Calf

This is me after completing a three-mile run. The smile’s there, because one week prior, I couldn’t play tag with my kids without my calf screaming. If you imagined a pre-pubescent Holstein lowing for all it’s worth, you’ve got the wrong idea. See, I strained the calf muscle in my left leg, and due to that injury, pain-free running eluded me a number of weeks. Cycling provided cardio and worked my legs without exacerbating the pain, but I only rode on weekends, reducing my exercise regimen from three or four times to just once per week.

I missed seeing my buddies on the weekday runs and sharing what’s been going on in our lives, missed the rush of endorphins that buoyed me into work, and missed how my stomach maintained its shape instead of increasing in diameter and oozing over my belt.

Back in February, I wrote of how depression and anxiety caused me to lose my appetite and drop pounds, but now I’m putting on weight. I tried one anti-depressant before switching it out for another one, but I no longer take any medication. I thought I was no good as a teacher and risked losing my job, losing my way. Then Mark, my counselor, reminded me of something essential.

“Jake, the majority of female clients come in for counseling when it’s something relational, but more often than not, men come in when it’s work-related.” He shared about a time when he thought his job was on the line and how through that he learned he had no control over whether or not he kept his job. Sure, one can do the best work possible, but if your employer decides to let you go despite that, you have to look elsewhere for work. Mark helped me realize I was beating myself up over something that laid outside of my control. He reminded me, “God’s the one who grants you favor with others. He’s the one who meets all your needs, so even if you lose your position at Centerburg, you’re going to be just fine.”

Others shared similar advice. Even our superintendent reassured me, “The chances of you losing your job are so small, it’s not even worth worrying about.”

Things didn’t change overnight. I’d deal with a student discipline issue one day and gag over the toilet the following morning, unsure I handled things correctly and worried I’d have to do it all over again that day. It took me a while to accept someone much higher up managed my career, but once I did, fear no longer held me captive, and I gained confidence throughout April and May.

As a result, my teaching improved, which in turn boosted my confidence. I felt more like myself and looked forward to seeing my students. Realizing it wasn’t my responsibility to keep my job shifted my trajectory from a downward spiral to an upward one. I know I have my position at Centerburg this next school year, and if God wants me to continue teaching there, I’ll find success. Yet if it’s time to move onto something else, I’ll have my résumé or curriculum vitae ready to go, and the right opportunity will present itself. No matter what direction my career takes, I trust God’s taking me where I’m meant to be, so ruminate on that.

The Compliment

Someone at work noticed I’ve been losing weight and mentioned it to me as I waited for him to finish up using the copier. “That’s great, dude. You look really good.”

“Thanks, man.” My colleague smiled on his way out the door, and I got things ready for my students, but my mouth formed a line firm as the lump of dread pulsing behind my sternum. Back when I loosened my belt and counted calories, this compliment would’ve made my day, but the only calories I’d been counting the previous few months formed the food for which I no longer had appetite.

Worry has the same mass and energy as a car battery. It sits in your stomach, filling all the empty and weighing you down, so eating becomes something you force yourself to do instead of something you savor doing. Meanwhile, worry’s terminals connect direct to your arms and legs, hands and feet, providing them the current to quiver and shake, move and bounce independent of thought, so that by day’s end, instead of spending time helping your children with their homework and tickling them on the carpet, you’ve retreated to the couch for yet another nap, because all the strength you had has been sapped away.

Life changed for me mid-January around my birthday. I got a Nintendo Switch and some new clothes, I’d grown a beard, and my first pair of eyeglasses arrived. I also went on antidepressants, and I no longer knew how to teach.

My entire life, people would watch me interact with kids and wonder at how I seemed to know just what they were thinking. More than a few compared me to the Pied Piper of Hamelin, noting an air of delight about me and how I could get little ones to follow me anywhere. I never could form a rat parade, though, and every time I leave town, none of the kids ever get sealed up within a mountain, so we’ll call that win-win.

The guidance counselor at school said I’m “one of the good ones, and we don’t want to lose you.” The children’s ministry director at church stated I have a gift and invited me to get more involved. Before that, the curriculum director showed me my students’ value-added data for the previous two years and how they weren’t making the necessary growth in my classroom. He volunteered to come alongside me to help increase my scores, mentioning that if they stayed low, the state would mandate he help me the following years, and that if things didn’t change within a year or two beyond that, I risked losing my job.

I thought I knew what I was doing. Students marched into my classroom with their heads held high, declaring, “I’m here to work hard and learn, Mr. Lees!” and the grades they earned evidenced that they were. Of course, some kids did their darndest to avoid working, but I could usually wheedle something out of them.

With my job on the line, though, I lost any confidence that I knew what I was doing. What I thought worked before obviously didn’t, so I scrapped that, leaving me to figure out the right material to teach and how to teach it. This too is the first year I have students who look through me. Some watched my floundering and despise me. Without my confidence, I allowed them to get away with things I wouldn’t otherwise, treating other students and myself with absolute contempt.

Perceiving this compounded failure, I lost hope. I wasn’t doing my job, I couldn’t get the kids to learn, and every time an instance or an interaction confirmed that, I took it as gospel. Never mind more than half my students still walk into my classroom every day, smile at me, and declare, “I’m here to work hard and learn!” I only believed the ones who treated me like shit.

Dread — that’s what Sunday evenings held — weekday mornings, too. Months after receiving the news about my scores, I no longer cared about keeping my job. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I couldn’t handle it. Family and friends encouraged me to seek counseling, and I made another appointment with my doctor, because the anti-anxiety pills she’d prescribed just made me sleepy.

I even scheduled a meeting with the superintendent. The first year I got hired at school, he was hired on as principal, and I spent a lot of time in his office that first year getting advice, confessing my concerns, and discovering we shared the same boat. After hearing me tell about my struggles, my boss and friend affirmed my authority in the classroom, pinpointed that I needed to concentrate on walking in it, and encouraged me that the odds of me losing my job there were so small, the possibility wasn’t even worth considering. “Get ahold of the classroom management first, and your scores will follow.”

He also shared how in his early years of teaching, he faced a similar situation in his classroom, turned in his two-week notice, and walked away, because he lost his desire to teach, only returning to the field of education years later. “Jake, teaching is a high calling, and you need to figure out if the spark you had is still there, because without it, there’s no reason to be doing this job.”

I turned that over in my mind for more than a month afterwards.

I still don’t know whether this will be my last year as a school teacher, but I think that spark that got me started in this business still burns inside, because six weeks, three counseling sessions, eight sick days, and one switch from Lexapro to Prozac later, I have yet to update my resume.

Did I consider giving my two weeks notice and becoming a copywriter, working at McGraw-Hill, teaching at the college level, or even slinging beer at my favorite brewery? All of the above, but God only knows where my career path goes.

What I do know is that I’ll finish out the last 11 weeks of school, and in that time, I’ll decide what to teach, learning from the curriculum director better ways to not only discover what my students know but also ways to deliver the content they need to know, and as the antidepressants do their job improving my mood, they’ll enable me to do my job.

Sure, I still get to deal with students who view me as a pushover, but now that I no longer place my confidence in the work I’ve done in the past but in my God-given ability to do the work that’s in front of me, those kids will discover Mr. Lees is rooted to a firm foundation, and he’s not near as shaky or willing to take shit as he used to be.

Plus, they may notice he’s been packing on a pound or two.

The Unexpected

Cycling 30 miles with a friend is much easier when both tires hold air. That’s how inner tubes function, remaining inflated to provide a cushion upon which you can fly down the road with grip and precision, so imagine my frustration when at 5:30 this AM I discovered my rear tire was flat. Simple fix. I’ll just use my handy bicycle pump here and fill up this…Why’s it not inflating? Do I need to change my inner tube? What is this, the third or fourth time I’ve had to take my bike apart in the last few months to replace that piece of faulty rubber? Shit.

Called my friend; explaining the issue. “No problem,” he said.

Thirty minutes, much blue language, and approximately three gallons of sweat later; my brand new tube nestled within the tire, the tire perched upon the rim, and the wheel whirred upon the bike. All I had to do was fill it with air. No dice. Each time I pumped, the inner tube expanded then went limp as a politician’s promise.

At a complete loss, I implemented that age-old mental tool utilized by athletes and generals alike: visualization. Drawing in lungfuls of air, I stifled my urge to scream, shut out the world, and pictured my next move.

If I were another person, this would’ve been my MacGyver moment. Taking only spit, vaseline, and a container from my garage workbench marked with an indecipherable chemical formula, I would’ve combined all three agents with a furrowed brow and a quick stir, producing a single puff of blue smoke. Then, while the concoction continued to boil, I’d give my flat tire a spin with my free hand and pour with my right. Defying physics, every drop of the viscous liquid would rush into the gap between the tire and rim, and as a gaggle of neighbor kids gaped in amazement, their notifications of uncaptured Pokemon forgotten, my tire would reinflate with a bang to thunderous applause.

But this is me, so I visualized going back to bed and called my friend, resigned to my fate.

Turns out, Matt was already on his way to my house.

Whip-quick, he had the wheel off my bike and the tire off the rim. Matt diagnosed the cause of my trouble, tried to file the issue smooth, and resorted to duct tape, tearing it in long, thin strips to prevent the gouges on my inner rim from further puncturing my inner tube. Fitting my tire back in place with care and focus, having provided the spare tube he brought with him, he had me road-ready within the hour. We didn’t get in the full 30 miles as planned, but Matt resolved a problem that overwhelmed me.

Shootings, outrage, protests, murders, hangings, bombings, atrocities, coups — the last few weeks have overwhelmed, and we stand lost, not knowing how to fix the world. Some express frustration when others post about prayer in response to these situations, reasoning real solutions will effect change far better than sending mystic vibes at the sky, but when I pray, I’m calling out to the God who listens to my needs and resolves problems.

After being observed by my principal and given a poor review the spring of 2013, I was placed on a one-year probationary contract and told if I did not improve my methods, my contract would be terminated the following spring. I spent the remainder of that school year and the following summer praying I’d keep my job, and each time I asked God what to do, I felt He assured me He’d take care of it.

The following school year, a retired teacher came alongside and mentored me, spending time in my classroom, observing, modeling good teaching, and helping me plan lessons. The right person came to help me at just the right time, and this year, myself, my co-teacher, Greg, and two others won awards for exemplary teaching for our portion of Ohio. I didn’t know how to fix my teaching, so I asked God for help, and He saved my career.

Prone to ear infections, nine-year-old me spent one Saturday feeling as though someone drove a spike into the side of my head, and without Urgent Care, my best hope was Mom giving me Tylenol and waiting for the doctor’s office to open Monday. Given the option of staying home from Sunday service, I chose to go despite the throbbing. Nothing unusual happened that morning until the man who prayed for me following the sermon placed his hand on my shoulder. As he spoke, a stillness settled into my chest and the pain in my ear receded until no trace remained. Unsure how to process what just happened, I staggered back a bit as the man let out a whoop of joy when I confirmed the pain was gone. God is not my uncle who during family volleyball games attempted to hit the ball every time it soared over the net no matter how many of his team members stood in the way; He’s a gentleman, intervening when invited.

I have numerous examples of answered prayer and can confirm God concerns Himself with the troubles that concern us even when things don’t turn out the way we wish; I prayed religiously for family members and friends who died of disease and begged God to improve tough situations only to see them get worse. Even when things went sideways, those times I didn’t think I’d make it through, God stood with me, bringing me out stronger and wiser than when the trouble began.

Whether it’s a flat tire, race riots, or someone running down children celebrating a holiday, calling God for help isn’t wasting your breath, it’s placing a problem into the most capable, loving hands one has ever known.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Hope

Looks like Vader left his mask on the floor again…

If I’ve told that Sith once, I’ve told him a thousand times to not leave his mask lying around. I get that he feels claustrophobic behind that thing, anybody would, but his asthma gets to be a real problem without that mask.

That’s it, I’m sending him to his pod!

My son knows who Darth Vader is. Asher is three years old, and he knows who Darth Vader is. Well, not really. Whenever he pushes the button on the side of the mask and James Earl Jones announces, “I find your lack of faith disturbing,” Asher laughs, repeating what he hears, “I find your face is dirty.”

My son isn’t the only one who has a thin grasp on Vader mythology. My cousin shared how his boys got into a debate at school over whether or not Darth Vader died, and Mark educated them by pulling up the climactic scene from Return of the Jedi where Vader laid down his life to save Luke. Mark and I joked about how he now has to further spoil the original trilogy for his sons by showing them the scene when Vader tells Luke, “I am your Father,” or when Luke realizes he’s Leia’s brother.

Having grown up sleeping on Star Wars bedsheets and playing with pretty much all the original action figures and playsets, Mark had to do something. He tried years ago to sit with his sons and watch Star Wars, but the boys were too young and had too much energy to make it through even the first film. As a teenager, Mark collected the toys that came out in connection to the prequels, and his entire family has pre-purchased around 20 tickets to see the Force Awakens together.

Tickets in hand, Mark’s inviting his three sons to experience a cultural milestone, and he doesn’t want them missing out on the full experience, so he plans on watching at least the original trilogy as a family in the next few weeks.

According to Deadline Hollywood, analysts project the Force Awakens will earn $185 – $210 million opening weekend alone, and scuttlebutt says Episode VII will break Avatar‘s $2.7 billion box office record.

What is it about Star Wars that has people clamoring to see the new movie?

It’s about hope.

Upon its release in 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope revitalized the sci-fi genre. Audiences were used to seeing dystopian futures on film such as prior years’ Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, The Omega Man, Westworld, Rollerball, and the Planet of the Apes series.

Watergate disenchanted the American public, breaking our faith in an infallible President. If we couldn’t believe our elected officials held our best interests, what future could we expect? So we wallowed in stories confirming our worst fears until Star Wars showed us something different: even the poorest orphan has the power to face down the unknown. Light will overcome darkness. We are not alone; the Force is with us.

There is hope.

We wanted to hear that story of hope again with Episodes I, II, and III of the Star Wars franchise, especially after the events of September 11, 2001, but were sadly disappointed to see computer-generated, digitally-shot stories about how the future was set in stone and things will go wrong despite the best efforts of the most powerful Jedi.

Especially after the Paris attacks and shootings in schools and ISIS and violence and murder and rape, we want to hear that it’s going to be okay. We want to have hope for the future. We want to place our faith in the fact that we are not alone in this world, that even the poorest orphan has the power to overcome the unknown. I want to know that I’m going to make it, that my uncle facing radiation and chemotherapy will be cured of his cancer. I want to know that my seven-year-old daughter will never be sexually assaulted. I want my marriage to last a lifetime and that friends will not leave me.

That’s too much pressure to put on one movie. Sure, the Force Awakens will utilize practical effects and be shot on film and J. J. Abrams proved with Star Trek that he can revitalize a space-faring series, showing us through lens flares that anything is possible, but one movie cannot guarantee anyone’s future. Only a self-sacrificing god can do that.

Look at Jesus, a poor man of questionable parentage, who shook the political and religious leaders of his day with selfless answers and self-sacrifice. He exercised power to heal the sick and raise the dead. He spent time with children and touched lepers. His greatest teachings were about humility and self-denial. He showed us how to love the disenfranchised, the marginalized, and betrayers. He laid down his life for his friends and took it back up again. He died so that we may live.

I put my hope in Jesus, knowing he has a plan for my life, and if my uncle dies of cancer or my daughter is assaulted, if my marriage falls apart or my friends abandon me, even if my worst fears come true, Jesus will not leave me desolate. He is ever-present; his Spirit lives in me, which means he can work through me in power. I prayed for the sick, and they were healed. I was laid off with no prospects and got a better job. I was so overwhelmed with fear, I couldn’t make it through a day at school, and now I teach school. I messed up my leg so badly, I couldn’t walk without crutches, and now I run faster and farther than I ever could before.

Do I plan on taking my family to see the Force Awakens? We wouldn’t miss it, especially since we’ve sat down and watched the original trilogy together. I hope it affirms the story that light overcomes darkness, that we are not alone. Darth Vader may have died, but he laid down his life so his son would live, and he continues to live on.

I have hope for the future.

Job Interview

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It’s a pleasure to meet you; thanks for inviting me out. May I say, I’ve never been in an office quite this large before, and that galaxy displayed in the corner is charming. How does it rotate like that? Some kind of motor? Oh, a combination of the black hole in the center and inertia? Fascinating.

Listen, I know your time is valuable. Where would you like me to sit? My goodness, this is really very comfortable. Cumulus padding? I’ll have to get one of these. Again, thank you for the opportunity to come out and interview for this position. I think you’ll find I’m more than qualified.

As you can see from my résumé, I’ve had loads of leadership experience — and all from a young age. I was a Cub Scout, two weeks of experience, and I tried out for t-ball. Things didn’t go the way I wanted them to, so I moved onto other projects: playing pretend mostly and tons of television. Even earlier than that, I showed executive leadership skills when my older sister tried to boss me around. Sure, I usually went along with whatever she said, but it was only because I wanted to, and I could have said no to her at anytime; I just chose not to.

I won’t bore you with the details of my meteoric rise through elementary school, though if you’d like to peruse the records I provided, I think my macaroni art speaks for itself.

My more recent experience? I taught science for a few years to middle schoolers, so I should have a pretty good handle on how weather and organisms work. Quantum physics? Does that have something to do with the Higgs-Boson collider? I’m not as up to speed on that but willing to learn.

My other skills include listening well, so I should be able to handle the whole prayer thing. As far as being omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, I always did well in school, so I should pick those up rather quickly.

Can I be straight with you? The real reason I’m here is because even though the work this office does appears to hum along, the guy in charge neglects His duties. Listen, I’ve got nothing personal against Him, it’s just one hears things, you know? In this industry, you keep your eyes open, you start noticing cracks in the foundation.

You want specifics? Where do I start? For one, turnaround time. Loads of room for improvement in customer service. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve contacted this office with equipment requests, and they’ve all gone unanswered. I need a boat. My neighbor’s is just beautiful, and I know I’d be so much happier if the boat I got was better than his.

Also, what’s with all the rules? You can’t even be honest about your mother-in-law without breaking like half the commandments. Those bad boys are a few thousand years overdue for a rehaul if you ask me.

If I get hired for this position, people will no longer have to wait for anything. Can you imagine no more suffering? I would just get rid of all the bad people. You know, the ones that hurt others, that do harm. With all that power, I’d just snap my fingers and make all the rapists and murderers disappear.

Yeah, I suppose that bad people refers to more than just rapists and murderers. While I was at it, I’d take care of abusers, the fat cats getting rich off the poor, used car salesmen, and lawyers. Naw, I’m just kidding about the lawyers, though the world would probably be a much better place minus the used car salesmen. I’d get rid of poison ivy and mosquitoes too. And lima beans. Those things are just nasty.

What do I think about Grace? You mean the receptionist? She was nice enough, though I found the wings a bit ridiculous and her glowing personality hard to take. It was difficult not falling down in fear before her.

Oh, you mean grace the concept. That thing where guilty people get let off, scot-free? I am not about that; people need to learn the limits. Some jerk cut me off on the way here, and I did my best to let him know the danger he put me in, but he just kept on going. You give me this job, that dude will pay for what he did. Why are you looking at me that way? Instead of pity or compassion or whatever that is in your eyes, you should see me with respect.

Listen, Jesus. I know You and God are close. I get that. He’s impressive, but You’ve hitched Your wagon to His star for millennia now, and it’s time to pick a different pony. Face it, I’m the best man for this job. Without me in charge, the universe will continue to wear out like an old garment, and people will keep on getting away with murder. If God really loves everyone the way He says He does, He’ll turn in His two-weeks notice today, and if You know what’s best for everybody, You’ll snatch me up immediately.

I don’t want to put any undo pressure on you, but I’m considering quitting my job so my wife can support me as I try my hand at being an author. I’m pretty good at writing, so when my first novel hits it big, I won’t be interested in running the universe anymore. You may want to let me know in the next few days.

That being said, I won’t take up any more of Your time. These chocolates are heavenly. You won’t mind if I grab a few for the road? Thanks.

Remember what I said about that boat, and let me have a good rest of my day. Please heal the pain in my leg, and I pray our new neighbors aren’t complete jerks. Sorry, can’t talk anymore; gotta catch up on Game of Thrones. Keep it real, Jesus!

Career Change

Do you remember your last great achievement? If you deposed a tyrant or saved someone’s life, thank you for changing history. If you solved a work problem or rocked that new dinner recipe, celebrate.

What happens when the glow of success fades? My brain switches off that light with the question, “What now?” I pursued my dream of becoming an author, earning an MFA in creative writing last year, and asked myself what’s next ever since.

Most people respond with holy fear when I tell them I teach middle school: “Oh, that’s wonderful! I could never do that. Do you like it?” Their dread fascination makes me feel like Van Helsing or Hellboy. As if to deal with little monsters, I have to be a bit of one myself, but I enjoy meeting the challenge and seeing my students grow.

Knowing many of my fellow MFAers became college professors made me think that’s what I needed to do, and seeing my professors writing and teaching had me assuming my new degree cleared the way for a new career, but in the last 365 days, not one English department head knocked down my door. In return for submitting a handful of essays, I received a handful of rejections.

I prayed hard about my career, believing God would open a door to a job somewhere other than Centerburg Middle School before the 2014/2015 year began. My phone rang, but the man who called didn’t represent Simon & Schuster. My principal told me a colleague took a job down south and wondered how I felt about switching from science to English/social studies.

Unexpected? Yes. A deal-breaker? Not at all. Here lay an opportunity to teach English, my favorite subject, as recommended by the superintendent who started the same year I did. I spent a lot of time in his office a decade ago, trying to figure out how best to serve gifted students in two buildings, and there’s not many people who know the educator me like he does.

“Yes, boss. If that’s what you want me to teach, that’s what I’ll teach, boss,” I responded to the principal. Pleased I took the new position, he laughed at my assumed deference, and by conversation’s end, I hung up feeling perched at the edge of a cliff dive.

My wife supported my decision as it kept my day job, and in the past weeks, my sister helped me move into my new classroom while our mother looked after my kids.

This career change was the new future I desired dressed in clothes I didn’t expect. Since saying yes to this, I said no to teaching an adjunct English class at my alma mater (not enough money at the wrong time) and no to writing math curriculum for McGraw-Hill (12-15 month position working in my least favorite subject). I dream still of becoming an author, and teaching 8th grade English seems the best way to get there.

Do what you love; love what you do.

Not only will I work hard at school, preparing and presenting new lessons, I’ll work hard at home, submitting essays and writing every day, for little victories stack up to great achievements.