Learning Curve

By Dana Bowman

Fourteen-year-old Hank  sat in the front row of the English class I taught. He had a deep chuckle that bubbled up from inside, an unforgettable smile, and a sense of humor that was a gift to the whole room. And he was a dreamer.

On the day I asked the class to write about their hopes and dreams, he slid his paper over to me. On it was scrawled, One day. I’m going to be in the NBA.

I eyed him. Hank was four feet tall. He’d never played on the school basketball team, not once. He didn’t exactly seem to have a fire in his belly for practicing threes. I took a deep breath and asked, “Uh… you’re going to play in the NBA? Or…. be in it. You know… like an NBA helper?”

Teaching is a strange profession. It keeps you up at night, remembering kids who, well, keep you up at night. And then it also keeps you up because you once told a kid he will never play in the NBA. As teachers, we are supposed to inspire. We’re supposed to be the wind beneath our students’ wings and keep them aloft so they can flutter on to graduation. It’s a difficult balance between inspiring and sometimes painful truth-telling.

I think dreams are difficult. They are forged. Mine were crafted after I got sober, because then I started writing about it. And from there, I joined the NBA. Okay, I wrote a book, and it got published. This is known as the NBA of writing.

And Hank’s dreams? They were like those Reese’s wrappers that my children like to throw into the fire pit after making s’mores. The tiny bits of paper go up in a puff of smoke and sparkle. Momentary. A little reckless. Flighty.

As a writer, I’m always teaching others about this craft. We writers can’t help ourselves. We find students in all sorts of places who want advice and to read their work together with us. But, dare I say, those floating wrappers going up in flames are also the dreams of writers who can’t actually write.

I realize this sounds terrible. But what I really mean is not that these writers can’t write. It’s that they won’t.

When I picked up this new career I figured it would look like this: get up, pull on something flowy and very Sylvia Plath, and head to the coffee shop. Knock out a few Pulitzer prizes for a couple of hours. Then, invigorated and accomplished, I’d head home to tidy up and fix a lovely meal for everyone. Voila! I am a writer!

As pretty much every event in this world has taught me, nothing ever, ever goes as planned. First of all, coffee at coffee shops keeps costing money. Additionally, I am trying to write around a dog with bladder issues, a house that seems to be falling in on itself, and two small children who have social schedules on par with the president.

Also, writing is really hard. It doesn’t flow. It hurts. On some days, it feels like I am trying to dislodge stuff from my brain and it falls, all messy, onto the page. This is not writing, it’s surgery—on myself.

So, to those students who tell me they want to be writers, I want to say right back to them, “Really? How does your week look? Do you have self-surgery on the schedule?”

I am wondering how Jesus works in all of this, with our clumsy treatment of dreams he has given us. His dream was to reconcile us to God and to one another in love. It is a dream he sacrificed himself for.

I don’t mean to make light of Jesus’s walk to the cross by pairing it with some kid’s misguided goals about the NBA or a writer’s desire to win a Pulitzer. But I think Jesus wants us to know that he has the best plans for us, all queued up and fantastic, if we are willing to do the work. Dare I say it? Discipleship takes discipline.

I like to think this can be done Indiana Jones style—with world travel, a leather coat, and a cool soundtrack. But the journeys generally aren’t that exhilarating. They’re more like driving through western Kansas.

Jesus gave us the Big Dream, the one about living life like him and helping to make a world that looks more like his kingdom. The problem is, I think life with Jesus should get me invited to my own Dreams Oscars with “I promised I wasn’t going to cry” tears and thank you speeches and sparkly dresses. But joy takes work. Healing does too. Dare I say it? Discipleship takes discipline.

It has been more than 20 years since I taught Hank, but I’ve never forgotten him and the way his humor was a gift to the whole room. I’ve never forgotten his dreams and how he helped me to better understand the tension that sometimes exists between inspiring and truth-telling. I’m a better teacher and person because of him. I don’t know what ever happened to Hank. I never did see him running up and down a basketball court, but I do hope he found new dreams and worked his way to those. And that he’s flying with wind beneath his wings.


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