Graduation Day

It’s been too long since I’ve made a Buffy the Vampire Slayer reference, so I will happily reflect on the past week’s events with the nod to how my students have defeated monsters in their high school experience. This post will have loads of season three finale spoilers and a few others, but since Brooks is only half way through season three and never reads my blog, I’m not worried about it. BtVS is a show entirely about how the “demons” of high school are conquerable with community and positive values – though, fair warning, there are also a lot of not so positive values in this not Jesus loving show that ripped off the “self sacrificing love saves the world” idea. I’m nerdy enough to have read academic essays on the value of teaching young people that they can overcome anxiety, peer pressure, and a host of other evils through the antics of this late 90s/early 2000s tv show.

Season three is Buffy’s senior year, and she and the scoobies are fighting a monster of the week alongside the running plot to defeat the jolly major who is really preparing to ascend to a higher state as a giant snake monster by eating all the graduates during his commencement address. He’s a real and visible monster for all the students to fight, but the whole season he’d been in hiding as a beloved city servant. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out who the real enemies are. The Bible says the devil prowls around like a lion, but it also describes him as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. One thing my parents taught me at a young age, though, is that the enemy is never other people. Throughout all seven seasons of Buffy, the characters seek to kill the real bad guys and protect the vulnerable – occasionally they even rehabilitate and redeem the broken (#teamspikewhenhesnotevil and also Cordelia, Anja, Willow, Clem… the list goes on).

This past Wednesday, I got to celebrate a story of redemption as one of my students chose to be baptised before leaving Kandern. She spent two years at Storch dorm in Holzen, so she and her dad climbed into the fountain while I pulled my wheelchair up next to them and was invited to participate in this beautiful celebration. I honestly can’t express how excited I was to be a part of that moment. As long as I can remember, I’ve always really, really loved baptisms, so this was no exception. I can tell story after story of cheering on loved ones as they came up out of the water after declaring a faith in Jesus and a desire to live for him. This story in particular, however, is in my top ten forever. Thea was in my class last year, and this bright, vibrant, inquisitive, artistic young woman was an absolute delight to teach. This past year, she’s been a delight to encounter in the hallways because she regularly shouts affirmations to me whenever she sees me. I want to live my life more like Thea – openly and routinely offering genuine compliments to people I see. Thea has a beautiful faith, choosing Jesus for herself instead of just going through the motions of organised religion. I’m so proud of her for that.

It was raining most of Wednesday, but the rain stopped exactly when we got to Holzen and picked up again just as Thea got out. I would have happily done it all in the rain, but I love that we had that respite as her family and her dorm sisters gathered around her to celebrate her choice to be a Jesus follower. This incredible kid is one of many who I will miss when we start up school next year. I rocked up to graduation and planted myself in the back where I had an easy exit because I do all my goodbyes elsewhere rather than getting stuck on the patio in the chaos after. Honestly, I don’t get super emotional at the ceremony or even at many goodbyes; that’s just not how I’m wired. However, when I heard an unexpected shout out to my picnic bench in the student body president’s commencement address, I got a little choked up. This particular group has had a lot of kids find safety at that picnic bench. I’m just a host, but they come and ask questions, come and have tea, come and share affirmations, and I love every minute of it. A handful had told me they would come say goodbye to me at the bench after graduation, but honestly, I only expected three of the maybe ten who mentioned that to me. Graduation in Kandern is a weird event, but the sponsors sent grads a map of which houses would be open all night with snacks for them to stop and visit – my house was not listed.

As students kept streaming in bigger and bigger groups to my house, I heard that multiple group chats had told their peers, “We’re meeting at Ms. Hewett’s.” This place has an open invitation, and the upstairs neighbours had prepared lots of food just in case; they apparently knew more than I did how loved I was by this class. I had my snapshots with a couple grads and had already given out notes to say goodbye, but my heart was blessed to get extra hugs and one last spontaneous round of affirmations from these kind and compassionate, gracious and loving young people.

These wonderful fresh alumni are already making the world a better place. Two of these grads are young women I’ve had the privilege of mentoring since they were sophomores, and I love the growth I’ve seen in them over the years, and I love the comfort they felt to come almost directly to my house to ask if they could take a nap because they weren’t going to make it all night long and wanted to sneak some sleep in before the traditional all nighter. While I was caught off guard by the stream of students that came through, I will treasure in my heart forever that they chose to be at that picnic table where they had so many fond memories. Counting up the faces the next morning, I realised that over half of the class had made an appearance at my house. These kids mean so much to me, and they will forever.

Last night I was hanging out at the bench with a staff member who is new this year, and she got initiated into the alumni season when a student from the class of 2019 showed up with her littler brother. Their family had moved back to Colorado Springs before I taught the younger sibling, but he’s a surrogate student of mine as he’s visited my table with friends on previous visits. Becca made a silly comment about how she thought teachers might not remember her. How could I forget that inquisitive and compassionate child? She was a joy to teach like so many others, and she stands distinct in my memory. We shared some stories of Bryce with each other as she was in his class and good friends with him. She named off eight other students from her graduating class who had come to visit this weekend, and I shared how excited I was to have seen most of them already. One of them is the artist of the third tree on my arm. (Now I’m just waiting for Maggie to be reunited with me so I can have photos of all trees with their artists.) I got to spend a short time with Lucy having dinner with her family who has adopted me and fed me regularly for the past couple of years.

Saying goodbye to Lucy wasn’t easy, but saying goodbye to her parents was much harder as I don’t know how I’ll feed myself on Wednesdays. In all seriousness, Brandi and Tracy cared for me when I was at my lowest and walked through some of my deepest hurts with me having had similar hurts themselves. I love so much about my work and life in Kandern, but goodbyes are often hard. I want to model for students how to end time well to be able to begin well in the next place, and I’m much better at it every year. Saying goodbye isn’t really a skill I want an expertise in, however, because it means I’ve lost a lot of people. In this kind of a community, we do get a lot of “see you laters” instead of final goodbyes, but sometimes you genuinely don’t know.

I know when I’ll see Lucy next because I’ll go to Berlin for Christmas with her family this year, but many other goodbyes this week were possibly the last time I’ll see them. One grad this week wrote me a note to say that she hopes to be back to see me in two years for her little brother’s graduation, but we both know there are no guarantees. During her time as my student, I would share stories of her older brother who was in the very first class I taught at BFA. JJ was an absolute punk, and I love him dearly. He sat at my bench and filled me in on the past five years of his life, and I’m so proud of him for his growth and maturity. When I teach the youngest sibling next year, I’ll get a very special “kingdom” as some teachers call a collection of three siblings. Kayra told me this year about when her parents sat her and her younger brother down in January 2014 to tell them that JJ’s English teacher had been in a very bad accident and they needed to pray for me. I still have an email in my inbox from their parents letting me know they were praying for my recovery.

Every prayer matters, and I’m so grateful for the body of Christ that continues to lift me up in prayer. One of my other special visits this week was from a student who was part of a dorm prayer group during her years in Kandern. She and a few others would get up an hour early to spend time in prayer before going to school each day. Listening to Elise share her heart and successes and incredible growth was such an encouragement. I’m so very proud of how she has matured in her faith, and I was incredibly humbled to hear her speak well of what she learned in my class. Dustin and Emily were at the table when Elise stopped by, and we were talking about some of the general goals of my class, and Elise volunteered how important my content was to prepare students for the real world.

Her words did wonders for my heart as I have to spend a lot of time explaining what I do to those who haven’t experienced it. To have an alumna tell me three years later what value she saw is good fruit for me. To have a stack of notes from students writing that they see me living out Jesus is an important encouragement to carry on when I feel worn down and weary of criticism. As I wrap up this extra long post, I’m going to bring it back to Buffy. When a giant snake emerged from the mayor’s head, everyone knew the target for their crossbows and swords. Ephesians tells us that our enemy is not flesh and blood, so I know who I am fighting against. There are people who have said mean things to me, but they are not the enemy.

Buffy is a show of great hope as multiple characters have a redemption arc – Anja becomes human after living for a thousand years meting out vengeance on men (then has a stumble and return to humanity in season seven), Spike goes through terrible trials to regain his soul and make penance for his centuries of violence. When Paul says he is the foremost of sinners, I get it because he speaks from a place of being transformed. In my sanctification process, I’m learning to speak more kindly of others. The student who wrote the note hung next to my bed for the past year (telling me she would pray for my sleep) gave me a goodbye letter that included the line “seeing how you continue to love and forgive people who really wrong you has helped me to do the same.” She has no idea who wronged me, but by the grace of God, she heard me talk about my year of prayer related insomnia and saw how the Holy Spirit taught me to speak with grace about those who hurt me because we both know the human who misspoke is not the monster. I am not the monster; you are not the monster. Let’s fight the good fight as we grow in grace.

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