Thursday, November 9, 2017

A photo essay love letter to my sister upon the occasion of her 27th birthday

Today I was at the chiropractor, and he asked me if I had any special plans for the weekend.

"It's my sister's birthday, so we're having a party," I said.

"How old is she turning?" he asked.

"Uh..." thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking WHAT?! it can't be!!! "...27."

So here's to 27 years of -
stealing the blanket
sneaking into my bed
throwing up on me
holding my hand
going to coffee
walking your baby, my dog
licking suika ice
pulling out ingrown hairs
playing Stratego
shopping downtown
wearing matching outfits
mending my clothes
inspiring me
eating beignets and olie bollen
switching opinions on whipped cream
fighting over a hairbrush
threatening to open the bathroom door
sending hints of desperation
building an igloo
reading stories in bed
tagging along
crying at each other's weddings
(reading the same poem)
plucking each other's eyebrows
holding steady
holding tight
- here's to 27 years of love

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Here's my "in this moment, I swear we are infinite" photo, although a) you still need to read the book and watch the movie! (just reading this inspires me to do both again in one night; my love affair may never end), and b) we need to continue these moments as we age (I don't mean to imply they only happen to teenagers).
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At Universal Studios, after we went with Grandma and she got all soaking wet.
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Because I stumbled across this, and it demanded to be seen again
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All those years of coordinating outfits
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To our perfected sleeping-in-cramped-spaces position, and all the times of annoyance and bonding that created this method and flowed from it
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This photo has so many reasons. 1) Our fabulous hair. 2) In the comments, Mom is shocked to discover I ever had bangs. 3) Dad's eternal Pepsi flavor quest. 4) Selfie wins.
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I'm still holding out on making a horror movie together.
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Because WHY?! Why did we take this photo? To highlight a candy? To all the entertainment we got from photographing ourselves. And this is the same day I found toilet paper under your tights! Good memories.
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Mouth of Sauron
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Sugar love

I know these photos aren't all the most beautiful. They aren't the ones you adorn your walls with. But they are the moments that capture for me a lifetime ahead and a lifetime behind of my best friend and sister. Because all the moments weren't perfect (and not perfect moments are a lot worse than a little drool or squinting eyes), but we got through them together. I love you, dearest Caitlin. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Still good to be had

Today a student asked me, "Why can't we have a debate team?"

Me: "You could, you'd just have to ask a teacher to lead it."

Student A: "Why can't you do it?"

M: "Well, it's a little late to start this year, and I won't be here next year."

Student B: "YOU'RE LEAVING?!?!"

(Side note: Yes, I had told them before, months before, back in the fall, apparently when it didn't matter nearly as much.)

Student C: "You can't leave us! Where are you going?"

M: "To Oregon."

SB: "What's in Oregon?"

M: "My sister and her husband and her little baby."

SC: "But we're here."

M: "Y'all complain all the time when I make you do work, and now you're complaining that I won't be around to make you do work anymore."

SB: "Yes, but you actually teach us!"

SC: "I'm too upset. I'm not talking to you anymore."

We have 6 weeks left at school here (28.5 days, to be precise), and sometimes I hang out on that countdown a little too much. Today reminded me to be more reflective, because there is still good here to be had.

There is still good to be had when I emerge from the shower to hear my husband playing the cello.
There is still good to be had when a boy says, "I LIKE this book." (How It Went Down, so credit to you, Mom!)
There is still good to be had when my evaluator says, "The students were silent during reading time. They must really like reading."
There is still good to be had when a student asks, "Will we still be doing work after testing?" and another student replies, "You Know Ms. Vander Haak will still be giving us work." I'll take that as maintaining high expectations.
There is still good to be had when a student runs up to announce her new job.
There is still good to be had when a student just needs a hug.

This is all starting to remind me of the title I gave this blog way back two years ago. Which makes me feel old because I know how much I've changed since I first created this. Last year I spent planning sitting on the floor on my classroom, trying to ground myself. This year I spend planning at my desk, reassuring myself I'm a real adult.

At the end of the day, no matter what else happened, I remind myself that my students still all think I'm a real teacher. They call me, "Mrs. Vander Haak." They run to me in a crisis. All these little souls seem to believe in me more than I believe in myself sometimes.

This is all starting to remind me of a poem I wrote one of my student teaching classes. So I will include that below, as a final thought. I'll just add this commentary: perhaps we are all here to believe in each other, because we belong to each other, in ubuntu, in God, in everything.

I believe in you.
In you.
And you.
And you.
You who hate me.
You who love me.
You who feel nothing.
You who feel love half the time
and hate half
(and upset my soul on a daily basis).
You who put tape in my hair.
You who write me letters.
You who lean in and whisper in my ear.
You who tell me to leave you alone.
You who ask me for help.
You who need help but refuse to ask.
You who help me rearrange the chairs.
You who leave at the bell every day.
You who jump over the desks.
You who throw cards in the air.
You who make bad jokes
            (and sometimes funny ones).
You who hug me.
You who glare at me.
You who help me carry things.
You who greet me in the halls.
You who avert your eyes outside of class(her? I don’t know her).
You who mislead me.
You who open up to me.
You who turn up the music when I leave the room.
You who laugh when I return.
You who avoid me.
You who seek me out.
You who ask much.
You who want nothing.
You who misuse vocabulary words.
You who have strokes of genius.
You whom I may very well never understand.
You whom, of course, I wish I could.
You all, whom sometimes I lie in bed thinking about,
agonizing over,
      at night, or in that flash after the alarm.
You whom I check on every
You whom I cheer for your successes
            (often more than you).
You whom I grieve your failures
            because they are a choice
                        that I have been told I must allow
            or they are the result of factors
                        that I cannot change
                                    because as much as I’d like to reach into your life and fix it all -
                                    I can’t.
You who will forever be my freshman alliance.

I am new at this
            like you.
So I’m sorry for what I have done wrong.
Please bear with me.
Please know that I am trying.
Please know that I care
            Very Much.
And please know that I believe in you.
            We are human.
                        We belong to each other.
            We can do anything.
            Don’t let Anyone Ever tell you otherwise.


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

It matters

We're about one and a half years in, and I keep getting the comment, "How are things going? I assume better? I haven't seen much on your blog recently."

Okay, by "keep getting," probably like my grandma and one friend, but, hey, that's my target audience anyways.

I've been thinking about what to say, and I suppose that I have nothing super urgent to say testifies that YES, THINGS ARE GOING A LOT BETTER.

So, to share with you the bright side of my job, here are 10 things I've learned from/about teaching:

1. Poking ceiling tiles with a selfie stick will result in them cracking on your head
2. You are expected to be a fount of sanitary napkins
3. You are expected to be a fount of money to pay for the above, plus snacks for all the incentives you're supposed to create, plus normal classroom supplies, plus a classroom library, plus all the causes the school is always raising money for and donating to
4. When you report a broken bookshelf, the executive director and business manager will show up in your classroom and spend 40 minutes attempting to fix it
5. When students tell you your door is broken and won't let them out, they aren't always joking
6. There are many, many dumb questions
7. "Can I touch your hair?" is a common question
8. Filters don't get installed in human brains until the age of...wait...election...never mind....
9. Teenagers will kill for stickers
10. It is possible to be shorter than the laptop cart and still push it

And some heart win moments:

1. "Ms. Vander Haak don't play."
2. "You've got us to like reading!"
3. Hugs in the hallway from my old students
4. *Offered side hug to student back after break* --> *squeal of excitement*
5. "Being a teacher must be hard. The students love you, but they don't always like you."
6. My little ELL students actually TALKING and READING when they barely whisper outside of my class
7. "You have to write a thank you note to a teacher." "Can I write it to you?"
8. "You and Mr. Vander Haak are goals."
9. "When I become a nurse, I'm going to thank you." "What about your science teachers?" "You need science to be a nurse? Maybe I'll do something else then...."
10. "I just put all these paragraphs together, and they make an essay?! You tricked me into writing an essay?!?!"
Bonus: "What's your favorite book?" "Wintergirls." "That you just read for independent reading last quarter?" "Yeah--to be honest, it's the only book I've ever read all of."

It suddenly hit me yesterday how much my job MATTERS. No matter how bad I feel my day went, it never feels pointless. Even if all I accomplished was teaching 60 sophomores how to use a semi colon, I just taught 60 sophomores how to use a semi colon! It matters in the emotional/social support sense, too, of course.

It mattered the day after the election. My first class of the day was ESL, and my internal debate about whether or not to mention the election was rendered pointless when my usually quiet student ran into the room yelling with concerns. They had nearly all stayed up to 2am with their parents watching as the results came in, and they were all terrified. I scrapped half of my lesson for the day and spent a large portion of the period going over checks and balances and all the things the new president-elect could not do--primarily, that he could not make any of them "walk back to Mexico." A conversation with my sophomores (a slightly different demographic) later in the day included reassurances that Trump would not reinstate segregation or close all Mexican restaurants.

It matters when I drive a kid home, or give out hugs, or push a student (figuratively!), or a student says, "I love you" just to hear it back. It matters when students get excited about mastering new content, even when they start screaming about who won the vocabulary review game. It matters when students new and old stop by to chat with me. It matters when old ones ask for college recommendation letters. It matters when I bandage up a small child's knee. It matters when I call a mother to tell her that her son got college level on his reading test, and the next day he thanks me for helping him convince his mother that he should go to college. It matters when they want to hear my answers to the journal prompts. It matters when they bring their new baby brothers to show me. It matters when they are so proud of getting their spelling words right. It matters when they leave me notes on their tests and rubrics. It matters even when I hand out sanitary napkins or push apart students attempting to fight each other or yell my voice away.

It matters, and so I show up every day. "You take your job too seriously," one student told me. "Why can't you ever take a day off?"

Here's what I should have said: "Because you're worth it."

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

My love story

A month ago my grandmother died, and I went to California for the funeral.

Many years ago now, my grandfather had a stroke, and although he's made much progress since the event, it still interferes with his language abilities. In more recent years, my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, and this, combined with foot problems, has hampered her physically.

When I flew into LAX that Saturday morning, my aunt picked me up, and on the drive back to my now grandfather's house (I still get a chill anytime anyone refers to it as that), I commented, "Grandma and Grandpa had such a symbiotic relationship. She did all the mental things, and he did all the physical things."

"Exactly," Aunt Carla replied. "I always wondered what one would do without the other."

Monday afternoon, before the memorial service, I was in the kitchen with my grandfather, urging him to eat. "How are you doing?" I asked him.

"Oh, fine," he said at first, and mentioned something about feeling tired. Then he paused. "53 years we've been married. God said that the two become one flesh, and it's true. But now, I wake up every morning, and I'm alone."


About now you're probably wondering why I titled this post "My love story" if I'm going on about my grandparents. It's because of that comment. I cried when my grandfather said that, and I still cry when I think of it (writing this has made me tear up at my laptop now), but it's beautiful along with being tragic. It is true that God makes man and wife one flesh. We are joined in marriage in an inexplicable way. I can only aspire to 53 years. So here is my grandmother, my grandfather, and my husband.


I was in charge of the slideshow for my grandmother's funeral, and in a discussion of marriage photos, my grandfather said to make sure we used the car photo, because it was his favorite. So, here it is. This is my grandparents back in 1963, in my grandpa's favorite wedding photo.

Two last things about my grandparents and marriage: 1) Several people at the funeral mentioned how they always referred to their callings in the plural sense - "We were called to San Jose" and so forth & 2) I was also in charge of the portrait for the memorial service, and after selecting it, printing it 16x20, and framing it, I asked my grandfather if he'd like to see it. He nodded, so I led him from the kitchen into the living room, where the giant portrait of my grandmother grinning in front of the Grand Canyon stood in all its glory. He was silent, and after a couple of minutes, all he got out was, "It's good."

So thank you, Grandma and Grandpa, for being inspiring people, both in yourselves, your service to God, and your marriage.

Now here is my love story, because I love you, you have inspired me, and I would not be surviving Memphis without my David.


I returned from a sixth-month furlough in America to my house in Tokyo in December of sixth grade. A few days later, I was bustled over to a mission New Year's Eve party at my neighbor's house, and I was not at all impressed to be introduced to a new boy in my class. I do not think we talked for the remainder of the night. Honestly, I doubt we talked in the introduction.

In February of that year my mission went on our annual retreat to Karuizawa. One day we were making sandwiches for lunch, and my father and the boy's father pointed out that we made sandwiches similarly, taking care to get each layer to the edges of the bread. I was not very impressed.

Fast forward to eighth grade. I can't remember how it began, but we had one of those middle school mutual crushes. At the JAM (youth group) retreat we had an epic snowball fight. And, we were on the Brain Bowl team together (see photo).

One time I brought David chocolate chip cookies I had made, and my mother was alerted. "Is there anything going on there?" she asked.

"No!!!" I said.

At the eighth grade graduation banquet, David was the only boy I took a photo with. "Is there anything going on there?" my dad asked.

"No!!!" I said.

As high school started, we drifted apart, and although we were in the same study hall class (the class that made Monty cry), we rarely talked individually. However, it was my girl friend group and his guy friend group that got together for co-ed events. We all went in a group to the freshman banquet, so I took a photo with him.

The next year, when our class had a gym night, and whoever was in charge decided that of course all white people are friends, so all the white students should be in a group together, guess who that put together...! We're looking pretty glorious in our hyakuen hand-painted hakujin T-shirts.

And then, of course, the tenth grade banquet....

This picture takes place in our junior year of high school, and I've included it simply because I think it indicates a lot about our history that of course David was present at this moment in which I am jumping off the top of a play structure in a park in the middle of the night (Mom and Dad, if you're reading this, by "middle of the night," I mean 8pm, since we all know it gets early dark in Tokyo).

Next up is junior year banquet. I actually went to the banquet with the JAM leaders that year, and David was not a JAM leader, but he was friends with the boys in the group, so he came with us anyways. (It was fate, eh?) So, he was there the night we got no food at the "all-you-can-eat" buffet, my heel fell off running down the street in Shibuya, and we got Starbucks frappuccinos for dinner, before getting kicked out a building where we attempted to loiter to drink them.

Enter senior year (that fateful year!). This first photo is from a video that I completely forgot about. It must have been somebody's video class project, and we got roped into acting for it. As I recall, David was a nerd, and I was the girl he had a crush on. I think that fits well :D

And, of course, senior council! Good times, everybody. I appreciate all the set-ups.

And (drum roll) hall! We were in the same study hall, fourth period, and we'd go to the senior lounge, along with Sophia and Julia, who tirelessly threw us together and teased us, and we tirelessly attempted to shoot down.

I was contemplating switching study hall periods at Christmas, and my dad told me to ask David what he was doing, because he knew that David helped me with my calculus homework in study hall. Which is where it all began.... (So, thanks, Dad).

In the spring our senior class went to Thailand for a week, and David and I were in the same small group (thanks, senior council).

The rest, as they say, is history....

Senior banquet

High school graduation

All-night class graduation party at the beach

Disney Sea Graduation celebration

We went to Calvin together, though I discouraged David from following me. (Thanks for ignoring me, dear.) If you know David or I very well, you will know of our passion for The Lord of the Rings. However, it may take a deep level of dedication to the series for anyone else to figure out what character we're imitating here in the nature preserve.

Then, home again for summer....

Junior year, 21st birthday: my first personalized pie

On June 21, 2014, David led me on a seemingly wild goose chase across Kiyose to go to a supposed cool new breakfast restaurant he'd found. We approached a river, and he blindfolded me and led me down a grassy slope. When he took of the bandana, he revealed a brunch picnic set up under a canopy, beside the river. The feast was five courses, including pancakes he cooked on a skillet at the table and my mother's sticky bun recipe that I'd told him I liked. Partway through (five courses at once is a lot even for us), he took me over beside the river, kneeled down, and proposed.

"Of course," I said.

(Yes, Brian, if you read this, I did shove cake in David's face - and I think our marriage is doing just fine :) - maybe it can be a sign of playfulness instead.)

Thank you, Grandma.

Thank you, Grandpa.

Thank you, David.

I love you.

I thought a lot over what I would have to say about my grandma. She was the nicest person I know, but that seems a shallow thing to say. So I contemplated if she was the best person I know. You always want to say that of people when they die, but I didn't want to make it up. So I debated, weighing other "best" people that I could think of, and I decided that all of my grandparents and parents are the best people I know.

I don't say that against anyone else. I wish everyone could believe that their grandparents and parents are the best people they know.

I hope that one day our children can say that about us.

I had a lot of fun looking through photo memories to pick some out for this post. I was inspired for that part when I looked at David one night and thought how in love with him I was, and wanted to find one picture to post. I have to admit, I thought we were so cute, I couldn't just choose one. Yes, I feel silly saying that, but I hope that everyone can find that much joy and love in their own lives. After all, you're the one living your life.

On David's 18th birthday I made him 18 fortune cookies. The fortune inside each was something I liked about him. I used to rewrite song lyrics for him, too.

I don't do those things anymore - perhaps I should - instead I bake scones on Sunday morning, do the laundry, make him tea, sing loudly with the top down, buy him books, write emails to his family, give him the better pillows, and live this wild adventure together.


I love you much
most beautiful darling
more than anyone on the earth
and I like you better
than everything in the sky




P.S. For anyone still with me, here are some post-marriage photos for your enjoyment.
Honeymoon cupcakes (thanks, Caitlin, although, 12? really?)

More LOTR, because the tree was too perfect

A cousin photo, because Grandma was so enthusiastic about taking it
And, finally, our infinity