Y’all. It has been quite some time and it has been quite a time. I got an apartment, paid a bill, and started a school with my friends. Expect more frequency from me moving forward. Here are seven lessons from my first seven weeks in Lebanon.
1. I don't know everything, or anything. The obvious: The kids at the school can say whatever they like to me in Arabic, and chances are I have no idea what they are saying. I am constantly asking for directions or what a menu item means. Neighborhoods have cultural and religious histories dating back centuries that I am only beginning to know about. This list goes on. But here's the thing: It was always going on, whether I was here or not. And my experience would be similar anywhere else. I bring something new to this, but a growing knowledge of all I don't know keeps me humble (I hope). This caveat also implies that anything written ahead should be taken with a grain of Mediterranean sea salt.
2. People are watching the United States. Before moving here, I couldn’t have told you much about Lebanese politics, but boy howdy have some people been able to explain American politics to me.
3. Teachers make or break the school. This is not a new idea, and is one I gleaned from The Northwest School in Seattle where I recently taught. I am grateful for Hope Academy’s incredible teaching team, who often translate English/Arabic for me at our Opening and Closing times, as well as during lessons and conversations around discipline with the other Americans on the team - Brady, Amber, and Jordan. I have watched them finish a day full of upstream interactions with the students, weary, emotional, even shaking, only to say “I love my job, and I am hopeful that these kids can do it.” A man I greatly respect once recommended Parker Palmer’s Courage to Teach, in which he writes “you teach who you are.” Our teachers are compassionate people who love our kids. What a gift.
4. The world is kind of a shitty place, and God is really good in the middle of it. Each one of our kids has an open court case regarding their custody. Many have fled dangerous situations. Many came from the streets. Many of their parents come to see them weekly, monthly, yearly, and then leave them again. Some of their parents left them alone years ago. As I learn each of their names, their interests, their senses of humor, I cannot escape the bitter undercurrent of a world that forgets some. They have names. They have souls. They did not ask for their presents or bleak futures, yet they bear the weight of others’ unfortunate decisions.
In the midst of this brokenness, I have seen unthinkable expressions of God’s grace and provision. Our teachers are bright, selfless, caring people. In a small operation, where each person’s presence has significant impact, when any one person is gone it can dramatically affect the success of a day. So far this year, when this has happened, we have always had extra support, a holiday, a guest teacher, or fewer kids. Amazing! When in financial need, people have walked up to team members off the street and handed them cash in an envelope. God continues to guide us learn how to support each other as we work in close proximity on a thing that is challenging on a daily basis. How to have patience with our kids. How to walk in love. I have never been more tired and hopeful in the same breath. I believe another future may exist for our kids as the school continues on. And for this impossible task, we are in need of a supernatural grace.
5. OK I might know something. It’s surprising, really. Even when I’ve felt like drowning in a Mediterranean sea of newness, every now and then someone has asked me something basic in French, or about how many chairs are in a room, or how to draw a straight line. More importantly, I have gotten to share my experiences in education with our team to create a positive learning experience for our kids. I couldn’t do this on my own, and I’d like to think that the school is better for each one of our contributions, including mine. One of our team members often says ‘teamwork makes the dream work.’ I like this because it rhymes, and because for me it highlights the importance of calling upon each person’s knowledge and experiences to move forward together.
6. You practice who you will be. As we guide our kids in practices that we hope will shape neural pathways to help them succeed in the future, I have never been more aware of how little habits each day determine what you will be in the future. I think this applies to things like art, maths, and English, but more importantly to mental health, kindness, self-discipline, and intimacy with others. Each day there are opportunities to grow toward people, and most of them are little. Seizing these moments day after day can prepare you for the big decisions in the future.
7. Embrace the awkward silences (in life, too). I was at dinner with some neighbors just last night, and though this has happened several times since my arrival I think last night’s story paints the picture. More than once during our three-hour dinner, the seven of us at the table shared a silence longer than 20 seconds. At times I even made eye contact and smiled at people. Eventually, someone said something each time, but the silences were never referenced.
Back in the states, I might have stood up, mentioned something from NPR, the Seahawks game, or whatever. Here, straddling cultural and linguistic gaps (the conversation flowed in and out of English, French, and Arabic), our commitment to a long dinner (with plenty of food to keep us there) allowed us to stay present with each other throughout the night. We have more shared time building relationships because of it, and I am thankful.
In life, the awkward silences may look like seasons of waiting, of uncertainty. You might look around and wonder why little is happening, even while you are more talented or interesting than you were when life felt full. You could step out in something familiar, or do something just to do something. But I wonder what depth you might discover embracing that silence, ready to embrace the beauty the follows it.