Tag Archives: University of Virginia

Love Wins.

The church my man and I attend has real people in it – people who have excelled and fallen short in their efforts at relationships, being Christians, and life in general. In an environment like that, I shared my story out loud for the first time last Wednesday night. An unexpected thing happened: as difficult as it was to admit some of my more embarrassing mistakes, I became so proud of Jesus. So proud that my God is the kind of God who pursues diamonds in the rough. So proud that my God accepts me as I am – and you as you are – because he revels in the journey we’re on. So proud that my God is in control of the whole thing.

It’s like this. Addiction was a fourteen-year way of life for me – from 1996 to 2010 – and it sometimes nips at my heels even now. I didn’t reason my way out of it or will it to stop; you can’t treat addiction that way. Instead, I went to the office of a counselor hand-picked for me by God. For some, that sounds extreme I’m sure: couldn’t it just be a happy coincidence? But here’s the truth. I ended up finally making my decision to get help on a Wednesday that Dr. Morgan happened to be sharing the walk-in intakes, something he doesn’t always do. I arrived at the Health Clinic during his office hours, which are fewer than everyone else’s due to his research activities. He happened to be the one to take me back, even though several other counselors were available. His approach to counseling proved almost exclusively cognitive, in the sense that we looked around my brain and applied logic where I wasn’t. Given that I live my whole life in my brain, the method felt tailored for me. It’s all these reasons, and a few others, that assure me God oversaw my healing process, even when I wasn’t consulting him. He put me in the right setting to recognize what I was doing, why, and how to stop it. Then, he gave me the strength to change. If you’d ever seen me binge, you’d know: only Jesus can do that.

When I got married in June 2007, sexual dysfunction ignited my addiction, causing whatever shards of self-esteem I had left to dissolve in the heart-wrenching pain of loneliness and anger. My body was too wrong, too large, and sentenced me to a sexless marriage. Every failed “treatment” plunged me into further despair, and I looked to food with renewed zeal each time. I reached a low after my third miscarriage; not only was my body oversized, not only did it reject my then-husband, but it also made a farce of my dreams of motherhood. My destructive behavior had no limits: I binged, entered an inappropriate relationship, wallowed in self-pity and hatred, and ignored God’s invitations to surrender. I couldn’t see a way out of the dark and depression; for a while, I didn’t even want one. And even still, when I’d had enough, when I shrugged and said, “Fine, You win,” there was Jesus. Even when I’d turned Him down. Even after my divorce. Even when the old patterns lured me back. And now I can’t even see a shadow of the wife I was for so long. I have eyes only for my man, and I thoroughly enjoy him – loving him, living alongside him, sharing an intimacy with him that is exclusively ours. I have been made entirely new. Only Jesus can do that.

I shouldn’t be here, in this place of lightness and joy, after the places I’ve been. I spent years destroying my body, being unable and unwilling to stop abusing food. I’ve been through the loss associated with infidelity. I’ve felt the pain of my babies fading. I’ve walked through the disappointment and rage of (supposed) infertility. I’ve tried to soothe myself, to protect myself when I felt assaulted by the storm, only to wake up drowning in further waves of pain. But I’m here – joyful, peaceful, and free. Only Jesus can do that. I am married to the sexiest, strongest, kindest man God ever created. I am mother-by-marriage of two beautiful children that look just like my favorite man. I am mother-by-blood of a 34-week-old pregnancy miracle who is about to forever change my world for the better. I am blessed to live in a lovely home with a wonderful family that makes my life a joy beyond words, beyond anything I could’ve made for myself. But even if I lost everything tomorrow, I have been shown that my God is greater than the gifts he gives and the pain I endure. Whatever I live through tomorrow, He has the answers. He meets my needs. He loves me and speaks tenderly to me and remains faithfully beside me no matter where we go. No matter what happens, there’s Jesus.

That’s all I ever needed to know, really. I’m loved, I’m of priceless worth, and there’s always Jesus.

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Filed under Addiction Recovery, Broken Beauty, Jesus Loves Me, Once Divorced, Twice Married

The Best French Word

My favorite French verb is tituber, which means “to stagger; to stumble.” The first time I read it was in the poem “A la princesse” by Cameroonian poet Patrice Kayo. The speaker tells his beloved they will tituber hand in hand, toward the horizon. It’s forward progression, however halting and unsteady. It’s hope. Tituber is how I journeyed through addiction.

One of my ongoing questions to Dr. Morgan was, “Where does my addiction come from?” It confounded and angered me that I had such an impossible relationship with food; no one else seemed to. At meetings, get-togethers, and anywhere else social eating was on the agenda, it appeared that people could eat without gorging. If a table of snacks was set out at a party, for example, everyone else seemed able to take some and stop. They didn’t return for a binge when the other guests had migrated to another room. Why did I? Dr. Morgan quickly identified the shame I felt when I compared myself to others, but I was slower to recognize it. He asked me a few questions in my second session about what I saw when I evaluated my perspective of others’ food habits.

“It seems like everyone else makes a conscious decision whether to eat,” I shrugged. “I don’t feel like I have the choice. I don’t make any decisions. I just eat what and when my mind tells me.” After reflecting for a moment, I went on: “In fact, I don’t think I’ve felt actual hunger in months. I eat too often to feel it.” I winced and looked at my counselor. “I’m crazy, yes?”

He chuckled almost paternally. “I don’t use the word ‘crazy,’” he said, lifting an eyebrow and shaking his head.

As I continued to talk, sometimes answering his questions and sometimes my own, I realized two things. First, I was losing every time I compared myself to others. I saw the majority as “healthy,” in contrast to an unhealthy me. The world was well; I was sick. Here’s the truth: not only was that impossible if I believed that “all have sinned and fallen short,” but it’s also ludicrous. You can’t walk through life without being wounded, and hurt does funny things to all of us. For some it creates feelings of unworthiness, for others it instills the expectation of abandonment, for others it’s rejection, and so on. But hurt people don’t escape unscathed. So if we are all hurt from time to time and mistake-prone by nature, some unhealthiness would have to be in all of us. And perhaps the more wounded we are, the likelier we are to develop unhealthy habits. Instead of being the one sick case, I was normal, even by my own logic.

The second thing I noticed was more practical. My addictive behavior was always in done secret. I was willing to go to whatever lengths were necessary – rearranging my schedule, “stretching” the truth, stopping before returning home to get rid of evidence, whatever – to hide my binges. They were more powerful than I was; the draw of the next private binge was practically running my life.

So when Dr. Morgan asked what one thing I could change starting that day, one thing that would get me a step closer to health, I said, “Well, if I do all the ‘bad stuff’ when I am alone, then I would be healthier if I always ate around other people.” And as soon as I said it, I shook my head, telling myself all the reasons that wouldn’t work. I rarely ate in front of others because I believed they would see my shame. I believed I couldn’t eat like everyone else, couldn’t follow all the unwritten rules that they all innately followed.

The rest of the day after I left Dr. Morgan’s office, I thought about not eating alone anymore – no drive-thrus, no picking up something while my then-husband was at work, no gas station snacks while driving home to see my family and friends. That was my way of life, and the thought of abandoning it was painful and impossible. I came up with endless reasons why I simply couldn’t do it.

But the short version is…I did. Even if I felt like I couldn’t make a decision about what or when to eat, I found myself able to decide where. I started getting to school earlier than necessary so I could take my lunch to the graduate assistants’ office. If I didn’t want to eat in front of people who knew me but still didn’t want to break my promise to myself, then I ate out in the open on the school grounds. I asked my friend E to have lunch with me often so I could enjoy her company and unwitting accountability. I fought fiercely against the voice that said, “It doesn’t matter where you go or who you’re with, you’re still sick. Still fat. Still different from everyone else. People don’t change; it’s who you are.” That voice blared, and some days it still does. Nor did changing the location of my meals have any bearing on what I was eating: I persisted in destructive choices. But I persevered with all the ferocity I could manage, and every single meal that week and the next, I ate in front of at least one other person.

By the next time I spoke with K, the friend I first confessed to, I was mentally exhausted from acting against a huge part of my natural instincts, but my brain had just enough space to feel in-control again. I had taken back just enough ground to muster some self-trust. I wasn’t healed in one week, but I had taken back some ground. If I couldn’t run or even walk toward healing, I could certainly tituber my way there. The healthy, redeemed me that I would one day grow into had gotten her first breath of life.

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Filed under Addiction Recovery, Broken Beauty, Ooh Là Là!

The One-Yard Line

As soon as I hung up from K’s call, I grabbed my purse and keys, as was my habit. But this time I went the opposite direction from my favorite coffee-and-dessert shop. Blessed relief rushed over me: finally, someone knew. The hiding and dodging were over, and the beast, now named, could be destroyed. I didn’t love being exposed, even to K, but I was suddenly high on hope.

My little gold Sentra carried me down Barracks Road at fifty miles per hour, the second step I took that day toward healing: for the first time in years, I celebrated a victory with something other than food, which I’d always reached for to increase euphoria in the past. I pumped up the Dave Matthews and played the drums on my steering wheel. I smiled widely and waved at the horses on the Garth Road farms. It was glorious and, to be honest, a little comical.

Then, something dawned on me: I didn’t actually have a plan for becoming “normal”; I just believed it could be done. This was not a plan. But because I also believed in my university, I removed my phone from my purse before I could lose the courage and dialed Student Health. When I was connected to the counseling department, I said, “I’m a graduate student, and I want to see a counselor.” A chirpy woman on the other end informed me that Wednesday afternoons were reserved for walk-ins, so I could do an intake before my 3:30 class the next day.

But by the time a stout, fortyish African-American man called my name on Wednesday, I was less convinced. I’d gotten “help” before from doctors who directed me to diet plans, from groups of dieters who promised to increase my motivation, and from Christian counselors who said I needed to pray. Nothing had done the trick: here I was, looking for another answer. Scrounging up my last reserves of hope, I smiled politely and followed the guy down a short hallway.

“I’m Dr. Morgan,” he said when we reached his office.

“Amie,” I responded.

“Why are we here, Amie?” Efficient and professional, Dr. Morgan had little use for pleasantries. His head was bent over my new file, pen poised to paraphrase whatever clean-cut response I offered to his question.

I sighed. “Well…I’m miserable with myself, I’m going to fail my comprehensive exams, I don’t love my husband, I’m no longer sure why I wanted a master’s in French, I have no vocational vision, I’m generally living in a way most Christians like me would renounce, the fog in my brain seems to have eaten up my decision-making skills, and I miss my friends and family so much it hurts.” I paused. “Also, I’m an addict,” I added, barely loud enough for him to hear. I strummed my fingers absently on the corner of his desk. “So there’s that,” I mumbled without making eye contact. It was no more comfortable to say this to a professional than it had been with K.

Dr. Morgan looked at me with a practiced expression that betrayed none of his thoughts. “Hm,” he grunted with a nod, apparently unsure of what to write. Still looking at me, perhaps waiting for a second avalanche of fear and shame, he eventually said, “Okay.” He scribbled on my intake papers, and I answered a few demographic questions. After the necessities were concluded, he set his pen down and laced his fingers. “What exactly do you hope to get out of counseling, Amie?”

I stared at my shoes. I raised my eyebrows and shrugged. Two or three times I started to talk before deciding the words were ridiculous. My eyes filled with tears, and I said, “I just need help.”

The silence was awful. As my resolve crumbled, I vowed I’d hit the Corner for something to eat as soon as I could bolt from Dr. Morgan. Since I’d gone so long without allowing myself to experience pain, I was shocked by the raw sensation my emotions caused. I was suddenly “starving.”

Dr. Morgan looked over his notes and said, “Well, there are a few women in town who are trained marriage counselors. I’m sure one of them would be happy to talk to you and your husband, or just you if that’s more palatable. We’ll of course negotiate a reduced fee, since we don’t offer marriage counseling here at the university.” His eyes were back to my file.

So he assumed the rocky marriage was the Big Problem that brought me to counseling. Great, now I would have to reiterate what a disgraceful, disgusting addict I was.

“Well, if we could forget the marriage and focus on the…addiction for now, I think that would be more beneficial,” I said quietly.

“I see,” Dr. Morgan said with a nod, staring at me again.

The session never became less awkward. It brought me so much shame to come out of hiding and describe my actions for Dr. Morgan and why I felt so desperate for help. To comply with policy, he couldn’t help me in isolation without the cooperation of the university nutritionist and gynecologist, so he informed me that he’d make me appointments with each of those women and call to let me know when they were scheduled. When I’d seen them both, I could return to him for a comprehensive plan of action. I nodded as if this were all okay with me.

After I left his office, I went straight to a diner and ate enough to feed a family of four starving refugees. I wasn’t sure I could face anyone else with the truth, let alone a doctor and a nutritionist. In fact, I wasn’t sure I could face myself with it anymore. Perhaps it would be easier to consider this all an unsuccessful foray into weight loss – something I was very familiar with – nothing more. So I escaped for the moment and then headed on to class, equally soothed and sickened by my behavior. Like the end zone when you’re lined up one yard away, my rescue was so near that it was nearly impossible to reach.

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The Dreaded Stirrups

There are a number of reasons I consider my time at the University of Virginia a gift, but near the top is Dr. C, even though she represents hours and hours of having my feet in the stirrups. Not only did Dr. C extensively research the symptoms I described, but she also called doctor friends and colleagues who are specialists in the field of female sexual issues. After spending hours on my case, she took time to explain to me in precise, comprehensible terms what my body might be doing and gave me a choice of treatment options without pushing me in any particular direction. Two diagnoses were possible, and we had to decide which it was before we could design a viable treatment plan.

The first possibility—the one we were both hoping it wasn’t—was vulvodynia. Vulvodynia is chronic vulvar pain, and there’s no cure. The pangs can be anywhere from dull to crippling, and they attack you as you drive, swim, run after your children, wash clothes, and everything in between. Naturally, while sex intensifies the pain, it’s more or less always there when vulvodynia is the culprit. The “treatments” are pain management programs, not cures, and many of them are, quite frankly, creepy. One commonly invoked method is a topical ointment featuring capsaicin, the active component of chili peppers. Chili peppers. That’s right: we’re talking feeding puréed chili peppers to my lady parts. Like, literally spicing up my sex life. The idea behind capsaicin—which, by the way, is every bit as much of a skin irritant as you’re imagining—is that you shock the nerves. Eventually, the nerves will calm themselves when they get over the pain spike. It seemed like thinly veiled, sarcastic masochism to me. “You think you’ve got pain right now? Wait’ll you feel this, dollface.” Cue the chili peppers.

Another treatment possibility is a vestibulectomy. I will explain as gently as possible. A vestibulectom-ist (that is not a real word) excises the really egregiously painful tissue in the vaginal vestibule, scooping out all the skin and tissue with the overactive nerves. To re-cover the excised area, a vaginal extension is performed, pulling vaginal skin forward over the area and securing it. Women, are you crossing your legs yet? The short version is that the surgery pulls out painful skin and covers it back up by using your lady parts like a rubber band sewn in place. The problem with this treatment—I say that as though there’s only one—is the formidably low success rate. As in, 50-60% according to most doctors. I’m sorry, but if you’re going to stretch my lady business, I’m going to need a higher chance of success than eh, maybe.

Other less invasive options are practiced. Dr. C offered me tricyclic antidepressants, for example. They are meant to affect the mental patterns of pain your brain creates. Despite how desperately I wanted to be cured, the idea of using antidepressants to alter receptors in my brain just so I could enjoy getting frisky seemed like regret waiting to happen. I did use Lidocaine, a topical numbing agent, for a while. But you might imagine the (viable) complaints my husband had about numbing ointment. Plus, it worked about as well as I imagine the chili peppers would. So Dr. C and I decided to rule out vulvodynia and assume my pain was vaginismus instead.

Unlike vulvodynia, vaginismus is not chronic. It is vaginal pain triggered by certain activities or movements. Also unlike vulvodynia, the pain is muscular rather than nervous. While vaginismus is certainly the root of much dysfunction and emotional and physical pain, the splendidly good news is that muscles can be trained in a way that nerves cannot. So if vaginismus is the problem, it is possible to be completely cured by working on the muscles.

I am happy to report that my problem was in fact vaginismus, correctly diagnosed for the first time by Dr. C in October of 2010. We were finally, after two and a half years, on the right track. As I left her office, I could feel it—hope.

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Killer Ovaries

In August 2009 we moved out of state for me to go to school. Part of my scholarship was 100% coverage for any services provided by the health clinic, so within a month of our arrival, I made an appointment with the university gynecologist. I wanted answers and figured that starting all over with a new doctor might occasion them.

Words cannot express how grateful I am for the incredible health insurance the university provided me and the amazing doctors who helped me. Dr. A was my first doctor at the university, and he listened patiently to my story. He promised me we’d find an answer. When I’d finished giving him all the pertinent details, he began asking me some questions—how much energy did I have, what were my eating habits, what was my typical menstruation cycle. Answer by answer, we elucidated the constellation of symptoms and their probable cause: polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). It explained so many of my body’s abnormalities. In order to verify the diagnosis, we checked my thyroid, blood sugar, and hormone levels. Just as Dr. A suspected, the culprit was PCOS. He referred me to Dr. C, a specialist at the university in female reproductive disorders.

Dr. C gave me tons of information on PCOS. She explained that the catalyst for my sugar cravings and low energy was insulin resistance, which often accompanies PCOS. Additionally, my hormones were imbalanced, causing irregular periods and other embarrassing problems. Gone untreated, Dr. C told me that PCOS would likely lead to diabetes and perhaps eventual death from it. Despite the enormity of my frustration with my body and the severity of the issue, I still struggled with the decision to start Metformin. For one, a family member of mine had experienced serious problems as a result of taking it. But also, I didn’t like the thought of being on a medication for the rest of my life, especially at the age of 24. After a few weeks of serious thought and prayer, I filled the prescription.

The first six weeks I was on the drug weren’t my favorite days. Metformin causes nausea, painful cramps, and trapped gas, to name a few. I started on the lowest dosage possible and still felt awful. Every time I had to increase the dosage, the symptoms redoubled. But after I’d paid my dues—about ten weeks in—I started seeing a genuine difference in the way I felt. I dropped 10 pounds almost instantly and found it much easier to lose weight even after that, having regulated my insulin imbalance. I had more energy. My menstruation cycle regulated. I felt better than ever, truly. I felt well, healthy. It seemed, honestly, like everything had improved. Except my sex life.

Oddly, the one thing I’d gone in for answers about went unaided. It wasn’t Dr. A’s fault or Dr. C’s fault. It was simply that hormones and insulin and cysts were apparently not causing my dysfunction. When I mentioned this to Dr. C, she said, “It’s so odd…Normally, women with PCOS have a higher sex drive and lower occurrence of dysfunction, due to elevated testosterone levels. We’ll figure it out, Amie. I promise.”

She meant it.

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Doughnuts

Don Miller tells a beautiful story in his work Through Painted Deserts about God’s provision. He’d climbed down the Grand Canyon with a friend, a feat of which the mental, physical, and emotional toll was nearly unbearable. After a particularly grueling day, his friend asked him, “If you could have access to anything right now, what would it be?” Miller replied, “Tortillas and scrambled eggs.” An odd answer perhaps, given his more immediate needs, but he went on to explain how strongly the meal reminded him of home and family. When the pair emerged from the Canyon, they resumed their trip but didn’t get far: their jalopy broke down near a diner. They decided to go in and eat, and guess what was remarkably available for breakfast? Yep, tortillas and scrambled eggs. And guess what was wrong with their truck? Nothing; it started up the moment they were ready to leave. Miller says it brought tears to his eyes, realizing how personal our God is. Even something as simple as breakfast food becomes important to God when it’s important to us. Knowing how much pleasure tortillas and scrambled eggs would bring Miller, our Daddy-God orchestrated a plan for him to have them.

I have never climbed the Grand Canyon and completely lack the desire to try. I do, however, understand the concept of an experience that reduces you to a helpless mass of flesh dependant on a great big God. The last two years have brought enormous challenges in every area of my life: academic, relational, physical, personal, spiritual. One such challenge was my master’s examinations, which I successfully completed yesterday. Spaced over a two-week period, there were four parts, two written and two oral, based on a list of more than 200 works in French. The most terrifying component of the exam came last: the orals. The panel could ask me literally anything from any work on the list, starting with the Revolution. To say this is “terrifying” is an understatement of gargantuan proportions. Not only are you worried you don’t know enough about the individual works, but you’re also wondering whether you know enough historical context, whether you can remember what you’ve read, whether your nerves will hinder your mental capabilities during the exam, and so on. In a word, it’s nerve-wracking.

It’s no wonder, then, that I woke up Friday morning with a stomachache and tears in my eyes. And a huge craving for doughnuts. Huge. You’d think I was pregnant. My brain and heart were so worn out from the stress of the previous two years—and, of course, the task in front of me—that all my nervous energy zeroed in on one desire: a doughnut. Irrationally, I thought, “The only thing in the world that could calm me down right now is a doughnut.” When Jeff asked what he could make me for breakfast, I said, “A doughnut. I want a doughnut.” I didn’t get one. It was almost more than my distressed self could take. “No doughnut?” it asked me quietly. “But that’s all I want.” I tried to calm it, saying, “Some way or another, I will get you a doughnut. But you have to shut up now with this nonsense so I can practice my presentation.”

As we were heading out the door, Jeff realized he had to make an emergency run to work to drop something off for his boss. “Want to come?” he asked. I’m always up for a drive, even if it’s only fifteen minutes, so I happily obliged. When we got there, he promised to return quickly so as not to make me late for my appointment. I was surprised, however, when he returned in less than five minutes, knocking on my window. I rolled it down and was handed…a still-warm glazed doughnut. “I don’t know where these came from, but they were sitting out on the desk,” he said with a shrug. Tears sprang to my eyes for what must have been the eighty-eighth time that morning. I gratefully ate my doughnut and was reminded of Don Miller’s tortillas and eggs. God was providing for me, something so silly and so irrelevant, but something that showed me how personal he can be. Right then I knew that if my desire for a ridiculous little doughnut was important to God, then my need for success on the exams was that much more so. I knew that, as Isaiah promises, he’d be with me and would help me and hold me up in his victorious right hand (41:10). My human weakness doesn’t matter in the face of such an almighty God.

One July night in 2009, a week before Jeff and I moved, I was telling God how nervous I was about what lay before me. He showed me the first chapter of Joshua, and I knew in my spirit the words were for me too.

Wherever you set foot, you will be on land that I have given you…I will be with you. I will not fail you or abandon you. Be strong and courageous, for you are the one who will…possess all the land I swore I would give…Be strong and very courageous…Study this Book of Instruction continually. Meditate on it day and night so you will be sure to obey everything in it. Only then will you prosper and be successful in all you do. This is my command—be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go (1:3, 5-9).

God had already prepared the way for me to succeed. Nothing that I was asked to do at school surprised him. Nothing about my program or my professors or my exams came as a shock. God never had to reconfigure his plan for me because something didn’t happen the way he expected it to. In fact, he was and is so much bigger than anything school could throw at me. And if he was on my side—which the whole Bible promises me—then what could ever cause me fear? So I went in the exam room being strong and courageous, knowing that God had already given me the “land.” And a doughnut.

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A Little Less Lonely

This was my philosophy of language teaching, written for my pedagogy class in Fall 2010 at the University of Virginia.

French markets are famous for vibrant displays of every imaginable alimentary substance. The best part, though, is the bread: French bread is sinfully delicious. And of all this delicious bread, one man in Lyon makes it better than anyone else. His chocolate chip loaves in particular are moist, buttery, slightly sweet—perfection itself. The first Sunday I was in Lyon, I stopped just to admire his wares, but his charm quickly converted me into a patron. Over the next four weeks, I stopped by his station weekly for a mouthwatering loaf and a bit of conversation. Despite the fact that our acquaintanceship lasted a mere month, and despite the fact that we never spoke longer than ten minutes, my eyes welled on my last visit to the market when he smiled with disappointment in his eyes and pronounced the final “adieu.” That moment demonstrates why I chose language education as my career. To connect to others, to form relationships, to break stereotypes—these are the most important human functions, the ones that make our time on the planet a little less lonely. All of them are possible only with language.

To this end, my classroom encourages genuine, respectful interaction; everyone’s voice is heard. Every class meeting begins with informal conversation: I greet students and ask what has occupied their time since I saw them last, what they are working on, and how their lives are going. Students eagerly respond to this invitation to share their lives with others. The relationships we form early on are of utmost importance to me personally and as a foundation for our language study. In no time, rapport builds to the point that students no longer hesitate to discuss their childhood, likes and dislikes, or hopes for the future. They learn to trust the other students and me with glimpses into their lives. However, rather than always talking about ourselves, I routinely ask students to adopt the perspectives of others, which simultaneously raises their affective awareness and vocabulary base. Regardless of the assignment, the goal in my classroom is the same: to foster real communication in as authentic a situation as possible for the students’ current linguistic level.

Even when presenting grammar and vocabulary for the first time, I try to take a learner-focused approach. Rather than give rules and immediately expect output, I ask students to look at or listen to authentic texts that feature the concept, and then we work together to construct and test hypotheses about the form. This way, my role can shift from lecturer to guide. In my experience, language students who are guided stay engaged; those who are inundated with new information quickly become overwhelmed or apathetic. A typical lesson in my classroom, then, follows the PACE method, allowing for extra support when the students seem to need it. The extension component of the lesson always consists of thoughtful communication with others while reinforcing the new linguistic form, often via “info gap” activities. This communication might be in written form or spoken, presentational or interactive, but the goal of all language, sharing information, is always at the forefront.

This belief about sharing information leads me to include as much authentic text as possible. Language classes are not about words: they are about speakers. Words alone do not make a language what it is; emotions, traditions, and people do. Consequently, to introduce my students to French is to introduce them to its speakers. We consider questions such as, “How do native speakers wield the words we learn in class? How do the words interact with the cultures in which they are born? How does the language reflect the voices that use it?” Of highest priority to me is that my students see the French language as a dynamic space in which life takes place. It is not merely a phenomenon occurring within our classroom. Authentic text helps students come to this realization. Music videos, film clips, news articles, photographs, theatre programs…these are all vital in my classroom. Not only do these instruments allow us to see the grammar and vocabulary in action, but they are also launching pads for culture discussions. The vast majority of students I have taught, regardless of age, are intrinsically motivated to discover new things about the cultures that share our world. By weaving cultural information with linguistic information, students begin to see the full picture of language and how it works in tandem with the people who speak it. Their comments in class mature from, “That’s so weird!” to “I can see why they do/believe that,” or even, “That makes sense.” As these new points of view are accepted, students’ interest in the language itself tends to increase, which makes the classroom experience a powerful one for all of us, myself included.

I hope to continue learning ways of maximizing the linguistic and cultural interests and abilities of my students, particularly as it relates to bringing down the affective filter. It is my firm belief that as the affective filter is dissolved, language learning skyrockets. When students are no longer intimidated by the language itself or by the teacher, they engage more voluntarily with the material. And as they become more comfortable with the others in the classroom, they find it easier to use the language to discover each other. In the future, I want to work with others to research and develop classroom materials and practices that encourage the affective filter to dissolve as much as possible. The more positive associations a student has with the language, the more likely she will be to study the language in depth. What can teachers be doing to reach and appreciate their students as individuals, rather than viewing the entire class as a single entity? What types of activities work to quickly dissipate the natural reservations students bring to the subject? How can teachers build motivation and creativity within the short space of a class period? These questions fascinate me: I am eager to learn more about how students learn so that I can become a better teacher and servant for them.

I have benefited through the years from excellent instructors from whom I learned the value of a teacher’s enthusiasm and passion for the material. As I have gained experience teaching for myself, I have learned more practical lessons: keeping students in their seats for long periods of time is counterproductive. Lecturing about grammar rules tends not to be effective. Listening to students’ specific needs as it relates to language instruction raises productivity and confidence. Every day I enter a classroom, whether as a student or a teacher, I learn something brand new about the profession. My primary career goal is to continue this process forever, so that each day my students have an increasingly effective teacher in the classroom. Nothing is more beautiful to me than the moment when a light bulb clicks on for a student, when she discovers yet another way to use language to make her neighbor a little less lonely. If I can continue finding ways to make that happen, I will feel that I have been a success.

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