now i’ve really done did it

somehow, between my last post, and now, carrie and i made a couple really big decisions.

first, i’m quitting my job. i’ll write more about this very bittersweet decision later.

second, i’m going full-time to seminary in the fall. bhang was right about me after all. of course, i’ll reflect on this a bit more, too.

amazing how fast things can change.

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cancer narratives

i used to hate cancer narratives. during dennis’s illness, i avoided them because they usually ended in someone’s death, and i needed all the positive thinking i could get. then in the months that followed his death, i just was not in a place where i was willing to revisit the whole ordeal. i needed distance. plus, the thought that countless others had been marked by an experience with cancer seemed to cheapen my own experience. it was traumatic; and i needed that trauma to stand alone. i feared it’d be trivialized by being dumped in an endless sea of other stories.

but now, they’re an indispensable part of my life.

every time i come across someone’s story, i find myself terribly comforted by how familiar everything is to me: the phone calls and voice messages; the late night emergency room runs; the sounds and smells; the absolutely devastating conversations with doctors (it was never just one doctor); the absolutely devastating conversations with friends and family about the conversations with doctors; the low lighting of the hospital room; the images seared into the folds of my memory; the post-chemotherapy hospital visits; the frozen yogurt and takeout dinners; and the quiet desperation that pervades every corner of life. as i listen, i go through my mental check box, and say yes.

earlier this week at my school’s senior retreat, each student delivered a short proposal for their senior project. one complete pain-in-the-butt student that i absolutely love shared for the first time that a lump was found on his mom’s chest a few years ago. he was scared. he has no other family — no father, no siblings, no one. this loud-mouthed, off-task-all-the-time kid fought back tears as he talked eloquently about how he wants to use his senior project to start a small support group for kids of parents currently fighting cancer.

i am struck by the terrible bond i now share with my student. i’m also moved by how much gospel i see in his senior project. his woundedness will by god’s grace become a source, i hope, of comfort for kids who could use it. i know he will become a better man for it.

i done did it

well, it’s official now. by day, i’ll still be teaching full time. but by night, i’ll be a seminary student, working toward a masters in theology.

folks who know me well have basically all had the same response. of course you’re going to seminary, what took you so long? chris (somewhat jokingly) told me that he’d give me one more year of full time teaching before i just quit my day job and ran off to seminary full time.

but a lot of other folks have asked me what it is exactly that i hope to accomplish by going to seminary. why bother?

i’ve had a much more difficult time trying to answer this question. on one hand, i would not be disappointed at all if i finished my program, and that was it for my work in theology. if i never end up doing doctoral work, if i don’t wind up working at a church, or if i never end up “using” my theology degree in any other formal way, well that would be quite all right. it is enough for me to know i won’t wake up someday wondering what might’ve been. and if it just so happens that theology for me is meant to be a thing i read about on the side and occasionally try and live out, well then so be it. to a large extent, i’m less concerned with what i can do with theology than i am with what formal study of theology can do with me.

but on the other hand, i must admit that i’ll be a bit sad if it turns out doctoral work isn’t in the cards for me. a small part of my heart deep down hopes this is what’ll happen, and yet i can’t let that part of me speak out too loudly. what if it doesn’t work out the way i hope it will? academic work has always felt hyper-competitive, and because i’ve been surrounded by people who are much more brilliant than me since high school, i wonder about how realistic it is for me to aspire to professorial work. nevertheless, here i am with those aspirations in hand.

so what exactly do i hope for by going to seminary?

first, it’s to have a deepened faith. i have always found myself most in awe of god when reading a beautiful analysis of scripture, or some brilliantly composed theological treatise. while a rich worship experience at church is good for my soul, the written word is what drives me to my knees. quite honestly, i think i just need to go to seminary for my own spiritual vitality.

but secondly, i’m going to seminary because i think i might want to teach theology some day, and i wanna know if there is some word brewing in me that i must be obedient enough to speak to the church. i don’t know if this will ever actually happen, if this is what god wants for my life, or if i’m even smart enough to do the work well, but i guess i won’t know till i try.

seminary

i was at a retreat, taking part in a workshop on career planning. i must’ve been 14 or 15, maybe. when the workshop leader asked me in front of the group what i wanted to be when i grew up, i said i wanted to be a theologian.

of course, i didn’t really know what a theologian was. in my mind, i thought it was someone who sat around thinking deep thoughts. i had no concept of the financial burden that had to be taken on or the enormous risk that came with committing years toward an education that may or may not result in a job in a place i actually would enjoy living in. i just knew i had a peculiar interest in reading about what people had to say about faith and god, and i knew flipping that interest into a career seemed appealing.

carrie and i have been thinking about the prospect of me going to seminary over the past year. right now, i’m in a really good place. i teach at a well-run school that i believe in. many (most?) teachers can’t say that. i enjoy my colleagues and more importantly, i enjoy working with my students (usually). when i’m on my game in the classroom, i think my students have fun learning, and they learn a lot. but i go to bed every night reading some sort of theological text. i have wondered for a long time whether this is a hobby, just something i should keep up with on the side, or if this could be something more.

i guess we’re going to find out.

33

today, i took the day off from work to honor my brother’s birthday. he would have turned 33.

i haven’t spent time with just my parents in awhile. we spent the morning at the cemetery and had some dim sum for brunch.

it is always so incredibly difficult to talk about dennis for any sustained amount of time. even when we visit the gravesite, we can’t stand their too long. it just hurts too much. when his name is mentioned, my body tightens. but on this day, i felt a stirring in my heart, and i felt compelled to ask about dennis’s last day alive.

the last time i saw dennis conscious was on a sunday afternoon. the seahawks lost to the arizona cardinals despite a pretty solid game from matt hasselbeck. my parents were both napping upstairs. dennis was really tired. he wasn’t eating much besides his haagen-dazs strawberry sorbet, and he struggled to keep his head upright and his eyes open. stone called and asked if he could come over, but dennis wasn’t sure if this was such a good idea. he was in bad shape and he knew it, and he didn’t want people seeing him in such a terrible state. but my mom knocked some sense into him, reminding him this is stone, and he doesn’t really care what you look like, he wants to see you.

when he came over, they all gathered in the kitchen/ family room area, and i was on my way out. i would come back tomorrow with more sorbet. i turned the corner and walked out the door. and that was it. that was the last time i saw him conscious.

so much of what occured that night had been shrouded in mystery. i needed to know what happened, so i finally asked.

in the middle of a crowded dim-sum restaurant, my parents recounted their story in detail, and they shed tears. i fought back my own. i couldn’t hold eye-contact with them for too long. hearing about everything that happened from 2:00 am on the day of my brother’s death to about 10:00 am reminded me that my own journey toward understanding what the heck happened to my brother during those 15 months won’t end in this lifetime. it just won’t.

the most difficult part about dennis’s death isn’t the fact that he’s gone (though that is bad). it’s how he died. the amount of suffering he endured is just beyond my imagination. it’s not right.

at one point, my parents started wondering aloud about what caused the cancer. was it a darn mole? too much sun exposure? a cell phone? or was it random? does stuff like this just arbitrarily happen? was dennis just unlucky? i had already answered those kinds of questions for myself and they no longer bothered me.  but in that moment, i forgot the answers i had come up with. i wondered anew, why did this have to happen to dennis?

at times, i feel like we are living in a messed up alternate-reality. none of this was really supposed to happen, and in the real world, it didn’t. there, dennis is a pharmacist and living his life. he’s picking on me for dumb stuff. he’s listening to sappy slow jams.

as we drove back home, we passed by mutual fish on rainier ave. dennis and i used to go with my mom to mutual fish all the time growing up. it was part of our saturday morning grocery shopping routine. she smiled and even laughed a lil remembering how the nice workers there used to always give us candy. two dum-dums for her two dumb-dumbs, to go with the cod.

we just took a deep breath, exhaled, looked away, and carried on missing dennis.

orphanage

“mr. lam, did you know i live in an orphanage?”

“uh, no you don’t. you live in an apartment with your family.”

“well, it’s like an orphanage, because we’re always adopting new kids, like this guy right here. he just moved in.”

“how many people live at your place now?

“mmm, 23.”

“seriously?”

“yeah, i’m dead serious. and we’ve got one bathroom.”

two bedrooms, one bathroom, twenty-three people. in my two years of teaching, i’ve had the pleasure of working with four of the residents in that tiny little apartment. before i even had the chance to meet any of them, i heard tons of stories all about their antics, and honestly, i was a bit terrified at the prospect of having them in my classes. sounded like they had the potential to just destroy a classroom. but while they’re not quite model students yet, the stories about them were just lies.

getting to know them continues to be a growing experience. shortly after this school year started, i found them to be truly gifted readers and writers (even more so than many of my purportedly “smart” students). then, as i got to know them on a more personal level, i was stunned to hear that they lived in a tiny apartment with thirteen other people back in october. it was no wonder that they’ve always struggled to get homework in; there’s literally no quiet space to get anything done. i remember having a conversation with them just about the logistics of getting everyone adequate bathroom time in the mornings before school starts at 7:25 am. their thoughts? “it’s actually not that bad.”

knowing how loyal and hospitable they are to pretty much anyone in need around them, it’s not terribly shocking that the number of people living in that little apartment has ballooned to 23. as i reflected on our conversation from earlier this week, i thought a lot about how these students have been a witness of jesus’s love to me. their absurd decision to leave their doors wide open to seemingly anyone, and regardless of the cost (including bathroom space and time), struck me as radically christian. this family has given well beyond their means, beyond what is reasonable. they’ve given extravagantly what they could not afford, they continue to give everything. it’s been a blessing and a learning experience for me to see all this from my students and their family, word become flesh.

proud

it’s that time of the quarter again. grades are due, and i’ve been busy reading student work. this can often be a long and laborious process that is at times really rewarding and really frustrating.

one of my students has a transcript full of failing grades and a file full of suspensions, detentions, and referrals. he has had a difficult time in school, despite the fact that he is one of my brightest students and one of our school’s best writers. he’s very aware of the fact that the way he looks often impacts the ways adults perceive him. his long flowing hair, dark skin, and baggy clothes helps him look the part of the “bad student.” that’s why i was so proud last semester to give him his first ever A — in AP Language & Composition, no less, one of just seven A’s I gave out. to cap off our unit of study on satire, i had my students write their own satire a la the onion about something they found annoying. he decided to write his satire on a personal experience he had just last week, and the paper my student wrote honestly made my year. check it out.

Delinquent Faces Maximum Punishment Caused By Itch

On March 22, 2011, it was reported that student Glen Cora was sent to the office and emergency expelled over an unprecedented itch. Daydreaming in his 3rd period class, Glen suddenly had an overwhelming urge to scratch his head. Upon raising his hand to get rid of this pestering itch, his teacher, Ms. Fugly, immediately stopped him, called security, and took him to the office to be interrogated.

“It was so frightening to imagine what would happen next, I didn’t know if he was getting ready to pull a gun out of his bushy bun! It was sooooooooo disrespectful of him.”

Although Glen claimed he was just dismissing an itch, his Principal, Ms. McCashwhole, claimed that some of his earlier comments in class like, “I’m glad it’s sunny” and “Where did my pencil go?” were threatening and disrespectful comments that led up to his head scratching disgrace.

“I mean look at him, baggy pants, and hoody with long hair? For all we know he could have been planning to kill all of HS3’s faculty!”

That afternoon, Glen’s hair was thoroughly searched for weapons, drugs, and narcotics and an excessive amount of dandruff was found. Security officials state that they’re not sure what this sinister teenager was up to but that these crusty flakes may have something to do with it.

When interviewed, the student said he had no idea sharing his thoughts about the weather and looking for his pencil were considered disrespectful. He added that if he knew that scratching his head would make him a menace to society, he would have simply stepped out.

After being lectured and questioned for hours, Glen learned that teachers and school officials just want to keep a safe and productive learning environment by singling out students who do not seem fit for a class setting, have a reputation for being a little rowdy, and those who simply look intimidating.

“I now understand that for singling me out for this simple and ridiculous reason, they are one step closer to making our high school a better place. If sitting in an office, being questioned for three hours, having lunch taken away, and being yelled at by teachers and staff is all it takes, then I’m happy to help,” said Glen Cora in a recent interview. Cora added, “Everyone should do their part!”