Anxiety and Advent: Between Conception and Delivery

Everybody over the age of twelve seems stressed this time of year.  The students in the high school where I teach are finishing their semester projects and papers, taking final chapter tests and preparing for semester exams next week.  The musicians and the dancers and actors have Christmas concerts, recitals and plays. Though football is done, basketball and indoor track are in full swing and practices follow school everyday.  The teachers are equally busy planning, grading, managing, and trying to make it to the academic finish line of the semester, only to leave school in the afternoon and go Christmas shopping, or home to bake or trim the tree.

Culturally, the ways we celebrate this season are counterintuitive to waiting. We are in Advent; but we are not waiting. We are racing, making list and checking them twice, studying, working, trying to use every available minute to accomplish the most before the deadline arrives.  For the students, it’s next Friday. The pressure is off after that last exam.  For adults, it’s Christmas Day. By then, the shopping, decorating, cooking and entertaining are culminating.

One of my students said this morning, “Sometimes the worrying is worse than the actual thing.”  He’s a pretty smart guy.  One of my school’s most accomplished young men, he is musician, scholar, and athlete:  he has an upcoming concert, is running track, is managing AP classes,  and he’s taking the ACT this weekend. He’s been given the wisdom in the moment to realize that the anxiety of all he is juggling is just that: vaporous dread. The events themselves will occur and he will get through them doing the best he can in the moment he’s got before him. And in a week, it will all be over for him.

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My scholars finishing their 5-week composition projects!

I wonder if Mary, the mother of the Christ child felt this way.  I know she was a teenage Jewish girl in a culture and time unlike modern America, but surely it wasn’t all peaceful waiting.  If she was like every other pregnant woman on planet earth, she felt the anxiety of an impending labor and birth. She must’ve had a “to do” list before the Christ Child was born, gone through the nesting instinct like other pregnant mothers, dreaded the heaviness of the final month and the pain of labor and delivery. She must’ve wondered when and where her labor would start and how long it would take and if she would survive it.  I bet she had a particular way she wanted that saddlebag packed when Joseph loaded her up on that donkey and said they had to go to Bethlehem.

I’ve read countless times the story of the angel appearing to Mary and I know well the words of “The Magnificat” found in The Gospel of Luke chapter 1.  Mary was told she was favored, to not be afraid, that she would be visited by the Holy Spirit and have a baby and what to name him. She celebrated this favor and pronouncement when she visited her cousin Elizabeth who was expecting John the Baptist.  Her famous line, “Be it onto me according to Thy word,” is a breath prayer for all of us who come after her.

Still, she didn’t get a whole lot of detail from the angel (as far as we can read) about the day to day between conception and delivery. She had to live each moment letting the narrative unfold, living in the details, coping with the questions, the anxiety or outright fear, until the day arrived when Jesus was born.  Interestingly, He was with her and in her the whole time.

And so it is with us.

Only we can’t seem to stay in conscious awareness of it so we stress about the details, and worry about the deadlines, and experience the darkness even as we carry the peace of God and the light of the world within us.

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I Almost Read Ahead

“Mrs. Slawson, I read last night. This story is getting good,” this coming from a fifteen- year- old boy who was doing his best NOT to read in my class this year.

“ I read, too,” another reluctant reader piped up.

“ It’s actually pretty interesting,” a third one said.

“ I almost read ahead last night,” I heard from my left.   That good – he almost read ahead.

I’m about to sprout wings and fly around my room. They are reading!  They are reading!  I’m not sure what I have done, but most of them  are reading the novel I assigned them.  I suspect it might be what I have not done.  I’ve not gotten in the way of great literature this time.

I recently read an article (  the source of which I can’t remember or I’d cite it here)  in which the writer questioned why we teachers stop to discuss while we read through the book with a class rather than waiting until we’ve read the complete story.  How would we like someone to stop a film every fifteen minutes to discuss it with us rather than just let us enjoy the story?  I’ve long suspected that some of my students didn’t have to read for themselves because they could rely on me to ‘retell’ the chapter in the discussion.  These two things together prompted me to try a different approach.

For the most part, we are reading To Kill a Mockingbird in full before we begin to analyze it for the symbols, the themes, the plot or setting,  and the tools of characterization.  We will look at those things, but only after we have had the pleasure of being told a great story by Harper Lee.   We are learning some new vocabulary and I am asking students to do some writing as they go to reflect on what they read, but for the most part, we are reading.  I’m giving them class time each day to accomplish hopefully half  of the reading I expect, and the rest should be done for homework.

Some students like to tell me they can’t read in class. I refuse to accept that.  If I can keep the room quiet, (and I can) and let them get comfortable, many of them find that they can leave the cinder block walls of my room and travel in their mind’s eye to Maycomb Co. to roam the streets with Jem, Scout and Dill.  I give them time in class to read for two reasons:  at least I know they are reading some of the book because I watch them do it; and more importantly, I want them to know I mean it when I tell them that nothing is more important to their academic lives than reading.  How can I tell them reading is such a high priority in their lives if I don’t make it one in my classroom? 

I recently asked my students  in each class how many of them read chapters from their textbooks when they are studying a unit in history, science, or math.  Unfortunately, only a few hands in each class went up.  Most of them just study class notes, they told me.  This is disheartening because as a college-preparatory school, our students should leave here being comfortable reading textbooks.  My daughter, a freshman in college, has noticed that her sociology professor might assign 75-100 pages of reading between classes, which only meet twice a week.  No way is he going to cover all that material in two fifty minute lectures per week!  Yet she will be tested on it, hence, the need to read the book.

Granted, I have Harper Lee, Pearl Buck and Ernest Hemingway to help me “sell” the pleasure  and virtue of reading in an English class. Still, reading the book – whether novel or textbook – is essential to college-preparedness. So if you pass by and we are sitting on the floor, under the pool of lamplight, book in hand, leave us alone. We are  reading!