Hope is the Thing With Scales

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “That perches in the soul– and sings the music without words– and never stops– at all–”

I think mine doesn’t have feathers. I think it has scales. Scales made out of the same stuff they use to make blast shields in sci-fi movies.

Because like those stupid bugs that you can grind into the carpet and they still somehow live, I cannot seem to stop hoping that the worst of things will work out. Even if, for a day, I am convinced that there is no point and things are finally hopeless, the slightest touch, the slightest breath of promise, however far-fetched and foolish it might seem, revives my hope, and up it springs, tormenting me once again.

Yes, I say tormenting. And I know I’m being melodramatic, but I’m allowed to be. I’ve had a hideous week, and I can’t seem to give up hope.

That sounds like a wonderful thing, and, deep down, I suppose it is. But sometimes it would just be such a relief to actually be able to throw one’s hands up over a situation and walk away, heart at peace because there actually, truly is no hope. But no. Like one of those tough-shelled bugs, my hope only appears to die. Then it reappears to throw me back into the game.

And I’m not talking a gentleman’s game. More like the Hunger Games.

Allow me to provide a little background before I once again continue philosophizing. I teach at a minuscule Christian school. We had enough students–and just enough students– to run a full program this year. After putting more effort than I really had to give into promotional work last year, we still ended up with fewer students than we had last year. But we still had enough to run a program. Then, last week, one of our full-time students pulled out for “personal reasons.” And it was a student I’d personally connected with and spent a lot of love and tears on.

I cried so much Tuesday that my eyelids were puffy for two straight days. I do not exaggerate.

Tuesday I was convinced that the school could not survive. I finally began to consider the possibility that the promotional efforts had been in vain and maybe I should start looking for another job next school year. Maybe it was time to just give up. After all, what else could I do? I’d already tried.

But of course, the next day, our administrator and I tossed the situation back and forth, and he encouraged me to keep up the promotional work. And that night, I chatted with the student, who admitted that she might want to return at some point.

So, you see, hope is alive and well.

And it’s so very annoying.

Because, you see, there really is no good reason for it. My student could just as well decide to stay out of our school. I might not have any more luck getting our information out to churches that have already slammed the door on me once or twice. And if we don’t get any more students this year, who knows where my last couple of paychecks are going to come from? Hope is ridiculous.

But without it, nothing impossible would ever be attempted. And it’s true that every now and then, once in a blue moon, one chance in a thousand, something impossible actually does happen. Hope lives because miracles do sometimes happen. And on the off chance that this school will be one of them, I will act on my hope.

Pain and disappointment, here we come. All because that stupid scaly thing in my soul won’t die.

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All It Needs Is a Dragon

Several weeks ago, I had an “art night” with Amy, a young friend who has Down’s Syndrome. Amy loves art, so I figured we could do some watercolor. I got out two 11×14 pieces of rough-press watercolor paper, taped them to foamcoare, got out the brushes and paints, and went and picked Amy up.

The plan was to have her over for two hours. She tends to enjoy just working on projects quietly at her own pace, so I showed her how to use the different tools and how to mix and apply the paint, and then I turned to my own blank board.

I was just messing around. I never do a painting without first drawing, but this time I decided to give it a whirl. For some reason, I felt like painting a foggy, rainy landscape with lots of evergreens, kind of like the ones I see around me constantly here on Whidbey Island. I used primarily two colors, oddly enough–green and grey.

With no pressure to get a painting done perfectly, but with the goal of finishing whatever I was going to make within two hours, I threw down a generous wash of grays, deliberately making the lower parts of the rainclouds darker. At some point, I decided to have the rain receding, only falling on half of the picture. I think I must have had an image of Thomas Cole’s “Oxbow” painting in the back of my mind, because my painting developed in a similar composition.

The painting with several wet-on-wet washes, building in the shapes of the fog, coastline, and an undercoat for the trees.

The painting with several wet-on-wet washes, building in the shapes of the fog, coastline, and an undercoat for the trees.

"View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm," Thomas Cole (1836). Looking back at my painting, I'm pretty sure that this famous work of art, commonly known as "The Oxbow," was in the back of my mind. Mine, however, is a Pacific Northwest version. With a dragon.  Because... why not?

“View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm,” Thomas Cole (1836). Looking back at my painting, I’m pretty sure that this famous work of art, commonly known as “The Oxbow,” was in the back of my mind. Mine, however, is a Pacific Northwest version. With a dragon. Because… why not?

At some point, it turned into a coastline with a seascape, with the rain primarily over the sea. I don’t usually paint this much wet-into-wet, but I had two hours and nothing to lose. I let myself throw down more paint before letting it dry for a few minutes while I got out cookies to serve to my friend.

As the paint dried, I added details: some crisp lines in the clouds, strokes for the rain, trees. I added the first layers for a large tree in the lower left, then put in lines of distant trees on either coastline. To capture the effect of fog, I painted in the trees using a round brush, then blotted the lower edges. Then I used a wet brush to blur it even more. I’ve never painted fog like this before, but I think I will need to remember the technique, because I was certainly happy with how it turned out:

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As I added details on the trees and more lines for the rain, I noticed that I’d accidentally splashed a few drops of green into the sky. At this point, the painting took a turn for the whimsical, because, honestly, although it was beautiful, it was still missing something. Why not try some whimsy? So I splashed more green, and a little bit of pale, bright blue into the lines of the rain and in the upper right corner. Lovely.

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But something was still missing. Something in the upper third on the right hand side. Something flying blissfully through the sky, like the bald eagles do over Penn Cove here on the Island. One little problem, though. I can’t draw birds to save my life.

I looked at Amy. “I think I’m going to put a dragon in it.”

Amy grinned. “A dragon?”

“Yep.”

So I got out my pencil for the first time in the evening, sketched a quick shape with wide wings and a long neck flung back in happiness– after all, I imagined this dragon must be about as happy as the eagles to be flying up there in the fresh air after the rain– and painted him quickly in with more grey.

I looked down at my painting and couldn’t stop grinning. Two hours. I’ll have to try that again sometime. There’s nothing like no lines, no restrictions, and no critics to make you try something new.

I’ll also have to remember that adding dragons improves landscapes. I think I’ll call it Water Dragon #1. Because, who knows? I might decide to paint another.

Water Dragon #1, completed. Prints of this painting will be available in my Etsy shop by 9/24/14.

Water Dragon #1, completed. Prints of this painting will be available in my Etsy shop by 9/24/14.

Fourth Graders (and Me) on Marriage

Besides teaching high school, this year I am also working several hours a day as a teacher assistant for a combined 4th/ 5th grade class at our “sister school,” Oak Harbor Christian School. While switching between 12th grade literature and 4th grade math within minutes has been a mental stretch, it’s a joy.

But I still can’t seem to get those fourth and fifth graders to call me “Miss” Heins. To them, any female adult worthy of a title must needs be a “Mrs.”

Today I decided to remedy this error. Every time a fourth grader called me “Mrs. Heins,” I replied, “Miss Heins. Mrs. Heins is my mom. A wonderful lady, but she’s not me.” It was cute, it made them giggle, and, best of all, by the time I was finishing up with them, most of them were getting it right.

But one girl, a lovable ants-in-her-pants fourth grader who likes to talk to me about Star Wars during recess, wouldn’t let it go. To her, it was just too astonishing that an adult female wouldn’t be a “Mrs.”

“You mean you’re not married?” she demanded incredulously.

“Nope.” I grinned back at her.

“You’ve NEVER been married??”

“Nope.”

And the freckle-faced imp looked at me and declared, “We’ve gotta find you a husband!”

I pointed down at her half-completed math test, and she got the idea.

It was cute. It made me smile. And, coming out of the mouth of a fourth-grader, there was nothing whatsoever offensive about it. In fact, I prided myself that maybe I’d opened her mind to the possibility that adult females are not, actually, always married.

In fact, if a freckled fourth-grader had been the only one to demand such a question of me, I wouldn’t be thinking twice about it. And I probably wouldn’t be blogging about it. But she isn’t.

As a Christian twenty-seven-year-old raised in quite conservative circles, I have been surrounded with the concept that I was born to be married. Not that my parents (bless them) ever told me that, but I was taught how to cook “for my family someday” and we did assemble “hope chests,” because, after all, we all “hoped” we’d get married someday. Basically, people talked about Christian girls growing up to do one of two things: be a mommy or be a missionary. And if you were really, really cool, you’d get to do both.

So I talked about being a missionary and planned on being a mommy. I think, deep down, I figured things would work out for me like they had for my parents: I’d go to a Christian college, meet Mr. Right there, and get married a couple of months after graduation.

But it didn’t happen.

Partly, that was my fault. I was a late bloomer. My freshman year I looked like I’d just come off the farm, and my sophomore year I tried to wear makeup and failed. By the time I was a junior, I was developing self-confidence and friendships, but still somehow seemed invisible to the opposite gender. I didn’t mind, though. By that time, I was taking a heavy load of writing classes and was deeply enjoying wading waist-deep through art and writing and other things that I loved. I had a tight-knit group of girlfriends. In other words, I was happy, socialized, and very, very busy.

By the time I knew it, I’d graduated, no boy in tow.

I didn’t have long to worry about my state. I got a job, and after a several-year, somewhat-rocky transition, I moved out of my parents’ house, got an apartment, made friends, and once again started filling my life chock-full of things that I loved and people I loved. Not that it’s always been perfect or happy, but my life is full and good and worth it. It doesn’t feel like “half a life.”

I remember talking with a friend I worked with at summer camp, who was in such agony to have a particular counselor as her boyfriend that I just kind of looked her at in shock. She really, truly felt like she was half a person without, well, “another half” (pernicious saying). It was something of an epiphany for me.

Why do so many of my fellow conservatively-raised Christian women feel this need to put their lives on hold until a man walks through the door and sweeps them off their feet? It’s not, I think, because we don’t WANT to be useful. I think most of us really do want to play a meaningful role in God’s story. I think it’s because we’ve been raised to think of ourselves as incomplete.

I don’t think our parents ever meant us to see ourselves that way. I know mine certainly didn’t. They wanted me, I think, to honor the role of motherhood in a world that often puts it down. They wanted me to be a good wife should I get married. And their intentions were pure. I think they did a better job, honestly, than many other parents I know did. (In a way, the very fact that boys were not the center of my life in college proves that.) I don’t and never have felt like I’m missing a half.

But now I get half-questions, half-thoughts from them and some of the other conservative Christian adults who have watched me grow up. Yes, it’s fantastic that I’m a teacher. But haven’t I done this “on my own” thing long enough? Haven’t I met a guy yet? In my student’s less tactful words, “We gotta find a husband for you!”

Maybe I have met a guy and maybe I haven’t. Frankly, I’m not even sure myself. I’ve dated a few times; I’ve made guy friends. I’ve more or less outgrown my awkwardness around guys. I am not in the least opposed to the idea of getting married. I would do it in an instant if I met a man I cared about enough and who cared about me enough.

But I do know this: I don’t mind if I stay single. And there is no guarantee that I will EVER get married. But I have no plans of ever moving back in with my parents. I like having my own place, where I can serve meals to people and write my stories and hang my art on the wall. And I sure do wish that the happily-married-for-30-years adults around me would be okay with it.

For now, though, I’ll settle with teaching fourth graders that “Miss” is nothing to be ashamed of.

The Dead Guy in Grammar Lab

“What are some other types of characters in the classic detective story?” I look out at the four faces staring back at me, all surprisingly awake for 8:15 in the morning.

“The dead guy,” answers Hayden.

“True,” I say. “But not every mystery story is a murder mystery. Why don’t we call that character the ‘victim’? The victim isn’t always dead.”

“Yeah,” calls out David, not missing a beat. “Sometimes he’s still twitching.”

And the class, including me, erupts in helpless laughter. Wiping my eyes, I return to our lesson on basic sentence parts. “We’ll talk about the other characters later. For now, I want to talk about basic verb types—action, helping, and linking—and each of these corresponds to one of the character types we just talked about.”

I click to the next slide on my PowerPoint—a slide about how action verbs are “main characters” of sentences, like detectives in mystery stories—and up comes a large picture of Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes. For about the fifth time in fifteen minutes, I lose the class for several more seconds of general delighted uproar.

I’ve never been known for having a quiet classroom. A couple of years ago, during a particularly silent creative writing lab, the principal stuck his head in the door of the classroom just to make sure we were still in there. Apparently Miss Heins classes are never that quiet.

Of course, there’s plenty of reading and sitting going on in my classrooms. It’s not like we’re swinging from the rafters every second. But it seems like every year I teach, it becomes more and more important to me to make my classes appealing, fun, and active. As a kinesthetic learner myself, I know the value of getting my hands on whatever I’m trying to learn. I know from experience that talking in class, as long as it’s about the subject, is actually a powerful way to learn. I also know that knowledge—whether it’s Puritan literature, Pacific Northwest history, or how to use verbs properly—isn’t innately boring and therefore shouldn’t be taught as such.

Call it a personal philosophy, if you like.

The delicious chaos that my classes tend to be would make some teachers—and possibly some students—pull out their hair. My tendency to skip merrily through the textbook in my own order certainly makes a lot of work for myself. And there are certainly times when my grandiose creative schemes fall flat on their faces, and the students look at me like I just told them to pull their socks off and draw each other’s feet. (Actually, that happened once. I had no idea they would find the concept so horrifying.)

But if teaching verbs as characters in a detective story actually makes my students remember how to use the verbs properly—therefore enabling them to communicate precisely for the rest of their lives—I say, it’s worth it. If performing skits where students are throwing bean bag cats at each other while speaking in only one different verb tense per person actually reminds them which tense to use, I say toss those bean bag cats. Learning ought to be a ridiculous amount of fun.

Let’s keep the dead guy jokes and Benedict Cumberbatch pictures coming.

Of X-Men and New Beginnings

The last few days have not exactly been the easiest.

Oh, they haven’t been horrible. I think most teachers will probably confess to not particularly enjoying the first week of school. But it hasn’t been the lack of prep time, or the odd shifting from my high school teaching job to my new 4-5th grade TA job and back again to the high school job, and it certainly hasn’t been student misbehaviors. The hardest thing has been coming back to my little, tiny Christian school, facing classrooms with literally half the students in them than I had last year, and having to put on a happy face that I do not feel about the situation.

My students look at me, and I can see it in their eyes–the strangeness of having so many fewer students, when all last year we complained about how the lunchroom was so small and talked about plans to bring in new students. A few will mention it. The others simply shift around awkwardly. Then they look at me, and I smile brightly back at them and reassure them that school this year is going to be wonderful, that we often have students join us partway through the school year, that they are here, and that is what matters.

And I mean it. But it hurts my heart to see the effort I put toward school promotion this year seem to have had no effect whatsoever. It hurts to have to continue to be positive about it, because, if I’m not, I’m not sure who will be.

Switching gears a little. Tonight I finally got to see “X-Men: Days of Future Past” with a friend.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know that Wolverine goes back in time to prevent something horrible from happening. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) In the process, he runs back into one of my new heroes, Professor X. But things have gone horribly wrong. The school is all but empty, and Professor X has sunk into alcoholism and self-medicating, even to the point of stunting his powers because it makes him “feel too much.”

Of course the empty school struck an instant chord, and when somebody mentioned that the last time they’d used the tool Cerebro was “to find students for the school,” I leaned over and drily whispered to my friend, “It’s like NWCHS.” My friend bumped my shoulder reassuringly and the movie continued.

Wolverine, whose gifts do not exactly lie in the realm of subtle persuasion, is in a tight spot as he tries to convince Professor X to pick up the pieces of his life. It takes past Professor X talking to present Professor X to get there (It did actually make a tremendous amount of sense). As part of this exchange, though, Professor X has to wade through all the pain and loneliness that is Wolverine’s history. Wolverine redirects his focus so he can find his younger self–then, before it is all over, Wolverine charges him to find the future students and teachers whose stories he’d seen.

“I’ll do my best,” says Professor X, looking a little worried.

“Your best is good enough,” says Wolverine.

And with that, Professor X– and Miss Heins– suddenly receive the bolstering we need to keep going.

My best is good enough. The enormity of the task is not my problem. It’s God’s. And I am simply His servant. My best is good enough. And, exactly like Professor X, my “best” is not nearly as much about saving a school as it is about the individuals who have gone through that school. Imperfect, hurting, beautiful individuals, not unlike Wolverine and Storm and Rogue and the others– individuals whose stories have held pain and problems and will continue to hold pain and problems, but who have been given hope. They have been given a chance to be part of a tiny community that grows and aches and stretches and smiles together. And many of them have been given hope in various ways. I even dare to think that some of them would look back on their time so far and see the pain and the joy and the late nights of homework and, like Wolverine, not mind having it stay just that way because they can see the value in it.

Professor X reminded his future self that he had to hold out hope to these people. Then he turned, promised to do his best, and was reminded by one of his own students that his best was good enough. And it was.

On second thought, maybe I can put on that happy face I need to put on. Maybe it doesn’t need to be an act. All I need to offer is hope, and all I need to do is my best. I think, between God and me, we can pull that off.