Teaching in a public school, like life, can be disappointing. That reality hit me pretty hard one gray Tuesday in January. Running late for an early meeting to pray with some of the Christian teachers, I picked a verse to start off our prayer session that felt more random than inspired. The muffins I was going to bring were still sitting on the couch in my living room, forgotten. We dragged desks into a circle with very little conversation. There were longer than normal pauses in between the prayers, and then it was over. Everyone left with tired goodbyes and no muffins.
Later, during my first period honors class, I asked my students to circle up for the “Dynamic Duo Discussion.” It felt like the perfect lesson plan. Working as partners, students would hurl comments and quotes into the heat of a discussion like Batman and Robin fighting the dregs of Gotham City. But instead of hearing the beautiful back and forth of engaging conversation, there was silence. They just looked awkwardly at their desks as the school room’s rattling air vent filled the emptiness.
It was a “blah” day.
Still, God’s love, like glowing lava, was simmering beneath the gray crust as I recalled the excitement the day before in my regular track class. My students and I had acted out a poem by Gary Soto called Oranges. It’s a poetic narrative describing a boy’s first walk with a girl. Soto leads his readers along this walk as the ice “crackles beneath his feet” and the fog “hangs like coats.”
I’d asked my students to help me bring the poem to life. Standing on his desk with his cell phone light, David portrayed the porch light that “always burns yellow.” Jeff crinkled paper to create the “crackling ice” effect. Then, after I told Philip to let go of Rosemary’s hand, he peeled the orange. That’s when I read my favorite line: “I peeled my orange that was so bright against the gray of December that, from some distance, someone might have thought I was making a fire in my hands.”
Acting out that poem had been the highlight of my Monday, but now it was Tuesday — the day the “Dynamic Duo Discussion” fell flat. All we were going to do in my regular classes was take notes. Tired and leaning against the podium with a dry-erase marker in my hand, I asked my students, “What is Soto doing with his imagery in the poem we acted out yesterday?”
Hands went up, more hands than usual. A flicker of hope sparked inside me. Julian, who usually hides behind Karen, raised his hand.
I smiled and pointed to him. “Julian, jump in.”
He nodded. “Are the colors important?”
“Yes! Great point, Julian!” I gave him a high-five.
Corrine’s hand shot up. She was shaking her arm, eyes wide open, leaning forward in her desk.
“Corrine, what’s on your mind?”
“Contrast.” She grinned, glad to finally have the answer released from her brain. “Soto is creating contrast. He wants their love to stand out in a plain, boring world.”
They got it! We talked about the oranges and the bright light at the girl’s house, and the fire in the boy’s hands at the end “contrasting” with the gray of December. The white board was filled with ideas written in blue marker.
My last class was another “Dynamic Duo Discussion” nightmare. When it was over, I gathered the papers strewn across my podium, walked into my office, and dropped into my desk chair. It was not a perfect day. That was painfully clear, but the pain went deeper to the question of whether or not I was getting too old to really connect with teenagers.
Days later, I sat on my bed. Self-doubt still hung over me as I read Psalm 63. David wrote these words while desperately trying to survive in a desert:
"You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you."
I started writing about the psalm. That process of pen moving across paper has become God’s forum to help me listen. Like lingering with my daughter as she tells me about her Beanie Boos, writing is a way to do something God likes — wait on him. Listening is hard to accomplish without waiting, and it was in that waiting that God spoke. David used his physical surroundings as a metaphor to let us in on a secret. The desert was a gift. It made him appreciate water.
As David’s secret was unveiled, my mind replayed the moment when Corrine burst out with the word “contrast.” God was making a connection, and that’s when his love instantly broke through the dry crust of my heart. The orange that was like fire in the boy’s hands and the yellow light on the porch would not have stood out if it were not for the contrast of the gray December day. Those bright symbols of love would not appear as bright without the “blah.”
The reason David could write with conviction that God’s love is better than life is because it stood out in such stark contrast to the “dry and weary” desert of his life. God used the connections between Psalm 63 and Oranges to speak one powerful truth — maybe we need the blah in life to appreciate the wonder of God’s love. Like a great poet, God took pieces of my life — a psalm, Oranges, and a miserable day — and wove them together to create purpose and meaning. That’s what he does. He redeems the blah in our lives.
Listening to God can be a kind of seeing, and when we see that he sees us, we know what every human heart longs to know. We are loved.