When my husband was hired to pastor our church nearly two years ago, I sat down with a sharpened pencil and yellow pad, scribbling down our projected new cost-of-living expenses. After reworking and erasing numbers, I pondered ways to earn a bit of additional income. But overseeing the schooling of our two high-school-aged children, and managing all practicalities of our household, left little time for another job.
I had friends who had ventured into online work, virtually teaching the English language to Chinese children. The pay was decent, and I could perhaps schedule tutoring hours early in the morning, freeing me up for normal tasks throughout the rest of the day. Five o’clock in the morning here is dinnertime in China, which is prime for tutoring. I was willing to give it a whirl, and when I shared with my husband what I could potentially earn, albeit small, I noticed his shoulders relax.
As I was knee-deep in boxes and packaging tape, stuffing up our worldly goods, I paused and made a few purchases for this new online potential: alphabet magnets, a pretty poster displaying the four seasons, and another with the English alphabet in easy-to-read print. The largest expense, still minimal, was a canvas map of the world: unlabeled, artistic, and engaging. I had visions of placing a globe on my desk, showing those little children where I was in the world, tracing with my index finger all of the way to China, as I slowly spun the sphere. Then, I would point to the canvas print: directing a slow line from China back to the States. I had also selected a few classic easy readers to share with the students, students who were oceans away.
As the last piece of furniture was pushed into our moving truck, I phoned this online teaching company, scheduling an interview to take place two weeks after we had moved into our new state, our new home, my husband’s new job, and our new church. What was I even thinking? I know not.
Somewhere along that tedious twelve hour drive up Interstate 95, it dawned on me that I had overlooked an important purchase: a desk. Our former home had contained built-in bookshelves plus a nook for our computer, and in the bustle of moving, I had forgotten that our new home was without said shelving.
So after one lengthy week of full speed ahead: unpacking boxes and hanging pictures in our new home, our son, Marcus, came to my rescue. He knows me well, and spent time searching for the desk of my dreams: solid and handsome and inexpensive. I never imagined it possible to find this triumvirate, but then, one night: bingo. It was nothing short of perfection: a cream-colored, farmhouse-style desk with eight drawers and ample desktop space. It was divinely solid, built to last, and attractive. The cost? Forty dollars.
We heaved it upstairs, inch by inch. I placed the computer and globe squarely on top.
The first time I was required to stand up in front of my class and give a little speech was fourth grade. Fourth grade was one of those years that I recollect rather hazily, except for the fact that our teacher was trying a new thing, and we were made to sit in clusters of four, desks pushed together in a square so that instead of paying attention to the teacher, we were continuously distracted by each other. I still cannot figure out why she chose this arrangement, but she must have had her reasons, even as her voice grew shriller by the week. Stop Talking! Pay attention! Listen to me!
The girl to my right was left-handed, and the underside of her hand was perpetually stained with graphite from dragging it across the page. This smudged her papers and her desk, and sadly even my desk, as she usually rested it there while the teacher was speaking. This same girl was a talker, and delighted in whispering to our group. I dreaded even the possibility of falling into trouble for talking, so I tried my best to ignore her, which left her dark and sulky. Fourth grade was flush with drama, if nothing else.
One day our teacher assigned a presentation based upon our upcoming leaf collections. We were to assemble a variety of leaves, press them within two sheets of contact paper, label them, and present our overall findings to the class. I was beyond nervous.
While the leaf collecting itself was enjoyable, the speech was not. I flushed bright red, as sweat trickled down my back. Flying through my prepared words far too rapidly and quietly, the teacher had me start over, twice, with a: Please speak up and slow down, Kristin. When she said: slow down, she raised her voice and decelerated, dragging the words for a painfully long time. My eyes smarted in complete humiliation.
The whole scene, beginning to end, was beyond abysmal.
These public speeches, sprinkled throughout my entire education, were essentially the same song, different dance. Any improvement was miniscule, at best.
In fifth grade, my parents enrolled me in flute lessons. An overly-compliant firstborn, I never protested, despite my interest in the flute being nil. I only held onto one small musical dream of playing piano. Several of my school friends had pianos, elegantly settled in the corner of their formal living rooms, and when I spent afternoons at their homes, I played the keys, softly experimenting, seated upright on the bench’s edge, trying to make my legs reach the pedals as I played Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. The piano was so peaceful and relaxing, while the flute pierced: every bit as shrill as my former fourth-grade teacher.
Regardless, the flute lessons continued, and I soldiered on, dutifully and miserably. That is, until the dreaded, mandatory recitals. I pleaded with my parents and teacher to excuse me, but to no avail. The moment I stepped upon the stage, my lips dried up in nervousness, and when I tried to play, the room grew deathly still, with only an occasional cough or wrinkling of the program paper, as scores of parents, siblings, and grandparents watched. I attempted to blow into my flute, but without moisture, nothing but a pathetic whiffling sound emerged. I was crimson with embarrassment, yet kept my fingers moving with the memorized change of keys. Barely a sound came out. The only thing that would have made it worse was crying, and by some means I held my tears until I was alone in the recital hall’s bathroom. There I wept.
These lessons went on for seven, aching years.
During that time, I hatched a plan, and promised God: Should any of my future children show a fondness for piano, I would move mountains to make it happen. Recitals? Optional.
A few days before my online English tutoring interview, the company sent me a practice link, brimming with pointers and practice ideas.
It took about five minutes of perusing to determine that this was not quite the opportunity that I had envisioned. The entire approach proceeded by reading slides, always keeping things: fun! exciting! loud! I felt my plans of tracing along a globe, pointing to a map, and teaching letters and sounds gently, with careful repetition, disintegrate.
It took another five minutes for me to decide that I was not going to give up. I had successfully taught our four children to read, and I could do this. I simply needed to be flexible and willing to adopt a new method. I would push along and just figure it out.
I failed to pass interview number one.
The willowy, blond-haired woman who was coaching me pretended that she was a young Chinese student. She scrunched herself small, and began speaking in a high-pitched child’s voice. This caught me off guard, and I desperately wished my family could be in the room to watch this oddity unfold. They would laugh, wildly.
I am occasionally ribbed about my naturally reserved disposition. I have always preferred small, behind-the-scenes moments, and I enjoy quiet, thoughtful, one-on-one conversations. This was one-on-one, sort of, but definitely not reserved, and definitely not me.
I began reading the slides, but no sooner had I started when the curled-up woman began cupping her hand behind her ear in an excessively exaggerated manner. I raised my voice, but still: the cupped ear. Does she want me to yell? I thought. This was dreadful.
Finally, impatient, she sat up to her full height and normal voice. I don’t think you are ready. You need to project your voice like this. Then she yelled the sentence, in a silly, sing-songey voice.
She bid farewell abruptly, but only after signing me up for another interview, a few days later.
I think it was Mark Twain who said: Humor is tragedy plus time. While this was certainly not tragic, it was disastrous, but would prove funny, given a few weeks.
At that particular moment, however, it was beyond humiliating as I failed my second interview. This time a grown man acted the child role. He did not scrunch himself up, but instead played the lazy student, and sprawled out flat upon his desk, intentionally ignoring me. It all felt surreal.
This time I failed because I sat too far from the camera, and did not successfully jolt the student out of his stupor. Also? My delivery lacked zip.
Kristin, you need to move closer, and engage the student by using a puppet rather than posters. Also, you need to move along more quickly through the slides, or you will lose their interest. Remember to be loud and fun and snappy! Practice for another week and try again.
I logged out, and my eyes filled. On the one hand I had already run the projected numbers by my husband, whom I did not want to disappoint: we had bills to pay.
But it was glaringly obvious that this was a poor fit: I never even remotely possessed the magical gift of acting, or performing, or public speaking, nor did I want to. It all made me quite uncomfortable. Teaching our own children was streets apart: nothing was scripted: it was ongoing conversation and reading, moving along at a pace that suited us all. And I adored every minute of my time with them.
Sometimes there are beautiful limits as to what we are actually able to do. God uses even our lack to work out his good purposes, and I am continually astonished by this very thing. But those beautiful limitations do not always feel lovely at the time. We cannot be everything we want to be.
I sat there, after failed interview number two and thought for a moment. Part of having a rich inner life is taking a moment to see the truth of a situation, and offering it up to God, just as it is, without any fancy packaging. In acceptance lieth peace, said Elisabeth Elliot. She was right.
So I slowly took the globe off the desk and held it, spinning a line from China to the United States, and then carefully placed it back upon my bookshelf.
I studied my farmhouse desk, sitting all lovely and strong beneath the two office windows. I thought of Marcus, who despite having a full schedule of his own: finishing his high school courses, preparing for college, working to pay for it, and acclimating to a new state, had cherished me enough to find the perfect desk. I loved him for it.
Marcus is a pianist: the only way to describe his gifting is to say that he gives the keys of that instrument life. He obliges the piano to sing. One of his first words was music, and he began piano lessons when he was six years old. I bought a keyboard at a garage sale, and signed him up.
His teacher, months later, pulled me aside. No matter what, do not allow him to quit. I have never seen a child understand and feel and play music the way he does. It is a gift.
This felt tricky. I saw the gifting, but knew I would never force him to play. I would never push any of my children to perform. That would have to be something they chose.
So I prayed for Marcus’s music to be used in a way pleasing to God himself, since he gave him the ability in the first place. We provided encouragement and lessons, but the rest was a road between Marcus and God. God has answered that prayer, and he is majoring in music at college, and sometimes leads worship at church. When this happens, I am drawn into worship by my son because he is not performing. He is quiet and gentle and focused on God. It is beautiful.
Despite my lack, God has worked. He is always working.
So that handsome desk by the window? I thought that I would be teaching English from this place in our study. It was not to be.
I provided a keyboard for our son, and he found this desk for me.
I sit here, most days, painting words as I watch the light from the windows dancing through the trees, and filtering to our walls. Some of my words are letters of thanks to fellow Christians in ministry, others are notes of encouragement to people that are unwell.
But my favorite words are the stories of my life that God brings to mind.
I write to remember, and it makes my heart sing.