Tuesday, August 11, 2015
Time To Begin Again
Fall. A new school year. Within the first few days of school one particular year, a young student very innocently, very sincerely posed undoubtedly the most compelling question of all when he asked, “Can I change?” Wondering if he was seeking permission or questioning possibility, the teacher probed, “What do you mean?” The student, who carried, along with his new backpack, a red-flag reputation in teacher-talk, proceeded to spill his heart through the story he shared about his school experience so far. Not a good listener. A little disrespectful. Frequently yelled at. In the lowest groups. Probably a trouble-maker. Never invited to a birthday party. School was stupid. Mom told him he needed to change, and he needed to change now, because things were not going to ever get better if he didn’t. Can I change? Do I have the strength and courage necessary to turn this behavior boat around? Even if I can, can others accept this new me and change their expectations and opinions of me? If their perceptions are cast in stone and unchangeable, why should I even try to be different than the bad boy they expect? This was a tremendous amount of significant contemplating for a young mind to be processing during those early days in a school year when most were struggling to line up in the proper order and to recall their locker numbers. The teacher, realizing that questions of this sort which come right from the deepest chambers of a student’s heart, felt overwhelmingly humbled to be entrusted with this huge amount of vulnerability. The student’s eyes were wide, trusting, and demanding. This answer was to be as important as the question in terms of behavioral trajectory. With focused eye-contact , tender vocal tone, and unmistakable belief, the teacher promised that precious little boy that each year was a new year, that each day was a new day, and each one was a new opportunity to begin again with a clean slate. We all make mistakes and bad choices for which we are not proud, but apologies, grace and forgiveness are powerfully strong. It’s never too late to turn around. It’s never too late to make a new and better choice. Now is the time. Start now. This is how we learn, and this is how we grow. “Yes, you can change,” said the teacher. “This is going to be a good year,” smiled the boy. And it was.
Monday, August 3, 2015
The Lesson of Green
There were so many things I had wondered about blindness and deafness, and not simply the sterile, scientific, factual ramifications, symptoms, or causes of these particular special needs, for infinite pages of information about and research concerning blindness and deafness were readily available; undoubtedly enough material to support a lifetime of articles to be written. No, I wondered about the feelings associated with the everyday, ordinary, walking-through-life experience of being blind and/or being deaf. Was the silent, dark world sad or lonely or scary? Do you imagine sounds? What would you imagine spring to sound like? In your imagination, do you see pictures? Colors? My dear blind-deaf friend, who taught me more than most of my college textbooks, welcomed these sorts of questions driven by curiosity and an earnest desire to understand and be sensitive. He frequently chuckled at the endless stream of questions that I would clumsily fingerspell into his hand. He was pursuing a PhD in Computer Science and was the first true genius I had ever met. One day, in the midst of transcribing a textbook to braille, which was always an excellent time for listening to him explain his thoughts, ideas, and feelings, I asked my friend, “What is your favorite color?” His instantaneous response was, “Green.” There was not a moment’s thought. There was no pensive pause for contemplation. Just an automatic, “Green.” He had obviously considered this before and confidently trumpeted his answer. How? and why? were my knee-jerk responses. His beautiful response was one I will never forget. He smiled as his soft, clear voice replied, “I know that green is the color of living things. Living things are hopeful and fresh and lovely. Because of that knowledge, I am certain that green is a color that I would love.” There was always something ever-optimistic, ever-hopeful, and ever-believing about my most amazing friend. In his silent, dark world, he ceaselessly pursued learning, service to others, and joy. In his silent, dark world, he chose possibility and promise and fully discarded self-pity and self-doubt. He believed. He knew hope. He trusted in the goodness of those around him and generously gave of the greatness that was in him. In his silent, dark world, he heard life’s music and saw the light. He taught me.
Who am I teaching today and what? How about you?
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
Who’s in the waiting room at the doctor’s office? Patients. What does it take to wait for something? Patience. How do you learn to be patient? By waiting. That being said, what is a character quality dangerously close to becoming extinct in today’s society? Patience. Why, in a world where we strive to have it all, does this patience quality remain so desperately elusive? Why are we so unapologetically and unflatteringly impatient? Tragically, we’ve handily passed this immaturity on to our children and its obnoxious effects run rampant through classrooms, summer camps, athletic teams, and most gatherings. Impatience has become the MO when we disagree, when we feel inconvenienced, when we’ve been embarrassed, when we do not know what else to do with our frustration, when we do not get what we want when we want it; impatience has become our temper tantrum and it’s driven by insecurity and selfishness. Impatience drives up blood pressure, destroys relationships, looks foolish, and demonstrates a gross lack of self-control. Why do we so automatically choose this impatience over and over and over again? I simply do not understand this. I am a teacher, a mother, a wife, daughter, sister, aunt, and friend, and through these valued relationships I have never found impatience to be an effective means by which to teach, learn, listen, give, care, or share. Impatience de-values. Impatience degrades. Impatience decides that I am more important than you. Sad. That is just tremendously sad. That anyone would choose I, me, and my above you or we truly reflects the empty, lonely heart that prefers walls to bridges. We can turn this Titanic around, however, but not without a willingness to wait, to listen, to forgo the last word, to surrender first place, to lay down my will, and to deliberately choose calmness, the greater good, the dream of someone else, a quiet voice, a gentle answer, peace. We can do this. We can teach this to our children. We can be patient. And by practicing patience, we will heal our hearts, heal our relationships, and heal our land.
Tuesday, July 7, 2015
The Improbability, The Impracticality, and The Impossibility of Creativity
To say yes, or to say no, that is the question. I challenge you, over the course of one day, to count the number of times you say yes to your children and also the number of times you say no. Then examine your heart to determine your reason for saying each. Which is easier to say? And is it easier because it requires less of your effort or your time ultimately? If your choice is based on which is easier for you, well then maybe that’s simply not good enough. It’s not practical. It’s not really even possible. It can’t possibly work. It may not even be very safe. A prerequisite for creativity, for discovery, for innovation, for learning, growing, understanding, wisdom, or even wondering is certainly not necessarily safety. These things are all quite risky and often involve stepping out of the safety box; the boring, predictable box of status quo. Well, on numerous occasions through the course of many years raising my 3 boys the yes or no issue cropped up, and this particular day was rather typical…
It was an ordinary July morning about to become an extraordinary one as well as an indelibly etched memory simply because of the word “yes,” which is creativity’s favorite word. In a world of “no’s,” where everyone has a reason why not, why you shouldn’t or can’t, why it’s ridiculous or a great waste of time, or what would clearly be better, which is all about those who are the naysayers and how their ideas trump anything thing else on the table, the brave, small voice of yes fiercely fights to stand firm and hold open the door of possibility. Nothing crushes the possibility or the actuality of creativity more completely than a no face, a no spirit, or a no personality, yet no is easiest answer, because, like a hot knife through butter, it cuts off the inefficiency and messiness associated with creativity and keeps us all neatly in lock-step, robotic and only superficially engaged. Once you say yes, the lid of Pandora’s box flies to the wind and time is caught up in the swirling wonder of imagination; a place of play and a place of seeing things differently. This is a precious place where joy and innovation collide and burst together into a splash of technicolor brilliance. It was pouring with rain this hot July morning, and it had been pouring with rain on and off over a number of days in a row. Inside activities, experiments, and projects were ongoing in every corner, when one of my sons casually presented the genuine wish of his heart in that moment, “I really would like to go snowboarding today.” In the nanosecond subsequent to the proclaimed wish, my mind raced between yes and no, why and why not, practical or impractical, possible or impossible, ridiculous or exhilarating, and I attempted to buy a pinch of time with the obvious question, where could we go in July? As if the entire seemingly problematic gap between winter and summer had been fully scrutinized and mentally bridged, hence resolved, prior to the question, the response was simply and immediately, mud is as slippery as snow. Hmmm. Of course. So with the yes door flung wide open, we loaded the board in the car and set out in the pouring rain to find steep enough muddy hills adequately suitable for mud-boarding. The perfect hill was discovered. He was absolutely right about mud being slippery as snow. Run after run after run with increasing laughter, increasing rain soaked mud caked clothes, and increasing competence on the mud slope, my son lived his July wish. Joy. Test and full affirmation of what to some no faces might have seemed a ridiculous impractical impossibility. An idea dreamed, an idea tried, a wish fulfilled. All because of yes. Every yes most certainly builds significant confidence toward the next new idea, which is exactly the place where creativity loves to dwell. Are there enough yes’s at school? Are there enough yes’s at home? Are we wearing yes faces enough so that this next generation of dreamers can imagine, then plan, then build an exciting and hopeful future?
Monday, June 29, 2015
Read To Us, Mommy.
Three little boys. Three busy, inquisitive, active, always-cooking-up-something-very-exciting boys. It was summer and there was endless playing to do and countless adventures to be had. Experiments, inventions, and explorations all regularly occurred as a direct result of treasures unearthed at garage sales, on winding bike paths, in the garden, the sandbox, the kitchen, and jumping from the pages of books. Free, imaginative, creative, unstructured play ruled our days, recharged our hearts, and engaged the most important kinds of thinking. Running, flying, launching, constructing, splashing, connecting, shoveling, climbing, swinging, shrieking, catapulting, and every other conceivable action verb propelled us through delightful escapades. And when exhaustion from an overabundance of enacted verbs overtook us, rest in the form of this consistent request always followed; read to us, Mommy. Together, we left our overheating flip-flops at the door and snuggled on the couch with a big stack of books. One very rainy June we even pitched a tent on the porch and read our daily pile of books in there. Ten books per boy each week from the library as well as shelves full of gift books, garage sale books, homemade books, and old family books kept our literary repertoire full and fresh. For hours we’d play. For hours we’d read. Hours upon hours upon hours upon hours. We stretched out attention spans and grew our imaginations as we listened to story after story and chapter after chapter. From Fox in Socks to Stone Fox, and everything in between, we laughed, we cried, and we adventured. When we were too tired to run one more obstacle course, or to chase one more catapulted and floating parachuter, or to climb one more time to the top of the swing set, we were not too tired to be read to. Precious, beautiful, important time, reading together. Priceless treasure. And now my boys are grown. We all still love to lose ourselves in the pages of a great book. What are you doing this summer in between activities and action verbs? With all my heart, I hope that you are gathering a stack of books and convening with your kids on the couch or in a porch tent to read together, whereby investing in priceless treasure. Read to us, Mommy, is a powerful, precious thing to hear.
Monday, June 22, 2015
Coloring Outside the Lines
It was a Mary Poppins coloring book and the pages were all a very light green, which was extremely awesome because then one could freely use a white crayon. Everyone knows that a white crayon is the loneliest crayon in the box and rarely is selected as it cannot be seen on the usual white art and craft paper. The white crayon enjoyed a bold, frequent presence in my Mary Poppins pictures. My dad and I colored together a lot, for in his wonderful innovative creativity, he was an especially brilliant coloring accomplice. Rather than coloring in the lines, Dad used a black crayon to extend the pictures, and liberally added hats on heads, props in hands, hot air balloons in the sky, every sort of fish in the lakes, additional furniture in the Banks’ home, unexpected and delightful animals in the parks, vendors selling treasures on the sidewalks, and all kinds of excellent, wonderful, highly imaginative and creative fun. With his black crayon, my white crayon, and all of the colors in between, we smiled, laughed, and created masterpiece after masterpiece, all the while, narrating the stories of the pictures as we colored. From my earliest days, I fondly and vividly recall being encouraged to color outside the lines. This great gift of exercising and trusting creativity has joyfully served me and through my humble hands has reached hearts of students through thirty years of teaching.
Friday, June 19, 2015
The Best Piano Teacher
She had a stunning reputation for excellence. Unquestionably, in a very wide geographical radius, she was the best of the best. She was the Head of Piano at the local liberal arts college, and every music student there was indelibly enriched to pass through her brilliant tutelage enroute to his or her degree. She could be handed a pencil-scribbled accompaniment manuscript on opening night, and, in the shadows of the dimly lit orchestra pit, she could carry the entire cast of performers through the show magnificently without a single glitch. Her excellence was their confidence. She could play anything. To me, she was magic. As a high school freshman, I was handed many scores of very difficult music in preparation for accompanying several of the high school choirs, as well as vocal and instrumental soloists. As incompetent as I felt, I knew that in lugging this bag of music to her home for weekly piano lessons, there was hope for me as long as a little of her magic could rub off. Through the weeks and months, she taught, she played, she explained, she modeled, she mentored, she tutored, and she led me by the hand through this treacherous bag of music. Unrelenting, we worked note by note and phrase by phrase without any doubt that this all would be fully accomplished in the necessary timetable. I had my doubts, actually, but she never did. She believed. She encouraged. She ran alongside. She made me believe, too. The concerts and performances freshman year were accomplished beautifully and with significant relief on the part of the young accompanist. The sophomore, junior, and senior years flew by with increasingly challenging and greater volumes of music, but with this precious tremendous piano teacher leading the way, no musical challenge was insurmountable. We worked, oh how we worked! She informed me that “impossible” was not an adjective, it was a choice; a choice to surrender. And no student of hers would surrender. Handel’s “Messiah.” Beethoven’s “Halleluiah Chorus” from the Mount of Olives. Books full of vocal solos by Haydn. Trumpet solos by Vivaldi. “Mass” by Leonard Bernstein. Gilbert and Sullivan. Rodgers and Hammerstein. Lerner and Loewe. Scores spanning the centuries were dissected and reassembled in her living room as this very active learning process surely kept every single neuron firing. Side by side we worked. Side by side I learned every drop of musical understanding I could from her. Infinitely blessed was my life through her gifts and her time. Changed forever was my life because of her tireless pouring of musical passion into my heart. How does one begin to quantify or even explain this sort of teaching excellence? Genius? Yes, I believe she was a genius. She was a genius who felt music with every one of her senses and exuded its fire and glory through her every pore. We corresponded for many years after I went off to college and on into a career in teaching and the creative arts. She remained a strong encourager and a profound voice of inspiration in my life until her passing. An unfathomable love of music, an incomprehensible passion for teaching, these are among the treasures she planted in my heart, and these are among the blessings I pray I bring to my students.