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Mar. 30th, 2015

Frozen Waffles

Frozen waffles.

Every time I reach into the freezer and pull out a beloved frozen waffle for breakfast, I will remember Grandma Gert.

She was the best - as a kid, every Saturday morning was the beginning of the best Saturday ever. Not only did I get to go to Saturday morning band, where I cemented my reputation as band nerd by age ten, I got to go visit Grandma Gert afterwards. Most weekends my dad would give me a ride, but I distinctly remember a couple of days walking along the curve of Grantosa Drive, with my face turned up to the sun, following my nose and dreams towards freshly toasted waffles. Grandma always had them ready and waiting to go into the toaster as I entered the house. They were the most glorious and tantalizing moments of the day, waiting for the toaster to crisp those waffles to golden-brown perfection. I would smother them with loads of butter and syrup, but it didn’t matter - grandma seemed to take a secret pride in spoiling her grandchildren.
It was tradition!


It could have been anything, really, it wasn’t about the frozen waffles from a box, the vegetable-based spread, or the artifically flavored syrup. It was about the tradition that for those glorious Saturday afternoons, I’d be eating waffles with one of the two best grandmas in the whole wide world (I am so lucky - the other best grandma in the whole world is my grandma Ruth, of course).


For those precious hours, I had grandma Gert’s complete, undivided attention - and unlimited seconds on frozen waffles. We talked about anything and everything under the sun. Questions of science and faith, philosophy, and family. She knew about all of my friends and I knew about all of hers. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was learning some of the most important lessons in life during those conversations. Grandma modeled generosity and care in her relationships. She was faithful and steadfast, but very kind. Matters of faith and religion were part of every Saturday’s conversation lineup. These lessons are timeless.

As the years went on, I graduated from Saturday morning band, but I didn’t graduate from our conversations. One day, the details are on the edge of my memory - we were to have one of the many conversations to follow. It was after grandpa had died and we were in the nursing home, just the two of us. She was having trouble remembering the details of who I was and where I had been in my life, but it didn’t matter. I was sitting with my Grandma Gert and I had her complete, undivided attention, and she had mine. In a moment of misgiving, she turned to me, suddenly saddened, and asked, “what have I done in my life that matters?”

It’s a question we all must answer - whether we are faced with it head on or whether it scratches at the edges of our conscience. What have I done that matters? I took her hands in mine and reassured her, “Grandma, I will never forget the waffles after Saturday morning band." She laughed and said, "You still remember that?"

"Yes, and I will always remember your generosity, your kindness, the stories you told about the Walther League, the stories of the three boys and Judy. I know I’m not the only life you have touched with these lessons. You always said you wanted to be a teacher - you were my teacher.”


It wasn’t about the waffles, but I will never forget the waffles, and the love and kindness and generosity that they came from. Indeed, grandma was my teacher, but I know that she was a teacher for all of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. There were countless youth that she influenced in her life from the time that she served in the Walther league to the children in her neighborhood on 87th street.


The importance of treating people with generosity, kindness, and respect. The importance of working hard and caring for others. The calling we have to serve God and his people. These are Grandma Gert’s legacy. These are the lessons I will remember, until one day, we will meet again beyond this world and sit down to some frozen waffles and share our stories and laughter once more.








Jun. 22nd, 2011

Lessons from New Orleans

A warm Wisconsin summer sunshine greeted us the first Saturday morning after Memorial Day. Six of our eight mission team members gathered in a nearly empty church parking lot in Mequon to pool our snacks and drinks and pack our cargo for the trip ahead. With only a vague idea of what we might possibly be asked to do upon arrival in New Orleans, we left the lot with high hopes, eager anticipation, and a prayerful blessing. With Pastor Carl Lehenbauer at the wheel, our team was on its way. In addition to Pastor, the van’s occupants included Melissa Klug, Amanda Beuscher, Kathy Gesch, Crystal Gesch, and myself (Nicole Gesch). We would be picking up Jim Lehenbauer in Indiana, and Carrie Bruss at the New Orleans airport.

A pleasantly uneventful and rather quiet van ride, broken up with intermittent bathroom and food stops, made for an unremarkable beginning to a very remarkable journey.

With an extra stop in Indiana, our group had wisely planned to make the trip South over two days. Our first night together was at a church in Madison, Tennessee. We passed the time playing a spoons tournament with pencils, in which Pastor deftly proved his superior reaction abilities. Sunday morning dawned bright and beautiful, and the last leg of the 20-hour journey brought us to Camp Restore in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The Camp is a humble, yet lively place. The staff and volunteers form a dedicated, unstoppable team. Our first brief meeting oriented us to the camp, its mission, and the greater New Orleans culture. Six years after the devastation of hurricane Katrina, there is still much community rebuilding to do. The following week would be filled with hard work, good food, and a glimpse into the fabulous culture of New Orleans.

The team approached our first workday with excitement and anticipation - we were stoked to be assigned to the horse ranch as our first job site. Now, I just want to take a moment to remind you where our group is coming from geographically. The Northern tundra of Wisconsin is not well-known for it’s temperate climate, mostly because temperate doesn’t exist in Wisconsin. We left Milwaukee at a cool 60-some degrees. Our first day in New Orleans was 102 degrees with some astronomically high humidity. Add to that the fact that volunteering at a horse ranch means mucking stalls, and you have some very weary volunteers. If our food and lodging had been earned through the amount of sweat expelled at work, we would have been sleeping at a 5-star resort. Instead, we returned to our trailers at Camp Restore, thanking God for the gift of air conditioning.

We looked forward to our second workday in New Orleans because we heard rumor that we were assigned to an indoor job. We thought there might be air conditioning. We were wrong. The next day proved just as hot and humid, and nearly as much physical work. We sorted goods at a warehouse for a rehabilitation program. The goods were to be sold at a distribution center, and the profits go to helping the men and women in rehab. We had the opportunity to meet and converse with many of the people working to improve their lives through this program.

The third day into our retreat in New Orleans, we were finally assigned to do some light construction work (the type of job with concrete results). We arrived at an old three-story building that had been evacuated and abandoned since the hurricane. The building used to serve as a convent and orphanage, but after 6 years of disuse and neglect, there is a lot of work to be done before the nuns and children can come back again. But they will come back, if two men, Wayne and Houston, have anything to say about it. Brothers in Christ, Wayne and Houston are working passionately and religiously to get the building up to a "five-star" convent and education center, and they are inspiring hundreds of volunteers along the way. We went to New Orleans to help and witness to the people there, but Wayne and Houston were a testimony to us about service in Christ. We were so inspired by our first day at the convent that we had to return again later in the week to see the results of all our mudding, sanding, priming, and painting. The building is not up to par yet, but with the help of more volunteers under the leadership of Wayne and Houston and with God’s blessing, the nuns and children will have a beautiful building to move into by August.

The last place we went to serve was a community center in St. Bernard Parish, just outside of New Orleans. This parish is in particular need of help precisely because it is outside New Orleans. St. Bernard Parish did not receive much of the assistance New Orleans did despite rampant flooding. The members of our team gained experience handing out food, stocking shelves, sorting clothes and other goods, and listening to people’s stories. Everyone in New Orleans has a story, and hearing these stories was sometimes the most gratifying part of the mission trip. The people of New Orleans are strong and proud of their culture. They come together to help their communities. The hurricane caused astronomical devastation and loss, but the community that has grown together is sound and passionate. We learned from our experience to be strong and passionate in our own communities.

After a mission trip with such beautiful lessons for each of us, we can’t help but ask the question, “so, what’s next? What do we do after such a transforming experience?” It is important to remember the lesson we learned in New Orleans about community and to bring that passion and that concern for others back home. The van ride home was full of passionate and energetic conversation planning and organizing a volunteer group to help out in the Milwaukee area. With God’s blessing, we are striving to continue to reach out and build our community through Christ-centered missions.

Jun. 12th, 2011

Alternate Pathways

 Once again, with a restlessness in my heart, I find myself on the road away from home. I wasn't really planning this trip, nor was I anticipating it with much fervor. I approached my recent two-week vacation to Boston with much more excitement and energy than this mission trip to New Orleans. You see, it wasn't my idea to go on this mission, and from the moment I was asked to join, I wasn't totally committed. I was merely another body to fill out the mission team. I didn't plan many details, felt mostly out of the loop, and was pretty much just along for the ride. I even felt a little guilty, taking time off from a recently new job, abandoning my coworkers and students yet again for my own pleasure trips. Fortunately, the Lord had a better plan in mind for me. Little did I know the lessons and insights I would learn on this trip. 

But in order for these insights to have any meaning, you have to know that lately I have been quite preoccupied with figuring my life out. Before I graduated college, I always had a plan. I always had a goal to strive for and a straight path that would get me there. My steady progress through school worked like clockwork, or like a nice geometric proof, each step following logically, clearly, and orderly from the last, towards a common and elegant goal. Suddenly, all in a matter of months, my goals converged seamlessly. I studied abroad, completed my senior portfolio, received my bachelor's degrees in elementary education and mathematics, obtained my teaching licenses in Wisconsin and Iowa, and moved into my own living space. Major life goals accomplished! This sounds like something to rejoice about, and I did some rejoicing; however, my sense of accomplishment rapidly diminished into a sinking emptiness as I wondered, "What's next? Where do I go from here?" All this work to get me where I am, and I don't know where I'm going. 

The logical part of my brain is telling me, "You finally have your teaching license! Get a job in a classroom in a nice suburb of Milwaukee and start gaining experience teaching in the mainstream. You had a plan: graduate, sub until summer, get two years of teaching experience in the states, two years of experience teaching abroad, back to school to get your master's in mathematics education, and continue becoming a better and better math teacher." It was flawless. 

Until I received one small email that would change my life. It was an inconsequential email. It almost got ignored, like many requests crowding the inbox. It was simple, just a supplication from a staff person at my home church in Mequon (which I only get to attend intermittently since moving to Milwaukee). All it said was that a place called the SOS Center needed volunteers to help with a painting project - it's in Milwaukee. Now - I had never painted before in my life, I didn't know what the SOS Center was about, or why I should care that it needed painting, but I was available the Saturday morning that they needed volunteers and lived only ten minutes away, so I  thought I'd check it out. I learned a few things about painting, met some new people, and genuinely had a good time. As the morning went on, conversation turned to me and I was describing my experiences in South Korea to some men who are closely involved in the SOS center. Upon learning that I had experience teaching ESL students, everyone in the room got excited and eagerly told me the center was looking for an ESL teacher. In a flurry of activity, I quickly obtained names and numbers of board members and directors as well as small bits of questionably accurate information about what the job might be like. Within a week, my resume was submitted to the executive director, interviews and orientations commenced, and I was teaching adult GED classes in a computer lab in the basement. Turns out it was not an ESL teacher the center needed, but a GED instructor. It was the perfect fit!
 
I love working for my boss and she lets me know regularly how much she appreciates me. We brainstorm and dream about what we can do to improve the center and expand its programs. I have a coworker who also teaches GED classes with me; we make a perfect pair. He is the wise, compassionate, black minister and I am the young, energetic, logical optimist. Between the two of us, everyone who walks through our doors finds something to connect with. He is a published Doctor - I am a math nerd. He has experience - I have energy. We've got all our bases covered, and we love working together. I'm not teaching in a mainstream classroom, but, instead, I am working with the people for whom mainstream education has failed. I finally feel like I'm reaching the unreachable students. 
 
In many ways, this job was the next perfect step in my life. I never saw it coming. The plan was, after student teaching, I would substitute teach, allowing math and high school requests to take precedence over other subbing requests in the district. However, on my last day of student teaching, I was sitting in my classroom with my cooperating teacher, grading 127 final exams, laughing and crying over our students. Halfway through the day a Learning Center teacher from down the hall knocked on our door. She came in, apologizing for distracting us while we were so busy, but we needed to talk. You see, one of the English teachers just found out she had cancer and would need a long-term sub. I'm not certified to teach English, but one of the learning center teachers is. So, the plan was to have the learning center teacher sub for English classes and I would sub in the learning center. Now, I'm not certified to teach alternative education (the learning center - in short - is a study hall with extra support . The learning center teachers help out with homework, organization, advocating for fair alternative instruction and assessment, and working closely with the various subject teachers to help ensure success for 'at-risk' students), but I would always be working with at least one other teacher in the center, and I knew many of the students already, as well as the rules and culture of the school. I started the next day. The following few weeks were a roller coaster ride getting to know and trying to help some of the most difficult, troubled, unique, challenged, or apathetic youth I have worked with. I love it! So, when the time came for the English teacher to joyously return to her job, healing quickly, I had no idea that my next job would be helping the same kind of students years after their high school experiences had concluded. I went from helping at-risk students graduate high school, to helping adults complete their GEDs. Many of the same things that caused my high school students to be labeled 'at-risk' are the same causes that kept my adult students from graduating years ago. I already had an idea of why completing a high school diploma was so difficult, and yet so important, for so many people, especially in the city. 

So, right now, I find alternative education extremely compelling. I see the weakness and failures in our education system more acutely than I ever could from the bluffs of rural Iowa during my college career. I still have very few answers, and many of my own ideas are not well-defined; however, I finally feel like I am doing something about the education inequality in Milwaukee. I'm reaching students who have never been reached and remembering students who have long been forgotten. The non-traditional set-up of our program leaves room for the kind of one-on-one attention that not only allows me to assess and design individual curricular paths, but also allows me to listen to students' stories, struggles, complications, and experiences that influence, impede, or supplement their intellectual development. 

I just started this job, but I'm already hooked. The only reservation that I have is that it's only part-time. There is a chance, if we can convince our benefactors to expand the grant that pays my wages, that I will be employed full-time come January 2012. But in the mean time, the decision remains: stay with the SOS center hoping to become employed full-time but willing to take the risks of staying part time for a while, or leave the center in August to take a 'real' teaching job with benefits and a salary. August is such a short time away, and I just got started. I feel like I would somehow be letting down my coworkers and students, leaving so early when I still have much to offer the center (also, teaching adult GED classes is soooooooooo much less stress than being a first-year classroom teacher at a public school right now). 

So, these are the thoughts that weighed on my heart and mind as our small mission team made the nearly 20 hour cross country car ride from Milwaukee to New Orleans, a city with needs as acute and diverse as my hometown. Needs that can only be met through quiet determination and incredible hope and sacrifice. The stories I would hear in this city would bring me a new perspective on my life's work and mission. 


 

Sep. 4th, 2010

The road goes ever on and on

He used often to say there was only one Road. That it was like a great river: It's springs were at every doorstep and every path was its tributary. "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door, " he used to say, "You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might be swept off to."
~J.R.R Tolkien


Well, I left the doorstep of my temporary home in Milwaukee one month and two days ago, and while I had a general idea of where the road would take me, I had no idea of the details such a journey would bring me to. With another month and nine days to go, who knows where else the road will sweep me before I find myself back at the doorstep? 

Yesterday, I found myself waking up again to an empty apartment. I realized that I had not made any plans for this Saturday and, not feeling mentally up to the work of planning and calculating an excursion into the city, not feeling socially up to maintaining any sort of companion-building conversation, and not feeling physically up to hiking or any real exercise, but instead feeling the acuteness of loneliness seeping into the ebbing barriers of emotional security, I decided to go for a walk. Just a plain old walk, no plans, no calculated outcome, no goals; allowing my wandering feet to clear my mind and restore my soul. Had I recalled Bilbo's apprisal to Frodo before the little hobbit's journey to the ends of Middle Earth, I may have taken heed of such literary foreshadowing. Fortunately, the road did not sweep me to such dramatic ends as saving the world from certain doom; however the connecting pathways experienced in every day life are no less intricate than those traveled by Frodo in Middle Earth, the Pevensies in Narnia, or Alice in Wonderland. 



Following my own two feet, I wandered through Yonsei University, admiring the well-planned gardens and sophisticated architecture. As my thoughts reeled, my shoes landed on a path at the back of the University, leading up through a pine tree forest. I slowed to admire the way the all-too rare South Korean sunshine danced through the branches. There was a slight breeze making the day one of those rare gems in which the weather is just perfect for an afternoon stroll. As I moved on, a university student passed me on the trail, his footsteps muted by the thick cover of pine needles on the ground. I noticed his bare feet and thought of a quote my theater professor at Luther used to say, "liberate the feet and the mind will follow." I silently cheered this young man's liberation of mind and body, deciding against following suite in such a large, public city as Seoul. Had I been back in the woods of Decorah, you can bet my feet would have been bare from the doorstep. 

I continued on, following the path, noticing that this one would lead me around the familiar mountain rather than up or over it. I saw the effects and toll the recent typhoon had inflicted on the woods. Large branches, and occasionally, whole trees were strewn about the path, making things more interesting than they otherwise would have been. At one point, I came upon a large round stone with the words 'meeting place' carved into its surface in Korean and English. It was surrounded by a rather open space with several benches available for sitting. Looking around, I appeared to be at the end of the path. "That's an odd meeting place," I thought, "Out in the middle of nowhere and only one way to get to it." I explored the periphery, eventually triumphing in finding another path, its juncture obscured by the branches and leaves of a fallen tree.

Eventually returning to this meeting place, after an hour of solitude walking around the periphery of the mountain, I came face to face with an elderly Korean gentleman after emerging from the obscured pathway. At first, I nodded politely to him and made to continue walking, but a moment after I had bypassed him, he stopped me, and, in surprisingly clear English, asked me if the path kept going, because, he was trying to get to the other side of the mountain. I told him yes, and showed him how to get around the fallen tree, revealing the continuing path. We must have both been intrigued with each other. I was intrigued because I hadn't met any older Koreans who spoke English so well, and because this man was rather well dressed for a walk on such a natural trail (but come to think on it, I was sporting white khaki pants and a blue blouse, nearly as professional attire as his). Realizing he could go on his way, he first gave pause and abruptly asked me, "what are you doing out here? Are you a student at the University?" 

I told him no, and In response to his curiosity, I shared my story of how I came to be in Seoul and that I would be here for a rather short stay. Our conversation flowed naturally, one in which time and obligations cease to exist as you envelop yourself in understanding the other facing you. There are so many marvels to this conversation, I wish not to bore you with the details but several are worth sharing so be patient with my words. For some you reading this, you will understand my increasing endearment to this man when he told me his name is Steve. We talked about the economy and the effects of the recessions in the US and Korea (Steve is working tirelessly to sell his house, but the process is taking painstakingly long). We discussed education, comparing the public systems in South Korea and the United States, discussing the various problems, intricacies, and relationships in effect. Knowing that I was in the presence of a fellow educator, I soon discovered that he teaches math at a local university and our conversation turned to Godel's Set Theory and the beauties of logic and proof. Yes, friends; some people visit Korea and go out and dance with young men at the local clubs, I visit Korea and find a wizened old professor to talk mathematics and education with.

Conversation soon turned to my home, and upon mentioning my school in Iowa, he brightened up and blurted, "Ames! Do you know Ames, Iowa!?" Turns out Steve's brother lives in Ames and Steve has enjoyed visiting there a couple of times. We reminisced about the Hawkeye State, we talked about a famous German singer named Nicole, we compared kimchee experiences in Seoul, and we laughed at each other's stories. 

Eventually, we noticed the sun lowering behind the mountain and bade each other a small blessing. The wise, Asian professor plodded on, and I turned and gave the meeting stone a wink as my blond hair caught in the wind and my feet carried me with an extra bounce back to my doorstep. 



My teacher back at school knows that I enjoy hiking (or in this case, walking) the mountain (called Ansan), and since her husband is an avid hiker, she continues to urge me to take the subway and try out some of the trails further North of Seoul. "This mountain is so small in comparison," she says. But the Koreans also have a traditional belief that every mountain has a spirit. Ansan may be small, but I believe a kindred spirit dwells there. Like a true friend, it seems to listen and respond to my needs whenever I seek it out. And, who knows, if all roads are indeed one, as Bilbo says, then one of these days I will follow the Road far enough to seek out the other mountains in Seoul. But, for now, the Path ends at my doorstep, awaiting another time to sweep me off my feet. 

Some thoughts

Time to catch up! 

I have been meaning to add another entry in my blog lately, but  I have had so many thoughts rolling around in my head that I can never focus enough to write a coherent, complete entry. I don't know what this one will turn out to be, but you are welcome to join me on the journey. 

Because that's what this has been; a journey. 

It's like that mountain I have been hiking. You start out in small intervals. First, going with someone who knows the way, watching what they do, how they think, how they solve problems, what gear they bring to navigate this mountain. After one or two or several of these experiences, you start to venture out on your own, first sticking to one main path or a few familiar paths. Once you've got those routes down and basic map in your head of how things will go, you can start to venture out sideways on diverging paths, find the less traveled ways, discover the hidden gems, get hopelessly lost, find your way again, and trot home rejoicing, undaunted at the possibility of future ventures. 

Teaching is a journey climbing a mountain, not once, but many, many times, until you know the best routes, the important gear, the clean water sources, and the way back home. It's scary the first couple times, and some of the times in between, but the breathtaking views, the calming waters, the companionship, and the triumphs are all worth it. 

Aug. 19th, 2010

Characters

 TGIF
The end of the first week of school! 

My class is adorable and quirky; a little young for their grade, but very promising. And full of characters; you wouldn't believe these kids. I love getting to know them all. This year (well, these next two months) will be fun and challenging. 

I'm well into teaching math, soon we will add science and social studies to the mix. I think one of the biggest hurdles for me to overcome during student teaching is my self confidence. Do any of you feel that way about your careers? You know you have had all the training, resources, and experience you need to get started, but you find it difficult because you can't be excellent right away? How did/do you overcome these hurdles? I would love to hear your thoughts. 

Surrender to χαρις (part II)

Okay, to recap my last entry, I survived an international flight, the largest church in the world, and losing myself on a mountain. Fortunately, God's grace is greater than all those things, and the connections keep coming. I am almost a week behind in ideas and experiences that I wanted to share in this blog, but life keeps propelling me onward. 

Anyways, one thing that I want to share with you all concerns the faculty retreat we experienced last Friday. This past summer, unbeknown to me, the faculty had an assignment to read The Jesus Creed by Scott McKnight. This reading assignment was in preparation for a full day workshop centered around the book. When I found out about the assignment on the bus ride to the retreat, I proceeded to ask several of the other teachers what the book was about. Turns out that they had read no more of it than I had. We arrived at the retreat center, in a beautiful mountain area, after a week of meetings and orientations to sit through 4 hours of lecture broken up with coffee and snack breaks. A statistic should exist that says something like 90% of the teachers in the world consume 80% of the coffee. This seems especially true when you take a large group of tired, jet-lagged teachers and throw them together to listen to a lecture on a book they never opened, all this three days before their students are to arrive in their classrooms. 

Despite this bleak outlook, the lecture, I believe, was a success. The speaker proved to be interesting and entertaining while delivering a clear and concise message. While at times he was a little wordy, and you have to be wordy to talk for four hours, he did a good job of staying in the teachers' good graces. Kudos to any college professor who can get a room full of skeptical K-12 teachers invested in his personal message concerning education. 

The core of his message was this:

"Hear, O Israel: the Lord, our God, the Lord, is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these." 

This is the verse he urged us to repeat every morning, every evening, and every moment in the day that it comes to mind; in order that it would bring about a right mindset for our educational occupations. We should apply it to everyone we come in contact with: the difficult students, stubborn colleagues, the Korean taxi driver who mistakes my heavily accented 'wey-guken-hak-yo' (the foreign school) for God knows what while speeding past my destination. 
 
He also reminded us that this can only be done through God's charis, or grace (which is what the Greek symbols in the title of this post mean). Coincidentally, I am surrounded by graces. The new teacher at the British school, and one of my first friends in Korea, is named Grace. My cooperating teacher is also named Grace. And, as I am so often reminded, no one is perfect while student teaching, so I am in need of a lot of grace.

With all of the excitement, business, apprehension, and challenges that come with a brand new school year, I have no choice but to surrender to God's grace, no matter what happens. 

Aug. 13th, 2010

Surrender to χαρις (part I)

Annyonghaseyo! Hello!

Wow! I can't believe that on Monday, I will have been in Seoul for two weeks already. I'm still in a disorienting disequilibrium in which some moments I feel as if I just arrived and haven't found my feet yet, but other moments I feel as if I have been here for ages. With my head and heels still spinning from experiencing all the new people, places, cultures, language, food, and living space, I am reminded that one thing will always remain constant; God. 

It is striking to look back on the past two weeks and see a definite theme emerge. I remember arriving on my first international flight alone. As the plane touched ground I was praying fervently, trying to ward away fears and concerns: what if all my luggage gets lost and I have to buy a whole new wardrobe? What if I lose my passport and cash? What if I can't find the SFS faculty who are supposed to pick me up and I don't know the language so I can't get any Korean won and can't get any rides to the school and end up lost and alone in a foreign airport with no idea how to get anywhere?!?
                Well, it turns out all that worrying was needless; wasteful, actually, of my time and energy. None of those things happened. I arrived safely, I was the first to find the SFS party, they all spoke English, and I obtained some Korean won without needing to speak a word, except a polite thank-you. International crisis averted.

Nearly a week later, I had the opportunity to join the rest of the SFS newbies on a bus ride to the world's largest church (by membership numbers), Yoido Full Gospel Church. It has over 800,000 members, no joking! With seating for 26,000 people, a full choir, full orchestra, gigantic television screens, worship song leaders, and dozens of support staff, the 'service' felt more like a tourist attraction; something unique and interesting to 'see' and 'experience'.  We got to sit in a special 'foreigners' section of the church and wear headphones so that we could listen to the broken translation of the service into English. The screens also translated the worship song lyrics, many of them to familiar tunes, into several different languages.
         There was one song that stuck with me from the beginning, mostly because it was new to me, I loved the melody, and it resonated with me almost right away. The majority of the words were simply, "I surrender all", which, at first, was obnoxiously simplistic and repetitive, but the more often they were repeated, the more I thought about the power behind those words. Interestingly, that song was played and sung several more times throughout the service (In fact, the phrase was repeated so often that I started singing my poor anglicized version of the Korean pronunciation my ears heard from the thousands of worshipers around me) and when it came to the sermon, I understood why this song was so central to the service. With all the gusto and enthusiasm of a true Pentecostal minister, the pastor spurred the congregation on to amens and hallelujahs, encouraging his people to surrender all to Jesus Christ regardless of financial, business, educational, and familial situations and relationships. I remember the sermon being engaging and appropriately light-hearted or seriously sobering in all the right places. It contained all the best combinations of story-telling, parables, lessons, Bible passages, and anecdotes; but the one thing that I will remember is the pastor's fervent exhortation to surrender everything to Jesus Christ. 


Ok, fast forward a couple of days. Well into my second week in Seoul, settled into the apartment but still learning my way around the neighborhood, I decided to further explore the mountain behind the school. This particular excursion was the fourth time I've been up this mountain (I love hiking; I don't think I'm really a city girl, I'm always drawn out to the wilderness before I'm drawn in to the excitement of the city). It is kind of small for a mountain, but there are still miles and miles of trails to discover. It was rather late for setting out on a hike; around 6:30pm. And if you ever spend significant time in Korea, you will notice that the sun sets suddenly and almost immediately at about 8:00; dusk is almost non-existent. So I knew this had to be a short trip, but I needed to do something active outside after a full day of sitting at staff meetings, sometimes struggling to find the meanings and purpose behind such torture, I mean, informative and enlightening sessions.
          After traveling a quite familiar trail, I decided on a new path to take. In my mind, I must be familiar with most of the mountain by now, but this trial led me to the Buddhist temple in an unexplored area. The sky was cloudy, and even after two weeks in this place, I have trouble maintaining my internal compass in this new environment (somehow, in the Midwest, I never have trouble identifying which direction is North, I don't usually even have to think about it; I just know. This is not so in Korea). The temple grounds are substantial and many of the buildings look similar. So after thoroughly exploring the grounds and listening to the percussion and chanting of the monks in meditation, I had trouble identifying the trail I came down from about ten other options.
        Still feeling relaxed from the temple experience, I decide to follow a trail that looked promising in the direction I was sure must be West, back towards the school. As I followed the dense, winding pathway, I realized that this was the steepest trail I had endeavored to climb yet. I was clearly not on the right path, but "that's ok," I thought, "it's got to take me somewhere, and it's going in the general direction I want to go." Soon, I shockingly realized that the light was getting dimmer; suddenly aware of the passage of time, I checked my watch to see that it was already 7:35 and I didn't know where I was. Remembering Sunday's sermon, like a good Christian scholar, I decide not to worry and to trust God that everything will be alright. I gave myself a deadline, "if I don't know where I am by 7:45, I'll start worrying." If you are wondering why I was not completely freaking out, I knew that I could travel down the mountain in any direction and be in the city of Seoul, hailing a taxi within 15 to 20 minutes, and negotiating my way back to Yonhi-dong and safety. There is no true wilderness out here, but I am stubborn and would rather find my own way back home than have to rely on a taxi.
         So, I kept hiking, and kept going up. Thinking I would soon to have to turn around and get myself off this mountain before sunset, I finally arrived at a peak with the most breathtaking display of the city of Seoul and the rest of the mountain yet. I just stood there in awe for a minute, taking in the beautiful, but dimming view, noticing the contrast between the densely packed skyscrapers of downtown Seoul and the majestic wilderness of the mountain peaks in the distance. I walked on for another hundred meters and came to a familiar and beautifully ornamented rest stop. Realizing that I was much further North and much less East than I thought, I was finally comforted by the fact that I knew how to get home on my own two feet. Trotting down the familiar trail and the rest of the way back to the school, I arrived at the gate just as the street lights were coming on, giving God a little word of thanks and praise for the meditation, spectacular view, and safe journey. 

Aug. 9th, 2010

Royalty

Ok, I realize that my last entry was days ago and focused on jet lag and lack of dairy. I hope I did not leave everyone thinking I have slept through the past few days. The past few days have been a flurry of meetings, tours, orientations, and settling into a new living space. 

First off, I cannot say enough what a blessing this experience is. I am very well taken care of here. The Human Resources staff and the General Assistance staff have gone to any lengths necessary to provide me with a comfortable, well-furnished, apartment to call home while I am here. New staff orientation had everything I needed including tours of the school, walking trips to the surrounding neighborhoods and parks, bus and subway trips to groceries and convenience stores, brief language and culture lessons, a night out for dinner and theater, as well as plenty of time to get to know my  colleagues and settle into my home. I have been busy, but so far keeping a good balance. 

As mentioned earlier, last week was orientation for all of the new faculty. All staff development commenced this morning. Just when I got down all the names of the fifty-some new faculty, a hundred other new faces showed up. I have not been disappointed, they are all wonderful people. I now know my grade level team (which refers to me as 'our' student teacher; I don't get just one cooperating teacher, I get three), my curriculum coordinator, the ESL support team, the Korean teachers, and the third grade teachers. It won't take long to get to know everyone else at the Elementary school, too. 

School starts next week Tuesday, August 17th. I'm quite sure that when I finally settled on majoring in education I never thought the first day of teaching would actually come. I don't know what I thought, but all the best teachers are a little bit crazy anyways, so I'm on the right track. I'm teaching fifth grade math, science, social studies, language arts, and Biblical studies in a self-contained classroom. I'll have between 20 and 23 students. I have access to a smartboard, a macbook pro (all the teachers at the school received brand new macbook pros today; unfortunately the student teacher was not allowed to borrow one of the extras, I tried. Student teachers get left out of everything: admin forget to introduce them, they forget to make access keys to the building, they forget to authorize IT access. Tsk-tsk), a one-to-one computer lab and laptop lab, as well as enough online IT subscriptions to rival some colleges. I will be helping (or at least showing up for meetings; we'll see how much I can actually contribute) with the math curriculum development team. My cooperating teacher is the team leader, so we will have some good times. Those poor fifth graders; two teachers who absolutely love math and science, but are both challenged by teaching the language arts. 

Aug. 4th, 2010

JET LAG!

 I was very proud of my body the first two days traveling. All the rest of the faculty were walking around like zombies, falling asleep at 3 in the afternoon, waking up at 1 in the morning. I thought I was completely adjusted. Until today. I have to admit, it did not help to have 7 cumulative hours of meetings today while continually being stuffed with food (I approve of the Korean love of hearty meals, but when I'm tired and have to sit still all day, this is disastrous);  the second I got back to my apartment I was zonked out. Completely missed out on supper with the school head. Bummer. I heard he has several strong ties to Milwaukee and wanted to ask him about it. 

That reminds me. There are 8 other Cheeseheads out here! (Watch out Korea, Wisconsin is taking over the world!) We might be getting together if we can get some 2am Packer game reception. While I am not a huge football follower, you can bet I will be there if we can confirm that there will be real cheese curds. I'm a Wisconsinite living in a country that doesn't eat dairy. I need my cheese fix.


So, those of you back in the dairy state, enjoy a little milk, eggs, and butter for me. I'm going to try to go back to sleep here; hiking the mountain tomorrow morning, 5:00am. Wish me luck. 

g'night. Or good-day. 

Nicole

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