The drip-drop bass track of rain on this chilly November night reminds me of the overdubbed voices that comprised the “instruments” for Bobby McFerrin’s catchy eighties hit, Don’t Worry, Be Happy. My Pandora station chose this positive, mellow, island vibe during our English 10 award ceremony yesterday, its sledgehammer theme landing firmly on its creative target as students used the last half hour of the quarter to write bucket lists.
It was this accidental tradition I began two years ago that landed me on a grand tour of Italy with seven incredible teenage girls who shared my dream. Being intentional about the future, encouraging students to make plans and achieve goals – these are the honorable aims embedded in much of their core and elective standards. High schools across the Nation like ours offer courses in government, personal finance, and other college and career readiness courses, designed to prepare students by providing the knowledge and skill sets necessary to face independent living.
It’s not surprising, then, that when I give my sophomores a chance to pause the world’s agenda and look inward, that they are willing participants in the activity. For a brief time, they get a chance to apply their current knowledge and skills to a critical thinking-based tasks geared at improving the quality of their lives… not as it pertains to the necessary equipment they pick up and organize by the end of high school, but in making the most of their time by committing to do the things you’ve always wanted to do.
The massive persuasive undertaking faded to the background as we started class with award presentations and segued via a string of America’s Funniest Home videos to our creative undertaking. I gave them the background of how seeing my fiancé’s bucket list two years ago inspired me to write my own, and my own prompted me to spontaneously extend the experience to my students that year. I shared the coolest bucket list blog with them first, then shared my own, finally encouraging them to seek their minds or Google and make their own lists with at least five items.
I played music in the background while I watched them dream. Typically, I’d be snapping photos, but to be honest, I just wanted to be in the moment with them. I could hear the familiar tune fill the classroom with a mood ideal for unbridling oneself from the immediacies of the present. “Don’t worry, be happy.” The bouncing bass voices and the whistling lift even resistant minds up to the challenge. What would make you happy? My students dedicated themselves to visiting specific places, some with reasons clearly having originated somewhere personal. Bobby’s whistling, and I’m circling the room, mimicking his message. “Don’t worry about your current limitations. What have you always wanted to do?” They respond by jotting new lines on their colored note cards.
I don’t know what these teens will accomplish, but I hope they Facebook Friend request me after they graduate from high school. This particular department named themselves Digital Thiccness, and I’m not sure I followed their process for selecting it, but the team effort in finding ways for individuals to join teams and share voices until the discussion evolved into their first department decision – well, I think their identity solidified that day, during that student-led discussion where I sat back and observed, finding that by resisting the urge to control the dialogue, character traits of twenty-some sixteen-year-olds merged to define a class environment representing those who value inclusion, fairness, process, and leadership.
This group of students earned department of the quarter based on their merits, individually and united. They tolerate my obvious music selection and my conspicuous desire to share my own passion; nevertheless, watching them dream on their colored note-cards, free from the world’s next imposition on their time commitments, there was a lot of laughter and happiness in the undercurrent of on-task chatter as teens connected, related, shared, bonded, and inspired each other. For a half hour, they weren’t worried about their forthcoming report cards or practice after school. I didn’t stop to take a picture because I wanted to read each card. Some kids had more than twenty items. The sentiment I most took away from this last first quarter award ceremony for me at Kecoughtan was gratitude.
Though I’ll never be able to track the impact of these bucket list activities with a bar graph over time, I see what I’ve accomplished on my own bucket list in just two years and choose to believe that a batch of kids from Kecoughtan High School who indulged Ms. Palma back in tenth grade will somehow accomplish more, intentionally, fulfill more dreams, and subsequently, be more satisfied with their lives amidst all the other obligations that school will evolve into, whether more schooling or careers or family responsibilities.
I’m grateful for this class of young minds that reenergize me for the uncertain journey ahead. My future with Charming comes with a plethora of question marks, but my list of Thirty Things to Do in my Thirties still has six more years in office. No matter what city or job or house we call home in a year’s time, the most important item on my list is to marry the man of my dreams without settling for less than that. In July, crossing that one item out obligates me – no, us – to create another list. Our list. I won’t always be Ms. Palma, scanning Kecoughtan student aspirations in CD23.
That was never more apparent than on Saturday when we celebrated Charming’s family Thanksgiving a bit early to accommodate his parents’ upcoming travel overseas. A familiar family friend was back around the table, and my favorite person of all was seated beside me. When we walked in before noon with wine and apple pie, I’d no sooner set them down than Grandma Lois was giving me a good squeeze, only this time, she didn’t have to struggle to remember my name. She just called me Mrs. Charming. (Note: cop-out product of unsuccessful search for the fairy prince’s last name.)
My teacher nickname really will change from Ms. P. to Mrs. C. This was my third Thanksgiving with Charming’s family, and the sparkling engagement ring doesn’t get the credit for the sense of overwhelming gratitude that made this celebration unique. We’re not officially family for nine more months, but in deference and love and bond, they feel like family in the ways that matter most.
The rain is slowing, and I actually heard the chirp of a bird. It wasn’t a whistle or a vocal instrumental like the rain drops on my front porch, but I still thought of the old hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Suddenly, I’m concerned with the indecipherable relationship between these two ideas, incorrectly joined with a comma that fails to offer the connection. Yes, punctuation matters. Is it a cause and effect relationship, as in, “Don’t worry; then, you’ll be happy.” Is it a dual commission, “Don’t worry, and be happy, too.” Are worry and happiness juxtaposed, codependent, mutually beneficially, or mutually exclusive?
At night, one of the ways I like to “prepare my mind for induction to sleep” is to recall Bible verses, sifting through the two decades of dust on my old Awana trophies to uncover timeless messages permanently etched in my brain. In a letter to a church in Philippi two thousand years ago, someone suggested a similar yet divergent way to focus on the positive. Paul wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
Perhaps the greatest single outcome of this difficult season for sleep has been in my predisposition to go to God before I go to bed. It’s easy to say, “Don’t worry, be happy,” but when the whistling, catchy tune fades, I’m left begging the question: How? Bobby nailed part of it; Paul answered the rest. In everything, that singular indefinite pronoun that implies all the time, everywhere, in each season and circumstance and city and job and house, we pray. We praise, we give thanks, and we hand the worry over to God who can bear it.
Granted, I might have to hand it over again tomorrow night, but looking at how many things I’ve done that used to be someday-maybes, I believe God cares about my bucket list in the same way I care about my students’. Goals change. Lord knows, I need to add mastering Level 40 in Pokémon Go to my current list, and He knows all the accomplishments I’ll make with Charming, together, on a joint bucket list that doesn’t exist yet.
Do I ever worry that our colliding futures will alter my singular goals, dreams, and plans? I give it up to God daily. Still, I have to admit, watching my students make crazy, cool, fun, exciting, and even practical commitments for good things in their futures, I saw that in everything, I get to give thanks. Even for the unknown or uncertain. The certainty of my most important lifelong dream will be fulfilled next summer, and then two will become one and we’ll find how to accomplish goals together, like Digital Thiccness in obtaining the department of the quarter award.
It starts like in the classroom, operating from an agreed set of expectations; we laid a foundation in the marriage workshop by writing a vision statement for our marriage. Now, we can apply our knowledge and skills to a creative task…committing to supporting our shared goals and dreams… whatever they may be. Maybe it’s time we get out a colored note card for Mr. and Mrs. Charming, strip away all the current obligations and question marks and simply commit to shared adventures… crazy, cool, fun, exciting, and of course, practical.
And in everything, I’ll pray and give thanks, entrusting my worries and my dreams to the Author of my past, present, and future. God gave me Charming. That simple, subtle reality quiets anxiety. I trust the soothing rain to ease me to sleep tonight as I draw near to the Source of Peace, perhaps drifting off imagining all the possibilities for what the dinner table might look like next Thanksgiving.