Monday, November 18, 2013

For National Adoption Month, Chapter Two of But the Greatest of These is Love

Chapter Two

               “Do not be afraid—I will save you.
              I have called you by name—
                   you are mine.
               When you pass through deep
                   waters, I will be with you;
          your troubles will not overwhelm you.”        

                               Isaiah 43:1–2 (GNT)

I better start at the beginning, though I am not sure I can identify the exact moment of truth, or insight, or panic that signaled this turning point in my life. I could not recognize at the beginning of this journey that I had stepped out on a few safe stones in a gentle stream. Those stones would eventually become slippery and wobbly, sometimes submerging altogether to leave me stranded and crying out for help. A vague path seemed to be emerging before me, but to what destination and why? When the loose stones first shifted uncomfortably beneath my wary feet, I became alert, but I was helpless to return to the complacency of the shore. I could hear the roar of the waterfalls ahead and see the rapids covering the stones at times. The fear of being pulled down stream was terrifying. I could not walk on water, but I knew of Someone who could. 

My 2002 journey to the airport and ultimately half way around the world started in 1999. A series of seemingly unconnected events, those stepping stones, set me in a direction that appeared innocuous, even alluring, until I was so far down the path I could not retreat. Ironically, in retrospect, one tragic incident stands out as a catalyst for the many changes that were to come.

In May, 1999, a favorite high school teacher of both my daughters lost her husband unexpectedly. Mrs. Inge was one of my favorite people. My association with her at that point had been limited to my attending school conferences and chaperoning art field trips. She was one of those rare types who exude warmth and friendliness, drawing new acquaintances immediately into her circle of friendship as if she had loved them all her life. And she adored my girls. How could I not love her?

Heather, a senior, and Kellie, a freshman, were heartbroken for their beloved mentor. Although they didn’t know Ed Inge, they were desperate to soothe his wounded wife. We called her, visited her, sent flowers and a card. Even I was compelled to do more. I had an idea: I would offer to help with her classes while she took some much needed personal leave. She taught drawing and painting classes, and I had a drawing and painting degree. Instead of a random substitute teacher covering her classes, I could help for the few remaining weeks of the school year so she wouldn’t have to worry about her students’ unfinished masterpieces. The grieving teacher was touched and pleased with my idea.

I called the school to see if I could volunteer to be her substitute. The secretary in the office told me the only way I could teach her classes was to register with the county school system as a substitute teacher. I didn’t want to be a sub. I just wanted to help in a voluntary capacity; nevertheless, the high school directed me to the Frederick County Public Schools substitute coordinator said it was too late in the school year to become a substitute. The department would offer no more orientations for subs until the fall. I was instructed to contact them in August. I would not be allowed to help Anne Inge; her classes had already been assigned a substitute for the remainder of the school year. When school started in the fall of 1999, Kellie, then a tenth grader, continued to pursue the subbing idea. Anne Inge, back in her classroom, didn’t need me anymore, but substitute teachers were in short supply, especially at the high school level.

“I really think you would love it, Mom,” Kellie would coax.

I did not want to be a sub, but the option did have some benefits. Heather had just left for her freshman year at Maryland Institute, College of Art, in Baltimore. Kellie had three years left of high school. My son, Taylor, was in the fifth grade. I had not worked at a full-time job since the kids were born. I was reluctant to start again, but substitute teaching was part-time. I wouldn’t have to accept assignments every day. I could still be home when my children were home.
I have to admit I have always enjoyed teenagers in small groups. At neighborhood, school, and church events, I usually migrate away from the adults toward the teenagers to hear about the challenges and dramas that fill their lives with both angst and excitement. Their energy and optimism are magnetic; their needs unleashed the most empathetic listener in me. As I thought about my fondness for adolescents, I decided I might try it. I would apply . . . later. I spent the fall immersed in my own art—preparing my one-of-a-kind, hand sculpted Santas, elves, and angels for the Maryland Christmas Show.

My sculpting ability had not been encouraged or appreciated when I was younger. As a senior in college, I had taken sculpting as an elective in summer school. To my utter surprise and dismay, I failed the class. Failure didn’t come easily to me. I didn’t believe I deserved an F. We sculpted from live models, and I thought mine looked as much like the model as anyone else’s, and more so than most. But apparently realism was not the goal in a class where abstract expressionism was revered. I had given up my sculpting tools and any desire to create three-dimensional art. For almost twenty years, I didn’t touch a piece of clay. In 1995, I had picked up a carton of the new polymer clay and a doll magazine. After my family had retired for the evening (so there would be no witnesses if I failed again), I sculpted a face. I was thrilled when the tiny, detailed face seemed to grow out of the clay almost without my efforts. I left the shrunken head on the kitchen table for my family to discover at breakfast. I delighted in their wide-eyed astonishment.

The next week I cautiously sculpted three more, every time fearing it was an accident, and I would not be able to create another. My sculpting teacher was wrong; I did have some talent! I lovingly built bodies for them out of wire and quilt batting, dressed them and put them into environments on boards with toys, antiques, or other props. At a local doll shop, the finished vignettes attracted quite of bit of attention. I was encouraged, though they were so labor-intensive, I knew I would never make much money from their sales. But some was better than none, and I was vindicated, as far as a twenty-year-old memory of failure in sculpture class was concerned. 

After the holidays, Kellie resumed her mission, eliciting Bruce’s help this time, in her quest to convince me to substitute teach. Even Taylor suggested that I could sub in his class at the elementary school. Now everyone in my family thought this was a great idea. With one child in college and another preparing to go, Bruce was ready for me to be employed, and he could be extremely persuasive. Having not worked for so many years, I felt that Bruce might have to pry my fingers from the door jambs to make me leave my snug and comfortable home. I did not like the pressure I felt my family putting on me. And I suddenly felt “uncalled” to teach at a public high school. I could teach art, maybe, but what about algebra, or physics, or Spanish? I had taken five years of French in high school, but French spoken with a southern accent might be an altogether different foreign language to these Yankees in Maryland!

Originally, I had just wanted to help Anne Inge. Until her husband died, the idea of being a substitute teacher had never crossed my mind. The prospect was so outside my comfort zone, I no longer wanted to consider it. My family’s persistence sent me into retreat mode. I burrowed in at home, determined not to venture into the high school realm. I might enjoy young people, one on one, but I did not like being the center of attention nor speaking in front of groups. I always declined invitations to talk at school meetings, or art clubs, or even to read scripture at church on Sunday morning. “That is not my gift,” I had grown comfortable repeating and justified in declining. I had convinced myself that my aversion to public speaking was less of a fear and more of a personality trait. I would leave the lime light for those who thrived there. I much preferred the shadows of backstage.

Reality presented another stepping stone in my path. The dwindling of Heather’s college savings after only one semester became an incentive I could not ignore. I had earned a small fraction of her tuition with my hand-sculpted dolls. People loved them at the show; my booth was like a museum—people came through and marveled, but few purchased. And my new craft was seasonal. I needed something regular.

Kellie’s gently persistent pep talks encouraged me that I might possess adequate skills to monitor a high school class. Her love inspired me because she wanted me to be at her school, among her friends. Infused with Kellie’s confidence in me, I attended the orientation for substitutes at the end of January 2000—with no obligation, I reminded myself. I was fingerprinted, completed the requisite paperwork, and ordered my transcripts. My procrastination was aided by bureaucratic bumbling. My transcripts got lost. The college sent them under my maiden name, so the board of education filed them away in the vast bureaucratic vacuum where lost papers reside. After a few weeks, the problem was solved; finally, I was registered in the Frederick County Substitute Information Management System. I waited for the phone to ring. Weeks went by, but no one seemed to need me after all.

About the time I was surrendering to the subbing suggestion, I heard that small-group Bible studies were starting at my church. The text, Experiencing God, by Henry Blackaby, had come highly recommended by two women in my Sunday school class. I expressed a slight interest. I was cautious because I never participated in Bible studies. I rarely read anymore, except an occasional magazine article, or headlines in the daily newspaper. I didn’t meet in groups that might cause me discomfort. I attended church and adult Sunday school on Sundays, every Sunday, with my family, and that was enough. I was on a few committees at church that took about as much time as I could spare. I prayed, sometimes. As survey polls suggest, like the majority of Americans, I considered myself a Christian.

Experiencing God arrangements were made, and suddenly I didn’t have time to back out. I was swept up in a Bible study. Carol and Sarah, the advocates of the book, had raved about it. It was “life changing” they had said with wide eyes. I didn’t tell them, but I didn’t want my life to change. It was perfect.

I halfheartedly read my first week’s lesson, but I was immediately intrigued by what I read in the book’s preface. The text almost leaped from the page. It said, “We do not find God’s will; it is revealed. God always takes the initiative.” Besides sounding like less work for me, this philosophy sounded fascinating, even magical. But at our first meeting, our leader directed our attention to a paragraph that read: “If I do everything He says, I will be in the center of His will when He wants to use me for a special assignment.” I turned to Teri, a woman for whom I had considerable respect, and whispered, unashamed, “I don’t want an assignment!”

“I don’t either,” she answered matter-of-factly.

Big assignments were for other people, for those who felt “called.” I had never felt “called,” didn’t want to be called. My life was just fine. More than fine; it was wonderful.

Two weeks into our Wednesday morning study, Bruce suggested I attend one of the evening study groups instead, so that when I started to get calls to sub, I would be available. Daytime meetings had been a habit for me, so I could be home in the evenings with my family. Bruce’s suggestion had merit, and having an evening out sounded exciting. The kids were older with interests and activities of their own. Seeing me involved with my own interests would be beneficial to them, especially a church activity. I wanted them to have some “religion” in their lives.

I learned two women were starting a nighttime study of Experiencing God. One was a close friend, and I looked forward to doing anything with her. Her name was also Debbie, and we had worked on several decorating jobs and stage sets around the church and community. The other woman, Gretta, was a newcomer to my Sunday school class. Both of these ladies exuded “fun.” I wanted in on that! I saw them at church on Sunday morning and asked if I might join them.

The new millennium had brought changes to my world—I was no longer a stay-at-home mom where my entire existence had revolved around raising three children and being available for my family. I was about to launch a new job and an evening out, even if it was disguised as a Bible study. Neither the job nor the lesson reading appeared to be too taxing; I still maintained a measure of control. 

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