Thought-provoking

Beauty in chaos

Katelyn Hannel says that, for a teacher, there’s something to be said for a modicum of mayhem.

I think I’ll always remember the day my desk drawer fell off…  

It was one day this spring, during my lunch break – the fleeting 30-minute block that is really more like 25, that always seems to go by in the blink of an eye. I was preparing to make a phone call to a parent, squeezed into the schedule after several missed attempts.  

The keyboard drawer, which slides out from the center of my desk, had been missing a screw and hanging loose for most of the school year. Out of nowhere (or from weeks and months of strain), it suddenly started to drop, hanging down on one side – and I had to scramble to catch all of the papers, paper clips, and six months worth of ‘stuff’ stashed within it, before it could all topple over onto the floor.   

Setting them in a pile, I switched my mind back to my phone call, which then had to be wrapped up quickly as my next group of students were already standing outside my door. I began to put my mask back on (those were pandemic times) – and then, as if on cue – the strap of my mask snapped off too.

So with nothing else to do but improvise, I grabbed my stapler, stapled the torn mask together, shrugged, and went to greet my class.   

From the outside, all of this must have looked ridiculous, and could have made for a comical movie scene, and yet it was real life – and I couldn’t help but joke to others afterwards that it felt like a fitting representation of a long, exhausting school year.    

As a teacher, I have become used to hectic, nonstop days.

I find myself telling others that I’ve developed a high tolerance for overstimulation over the years, being surrounded by crowds of students, constant motion, and lots of random screaming. (Students love screaming.)   

An introvert at heart, yet with a love of working with people, I feel a natural draw toward the ‘people-centeredness’ of teaching. Some days I feel I handle the overstimulation well – greeting student after student as they come in or directing a rehearsal of 100 students. Other times – or sometimes the same days – I find myself scatterbrained and unable to think straight.  

I often describe teaching as a constant game of Whack-a-Mole; just as you think you’ve solved one problem or checked one box, there are three more popping up and waiting. The mental stress makes it difficult to operate beyond survival mode, and I have often found frustration at my inability to keep things together, whether on my desk or in my mind.   

One quiet Saturday night earlier this school year, with some time to myself, I took a trip to one of my favorite stores, where I can always find something fun and inspiring. I wandered among a small aisle of wine bottles, looking to find one with an artistic label or a creative title.

Sure enough, I stumbled upon a label that caught my eye: Beauty in Chaos.    

I instantly loved the imagery those words painted in my mind. Going home with the wine, I couldn’t help but reflect on how this imagery has been embodied in my life as a teacher.   

As on that quiet Saturday evening, I have learned to seek and find beauty in restorative moments when the going gets tough. Sometimes this has taken the form of meaningful connections and the company of fellow adults.  Sometimes, it’s through taking in beautiful sights – whether traveling to a new place or revisiting favorite spots in my beloved Washington, DC. Other times, solace comes in reading new books on my list or tackling my favorite pieces on the piano, as I rediscover and rekindle a love of playing old pieces of music.  

These outlets, especially during summer breaks, have provided a necessary refresh button, nourishing the parts of myself which might be dry or empty from trying days. In a time when teachers are leaving the profession in droves due to burnout and exhaustion, it is important – better yet, necessary – to find these moments of rest, which provide boundaries, protect mental health, and care for ourselves. We are better at the work we do when we are healthy and whole. 

But I have also found a special type of beauty – an oasis of joy – in the very midst of the frenzy.    

A service-oriented profession like teaching, with its day-to-day interactions, provides opportunities for cultivating relationships and witnessing some fundamental dynamics of human experience – all of which fill me with a sense of wonder and appreciation for each human person.   

Sometimes this has come in the form of watching a student achieve something they hadn’t expected they would. Other times, it’s when I sit in awe in a conversation with a student who might be only 12 or 13 years old but who shows deep maturity and reflection about themselves and the world around them.   

Other days, or, perhaps I should say, many days, it’s watching my students’ various everyday classroom antics – whether that be playing with stuffed animals like our class mascot Leonard (yes, these are 12- and 13-year-olds!), balancing their folders on their heads (quite successfully it has to be said), or belting out the words to “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” (because we do, in fact, talk about Bruno!).  

One day I watched as some of the students used their extra class time to grab a wheeled storage cart from the corner of the classroom and ride around on it for fun – all the while seeing in the background the sign on my desk which reads ‘Live life joyfully’.  

Day after day, I find myself captivated by the depth, humor, and sheer unpredictability that come from my students. It highlights the uniqueness of each one, each person – and the reason it so captivates me is that it is a uniqueness which exists outside of myself, and not something I could have created or imagined on my own. 

All of this points to why, in the final days of the school year, I found myself so unready to say goodbye to it. Having spent weeks and months feeling half-alive and dragging myself toward the finish line, I suddenly felt unready to cross it, wanting time to slow down.   

Perhaps as years or seasons of life approach their natural end, we are better able to see the subtle narrative amidst the seemingly disjointed days. Themes emerge; memories are savored; and in looking back, perspective allows us to trace the progression over time.  

One of my quietest classes, students who spent the early part of the year in almost utter silence, ended the year boisterous, talkative and with multiple students as soloists in our concert – aided in large part by all their time spent singing about Bruno.   

The storage cart went on to become a set piece in the performance of a song, It’s Possible, which is all about imagination. The students’ own creativity and imagination generated a theatrical routine that became the culmination of their year, including an upside-down conductor’s podium balanced on top of the storage cart for one of them to ride in. (“Ms. Hannel was skeptical at first,” as they lovingly recalled.)   

One group’s love of singing led to their final days of class being spent gathered around the piano, intoning their concert pieces together. Of all the music, their favorite piece to sing was one about the threads that are woven together throughout our lives, creating a beautiful picture beyond our imaginings. A fitting choice, I thought …

From August to January and eventually to June, my students and I have created a picture – one that is real, living, and unique to the particular people who are in it.   

It’s humbling to find that this picture has come together in the very midst of frenzied days, a cluttered desk, or (some days) their teacher’s exhausted brain. The chaos has not been an impediment to creating beauty; rather, in some ways, it has been the very means of it.  

Maybe someday I will have a desk that is uncluttered, a to-do list that is complete, a mind that is clear. “Or,” I lament to myself, “maybe I won’t.”  Maybe it will always be a battle to remember where I put my pencil, or to maintain my train of thought.  But maybe, like this year, those frustrations will recede into the background of something greater.  

I hope for this type of experience for each of us. Whatever one’s profession or state in life, if approached from an attitude of encounter, we can be surprised by what we find. Wherever we seek the human element in the work we do, we allow ourselves to touch others and be touched in return. 

As it says on the back of the wine bottle:  “Even in the midst of life’s chaos, we can find moments of peace and clarity that make the effort worth it.”    

I still value the quiet moments of personal rest; I am looking forward to more of them this summer.  But equally, if not more so, I will always value the moments of peace and clarity that have been found in my classroom – in the very midst of the chaos – and the beautiful picture it has created. 

When I look at the snapshots of the year – sometimes literal snapshots, like the Polaroid photos I took during the last week of school – nothing compares to the fondness I feel for those photos, and the people in them.

There are probably some out-of-focus snapshots in there, maybe some spots with an imperfect angle. There are places where the colors could have been balanced more effectively, or where there’s something in the background I would edit out if I could. If I know where to look, and am really looking, I can see them.  

But what perhaps strikes me most is that when I step back and admire the whole, I find it less necessary to look so hard for the defects.   

When the big picture is so beautiful, why bother looking for errors?   

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Katelyn Hannel writes from just outside of Washington, DC, in Arlington, Virginia. She is a middle school choral teacher in a diverse public school system, a professional church musician at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, and a parish catechist for young adolescents. She values having a foot in both the sacred and secular worlds, as it has given her opportunities both to deepen her own faith and to build wider circles with others. She is passionate about connecting faith to lived experience, and helping her students find their paths to become self-confident, happy, and fulfilled.

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