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Watching for Kingfishers: Moments of Mercy on the Odyssey of a School Year

This summer, we lived in England for five weeks. My husband’s job requires travel, and we soaked it up. We set off on what we believed would be a merry idyll before school began.

Eager for a unique experience, we rented a narrowboat, which is a type of houseboat, roughly forty feet long and seven feet wide, equipped with tiny beds, kitchens, bathrooms and sitting rooms. They are like floating RVs, designed to navigate inland canals.

We thought we would float on peaceful waters through the dappled English countryside, stopping to moor wherever we fancied a ramble through an enchanted wood or, more to Scott’s taste, an afternoon pint at a canal-side pub. We had board games, Yorkshire tea, The Tales of Peter Rabbit, and our nature journals. We were prepared for magic.

We began our journey in the rain. The sky was like cold steel. Right away, it was hard. A forty-foot narrowboat is tricky to steer. We banged the hull against the quaint brick bridges as we passed beneath. We ran aground in shallow sand. The tiller stuck in the reeds.

Then came the locks.

Opening locks is arduous and dangerous. There are no rails around the yawning concrete box, which is shaped exactly like a coffin, and my arms shook as I cranked the paddles open, releasing thousands of gallons of water to raise the boat to the next elevation. My legs turned to jelly as my children leaned over the side. If they fell in, they would surely drown.

It was not what we had expected.

Scott and I stood on the stern one misty morning, talking about our unexpected odyssey. We would fly home in a week to begin a new school year, which is another kind of odyssey. We were weary. We had launched unprepared for what the journey required. We had expected an ideal and instead had encountered an adventure which involved risk, failure, discomfort, and longing. Our journey was like the school year ahead, and because of my weariness, that filled me with dread.

Yet every morning, dawn with her rosy fingers sprinkles God’s mercies. One day, a lady offered advice that changed everything.

“Keep your eyes on the low branches,” she told me, “and watch for kingfishers. The journey is better with something to watch for.” I stared at her, transfixed. We continued on our way, but something fundamental had shifted at her words.

I thought about school years, and watching for mercy. Anybody can passively wait for goodness, as I was waiting for our vacation to transform itself into a refreshing experience. But watching is different than waiting. Watching is active. It implies concentration. To watch means to pay attention.

Being a bird enthusiast, I knew that kingfishers dart from branch to branch, low and quick; bright flashes of grace. Watching for kingfishers is like watching for rainbows in the spray of a waterfall; common, but unpredictable; vibrant, but intangible. We rarely see kingfishers straight on, but out of the corners of our eyes. Watching for kingfishers requires us to notice our surroundings or we will miss them as they emerge and disappear in an instant. If a school year is an odyssey, then watching for kingfishers means actively paying attention to the encircling mercies, great and small, that bind us to our quest.

I looked around. The canal wound through the English countryside like a silver ribbon, flanked by a patchwork of emerald pastures divided by ancient stone walls. Along the canal, I caught a glimpse of purple dots on trailing vines. Were those…? I beckoned to my children, and we hopped off the boat to pluck wild blackberries. I did not see a kingfisher, but I was astonished by beauty that I had overlooked because I had not been watching.

As educators, we ask the question, how do we avoid burn out? If that is possible, I have never experienced it. Weariness and disillusionment are embedded within every odyssey. Our vocation does not wait for hard things to end, but watches for grace in their midst. In watching for kingfishers, we identify the goodness, truth, and beauty that has always been present.

On the fourth day, we saw them. It was late morning. We were motoring through a stretch of arching branches, green leaves and golden light. A lattice of shadow and sunbeams flickered on the still water. We sat on the bow reading Peter Rabbit. Out of the corner of my eye, a bright flash of blue darted across the canal, rippling the water. A second one rose and zigzagged before disappearing into the brush. We held our breath until they were gone. The moment felt holy. It was just a flash, but we had seen, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “kingfishers catch fire.”

A few weeks into our school year, I see kingfishers ignite. Kingfishers are mornings on the porch doing math in the autumn sunshine, a cup of coffee alone while my kids are at martial arts, my daughter mastering a new scale on the piano in spite of her bitter complaint, and the affirmation of a student announcing, “Mrs. White, I used to think poetry was boring until I took your class.” These moments may be rare, but when we notice them, they transform the mundane into glory. Like the unexpected swoop of a brilliantly plumed bird, these flashes of grace adhere our souls to the odyssey of teaching, which rides ceaseless rhythms of the universal pattern of chaos, creation, fall, redemption.

Like our trip, a school year is a series of good and hard things that require steadfast exertion. We launch the vessel with vision and promise, crash into disillusionment, and then we go on. Sometimes we can and should make changes, and sometimes we simply stay the course. I suppose we could have abandoned our boat in the middle of the journey, but we never considered that. Instead, we finished the quest while watching for kingfishers.

The journey remained intense. We motored ten hours a day, navigating dozens of locks. The children were often bored and argumentative. I snapped at them, afraid that they would tumble into a lock and die a watery death. A woman snarled at my clumsiness in opening a lock. The toilet tank backed up and overflowed. Scott got bad news from work and could do nothing to help. I slipped on rocky stairs in the rain, wrenched my knee, bruised my back, and fell into the sludgy canal in my favorite jeans. The odyssey never relented, but I remember how sacred it felt to watch the kingfishers take flight over the waters.

As we embark on the odyssey of another school year, we can expect that it will fall short of our ideals. Instead of waiting for experience to match expectation, we can watch for the goodness and beauty that permeate the journey. Our vocation endures, and God’s mercies will light it up with flashes of grace.

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