The Good Teacher

I’ve recently joined a team of Christians in my town who contribute regularly to our local paper’s ‘Christian Comment’. This space in the paper is a small space (300 words) to share a Christian perspective on a topical issue.

As a mother of children and a teacher of children, my next spot in the writing rota – for this Friday – was perfectly placed for a beginning of the school year musing. So, here it is.

The Good Teacher:

A good teacher is something you never forget.

I hope you know the ones I mean – the men and women who are more than simply educators doing a day job.

Good teachers inspire and sow the seeds of aspiration. They embody passion for their subjects and those in their charge; they care, deeply, about who you are, what you learn, and where you are going. It’s not just your academic pursuits that matter to them – it’s your growth as a human being.

The good teacher makes you feel welcome, secure and gives you parameters in which to spread your wings. They laugh and cry with you. They guide you when you fall short and have words of heartfelt challenge for you when you need them. They make you feel valued, telling you that you matter and can make a difference. They communicate something of wonder to you in a world where so much smacks of disenchantment.

They are the teachers in whose classes you give everything you’ve got.

Those teachers have a lot in common with Jesus. Called ‘rabbi’ (‘teacher’) throughout the gospels, the heart of Jesus is to see us flourish. In the classroom that is life, His word is the curriculum – and the objective of His lesson plans is to see us become all that He knows we can be.

And, like all good teachers, His door is always open to us.

Your school days may be far behind you – or you may be right in the thick of them. Whichever is true, know this: in the classroom of the Good Teacher, there are always seats for those who seek them – no matter how long the absence or late the homework.

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To Have Loved and Lost: A Christian’s Experience of Miscarriage

Painful memories can – and do – just hit you out of nowhere. Recently, on one of those rare days that we had sunshine, I was in the garden with my little ones. My three year old son was having a wonderful time watering plants while I helped his one year old sister to toddle after him. My son refilled the watering can, andhappened to give special attention to a single white rose budding in the corner.
You might not think that the scene of my son bestowing such care on a single plant could move me to tears, but it did. The white rose had been a gift to us from dear friends, in memory of a baby that we lost two years ago.

Even though it’s very common, miscarriage isn’t something that it’s easy to talk about. As a Christian, it was an experience that I found incredibly difficult – and often still do. So I hope you will forgive me if this post seems less polished than it could be.

I had never felt easy about that pregnancy. Apart from all the emotions of joy and anxiety that we all feel when we discover that we are becoming parents, my husband and I were worried that the timing of this baby; the pregnancy was unexpected, and our son wasn’t sleeping through the night. We chose to leave the situation in the Lord’s hands, praising Him for His gift of new life and trusting that He would supply everything that we would need to be able to love and provide for our growing family. 

Ten weeks into the pregnancy, I began bleeding. My husband and I both knew that this could be entirely normal, but arranged a scan just to be on the safe side.

As soon as I saw the ultrasound images, I knew that something was wrong. The sonographer delivered the news: the foetus was weeks too small for its date, and had no heartbeat. The baby inside me was dead.

Perhaps you can imagine how we felt. Grief; rage; loss that words just could not contain. Gearing up to welcome a new member to our family, we had lost a child that we had never had the chance to hold – or even name. 

The grief at a miscarriage or stillbirth is not just at the loss of a loved one, but at the loss of a hoped for future that will never be shared. 

In my grief, I wrestled – with God, and with myself. Had I somehow been to blame for the baby’s death? Why had the Lord allowed me to endure such crippling morning sickness for so many weeks when the baby was lost? Why couldn’t He – the giver of life and Creator of all things – preserve this one, tiny life? 

All my husband and I could do was turn to the Lord. We tried to thank Him for the life we had been given, even though we didn’t know why it had been taken away. We declared His power over our lives and the life of our lost little one, blessing Him for that gift, and the gift of our young son. We prayed for His mercy and that, one day, we would have the wondrous of joy of meeting our lost child in heaven. It did not ease the pain – but it helped us to know that God, too, knew what grief it is to lose a child. 

For years, I had lived in horror of the idea of carrying a dead child, of my womb becoming a tomb. So deciding to wait for my body to miscarry fully on its own was something I was initially frightened of, even though it seemed right. And I found that it was not a horror. In those three weeks of waiting, I felt that I cradled my child for a while longer. It was not the lifetime of hugs that I had dreamed of, but it was something. It was time to say that we loved her, and time to say goodbye.

When the miscarriage finally came – late at night, when my son was sleeping – my husband and I both felt the Lord’s hand powerfully over that timing. Even when I had to be taken to hospital and the bleeding was so much that we had to opt for a surgical procedure, I knew that God was with me – in this case, in the talented, loving hands of the doctors, nurses and midwives who had – just as at the birth of my son – intervened and saved my life.

Just a few months after our miscarriage, a family member – who had also had a miscarriage, then gone on to have another child – told me: ‘Yes, it was awful. But we wouldn’t have our daughter if it hadn’t happened.’

At the time, those words had seemed callous, cruel. Unfeeling. But I think I now understand them: the daughter I now have – whose name means ‘My God has answered’ – would never have come to be if were it not for that awful time. It was a time when I learnt something about turning to the Lord in the valleys. Being alone without me while I was in hospital brought my son and husband closer together, and forced me to realise that they could cope without me (a tough, but vital, lesson for a young mother). And the child that we lost has made both of our children so much more precious to us.

It is now two years since our miscarriage. Time is a healer, yes, and the grief is not as it was then. But, even if it is easier to think about, and talk about, the loss remains.

So when my son and daughter both cooed over the white rose in the garden it seemed to me – as they stroked the petals and tended the earth – that they were caring for the sister that they had never known. And it seemed to me also, for the tenderest of moments, that she was with us still.

This post also appears at http://www.annathayer.wordpress.com .

A Name to Watch: Discovering Beth Moran

Jacket Image

Here’s somethingthat I love: discovering a new, post-1830s writer (long in-joke story, to be dutifully explained another time!) who is talented, pithy, and not well known enough. So: this blog post is an attempt to redress that a little. And to write everything that I could not write in my word-limited commendation.

I was approached by the lovely Lion Hudson – who publish my own novels – and asked if I would consider reading a title with a view to giving a commendation. Ego suitably massaged, I said I should be delighted. The quirkily ring-bound proof that appeared on my doorstep a couple of days later was for ‘The Name I Call Myself‘ by Beth Moran – due for publication next month.

Now, I had heard of Beth Moran – like me, she was an award-winner of the IndieFab awards with her novel ‘Making Marion’ back in 2015. Unlike me, she had won gold in her category. Additionally, her praises had been sung highly to me by our local Christian book shop owner who, a year ago, was practically on tenterhooks for the next novel. And I – saturated with the works of Shakespeare et alia – looked at the cover, discerned chick lit, smiled, and thought: not for me.

Wrong.

Maybe it’s that I’m in a different phase of life, now, but Moran’s latest book caught me at once. The blurb was skilled, intriguing – of the kind that left you thinking ‘I can guess where this story is going to go, but I want to read to find out if I’m right, and I’m ready to have the cockles of my heart warmed by a predictable romance plot, and then I shall feel smug because I predicted it. And it will probably be an alright read.’.

Wrong. It was more than alright. And not really predictable.

From the first paragraph, I knew I was dealing with a pro. Believe me: as a novelist whose fantasy trilogy was almost the length of ‘War and Peace’ (that’s a lot of editing!!); as a literary critic well versed in the subtle arts of the grammarian and rhetorician; as a teacher far too accustomed to the pony-story that could use a few more choice structural and descriptive devices… Well, I know quality when I read it. Moran has quality – buckets and buckets of it.

Let me just share with you the commendation that I wrote, and expand on it:

‘Moran is a worthy inheritor of Austen’s mantel: her writing is witty, engaging, funny, poignant. She tackles the realities of love, loss, abuse and redemption with insight; considered without being heavy-handed, light-hearted without ever compromising on emotional depth. This is chick-lit as it should be – a page-turner whose heroine is transformed and whose journey is not superficial, but edifying and emboldening.’

I mean every single word of it.

Inheritor of Austen? High praise, but true. Why? Because Austen looks at the roles, constrictions and difficulties that women find themselves in, contrasting what the heart wants against what society expects. Moran’s heroine, Faith, is caught in a rather Austenian dilemma, replete with social expectations and complications. Like Austen, Moran explores this position with humour and wit, and her heroine, while no doormat, has a lesson to learn.

Something else that impressed me about this book was its ability to weave between a harrowing backstory and the kind of humour that we so expect from our chick-lit heroines. As a mum to a 3 and 1 year old – and a fairly geeky one at that – I found myself laughing out loud at the depictions of the character Marilyn’s life with tiny tots, and enjoying a really broad spectrum of cultural references. Moran can go from these scenes to the truly troubling realities of what it is to be a survivor of abusive relationships, and the shadows that that can cast.

That weaving is part of what makes Moran’s talent so notable, but there’s more to it than that. In my commendation, I mentioned that I feel that this novel is exactly what chick-lit ought to be: far from being submerged in the consumerist superficialities of the chick flick; far from revelling in a series of comical one-night-stands in the quest for ‘true love’; far from reducing the heroine to a quivering, objectified trophy for a perfect man – Moran writes a female protagonist whose journey not only changes and emboldens her, but edifies the reader, too.

Wholesome, challenging, funny, engaging, reality-checked writing, with a sluice of accomplished technical features and exquisite literary devices that gel together into an effortless read? That about sums this up.

Don’t know Beth Moran? Check out this novel when it appears next month. I know one thing for sure: at the earliest opportunity afforded to me by my wee ones, I shall be acquiring Moran’s other novels, and watching out for the next one!

This post also appears on my sister-site, www.annathayer.wordpress.com .

The Quest for Identity: Overthinking ‘Stick Man’


One of the joys of parenthood is coming back into contact with children’s books, and we are slowly building a collection of stories by Julia Donaldson. Having now devoured the Gruffalo (upon which I have already written a post, viewable here) umpteen times, we are just now in a ‘Stick Man’ phase. And it’s got me thinking about something which really does concern everyone: our pursuit of our own identity.

Of course, the quest for identity – and, often, for adulthood – is one of the chief concerns of children’s stories in every medium. But what is interesting about Stick Man is that it presents us with what is arguably the flip-side of this quest: the trouble to maintain that identity in the face of a world which looks at us through a million different lenses.

If you’re not familiar with the story, it is actually very simple: Stick Man lives with his wife and children in a tree. On going for a jog one day, he is separated from his family and drawn progressively further and further from home by a variety of obstacles, ranging from dogs to children, to swans, the ocean, and even a distressingly close encounter with a fireplace.

At the opening to the story, Stick Man is clearly established as settled and at one with himself and his family; the ‘family tree’ is a powerful emblem of his rootedness in himself, his family and, by inference, his history. He has safely made the rocky transition into adulthood and emerged with a clear sense of himself: ‘I’m Stick Man, I’m Stick Man, I’m Stick Man – that’s me!’. The last thing he is expecting on his morning jog is peril to his physical self and identity.

At each escalating encounter, Donaldson’s verse employs the refrain: ‘Stick Man, oh Stick Man, beware of the…!’. The repetition – strengthened by the tight verse of the poem – highlights something that adolescents and adults know only too well – the world attacks who we are, sometimes indiscriminately, and often from many different angles. Stick Man disentangles himself from each situation with the defiant proclamation ‘I’m Stick Man’. It is his self-assertion that allows him to remove himself from the obstacles that threaten him and continue on his quest for home – a space which is arguably the symbolic location of his identity.

Perhaps the most evident example of the barrage of life against identity in this story is the couple of stanzas focused entirely on Stick Man’s negating of the labels that others have placed on him: ‘I’m not a bat, or a bow, or a boomerang… No, I’m Stick Man… And I long to get back to the family tree.’ In each case, others are attempting to force him into a role that, while he may externally look suited to it, it reduces him to the level of a tool or implement and does not respect his intrinsic self. He has to fight – and fight hard – to reject those labels, and to remind himself that he is right to do so. But, as the listing of roles in this section shows, the sheer number of attacks on identity can wear you down.

Stranded and lost in the snow, Donaldson’s paints a heartbreaking picture of near defeat partway through the poem, where we read: ‘Stick Man is lonely. Stick Man is lost… Stick Man is woozy. His eyes start to close…’. Note how the syllables here are short, and the sentences, too, to convey the withering of the hero’s resolve to preserve his true self against a world that has caged him in (a feeling built, again, by the closeness of those short sentences). It is a sense compounded by the gathering of open vowel sounds of ‘lonely’, ‘lost’ and ‘woozy’ which, in a verse-trick reminiscent of Milton’s Paradise Lost, conveys the yawning emptiness occassioned by loss of self. It is no accident that it is at this point that Stick Man falls unconscious and nearly becomes firewood. Surrender in this quest will result in the complete destruction of the self.

Look closely at what it is that saves him: the sound of Father Christmas, stuck in the chimney, which wakes him before he is reduced to kindling. Despite his own near-hopeless situation, Stick Man still has enough of himself left to show compassion to a ‘stuck man’, and it is this act of kindness which will ultimately reunite him with his family.

There is a subtle message, here; if we take Father Christmas as powerfully emblematic of our own childhood selves, then Donaldson seems to suggest that it is through compassion on that self that we are reconnected to the fullness of our our adult selves. In short, we have to re-embrace our inner child – with care and compassion – to find again the capacity to actualise our identity. It is only when he has done this by helping Father Christmas that Stick Man is once again able to joyfully proclaim: ‘I’m Stick Man – that’s me.’

The rewards of being at peace and joyfully proclamative of our identities are not merely selfish – being restored to himself also allows Stick Man to be restored to his proper place in his home and family. Donaldson shows us that knowing ourselves also allows us to know and be known in a fulfilling way by those around us.

Enjoyed this post? Check out ‘The Deep, Dark Wood: Overthinking ‘The Gruffalo‘.

A Brave New World of Blogging

Hello, Internet! Welcome to Thayer Thoughts, a blog that does exactly what it says on the url: collects my musings on life, literature, teaching and motherhood.  I’m told that blogging is a great way to get out (handy when you’re chained to the sofa nursing an infant!), so here goes!  This is my first foray into the brave new world of blogging…

Like my writing? Check out my sister site www.annathayer.wordpress.com to learn about my award-winning fantasy trilogy, ‘The Knight of Eldaran‘, and my work on Tolkien and Lewis. Yes, you got me: I’m a geek.