Fount of Every Blessing

One of the benefits of growing up in the Methodist Church is that I was exposed to most, if not all, of the great hymns and songs of Christendom. Week after week I opened the hymnal in my pew to hymns like, “O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,” and “To God Be the Glory.” It was these hymns and songs that first taught me about who God is; about Jesus’s great love for me; about what a powerful friend I have in the Holy Spirit. Don’t get me wrong, there are many great modern worship songs, but the words to these songs are the foundation of my faith. More and more, they are also its anchor.

One of those great hymns I learned at a very early age was, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” I can’t tell you how many times I sang it in church as a child, then as a teen ager, and finally into adulthood. The number is probably in the hundreds. But, it wasn’t until I was almost 30 years old that the words of that hymn were burned into my mind and on my heart.

It was a terrible time in my life. I was in my first, and what would be my only, semester of school at East Texas Baptist University. Despite great hope and great help from many friends and family, I found myself on the precipice of failure once again. I knew that when school was out in December I wouldn’t be coming back. I would, once again, forfeit a chance at success because of the fear with which I’d become so familiar, and from which I could not escape.

I was in the University Chorus. As a matter of fact, I was Baritone Section Leader. We were preparing for our fall concert and one of the pieces we were going to perform was a truly magnificent setting of that hymn with which I was so familiar–or so I thought. It was during a Tuesday afternoon rehearsal that the sealing of my heart took place.

Everything seemed normal. I already knew the words and the music, so all I had to pay attention to was the nuances that Mr. Moore, the choir director, added. Then, midway through the second verse, it was as if I was hearing and singing the words for the first time.

Jesus sought me when a stranger
Wandering from the fold of God.
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood.

O, to grace how great a debtor,
Daily I’m constrained to be.
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it.
Prone to leave the God I love.
Here’s my heart, O, take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

I was overcome. My voice broke and tears welled up in my eyes. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end and my knees felt like they were giving way. It was in that moment that I saw myself in the light of God’s grace and mercy. It was in that moment that I realized His love for me was far deeper than the scars left behind by each one of my disappointments and failures.

I couldn’t sing the rest of the song. I just stood there, crying. Each time Mr. Moore stopped to fix a problem I would compose myself, but each time we started again, I was overcome again. Even days later in the concert I could only get through the first verse before the feelings came over me again. Oddly, no one seemed to notice that each time we sang the song I stopped midway through; not the students around me, and not Mr. Moore.

That was 14 years ago and even now I cannot sing that hymn all the way through without breaking. It is, in a very real, non-poetic sense, the song of my heart. It is the song that reminds me just how loving God is. It is the song that reminds me just how far Jesus has gone to seek me out.

There was a time, not too long ago, when I was turned away by people who call themselves Christians. It was during one of the most desperate hours of my life when I needed to know the love of Jesus most. Instead, I was judged, convicted, and sentenced to separation from the church. I was angry and hurt. I felt lost and alone. But, once again, this song was there.

The fact of the matter is that in each and every instance of heartache and pain in my life, the words to this great hymn always find their way back into my head. Each time I feel that familiar urge to turn away, I am reminded just how far Jesus has come for me. I’m reminded that my heart is sealed by God’s grace.

I guess it would be easier to turn away, and I almost did. I guess it would be easier to simply stop believing, and there was a time not too long ago when I considered it. I guess it would be easier to forget everything I know to be true. There were many times I tried. Try as I might, I cannot turn away; I cannot stop believing; I cannot simply forget, because each time I do, there is this song.

So many people are hurting just now. So many people are in pain, and are afraid, and are lonely, and are angry. Our nation is, once again, riven with strife and enmity. We find ourselves turned against one another by people who profit from our fear and anger. It would be so easy to turn away and deny God. Even still, “Jesus sought [us] when a stranger…”

I still can’t get through it. Even now, writing this, my heart is racing and my eyes are full of tears. I know that I am bound to God, not by chains or shackles, but by His goodness. My heart is sealed, not by His anger, but by His love. I know that Jesus is still seeking me, not to punish me, but to rescue me.

How I wish I could really put into words what this hymn means to me, but none of them seem to do it justice. So, I’ll leave you with the hymn itself. This is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performing the same setting of “Come, Thou Found of Every Blessing” that so moved me all those years ago. I hope you find it as meaningful as I do.

Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing

The United Methodist Hymnal Number 400
Text: Robert Robinson, 1735-1790
Music: Wyeth’s Repository of Sacred Music, Part Second
Tune: NETTLETON, Meter: 87.87 D

1. Come, thou Fount of every blessing,
tune my heart to sing thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing,
call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
mount of thy redeeming love.

2. Here I raise mine Ebenezer;
hither by thy help I’m come;
and I hope, by thy good pleasure,
safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
wandering from the fold of God;
he, to rescue me from danger,
interposed his precious blood.

3. O to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
seal it for thy courts above.

1st Six Weeks Progress Report

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Well, the first six weeks is over. Grades calculated, report cards distributed, and this weekend offers me the opportunity to grade my own efforts. After careful consideration, I have posted my grades below.

Intentions                                 A
Practice                                     C-
Classroom Management      D
Time Management                 F
Organization                           D+
Personal Attitude                    D
Confidence                                F

Average Grade                     Dgrade-D

It’s not like any job I’ve ever had and it’s certainly not what I expected. I have no confidence in my ability to teach school. Actually, right now I have no confidence in my ability to do anything. What exactly am I good at? The only job I’ve ever really been successful in was my job at The Scroll Bookstore. I guess that’s it. I’m good at retail.

My anxiety attacks are back…BIG TIME! I’ve had an attack almost everyday since school started in late August. For the last four days I’ve been in a constant state of panic. I don’t sleep at night. My head hurts constantly. I break out in cold sweats. I feel dizzy, nauseated, and short of breath. Everything I eat makes me sick. I can’t concentrate. I can’t remember things. I’m edgy and irritable. I’ve become completely intolerant of anyone who does anything that I consider inappropriate or unintelligent. I haven’t been this bad since the summer of 2009. The only difference between now and then is that, at least right now, I’m still able to get out and do things. For now…

Aside from my poor performance as a teacher, my performance as a student hasn’t been much better. I’m supposed to have this amazing ability to write, remember? Well, apparently my writing doesn’t translate very well to graduate level work. No…there I’m just average. I have no business being there, but as with so many other failed ventures in my life, I have too much time and money invested to stop. So, I’ll muddle through and end up with a funny robe and a pretty hood and another piece of paper to hang on the wall. And, everybody will congratulate me and tell me how proud they are of me and how much I deserve it. Meanwhile I’ll feel like the fourth grader who had trouble subtracting five digit numbers.

I don’t know what’s happening, nor do I know what’s going to happen. I don’t know what to do or where to go or who to talk to about it. People keep saying, “it will get better.” But, it’s not getting better. It’s getting worse. Nothing I do makes it any better.

What I Wish People Understood

I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I never dreamed it would be this hard. I’m not sure it’s supposed to be. In fact, I’m not sure of anything anymore. People keep saying, “It will get better.” But, it isn’t and that makes me think I’m doing something very wrong. I’m not the teacher I thought I’d be. Not even close. I’m becoming the teacher I swore I wouldn’t be. No, it’s not getting better at all and for someone like me, that spells disaster.

There are things I wish I could make people who don’t suffer with chronic anxiety and depression about those of us who do. I wish there was something I could say or do to make them realize that we react differently to most things than those fortunate enough not to suffer. People like me, who fight this awful monster, feel things differently. We see and hear things differently. We understand and process things differently than virtually anyone else. A situation which a non-sufferer might be nothing more than an inconvenience or an annoyance might literally be a life-altering turn of events. Minor setbacks for most are major pitfalls for us. sad apple

So, if all of that is true, then what do you need to know? What do you need to do or say? How can you help? The short answer is, you can’t and please stop trying. When people like me hear people like you say things like, “It will get better,” that only makes us feel worse. You see, when things are supposed to get better and don’t (and they often don’t), it makes us feel like we’re doing something wrong. Remember what I wrote before? I know you mean well and that you’re trying to help, but please understand that you’re not.

The other thing you need to know and understand is that, to me, my reaction is perfectly logical and normal. I understand that in your mind I should be able to simply brush off difficulties and let things pass. In your mind, when people say and do things that hurt me, I should be able to simply let those things slide “like water off a duck’s back.” But, it doesn’t work that way for me. I wasn’t born with that switch in my head that allows me to turn feelings, thoughts, and emotions on and off like a lamp. My brain doesn’t work that way. I take everything — EVERYTHING — personally because, to me, everything IS personal. It’s the way I think. It’s the way my heart works. Should I change that? Maybe, but as yet, I haven’t figured out how.

It’s not getting better. It’s just not and I don’t see it getting better anytime soon. Please stop telling me it’s going to get better. I know you mean well, but you’re not helping. Please stop telling me to “be positive” or “look on the bright side” or “be grateful that [I] have a job.” Of course I’m grateful to have a job. I never said I wasn’t. But, I’m stressed beyond belief. I’m working myself sick and I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. All you’re doing when you say those things to me is making me feel like I’m doing something wrong.

We’re different. We respond to things differently. Please accept that and save your judgment.

Jason’s Inferno

When I was in elementary school we had what was called Fire Safety Week every year. Firefighters from the local department would come to the school and talk to us about how to prevent fires and how to react to them should they occur. Apparently, I need a refresher course.

I arrived home this evening around 6:00 and immediately began preparing supper. I was making taco salad. Everything was ready — the meat, the veggies, sour cream, salsa — everything but the chips. So, I put some tortilla chips on a small cookie sheet and popped them in the oven under the broiler. When I closed the door I turned around, filled an empty ice tray and put it back in the freezer. I turned back around (less than one minute later) and saw flames leaping from the burners on the stove top. I knew that none of them were on. That’s when I saw the soft amber glow in the window of my oven door.

The chips, the chips, the chips were on fire!!

I quickly reached and turned the broiler off and removed the pan of meat from the top of the stove. I decided that since I didn’t have a fire extinguisher the best thing to do would be to get the cookie sheet out of the oven and dump it in the sink to run water over it. (If the front door had been closer I would’ve taken it outside.) I forgot about the movie Backdraft. When I opened the oven door, the sudden rush of air sucked the flames back into the oven and out the door. I closed the door quickly. As long as the door was closed the inferno was relatively controlled. I tried again but the same thing happened. It was then I realized I might be in trouble. There was no way I was going to be able to put the blaze out, my apartment was filling with smoke, and I’m pretty sure smoke inhalation was setting in.

Fire Safety Week Lesson Number 1: When a fire occurs, call 9-1-1.

I grabbed my wallet, my keys, and my phone and ran out the front door. I called 9-1-1 and the dispatcher acted quickly to dispatch the fire department. In about three minutes I could hear sirens headed my way. I thought that perhaps I should’ve told the dispatcher that it was a small fire confined to my oven. I’m not much for the thought of wasting resources, but no matter now. The cavalry was pulling up — lights and sirens, full bunker gear, industrial sized fire extinguisher in tow. The five firefighters crowded into my small kitchen and prepared to open then oven door. I was sure there would be a repeat of my experience only moments before. Not so much.

When the lead firefighter opened the door, dark black smoke poured out, but I didn’t see any flames. The firefighter reached in with his gloved hand and removed the cookie sheet. There, leaping from the pile of charred corn, was one, tiny flame.burned chips It might have been the size of the flame on a birthday candle. I expected him to blow it out, but he didn’t. He (and the other four) took the cookie sheet outside, sat it on the sidewalk, and instead of using a foot, a glove, or the fire extinguisher, they got my neighbor’s water hose. They didn’t even turn the water on. They just held the hose upside down over the chips and let the water that was in it dribble out. The lead radioed in…

Fire out. All clear.

There wasn’t even enough smoke for them to stay and help clear it. One of them told me the best way to get it done. Now, you might think that my embarrassment was complete and couldn’t get any worse. You would be incorrect in your thinking. As I was standing there talking about how to get the smoke out of the apartment, the other firefighters had gone back to the engine and removed their gear. A few of them walked back to the apartment and I realized then that one of them was a former student. My heart sank. My stomach turned and I could feel my face turning red. To his credit he stayed professional. He wasn’t laughing at me — I would’ve been. I looked at him and sheepishly waved. He smiled and waved back. He didn’t let on that he knew me and, at least in front of me, he didn’t make fun of my plight. He was a good firefighter.

As funny as this story is, and it is funny, I am thankful because it could’ve been a lot worse. There is no damage to my apartment or even to my oven. No one was hurt, and except for a rather disgusting smell, there’s little evidence that anything happened. I’m going to get a small fire extinguisher. If I’d had it tonight this event would’ve been over before it started. I’m also going to refresh my memory on the best way to handle kitchen fires, and I’m going to put new batteries in all of my smoke detectors.

Thanks to the Canton, Texas Fire Department for getting here quickly and not making me feel anymore like a fool than I made myself feel.

I’m not a dead poet

Dead Poets Society is one of my all-time favorite movies. I liked it the first time I saw it and still like it just as much now after seeing it probably upwards of 50 times. It combines two of my greatest loves — literature and writing — with classic themes like self-realization, friendship, love, loss, grief, and loyalty; and, it doesn’t hurt that Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau are quoted throughout. Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) is the teacher that every student wishes he had and every teacher wishes she could be (or, not). I started watching it again the other day. I wanted to find some inspiration or, at the very least, some ideas. Then I stopped it just after the carpe diem monologue. I’m not going to finish it — at least not for a while.

Wouldn’t it be great for teachers if students like those made up our classes? Wouldn’t it be great for students if their teachers were like Mr. Keating? But, they don’t and we’re not.

I’m not going to have my students rip pages out of their literature books or let them jump off my desk. I can’t afford to pay for the books and the school’s insurance wouldn’t cover the medical bills.

I wasn’t a member of a club that found an old cave where we recited poetry to one another. If I’d suggested that in high school I probably would’ve been beaten up.

I was in a play in high school. I had one line, “It’ll be alright, Cora.” Because of that role I can play Shenandoah on a harmonica, but, a thespian I am not.

I will probably have my students write their own poetry, but will not ask for a barbaric yawp. I’m sure my colleagues in the classrooms next door will appreciate that.

Parents, you can breathe a sigh of relief, I’m not going to do anything that might inspire your students to disobey.

Walt Whitman & Henry David Thoreau

Walt Whitman & Henry David Thoreau

No, as much as I would love to be Mr. Keating and play Handel’s Water Music over an old record player while my students quote Whitman and kick soccerballs…wait, no I wouldn’t love that. The world we live in is not the world of Dead Poets Society. In truth, I’ll probably be lucky to have one student who actually understands what it means to “suck out all the marrow of life” much less one who thinks it involves reading poetry. My students will most likely be more concerned about volleyball games and football games; about who said what to whom and about whom; about how they will survive the tragedy of a lost teenage love. If I can get them to forget those things long enough to learn the difference between dependent and independent clauses I’ll be happy. Okay, maybe not happy, but I’ll be at least temporarily satisfied. I might even do a little victory dance to the finale of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony — in private, of course.

Not everything in DPS is a waste, though. While I might not do it exactly the way Mr. Keating did, I will ask a question of my students that he asked of his.

What will your verse be?

If you’ve been reading this blog very long you know me. You know the things I value and think are important. I think that question is one of the most important questions that will ever be asked of any of us and it’s a question we should ask ourselves daily. Apart from what we contribute to the world and to our fellow human beings, there really is no other meaning of life. People search for it far and wide, but the truth of the matter is that the meaning of life is what we do with the one we have. The meaning of life is what we make of the things we’ve been given and then what we do with what we made.

What will your verse be?

Some people might think I’d be going a little overboard to ask a question like that of middle school students. Why? It’s not about what they want to BE when they grow up. It’s not about a commitment to a long-term educational or career path. In fact, it has nothing to do with those things at all. The answer to that question is about a daily impact regardless of age, ability, geography, or any of our other limitations (excuses). It’s about what we contribute here, today.

What will your verse be?

Most of you reading this now will just let it pass right on by. Oh, to be sure, maybe you will click the little star and favorite it. Maybe you will comment and tell me I did a good job writing it. Maybe you will even share it. But, after that will you think about it? Will you think about your verse? The one you’ve written? The one you’re writing? The one you have yet to write? You can’t come sit in on my English classes, but if you could I’d ask you to think about it. I’d ask not so that one day you’d say, “wow, that was a really cool lesson he taught.” I’d ask not so you’d remember me. I’d ask so that you you’d walk out the door and consider, at least for a moment, what to do with what you’ve been given.

I’m not Mr. Keating. I don’t want to be. But, if there’s a lesson to be learned from one of his it is this: if all my students get out of my class is a passing grade then why on earth would I want to teach? Passing grades are not why I’m here.

“O Me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

Answer.

That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.”
― Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass 

 

 

What We Lose When We Ban Books (a reblog from Kevin M English)

Kevin English is an English Language Arts educator, school board member, and teaching consultant. He also writes a fantastic blog. This morning he took on the subject of banning books. The impetus for this post is the controversy surrounding a new novel entitled, The Miseducation of Cameron Post. You can read more about that by clicking here. I’m not a fan of banning books, nor am I a fan of limiting the choices students have when reading. I think Kevin is right on here.

What We Lose When We Ban Books

You can follow Kevin on Twitter – @KevinMEnglish

Those who can…

Over the years I’ve had opportunities to sing and perform some of the greatest music ever written with amazing artists and groups in equally amazing venues. They are memories I will treasure the rest of my life and I wouldn’t trade a single one of them. I became a better singer, musician, and individual for those experiences. I also learned many lessons. One of those lessons came quite by surprise and was, in a small way, disappointing. That lesson?

Those who can, cannot necessarily teach.

We’ve all heard that old saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” It is an absurd notion on its face and is insulting to the throngs of great teachers who are most certainly able to do. However, its antithesis, “Those who can, cannot necessarily teach” is very much true. I learned that while performing one of the best known and loved choral works of the twentieth century. I had the good fortune to be selected for a small ensemble performing the work with its composer as conductor. I was thrilled not only to get the chance to sing the piece, but also to meet and work with a composer I deeply admired. I quickly discovered that there is a vast difference between being a gifted choral composer and being an effective choral conductor. He was, to put it bluntly, awful. I still value the experience and, as I already wrote, wouldn’t trade it for the world, but wow! What an eye-opener. And, what a sobering reminder as I embark on this new career as an educator.

I would describe myself as an above average writer. Some have offered higher praise, but I hesitate to congratulate myself too much. I understand grammar and do my best to use it properly. I have a good vocabulary. I know how to craft words and make them easy-to-read, if not enjoyable and informative. I also know how to use both a dictionary and SpellCheck – because everyone has limitations. That’s all well and good, but what if? What if I’m not a good, or at least an
effective teacher? What if I’m like that composer I admired so much whose conducting skills were, at best, rudimentary? I have a terrible fear that I am going to be one of the ones who can do but who cannot teach.

“There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can’t move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies.” ~Robert Frost

apple-bookThose of you who’ve been following this blog long enough know that fear is not something new to me. I’m a naturally fearful person. I have been most of my life. But, this is more. This time my fear involves other people. I am now responsible for making sure that students get a quality education in English Language Arts, Reading, and Writing. I will be teaching students who are at, arguably, some of the most formative years of their education. I know that it was my middle and high school English teachers who helped cement my love of reading and writing. Mrs. Maciel (6th & 8th Grade) and Mrs. Horton (7th Grade) were incredible teachers who brought literature and grammar to life. In high school, Mrs. Landers encouraged my writing by not trying to remake it. They all provided a language foundation upon which all of my other writing and reading skills are built. Their influence cannot be understated. Granted, I don’t expect to be so influential to my students, especially during my first few years. I guess my goal this year would be not to mess them up too much or make them hate English class so much that they never want to read or write another word.

I’ve spent the last week or so gathering my thoughts and reading anything I can get my hands on written by experienced educators. I started out devouring one particular book like it’s the Bible. Then it dawned on me, if all I do is duplicate her classroom, her techniques, and her results, I will fail miserably and my students will suffer. I can’t be her. The truth is, I can’t be any of my teachers, either. I will never be able to dig in to Edgar Allan Poe the way Mrs. Maciel did. I probably won’t teach grammar as methodically as Mrs. Horton did. I don’t expect to ignite inspiration in my students the way Mrs. Landers inspired me. No, I’ll never be all that any of them were and are. The best I can hope for is to use the things they taught me in a way that suits me and helps my students. That terrifies me.

Like so many other things in life, I wish there were a magic pill that would make me a good teacher. I know there’s not. I don’t mind making mistakes because I learned to learn from them. I don’t mind asking questions because that’s how knowledge is acquired. I don’t mind admitting I need help because everyone does. What I do mind is making a student’s day worse or causing undue stress on them and their families. I’m not aiming to be the teacher everyone likes, but I surely don’t want to be the one they dread.

Below my signature line on all of my emails is this quote attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To know one life has breathed easier because you have lived — this is to have succeeded.” I truly believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that is my purpose for being on this earth. I am here to help folks breathe a little easier. God help me make that a reality in my classroom.