Notes and Quotes from “The Making of Biblical Womanhood,” by Beth Allison Barr

One: The Beginning of Patriarchy

Let me show you, from the world history sources I have been teaching for more than two decades, how much Christian patriarchy mimics the patriarchy of the non-Christian world.

Here we go! I love this sentence from the first chapter because it sets up Barr’s ethos (credibility) as an author. She is a historian. She has studied this stuff for decades. She has taught this stuff for decades. So let’s pay attention when she says that Christians are like non-Christians when it comes to patriarchy. This is a problem, my Christian friends. We are supposed to be set apart, remember?

It was okay to hire a woman to answer the phone, but the job would be demeaning to a man.

She tells the story of her qualified male friend who applied for the church secretary position. He was denied, even though he was in financial need. The pastor assumed he wouldn’t want to answer the phone. Think about what this is saying: “the job would be demeaning to a man.” Hmm.

This example of a man being deemed above the work suitable for a woman fits into a larger social pattern in which men’s work is more highly valued than women’s.

Sounds like the secular world, amiright?

Shouldn’t Christians, who are called to be different from the world, treat women differently? What if patriarchy isn’t divinely ordained but is a result of human sin?

Barr talks about how “Babylonian law allowed husbands to drown their wives for alleged adultery” but also how her students live in a state (Texas) in which “women make up 94 percent of the victims in domestic partner murder-suicides.” Ick. Call it what it is (patriarchy), and stop considering it a point of pride in Christianity. Let’s treat women better.

Instead of looking different in how we treated women, Christians looked just like everyone else.

What happened to Christians being radically different from the world?

The first human sin built the first human hierarchy.

So what if hierarchy wasn’t God’s plan for humans? What if when Adam and Eve ate of that darned fruit, their consequence was that the ground was to be master over the man, and the man was to be master over the woman?

Patriarchy wasn’t what God wanted; patriarchy was a result of human sin.

Oof.

As Du Mez explains, “For Bushnell, male authority over women contradicted God’s will and perpetuated man’s original rebellion against God.” Women thus “continued to commit the sin of Eve when they submitted to men, rather than to God.” Adam’s rebellion was claiming God’s authority for himself, and Eve’s rebellion was submitting to Adam in place of God.

So what you’re saying here, Barr (and Du Mez and Bushnell), is that if we women have been submitting to our husbands as the authority figure in our lives, we’ve been sinning? Wow. That sure does change things.

Patriarchy walks with structural racism and systemic oppression, and it has done so consistently throughout history.

Well this is uncomfortable.

Clarice J. Martin asks a provocative question: “How can black male preachers and theologians use a liberated hermeneutic while preaching and theologizing about slaves, but a literalist hermeneutic with reference to women?” I would like to ask the same question of white preachers and theologians. When we rightly understand that biblical passages discussing slavery must be framed within their historical context and that, through the lens of this historical context, we can better see slavery as an ungodly system that stands contrary to the gospel of Christ, how can we not then apply the same standards to biblical texts about women?

How can we not, indeed. This picking and choosing of what is liberated hermeneutic or literalist hermeneutic has always baffled me. How to choose? Who gets to choose? Can I choose? Could be fun…

Patriarchy exists in the Bible because the Bible was written in a patriarchal world. Historically speaking, there is nothing surprising about biblical stories and passages riddled with patriarchal attitudes and actions. What is surprising is how many biblical passages and stories undermine, rather than support, patriarchy.

OK, Barr, you’ve pretty well established your ethos (not only does she have loads of experience studying women in history, but she also has quite the erudite writing style), but now — on to the logos, the evidence. Can’t wait to dig into this!

The most difficult passages in the Bible to explain, historically speaking, are those like Galatians 3:26-28: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This is what is radical. This is what makes Christianity so different from the rest of human history.

Preach, Sister.

Isn’t it ironic (not to mention tiresome) that we spend so much time fighting to make Christianity look like the world around us instead of fighting to make it look like Jesus Christ?

Hittin’ us with that pathos — that emotional appeal. This makes me want to stand up on a soapbox with a megaphone (and I can’t stand those people). But it gets me pumped up! And Alanis Morissette would have definitely added this to her song had she read this book first. It’s that ironic.

Two: What If Biblical Womanhood Doesn’t Come from Paul?

Paul frames every aspect of complementarian teachings. Evangelicals read Pauline texts as designating permanent and divinely ordained role distinctions between the sexes. Men wield authority that women cannot. Men lead, women follow. Paul tells us so.

Barr goes on to explain why so many of her students hate Paul. I can say there was a period of time for me when I thought I hated Paul as well. But what Barr continues explaining in this chapter is that perhaps we’ve been “reading Paul wrong.” Oh, suspense!

The evangelical church fears that recognizing women’s leadership will mean bowing to cultural peer pressure. But what if the church is bowing to cultural peer pressure by denying women’s leadership?

I like where this is going. I like it a lot!

The truth — the evangelical reality — is that we have focused so much on adapting Paul to be like us that we have forgotten to adapt ourselves to what Paul is calling us to be: one in Christ.

BOOM goes the dynamite. Yeah, I resonate with this. And don’t worry: Barr provides tons of verses in this chapter to support her statements.

By allowing a woman to anoint him with oil, Jesus overturns male headship — allowing a woman to do what only men had been able to do until that moment: anoint the king.

Jesus was a radical guy, what can I say. He’s like, “IN YO’ FACE, MEN!” (Probably.)

Pope John Paul II’s stance: using Paul’s writings in Ephesians 5 to justify male headship and female subordination in marriage would be the equivalent of using those passages to justify slavery.

Again, I’m uncomfortable. And that’s a good thing.

Rather than New Testament “texts of terror” for women, what if the household codes can be read as resistance narratives to Roman patriarchy?

DOWN WITH THE (Roman) PATRIARCHY!

The Christian structure of the house church resists the patriarchal world of the Roman Empire.

Well, as it should. Now what happened between then and now to bring patriarchy back into the Christian community? (I am hearing in my head a reimagining of Justin Timberlake’s lyrics “I’m Bringing Sexy Back,” but instead of “sexy,” it’s “patriarchy” and instead of being sexy, it’s just pitifully sad.)

“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21) Yes, wives are to submit, but so are husbands. Instead of making Christians just another part of the Roman crowd (emphasizing female submission), the mutual submission in verse 21 is “characteristic of a way of life that sets believers apart from the nonbelieving world.”

Isn’t it strange (and alarming) that it seems Christians have become more like the ancient Roman crowd than radically different?

The subjection of women is highlighted in the ESV translation of Ephesians 5, and the call for husbands to submit is minimized — not because Paul meant it that way but because the complementarian translators of the ESV wanted it that way.

And now, for a quick music break: “I Want It That Way,” by the ever-popular Backstreet Boys.

Seven times throughout his letters, as Beverly Roberts Gaventa has found, Paul uses maternal imagery to describe his ongoing relationship with the church congregations he helped found. … What made female bodies weak in the Roman world made them strong in the writings of Paul. … Just because modern evangelicals overlook Paul’s radical use of maternal imagery doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It just means that, once again, we have gotten Paul wrong.

I used to despise Paul because I thought he was the main guy who taught female submission. But now I’m realizing that maybe we’ve simply been missing his point. This gives me hope.

Not only did early Christians place women in leadership roles; they met together on equal footing — men, women, children, and slaves — in the privacy of the home, a traditionally female space. Christianity was deviant and immoral because it was perceived as undermining ideals of Roman masculinity. Christianity was repugnant … because it didn’t follow the Roman household codes — not because it followed them.

Well, I’ve always liked to be a bit of a rule-breaker. You know, to keep life interesting. It’s probably why I married Steve.

What if instead of replicating an ancient gender hierarchy, Paul was showing us how the Christian gospel sets even the Roman household free?

Yes. I choose that.

Paul was an educated Roman citizen. He would have been familiar with contemporary rhetorical practices that corrected faulty understanding by quoting the faulty understanding and then refuting it. … When Corinthians 14:34-35 is read as a quotation representing a Corinthian practice, Paul’s purpose seems clear: to distinguish what the Corinthians were doing (“women be silent”), and to clarify that Christians should not be following the Corinthian practice (“What!”).

“What!” is right! That completely flips the narrative that I’ve been hearing from the pulpit most of my life, that women should be silent. Perhaps Paul is saying the complete opposite. That’s some fascinating stuff right there, gals.

Could it be that, instead of telling women to be silent like the Roman world did, Paul was actually telling men that, in the world of Jesus, women were allowed to speak? … Instead of heeding his rebuke and freeing women to speak, are we continuing the very patriarchal practices that Paul was condemning?

Well if that’s not something important for all of us mere mortals to mull over, I don’t know what it. So go ahead: mull.

Women really did lead and teach in the early church, even as deacons and apostles. Junia was accepted as an apostle until nearly modern times, when her name began to be translated as a man’s name: Junias. … Junia became Junias because modern Christians assumed that only a man could be an apostle.

And here I will simply transcribe what I wrote in the margin of my book: “messed up!”

Seminary textbooks are often written by pastors — not by historians (and especially not by women historians).

That’s juuuuust a little friendly reminder for everyone.

That’s it for Chapters 1 and 2. We’ll see you next time for the next couple of chapters. (I need to take a nap; I’m exhausted.)

Looking for something to do in the interim? Check out my and my husband’s new podcast, “Red Weather Christians.”

Grief and the End of the World — in Quito, Ecuador

The sting of a fly, the Congolese say, can launch the end of the world. How simply things begin.

The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

Even though we are still lumbering through this pandemic — this pandemic that all simply began with one itty bitty bat (or an itty bitty pangolin, or an itty bitty lab leak) — when I read this quote from The Poisonwood Bible, I don’t think of a global pandemic that started with one infection and led to over three and a half million deaths.

I think of my own grief.

And when I realize this thought process of mine, I feel selfish. How can I possibly think of my personal grief when people are dying every single day in every single part of the world?

So I’m selfish. Because there are so many simple things that happen in the course of a day that launch me into the thick gray fog of grief.

Lately, everything reminds me of my mom.

When I tuck my legs up on the couch to read my book, I think of how my mom would tuck her legs up the same way.

Mini emotional breakdown right there on the couch.

Washing dishes the other night, I got to thinking about how my mom would keep her house so sparkly clean all the time.

Full, heaving sobs over the sink of dirty dishes and soap suds.

I made brownies tonight and was excited to add toasted walnuts to the batter. I remember my mom first discovering the magic that is brownies with walnuts and talking to me about it, going so far as to add a bag of them with a boxed brownie mix as part of a college care package.

Overwhelming sadness and nostalgia.

I sat down at the piano tonight to sing and plunk out the chords to Toto’s “Africa” and thought of how my mom wanted so badly for me to enjoy playing piano and here I was doing just that.

Fat tears. While I’m playing “Africa.”

When I watch old episodes of Call the Midwife, I think of how my mom would have absolutely loved watching that show with me.

Just miss her so much.

Typing that just now, thinking about how silly it is to be sad from watching some random TV show — a show that my mom was never even alive to watch — a fresh spring of tears to my eyes.

How simply things begin.

And while I don’t feel like it’s the end of the world, I do feel deep surges of anguish.

It’s been 12 years since I got to hang out with my mom, watching HGTV on her couch, walking over to downtown Sunnyvale to shop at the farmers market, grabbing lattes at Peet’s Coffee and talking about hopes and dreams.

Time has made things easier, and yet, at the flip of a switch, at any moment, tears can start rolling down my cheeks. I’ve accepted it. And I’ve learned some things about my own grief that might help you:

  1. Accept it for what it is and how it manifests. For me, it’s mostly tears — sometimes at inopportune times. Oh, well.
  2. Surround yourself with people who can handle it. And who care about you. The last thing you need is to be embarrassed about your grief.
  3. Don’t suppress it. I’ve found that my tears are pretty cathartic for me. Maybe they can be for you, too.
  4. Find outlets for your grief. Clearly one of mine is writing, as you know if you’ve been slinking around on my blog. Singing and playing piano is another. Reading books here and there about other humans experiencing grief has been helpful to remind me I’m not alone.
  5. Love others. Tight hugs and shared belly laughs can do wonders. But also being able to channel some of those deep, heavy emotions into love for other humans can be a boon.
  6. Do something that scares you. Perhaps a jump off a zip line tower. Or perhaps a telephone call to a dermatologist’s office to schedule an appointment — in Spanish.

This past Monday, I called a dermatologist’s office here in Quito. I was terrified. Speaking Spanish is already scary, but over the phone? I hate calling to make appointments in the States where I can speak English! But, as I mentioned, I’ve been watching old Call the Midwife episodes, and in one scene, one of the midwives is terrified to do her first solo birth. She knows that if she makes a mistake, a baby or mother could die. So when I started dialing that Ecuadorian phone number, I told myself, “NO ONE IS GOING TO DIE IF YOU MESS UP YOUR SPANISH.” And that made things a lot easier. Thank you, Call the Midwife.

But after I successfully made my appointment and got off the phone, I felt transcendent. I could fly! I could do anything! Silly, I know, but it sure put me in a happy mood.

So there you have it: a great way to deal with grief is to move to a country where you don’t know the language well and make an appointment over the phone. Let me know how it goes for you.

Until then, tuck your legs up on the couch and read a book. Or watch some BBC and have a little cry. Preferably with someone you love. Happy grieving, Friends.

I think my favorite part of this 17-year-old photo is that white-knuckled GRIP my mom has on my arm. Fierce is the love my mom had for me.

Don’t Be an A-hole. Read a Book.

When he needed to calm his mind, he opened a book. Any book. He had never failed to feel refreshed, even if the book was no good.

The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich

The skies are gray today. We are enduring another pandemic weekend lock-down, unable to leave our apartment. I look out at the other apartments across the street from us and see people on the roof, on their balconies, straining to get out.

To escape.

But even when the skies are blue and the gates unlocked, I feel trapped inside the confines of my own non-Spanish-speaking brain. People have told me it takes two years to feel comfortable in a new language, and sometimes, I just can’t wrap my mind around having to endure for that long.

Because I am being tutored, three times a week.

Because I listen to podcasts in Spanish.

Because Spanish subtitles are always on for whatever I watch.

Because nature documentaries I watch are completely in Spanish.

And yet.

When I escape my apartment gates, and someone, masked, speaks to me, I panic and hardly anything translates. Even Thoreau says, “We hear and apprehend only what we already half know.” Now add a language barrier onto that? Yeesh. I come home from my outing drained and discouraged.

I wish I could go to sleep with ear buds in, listen to a Spanish novel all night, and wake up refreshed and Spanish literate. If only it were that easy.

When I was in fifth grade, I did think it was that easy. For my science project, I posited that listening to a story while asleep would control dreams. To that end, I found a cassette tape and recorded my voice telling stories and describing the sights, sounds, and tactile imagery of walking down a beach. I recruited my neighbor Chris to listen to the cassette when he was asleep and write down his dreams upon waking. It was a great plan! I was sure to win the science fair.

Except that the cassette tape I found was one of my dad’s, and it wasn’t blank. So when Chris was in dreamland and the volume was turned way up so he could hear my voice describing the sand squishing between his toes, something bad happened. My voice recording ended, and in the middle of the night, Jimmy Buffett’s “Asshole Song” started BLARING:

Were you born an asshole?
Or did you work at it your whole life?
Either way it worked out fine
’cause you’re an asshole tonight.
Yes you’re an A-S-S-H-O-L-E and don’t you try to blame it on me
You deserve all the credit.
You’re an asshole tonight.
You were an asshole yesterday, you’re an asshole tonight.
And I got a feeling, you’ll be an asshole the rest of your life.

It was so loud that Chris’s parents ran into his room, confused and angry, to punch “stop” on the tape player.

Oops. Luckily, Chris reported, he did not have nightmares of being an asshole tonight and the rest of his life.

A good reminder for me when I want to take the easy way out in learning Spanish by listening to novels while I sleep.

But I think our friend Thomas from The Night Watchman might be onto something. Sometimes in life we just need to feel refreshed (likely it was not a refreshing night’s sleep for Chris or his parents). And sometimes, I think that means we need to escape real life for a bit. Maybe even leave “the present” and slip into the fictional world of a book.

When I was a kid, I loved the Pippi Longstocking books. When I read them, I felt empowered to do anything I wanted. Make a huge mess in the house, go on adventures as a Thing Finder, fight off robbers, go on picnics, skip school — lots of things that kids in their normal lives aren’t allowed or able to do. Reading those books flipped this little creative switch inside my brain, and the ordinary things (like a discarded can, for example) turned into a wonderful treasure with lots of uses. Things that might otherwise be scary (ghosts, for example), turned into opportunities for new friends. My living room couch turned into a pirate ship, and the floor was the sea, infested with sharks.

I slipped into Pippi’s world and then I slipped into my own made-up world. And it was a wonderful slip. (I am reminded of those hot summer days when my parents would relent to setting up the slip n slide on the lawn and my exhilaration in sliding down that yellow piece of plastic.)

So this weekend, as I was slipping into the slough of despond under the gray skies, trapped inside my apartment, I decided to reread Pippi Longstocking. It was fun. It was refreshing.

Emily and Amelia Nagoski, in their book Burnout: The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle, list seven things to do when we experience those inevitable times of stress:

  1. Move
  2. Breathe
  3. Talk to people
  4. Laugh
  5. Speak to loved ones
  6. Cry
  7. Do something creative

So I’d like to skip straight to number 7 and have a reading party. And maybe we can start with a favorite book from childhood. What would yours be? Here are some of my favorites:

  • Any Roald Dahl book
  • Harriet the Spy
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins
  • Little House on the Prairie series
  • Anne of Green Gables series
  • The Phantom Tollbooth
  • Any Judy Blume book
  • Pippi Longstocking
  • Megan’s Island
  • My Side of the Mountain

The bottom line is that it’s OK to give yourself permission to escape every once and a while. But that’s not a message that we get very often, and sometimes for good reason. When “escape” has directly to do with addiction, it’s not good. Growing up, my dad would escape through alcohol to avoid real life — and maybe also to avoid me, especially when I was a snobby, loud-mouthed teenager.

So choose a healthy escape, and read great books.

When you’re feeling discouraged and the skies are gray and you can’t understand the people around you (whether it’s the language or you just can’t understand the people around you), read a book.

And maybe read it while awake.

Happy reading, everyone!

Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren, illustration: page 36 “Pippi Is a Thing-Finder” and has found a can

Truth — What Is It Good For?

The baseboard may possibly have been loose because Roger had spent ten minutes kicking it, but for a man like Roger a truth is a truth, regardless of its cause.

Anxious People, Fredrik Backman

Listen 8:14

The truth is, there is a no-peeing sign posted in a public park we hiked to last weekend. More specifically, a FORBIDDEN TO URINATE! IN THIS PLACE sign with a pic of a dude takin’ a leak. But if that’s the only truth we have, it wouldn’t really show the whole picture. And the whole picture is that there must have been enough of a problem of people openly peeing in this particular area to justify the bureaucracy paying for, creating, and posting a sign.

It’s silly to think that people didn’t have at least a little (yellow) influence on the posting of that sign.

It’s silly to think that by kicking and kicking and kicking Roger didn’t cause the baseboard to become loose.

There is action. And then there is reaction. Kicking the baseboard –> loose baseboard. Peeing on the fence –> posted sign on the fence.

It’s silly to think that we can kick and pee without taking any responsibility. Truth is there, but that doesn’t mean that a human didn’t kick or pee it into existence.

So I want to focus on those truths that come about because of human action.

I start thinking about the upcoming US election and the debates and the pandemic and the protests and the fires and the conspiracies. All of those came about from human action.

  • The election: constitutional framers trying to create a democracy
  • The debates: people realizing that the public would be interested in hearing the candidates talk about controversial topics
  • The pandemic: person to person spreading
  • The protests: people taking a stand against systemic racism among other things
  • The fires: human-influenced climate change (oh, and a gender reveal party that used pyrotechnics — WHOOPS)
  • The conspiracies: um . . . people with too much time on their hands? I don’t know on this one.

When we pee all over the place and then refuse to believe that we had anything to with the sign going up, what happens to truth? The truth is the sign. With no context. And that’s confusing.

Before 1950, carbon dioxide had never reached over 300 parts per million. Now it’s at over 400. It’s silly to think that big-truck-driving humans have nothing to do with that number (and neither do the cattle farting it up in the human-designed, human-built factory farms). Right?

What a life of luxury we must have to sit on our leather armchairs waving away all responsibilities of our actions and entertaining all of the conspiracy theories.

But guess what? We don’t have to be like kick-the-baseboard Roger. And we certainly don’t have to pee in public parks.

Because even if we doubt truth or get confused about truth or get swayed to distrust the truth, we can still be good humans.

Good humans take responsibility for their actions.

Better humans take action because of their responsibility.

I get it. The truth seems to be sitting on shifting sands. So we try our best. We don’t waste the precious time we’ve been given on this beautiful earth by retweeting the Babylon Bee actually believing that Twitter has shut down “Entire Network To Slow Spread of Negative Biden News.” As a quick aside, let’s remember that Babylon Bee is a satirical news site.

What is one to do, though, when it seems that all the messages careening towards us are designed to twist and spin and distort and dismay?

Here’s what I do. Maybe you might resonate with these ideas, too:

  • Instead of doomsday scrolling, go outside and take a walk in nature. Breathe in fresh air. Look at the expansive sky. Realize how very small we are in the universe. Then look down at your fingerprints and appreciate yourself as a unique being.
Where I got to go outside today. Ecuador, I love you, even though I couldn’t really see the expansive sky through the fog.
  • Instead of YouTube rabbit-holing, grab a notebook and write. Grab a book and read. Grab some string and make art from a random wooden frame you have lying around in the apartment, left by the previous tenants. Exercise. Work with your hands.
  • Instead of fretting over politics, think about what you can vote for right now with your money. Yesterday at our little local grocery store, Santa Maria, I bought flour packaged in fabric scraps sewn together. For me, avoiding plastic packaging is a huge win. I voted with my money when I purchased my bags of flour. It’s just a small act, but it’s something — and something is certainly better than nothing. It’s also better than doomsday scrolling, YouTube rabbit-holing, and fretting over politics.

(Important qualification: Vote with your money, yes. But please, please also vote in the election.)

  • Lastly: LOOK UP. Look up from your screens. Look up from your bias. Look up from your carefully curated construct of life. Look up so that you can see others that may need your help.

I really do believe that when we are face to face with the truth of people who need help, we help. It’s just that it’s so easy to sink deeper into the leather armchair, looking down at our screens, losing sight of reality — bit by iPhone bit.

“Lifting your eyes from the things of this world is an activity that must begin WHERE YOU ARE.”

K.P. Yohannan

So look up, get up, and go do something good.

The truth? We can be good humans. Let’s start there.

Here are a few be-good resources:

  • International Justice Mission, “a global organization partnering with local justice systems to end violence against people living in poverty.”
  • Education Equals Hope, a mission dedicated to providing “for the education of those living in desperate and difficult situations” in Ecuador, Rwanda, Kenya, and Haiti.
  • Us! We are mindful to vote with our money, and we vote to support the local people here in Quito whenever and wherever possible.

Be an Idiot! (Sometimes.)

“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” –Bill Gates–

Spotting this quote on a wall at a pizza joint called Pieology, I immediately resonated with it and committed it to memory. I have a quote board in my classroom, and I was excited to share the quote with my students. I wanted to talk to my students about why Bill Gates would have said it and how it relates to their lives. I hoped that by someone famous — that, and anyone other than me — saying these words, the students would finally get it: success isn’t the end all.

And in fact, success can actually be harmful. If we float through life bobbing from one success to the next, when we do (inevitably) lose, we might just lose our minds (and drown, to continue the analogy). My students are hard working, grade oriented, and college bound, and they like to think that they don’t have time to lose or to fail. But I try (SO HARD) to help them understand that failures here and there actually help us learn to be better.

(So that’s one of those things that’s easier said than done.)

Because at the end of the day, who in their right mind actually wants to fail at something (a test in physics that brings the overall grade down)? And then have the failure documented (on a report card)? And then have that (report card) never go away? And then have that (grade on the report card) ruin our chances of getting into a good college which will then squash any hope of having a decent career which in turn will make us totally disgusting to a potential future partner which will of course lead to our dying alone in a ditch with not a dime to our name? All from failing one test in physics.

My sweet students. This is how they think. Now don’t misunderstand: I don’t advocate failing tests. What I do advocate is failing-but-learning-from-the-failure on the small stuff here and there leading up to the test and then acing the test! Again, easier said than done.

Alas, what can be done?

It’s difficult being a teacher (who gives grades) to tell my students to fail sometimes. I don’t want to see failing grades on any of their reports either. But ever since they started school in PreK, we’ve been judging them on how well they do everything and assigning grades. In PreK it may not be grades, but there is probably still a report card comparing the kiddos to some golden standard. Then all the way through school, students are assessed and assessed and assessed until it’s ingrained in them to do what they need to do to get the “A.”

What a pain in the ass(essment).

And who can blame them? It’s the system we’ve set up for them! I’ll get students coming into my 9th grade class who have never gotten below an “A.” They end up with an “A-” in my class, and they hardly know what to do with themselves they’re so distraught. It’s easy for me to scoff at them and tell them what a good lesson you’re learning in my class or you’ll thank me some day for this or simply you’re welcome, but the more I teach and the more I live, the more I feel for the students.

They are simply doing what they’ve been taught to do. And when it doesn’t work out for them, it’s tough. They don’t know what to do. They might get mad or bitter. They might lose self confidence. They might start experiencing anxiety or even depression. It’s not a good situation.

This is where it is so important for teachers and parents and other good humans to walk alongside our students and help them. Be there for them when they fall. Help them back up. Turn them in the right direction. Give them a little push. Share with them our failings. Be real. Be humble. Laugh together if possible. And continue to remind them of the folly of success and the benefit of failure.

And for those students who somehow get through all of school without getting any failing grades, well, therein lies the danger that Gates references: the seduction. It is definitely seducing to think that we can’t lose.

Seducing, but totally unrealistic.

If you know me, you know I’m a confident person. I’m a confident teacher to my students and a confident employee to my school. I do consider my professional life to be a success, and I’m happy about it. But I guess it’s here that I might veer just a bit from the Gates quote to say this: just because we experience success doesn’t mean that we’re not experiencing failures along the way. And if not failures, experiences that we can use to avoid complacency and keep us humble. So as a teacher, teaching from year to year to year, how do I stay fresh? How do I stay humble?

(1) First, I am mindful never to think or assume that I am the smartest person in a room, or even the classroom.

(2) I have learned that even if I feel 100% certain about something, to leave some room for doubt, especially when it’s giving a student the benefit of the doubt. If a student says he turned something in, and I just know he didn’t, I invite the student to check again on his end and I’ll check again on mine. There have been times that the student is right and I am — gasp — wrong. But when I can refrain from coming at students, all guns blazing, knowing I’m right and they’re wrong, I find I’m able to maintain respectful and professional relationships with the students, regardless of who’s wrong.

(3) I try to use the embarrassing moments in the classroom as laughable learning experiences for me. Here’s one:

In my AP Lit class one year, we were discussing Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and came across a lovely outdoor scene with this sentence:

“Yet this mildewed leaf in the sturdy and flourishing Casterbridge plant lay close to the open country; not a hundred yards from a row of noble elms, and commanding a view across the moor of airy uplands and corn-fields, and mansions of the great.”

Oh man, I just knew there was significance here. I especially thought the word “mildewed” had some deeper meaning that we should explore. I was trying to get the students to pay attention to the word and said it out loud a few times. The problem here is that I was not seeing that word as the past tense of the word “mildew.” Nope. I saw it as some weird, new-to-me vocabulary word. And it was, in my mind, a three-syllable word pronounced “mil-deh-wed.” One sweet girl timidly raised her hand to say, “Um, Mrs. Knapp, I think that word is pronounced ‘mil-dude.'” When the realization hit me, I simply had to shake my head in defeat and say, “Yes. Yes it is. You are right. That’s embarrassing.”

Well whoops.

But now it’s a story I often tell my students, and we laugh together about it. And let me tell you, there’s something very humbling about making such a dumb mistake — mispronouncing a word — in front of the smartest students in the school.

(4) I read. I read books the students are reading, and I read professional development books, and I read articles on psychology and education. I embrace new ideas and implement them. Sometimes they’re great! And sometimes they’re not! But I’m trying and I’m changing and I’m never stagnate. I think that’s what Gates means about success — that when it becomes a stagnate success, there’s trouble (right here in River City). I’m reminded of the quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when Brutus is talking to himself (as characters in Shakespeare often do) and is wondering if when Caesar becomes successful, he’ll turn his back on everyone who helped him and get lost in the clouds of success:

“But ’tis a common proof that lowliness is young ambition’s ladder, whereto the climber upward turns his face. But when he once attains the upmost round, he then unto the ladder turns his back, looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees by which he did ascend.”

It’s certainly easy to be seduced by success. And if we’re fortunate enough to consider our lives to be pretty successful, we have to be mindful to avoid complacency and to stay humble. As the wise Kendrick Lamar once said, “Sit down . . . be humble.”

So go ahead: Be an idiot sometimes! Make mistakes! Lose! But make sure that there’s movement — and that the movement is towards something good.

In closing, I’ll tell you that this post was the most difficult one I’ve written. I never felt the ideas flowing, and I had to keep coming back to it again and again to refine. And at one point (to be exact, when I had written 897 words), I decided to scrap the entire thing and start again. It couldn’t have been a better lesson for me in failing. I was frustrated and impatient. But I kept at it, and now I’ll publish this post. I still don’t think it’s my best work.

But there’s the beauty: we do our best, but we always believe we can do better. (See my other post: “Are you a human? Then do better.”) So if you take anything from this entire post, take this:

Avoid complacency.

Stay humble.

Read books. Not one kind. Mostly print.

“Friendship . . . is born at the moment when one man says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . . ‘” –C.S. Lewis–

Isn’t that so true of fellow readers? When I come across people who have read and loved Khaled Hosseini novels, I have to resist the urge to wrap them in a big hug. When I find someone who reads, and the two of us have ongoing conversations about what we’re reading — my oh my, that is friendship at a whole ‘nother level. (As Aladdin would say, “Do you trust me? Then click on the link.” He said that, right?) But seriously, I do believe that there is something special about a friendship that involves book conversations. Especially fiction: we can talk to our friends about reality (ad nauseam) . . . but also about fictional worlds?

Level up.

Having just recently entered the blogging world, I am beginning to see the tip of the iceberg of the reading community here. And I am really excited about it.

Because when it comes to books, I can talk to complete strangers. As a matter of fact, when I am at a bookstore or the library slinking around the New Releases or YA sections, I have this secret hope that someone will pick up a book that I’ve read so that I can tell them how good it is or make recommendations based on it. This will then lead, of course, to more conversation about books and then, of course, to my recommending more books and then, of course, I will have become “the person at the bookstore who recommended that book that changed my life” and I will have achieved immortality.

Level up.

Can I tell you an embarrassing secret? When I go to bookstores, in a matter of minutes, I have to poop. TMI — sorry. I don’t remember exactly where I read about this — maybe the book Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal — but when we’re feeling nervous, our brain sends signals to our gastrointestinal tract, causing it basically to have contractions or spasms. But I am the opposite of stressed at a bookstore. I am excited. So I’m thinking that excitement might work similarly. Don’t believe me? Read this article written by the professionals and scientists from the ever-reliable source, Buzzfeed. The more you know.

Level up? Well, maybe if you have constipation issues. (Seriously, though. You’re welcome.)

So if you’ve gotten this far reading my post, let me say this: if — gasp — you don’t read, consider reading for your digestive health. (Or at least browsing in a bookstore. It might work for you. It does for me.)

Aside from digestive health (which is very, very important by the way — did you know that your poop is a valid tool for assessing your health? WebMD Poop Slideshow), you should be reading books because you’re a human. I even wrote a post about it: “Are you a human? Then I have a book recommendation for you.”

Just with food, it’s important to get a variety of books into our diet. While The Literary Prude English Teachers of America would have you believe that you should only read the classics, I’m an English teacher who is telling you to read all kinds of books. Don’t limit yourself to — *adjusts turtleneck* — the classics. Don’t limit yourself to — *adjusts tie, adjusts American Flag pin* — only non-fiction. We don’t want to trap ourselves inside a bubble. I have a hard time with this. I’d be in — *adjusts my not-figure-flattering, high-waisted shorts* — the realistic/contemporary fiction bubble.

Moving on to the next level, I think it’s worth a conversation to talk about how and what to read. “Read books” is simple and perhaps vague advice. But that’s where we have to start. Reading in general is great, but if the extent of our reading is magazine articles or Instagram captions or ESPN.com, it’s not enough. So we start with something easy and perhaps a subject in our wheelhouse and go from there. (Looking for a recommendation? I listed a few in my book recommendation post.)

So we all have our bubbles. Let’s pop them and see what else is out there. We know that reading fiction increases empathy (go ahead, Google it because internet=truth), and that’s pretty darn cool. We can read about people who are very different from us (people that we might not even want to know in real life) and come to a new (better) understanding of them. We might even go from reading that book to being a better human to people who are different from us.

Level up.

Let’s recap:

  1. Books are good for our digestive health.
  2. Books help make us better human beings.

So far so good! Now I do want to take this conversation one step (level?) further. (Side-note: use “farther” when talking about anything physically measurable; use “further” for everything else.) I want to talk about . . .

Print books.

Now I know a lot of people read on their devices. Or listen to audio-books. And that’s great! But I think we lose something when we continually deny ourselves the physical pleasure of holding a book in our hands and turning the pages. There’s magic in it: you feel the book, you touch the pages, you smell it.

And in my personal experience, being both a human and an English teacher, I have found that I remember what I’ve read better from a print book, and my students have richer discussions when they’re using a print book. That is anecdotal, of course, but I’ll tell you this: I fought hard to get print books back into the hands of my students for the upcoming school year because I’ve seen a difference. I’ve taught students who solely use ebooks, and I’ve taught students who solely use print books. Students don’t get to the same depth of discussion when they read ebooks. Students are hardly ever completely focused on the discussion when they have a screen in front of them. And I’m even talking about my cream-of-the-crop AP Lit seniors. They are human, and they message each other during class. They do. They really do. (If you’re a teacher at an all-iPad school and you don’t think your students are doing fill-in-the-blank things on their iPads other than whatever you happen to be teaching, YOU ARE DELUSIONAL. Same goes for employees sitting in a meeting. It’s a reality. Maybe it’s sad, but it’s the way it is.) I’ll go ahead and confess that I definitely do off-topic activities on my phone or iPad or laptop during meetings. It’s just so easy and convenient (and fun)!

Listen:

We live in a screen-centric world where everything is at our fingertips, notifications come in like a constant drizzle, and multi-tasking is the norm and even exalted. Probably our job requires quite a bit of screen time. Of course we’re going to binge-watch Stranger Things. Even our cars have screens in them. And then our man-made appendage-screen, the phone. For me, sometimes my phone is the ultimate rabbit hole. What do I even do on that silly thing?

Recap: SO MANY SCREENS.

So why not take a break from the screen? Here’s how:

  1. Turn sound off on phone.
  2. Set phone in a room.
  3. Leave said room.
  4. Pick up a book.
  5. Read book.

A print book won’t interrupt you with notifications. A print book won’t beep or buzz at you (well, unless you have some weird interactive kids book which I don’t recommend your having in the house because sometimes at night when all the kids are in bed and you hear it making sounds it’s really scary and then you want to burn it). A print book doesn’t force you to basically stare into the sun (or the light of a screen, that is). A print book provides you with a tactile experience. I could go on.

So here we are! Read books. Not one kind. Mostly print. (Nod to Michael Pollan, one of my idols. Read his book In Defense of Food. It’s a total game-changer.)

Thanks, friend, for reading this post on a screen. Now that you have, toss your phone or iPad or laptop or desktop computer out the window, grab a book, and read. Enjoy the feel of holding the book in your hands, the sound of the pages turning, the smell of the paper and the ink, and the escape that only a book can provide. (I think I have to poop.)

But wait just one more minute . . . If you are a kindred spirit book lover, please introduce yourself and drop a book recommendation in the comments below. I’d love to geek out with you about books. And maybe experience the sentiment C.S. Lewis expresses in his quote: “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . . “

Happy reading, everyone. And nice to meet you.

Ghosts . . . And the Power of a Good Sentence

“The ghosts are still here.”

Well I’m hooked. What a fun first sentence from Dance of Thieves by Mary E. Pearson! I’m especially glad because this is a book that I am otherwise not drawn to. I’ll be honest: I just don’t care for the fantasy genre. But I’m reading it because I’m a high school English teacher, and I know I need to be familiar with all genres. There’s nothing better than being able to know my students and figure out a book they’d like.

And more than once, I’ve had students come to me first thing in the morning to tell me that they read the book (woo hoo!) and loved it (what??). It is the best.

Anyway, thank you, Pearson, for writing a great first sentence. The eerie simplicity of the sentence surely foreshadows the complexity that is to come. We’ll see! I will read the entire book, I promise.

So why a blog post about first sentences? Because they are fascinating! Think of some of your favorite books, and go look up the first sentence. You’ll be surprised at how much goes into that sentence, and sometimes you realize how much only after you finish the book. Do something for me right now:

Open up whatever book you’re reading right now, and write the first sentence in the comments below.

I’ll also share the first sentence from the other book I’m currently reading: How Not To Die, by Michael Greger (a must-read, by the way). Here’s his first sentence:

Imagine if terrorists created a bioagent that spread mercilessly, claiming the lives of nearly four hundred thousand Americans every year.

Pretty good, right? Especially for a book that basically goes through research studies that have been done on diet and disseminates them. Maybe not the kind of writing style you’d choose for a summer read. (Side-note: Yes, this book dumps a ton of information on you, but I have been quite impressed with the writing style. I genuinely enjoy reading it.) And if you’re wondering, Greger uses the first sentence as a lead to his chapter on coronary heart disease and how many lives it takes each year (you guessed it: nearly four hundred thousand).

There’s so much riding on that first sentence.

I can imagine authors wanting to give up before they’ve even begun.

And that’s how I felt about starting a blog. I hemmed and hawed and fretted . . . and worried way too much about what other people thought. It was only when I decided to write for myself that my fingers relaxed enough to tap keys and form sentences. And if other people read it? Bonus! (Two of my friends scoffed when I told them I had started a blog: “Ten years too late!” . . . “It’s only podcasts now.”)

But what I’m discovering is that if I write about something deeply important to me, more than likely someone out there will resonate. And even if it’s just one connection, it’s something. That’s special.

And you know what else? The written word is a beautiful thing. I would be a hypocrite to believe that and not be writing on a regular basis. In fact, one reason I started a blog is I felt convicted to. I’m in the classroom every day telling my students all about the beauty and importance of writing when I’m not disciplined enough to be doing it? (Note: For me, journal writing wasn’t enough. I needed something to be published. And whether or not I have a readership, I need to know that others might read what I write.)

But back to first sentences. Hey, are you a teacher? Do you have kids? Do you talk to other humans? Talk about first sentences. What clues do they contain? What words? What’s the verb? What kind of sentence is it? Is there imagery there? Does it belie what’s to come? (Thinking of Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” here: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.” OK, Jackson, we see you. Spoiler: MURDER AHEAD.) What’s the vibe (in teacher terms, “mood”) of the sentence? Is it narration? A character speaking? Ah, I love teaching. (Can you tell?) I love how Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea begins with a compound sentence sans comma (gasp!). Take a look:

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

SO MUCH TO TALK ABOUT HERE! So much, in fact, that perhaps I will use this first sentence as an essay prompt for my 9th-grade students at the beginning of the year (they read Old Man — and a YA novel — for summer reading). First of all, the sentence is a mouthful, stuffed with prepositions, an adjective clause, and two independent clauses — all with no pause (no comma) to take a breath. Taking that into consideration when looking at the mostly-negative diction (“old,” “alone,” “without”), we can feel the immensity of something here. Futility? Despair? Loneliness? (Spoiler: it’s none of those.) And now I’m excited all over again to reread it this summer.

But maybe what I most appreciate about first sentences is the application to life. Starting my blog was one of my first sentences, but there have been many in my life. Deciding on my master’s degree. Working in retail to pay the bills. Teaching that first day. Deciding to have children. Having first child. Some sentences have been better than others, but even the terrible ones are beautiful because we learn from them.

Life is pretty cool like that.

And as we continue living (and getting better at it), we learn how to get better at our first sentences. I like thinking about what it is I love about actual first sentences of books and applying those same qualities to my first sentences of life. So in that way, I like to go forward in new directions in life feeling:

  • Confident
  • Strong
  • Well-equipped
  • Efficient
  • Vulnerable

So — whether you’re a reader or not — take a moment and thank those first sentences of books for the life lessons they provide. They teach us to be confident, strong, well-equipped, efficient . . . and vulnerable.

They teach us that sometimes simplicity is best.

That sometimes you don’t realize the significance until the end of the book.

Are you a human? Then I have a book recommendation for you.

“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it.” –William Faulkner–

I don’t even like Faulkner. I am an English teacher, and I don’t like Faulkner. I own it. His writing style is too dense for my preference, and that’s OK. It’s a beautiful thing to have the freedom to read whatever we want and have an opinion on it. But the bottom line is that we’re reading.

Because we don’t simply read for reading’s sake. And if you think that’s what you’re doing when you read, well, you’re wrong. When we read — whether we acknowledge it or not — we absorb. We absorb new-to-us diction, a variety of phrasing and sentence structures, unique narrative styles, and I could go on and on. HOW COOL IS IT TO READ AN AWESOME BOOK AND BE SUBCONSCIOUSLY LEARNING AT THE SAME TIME? Love that. My poor (lucky) students get to hear me rant about that all the time. When students tell me oh, I HATE reading, I take on the challenge to find something they’ll like. And I take it very personally. I WILL FIND SOMETHING GOSH DARN IT JUST GIVE ME A LITTLE TIME (and maybe tell me the last movie you watched and really liked because I’ve found that to be quite helpful).

I like the Faulkner quote because it is a clear challenge for us. Do you write? Do you blog? If you do either but don’t find the time to read, I think Faulkner would call you a hypocrite — an unskilled hypocrite. I think he speaks truth when he says that to “see how [writers] do it,” you must read. Read to become a better reader, yes, of course.

But read to become a better writer.

But I’d like to take the Faulkner quote one (crazy) step further: Do you interact with other humans? Do you have a pulse? If either question applies to you, then you should read.

Oh, but you don’t have time to read. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize. (Excuse my while I finish dry heaving.)

That’s ridiculous. Of course you do. If you want to read, you have time to do it. 15 minutes before bed is all it takes. The sleep research even tells us what a great idea it is: reading before bed (on a print book, not a screen), helps communicate to your brain that it’s time to go to sleep land. How lovely!

If you do actually want to read, here’s what I do know: we as humans are really good at making time for what we want to do. (Like mindlessly scrolling through Instagram. OMG, an hour has passed — what is my life.)

But what if you don’t want to read because — gasp — you don’t like reading? Then I’d like to issue an apology (something I’ve done every blog post so far: here, and here) on behalf of your parents and the Literary Prude English Teachers of America (LPETA) . I am betting that some of you weren’t taught that reading is something to do for pleasure. Or maybe your schedule was kept so busy (for your college resume, amiright?) that by the time your head hit the pillow, you were out. Or maybe you had English teachers and professors who refused to release their talons from the “classics” (you know, the ones that the students hate or don’t even read — or the ones where they think just squeezing in some SparkNotes for those pesky reading check quizzes will suffice). Now there’s nothing wrong with the classics, don’t get me wrong. But if that’s all the students get? Yeah, good luck getting them to be lifelong readers. One size does NOT fit all.

Being an English teacher myself, I think I’m allowed to say that it’s stupid and antiquated to think that literary fiction (i.e., the classics) is the only kind “worthy” to be taught in schools. Come on, English teachers, stop being pretentious, literary prudes, and live a little! It’s OK for students to also read commercial fiction (I see you, literary prude, who noticed that split infinitive). It’s not the end of the world. If we teach only literary fiction, most of which is — let’s be honest — kinda boring, what is the takeaway for students? That most books are kinda boring. WHAT A DISSERVICE THIS IS TO THE HUMAN RACE.

May I admit something to you? That pretentious, literary-prude teacher I spoke of? That was me. That was me for the first few years of my naive teaching career. I’m embarrassed, but looking back, I see that I was just trying to be one of the Literary Prude English Teachers of America (i.e., compensating probably for my own insecurities). I was the English teacher who would scoff at commercial fiction, trying to convince my students that only scum of the earth read it and that The Scarlet Letter was God’s gift to the literary world (I can’t stand The Scarlet Letter, BTW). But the worst part of it all? Even as I was basking in my English Teacher Pretension, I wasn’t reading. Not really, anyway. I read the books my students were required to read but not much else. Well gosh, that’s embarrassing.

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Stephen King

So whoever you are — student, novelist, blogger, adult, teacher, or any other kind of human — support your local library, pick up a book (or 7) for free, and read. Let’s read to make ourselves better. Let’s read to make others better. Let’s read books that are uncomfortable to us. “Read, read, read,” as Faulkner simply (for once, might I add) states.

So if you’re wondering where to start, here’s an aside of some of my favorite book recommendations, organized by genre:

  • YA/adult fiction: Beartown, Fredrick Backman
  • Historical fiction: All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
  • Non-fiction/writing: Writing with Style, John Trimble
  • Non-fiction/science/humor: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Mary Roach
  • Poetry: Felicity, Mary Oliver
  • Graphic novel: Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
  • Short stories: Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Classic lit.: Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  • YA: Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
  • Adult fiction: A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini
  • Memoir: Educated, Tara Westover
  • Novel in verse: Long Way Down, Jason Reynolds

I hold firmly to the belief that if you are a human, there is a book out there that you will enjoy. Maybe it’s at a lower reading level. Maybe it’s a graphic novel. Maybe it’s a novel in verse (lots of white space!). Maybe it’s young adult fiction and you’re . . . fifty. Maybe, as Faulkner recognizes, it’s trash. But it’s there. And, man, what a world opens when you get to dive into a good book. There truly is nothing like it.

So get off your phone, and find it. Consider it an adventure! A journey to a new world! It will be fun! Do it! (And then friend me on Goodreads.)

~~What I’m currently reading: (1) A Curse So Dark and Lonely, Brigid Kemmerer and (2) How Not to Die, Michael Greger~~