It’s curious that as I’ve aged I’ve become more of who I was as a child. Before my friends and family chime in with a resounding, ‘grow up’, let me explain.
One of my deep abiding memories, more explicit than implicit, includes a lingering feeling of angst. The existential question of why are we here? Why are we born? What is the purpose of life? I have a vivid picture of sobbing inconsolably; worried about what would happen when my Omie died. I was 9. She lived until I was 32. There were many years to cry and wonder.
We’re born. We live. We die. Is that it? Those were the unspoken wonders of my young self.
Now take that sensitive youngster and put her into school. I have no idea what class sizes were in the 60’s, but here’s what I do remember about my primary years:
- an indoor teeter-totter in Kindergarten
- Nap time in Kindergarten
- An indoor play area in the basement of the school where we played during rainy days (it was Vancouver, it rained a lot)
- Writing – probably printing. A wonderful grade 2 teacher who let me write books. I think my longest was 32 pages. The pride of composing. I have no idea what I wrote about, but she gave me time to write all I needed to write.
- School plays. We did The Gingerbread Man and I was a tree. I think I realized then that I wanted to direct school plays. For sure I never wanted to be a tree again!
- I was a quiet student, which was a vast contrast to the loud little girl I was at home. One of my teachers actually said that when I spoke in class I could yell – that’s how quiet my voice was.
- Getting almost all A’s because in the 60’s we had letter grades in primary.
My primary years were good. I had good friends, caring teachers. I had a solid academic beginning.
Then we moved and everything changed.
My grade four teacher was a well known graphologist. Her sister was an MP. I tell you this because even now, I recall how often she referenced who she was. She made us do this activity where we had to close our eyes and imagine. I hated closing my eyes to imagine. I could imagine just fine with my eyes open. But being the compliant student I was I’d close my eyes, more like clench them as tight as I could, and try my hardest to see something. Her question after this exercise was always, “what did you see?” I saw black. BLACK. Once she called on me and was angry that I saw black. As hard as I tried, I simply couldn’t see the clever pictures the other students were describing. I was so puzzled. I didn’t fit.
Grade 4 was when I started refusing to go to school. My poor mom had a tough time forcing me out the door every morning. My brothers, delightful men that they are, still mock me about those mornings! My mom had several meetings with this teacher, and it was quite clear that this teacher didn’t see value in me. I was the quiet new german girl in her class and I wasn’t as smart as the other kids. Never-mind that at 9 I was taking my Grade 4 Royal Conservatory exam in piano and often performed at church. Never-mind that I could do a pretty decent basketball layup, never-mind that I did needlepoint with my Omie and was learning how to sew…a dress! To this teacher (at least from my perspective) I only saw black and BLACK was nothing.
Looking back, I realize that this woman caused me a lot of harm. What I learned in Grade 4 was that I didn’t belong. I realize now that that year impacted my teaching career profoundly. My own students needed to know they belonged. I never insisted students close their eyes, even playing ‘Seven Up’, it was important that they felt/knew they were safe. I know I got better at my craft of teaching as I gained experience. Relationship and community came first. That was the difference maker.
A lot of life has happened since the 60’s. A whole lot of good and to be fair, a good bit of tragedy. In the end I’m not sure the good and bad balances out as much as integrates in.
With more discretionary time available to me in this ‘next’ phase of life, I have reverted back to pondering those big questions.
Why are we here? What is life about? Is it as basic as the birth to death cycle? What about our time in between birth and death?
I’ve been reading a book by Dr. Gerald May (who happens to be the 1/2 brother of Rollo May) called The Dark Night of the Soul. It’s not as much about the dark as it is about meditation and contemplation, two practices that involve curiosity and mystery. Ultimately life is mysterious. We just don’t know. What struck me was how these ideas, their meaning and depth transfer to teaching. What if one of our roles is the learning-gardener? We needn’t have our students worry about preparing to learn because we have done this for them. We prepare our classroom with areas for all needs. We set up our classrooms as an optimal learning environment both physically and emotionally. That is our work. Then it is the work of the student to learn, to play, to explore, to wonder, to grow. As I reflect on my own transformation over the years, what strikes me is how even minute changes now compel me to nurture those same possibilities for my own students/clients and of course, grandchildren.
I am still in awe when transformational change occurs. When a student who has never played an instrument learns to play a tune on his/her instrument of choice in just a few short weeks – that, in my mind, is transformational change. They don’t unlearn that. That moment from not knowing to knowing. The mystery! My role is to offer guidance, give instruction, set the stage, but the doing, the learning, that is the part of the student. Experiences of empathy, kindness, compassion, creativity, play, alongside academics are building blocks we educators can intentionally prepare and adapt throughout our time with students. It is both privilege and responsibility. And make no mistake – it is not easy!
In case you’re wondering, I still see black when I close my eyes. I have come to understand that it wasn’t the literal picture my old Grade 4 teacher was after. I was so fixated on actually seeing something that I was blinded to the beautiful images, wonders, and stories that were there all along. With my eyes and heart wide open, I see then now.
Proof again, that better is possible,