At the Spring Banquet last year, a few weeks before I graduated from The Seattle School, I was asked to pray for the returning students. I had a lot going on for me that weekend, including an impending breakup with my boyfriend, but at the forefront of my mind was I don’t want to leave. I didn’t want to graduate. I didn’t want to leave my classmates and my mentors. I didn’t want to leave that red brick building.
So I read the prayer I had written out, choking up every other word, making it nearly impossible for me to get to the “amen.” When I finished, I sat back down and sobbed—for my boyfriend, for graduation, and for my future.
I entered the Theology and Culture program sure I wanted to continue in my vocation as a creative writer. Yet as I got deeper into the program, the vision I had of my future began to expand. I wanted to write, yes, but I also wanted to teach: I wanted to facilitate learning and curate conversation around the arts and theology.
These two desires—to not leave my Seattle School cocoon and to teach—were met in one job: assistant instructor. I pictured myself sitting at Caffe Ladro, grading papers with a goofy smile on my face, giving out those A’s, B’s, C’s with confidence. I imagined meeting with teary-eyed students who would sigh, Oh, Lauren, all I want is to write as well as you do! And every student would cling to my guidance, changing that C average to an A.
Though in reality, in my job as an assistant instructor, my desires have collided with insecurity.
Every Wednesday when I walk into the classroom, a million thoughts clog my mind. I am too young for this job. I don’t know enough. I don’t look like I know what I’m doing. I don’t like the Bible enough for this class (whoops). There are people better fit for this position. Why was I hired?
There’s an Internet meme I love of a dog dressed in safety goggles, sitting in front of beakers and graduated cylinders. The caption reads, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” Often in my job I feel this way, that I’m “faking it till I make it,” that I’m a Labrador in a laboratory.
This culminated last term, when I graded a stack of 54 “Harry” papers. The students were assigned to read a memoir about a boy, Harry, growing up in the Ozarks with three old men after witnessing his friend get blown up by a grenade. Then each student wrote a dialogue with Harry, imagining how they would talk with him about class concepts and sit with him in his suffering.
When I took the class two years ago, I totally biffed my paper. I could not get to the heart of the assignment, to listen to Harry and stay present in our imaginary conversation, rather than hide from the big issues in his life. Wanting to show off my creative writing skills, I spent too much time constructing our imaginary setting and making sure I perfected Harry’s voice. My grade was well-deserved. I did not have the capacity to be with Harry the way he needed me to be; I realized this when I began grading my students’ papers.
I recognized, first, that some students just got it. And despite my own insecurity, I felt pleased to give them A’s. On one paper I wrote, “If it were possible to ‘win’ a paper, I think you’ve just won.” I was delighted; I found reparation in his receiving the A I did not get.
Second, I noticed that what we were asking our students to do, to sit and listen to Harry—to indwell with him in his story and in his suffering—was what I needed to do in my grading. As an assistant instructor at The Seattle School, I’m not just checking off boxes on a rubric. I’m accepting an invitation to sit with every student’s paper as if I’m having a conversation with him or her.
This is not what I thought I would be experiencing as an assistant instructor. I thought my job would be spent circling grammar errors (though there is some of that), not engaging with students emotionally both in office hours and on paper.
In reflecting on this, I’ve come to realize that the indwelling that I’ve asked my students to do with Harry, and that I’ve come to do with papers, is what I need to do with myself. Instead of pushing down those insecure messages of you’re not good enough or allowing them to control me, I sit with them. I ask them, Are you true? Are you worth listening to?
Practicing this kind of mindfulness has made my Wednesdays at the school less exhausting. It’s helped me see the stack of papers I have waiting for me as less frightening. I know this is something that I can take with me, too, when I finally leave The Seattle School community and its red brick walls.