My most recent post was the fifteenth on this blog. That felt to me like time to think over my “time to think it over,” and as usual I did that by watching mental videos: my newest grandson, the river of students I’ve taught, and myself, as blogger.
During the months in which I’ve been writing these posts, and figuring out what comes next in my life, I’ve also spent a happy amount of time with Zen, who is about to be four months old.
Lately, I’ve been inspired by watching him discover his hands, which are very small.
At first, when Zen was set down on one of those mats with soft bright toys suspended on long crossing wands, he waved his arms and legs with huge pleasure, but not much control. When one of his wild waves connected, his eyes opened wide, and he made a reflective comment in Zen language. Increasingly, he tried to bat those toys around his small heaven.
Once he developed a little more control, he would hold his right fist at the length of his outstretched arm, intently focusing. He seemed to be figuring out that since he could use that hand, it must belong to him. I thought—and said, since he’s incredibly easy to talk to, and doesn’t yet roll his eyes when I come out with teacher talk: Yes, it’s amazing! We have these perfect tools built in!
I watched Zen work consciously, painstakingly, to practice opening his hand, before closing it on something he wanted to grasp. He got hold of my sleeve as I was changing his diaper, and I laughed. His look was a combination of who, me? and yes, I’m cool.
Now, sitting in his swing, Zen can grasp his favorite model of the cosmos in both hands.
When he’s lying on the play mat, he has all sorts of ambidextrous fun. His left hand plays the crackly wings of the parrot; his right hand tickles a couple of giraffe feet. One evening his parents watched him manage to include the monkey, a three-ring circus. Yesterday, he pulled so hard on all these fabric friends, trying to get them into his mouth, that the entire superstructure seemed to be undergoing an earthquake, with crackly-parrot-wing sound effects. Total mayhem! Produced by a four-month-old! Whoever designs these baby toys is doing a great job.
A river of students
So that’s Zen, learning up a storm. Meanwhile, back in my own part of the state, I’m still sorting through the evidence of my past students.
I’ve reduced a large number of boxes full of records and work samples–I won’t tell how many–to four binders, with one clear plastic sleeve for each student, all in alphabetical order: three Aarons, so far; five Bens. Etc. I’m maybe half done with that part of the overall job I’ve set myself.
Meanwhile, in my mind, for those past students who are grown to adulthood, I’m holding those layers of evidence next to who they’ve turned out to be. They travel through Nepal; they figure out the evolutionary history of squirrels; they teach kindergarten, or help middle-school city kids make videos, or become involved in their kids’ preschools; they solve problems for internet start-ups; they help cities plan evacuation routes or plant trees; they run campus businesses and theater productions; they move expensive paintings–Picasso!–from one city to another; they tackle contact improvisation classes in Italy. I love it all, and keep finding out more.
What about my more recent students? I’ve just been to the Halloween parade and community meeting, with its traditional skits. Those kids, too, when I look back and forth, now / then, have simultaneously changed and stayed the same–the same unique and vivid selves, learning learning learning.
So I’ve stepped back from the day-to-day teaching of one group of students, who tended to absorb almost all my waking energy, to look at the flow of students through all these years, like a river. Thanks to my inability to throw things away, it’s a river that shimmers with detail.
Watching myself as blogger
Writing this blog, focusing on one small chosen view after another in the landscape of school life as I have been lucky to know it, I’ve been moved again and again by the sheer power of human learning—not just at the early adolescent ages I taught, but in the strength and stretch and increasing individualization of every year that comes after.
In addition, writing this blog is a lot like watching an infant. In fact, I am the four-month-old, and way slower than Zen. But persistent.
I started working on the blog just about when he was born, at the beginning of July. I had five posts at least partly written before I took any of them public. (There are familiar patterns here. I learned to walk by holding onto the furniture for quite a while.)
Figuring out how to add photographs as illustrations took me days. No–I’m still getting the hang of it, so call that months. Figuring out how to scan Justin McCarthy’s hummanacraft design took over a week, even with the help of my perennial backstage helper and cheerleader, the wonderful wizard with the mustache, Alex Brown.
So far, writing has been easier than I feared it might be, because I already knew, most days, how to take risks and have fun in a first draft, how to let it lead me, and then how to throw out whatever didn’t work for me or couldn’t fit. I already knew how to revise and revise and revise. (My record, so far, is 23 separately saved drafts.) I love all the second and sixth and nineteenth chances of revision. I’d rather exercise that particular freedom than eat, or get up to put on another layer of fleece when the house cools down.
On the other hand, I still go into a steep decline immediately after hitting the publish button. Every time. Obviously, somehow I’ve felt like I had honed each paragraph as long and as well as I could in a mortal world, when I get to that point. But I hit that publish button and suddenly I’m convinced it’s all hogwash.
This isn’t just about the blog, and isn’t new. John Hodgen once described Polly Brown, poet, being extracted from a street mailbox by public safety officials using the jaws of life.
I am really good at second thoughts. On the other hand, I keep risking it all again.
This past week, I wrote to Alex Dunn. His blogs, at thedailybirdnewengland.blogspot.com and at mooglegaps.blogspot.com, have given me important inspiration. In each of his blogs, Alex is building up a body of perspective on some aspect of the world, piece by piece. He believes in the details, the tiny things that make each type of bird distinctive, and in the overall perspective. Like me, he’s obsessed with maps, which offer ways to view both.
In his return email, Alex thanked me for letting him know he’d had an impact. He said, ‟It is a strange thing sending writing out into the void and never really knowing what comes of it.” Yes. Like sending out poems, and feeling like they might as well have gone to Mars. It’s never been likely that someone would stop me in the drugstore and say, “Here’s what your poem (or your post) made me think about…”
But that’s what I want to know about each of these posts: Not is it good or bad? But what did it make you think about? So I’ve loved the comments some of you have written—adding your own memories of Dana’s death, or your own experience of a watershed far away from me, or your experience with teaching.
On the other hand, some of the blog’s regular readers (I’m pretty sure I can count at least five) say that you’re not sure how to comment. I can’t figure out how to control whether there’s a comment box showing, where I want it, at the bottom of every post. Sometimes, it seems, you have to click on the little blue dialog icon up near the title.
Should I say that at the end of every post? Should I keep giving people prompts for ways they might jump in? Should I just tell you, here and now, that I am most interested in what resonates, in your own story, whatever my story made you think of? Just a few of my current questions.
Although some of my nearest and dearest supporters think it’s a mistake, I do check the stats and maps available behind the scenes. I had a private cheering moment when I passed the landmark of 1000 views.
Discovering I’d had a hit from someone going online in Nepal—and guessing who it was!—absolutely made my day. My week!
I try to ignore the intimidating statistics on other blogs, in the thousands every day. Is that what I want?
Right now, the most personal success–again, so much like writing poems–comes with this: putting life in words helps me cherish it. I am cherishing that life I led as a teacher, and everyone who led it with me. I’m glad that many of my readers are people who shared that with me, directly or indirectly, near or far. I feel, often, like I’m writing, and celebrating, on behalf of us all.
I do have wider, more public intentions, also, and hope to have a gradually increasing public audience. Mostly, I want to encourage people to think about authentic learning, because it’s endangered in the world around us. In some small way, I want to contribute to collective, sensible, committed mindfulness about what learning really looks like and means and needs and produces, so different from the loudest mainstream trends. I want to do that without arguing, actually, just by showing what can work, because I know it has.
So—in sum, as my attorney daughter would say—I am very glad, these days, to have the freedom to drive out the turnpike, across all those rivers, and spend some hours with Zen. Grateful that my older grandchildren are only a day’s train ride away. Grateful for more phone and email contact with the rest of my far-flung family. All of us are learning, moving from one version of ourselves to another, and I’m paying better attention now.
I’m also more aware than ever before that I was lucky-and-a-half to stumble into teaching, to teach for so long in a rare and wonderful place, and to have known so many young learners one by one by one, within the communities we built together.
Finally, I am grateful—in every word I type and then change and then change back again—for every bit of encouragement you’ve given me, one way or another, to try this and keep trying.
I hold you in the light, whether I know you or not, as I send you off to watch and cheer and cherish whatever learning is happening in your own life’s neighborhood.
You helped me realize part of what I most value in your blog: the lack of preachiness and argument, just a wise and thoughtful and humble sharing of what you learned while teaching, and –as much as what you arrived at — the process through which your approaches evolved. It’s a model for discernment, for work as ongoing discovery and unfolding, not just acquisition of skills and expertise, that feels totally like what life at its best can be. I know you have strong opinions about what is wrong with trends in modern education, and maybe you’ll write about that eventually; but I am so happy, in this world full of diatribe, just to hear you share your experience, and take from it what I can into my own world. There’s enough shouting out there.
Discernment. Wonderful word, and yes, that’s what I’m aiming for. I do think that some of the shouting is pretty important. An old friend runs a blog called Tested to Despair (at testedtodespair.org) as part of the movement against high-stakes testing. I was looking at it again last night, and I’m really glad that she’s out there on those ramparts! But I can’t speak about the damage done by high stakes testing from direct experience, and it’s direct experience that I’m wanting to source here.
Good luck what ever you decide to do…!
Life learning goes on and on. I for one am grateful for learning I find happens in every stage of our lives, From the smallest who have so much to teach us about observation of the world around us, The young people with whom we share our days at school and at home, teach us about passion and dreams, and the older people who give us a vision of a life to aspire to.
When I read your blogs, I am inspired to become a better teacher and writer, in both my school life and my personal one.
Thank you Polly – keep hitting the publish button!