John Hildebidle, a dear friend from my poetry life, wrote to ask, ‟What about the butterfly?”
Sheryl Erickson and Martin Fuchs gave me the butterfly, which is a kite, at the beginning of their daughter Sophie’s time with me.
It felt like an apt emblem for everything parents gave, year after year, to the life of the class:
- the gossamer but tough, often hard-won strength of parents’ faith in our mission and methods;
- the powerful, buoyant, transforming lift given by parents’ contributions of time, patience, shared skills and new ideas;
- the brightness of parents’ joy whenever students shared their learning– enthusiasm not just for their own child’s efforts but for every child’s.
That last one seemed especially apt. In classes before mine, Sheryl had put lots of volunteer energy into exactly that, to strengthen parents’ care for each others’ children.
I hung the butterfly high on the classroom wall, and waited to see what else it would mean for us.
For some students, the butterfly was above all a rich collection of colors. During morning sketching, over the years, many students chose to draw the butterfly, reproducing all its shades and shadings with our markers or colored pencils, as faithfully as they could. In this way the butterfly multiplied and flew away, onto shelves and into closets, but also into hearts–the way things can, even when they seem to disappear.
Meanwhile, gradually, privately, the butterfly became a reminder for me, to try to be fierce in moderation, as wacky as that may sound. I had had teachers myself who cared enormously about their subjects or their students or all of it, as I did. I knew that to venture into a classroom with the passion I brought inevitably carried some risks. Day after day, I looked at the butterfly and told myself to breathe, to ask questions and listen, to have faith in the fullness of time. To try, as much as I could and when I could, for a light touch. Of course, I often had to forgive myself and start over, every day, as all of us must.
None of that was what I wrote back to John, because ultimately all of that combined with something more, and the butterfly became, in the words of my email to him, ‟a sort of guiding spirit for the classroom, encouragement to use whatever freedom we had, to be vivid and colorful.”
The life of a progressive school is full of determination to do the right thing, to ‟make meaningful things happen,” as one past head of Touchstone School, Steve Dannenberg, used to say. Teachers and staff, parents and grandparents, all carry a profound sense of responsibility: to students, to the spirit of learning, to the truth of the world. None of that intends to be grim–or fierce–but it can become so, as the things most important to us can.
Early in my teaching career, I explained to a friend that I felt weighed down by the incredible opportunity, the freedom, to teach exactly the way I believed. If I could do that, I had to do that, and I was getting very little sleep in the effort, straining too hard.
I can’t say that ever completely changed. Still, here’s what I’ve learned about freedom: We never have as much freedom as we want, for pursuing what matters to us–and yet we never actually use all the freedom we have. But there’s also this: the more earnestly we try to inhabit our freedom, the more we become like butterflies whose wings have grown too heavy.
So the butterfly kite is flying high on the virtual wall of my blog, to remind me that yes, I want to be true to many important things; yes, I want to make meaningful things happen, in what I explore and write about in this “year to think it over.” But I want to do that with the wind in my sails, with the wonderful colors of classroom life in my heart, with a grin and a whistle when that’s called for. With joy.
As for the artist’s model with her arms spread wide, gesturing: it’s possible that you just had to be there.
Exceptional wisdom there for a lot more than teaching, and I love the words you use to describe that truth. For me, the struggle is at the other end of the age spectrum, working with dying people. It can be so tempting in that work to expect to dwell always in the depths, helping people face death, uncovering deep meaning and healing in transformative moments. But often the work of the day lies in that light touch you describe: in my case, simple time spent, and small kindnesses, and creating — not filling — space. It’s important for me to be open to what the time can hold, to be willing to go where each moment leads, without weighing it down with too much earnest expectation of Significance. I guess a teacher given the opportunity to focus on deeper learning has exactly the same temptation: to embrace the liberating permisssion to go deep so earnestly that the beauty and grace of the simple everyday is missed.
Like you I often have to forgive myself for not using a light touch. It is a responsibility, to teach our young people to find their way in the world , yet be true to your own passions and truths. I agree it can be grim, but what we all hope for is to give our students gossamer wings