Roller Coaster Ridin’

You inhale deeply as you approach the wooden archway. A voice from the speaker above you and to your right is midway through its recording: “…so ride at your own risk. Only you know your limitations.”

You pull the corners of your mouth into a forced smile at the child who stands beside you. She has asked you to join her on this journey. It would be pure cowardice to retreat.

Together, you weave through the maze of metal fencing to find your place in line. The bars are painted a dark red. Shallow scratches and deep gashes in the paint show the original steely gray underneath. You rest your palms against the horizontal bars at your waist, but pull them back as you consider all of the sticky, sweaty hands that have blazed this trail before you, pioneers in tank tops and athletic shorts.

You glance at your child who stands shoulder-to-shoulder with you. You notice that you are eye level now. When did she get so tall or when did you shrink? She leans her back against the bar behind her, looking carefree and relaxed. A clattering sound rumbles over your heads, followed seconds later by deafening screams, and then both sounds are gone in a rush of air.

You shuffle forward a few feet. Conversations circle around you. Small children whine about the wait. Mothers remind them to be patient. A girl braids her friend’s hair into a long, tight rope. You turn away when you see a young couple embrace—too much affection in such a confined space.

Finally, you see the loading area. You watch people—brave souls just like you—as they board the cars. You fight the urge to salute them and their bravery. The affectionate couple from before is seated and both look nervous.

“I’m a little scared,” your child says quietly. You fake enthusiasm and confidence. You tell her, “Ah, come on. It’ll be fun. I promise.”

The cars return with their windswept occupants, smiling broadly. You wonder if their smiles are from joy or relief or both. Either way, you are encouraged that they returned without injury.

Your child slides into the car and you follow her. You attempt to steady trembling hands as you buckle the thick seat belt and pull down the padded bar. The bored, teen-aged park employee walks past each pair and tugs at their restraints. Internally, you question the extent of the training that allows him to operate this giant death trap.

It’s too late to turn back now. The cars rumble away slowly, teasing you with their nonchalant speed. You know this is a trick. You know this ride is designed to rattle your fillings and challenge your bladder.

The car climbs the steep hill with a repetition of clicks. At the top of the hill, you have only the briefest moment to assess the situation. In that moment, you calculate the risks and search your memory bank for any relevant news stories of crashes and negligent park staff. Then, you fall. The rapid descent lifts you ever so slightly from your seat. Your heart races and your stomach drops.

You chance a look at your child next to you—her eyes shut tight and her hands thrown into the air. She smiles. You scream. You find that you are grabbing her arm, involuntarily. The fear you felt before for your safety has been transferred to fear for hers.

When the ride is jerked to an abrupt end, you step out of the car and onto the platform with shaky legs. “That was fun!” your child says, as she bounces up and down with the release of pent-up energy. “Wanna do it again?”

“Let’s let your dad have a turn to ride it with you,” you say, feigning maternal selflessness.

The endless recording continues as you exit the archway: “Only you know your limitations.” You chuckle at the thought of fully knowing something as fluid as your limitations.

You follow your child, watching her long legs manage a smooth, assertive stride and you wonder, “Did I just ride a roller coaster or watch my daughter walk through the doors of her school for her first day of 8th grade?”

Thank a Teacher

Mrs. Brackett was my 4th grade teacher. She was, in every way, my favorite elementary school teacher. (She received this praise in part because my 3rd grade teacher was a screamer. She made me so nervous that I chewed on and eventually ingested those triangular, rubber pencil grips I bought from the school bookstore.)

Every week, Mrs. Brackett designated two students as Good Citizens. This distinction included a certificate and some kind of candy, like a Sugar Daddy or a handful of Now-or-Laters. She persuaded us to find information for ourselves. When we learned about evaporation, she told us we could set up our own experiments with Styrofoam cups of water all over the room. She was encouragement personified.

She was round and grandmotherly. She smiled easily. Her husband—a former Bozo the Clown from the 1960’s—played Santa Claus at the faculty Christmas parties my family always attended. They were a perfect pair.

By the time I was ready to declare my major in college, Mrs. Brackett had transferred to my university’s education department. She was assigned to be my faculty adviser. At my first appointment in her tiny office to discuss my schedule, she pulled out a ruler and a sharpened pencil. She created a spreadsheet on a piece of typing paper, mapping out my next four years in her precise cursive handwriting. When I told her I wasn’t very good at math so I didn’t want to take more than the math classes required for my major, she said, “Who told you that you aren’t good at math?” Mrs. Brackett saw potential everywhere, even in the most unlikely places.

With all of these memories, the thing I most remember about Mrs. Brackett was not her teaching style or how many book reports we had to write. What I remember most was the morning of January 28, 1986.

It was the birthday of a boy in my class named Matthew. We sat at our desks that morning to eat the cupcakes or cookies or Twinkies Matthew’s mother had sent in for a treat. Mrs. Brackett rolled a television cart into the room and turned on the set. A space shuttle was going to be sent off and she had decided to skip a portion of her lesson plan so we could watch it.

I’m sure a part of Mrs. Brackett’s fascination with this particular flight was due to the presence of Christa McAuliffe, a teacher chosen to join the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Maybe Mrs. Brackett had wished for just such an opportunity.

We counted down with the newscaster or NASA employee as he announced, “Lift off.” Then we watched as the space shuttle raced up into the heavens and exploded just minutes later. We were stunned, silent.

I wish I could remember exactly what Mrs. Brackett said. Maybe she didn’t say anything, at least not for a while. What I do remember was her presence and the comfort her presence gave, filling the room to replace the void the explosion created. She was there, feeling what we were feeling. Crying and trying to make sense of this sudden disaster.

This is what great teachers do. They inspire us. They get in the trenches with their students. They make them feel safe. Sometimes, they even lay down their lives for these children. If you’re a teacher, thank you. If you’re not a teacher, go find one and thank him or her today.

Sharing our Sorrows

I am the queen of strange injuries, allergies, and illnesses. For instance, a few weeks ago, while drying the dishes after my sister-in-law washed them, a cup full of silverware tipped over on the counter. One of them—an innocent-looking table knife—fell on the top of my foot, slicing a tendon. That tiny tendon’s main job was to make my next-to-baby toe mobile. Without it’s efforts, that toe has retired from service to his four brothers. It flops. It gets annoyingly tucked under the toes that flank him on either side. In other words, it’s worthless.

 

When I’m sitting for a period of time, I forget the accident happened. There’s no sharp pain and it stopped bleeding long ago. But as soon as I stand up, and walk barefoot across my floor, I remember. When it fails to clear a door threshold and I nearly lose a toenail, I think, “Oh, yeah. That’s right…I forgot.”

 

This is what it can feel like to live with an ongoing sorrow. The original, agonizing pain may be gone but there’s a dull ache that remains.

 

This pain may be the result of the death of a loved one or the end of a marriage. It may be the mourning of the life that was never realized—never married, never had children, never became that person. There may be moments when you don’t think about what or who is missing, but those moments are fleeting. Before you can settle into breathing without this sorrow bearing down on your chest like an anvil, a photo or a note reminds you of what’s been lost (or never found).

 

When C.S. Lewis lost his wife, he wrote about grief. He said, “The death of a beloved is an amputation.” You can survive it, but the sorrow remains. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning.”

 

So how does one live with this kind of relentless sorrow? Find someone to help you carry it. Even if it’s been months or years or even decades since you came face to face with your personal nightmare, speak it to another person. Now, it can’t be just anybody. The listening ear you’re looking for should be empathetic. He should not say phrases like: “Well, you think that’s bad…” or “It could be worst. At least…” This listening friend isn’t there to repair or change history. He’s there to absorb a bit of the pain, to say: “I’m so sorry.”

 

We were never promised an easy life. In fact, Christians are assured of persecution. But we’re also called to carry one another’s burdens. If you are overwhelmed by sorrow, find someone to listen to your story today.