Atul Gawande writes, “It can be hard not to feel that one is just a white-coated cog in a machine – an extraordinary successful machine but a machine nonetheless…None of us is irreplaceable. So not surprisingly, in this work one begins to wonder: How do I really matter?”
Is this not a question we all ask from time to time? No matter our profession, our roots, our context. Is this not the question that drives us to think, to strive, to reinvent. What do you do when life has hit you so hard that you find yourself reeling again? When seven years later, the smallest setback causes the images to replay through the night, the horrors of the years that came before.
You never fail to write. It’s habit now and you roll out of bed to the car, long before the sun begins to rise and make your way to the café. You bury your head in ‘the word’ and fill journal pages with your hopes and your prayers. You carefully scribe your thoughts and reflections from the things you’ve read. For years you chronicle your life in this way, closing the journal and getting on with your day. You stay busy. Study new degrees, change jobs, try new things, only to return in a way, to the things you did before – different context.
And so I find myself doing the very thing I always did, teaching Kindergarten.
My days are made up of sounds and numbers, of little people and extremes of emotions. It is satisfying but tiring work. I roll into bed at the end of the day empty but full. Exhausted but satisfied. The work is important. I realise this now more than ever before.
Sam has been well and off her medications for so long now.
Then out of nowhere, her liver flares. On the other end of the phone I hear the sound of her breathing, then her swallow, as she tries to suppress the tears long enough to tell me what the haematologist has found in the bloods. As she swallows, I too, dig deep. In the centre of my belly there is a well where truth resides. I prepare myself for not only what she will tell me but for how I will respond. As I listen, I coax myself from fear of the worst to that hope anchor, deep in my soul. I enter, mindfully into that place behind the curtain that is strong and secure. I remind us both that God remains true to his promise. This too will pass.
“A person’s steps are directed by the Lord. How can anyone understand their own way?” Proverbs 20:24
For years now I have struggled to find a way to really matter. To use the hardship of the suffering for the better good. It’s as though I’ve been in some kind of giant ballroom dancing with my eye on the exit, eager to get to the next event. I’ve wanted more but could not find the door.
“Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” Proverbs 19:21
Yet in the pages of the morning, out of habit more than anything else, I continued to follow that invisible thread, the Holy Spirit whisper. Returning hence where I began, to the simple art of teaching children to read.
As I sit in my chair before them we engage in the learning of sounds. It is a whole body experience. I guide them to hear it first with their ears as I repeat it, then they repeat me. I correct them showing them where to position their tongue in their mouth; behind your front teeth to make ‘n’, curved high in the roof of their mouth to make ‘l’. We are absorbed. Mindful. Then we draw it in the air in large invisible strokes, top to bottom, up and around. We brainstorm every word we know containing that sound and sort them into categories: beginning, middle and end.
Then sometime in the middle of the day, a child will randomly forget her manners and the rules and call my name, then a new word. “Yes!” I exclaim, “An excellent example.” We give thanks for a word and His presence is tangible.
I am a wheel in the cog that slowly turns. I am doing what I did long before that dreaded first phone call that changed our lives forever. Since then I’ve completed a degree, a masters of education, applied for promotions and finally returned to the thing I always did. Somehow this is okay. Perhaps it is now that I give myself to the work more fully than ever before, embracing the simple life, counting the blessings, laughing with children and preparing them to be strong and resilient like my daughter who followed in my footsteps to teach young children too.
This same daughter hangs up the phone after we pray in agreement that God will continue to complete the work he began. We are rejoicing too, that we understand His word. That it is formed in us like the sounds in the mouths of children learning to read.