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Give Your Gifts Freely by Dr. Jennifer Diaz (Education)

Uncovering Vocation Series

Uncovering Vocation is a partnership between Campus Ministry and the Christensen Center for Vocation at Augsburg University. Every 2nd and 4th Tuesday of the month, a member of the Augsburg community is invited to share a component of their vocation story. It has become a way of building community, becoming reacquainted with one another, and celebrating the diversity of people and vocations that make Augsburg University the beautiful place it is.

One morning about a month ago, as I was running around the house, getting everyone ready for school, when my 3.5 year old son drew an almost perfect circle on a leather stool with a bright red, permanent marker. When I came in the room he pointed to it with the marker and said, “I did not do this.” I frantically told him: We only draw on paper. And asked him repeatedly, “why did you do that?” He responded with tears, apologies, and a smirky 3 year old smile that told me he was both sorry and not sorry. I don’t think I will ever know “why” he did it but I imagine he got the idea and he couldn’t NOT draw the bright red circle while no one was looking. It was a little bit brave and I think he knew it. He definitely took a risk with his selection of media. But he went for it. 

After scrubbing the chair with nail polish remover, I crouched down next to him and said, “That was a very beautiful circle. Next time, please draw it on paper”. 

I tell this story because I believe in the idea that everyone and everything is a teacher. The story of the red circle is funny and playful (in hindsight of course) and it is also a statement about how I try to understand what each moment is teaching me. And what I am teaching others through my life and work. 

I have been called to be a professional educator, to study the arts and sciences of teaching and learning. In this life’s work, I have been a first and second grade teacher in multilingual and multi age classrooms. I have also been a teacher educator for almost 15 years. As my vocation, I do this work on purpose and with intention.

My vocation story doesn’t start with, “I always knew I wanted to be a teacher.” Actually, I have a story that involves dropping all of my classes the night before the deadline, self-advising with a giant undergraduate catalog in hand, and changing my major to Elementary Education with equal parts excitement and anxiety. On the day I graduated three years later, a former teacher of mine gave me a card that reads, “Give your gifts freely to the world, expecting nothing in return. Someday the world will surprise you.” My vocation story is about how I came to hear my calling by listening to what my gifts are, finding a way to freely give them to the world, and being surprised.

I have memories of a time in 3rd grade when my parents were encouraged to move me ahead a grade. But what I had in school smarts I lacked in social skills. So my parents were cautious of setting me up to fail in learning how to be a friend. I remember my first real friends stood out from the crowd in some way; Maria was adopted, Richelle was one of few students of color in our school, Noah’s gold stars on a class behavior chart didn’t quite line up with everyone else’s; and Jessie spoke Japanese at home and English at school. These friends were among my first teachers and I know they taught me to see one of my gifts: Acceptance. When I am with others, I try to see people for who they are. When people are with me, I want them to know that they can be their whole, true self, without judgment. 

In my first year of teaching second grade, the world brought me Aaron. He had quite a few adventures in my classroom, including one in which he stood in front of me during a spelling test, publicly and loudly declaring his hate for me. Instead of trying to fight against him, tell him to stop, or make him into something he couldn’t be right then, I gave Aaron acceptance. Perhaps that gift, which likely appeared as a lack of response, surprised Aaron because he did eventually stop yelling in my face while I gave a spelling test over him. 

When giving acceptance, I have found it can be difficult to establish and express boundaries. Am I ok with someone yelling in my face that they hate me? As a general rule, no. Aaron and I talked about that later and I advocated for myself and for him. Throughout that first year of second grade for both of us, my students and I learned each other’s boundaries, what is acceptable, and what needed to shift as we learned and grew together. That year, Aaron was the student that gave the most hugs, likely because he needed them and saw that I did too.

In any learning experience, there are growing pains. I learned a lot about growing up as the fourth child wedged between 3 older and 2 younger brothers and sisters. In the midst of the chaos we called family, I learned to see another one of my gifts: Calm. My family still jokes that we didn’t need pets because we had so many kids. We tried to have a pet once. Her name was KC, a new cocker spaniel puppy that ran away; probably on the hunt for some peace and quiet! Like KC, I often found myself looking for a calm escape – making art, reading, packing a bag and ‘running away’ up the street to sit under a tree. 

Over time, as I sought out calm I also realized I could bring it back into spaces with me to provide a different kind of energy. Whether in classrooms full of students or in my own home now with 3 children, a husband, a dog, and a cat, I try to give calm as part of my presence. As a young teacher, I remember giving calm to Alex. For Alex, it seemed as though everything was too difficult, too loud, and too bright. Except when he was writing poetry. As an 8 year old, he was the best poet I have ever known. I think he liked the spaces we created in our classroom with quiet music and dimmed lights where he could write and become sure of himself without the pressure of rules. 

One of the dangers of giving calmness is that it can be read as apathy or not caring. Whereas some people give care by worrying, giving calm is the way I care about others and myself. In this, I acknowledge the tensions, stress, and contradictions that are a part of any life.  Rather than trying to fight them, with the gift of calm I manage my expectations that I am not always in control. I can plan and must be flexible. I can be excited and patient. I can be passionate and steady. I can be quiet and lead. I find and bring calm to the spaces in between extremes. 

Not all of my teachers have been people. I grew up in a place where I didn’t have a choice about the form of religion that I grew up around. As a young child, I went along with the teachings, rituals, and unspoken rules. Yet, over time I understood less and questioned more. I argued with the logic and pushed back on the hypocrisy and injustices that I read in the teachings and ways of living that I was born into. My religious upbringing revealed for me another gift: curiosity. 

I have always loved school and learning. That is one of the ways I get to give and express my curiosity. And yet, I know that I am the kind of person that school was made for. I was set up to be successful in learning. As a teacher in my first few years, I met Sydney, Emmanuel, Jibril, and Jared. These four were among my hardest and my most favorite. They were difficult not because of who they were. They were difficult because school was not set up for them to be successful. As their teacher, I got to give them my curiosity and try to create new spaces where they could be seen as something other than kids who didn’t care, couldn’t get it, or would always be in trouble.  

Giving curiosity can often be read as being contrary. I am ok with being a contrarian. In fact, my parents always thought I would be a lawyer because of my ability to argue. When I ask, “Why does it have to be that way?” I won’t accept, “Because that’s how it has always been done,” as an answer. I know that curiosity is a privilege. That’s why I consider it one of the most important gifts I have received and can give. And I know I must give it carefully so the consequences of my wonderings are not destructive or harmful. 

As a teacher and teacher educator, I get to give acceptance, calm, and curiosity every day. And I have been surprised on the paths that I have taken. I have been able to take risks, make mistakes, and trust that everything that happens in life is teaching me something. Even a red circle in permanent marker, not on paper.