Beyond Room 119


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To my guitar

Dear Stella,

You turned one today – happy birthday! It seems like you’ve been around much, much longer than that.

I remember the day I met you so vividly. I was meeting a friend at Guitar Center after work and I was running more than a bit late. I even remember which student caused my delay. When I got there, my friend was waiting with a smile, and the search began.

We walked inside and it was like entering a foreign land. Guitars were everywhere (go figure), along with assorted accessories that meant absolutely nothing to me. Someone from the store came over to help me decipher everything, and after asking us some basic questions, he began to bring different guitars over. Let’s be real: I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or how to judge the quality of these instruments. I’d play my part by strumming a few tentative chords on each one, and then I would pass it over to my friend for the real inspection.

Then you came over. You had this design around the sound hole that reminded me of the abalone shells I would find at the beach as a kid, and because of that, I really wanted you to sound good. Mark gave you the nod of approval, and a few minutes later, you were mine! I gingerly wrapped you in the giant purple blanket I keep in the car and nestled you in the backseat.

There was lightning that night, which seems fitting now, since you bring such light into my life. When I need to wind down after a long day of work and class, when I need to work through some frustration or hurt, when I need a pick-me-up, or when I just want to smile, I know you’re always there, waiting patiently. You never scold me when I neglect you and when it’s been a while, you gently remind me that you need a good tuning.

Whether it’s learning an old favorite by Rascal Flatts, grudgingly realizing that T. Swift has more talent than I gave her credit for, or just strumming along and singing to a fun song – we’ve had some good times together. You have a strange habit of turning a short practice break into an hour long therapy session, and for that, I’m grateful.

I know there is so much more for us to learn, and I look forward to that with anticipation. So tonight, I’d like to say thank you for all the joy you’ve brought my way over the last year, and here’s to the good times ahead!

jamie

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Kaitlyn

We were discussing his criminal record, and he said it so matter-of-factly. “The possession charge…well, it wasn’t actually mine. My friend just got his bag clean and I said, sure, I’ll hold it for you. Having a pocket knife on campus, though…that one was on me. But I live in a black neighborhood and I gotta be safe walking home, you know?”

Stories. We all have them. Backgrounds, baggage, and twisted roads that lead us to this present moment. I vividly remember one day as a kid, my family was driving down this giant hill from which you could see the whole city. One of my favorite things to do was to try to find the cross and the bell tower of the church we went to, poking out from among all the buildings and trees. If I looked hard enough and in the exact right spot, I could find it before we were too low on the hill. On this particular day though, I wasn’t looking for the church. We were stopped at the light, and I remember watching all these cars go through the intersection in front of me. Minivans, SUVs, sedans – all full of people. And suddenly, I remember thinking, “All these people have families. They play in a soccer league just like I do. They have lives.” The realization that all these people, with full backgrounds and years of life, existed all around me, pretty much blew my nine year old mind.

In a different way, that’s how I feel sometimes with my students. They walk through my door – some of them because they are required to – and they each have a backstory. Years of experiences, of hardships, of life – it all comes through that door with them. And somehow, I get the privilege of being there with them, for at least a brief moment in time.

Take Kaitlyn, for example. She came into my office the other morning, wearing a Duke sweatshirt, jeans that were fashionably ripped, and a nondescript baseball cap on top of her long hair. She looked like your average first year college student.

I asked her how her college experience had been so far. She said, “It’s cool. The teachers are way more flexible than high school.”

Usually students say the opposite, so I asked her what she meant. “Well, take my English class for example. I had an essay due last Thursday. I’m pregnant, and my teacher let me turn it in Friday.”

Now, she’s not the first pregnant student I’ve had, and I doubt she’ll be the last. I couldn’t tell how she was feeling, but I needed to respond somehow. “That’s exciting,” I ventured, in a calm tone.

She plopped her elbows onto my desk and buried her face into her hands. “No, it’s not,” she said. “I’m getting an abortion.”

Mind you, this exchange happened about four minutes after I first met her. Immediately there was so much I wanted to tell her. I wanted to talk to her about her decision and make sure she knew her options. I wanted to learn about her life at home. I wanted to ask about her goals and her dreams. I wanted her to know that no one has a straight path in this life, and the twists and turns are what makes us human and alive.

But I knew that I couldn’t say any of that. At least, not right away. So instead, I listened. I gently probed. I reflected back what I heard her saying – and what she left unsaid. And during our time together that morning, I was simply present with this beautiful young lady, who was so frightened and unsure.

In the process, I got to learn more about who was important to her. I found out that she was raised by her grandparents, and her grandfather had died two months ago. I learned that she moved out of her grandmother’s house because Kaitlyn’s grief was too strong – she didn’t want her grandmother to see how badly she was hurting, for fear that this would be more than her grandmother could handle. I learned that the baby’s father wanted to come home from college and keep the baby. I learned that though she was only seven weeks along, she was already having morning sickness and was having difficulty keeping anything down.

We talked about families. She asked me if I had kids, and when I said no, if I wanted them. She was stunned to learn that I was one of seven, and we shared a laugh as I said, “Yeah, my parents were crazy.” I shared with her stories about my childhood and growing up with the chaos, energy, excitement, and fun of having so many people around. The joys of having a sibling who understood exactly what you were going through, and someone who loved you no matter what.

Near the end of our time together, I shared with her the view from my side of the desk as I told her who I saw before me. I told her of the strength, compassion, independence, and love emanating from the woman in front of me. I told her that no matter what it felt like along the way, she was never alone and that she was always welcome in my office. And as I passed her my Kleenex box and let her compose herself, I said a silent prayer for her. When she was ready, I gave her a hug and sent her back out into the world.

Stories. Each one is unique in both the history and future of mankind. Our story is just that – ours, and no one else’s. We can invite others into the car with us, but we can never leave the driver’s seat. Stories like Kaitlyn’s remind me that every single person I meet has a story. And though they might have to unlock the door to let me in, I have the opportunity to knock on the window and say, “Hey there. How’s the journey going?” And that opportunity is a gift I don’t intend to waste.