The First Blow is Half the Battle

The theme for this week’s meeting of the Elabuga English Club was “English Proverbs,” and the proverb I was asked to explain sums up these first few weeks. “The first blow is half the battle,” accurately describes the front-loaded nature of adapting to a new culture, job, and social group simultaneously. These first few weeks have had ups and downs intensified by the newness and disorientation of a new way of life, but I have finally started to settle into something resembling a routine, and I can confidently say that I really think I’m going to like it here!

The biggest concern for me while preparing for my time here was teaching; after all, I wasn’t an education major and I had had little experience. You can imagine then how overwhelmed I felt when I found out that I would be teaching 4 classes on the college level. Five months ago, I was taking 14 credit hours, now I was expected to teach them! There was little time to reflect on my role change, however, as I was given a textbook and thrown right into the classroom. I am happy to say that it was not as scary as I had imagined it to be. My students (who are only a year younger than me!) are a joy to teach, and I already see the seeds of positive relationships being built, the development of which was one of the main reasons I wanted to teach.

A little about what I am teaching: I teach two sections of conversational and written English for fourth year students. My first group is from the English department, and they are definitely at an advanced level of English; we have already had many interesting conversations about the government shutdown, Syria, politics, and cultural differences. I also teach a current events/news class for them once a week, which they seem to be very interested in. My second group is from the Tatar Department. Basically, there is a separate department for those who want to study Tatar Language and Literature (usually ethnic Tatars), but there is also an English track within the department. Their level of English is lower than my other group, but I have found that the textbook they are expected to use doesn’t help. It is way above their level, and if I were in their position, I would feel overwhelmed and discouraged. In addition, the teachers seem to have given up on them. I have heard quite a few times, “they really can’t speak English. You just have to do drills and vocab with them.” It is true that they really don’t have the ability to speak conversationally, yet! It is going to be a challenge to learn how to teach them effectively, but I already had a small success yesterday when I modified an assignment on reported speech. By the end of the lesson, I felt like they all understood the concept, and they had fun doing it. I even got to teach them “hangman,” which they were really good at!

Finally, I am teaching a creative writing class once a week, which I am creating completely from scratch! Well, not completely from scratch. I had the privilege of taking a Creative Writing nonfiction class last semester with an excellent professor at Gordon College, and I am modeling the format of the course after this class. In short, each student will write a poem, short story, and personal story in English, and there will be lots of peer review and workshopping. I started the class by writing a cinquain as a class (an easy form of poetry), and the students chose to write about how terrible school was, which was actually really funny. I told them I understood, since I had been in their shoes just a few short months ago. Then I asked them to write their own cinquains, and I was very impressed! I believe every one of them has a poetic bone in their body. I read them “A Psalm of Life,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and I don’t know if they understood all of it, but I sure felt like Anne of Green Gables reciting “The Lady of Shalott.” We will also be starting a wordpress blog to showcase student writing, so be on the lookout for that!

Oh, a side note: students at the university had never even heard of a syllabus before! I think this speaks alot to the differences between American and Russian culture. As a person who loves syllabuses/syllabi (take your pick), I very nerdily and enthusiastically explained about how wonderful it was to know what was coming in the future and what was expected of you (two things which don’t seem to exist here).One of my students put it best in her essay comparing Russian and American higher education: in America, students get a syllabus, but “in Russia, it’s always a mystery.” I have made a syllabus for two of my classes so far, and the students seem to like it.

Socially, things have gotten much better too! Two of the teachers from my department, Lenara and Albina(such beautiful names!) took me out to lunch and a movie, and I really enjoyed their company. I also visited the local English club, and people have been eager to befriend me there. I went out to pizza last night with two high school girls from the club, one of whom wants to be a translator. The head of the English club has also asked me to give a presentation on my state next week, so it seems that I may have to start saying “no” to invitations if I am to have any time to myself to recharge.

Finally, I am taking Russian lessons with the head of the Russian Department, who is an excellent teacher. At the beginning of our first lesson, she looked at me and said, “all the other teachers have been praising your Russian and said you spoke so well, but I’m not so sure.” Needless to say, this was an intimidating way to start a lesson, but by the end she had become convinced that I could say more than “Da” and “Nyet.” My Russian is at a point now where I understand probably 70-80% of what is being said, but my speech hasn’t caught up with my head. But unlike other times in Russia, I finally have enough time for my speech to do the catching up! I have no doubt that if I work hard, I will make great strides linguistically during my stay here.

The Russian version of the first blow is half the battle” (хорошее начало, полдело откачало) is translated loosely as “a good beginning is half the work.” It has been an overwhelming, tiring beginning, but overall, it has definitely been a good one, and I now that I have thrown the first blow, I am excited to see how the rest of the year will unfold.

‘Tis Time, My Friend, ‘Tis Time

‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time! For rest the heart is aching-

The first line of my favorite Pushkin poem has faithfully rhythmed in my mind day after day with increasing intensity as graduation has drawn near. I have savored these words like a piece of butterscotch candy through every brain-aching, burnt-out final paper. I have heard their hopeful serenade urging me forward to repeat and re-repeat the trekking down a familiar hill then across the geese-laden quad. Far into the woods, running in lonely, free New England beauty, they have ignited my veins with hopeful endurance.

‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time. Four years of deeper and wider and knowing more and knowing less, to knowing that it is finally time. Time to frame the pictures and pack the suitcases and let restful release and the ache of goodbye intermingle.

Days follow days in flight…

Time is not a big enough concept to hold the soul, the nuances of reality past, present, and future. Yet time is a sort of accelerator, propelling us to movement when change is the thing needed to keep us alive and purposefully being. These college days were and still are and will be, but with our human constraints we find it comforting to find closure in squishing them in a box labeled “past.”

Days follow days in flight, and every day is taking

Fragments of being, while together you and I

Make plans to live. Look, all is dust, and we shall die.

Time would take fragments of being if we were mortal, which we are so often inclined to believe. But we are not subjects to the tyrant of time. Four years and questions of “what’s next” and “where are you going” are actually the least relevant of utterances to a people not slaves to the rigid ticking of the clock. We make plans to live, plans to live, always planning, gathering, yearning for the next thing beyond and better, but all green grass turns to dust so it is better to fix our eyes on the stars than on the ground. It is better to not move forward into the future but into the Creator.

‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time. Tomorrow, we graduate. We are confident and full of fear, joying in newness while feeling the acute pinch of a backward look. We are elaborately equipped and nakedly unprepared. We are messy paradoxes made in the image of a paradoxical, faithful, untamed God, who beckons us to life with him and through him. Let us press this “now” hard into open palms. ‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time.”

Excerpt from “Tis Time,” by Alexander Pushkin

‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time! For rest the heart is aching;
Days follow days in flight, and every day is taking
Fragments of being, while together you and I
Make plans to live. Look, all is dust, and we shall die.

Пора, мой друг, пора! покоя сердце просит —
Летят за днями дни, и каждый час уносит
Частичку бытия, а мы с тобой вдвоем
Предполагаем жить, и глядь — как раз умрем.

 

Letters to a Striving Daughter

Romans 7:23

But I see another law at work in me, waging war

against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner

 of the law of sin at work within me.

Dear daughter, it wasn’t long ago that I watched you in the kitchen, raspberry mop top framing your distressed face as you strained to sound out the word on the page. You stopped and started a few times, flustered at your shameful failure. “Dad, can you please tape over this!” you pleaded to your earthly father. At four years old, the seeds of sin were already taking root inside you; fear was sprouting in your heart, the fear that you were not, and would never be “good enough.” You, my darling, have been a perfectionist for almost your whole life. This is your signature sin. This is the prominent filthy rag of all your supposed righteousness. It is the vice that makes me weep with compassion when I see your contorted face and hopeless sobs, for your mind is diseased, blind to the truth when the weeds choke your thoughts to death.

Isaiah 30:15a

In repentance and rest is your salvation,

in quietness and trust is your strength.

    

You are miserable because your eyes are on yourself. I was with when you spoke the lies, “I am worthless. I have nothing to offer.” These words snaked into your vulnerable mind as you read the frank comments that the program assistant had typed onto your essays for the Fulbright competition.

“A lot of work needs to be done! Lacks enthusiasm. Too dry. Work on style.” You took each of those comments as a harsh attack when they were merely meant as a push in the right direction. You were so easily wounded because your eyes were not on me; your ambitions and self-concept and self-esteem and every self-ish word in the English language was usurping the throne in your heart. You had quite the puppet government going, when you said with your lips that I was your King but muted my commands and affections for those of a crass, snorting dictator. My darling, you are miserable because this is not the purpose for which I made you. It does not matter if you are inarticulate or unintelligent in comparison to other human beings; such adjectives are not the measure of a man or a woman. In fact, I don’t measure you like you believe I do. You try so hard to tiptoe around failure, fearing that if you fail by the standards of “perfection,” I will be ashamed of you, embarrassed to have a daughter with such lazy tendencies. You expect with each “mistake” that I will angrily disown you.

I do not measure you like this. I know that you are dust. I know that you cannot exist without me. I accept you not because of an A on the paper or good reviews at work or your unfailing promptness; I accept you because my son was tortured and died in your place, and for me to ignore his passion in order to focus on your failings would be to spit on his sacrifice. I don’t call you to be “the best” at what you do. I don’t call you to please others. No, I call you to rest and to repent of trying to be me.

Isaiah 55:2

Why spend money on what is not bread,

and your labor on what does not satisfy?

 Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,

and you will delight in the richest of fare.

 

 I know that for the past four years, you have lived in a place where you feel like a recovering alcoholic working at a bar. I know that the evaluative nature of your culture’s concept of school feels like iron chains to someone with your tendencies. When you have to write a paper, depression paralyzes you, because you are convinced that you have to prove yourself again. To your professors. To your peers. To yourself. It is from those around you that you draw your strength; I ache, for you are trying to breathe through a straw when to look to me would allow you to gulp full, fresh breaths. Sometimes their words are enough to sustain you, but like a ration in wartime, it is never enough; the scratchy lump of bread only whets your appetite. If you receive an A on the paper and a contemplative nod from the professor, then you go to bed superficially happy. If, though, you received the dreaded B or blank stare, you question that anything you have ever done is worthwhile. And this, daughter, is the wrong question to ask. Nothing that you do will ever be worthwhile unless it is done in me and through me and for me.

Psalm 127:1a

Unless the Lord builds the house,

the builders labor in vain.

 

On a sleepless night a few months ago, a disturbing caricature formed in your mind. You imagined that you were attending a woman’s funeral, a P.h.D who had achieved immense success. One by one, her boss, colleagues, and son came up to speak about her. Her boss was first. He looked mournfully out into the sea of onlookers.

“She had such a beautiful resume.” He choked up, but continued. “I-I just will never forget the article she wrote on hierarchical binary opposition in Freudian linguistics.” He began to sob and quickly took his seat. Her coworker was next.

“She never missed a day of work in her life.” The coworker sniffled.  “She was prompt, gregarious, and exceeded all our expectations as a member of the organization.” She blew her nose into a white handkerchief and left the podium. Finally, the deceased woman’s son, a young man in his twenties, walked to the microphone.

“My mother was…” his voice trailed off and he bit his lip, a hint of fire in his dark eyes. “My mother was responsible.” His voice held a bitter bite. “My mother was an enthusiastic member of her firm and did everything in her power to contribute to the success of the company. She graduated with honors in her Ph.D. program, received a prestigious research grant to India, and she is venerated as one of the top researchers in America. That, my friends, was my mother.” The son violently shoved the microphone back in its place and stormed out the back door of the funeral home.

This twisted vignette disturbed you, disgusted you, chilled you, all because it revealed how utterly selfish and evil you could become if you give in to the anxious itch to control your destiny and be your own god.

Genesis 11: 4a, 6-7

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city,

with a tower that reaches to the heavens,

so that we may make a name for ourselves…

The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same

 language they have begun to do this,

 then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.

Come, let us go down and confuse their language

 so they will not understand each other.”

 

When you begin to feel your eyes being darkened by the deadlines and responsibilities and self-interest, remember my revelation to you last summer, when I showed you the view from outside the prison of perfectionism. I put your nothingness in perspective in the same way I humbled the proud builders of the tower of Babel, those who strove to make their name known through proud words and relentless work ethic.

I freed you from the fate of idolaters through confusing your language. When you arrived in Russia last summer for your language program, I placed you in the advanced class, where I knew you would be the poorest speaker in your group of six. You stuttered your way through every conversation lesson, feeling like a kindergartener trying to converse with astrophysicists. To your surprise, though, this failure did not shatter your life. In fact, your “failure” freed you to speak boldly and to laugh at your mistakes and to admit that you were human. This was no real failure though; it was a victory, the shattering of your pride by the inability to even feign this slave-driving life-sucker that you call “perfection.” No, my daughter, this messy summer where you failed and leaned on me and laughed and admitted you were human, this was much closer to my standard of perfection than your small and stingy one.

Deuteronomy 33:12

Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in him,

for he shields him all day long,

and the one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders.

 

My child, this is ultimately the crux of the matter: you will not stop grabbing at control like a starving prisoner grabs for bread until you believe in my unconditional love. My definition of the word “beloved” is foreign to you, for you have always thought that to receive love, you had to earn it. You accept the love you think you deserve, which is why you tense up and refuse my embrace. You are right in one thing: you don’t deserve my love. Yet in spite of this, I love you. Without condition. You don’t yet see the beauty in this, because you want to be worthy of love. You hate the idea of someone loving you because he has to; you picture a disgruntled husband wishing he could escape the ties that bind but begrudgingly sticking with the wife because of a piece of paper he signed. I am not like that husband. I do not love you for your utilitarian value. So rest in my, my daughter, and do nothing for a while. Do not achieve. Do not strive. Do not write. You are not beloved because of these things. You are simply beloved.

For Whom the Bell Doesn’t Toll

This piece was published in the spring 2013 issue of the Vox Populi, a publication of Gordon College.

     A brassy peal emanates from the corner of campus, spreading its eerie power in a shockwave throughout Gordon’s domain. For just a second, the campus stops. Chemistry majors look up from their lab work, soccer players on the quad turn their heads, studiers in Jenks lose their place in Our Father Abraham.  Some sigh, some crack a cynical joke, and some shrug their shoulders. Despite our individual reactions, for just a moment, we are united. Gordon is rich with legend, and few Scots haven’t claimed the tales of the car at the bottom of Gull pond or of Teddy Roosevelt’s horse buried under the quad as part of their heritage. The mysterious lore surrounding Gordon’s history certainly plays a role in shaping our identity as students here, but nothing seems to compare to the metal monument that lounges proudly in its gazebo throne, observing passersby under its sway. The cultural icon that has the power to bring us together for better or for worse is that wonderful, terrible old bell*.
Bell
 
      We see its power in conversations, humming at a constant din throughout the four years, first starting off wistfully, hopefully, then morphing gradually into a senior cynicism or a lifeless joke. The bell makes regular cameos at Gordon Globes, providing a source of comic catharsis for those who find themselves bemoaning the infamous Gordon ratio or the rabid desperation of Gordon girls. The bell is occasionally rung by the reckless non-respecter of its sacred power, but the rest of us know that only under one circumstance may you ring it and leave unscathed.
 
      The bell’s renown reflects the fact that Christian colleges, and Christian culture in general, is infamous for framing marriage as the cardinal goal of life. Our generation is known for pushing back against the pressure to marry young, but still, the cultural constructs of American Christianity loom over Gordon culture, encouraging unhealthy interaction between the sexes. Many people I have talked to are familiar with the awkward apprehensiveness of male-female interactions at Gordon. The vicious cycle goes like this: Christian girls have a reputation for singling guys out as possible husband material; thus, guys fear that too much friendliness on their part could be mistaken as a marriage proposal. Assuming that Gordon men hold this view of them, many women also mete out their friendliness and smiles in controlled doses for fear that they will project a message of desperation. I have seen and experienced the frustrating awkwardness of this cycle again and again, and I have also seen a striking contrast in my two times studying abroad, where I was able to seamlessly befriend members of the opposite sex without fearing that they would think my attentions were a desperate plea for a ring.
 
      Not only is the emphasis on marrying young damaging to relationships now, but it sets us up for disappointment when we actually marry. With the best of intentions, Christian culture spreads the propaganda that marriage is the answer to our problems and the beginning of our lives. As such, marriage is one of the prime idols of single Christians everywhere, an antidote to loneliness and a license for guilt-free sex. And like all idols, it doesn’t deliver what it promises.  The National Center for Health Statistics reports that 60% of couples who marry between the ages of 20 and 25 decide to divorce, 10% more than the national average. This is not to say that there should be a ban on young marriage, but it does illustrate that at least 60% of young people tying the knot discover that marriage is not the cure-all that they had envisioned.
 
      But to be fair, perhaps the lore of the bell is casting a shadow of untruth on the nature of Gordon students. Although perceptions about the opposite sex’s intentions do seem to inhibit cross-gender friendships, the quest for a ring does not define the majority of the students I know. I do not see girls paralyzed by fear that they won’t find “the one” at Gordon. I do not see lazy young men, too indifferent to commit. No, I see men and women pursuing their God-given callings with direction and confidence. I see students investing in lives in the city of Lynn, I see RAs committed to loving their floors, I see blossoming mentorships between faculty and students. In short, I see people invested in deep relationships whether or not they lead to the altar.  
      I admit that when I first heard the legend of the bell, I hoped that one day I would join the ranks of ringers. But now that four years have gone by without anything resembling that type of relationship, I can say with confidence that I have no regrets. Statistics say that for most of us, marriage will eventually come. But regardless of that fact, there is no use in spending four years chasing a fantasy when the opportunity for deep relationships is at its peak. So love the legend of the bell. Laugh, roll your eyes and pass on its magic to the classes to come. Just don’t let it take a toll on your perspective.
 
*The bell on Gordon College’s campus is only to be rung by couples who have just gotten engaged. Lore has it that if you ring it under any other circumstances, you will have 7 years of bad luck, or worse, 7 more years of singleness…