"I got to thinking one day about all those women on the Titanic who passed up dessert at dinner that fateful night in an effort to 'cut back.' From then on, I've tried to be a little more flexible."
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Teaching, Flannery O'Connor, and the Kingdom of Heaven

I have now completed three weeks of teaching high school. My days have turned into commuting, working, eating, working some more, and sleeping. After I was hired on September 1, I was given keys to two different classrooms, shown my office, and told to report to work on September 7. School had already been in session for two days without me (a substitute handled the first sessions while I was being hired).

I have yet to meet the rest of the faculty, with the exception of a few teachers with whom I’ve been required to interact. I have yet to see the rest of the school campus, with the exception of the rooms and offices I’ve been required to visit.

It’s a pretty surreal experience. On one hand, I enjoy not having anyone breathing down my neck; the freedom given to me as a teacher is unprecedented from my previous jobs. On the other hand, I am feeling unsure of myself and a bit alienated. There’s no time for me to agonize over it, though. I have a room full of 30 teenagers to engage twice a day—I’d better have my act together.

I expected to be busy, no doubt about that. I didn’t expect the curriculum to somehow to have been “misplaced” (or thrown out), so the unrelenting daily pressure to deliver lessons that will meet the state requirements, while at the same time be engaging, is mentally and physically fatiguing.

Honestly, if I thought the job (and my life) would always be like this, I wouldn’t continue. But I’ve been told that most teachers feel like quitting the first year, and it isn’t until the second or third year, more likely, that a person begins to feel comfortable being a teacher. Knowing this up front helps keep me going.

Every day as I drive to work, I wonder what in the world I am doing. But I believe with all my heart that God opened this door, placed the desire in my heart, and has me there for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me. It’s all very much a “God thing.” On my first day of class, I did an introductory PowerPoint presentation about myself and I shared with the kids about having had cancer. I told them, “You never know what kind of curve balls life will throw your way.” I told them that if it hadn’t been for cancer, I wouldn’t be in the classroom with them.

(As a side note, it’s been interesting to see the points of contact that my little spiel opened up. This week, one of my students shared with me that her father had been treated for esophageal cancer this year. She told me that she had seen her father cry for the first time and that it had made her cry, something she hadn’t done in quite awhile. I’m not sure she would have ever shared with me if I hadn’t “come out” as a cancer survivor first.)

As I was leaving for work a few days ago, I mentioned to my daughter that I was scared every day I went to work. (By the way, I think this is normal when a person leaves their comfort zone.) She responded, “Mom, just think about it. They’re only 15-year olds.” But I explained to her that it wasn’t just because of the students—I have administrators to answer to! And there’s always the nagging fear of failure.

One of my fellow teachers compared her first year of teaching to driving in the fog. I can relate. It does seem that I have no idea of what’s ahead of me, only the small patch I can see on a daily basis. And you know? I don’t really want to see the entire road ahead of me. Otherwise, I think I’d be paralyzed with fear and doubt and would not want to move forward.

Isn’t it interesting that those are the same feelings I had while going through cancer treatment? After my diagnosis, it was agonizing to think of the year ahead of me. Another cancer survivor told me, “Just put one foot in front of the other.” That became my mantra.

I received the gem below via email this morning from our priest, Father David, who often shares quotes from the church fathers. It so very aptly conveys what I am saying and I immediately recognized the truth in it:

"We must learn not to take insults to heart, for who knows what awaits us during the course of our earthly lives? God is merciful to us, and has concealed our future from us. Otherwise, not one among us would be able to go on, knowing what the future holds for us. We must live through many misfortunes and sorrows, in order to learn how to rise above all these problems that disturb our inner peace. We must learn to acquire the Divine peace and joy of the angels and saints, for the Kingdom of Heaven is acquired while we are still in this life." -- Elder Thaddeus of Serbia

Since becoming Orthodox, I more fully understand now that the Kingdom of Heaven is not a place we go when we die. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself said, “The Kingdom of God is within you.”

The Kingdom of Heaven is a spiritual condition that no earthly situation can overcome, not a room full of teenagers, and not even cancer.

To quote His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH, “The Kingdom is a dynamic state, wherein we grow in perfection through God’s grace. Our journey is not to the Kingdom, our journey is in the Kingdom.”

In a nutshell, our “heaven” and our “hell” all begins here on earth, within us. Don’t we all know people whose lives are living hells? Many times, we bring hell on ourselves by our unwise choices. By the same token, we can experience the Kingdom of Heaven within us—even in the midst of terrible suffering—by choosing to take up our cross--everyone has a struggle of some sort--and following Him.

To further complete my thought, I quote here from Father Stephen’s blog, Glory to God for All Things:

“Whether a Christian is in a church, in the street, at home, in a crowd of people, or alone, the matter of communion with God is a matter of turning inward. It is in our hearts that we will encounter God. And when we do, He will take us by the hand and put us in communion with others. And in our communion with others, the bond that joins us will always be God Himself . . . So there is no other path to the Kingdom of God but the one which leads to our heart, the one which leads “within you.”

Speaking of hearts, my own was touched yesterday when I received an email from a visitor to my blog, someone I have never met. This person is a priest in another state. He has had Stage IV cancer since 1996 and wrote to let me know that he enjoyed reading my blog. I was touched that he took the time to write. He shared a quote from American writer Flannery O’Connor and I’d like to pass it on as well.

Ms. O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus in 1951 and lived with it for 13 years before she died at the age of 39. In a letter to a friend, she wrote:

"I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense, sickness is a place more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.”

All I could think was, ‘What could possess a person to think that being sick was one of God’s mercies’? And yet, having experienced cancer, I think I understand. My perception of life and time have been forever altered. I had an almost immediate visceral understanding of what was important—and it wasn’t found at the mall.

I experienced a recognition of the Kingdom of Heaven within me and of God’s reaching out to draw me closer to Him. The week I was diagnosed, I sat in my car, praying and trying to make sense of it. Through tears, I muttered to God, “You must really love me.” Even today, I sense, believe, KNOW the truth of Ms. O’Connor’s words.

Sickness—or any life adversity—is not fun. But the truth is, the struggle can put you on the path to the Kingdom of Heaven.

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