Saturday, June 30, 2018

Proud


I've been a part of Haven of Peace Academy since 2001--as a teacher, chaplain, PTA volunteer, board member, and parent. Cut me open and HOPAC blood will run out. I didn't think I could become more proud of my school--and then I went through the kindergarten admissions process.

We try to keep our class size at about 24 students. By December of 2017, we had well over 60 applications for next year's kindergarten class. It was my responsibility as principal (along with the lower primary teachers) to decide which of those children would be a part of next year's class. 

I had no idea that this process would be so heart-wrenching. I sat with so many children--beautiful, bright, eager learners--while their anxious parents waited nearby, watching them be assessed. After almost every assessment, I would think to myself, Surely we will accept this amazing child! And then I got to the end and stared in dismay at the list. We could only take 24. There were just too many amazing children.

I had to turn down dozens, and the emails (and visits!) from parents were devastating. Please, won't you reconsider? HOPAC is our first and only choice for our child. 

I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. But we just don't have space.

I regularly received emails from parents whose child had been on the waiting list for years, asking if maybe, just maybe, there would be space this year? And I would write back sadly, I'm sorry, but your child is number 42 on the waiting list for that class, so there's really no chance.

It tore my heart out, but it also made me proud. Proud, but humbled, for the incredible honor of working at a school that is so sought-after in Tanzania.

One hopeful prospective parent told me, "My child goes to another international school down the road. We come here for soccer matches, and I can tell this school is different, just by being on campus." 

Our school is a Haven of Peace. 

Maybe that's because our teachers have a God-ordained desire to be at HOPAC. They certainly aren't getting rich. And their jobs are certainly not easy. I watched my teachers work 50 hour weeks--for no or little pay--with steadfast determination and whole-hearted dedication. I saw them agonize over struggling students. I saw them beaten down, on the verge of giving up. But, of course, they never did.

HOPAC's motto is Leadership-Service-Stewardship. We teach our students that they have been given a sacred privilege to attend HOPAC--a privilege that they must steward. We teach them that because of the opportunities they have been given, that they will become community leaders. And that by being leaders, they must serve.


We practice what we preach. We steward HOPAC's beautiful campus: Every week, you'll see groups of children from other local schools bused onto HOPAC's campus. They might be using our pool or playground. They might be in our computer lab, being taught IT skills by our high school students.

Every HOPAC student in middle and high school takes Service Learning as one of their classes, every year. They read When Helping Hurts and The Irresistible Revolution, and they weekly go out into the community to serve. As part of their graduation requirements, HOPAC seniors must develop and implement their own service project. 

And every year in March, HOPAC sets aside an entire week for service. From kindergarten through grade 12, every student and staff member joins a service project in the community.  



One of the blessings of being in Tanzania for so long is seeing the fruit of ministry. Our alumni are now graduating from college and coming back to Tanzania, and I keep running into them around town--owning a business, working for a law firm, managing a hospital. Truly incredible.

Despite the heartache of turning down so many applicants for kindergarten, I also had the joy of inviting some. One of those new kindergarten students will be the very first child of a HOPAC alumnus to join the school. And what makes it even more special is that I remember her father when he attended HOPAC so many years ago. He wrote me a wonderful email in response to my kindergarten invitation, and he has given me permission to share a segment of it with you.

Words cannot express how I feel; I am amazed with how God works. 24 years ago by His grace I came to HOPAC and spent 8 years in what I can say was the Potter's House for me, and now my daughter has the same opportunity.

Receiving this email from you is equally amazing. I feel like it was just a few days ago, we were in assembly listening to the announcement--"Gil and Amy Medina are coming to HOPAC so let's pray for them to come safely...and that God will bless them here." And today, you are the Primary Principal! That makes it more special; to God be the Glory.

Indeed. To God be the Glory.


Overwhelmed


It started with me coming to the end of myself.

I fell apart in September, overwhelmed by the weight of transition and exhaustion, and most significantly, responsibility. I went from being responsible for my four children and some various volunteer projects to being responsible for 18 staff and 148 children (while my own four still very much needed me).

Missionary schools usually have a high turnover rate, but this year was particularly high. Four out of my six classroom teachers were new to their position (though not new to teaching), and the remaining two both went on maternity leave this year--which meant we needed two long-term subs. We also had a new occupational therapist, a new music teacher, a student teacher, and two new teaching assistants in elementary school.

It was the most intense year I've ever experienced, hands down. For one of the only times in my life, I will never say, "Wow, that year sped by." I look back on last August and it feels like an eternity ago.

I kept thinking, Once International Day is over, then things will calm down. But there was always something else. Once kindergarten admissions is over....once the education conference is over....once report cards are done....once Book Week is over....once SEW week is over.....then things will calm down. But now I get it--things don't calm down until the year itself is over.

I had to come to grips with my limitations. I am a bit of a perfectionist and an over-achiever, and I wanted to do everything, all at once, and I wanted to do it brilliantly. I wanted to be good at my job from the very first day, when the reality was that there was no way I would get good at it until I allowed myself time to learn. Dealing with the difficult child, writing the sensitive email, delicately intervening in a staff conflict--all were things that I was thrust into, but no book could have prepared me for. I made a lot of mistakes, but I had to give myself grace--and time--to learn.

Paradoxically, I also was surprised to find out that I was capable of more than I would have predicted. All of that fear I experienced at the beginning--that I can't handle it all, that I'm going to fail and let everyone down, that I can't do this job and be a good mom--none of those fears materialized. There is a blessing in how God has wired us for routine and habit. Doing things over and over makes them easier. Yes, I was exhausted many days, but I still (usually) made dinner, the homework (mostly) got done, bedtime stories were read, I made it to (almost all) sports events. Gil was a huge support, of course, as he took on more than he had in earlier days, and my trustworthy helper, Esta, kept the house clean and the laundry washed. Life didn't fall apart.

Yes, it was incredibly intense and overwhelming. Taking responsibility for 18 staff and 148 children meant that I took on many of their burdens as well. Children struggling through divorce or dyslexia, teachers struggling with homesickness, morning sickness, or sick family members a continent away. Sometimes it felt crushing.

But we were in it together, my staff and me, and we held each other up and prayed for each other and laughed (and laughed!) together. I was overwhelmed by their grace and encouragement and perseverance, their dedication to HOPAC and to God, and their commitment to excellence.

Overwhelmed by the job, but mostly overwhelmed by joy.

HOPAC Primary School 2017-2018 Staff

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Entertained


I'm afraid these kindergartners were disappointed this year, as they never did reach their goals. We only play "real" football at HOPAC, not American, and teaching ninjas just didn't make it into the curriculum. 

This was a hard year for me and for many of my staff, but I never expected to laugh so much. There's something about absurdly difficult situations that make a lot of things seem funny. And working with children gave us plenty of entertainment.

The first month of school, a teacher came into my office, very concerned. She handed me a water bottle full of a dark red liquid. “Smell this,” she said. I took a whiff. Uhhh….that’s alcoholic.

She looked terrified. “This is a student’s water bottle. That child has been falling asleep all morning. What should I do about it?”

I burst out laughing. “You laugh!” I said. “I know this family and I am 100% positive this was an accident. So go ahead and just get a good laugh out of it!” (And, of course, I was right. The mortified parents had a very reasonable explanation for how wine had unintentionally ended up in their child's bottle instead of water.)

Or there was the time when a class just wouldn't accept a teacher's vague 'birds and the bees' explanation and insisted on specifics. The next day, one of those students pointed to the belly of a pregnant teacher and announced (with a knowing smile), “I know how that happened.” When that story was told at a staff meeting, we just about fell off of our chairs. 

I taught weekly lessons in each class on emotion regulation and problem-solving. One week, as a review question, I asked the kindergarten class, "Who remembers how we calm down when we are upset?"

One earnest soul responded, "You cook yourself."

What?

"Yeah, you cook yourself. Like pasta."

Then I recalled: A couple of weeks prior, I had taught the kids to pretend they were a piece of uncooked spaghetti, and slowly relax their muscles until they were a puddle on the floor--as if they had been cooked. 

Apparently, the take away from that discussion is that we should cook ourselves when we need to calm down. Great.

Our fourth and fifth graders took standardized tests, and I chuckled my way through checking over the "ethnicity" section. About half of the kids had labeled themselves "multi-ethnic." 


No, darling. You were born in America and are blond-haired and blue-eyed. Yes, you've spent your whole life in Tanzania, but you are White.

Or, I know you grew up in China, but you were born in Tanzania and your skin is dark. You are Black, not multi-ethnic.

Oh, the conundrum of being a Third-Culture Kid. I did a lot of erasing and re-categorizing.

There were the toothless grins of the 6-and-7-year-olds who greeted me every morning. Or during kindergarten assessments, the child who drew himself as the Incredible Hulk. Or the one who when asked, "What sound does P make?," confidently declared, "Penis!" I had a hard time keeping it together through the rest of that assessment.


Of course, it wasn't just the students who made us laugh. We had Thing 1 and Thing 2 on staff, who fully embraced their responsibility to make mischief wherever they went. Or there was that time when I announced to the whole school that we would be doing "speed" on Friday, and the kids couldn't understand why the teachers were beside themselves.

We were often overwhelmed this year (more about that later), but we were overwhelmed together. And often, that made it really, really fun.


Saturday, June 23, 2018

Yesterday was the last day of school.




I kept trying to write about this year as principal at HOPAC, and I kept getting stuck.

There was just too much to say. It's all been crammed into my head for 10 months and I haven't had the time to process it, let alone get it out. Not really writer's block. More like writer's traffic jam. So I start trying to write, and it's like those glass ketchup bottles you keep shaking. When it finally comes out, it comes out all at once.

So, forgive me if this reads like spilled ketchup.

This has been the most intense year of my life. For once in my life, a year did not speed by. I think back to August and it feels like an eternity ago.

Never in my life have I had a year with so many thoughts in my brain at once. I used to think that I was good at remembering details, but now I have to tell people, Put it in an email or I will forget. My mind had to switch between too many topics in the course of a day to remember anything anymore.

The kindergarten teacher is on maternity leave. Her substitute teacher is able to work every day except Wednesdays. Between myself, the first grade assistant, and the kindergarten assistant, we manage to get Wednesdays covered. Then the kindergarten assistant leaves to go to some training. So that means I need to move the first grade assistant into kindergarten all day on Wednesdays. The second grade assistant will help the kindergarten teacher while the kindergarten assistant is gone.

And while my brain is doing gymnastics over Wednesdays in kindergarten, a child comes rushing into my office saying, Mrs. Medina! So-and-so just threw my brother's water bottle and ruined it and I need to call and tell my mom right now!

No darling, you don't need to call your mom right nowBut I make notes: Email mom of boy with ruined water bottle. Email mom of boy who ruined it. Come up with work project as compensation for boy who ruined it.

This is why I could never write a post entitled, "A Day in My Life as Principal." Because it would look something like this:

9:05  Work on Powerpoint for next week's assembly.
9:07   Get phone call from teacher asking for help with a behavior issue.
9:08   Arrive at classroom.
9:10   Pull student out of classroom to talk outside.
9:11   Get interrupted by a student on the way to the bathroom, who tells me that she likes my skirt.
9:12   Thank that student, and then remind her that she needs to have her shoes on. Wait while she goes back to get shoes.
9:13   Shoo away a crow who is masterfully opening a child's lunchbox.
9:14:  Receive a text message from a teacher who can't find a particular math manipulative. Make a mental note to help her look.
9:15   Continue talk with student. Discuss consequences. Make a mental note to make sure I follow through.

And that's just 10 minutes of one day. No wonder things kept leaking out of my brain.

There’s been the intensity of thinking, but also the intensity of emotions. I never expected to feel so deeply and in so many ways.

So as I sort through how this year was amazing and heart-wrenching and how it changed me, I am going to organize it by emotion:

Entertained

Overwhelmed

Proud

Fulfilled

Stay tuned. All the ketchup is coming out of the bottle.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Good Dads

It's really not fair, my friends and I have complained to each other. Why is it that I can say all the same things and give out all the same consequences, but the kids still behave better for Dad than for me? 

There's just something about Dads that makes kids pay attention.

Maybe that's why these days I think more about the unfairness of the kids who don't get good dads--or get dads at all. I think about the little guy who comes up to my window while I'm at a stoplight, begging for coins. I think about George, who told Gil, I want a Daddy too, when we went to bring home Johnny. I think about my grown up friends who never knew their dads.


I am one of the fortunate ones. I have a dad who tickled me until I couldn't breathe, who lay on the living room floor and flew me around on top of his feet. He hugged me every bedtime and spanked me when necessary. He cried every time I got an award or graduated from something or left home for longer than a week. He introduced me to Africa and welcomed the stranger into our home and taught me to pray.

He was strong and funny and made me feel safe. He still does. And now he loves my own kids the same way.





My dad cried when he gave me away to the man who is dad to my kids. And every single day, I thank God for my kids' dad. Because almost every single day, Gil plays with his kids. He plays football and basketball and xbox. The other day, he printed out pictures of tiny little heads of soccer players, and he and Josiah glued them to bottle caps so that they can simulate World Cup matches. He comes up with crafts for the girls. He coaches the kids' teams. He reads to them most nights. He creates amazing birthday parties and Spirit Week costumes. He helps with homework.

But he's also after their hearts, and the relationship he has formed with them is why they listen. He teaches them from the Bible and prays with them. He and I handle every behavior issue together. He doesn't shy away from discipline or consequences, but he's always looking for ways to make it positive. He is my kids' protector and defender. He makes us feel safe.

When I see my kids with their dad, it's even more poignant to think that they were once fatherless. They could have been that kid begging from cars. Or more likely, like George. Then they hit the Dad Jackpot.

My kids don't yet understand how fortunate they are, but one day they will. Just like I did, they take for granted that they have such an amazing dad. As they grow older, they will realize that their kind of dad is not so easy to find. Which is why I celebrate my dad and their dad today.















Saturday, June 2, 2018

When the Gate Fell




It was Sunday afternoon, and we had gathered together for our monthly mission team meeting. The adults were talking on the second-floor balcony of our friends' house, and the kids were running around in the yard below us.

In the background, we heard the gate slide open, and a car entered the property--a taxi ready to pick up some teammates. A few moments later, we heard the ghastly sound of metal crashing and children screaming.

I had a feeling run through me that is usually reserved for nightmares. We rushed downstairs.

Four kids--Josiah, Johnny, and two others--had been pushing the gate together. The force of all four of them pushing at the same time had made the heavy metal gate jump its runners and crash to the ground. The other kids managed to jump out of the way, but Josiah's friend put up his arm to stop the gate, and it fell on top of him, breaking his arm.

Thankfully, the boy's dad is a doctor, and he immediately took over and got his son to a hospital. He is okay now. Our kids were stunned and a bit traumatized, as each of them felt responsible that the gate fell. But everyone was okay.

Funny how something as serious as a broken arm suddenly becomes "only" a broken arm. It took six strong adults to pick up the gate and put it back on it's runners. It was totally and completely an accident--nothing anyone could have predicted, and no one's fault. We all looked at each other grimly as we contemplated the What If''s. What if it had fallen on a smaller child? What if it had landed on someone's head? Everyone remembered a similar scenario a couple of years ago when a falling gate had killed the four-year-old sister of a HOPAC student.

Right before this happened, we had all been discussing some serious issues our organization is facing. We are getting advice, we are doing everything we can, and we are praying--but ultimately the outcome will be out of our hands. We think that by worrying we can somehow gain some control over a situation, but then something terrible happens that we never would have thought to worry about.

We are but microscopic organisms on the head of a pin in a vast universe. Are we subject to the whims of chaos, or is there an infinite God who is orchestrating billions of events every moment of every day, whether it be presidents or armies or the forces of gravity on a metal gate?

How we answer that question determines how then we shall live.