Who will your character be?

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He is laying face-down on the floor, sprawled: his little arms crossed over top, one on top of the other. I am sitting about ten feet away, leaning forward, all the while trying to see the scene unfolding from my somewhat distant vantage point, at a bit of an angle. I pause, then plead, making the case for why he should join our community of learners on the gathering rug. We look over to where he is stationed, under the painting easel. He is immobile, for the moment. We all wait, anticipating his next move, but to no avail. He’s not coming over. Not now, anyway.

I can feel the frustration rising within me. Doesn’t he know, (she know, they know): this is school? This is what we do here? It’s the school thing.

What I feel in this moment is not uncommon. It is a familiar frustration to teachers that students do not buy into the ‘school thing’. This, the tension of our daily lived experience- to engage those who are seemingly un-engaged; inspiring students to move from where they are just a little further in their understanding, each and every day.

But we forget (and often): students are not that easily bought.

They don’t always like what we’re doing, don’t relish the work assignments we create. They don’t always love the daily plan and the structure and routine our school systems insist on maintaining. They don’t like asking for permission to speak, to use the washroom, to get a drink, to move from their desk, to sharpen their pencils and to close their books. They don’t relish being ‘told’, either. Nor do they adore math lessons, reading lessons, writing lessons- all of the time. Not to forget science and health and social studies and music. Maybe they do love art and physical education; but I bet they don’t always love that they can’t just sing what they want, play what they want, do what they want. Be who they want.

Sometimes kids do love exactly what we love: the school things. Loving the lessons, and the books, and the activities and projects. When that delightful joy occurs in our classes, we feel a secret- perhaps even open thrill- from the connection of watching a child’s mind merge with content and curriculum.

But when that does not happen: when our students don’t respond in the ways we are expecting or wanting- when it doesn’t quite work- we personify the lack of engagement, thinking that it might be something we’ve done. Or worse, something that they have done wrong, due to something they are missing, exhibiting, saying, or being.

Can we remember just one thing? We are not the only characters and players in our students’ stories? The chapters we are involved in, not the only plot in their unfolding life narrative? The setting we observe them in, perhaps not the setting they believe defines the true essence of their life? We as teachers are merely characters in our students’ stories (Lennie, 2015): school just another component of their emerging life account.

The key is to make our role a significant one.

Robin Williams, in the powerful movie Dead Poet’s Society, had this to say about contributing to the unfolding story called Life:

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

Teachers: we have this year to write a part for ourselves in a child’s life. To write a scene for ourselves in a student’s life. A young person, a teenager, a young adult. They all are making their story, each and every day we encounter them, sitting in front of us. Standing defiantly at the back of the room. Laying under the easel. This is their story. Our verse will be significant, for one reason or another. Significant for the grief it has caused or for the joy it has brought. True, we as teachers are but one character. It might seem a small role. But we are crucial in that we are those who can make a difference if we so choose, making the verse or role we write for ourselves as inspiring and uplifting as we choose to dream it to be.

The account of our students’ lives will go on and we may all contribute to their unfolding life narrative. I ask you: what role will you play?

What character are you in your students’ stories?

Someone Sees

photo from http://www.theguardian.com

There is a catch in her voice. I can tell by her tone that the tears fall freely down her cheeks. She tells me her Youngest Boy has just flown out this morning at 6:00 a.m. and that she woke in time to stand on her deck and watch the plane circle and fly overhead. Heading for distant places, distant spaces- far, far away.

We marvel at this modern wonder- that a monstrosity of aluminum and steel observed as a speck in the sky can lift a precious Loved One into the air and beyond is at times astonishing to the amateur. That this same Loved One might be oblivious and unaware that his devoted mother stands guard, watching- is equally astounding and noteworthy.

But tell me this: if a plane flies overhead with your child aboard and that same child is unaware that you stand alert and attentive from far below, is this noteworthy? Significant? Is this ordinary happening complete with any meaning?
Does it matter?

Monday morning, Youngest and I travel home from Charlottetown at dinner time and pass by Sister’s house where her two young boys play outside. The youngest boy stands at the foot of the playhouse while his older brother looks down from the loft. I imagine the conversations that are transpiring. I watch for a brief blip of a second after which Youngest and I again remark that it is interesting that these two loved boys are not privy to our watching. They have no idea we are even in the area- for all they know, we are in our own surroundings located the two hour’s drive away. Not breezing by on the highway that runs in front of their house. It is at one and the same time unnerving that we can be watched unawares and yet a strange comfort to know that the people who love us might be watching our comings and goings.

Yes. This has been a week of watching. We watch the world respond to Robin William’s death, the killing of Missouri teen Michael Brown, the killing of John Crawford III in an Ohio Walmart. We observe in horror as Sunni militants terrorize and overrun so as to create an Islamic Empire in northern Iraq even as clashes are ongoing along the Gaza Strip. Crisis is still very much the word in other parts of the Middle East, including Libya and Syria. Some have even said that with all that is going on currently, things are more dangerous in that part of the world than they ever have been at any time in the past. These are dangerous times. There is much to watch and much to pray vigilantly for.

Even as these crises of epic proportions are going down in far-flung parts of the world, little wars are being waged here at home. Little battles being fought. A mother’s body struggles to accept her chemo, a child has just been diagnosed with a rare disorder, a new cancer patient has just been delivered the news. A woman struggles to accept her mental illness. A father grapples with dire financial straits. People are lonely, afraid, anxious and hurting, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to state that there is pain in the world.

Life is happening all over the place and one has to wonder- is anybody watching? Who is attending to all this pain and anguish?

photo from http://angelawaite.me/category/environmental-photography/

As I walk the country mile this evening, watching burnished grain blowing gently in the breeze, I consider this notion of watching/being watched. And believing as I do that I am watched over by One whose eye is on the sparrow- whose hand has counted every grain of sand, every hair on my head, I feel a comfort. Comfort in imagining His hand as holding me in the hollow- safe from any harm that was not meant to come my way. Comfort in knowing that I am being kept. Preserved. For such a time as this.

For I am safe even in my freedom to come and go.  To be myself. Even as the storms rage around me, threatening to dismantle and upend.

Last Friday, I was pulling out on a busy stretch of highway in Charlottetown. I had all the children with me and we were heading in town having just left my mom and dad’s house. For whatever reason, a large four-by-four pulled up on the inside shoulder of the road, blocking my view of the highway. Having believed that the coast was clear, I pulled out into oncoming traffic. As I did so, I could see several vehicles barreling straight for my path of entry in the very lane I was pulling into. For a moment, I panicked. And then quickly manovered the van off the road until it was safe to pull out again.

That this happened shook me. I know if I had been hit, it would have been on Son’s side that the impact would have occurred. For several hours afterwards, I could not shake the nagging sensation of ‘what if’. I couldn’t get the visual out of my mind. But after some time had passed, I began to think of the significance of the event. Our vehicle endured a close call. We as occupants in that vehicle were preserved. Had anyone been watching us, they would have been aware of the significance of this feat. The significance of our preservation.

Someone was watching us even as we were unaware.

Someone saw us. And I realize that our safety and protection in this instance, while significant, are not the real story. The story is not necessarily that we were protected (as wonderful as that is), but that we were watched. We were in His view. Someone is out there in very much the same way as Daughter and I were attentive to my nephews on that Monday morning, as my Mom was aware there on her deck and as many of us in the world are holding space for the millions of displaced, disadvantaged, hurting, wounded, suffering people in this world.

This I know: Someone is out there- and He is standing watch. Keeping vigil.  And as He keeps watch, I am held Held in the very hollow of His hand.

Safe, secure and kept.  And all because He’s watching.

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The Pursuit of a Joyful Life

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is hard to understand, to fully comprehend: how someone who brought so much joy to other peoples’ lives could himself be eluded by that same joy and wonder. And yet, here we are on a Tuesday night, grieving the loss of a beautiful life- grief those of us who loved his work feel in some form or fashion.

Another light has been extinguished. You are already greatly missed, Robin Williams.

I just came from a funeral home myself an hour ago- a loving father and husband lain to rest, his family sorrowing the loss. As I slip into the restroom to refresh, I overhear a conversation referring back to another deceased, sharing another room in the funeral parlor adjacent to the one I have come to bid adieu.

“I am so sorry for the loss of your father.”
“He would have been 93,” comes the reply. “He lived a good life, though.”
“Yes, but it is still hard,” says the first woman. “One is never ready to lose parent- it is never time.”

So too it is with the family I have come to give my deepest sympathies. It is never easy to say goodbye to those we love. Emotions strain to find the right words, the right sentiments at times like this. Saying goodbye is never easy.

It is never time.

And as thoughts drift again to the recent death of adored actor Robin Williams, comedian extraordinaire- I can’t help but wonder if his greatest legacy was that he lived as a father. His daughter Zelda leaves the following words written by Antoine De Saint-Exupery as a lasting tribute to her father’s legacy:

“You – you alone will have the stars as no one else has them…In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night…You – only you – will have stars that can laugh.”

I write often of care- specifically the care of Significant Others in our lives, and particularly as it concerns children and students. But without an understanding of the role that self-care plays as a first step in the process, we cannot truly understand the impact of care in our lives and in society. I often think of the airline rule to first affix one’s own gas mask before attempting to help one’s dependents. Is this not also true of everyday life at times? If we have not given our own bodies and souls attention and replenishing, are we really of much assistance and benefit to others? We must remember that we cannot run ourselves into the ground, depleting our own resources and ignoring our own needs and requirements to the extreme that we are of no earthly good to anyone else around us. Is it worth our while contributing to the world at large at the extreme expense of losing ourselves? These are tough questions to ask and perhaps the answers will differ depending on who is answering. One thing remains- without care given to ourselves, we eventually run down. We diminish. And the cycle of care cannot be continued without more care invested from either without or within.

Since the only dependable source is from within, that is where our greatest efforts must be concentrated.

Nel Noddings writes about caring for self in terms of meeting the physical, spiritual, occupational, recreational, emotional and intellectual needs of all human beings. If I had to pick one to focus on primarily (acknowledging, of course that the basic needs of the body must be met), it is my beleif that the spiritual needs are the most significant. For without an inner purpose and greater meaning to act as our guide, where are we headed? What direction do we choose? And what benefit is everything else going to be? We must decide what truly matters in this life; for me, I have found purpose, meaning and significance in the person of Jesus Christ.

2000 years ago, I believe that very Person willingly chose to lay down His life for me. And it wasn’t a suicide pact or mental illness that compelled Him to the cross. It was love. And because of that Love, I too am free to love. Free to care. Free to give my life in service to the Call. Free to give my love with generous abandon. Free to live- free to really live.

I am free.

And even though I know that death will one day call, I daily make it a priority to care enough for myself to ensure that when that time comes, I am ready to die. No stone unturned. Living my life as if today might even be my very last (we never can know). Living each moment, each day with joy, passion, wonder and care. Living with a healthy appreciation for the fact that Death is part of life. Even as I focus on living my life to the fullest.

Even as I live this brief expanse of time that we call life with a wild and beautiful pursuit- the pursuit of a joyful life.