This weekend I attended the graduation ceremony for Southeast Whitfield High School to celebrate the students that I knew when they were middle schoolers. Seeing these young men and women, so grown up and excited, walk, strut, and stroll across the football field to accept their diplomas filled me with joy.
To be honest, I was surprised to see that a few of them made it to graduation. I knew that in their middle school years they had struggled academically, socially and/or economically. Dropping out, not passing, or ending up in trouble were all paths that these students could have taken. Receiving that diploma was a huge accomplishment, especially during this past pandemic year, which challenged even the best students.
I was thinking about this as I tended to my baby trees yesterday. For several years, Keith and I have gone each February to the Arbor Day Seedling Giveaway in Calhoun. We bring home armfuls of little saplings in an attempt to replace the many old established trees we have lost to storms, disease, lightning and old age. Our success rate with the free trees has not been the best, but several bald cypress, red tips and oaks now grace our yard, having grown tall and strong from their humble beginnings.
This year I was slow getting the seedlings in the ground, but I finally planted several dogwoods, cherry barks, and red oaks. They look like sticks stuck in the earth and as I watered and pulled up weeds around them, I saw few signs of life. I wasn’t sure any of them would survive.
Then the other morning as I was pulling away some grass at the base of one of the dogwoods, I noticed something green. I dug carefully and saw that it was not a weed, but a tender shoot coming up from the base of the tiny tree. In a few days, cute baby leaves were coming out on its fragile limbs. A tree is growing. The other seedlings are showing similar signs of life. The saplings are not strong yet and to keep them growing, I will need to keep caring for them over the summer.
Like my baby trees, children need patience, attention and someone to believe in them. I might have given up on some of those young people wearing caps and gowns on Saturday night, but fortunately someone did not. Someone kept their noses to the grindstone, fed and watered them, both physically and figuratively, and told them they could do it.
Behind every graduate were family members, school workers, ministers, friends and coaches who had encouraged and supported them. As the families clapped and cheered for their sons and daughters, I felt their pride and their hope for their child’s future.
Jesus said, “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.” Thank you to all who helped grow these children into strong young trees, able to withstand the storms of life.
About this time last year, I was out shopping and enjoying one last day of freedom before pre-planning started for the school year. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t shake the “back to school” anxiety that had kicked in and my stomach was already twisting into knots. I knew that no matter what I did to try to get ahead of the tide, the first weeks of school would be overwhelming and exhausting.
Most of my worry was self-imposed. Even after twenty years as a media specialist, I was always afraid that I wouldn’t measure up. I wanted to do my best to help the teachers at my school, who would be working feverishly to get their classrooms set up and needed their technology working. I wanted to make sure the new staff members felt welcomed and had their questions answered. I wanted the media center to be cleaned up and inviting when the students came in. And there were always endless meetings and new policies to take in and books to be ordered and computers to be cataloged. On top of all this, I was coaching Cross Country, which started up immediately. Once the first weeks were behind me, I knew I would settle into a comfortable rhythm, but the dread of going back hung over me like a cloud. Could I do it one more year?
Then God spoke to me as I pushed open the glass door to TJ Maxx. Sitting atop a display was a small square sign that said, “You Got This.” I needed to hear those words of encouragement!
I bought it for $5 and put it by the check out computer in my media center. When I did my beginning of the year spiel with the students, I encouraged them to have confidence that they would make it in middle school. I hoped that seeing the sign might give them a little boost each day, but it was really there for me. I needed to hear God’s voice telling me “You got this” on a regular basis.
“You Got This” could be a modern translation of Philippines 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” That verse is telling us that we can get through whatever comes before us, only just not by ourselves. On my own I can push through and get some things accomplished but to do my best in life, I need to be in sync with the Holy Spirit inside me. And when those times come when I can’t see how I’m going to make it, this verse gives me the assurance that I don’t have to do it all by myself.
I’m learning to take every little detail of my day and give it over to God. Once I’ve prayed about what’s worrying me and asked Him for what I need — patience, clarity, focus, stamina, forgiveness, understanding — then I feel freed up to do the work necessary. And here is the anxiety cleansing part — I hear God saying, “You Got This” and I can go forth in confidence.
Sarah Ban Breathnach, in her devotional book Simple Abundance, writes about the delicate balance between our expectations in life and reality. “If your reality lives up to your expectations, you’re happy. If it doesn’t, you’re depressed.” Her advice is to do your best, then let go of the outcomes. “You dream. Show up for work. Then let Spirit deliver your dream to the world.”
This year I’m writing magazine articles and planning a beach trip instead of stressing over getting everything ready for the first day of school. But life is never without it’s bumps and I still need the encouragement of the “You Got This” sign, which now sits in my junky computer room at home. As I dream new dreams and transition to my next phase of life, I need that reminder.
My prayer is that no matter what you are facing today,
you will know with assurance that “You’ve Got This” with the strength of
This past week I retired from twenty years working as a school media specialist. I had accumulated lots of stuff in my “second home” over the years and for the last months I have been bringing home my books, pictures, and extra sweaters. I gave away many of the cute knick-knacks that teachers are lovingly given and threw tons of papers out.
I left a few things for last – the framed American Library Association poster by Stephen Kellogg that hung behind my circulation desk, my electric tea kettle and my gorilla, Booker T.
Yes, I’ve had an almost life size stuffed gorilla in my media center for the past fifteen years. I saved him for last because I wanted him there for my retirement party, since it was his retirement also. He is a pretty old gorilla.
Booker’s story starts in 1973 in Mooresville, NC. My older sister Anne had a boyfriend known as Big M, but whose real name was Jerry Miller. They dated during most of her high school years and the big black gorilla was a gift from him. The gorilla sat on her bed as she breezed in to change for her date or talk to her friends on the phone (the kind that was plugged into the wall). I’m sure there was some private joke between her and Big M about the gorilla, but I never knew it. Maybe he was supposed to represent Big M, and he did bear some resemblance.
Great big stuffed animals were a thing back then. I had an almost life size Saint Bernard that we got with the green stamps Mama got from the A&P. I remember sitting at the kitchen table licking those stamps and putting them into the books. It must have taken lots of stamps to get my Saint Bernard.
I don’t know if Anne’s gorilla was bought with green stamps, but he sat on her bed even after she went off to college at UNC-Charlotte. Like many high school romances, Anne and Big M were not destined to be. Their relationship ended, but she kept his gorilla close.
In January of Anne’s freshman year in college, my parents found out that her backaches were not caused by stress or poor posture when she sat on her bed to study, but from the return of the cancer that she had as a little girl. About the time we moved to Greensboro in 1975, Anne started chemotherapy. The gorilla was on her bed or on the floor, keeping vigil throughout those dark days of nausea, pain and drug induced sleep.
Anne lost her fight with the cancer a year later, a few months after her twentieth birthday. Our whole family and her many friends were stunned. How could this have happened? We slogged through the best we could.
Her bedroom at our house in Greensboro remained the same for years, her sewing machine in the corner, her clothes in the closet, and the gorilla sitting on her bed. But somehow life moves on after indescribable grief. I left for college and seminary, then to Birmingham, met and married Keith and we moved to Calhoun. Keith and I bought our old house and Adam came along. My parents moved Anne’s things out of her room and it was now Adam’s place to sleep when we came to visit. The sewing machine and gorilla were gone.
Right before Christmas 2002, Daddy died from the ravages of Parkinson’s disease that had taken away the dignified man I had always known. He had been Mama’s whole life and she was lost, her purpose for life gone. She knew she did not want to stay in the big house all alone and made plans to move to an apartment at Friends’ Home West in Greensboro.
On a rainy morning before Thanksgiving in 2003, Adam and I helped Mama clean out the attic as she began to pare down over fifty years of her life. I remember so well sitting in Daddy’s small office at the bottom of the attic stairs, surrounded by the smell of his cigarettes and the memorabilia of his life at Clemson, his time in the army during WWII and his career with Burlington Industries. I brought down the Barbies and Johnny West horses from my childhood and we had fun going through all the memories.
Then I saw something bound up in plastic dry cleaning wrap. It was Anne’s gorilla. I knew that Daddy couldn’t let him go. Considering that he had spent several summers in the hot attic, he was in surprisingly good shape. I took off the plastic, sprayed him with Lysol and carried him to Georgia, sitting in the front seat of my car.
At the time I was the media specialist at Red Bud Elementary School. I figured the little kids would love him. I took him to school and sat him on a little chair next to me in my reading area. We had a contest to name him and one of the boys came up with the name Booker the Reader, or Booker T. for short. There was a popular wrestler by that name and with his short stubby arms and massive shoulders, he did have a wrestler look to him. The name was perfect.
At the beginning of the year I would introduce Booker T. to the children and tell them that he guarded the books each night. The kindergartners’ eyes would light up as they pondered this possibility. Could it be true that this stuffed gorilla came alive at night?
For the next six years, Booker was a part of my library, along with a life size Big Bird donated by a teacher. He allowed the children to give him hugs and pat him on the head. At Christmas he wore a Santa hat and a red and white striped Cat in the Hat one for Read Across America week. He must have done a good job protecting the books, because they never got stolen at night.
In 2010 I decided it was time for a change and moved to Valley Point Middle School to be the media specialist. I was excited, but unsure about the middle schoolers, who seemed like a strange and unknown breed made up of hormones and attitude. I had not learned yet that they were just little kids trying to adjust to bodies that were growing and changing at alarming rates.
What should I do with Booker T? How would a stuffed, almost life size gorilla go over in middle school?
I told our counselor Anthony about Booker’s history and asked him what he thought about bringing him to school. “I think if you tell them the story, they will understand,” said Anthony. And that’s what I did.
Booker T came to the media center and sat on a little chair by the window. As I introduced myself to the students that first week, I finished by telling them why I had a gorilla in the media center — that he had belonged to my sister who died of cancer and that I thought my parents had given him away until I found him wrapped in plastic in the attic.
The students at my school were from mostly low-income families and many had known more heartache in their young lives than is fair. When I shared that I too had experienced grief at about their age, they quit being goofy for a few minutes and listened. I think they suddenly saw me as a real person, not just this white headed lady standing up there telling them not to tear up the books. Something shifted, just for a second. Some would come up to me later and tell me about a baby brother or sister who had died or a parent or grandparent. Booker added a touch of whimsy that broke down walls and opened up a connection that may have taken longer to forge without him.
For the last nine years Booker was with me at Valley Point, sitting quietly on his little chair. The middle schoolers didn’t pay him much attention, other than the occasional rowdy boys that knocked him over or picked him up off of his chair and wanted to try wrestling him. I had to patiently remind them that Booker was old and needed to be treated gently, and they soon lost interest. I never knew how much they even noticed him.
In my last week, a group of sixth grade girls made a poster for me to say good-bye. They included pictures of things that they thought represented me — cross country runners, a writing pad, some vegetables (because they knew I like to garden), a heart over a silhouette of a woman and children, books of course, and a picture of a gorilla. Maybe one day they will look back and remember that crazy librarian who had a gorilla in the media center.
Now instead of guarding the books, he can sit out his days at home, keeping me company and giving me the quiet encouragement he has for these many years.
“I don’t know what to say, except it’s the last week of school and we’re all in misery.”
I’ve paraphrased one of my favorite quotes from Christmas Vacation to describe the last week of May, when the flowers are blooming, the birds are singing, and those of us who work in a school are exhausted and in foul moods.
Everyone hates the last week of school. Kids and teachers are tired of each other, paperwork looms over the staff and the endless cleaning out has to be done. I especially despise this time of year because I become the stereotypical librarian shaking kids down for overdue books that they promise me they will bring the next day. Like Ellen Griswold sneaking a cigarette as she furiously chops vegetables, we’re all making the best of it.
When I’m tired and stressed during these last grueling days, it’s easy to wonder if I’ve accomplished much during the year. Even though I get some nice notes and cards from students, I have to accept the fact that I may never know if a book I recommended touched a child or if a kind work I gave them got them through the day. I go on faith for that.
Not having tangible results is difficult in life. We bust our butts trying to make a difference at our jobs or with our families and often things never seem to change. But I’m learning that God is working even if we don’t see Him.
I’ve had a reminder of this on my drive to Valley Point each morning. In October I posted about the road work I’ve been going through to cross over Interstate 75. For ten months now I’ve wound around the same orange barrels, concrete barriers and stop signs. If I only look at the road in front of me, it appears that no work has been done, that I’m going through this maze for nothing. But if I look over to my left, I see the men and women in their yellow vests and hard hats toiling in all kinds of weather. I see huge trucks, cranes and piles of rock and rebar. I see a smooth road of concrete. The new bridge is taking shape.
In the same way, I’m unaware of God working next to me while I trudge through the difficult times. But every now and then, like this Saturday at our Northwest Georgia Writers’ Conference and at my friend’s son’s wedding, I get a glimpse of all He has been doing and I’m amazed.
Chance encounters, people who have gone out of their way to help me, friends that I’ve been blessed with – these are all gifts from God that have propelled me forward. When I have railed against the obstacles in front of me – just like the detour signs on my morning drive – I didn’t see God patiently piecing it all together, taking care of me when I didn’t know it, paving the way for me. More and more I’m trusting in that.
God’s grace will get us through these last crazy days of school. I’m slapping on a smile and doing my best to not lose my cool, to get my reports done and the books put away. After a few weeks of rest and working in my flower garden, hopefully I’ll be ready to see the students again and gear up for the new year. And I may even be crossing over that new bridge come August!
A magnet hangs on my refrigerator amid the jumble of graduation pictures, dentist appointment reminders and other magnets from places I’ve visited. I bought this when my son and I visited the Sistine Chapel a few years ago. It shows the part of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling masterpiece, the Creation of Adam, when God’s hand is reaching out to meet Adam’s finger. A small gap rests between the two fingers as the most important moment in human history is about to happen – God making contact with the first person.
I’ve been reading a book called by Tom Berlin, and he uses this iconic image as the starting place to explain how God meets us in the mess of life we have created. Berlin theorizes that we live in that gap between those two fingers meeting – so close, but not quite making contact with the Supreme Being. He says:
“What is represented in that gap? It is the almost of life – what we would have, and could be, if only we would reach toward God as energetically as God reaches toward us. That gap is the distance between the life we have and the life we want. It is the empty space in the relationship with God that we feel even as we long for the communion with the one who created us.” (P. 16)
That line “That gap is the distance between the life we have and the life we want” – has been rolling around my brain this week. As I’ve looked at that magnet each day I’ve thought about how far I feel from God at times. Yet I know that God is close, right there, but I can’t quite reach Him. What can I do to bridge that gap?
If we pan out from the small section of the two hands meeting and take in the scene with Adam and God, we see that God is straining with all His might to reach Adam. He has the help of the angels who are supporting Him In the air and He is intent on making contact. Adam on the other hand, seems unconcerned and weak, leaning away from his Maker and holding out a limp hand. One art commentator noticed that all Adam has to do to touch God’s Holy finger is simply lift up his own finger just a little – but the action seems almost too much for him.
How often are we like Adam in the painting – too lazy or weak to make the contact with God, who is straining toward us?
On one hand, being a Christian is the easiest thing in the world – simply accept the free gift God gives us. But there is also some effort involved. Paul writes about this to the Philippians, in a passage that fascinates me:
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (2:12-13)
Paul tells us to work out our own salvation. Does this mean that we have to work for our salvation? No, salvation is God’s gift to us – For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 3:8-9). And it doesn’t mean that God loves us because of how good we are – He loves us unconditionally. But in order to reap all that He wants to give us – “to fulfill His good purpose” – we have to do our part.
If someone gave me a gift of an expensive treadmill and I set it up in my bedroom and then never ran on it, but used it as a place to hang my clothes or to store the paper towels from Costco – would I be getting the benefit of the gift? I would still have it, no one has stolen it, but would it be doing me any good?
That’s how I am with my gift from God. Sometimes I feel like Adam in Michelangelo’s painting – that I’m not extending my finger to meet God’s. I don’t want to make the effort. We have so many things to drag our attention away from spending time with God – the TV, the internet, Face book, not to mention our jobs, families, friends and church. These are not bad things, but we just have so many distractions that take up our energy. Meanwhile, God is straining toward us with so many good things to give us, and we are watching cat videos!
So I’m back to the balance that I wrote about previously – sometimes I am studying hard and working to understand what God is saying, and other times I’m resting and letting His love and peace wash over me. It is a constant back and forth, like the waves coming into the shore and leaving again. When the rhythm gets out of whack, then I run into problems and I have to find it again.
My magnet has more meaning for me now, and I look at it each day and look forward to the times when God’s hand makes contact and touches me!