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I had to learn how to enjoy rollercoasters.

I was a cautious kid, not one to take risks, and it wasn’t until high school that I remember walking off the platform of a rollercoaster with a smile on my face rather than white-knuckled and tearful.

My problem, initially, was that as soon as I reached the top of the first hill — the pinnacle of excitement when I’d first began to drop and my stomach would go under — I’d panic and forget to breathe.

Eventually, by laughing and screaming with a good friend beside me, I came to realize that if I could force myself to breathe in and out during the first downward plunge, I might actually enjoy the rest of the ride. I might start to understand why people wait for hours in lines to ride these things.

For those in education, August can feel like that slow click, click, click up the first hill of the rollercoaster.

Teachers in August are excited, nervous, anxious, anticipating. They know the steep drop ahead of them. They know they will have dozens of new names, faces, and stories to learn. They know they will trade summer sunrise walks or morning coffee on the front porch for o’dark thirty alarm clocks and lessons they’ll be inspired to revise while in the shower that morning. They know that their email inboxes will fill quickly and their desks will be decorated with sticky notes of to-do lists. They know they will finish the first day and sit down relieved, only to grasp the reality that they get to do it again the next day. (More than a decade in, why was this continually a surprise to me?)

And so as the summer dwindles down, I’m mentally rehearsing my breathing. Though I now work beside teachers as an instructional coach instead of having my own classroom, I’m still needing a reminder, especially as we inch up toward the top of that first hill, that the joy is in the work. I still need to be reassured that finishing it all or doing it perfectly is a fantasy. I still need to be persuaded to trade the false-adrenaline of stress for the open grasp of grace.

I most enjoyed teaching, and my students most enjoyed learning, when I stuck to the basics: honoring the slowness and the messiness that is learning; remembering that teaching is an art, not a science; and not losing sight of the fact that I was working with adolescents, not machines.

Because my new year seems to start more clearly in September than January, for many years I practiced the routine of picking a focus word for myself. One fall, inspired by Psalm 118:5 — “When hard pressed, I cried to the Lord; he brought me into a spacious place” — and determined to hang on to the refreshment and centeredness I felt during the summer months, I chose the word, spacious. Upon further study, I was excited to learn that the Hebrew word, Ravach is defined as “to be wide, to be spacious, to breathe.”

It made sense to me then, as it does now, that spaciousness is actually less about a place and more about posture. That spaciousness is not confined to a specific area and time but can be a promise or a blessing we receive.

If you live in a community like mine, soon, if not already, your social media feeds will fill with first-day-of-school pictures, buses will be back on the roads, and classrooms —most sticky and lacking air conditioning — will once again fill with noise and energy. The students. like their teachers, will be a little nervous, a little tired, a little afraid, a little excited.

This academic year, may we all breathe, and even throw our heads back in laughter, as we take this first hill together. And may we find ourselves in spacious places.

Dana VanderLugt

Dana VanderLugt is a teacher and instructional coach. She is also pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. Her work has been published in Longridge Review, Seeding the Snow, and The Reformed Journal. She blogs at www.stumblingtowardgrace.com.

8 Comments

  • James Schaap says:

    Believe me, I know the feeling(s), even if they are now in poorly kept files in my memory. Thanks for reminding me once again.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Beautifully written and applicable far beyond your role as a teacher; I had never thought much about how nervous a teacher might be about a new class of students. Spacious – a beautiful word for all new beginnings.

  • Jane Brown says:

    Wonderful analogy with roller coaster and a spacious place!

  • Karina says:

    I literally told my students yesterday to “buckle up – it’s going to be a wild ride!” Thanks for your words again, Dana!!

  • EMILY JANE STYLE says:

    yes, to “the open grasp of grace” – and the goodness of this piece of writing. thank you!

  • Helen Luhrs says:

    I had that feeling every year I taught and I still don’t like roller coasters. Well done.

  • Arika says:

    As a parent whose child is just about to finish his first day of third grade today, I’m grateful to be invited into this perspective: the first days of the new school year through the eyes of teachers. I’ve always been grateful for the work that teachers, staff, and administrators do for kids, but now I’ve got images of roller coasters and spacious places/postures to help fill in the gaps in my own understanding. Thanks as always, Dana! (And I’ve never been a great lover of roller coasters, but I really think that breathing tip might be the missing link for me. I’m going to give it a try.) 😉

  • […] Full disclosure: I woke up feeling overwhelmed today, fixating way too much on hustling and keeping up the illusion of holding it all together. Then The Twelve blog posted a darn essay I wrote (just a few days ago) about breathing, laughing, and taking refuge in spacious places. I’m going to try to practice — key word there is PRACTICE — what I preach. Here’s that essay. […]

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