my head.
            Not ten minutes later, I ran into my professor for this class. “Dr. P. I just failed your final,” I said. My voice sounded as dead as I felt inside.
            He looked surprised. “I’m sure you did better than you thought you did.”
            “Nope. I failed. I only knew two of the questions.”
            “It’s okay, don’t count yourself out. We’ll figure something out.”
            He muttered something about the possibility of retaking it. I clung to this hope. I’d do anything to not have to retake the class.
            The next week, I waited in cringing anticipation for my overall grade to be posted.
            I waited and waited as the time to go to my family’s for Christmas drew closer.
            I wanted to study to prep for the retake but I just couldn’t. I was dried up. Depression began to set in and I realized, probably for the first time ever, that I was a perfectionist.
            Not in the sense that everything had to be perfect all the time. Rather, I was a perfectionist in that I set a standard for myself. If I failed to meet that standard, then I failed utterly and completely.
            I was a failure.
            The memory of this comes back to me today. I find myself depressed. My essential oils and yoga aren’t working, so I know it’s not hormonal or due to something I ate.
            The memory of the failed final works its way into my head. And I realize I’ve done it again.
            I’ve set lofty, over ambitious goals for myself. I have to. It’s just what I do. It pushes me and keeps me going. I almost always meet my goal—making me that much more ambitions the next time around.
            But this time around I have a deadline. This time around the deadline dangles like a guillotine. This time I can’t finish and I am not going to make my goal.
            I’ve failed again and the fingers of panic are inching closer to my throat, preparing to choke out the joy of any past accomplishments because I only have this one thing holding me up at this moment: my ability to defy what is humanly possible and the knowledge that I am better than even I thought I could be.
            I’m not going to make it.
            The knowledge that I’ve failed trickle over to everything else. Not only did I not make it this time, I also am not going to make it ever. This one failure supersedes any other times things have turned out the way I wanted them to. This one failure predicts my future forever.

            Two days before I left to go visit my hometown for Christmas, I got an email from my professor for the class with the failed final. He’d graded my final first, he said. He did the math for me in the email, but I didn’t understand it.
            It turned out I was counting the failed final as a zero grade. But it was actually factored in as a percentage (I think). The percentage of my grade for the final, factored in with the rest of my grade for the class, came out to a whopping B for my overall grade.
            Not a B minus or even a C. It was B. A big, fat, red-lettered B.
            I stared and stared at the email.
            Then I started to cry.
           
            In true Katherine fashion, I’m not going to conclude this story with a moral or a lesson or a recipe for success.
            I’m also not going to wait my typical 24-hours before posting it.
            I am going to read it through one time for typos.
            Then I’m closing my computer and going on a walk.
I’m not opening my computer again until I get back from vacation: ten beautiful days from now.
And I’m going to have a damn good time.  

-->

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Not Modesty Talk



I was asked once if I was ever going to do a modesty talk. As a leader of a youth ministry in a big white church, it wasn’t an unexpected query. I answered, “No, I don’t believe in those” and received the strangest look. “Wait, you don’t believe in modesty?”
“I said I don’t believe in modesty talks.”
“But what about standards? What about pool parties? Aren’t you going to give any rules or guidelines for those?”
I thought a moment, then answered. “No, I’m not going to do that.”
I didn’t take the time to answer why, at the time. But since then, I’ve had many discussions with students, parents, and women and men, that have allowed me to hone my view on modesty talks.


Modesty talks have the potential to hinder love-based relationships.
One summer, we were having a pool party and one of my high school students asked me about the rules for bathing suits. I knew this student was accustomed to wearing bikinis. As I talked with her, it became obvious that she wanted me to give her rules. She wanted me to tell her just how modest her suit had to be. She wanted me to tell her “only tankinis” or “wear shorts over your bathing suit.”
She was safer with rules.
To be honest, so was I.
After an hour-long conversation, this student decided on her own that she wanted to wear a tankini. Her reasoning: she wanted to love her brothers in the youth ministry and just didn’t think a church event was the appropriate place for a bikini.
I could have told her not to wear a bikini and the outward result would have been the same.
But the inward result would have been two people who walked away with the comfort of rules but without any idea of why those rules were in place. I would have dodged a potentially painful conversation and saved myself an hour of time. She would have walked away and robotically complied with my rule without ever thinking it through for herself.
I realize this conversation could have gone the other way. She could have responded, “Hallelujah! I get to wear a thong to a church event!” I knew this was a possibility, and had decided beforehand that what she chose wasn’t going to be an occasion for bringing down the hammer and shaming her into my standard for clothing. I would not have been disappointed if she’d made a different decision, as long as she’d wrestled with it and come to a conclusion motivated in the same way.
By the grace of God, her decision was motivated by love for others.
That’s the first reason for not giving modesty talks. Often these talks eliminate the opportunity for relationship and tend to err on the side of shaming and blaming and placing all the responsibility for sexual purity on the shoulders of very young women who are just beginning to process what their body is meant for.

Modesty talks place responsibility in the wrong place.
I once had a seminary professor suggest that talks about sex in youth groups be done in mixed company. He suggested that the very idea of separating boys from girls for purity and sex discussions sends a silent but very clear message: Your counterpart is an enemy. Boys are icky predators who only look at a woman in order to get laid. Girls are seductresses who are one strapless dress away from luring men to their downfall.
It also sends a message that sex is a subject that is off the table in male-female relationships in the church. Which often leads sex to be a subject that is off the table altogether. Considering how broken our society and our churches are in terms of sexuality, this culture that deems sex a subject for avoidance only perpetuates an already colossal problem.
            While I grew up in a well-meaning church culture that over-emphasized modesty, I also grew up thinking my body was something to be ashamed of. I once discovered the reason boys at a church camp wouldn’t look at me or even talk to me wasn’t just the side effect of the awkward shyness of most teenage boys. They wouldn’t speak to me because I had above average sized breasts that were impossible to hide with even the baggiest of clothing. Their culture-infused fear of lust caused them to ignore and avoid me for something completely beyond my control. This culturally-infused fear of lust led to hindered relationships and a world where healthy male-female friendships were frightfully rare.
            And the fear of my own body, and fear of men, grew exponentially.

Modesty talks create gender-based sexual problems.
            Separating genders for sex talks and emphasizing modesty for girls and lust for boys also leads to his and hers sexual issues. “Lust” becomes a male issue. Loose living and flirtation become female issues. Girls are ill equipped to process sexual thoughts and male-certified issues like pornography. Hopefully, girls will eventually find other women who are willing to be vulnerable about their sexual struggles and discover a community where they are safe to talk about their sexuality, but this is not always the case. Modesty talks can lead to girls thinking there is only one aspect to their sexuality: their body is for pleasing their husband and must be covered and hidden until that time. Any discussion beyond this in terms of their sexuality is sometimes met with scorn or shock. 
            For me personally, this discrepancy lead to me suppressing any desire for sex. As a result, I had suppressed my sexuality so much that I almost never had sexual desires. I killed that part of my humanity so thoroughly that it appeared non-existent. Gratefully, I had a number of close friends who were very vulnerable about their sexual struggles—both single women and women who struggled sexually in their marriages. As I began to experience healing in other areas of my life, sexual healing began to follow. We are holistic beings and we cannot expect our sexuality to not suffer the effects of the fall, simply because we try to silence its presence. We are holistic beings and cannot expect for sexual issues to only exist for men.

I’ve never done a modesty talk. If I ever do, I’d like to think it’d be something other than a critique of Christian fashion. I’d like to think it’d focus less on bikinis (which I wear in certain contexts) or leggings (which I also wear regularly), and more about pondering before wearing. I’d like to think it’d be less about covering up and hiding and more about moving towards others and engaging in loving friendships. I’d like to think it’d be about how the fall affects our sexuality and how Christ redeems even this thing we often view as icky.
Jesus makes icky things beautiful. Jesus was a sexual being and was unafraid of loose women. Jesus loves women and is the creator of women’s bodies. 

That thought jars me. Does it jar you?

Thursday, March 30, 2017

When Will They Get Out?: A Squeamish White Girl’s Experience With the Film


The film Get Out is a horror-thriller created by comedian Jordan Peele about a white family who continue a sinister family legacy of kidnapping black people, performing a lobotomy, and inserting the person of an aging or ailing white person. Chris is the black boyfriend of Rose, the daughter of aforementioned family. He accompanies Rose to her family’s secluded home, unaware that he’s their next victim.


My interest in horror movies has always stemmed from the human experience that can be explored in the context of terrifying events. The horrible event of a white family kidnapping black people for their stereotypical qualities such as sexual prowess or athletic ability is just an example of the boundaries that can be pushed and the aspects of humanity that can be revealed through the genre of horror. But I can still be a little squeamish while watching and typically need a friend who will hold my hand in the dark movie theater and encourage me to watch when I’d rather cover my eyes.


I was particularly interested in Get Out because of the racial themes. From the trailer, it looked like all the white people were the bad guys and all the black people were the victims and I really wanted to see how it played out. It seemed like a bold move. I was curious to see how the filmmakers handled it. Gratefully my out of town visitors were interested in seeing the movie with me so I didn’t have to experience it alone.


The minute the film began, the racial themes hit me in the face. When the white girlfriend tells her black boyfriend that she did not tell her family he was black, my ears tingled. When she said her reasoning was, “They’re not racist” I felt the training from my church’s  cultural intelligence ministry kick into gear. I thought, but what does she mean by ‘not racist’?


Later in the film, I was inwardly cheering when the white girlfriend defended—rather boldly—her boyfriend against the discrimination of the white police officer. But her bold defense in this one moment did not continue once they arrived at her family’s home. I watched helplessly as her family and extended family poked and prodded the boyfriend and made horribly uncomfortable comments about his physical agility or sexual aptitude, all in an attempt to display how “not racist” they were. I was watching the white girlfriend the entire time, wondering when she was going to speak up or defend him. When was she going to say, “Okay, this is embarrassing and inappropriate. We are going home”? When were they going to Get Out?


There is a short moment of fresh air when the boyfriend has a conversation with a blind uncle. This uncle takes an interest in the boyfriend as a person and admires his skill as an artist, even though he can no longer see beautiful things with his own eyes.


Near the end, my heart did more than thud with the intensity induced by scary scenes. It sank in despair when both the girlfriend and the blind uncle turned out to have a hand in the system of kidnapping black people and using them for whatever abilities they needed. The girlfriend was an active participant, willingly seducing the boyfriend for her family’s financial and scientific benefit. The blind uncle was a more passive participant, benefiting from and promoting the system while not actually doing any of the dirty work.


After the final rush of nail-biting scenes and wondering if the boyfriend was going to get out, the story ends with a scene of comic relief and I heaved a sigh along with the rest of the audience. There was collective laughter as we moved as a crowd towards the elevators—we’d somehow bonded by experiencing mutual terror, laughter, and triumph. Once in the light of the hallways, I noticed that the majority of my fellow moviegoers were African American. I was instantly curious how they experienced the film. I had noticed during some of the scenes, particularly the ones where the white family members were being invasive with their prodding and questioning of the black boyfriend, that while I sank in my chair and muttered, “this is so uncomfortable” to my friend, a large part of the audience seemed to be laughing and murmuring in understanding.

But most prominent was the feeling at the conclusion that we’d all had a human experience together. We were kidnapped together, rooted for the same characters, hoped for the demise of the same villains, and cheered at the conclusion.  I’ve always enjoyed horror for the aspects of humanity it is able to explore. But I’d never seen it as a communal experience--a way of bringing people together. That, in itself, is a human experience.


Monday, February 27, 2017

Bullies


There was this story I loved as a kid. It was about a rabbit who got trapped in tar by a fox and weasel. But the rabbit is crafty. He figures out a way to escape and then gets his revenge by frightening the fox and weasel when he comes back as a tar monster.
I loved this story. I wanted it read to me over and over. I heard the story so many times that I memorized it and then tricked my cousin into thinking I could read (I had learned valuable lessons in craftiness from Brer Rabbit).
Kids like stories where animals are the main characters. They like stories where the main characters fight bullies with their wit and skill. Kids face bullies in real life—even if the bully isn’t an actual bully (though sometimes it is). Their bully might be eating cereal without milk because their sibling used the last of it. Their bully might be the inability to draw fives correctly. Perhaps they get left out of a game because they are too small or because they can’t throw the ball in a straight line.
Reading stories about bullies when the main character is an animal allows them to have safe distance from the story while also relating to its events. As a child, I felt weak and helpless. I connected with an outwardly weak character who shows unexpected inner strength. I connected so much that I memorized the story—I was only three-years-old.
Childhood stories of outmaneuvering bad guys are formational tools for real life. Bad guys are less complicated when you’re a child and sometimes you have a grown up there to help you figure out how to find your inner strength to take on the giant. Learning how to slay dragons in imaginary tales only helps you slay the bigger, more crafty dragons of real life.
As a grownup, bullies become more complicated (but no less real). Perhaps it’s the struggle to pay the bills. Maybe it’s a difficult boss or coworker. It might be a leaking faucet or a broken hot water heater. Either way, adult bullies exist and they aren’t always in the form of a super-human seventh grader who steals candy from kindergarteners on the playground. The older we get, the more skilled we become at taking down the monster, the more we discover that the monsters and villains also become more skilled. They grow in their abilities to frighten us as we grow in our ability to take them out.
So we continue to grow. We continue to fight battles. We remember those childhood stories of trickster foxes and crafty rabbits. Back then, we imagined we were the hero.
Then we grow up and realize it’s true.


“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”― G.K. Chesterton
“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
― Madeleine L'Engle







Monday, February 20, 2017

Small

It was a dark and dreary December night. It was that weekend mid December when Christmas parties hadn’t quite got going yet, but Christmas concerts and productions were in full swing. A few fiestas were already on the schedule.
I was headed to the church from one party. I’d turned down an invite to a Christmas concert with friends because it was the last small group of the semester with my ninth grade girls. A couple hours before, I’d started getting text messages from my students, bailing for one reason or another: school, homework, school. More than likely they didn’t want to go out. It was cold. It was rainy. I got it.
But it was still a little frustrating to have them cancel with only a few hours to spare. I could have made plans. I could have gone to that concert. I could be home in my bed watching Netflix.
The sixth girl canceled on my way to the church. That only left one girl whom I hadn’t heard from. But Aubrey was sure to show up. She always showed up. She was always early and she was always the last to leave. She didn’t attend the church but came to youth group and small group, tagging along with her best friend.
Aubrey was incredibly quiet and barely said two sentences during any given small group. Usually her words consisted of asking prayer for her dog, Mitchens, who always seemed to have one ailment or another.
            I pulled over on the side of the road and texted Aubrey the state of things. I asked her if she wanted to cancel, or, if she wanted, I could swing by and pick her up for coffee. Please cancel. Please cancel, I muttered to myself as I waited for her to reply. I might still have time to make it to that concert.
            The reply came back instantly. “I want to get coffee,” she said.
            “Be there in 10 minutes,” I replied. Okay, we’re doing this, I thought.
            I arrived at Aubrey’s. I’d never been to her house. I went inside and waited for her to find her coat. I chatted with her parents, who I usually waved to through the car window as they were driving away after fetching Aubrey from youth events. I pet Mitchens, the dog I’d heard so much about. He seemed in good health on this December evening.
            Aubrey and I grabbed coffee. Actually, we both got hot chocolate because Aubrey didn’t like coffee and I didn’t want the caffeine that late in the evening. I seriously had no idea what we were going to talk about when I first picked her up, but Aubrey seemed to find her voice box the moment we were in the car. She talked about books and weird science fiction but also informed me she had dyslexia. I thought this was strange: I have two siblings with dyslexia and neither one of them like to read very much.
            Then she showed me how to download this app from the library where you could reserve audio books. Aha. That’s how she reads so much.
            We finished up and I took her home. I stopped in to say Merry Christmas to Mitchens, then drove home through the rain. I marveled how one 45-minute hot chocolate one-on-one had revealed a layer to Aubrey’s life that small group had never opened. She’d come alive as we nerdily swapped favorite book stories and found a common love in Harry Potter.
            Over a year later, this moment came back to me. I’m living in a different city, working with a different group of teens and preteens. Our tiny middle school ministry is a vibrant and lively oasis in a big city full of young, ambitious professionals. Sometimes I wonder, is it worth it? There are only a few kids. Maybe, that time would be better spent somewhere else...
            Then I think of Aubrey. It was a small moment with just 2 people. But it was pivotal. I felt like I’d discovered Aubrey. It had taken a while, but we’d finally met. I had the privilege of finding beauty beneath all the silence.
            The next time our small group met, Aubrey was as quiet as ever. Her sweet spot was never more than 2 or 3 people. That was okay. But I knew if I ever used a Harry Potter illustration, I could count on Aubrey to back me up. I knew I could look at her across the room and she’d know exactly what I was talking about.

Sometimes the small moments are actually pretty epic.

(Names used are not the real names)