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PATTI LACY
"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." NIV version


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The Raging Battle
April 22, 2007

The Raging Battle

After I creak to my knees, pray, get up, and pour some coffee, I check my e-mails. By an electronic miracle I'll never understand, a handful of messages traveled through cyberspace while I was sleeping. My heart pounding, I open the last one first.

To: patti-lacy@yahoo.com From: Nirvanaone92@yahoo.com Thurs., 1-25-07, 1:21:22-0800 (PST) Everything's going great. Let me know if you want to get together sometime for coffee. Amber.

Coffee sloshes onto the table when I set down the cup. I look for subtexts in the two simple sentences, but there's none to be found. "Amber's really okay," I tell myself. "She's okay. Whatever else happens today...Amber's okay."

Until last spring, I taught Humanities 101 at Heartland Community College. For five years, God revealed the most amazing patterns in the students I met: a single mother desperate to find a legitimate way to feed her children...an Army reservist wedging academics in between war games...Amber, the author of the above note, a twenty-one-year-old battling heroin addiction.

Amber enrolled in my class in August of 2005. At a quarter until eight on the first Tuesday of the semester, Amber strode into the room and into my life. Summer had lingered long enough for students to continue their casual dress habits, and Amber was no exception. She wore a denim miniskirt and jacket and a pink halter top. Thick ropes of red-gold hair were pulled away from a tanned face made interesting with clusters of freckles.

"I'm Patti," I said. "It's great to have you in here."

There was a hardness about the heavily-lined, carefully made-up eyes. She did take my proffered hand, but there was no warmth in the shake.

"And your name is...?" I asked.

She handed me a registration slip and slid into a seat on the front row. I followed the same procedure, greeting thirty students with what I hoped was a warm smile and an enthusiastic voice. As was my custom, I shut the door at precisely eight o'clock. "Before we review the syllabus, I want to introduce myself. I'm Patti Lacy, a born-again Christian. My husband and I have two children. I--"

Amber's snort, which caused her gold nose ring to quiver, cut into my memorized spiel. The way she scribbled into her loose leaf notebook, I figured she might head straight to the Humanities Office after class and file a complaint. With a less confident voice, I continued. It was risky, bringing up Christ in a state school, but I plunged ahead anyway.

Three years ago, for reasons linked to accountability issues, I'd committed to this tack. To my knowledge, not one student had complained. So far... Apparently Amber didn't complain, either.

After a few weeks, in the way teachers often do, though they may claim otherwise, I labeled Amber as an "A" student. Every Tuesday and Thursday, she deposited herself on the front row and seemed to stenographically record every utterance I made. Every assignment was complete--her papers burned with emotion, yet were tempered by correct citations and near-perfect syntax.

It was Amber's first reaction paper, on Siqueiros' dark oil painting, "Echo of a Scream," that allowed me to peek behind the clanky prison gates which Amber was desperately trying to pry open. "...This screaming child represents all of the children suffering from the abomination of war. I haven't suffered physical harm due to the actions of a state like the Chinese peasants did back in Siqueiros' time, but heroin reduced me to such a glob of quivering tissue that I had no energy even to scream for help. Until my parents hooked me up to the lifeline of rehab, I was powerless against smack's insidious forces."

With a shaky hand, I gave her a 10 out of 10 on the assignment and added a postscript. Please see me.

Next Thursday, after the others streamed from the classroom, Amber remained in her seat. "You want to talk?" she asked. Her look questioned me, but not in a defiant way. Nuggets of gold flicked hazel irises.

"Yeah." For the briefest of time, I rested my hand on Amber's shoulder. "I'd like to pray for you this semester. If you don't mind, I mean."

Her shrug matched the slant of her eyes. "That's fine." It was a New Age, anything-goes gesture. Sure, you can pray for me. Or light a candle or chant a mantra or think good thoughts. Probably won't help but couldn't hurt, so go right ahead.

The Holy Spirit chose this moment to light a fire in me. "It's more than fine. Prayer can change everything." There was the snort that Amber used quite frequently. She rolled her eyes for added effect. "Why not?" she said. With a tap, tap, tap against the desk, she straightened handouts, pried apart the rings of her binder, and filed the paper behind a purple-tabbed divider. Then she left the room.

When Amber's line in the grade book became littered with Ts, I scrawled a note on another one of her excellent writing assignments. Amber waited until the room was silent, except for the hum of the fans which cooled the mother board of the classroom presentation system. When I slid into the chair next to hers, her eyes stayed glued to that perfectly arranged notebook.

"It's about the tardies, isn't it?"

I nodded. "It's not such a big deal. But you've missed a couple of quizzes, and it's affecting your average." My pencil became a pointer. "Your 'A' average." Tears smudged Amber's makeup. "I want that A. Need that A." "You've got it in you."

"I've got a lot of things in me." She studied perfectly polished nails. "Friends dead to me, not from ODs, but because I've gotta stay away from them. Not that a few haven't OD'd..." With her index finger, she made a slicing motion across her throat. "Sometimes I wake up drenched with sweat, every pore screaming for the stuff." Her smile was sardonic. "You don't have a clue, do you?"

Amber would probably be surprised to learn that I'd smoked some weed about thirty years ago, but even I knew there was no comparison between grass and horse. "No, I really don't."

"You stand up there and talk about values and what art's supposed to do and all. If you really want to know, watch Requiem."

"What?"

I could have predicted the snort before it happened. "Requiem for a Dream." She gathered her books and shouldered a retro handbag. "You're teaching film and you haven't even heard of it?" With a series of snorts, she charged the door.

"Hey, Amber?"

"Yeah."

She didn't turn, frozen in place like one of the ill-fated Pompeiians. "I'm praying for you."

This time she didn't snort but turned and rewarded me with a most un-Amber-like smile. Did I tell you she was beautiful?

The next class hammered on the door and rattled the knob, but I ignored them for a few more minutes. Amber didn't know it, but she'd just made me cross the demilitarized zone and reenter a war that's been raging for years in my mind, heart, and soul. Oh, it's not just my struggle--it's been raging in Christian circles for decades, maybe even centuries. The battle is this: How do we satisfy the mandates of scripture, and of the Holy Spirit, with regard to the films we view, the books we read, the television we watch? How can we best be "in the world, not of the world?" To be more specific, should I watch this Requiem of a Dream for Amber's sake? For my sake?

Right before I slip from daydream to nap, I stare at the computer screen and jolt back to the present. With a clatter of keys, I answer Amber. Of course we'll have coffee. Just tell me when. The next part I do not write, but I long to. And resume that Bible study we started last semester, before you had to take on more hours to pay back your parents.

I turn from my computer to look out the window. The paper boy, a hooded sweatshirt the only thing sheltering him from the bitter cold, thunks the latest Middle East war news onto the front stoop. He crunches through snow which blankets our yard, our driveway, even our windows. Icy crystals battle to hold the position on double-paned glass, but central heat, the windows' strongest ally, meets the crystals head on. When the sun surges over the housestops east of us, providing vital reinforcements, the battle will be over. At least for another day.

The bookshelf which abuts the window is not so lucky. Neither is the funky CD holder which is designed to cushion my musical inspirations in a vertical row of metal slots. For years, these sites have been the scene of countless skirmishes of another type of war. From their positions on the top shelf, Sophie's Choice and The Poisonwood Bible taunt Brigid of Ireland and Mere Christianity. "R-rated" and "Not Suitable for Children" texts shout obscenities at "General Public" and "Family-Friendly" books. The Beatles argue with Jennifer Knapp over a broad range of theological issues. And how can a middle-aged writer make sense of it all? Many times I've stepped through the mine field with parries and thrusts and retreats--a battle plan bordering on schizophrenia. I once dumped a boxful of classic novels and feminist texts into the return slot at the public library. Another time I gave away dozens of videotapes and CDs to students so eager to get something for free, they practically drooled over the plastic and cardboard cases.

In the course of this up-and-down war, strategies have been adopted, then abandoned. Several years ago, after enduring most of Dumb and Dumber, my children's selection for familiy movie night, I threw out the formulaic approach to letting an industry-generated, age-based rating system be my standard. I need say no more than that Dumb and Dumber and Miss Congeniality are rated PG-13 while Schindler's List and Shawshank Redemption are rated "R."

Certainly the Holy Spirit can and will guide me in a more Biblically sound way than the three boards created within Hollywood's film industry to govern itself.

Secondly, a work of art, whether music, literature, film, painting, or other media, will not be judged solely on the basis of whether it is "Christian" or "NonChristian." A.W. Tozer said it much more eloquently in his great classic, The Pursuit of God: "It is my own belief (and here I shall not feel bad if no one follows me) that every good and beautiful thing which man has produced in the world has been the result of his faulty and sin-blocked response to the creative Voice sounding over the earth."

What I read into Tozer's quote is that rapper Tupac's chilling lyrics in "Brenda's Got a Baby" brilliantly portray the horrific life of impoverished teenaged girls who are tossed out back doors all across America like damp coffee grounds. That the Impressionist painters, whether Christians or not, can inform about the splendid application of light and color to traditional realism. That Crash colors racism in so many diverse hues that you blush. If a work touches my soul or my intellect in such a way that I better understand the forces which shape my world, and if the Holy Spirit doesn't call a cease fire and tell me to abandon the troops, I read it...watch it...listen to it.

A final criteria for discussion, thought certainly not the final criteria, is as subjective as the other three, and that's what makes it so interesting. Will participation with the work help me to better understand the basic human struggles with which the Bible grapples? When I think of forgiveness, I not only recall Jesus's story of the prodigal son, but I also visualize that wheelchair-bound grandson, Stegner's protagonist in Angle of Repose. And what could better display a father's sacrificial love than the protagonist of the controversial film, Life is Beautiful?

One bright Saturday in that 2005 fall when I taught Amber--or, better put, when Amber taught me--when the sun won a minor skirmish over the impending doom and dark of winter, I drove to the video store and rented a copy of Requiem for a Dream. The angst of both young and middle-aged addicts pierced through the glass of my television set. Sharp fragments of images distorted to depict a user's descent into hell stabbed into my soul. Several times I reached for the remote control to fast-forward but was too mesmerized by what I saw to do so. Halfway through the film, I closed all the blinds in the room. The juxtaposition between the balmy day and the dark-screened horror bothered me in a way I did not understand, but had to respond to.

When Requiem ended, I could not move from the couch, so riveting were the performances. As the credits rolled, I wept into my hands. Would these powdery enemies wage sneak attacks on Amber for the rest of her life? With one puff of His mighty breath, God could blow away from Amber all the residue of the deadly china white, but would He choose to do so?

The next day, I scrawled yet another note on Amber's latest paper. After class, Amber just sat there, her hands shaking. She didn't even pretend to fiddle with her notebook. I tensed up as well. Was she using again? Had her parents wasted thousands of dollars for nothing?

She raised a pierced eyebrow. "You wanted something?"

"I watched it." For once I think I surprised her.

"Requiem?"

"Yep."

"What did you think?"

To reduce that film to a sentence or two was impossible, but I tried. "I won't easily forget it. And if they showed it to kids, they might just say no."

"You watched the whole thing?"

I think my nod convinced her. "But I'd cut out that scene where the girls danced on the table," I said. "It was too much."

The hazel eyes got dark. "I worked at a strip joint back then. I did so many things...back then." Her eyes darted about the room like she was looking for an escape route.

I tapped her paper, which had received another "A," and grabbed my briefcase. In two minutes, it was time to greet another thirty faces, yet I wanted to say something, anything, which could help her, now that I had a binocular view of her daily battle. "It's okay," I told her. "It's over now."

As soon as I said it, I wanted to suck back the inane words. I shouldn't have worried--she didn't seem to take offense.

"You watched it for me, didn't you?" she asked.

The next words weren't lies. "Yes. I watched it for you."

To: patti-lacy@yahoo.com From: nirvanaone92@yahoo.com Fri., 1-26-07, 11:52:04-0800 (PST). Coffee's cool. I get off at ten on Wednesday. Wanna meet after that? I dash off an affirmative reply, turn off the monitor, change into workout clothes, put on a taped rerun of "The Closer," and contort my limbs into some yoga stretches. And while I eat lunch, I just might listen to that U-2 CD one of my students loaned me.


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Archives
Patti's Writing News
September 17, 2007
An Irishwoman's Tale, Patti Lacy's first novel, will be published in the summer of 2008 by Kregel Publications. Unsettled Waters: A Story of Deception, is now complete! To read more...
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April 22, 2007
A teacher's struggle to make a difference in the life of a student named Amber.
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