When I was in the second grade, my music teacher introduced our class to a plastic wind instrument called the recorder. We each received our own in a bag to take home and practice and keep forever.
My friend Robyn, a tall, quiet blonde with good grades, lived up the street and around the corner. One day she invited me to her house for after-school practice. This is where the details become a bit fuzzy. After playing “Hot Cross Buns” an indefinite number of times, I clearly remember wielding my recorder like a weapon, completely unprovoked, and cracking my friend on the top of her blonde head. Hard. From the bedroom doorway, I heard a gasp and turned to see Robyn’s older sister, eyes wide and jaw dropped.
I can only imagine Robyn’s sister saying, “Crystal, I think it’s time for you to go home.” I don’t think Robyn cried. I don’t think anyone reported me to Robyn’s mother. I don’t remember saying, “I’m sorry.” I do remember Robyn eventually moving to Texas and losing track of her over time.
In 2009, I found Robyn on Facebook and apologized for the time, forty years earlier, I hit her over the head with my recorder. I’m not sure she remembered, my apology now another distant recollection. Why had this brief memory haunted me through the years? I’m quite sure I was even meaner to my brother when we were kids, but that was mostly retaliation.
Humans are imperfect. We randomly act without thinking and hurt others without malicious intent. We often beat ourselves up for mishandled situations while judging others for their shortcomings. At other times, we don’t own up to our own roles in our own dramas. Life is complicated. Apologies, forgiveness, and understanding are not exactly simple. Sometimes, however, we owe ourselves peace. ‘Tis the season.
It’s a typical weekday. I’m walking the street behind my home before 8 am. On a two-story, brick house, a colorful flag, rainbow-striped, lifts in the breeze. I haven’t noticed it before. “NUMAH,” it reads. At least, that’s how I sound it out before realization dawns. I see the flag’s backside, the word backwards. “How often do we see things backwards? Misunderstand? Fail to notice?” I say to myself.
With the upcoming school year, I ponder these thoughts for days. “We’re all HUMAN–I think that’s the point–just trying to make our way. Not one in 7.9 billion is perfect.”
It was May 1, 2020. I had returned from my morning walk. I took off my sweaty clothes, turned on the shower, and stepped naked on to the scale. I was down five pounds to my pre-Covid-19 weight. You might think I would be thrilled. The problem was I had been tracking my steps on my phone during April and came across my weight from August of 2019. Ten months ago, after seven months of consistent boxing and kickboxing, I weighed thirteen pounds lighter. In August, I gave up the boxing gym.
In May, I decided to give up coffee.
Here’s the thing. I normally do not drink coffee every morning, but Kody does. He drinks his coffee in the office, but—since he’s working from home, coffee has become part of our morning routine. He drinks his black. I drink mine blonde. You know—with cream. And honey. It’s decadent.
After my shower last Friday, I made myself a large glass of iced tea. Unsweetened. I was parched. The tea quenched. This is good, I thought. I can do this.
Saturday rolled around. I rolled out of bed and went for my walk. On arrival home and through my front door, I smelled the aroma of good coffee, medium roast Texas pecan, 100% Arabica from our local HEB. I thought, Maybe I can make an exception, just on the weekends. This time, we were out of cream. I opted for vanilla almond milk. Even lighter, I thought. And then that little devil on my shoulder whispered, “What the heck—it’s the weekend. Indulge.” I added a shot of bourbon.
Sunday was similar. Except no walk and no almond milk. Instead I Googled Chase Oaks Church on my phone, connected my device to the television for the April 26th sermon “When Life Seems Out of Control,” and sipped my coffee. Black. With Bourbon. Dear Lord, please don’t judge. We are amid a pandemic.
Monday rolled around. I walked again. I re-entered my home. Damn that coffee. After a weekend expedition for groceries, I had cream once more. I give up. I’m keeping up my walks—thirty minutes a day is my minimum. If it’s cool enough, forty-five minutes to an hour. Fewer carbs. More self-control. That’s my plan.
And so I quit drinking coffee—for a day. A pandemic calls for comforts, I decided. I’m okay with changing my mind.
Last Sunday I drove southwest on 59 from my home in southwest Houston into the suburbs, almost into the country. In Richmond, I exited the freeway and turned right, down a paved road, another right into a dirt parking lot. The gravel crunched beneath my tires, and I found a spot near a chicken coop. Through the poultry netting and in addition to chickens, I discovered peacocks. On the other side of the coop, sunlight shone down on baby goats with their mothers. Beyond all of that lies a beautiful lake with ducks on the water and then River Pointe Church.
I always say, “You can choose HOPE, or not.” And churches and cathedrals, temples and holy places, farm animals and wide open spaces give me HOPE. I find God in these places—and myself, like the me I hope to be.
Life is heavy. I don’t believe any of us are exempt from challenges, but I do believe in the power of prayer. I keep a list of friends and family in my prayers for surgeries and illnesses, dependencies and dysfunctional relationships, the trials of life and inevitable death.
I believe in the power of believing, and I believe in the power of words. Sometimes the wrong words and the wrong beliefs become trapped inside our heads. That’s when I like to have an arsenal of the right words and the right beliefs. I lifted some lines from church last week—for my arsenal—because they lifted me:
Nothing has been wasted, no failure or mistake.
When I doubt it, remind me I’m wonderfully made.
When the world starts to blur and your soul feels heavy,
know that you’re loved.
It’s gonna be alright.
It’s gonna be okay.
We often believe that admitting we’ve failed makes us less Christian.
Confession makes us more Christian.
“Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16)
If the words above don’t lift you, go find words that do and places that do and people who do. You don’t have to believe everything you think, especially the bad stuff. And if you find yourself dwelling in the negative, find a new place to dwell.
Sidenote: A couple of weeks ago the pastor challenged us to read Samuel 1 and 2. These books contain the history of Israel leading into the story of David, as in the chosen-by-God David, who slayed the giant Goliath with his unwavering belief and a single stone. This same David later became king and committed adultery with Bathsheba who became pregnant. King David had Bathsheba’s husband murdered to cover up the sin. The sequence of events displeased the Lord, but King David confessed, and the Lord forgave.
Now, I am no bible scholar, and I don’t understand all of the wartime killing and all of David’s wives and concubines in the context of the Ten Commandments. What truly displeased the Lord was that King David took something that didn’t belong to him amidst everything he already had. Based on this temptation, David is probably the most relatable character in the Bible. (Hello, my name is human.) If an adulterer and a murderer can be forgiven, well then, there’s hope for you and me.
Confession to God grants us forgiveness. Confession to one another makes us whole.
I look at my reflection in the mirror this morning and notice my throat splotching red. But I teach school, and school’s out for summer. I shouldn’t have one iota of stress. I stop for a moment to consider my thoughts. You know those thoughts, the ones you can’t shake?
Present thought—the iceberg. You know, the whole picture—the tip of the iceberg you see above the surface and the huge mass you see below. It’s like how you know a person based on what you see, but you can’t see past the surface, or maybe you can see just below the surface but not too much deeper without asking some heavy questions. When I started Googling images to illustrate this fuzzy point in my head, I stumbled onto Freud’s iceberg theory, and he said exactly what was on my mind. Weird, right? My brain forgets so much these days. I know the theory. I just didn’t remember that Freud fathered it. Anywho, I studied a bit and hope someone else might find the information helpful.
According to Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalytic
theory, the mind can be divided into three separate parts with varying purposes:
The conscious part includes what we can sense in the moment—thoughts, memories, feelings, and wishes.
The preconscious part consists of memories we can pull into our conscious on cue for a specific purpose. For example, you walk into a restaurant to have lunch with a friend, peruse the menu, and say, “What do you like here?” Looking at the menu will prompt your friend to remember.
The unconscious part comprises the bulk of our minds—unpleasant or unacceptable thoughts, memories, habits, urges, reactions, and feelings outside the realm of our conscious awareness, such as anxiety and shame, conflict and broken hearts.
Freud compared the levels of the mind to an iceberg. Above the surface, you see the tip of the iceberg representing the conscious. Below the water, observable at surface level is the preconscious. The massive part of the iceberg extending too deep to be visible represents the unconscious. According to Freud, the unconscious mind affects our behavior and experiences without our awareness or understanding. We all have a storehouse of memories and emotions that we push down deep to forget. Verywellmind.com explains it all very well and dedicates a whole page to psychotherapy. It has been shown that continued self-examination leads to emotional growth over time, and I’m all for growth of any kind.
So as my throat splotches red and I contemplate why people (including myself) do what they do and say what they say and make the same mistakes over and over, the answer according to Freud is pretty simple after all.
The winter break approached, exam stress visible on the faces of the students. Of my four sections of Advanced Placement Language and Composition, one class tested Monday, one on Tuesday, one Wednesday, and one Thursday. On my white board I wrote: Happy Holidays! Do your best! Be your Best! The underlying message—Don’t Cheat! I would be naive to believe that students wouldn’t try. Yet I want to trust them, really I do.
Monday’s scores were consistent with student averages and other tests taken throughout the semester. Tuesday’s test had two paradoxically high scores, but the students missed different questions, so I didn’t think too much about it as I was still grading my brains out with essays, which would comprise 50% of test scores. By Wednesday after walking in on five girls just hanging out in my office, which connects to two other classrooms besides mine, I knew in my gut that my test had been compromised. There was nothing I could do in the minutes leading up to the test that day.
After passing out Wednesday’s exam, I noted the darting glances from “Felicia.” Every time I looked at her, she met my gaze, and even though this test consists of reading passages and comprehension, “Felicia” failed to even fake read as she bubbled her answers. I monitored like a hawk. She wasn’t copying off of anyone. However, after tests were submitted, I discovered four more inconsistent scores including Bad Faker “Felicia” and three of her friends who had seemingly coordinated well enough to miss different answers.
So (1) there was the situation with unsupervised students in the office where tests were not visible but also not under lock and key. And (2) I did not physically collect phones or Apple watches during this testing season though none were visible. And (3) normally I give more than one version of any test, but this time, with keys having to be entered into an unfamiliar computer system and too much to do and too little time, I did not. This time I stapled a cover sheet on top that either said Form A or Form B and copied Form A in white, Form B green. Lame, I now know.
So on Wednesday after school with one semester exam to go, I assembled a new test and made copies with the same cover sheet, Form A in white and a green Form B.
Before the test on Thursday, I made eye contact with every single student as I handed out scantrons. To each one of them, I said something like, “Good luck today” or “May the force be with you” or “I’m thinking of you as you test today.” Some of them probably thought/think I’m creepy, but most of them were amused. I added a new note to my white board next to Be Your Best—No Cheating. Before distributing tests, I didn’t mention anything about the suspected cheaters or the new test, I just said, “It’s been my pleasure to be your teacher this year.”
“What? Aren’t you coming back?” they asked.
“Of course, I mean, 2018 has been great, and I’ll see you next year. I hope you all have a wonderful break. Are you ready? Do your best! Please keep your eyes on your own test and keep your answers covered.” Then I passed out the test and proceeded to walk up and down the aisles for two hours.
Immediately I recognized two scantrons with the same bubble pattern—A, B, B, D—the answers from the original exam. These two students weren’t even trying to read and see if those answer choices made sense, and they weren’t keeping their answers covered either. However, I had left one clue that this test was different. The first test had 37 questions, and this one had 39. I kept my eyes on the two, and about an hour into the test they both exuded an air of defeat—heavy exhales, eyes rolling, corners of mouths turned inconsolably down.
Fast forward to the scantron machine that sounded off like a machine gun and left six scantrons bleeding red. Six. Six students had stuck to the familiar A, B, B, D pattern, their scores to the tune of 10-20%.
Skip ahead once more past me telling some co-workers and my dean. Our math teacher had a similar cheating scandal, and I heard many a conflicting opinion on dealing with my cheaters. If I gave these six kids zeroes, they would all fail for the semester, and six more whom I suspect also cheated, but couldn’t outright accuse, would get away with it. If I gave my little cheaters their 10-20% and averaged that score with their essay scores, they will still pass for the semester. The math teacher and I both entered zeroes into our grade books and left the school that Friday, December 21 for a two-week respite. Grades would not be officially due until our January return.
In the meantime, I’ve reflected on the times I’ve cheated in life. I remember my freshman year, still in junior high. It was just math homework. I’m sure I was too busy with my ninth-grade life to worry about school, so I borrowed the homework of a very smart, kind, and well-respected friend who had diligently completed hers and whose name I will protect to this day. I proceeded to copy her assignment in my history class, and my teacher Mr. Watkins, also the dad of one of my classmates, walked over to my desk, picked up both papers, scrutinized the names, and handed them back to me without saying a word. And I felt ashamed of myself. That’s not to say that I didn’t find a way to cheat my way through business calculus in college, and I don’t relay my own dishonesty with pride.
I say this to illustrate the imperfection of humanity. I realize that the pot should not call the kettle black, and I ask myself, “What would Jesus do?”
I remember the story of a prostitute kissing the feet of Jesus and anointing them with perfume and her own tears and wiping them with her own hair.
I remember Simon saying, “If this man were a prophet, he would know this woman was a sinner.”
I remember Jesus saying to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven…go in peace.”
(It’s all in Luke 7:36-50 with a powerful parable in between*).
There will always be Simons who say, “Let them fail. Teach them a lesson.”
There will always be Jesuses and Mr. Watkinses who teach lessons in other ways.
There will always be people, like me, who choose wrong from time to time, but continue to try to be better than who they were before. Isn’t that what we all do in January? Resolve to be our best selves?
When I go back to school, I’ll give my students credit for their essays and say little, maybe even nothing like Mr. Watkins, and like Jesus, I’ll forgive with grace and peace for new beginnings in the new year.
*Luke 7:40-43, New International Version, biblegateway.com
40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
My new identification badge—is the worst, the very worst. Ever. If nothing else, the photo provides a good laugh, and for a minute I thought about posting it for your entertainment. On second thoughts, I would prefer not to be my own worst enemy. Allow me to paint you a picture instead.
Due to the backwards tilt of my head and hunched shoulders, my face and throat seem to be equal in proportion forming a column atop my torso. With said head tilt, my nostrils flare like a horse’s, and my hair resembles a mane. If I turn my badge upside down, I might be smiling. My teeth are bared, the corners of my mouth pulling down when right-side-up. A severe glare reflects the photographer’s flash on my glasses, and my teeth are orange. Orange, I tell you. I wore a Lancôme lipstick called Bewitched that day, but I know for a fact that it wasn’t smeared all over my teeth. I assume the same guy who took the terrible picture prematurely pulled the ID from the machine, smudging the colors in the process. I normally give people the benefit of the doubt, but I blame this guy for everything—especially for not giving me an opportunity to preview the photo. I received my badge a week or two later. A do-over isn’t worth the hassle.
When I showed my husband my new ID, he almost busted his gut. “What the ____?” he said between cackles. “Nobody could’ve thought that was okay.” He’s right. It’s completely and utterly ridiculous, but if my badge is the worst part of my job, then I think I’ll be okay. At least I no longer share a staff restroom with men.
School portrait day happened a week or so ago. Never in life have I so much appreciated the school portrait photographer and his expertise in telling me, “Chin down. Tilt your head to the left.” After the first shot he said, “You have a glare on your glasses. I’m going to take another one.” I had to laugh on the inside, but my smile this time was genuine. He even allowed me the courtesy of approving the photo before I returned to class—classy.
Recently I read a Business Insider article about “Snapchat dysmorphia,’ a form of body dysmorphic disorder and a disturbing new phenomenon where people seek cosmetic surgery to look more like their filtered selfies. I found myself shaking my head, but at the same time, I wondered—Is it the flawed reality of my badge that bothers me the most? I consider my own question. Although I have no plans to see a surgeon, I realize that I, too, have succumbed to the allure and the societal norm of the filtered photo. For the past year at least, all of my profile pictures on social media are selfies, all taken via Snapchat to soften the flaws and enhance what God gave me. Magazines, advertisements, and professional photographers have airbrushed photos for years, so I’m not sure where I’m going with this.
Will I quit using Snapchat?
Will I stop taking selfies?
Would I want people to know I filter my photos?
Sure. Why not?
We all keep up appearances, and why? Because who we are isn’t good enough? Or because we have secrets to hide? Because we have a point to prove? And to whom? Others? Ourselves?
I don’t have all the answers, mostly more observations and more questions:
Don’t our flaws make us human? More relatable? More empathetic? When the worst is laughable, is it really that bad? And when the worst is cryable, isn’t it healthier to share the burden?