Thursday, July 28, 2011

for the questions that don't have any answers

In my inbox, from Sarah, this morning:

I really miss those days, before everything. Those first two summers we started to know each other were the last times I remember not feeling insecure about anything at all. And being completely inside every moment.  And I often try to refer back to the confidence I had while playing Batman. :) 

So it wasn't just me. There really is a "before" and "after" in this story... 

Sarah's Story, Part 2.
(If you missed part 1, you can catch up here.)

Over the winter that followed that morning of shooting-the-sh*t on the porch, Sarah’s parents’ marriage crumbled at the hands of infidelity. I don't know what a parent's infidelity does to a child's (and, let's be honest, a teenaged girl is still, very much, a child) sense of herself in the world, but I don't believe it can possibly be good. (To say something else, just so that it is on the record: I know both of Sarah's parents, and they are both absolutely committed and loving parents to her. They adore, honour, and love their daughter, and always have. I have absolutely never doubted or questioned that. I hope that Sarah hasn't either.) I do believe that that infidelity, and its impact on the family life she had always known, burned its way into Sarah's understanding of love, relationships, monogamy, beauty, trust, honesty.  

While her home life spun out of control,  long-undiagnosed learning disabilities (including ADD) were making high school into a prison sentence. A form of dyslexia required super-human focus for Sarah to decode text, while Attention Deficit Disorder systematically eroded her focus. Sarah, always taller and broader than other girls her age, developed bulimia. All of this created perfect conditions for clinical depression to join the party. And speaking of partying, there was more than a little underage drinking and recreational drug use going on. A support group, a regimen of medications, and an alternative high school program kept Sarah treading water. While I remain forever grateful that Sarah did not, in fact, drown in that tidal wave of chemical imbalance, let's be very clear: treading water is not the same as swimming confidently. Not the same at all.

The following summer, when Sarah and her friends registered in our teen leadership programs, they truly and finally became "mine." Sarah moved into my cabin with 10 other girls, where she would stay for 3 years.  The girls were packed into that cabin like sardines, and Sarah, once again the oldest, was definitely the head sardine.  Her music played on the boombox, her posters hung on the walls, her voice resonated in the tones and vocabularies of the other girls.  She both loved and hated her role as a leader.  It made me push her harder, ask more of her than of the other girls.  We argued occasionally.  Thinking about it now, I may have been the only person to whom Sarah had ever gracefully lost an argument. 

I want to be clear: while there is no denying that Sarah brought her demons to camp with her, they did not define who she was in that setting. Camp is a much gentler, safer place than the wealthy Bay Area town where Sarah grew up. In a place where everyone is dirty, grubby, mosquito-bitten, sunburned, bruised, and scraped from bouncing around 200 acres of meadow and pond and forest and swimming pool and mountain bike trails and climbing wall, traditional California definitions of beauty begin to fade. When the only reading required is decoding a one-page schedule, to get yourself to the right activity at the right time, the burden of dyslexia gets a lot lighter. The frenetic pace of camp life might actually make ADD into an asset. And as for drugs and drinking? Well, when teenagers are so intensely supervised, and when the consequences of partaking in those things include being kicked out of your most favourite place on the planet... they become a lot less appealing. 

For much of the time at camp, Sarah shone like the sun. Being in a leadership role suited her big personality. She led 100 children in rowdy "stand-up" songs at campfire, laughing and dancing her way through multiple repetitive verses of silliness. With the help of our dance instructor, she choreographed contributions to talent nights: Thriller, The Time Warp, and others. She led Dorky Dive competitions at the pool. She played basketball with little boys.

All of that being said, there is no denying: eleven 16-year old girls in a 20 x 20 foot space adds up to lots of drama.  They cry lakes of tears and consume gallons of ink scribbling in their journals.  I rarely came to bed without finding someone sobbing, someone mad, someone placating someone else.  They would scatter into little groups:  2 or 3 on the porch, a couple on the back step, someone sitting in the dirt just up the hill, and always, always, someone who slept through it all, and someone else who pretended to sleep through it all.  Sometimes I held them and let them cry.  Sometimes I made them talk to one another instead of about one another.  And sometimes I just tucked them in to bed, refusing to hear any debates, to wipe any tears, to listen to any feelings.   I tucked those girls in the same way I had tucked in the preschoolers I babysat at home.  They were, really, just little girls.

And Sarah, the biggest of my little girls, after several months of winning the battle of bingeing and purging, was suddenly losing it again.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Splashing through the sand bar, talking by the campfire

(I am sort of skipping a week, here, but I promise to come back and do the 3rd kinderblog question. Soon!)

Kinderblog challenge, question #4:
Tell the story of one specific child, who walked into your life and changed everything.

The one child who changed everything.

Confession: This is the one and only kinderblog assignment where I have known my own answers even before publishing the question. I didn't have to think, I didn't have to choose. I knew. It would be Sarah. It has always been Sarah. It will always be Sarah. I have written about Sarah before, in other contexts. I have written TO Sarah: quick scribbled notes and epic letters. I have written FOR Sarah: reference letters and employment verification forms. Sarah, whose name is stitched so tightly onto the surface of my heart that I swear sometimes I can physically feel it. Sarah.

However, the challenging part of this was: Sarah is not some student from long ago, rendered anonymous by time and distance. Sarah, now, is a grown-up young woman, a professional in her field, building a career and a reputation for herself. Sarah is my Facebook friend. Sarah reads this blog. (Hi Sweet Girl! I love you!). So, yesterday, I wrote to her, asking permission to tell her story here.

I was fully prepared for her to say no. I had several other stories in mind if she did. I have been blessed to love and be loved by many, many, amazing kids, each of whom changed everything. Their stories are inextricably knitted into my history, and I carry pieces of them with me every day. All of them, I have loved (and continue to love). Many of them, I have liked. A handful have now grown into adults that I truly consider my friends.

But Sarah is where it all started. And so, when she promptly replied to my note, granting permission for her story to be told here, it was like a ray of sunshine came right through the computer screen and into my heart. What a blessing, indeed, to spend the better part of an afternoon reliving one of the most powerful relationships in my life....

The thing is: to do this story justice, it's going to take more than one blog post. So, for today, here is:

Sarah's Story, Part 1.

Sarah and I met at summer camp, a place we  both called home for a truly impressive number of years. I still think of it as home. I imagine Sarah maybe does, too. It makes sense that our relationship grew out of that rocky red soil, and blossomed in the high sierra sunlight, where only the toughest plants produce flowers. Camp re-wove the fabric of my life, and built the strongest friendships I have ever known. Of course I found Sarah there. Where else would I have ever found her?

I don’t  really remember being at camp without knowing Sarah, which is probably  accurate. I think she came to one of the first drama rehearsals I ever ran on that splintery outdoor stage, the first session of my first summer, when I was all of 20 years old. What I do remember is her jumping up and down, volunteering herself and her best friend, Alan, to play Batman and Robin in the script we were writing.  I know I gave them the roles, that I was at once surprised and thrilled at their enthusiasm. 

Sarah’s beauty now makes me catch my breath, brings a sting to my eyes, but that first summer, I remember her simply being tall for her age,  plain and muscular and almost stocky in the way of girls who spend a lot of  time in a swimming pool (as opposed to simply lounging next to a swimming pool), the beginnings of acne showing on her cheeks and forehead.  In the mornings I would see her trudging up dust on the road to the riding arena, and again later with dirt ground into her jeans, heat and horse dust suspended around her, an even band pressed into her hair from her helmet.  She came to drama rehearsal every afternoon, when the bright flat sun  bounced off the plywood backdrop, and made the woodchips stick to our sweaty sandalled feet.  I enjoyed having her there – laughter seemed to follow Sarah wherever she went, and she recruited her entourage of platonic male friends to join us – but her 2-week session ended and she went home and the summer went on.  I remembered her, and thought of her occasionally over the winter, but she remained simply a nice kid – a bright kid, with a quirky sense of humor and a gift for satire; a unique kid who managed to be a fourteen year old girl without really behaving like one – but still, basically, just a nice kid. She made me laugh, and she thought I was cool. It was still so early in my career that perhaps that was just what I needed -- a kid who thought I was cool.

The next summer, Sarah became a fifteen year old girl, and she fell in love.  Falling in love seemed to be the thing to do if you were in the oldest girls cabin, and Sarah, along with her 3 closest friends, did it with the same enthusiasm she had for everything else in life. The boy was Scotty – 5 feet tall to Sarah’s 5’7”, nuts about her in spite of barely being able to fit his skinny arm all the way around her waist.  They were inseparable, and, after curfew when I would creep into the girls' cabin to catch the latest camper gossip, I heard breathless stories of kisses at the shower house, and cuddling under the tarp on the backpack trip.  I spent one entire morning sitting in a square of sunlight on the side porch with Sarah and her friends: Lizzie, Anthony, Mary, Faith, Alan, Scotty.  They told me about their schools, their friends at home.  It was from them that I first learned that being a teenager with money carried its own set of stresses, issues, fears.  Sarah was older than the rest of them by a single year – a year that made her an old hand at the high school scene, and made a leader out of her, whether she wanted to be or not.  I remember her warning her friends in a wise tone about the dangers of high school life, the drawbacks of pot, the side-effects of partying too hard.  I fell in love with those kids that hot June afternoon, and perhaps they fell a little in love with me, too.  We laughed together, and I basked in the glow of their affection for me.

Obviously, the story does not stop here, but that patch of sunlight, with that circle of laughing teenagers, seems like a pretty nice place to hang out for a while. Let's enjoy it. We have some shadows to get through soon enough.

More, soon.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

telling tales and biting nails

Kinderblog summer blogging challenge, question #2! And yes, I am nearly a week late on this.

Tell us about the teacher preparation you attended. (You don't have to name the school if you don't want to.) Did you love it at the time? Did it prepare you adequately for teaching? How did you feel about it as you were in it? Does it look different now, looking back? Would you change it if you could? What did get out of it? What did you not get that you needed?

True confession time: this question has kicked my a$$ around the block for 2 weeks. I have started this story 1001 times. Cut, pasted, changed, rearranged, re-considered. I keep trying to make it A Story, with some sort of narrative describing my university experience in a coherent fashion. And I am starting to think that this is not A Story. This is 100 Stories...

I wanted to tear my undergrad program apart, because I spent hours writing fake lesson plans and digging through programs of study, without ever learning anything meaningful about the children and what I am supposed to DO with them. (Honestly, even fake, imaginary children would have been helpful.)

And then I remembered an education lab, taught by an overworked but dedicated graduate student who spent 2 whole class periods explicitly teaching us tips and techniques for writing legibly (and in a straight line!) on the whiteboard, saying she wished someone had taught her, and given her time to practice. She videotaped us writing on the board, and we critiqued one another with gentle humour and gales of laughter.

And I realised: I learned that mastering details makes the big picture a whole lot easier to deliver.

And then I thought about the kind French professor who squeezed me and 2 of my girlfriends into his already crowded section, because the prof of our assigned section -- loud, aggressive, volatile, and too-friendly with students -- made us uncomfortable.

And I realised: I learned that kindness and compassion are not incompatible with professionalism.

I wanted to rant about the education professor who gave us a pile of readings about various educational philosophers, and then assigned a paper wherein we had to choose the philosophy that worked for us. I poured my heart into dissecting each philosophy, explaining why it didn't work for me, and then articulating my *own* beliefs (which, to be clear, DID draw on some of the readings.)  That professor failed my paper because, by not choosing one of the assigned philosophers, I didn't "fulfill the requirements." What's more, according to her, my philosophy was "neither practical nor realistic."*

And I realised: I learned that if evidence of hard work, deep engagement, critical thinking, and reflection is not compatible with "the requirements," it is perhaps time to re-consider The Requirements.

I wanted to decry the irony of Education lectures so dry and boring and poorly delivered that my friends and I took turns going to class and making copies of the notes so as to minimize the wasted time.

And then I thought about the professor with incredible expertise in special-needs populations, who opened the first class by saying "I have a lot of knowledge, and the best way I know to share it is by talking to you." She delivered 60-minute lectures so articulate and engaging that we sat spell-bound for every minute of every class.

And I realised: I learned that there is more than one way to be a great teacher, and there is an art to delivering a great lecture.

And then I thought about my favourite professor, who taught us about reading and writing workshop by having us DO those workshops in her class, at our own level. We wrote our own stories, and when I wrote a narrative, bilingual, poem about my disillusionment with my undergraduate education program (of which, as I recall, she was THE CHAIRPERSON), she read it with an open mind and open heart, and gave me an A+.

And I realised: I learned that truly great teachers are truly humble, and that my own ego has no place in a classroom.

(That professor, by the way, wrote me a glowing letter to get into grad school, even though we had been out of touch for 5 years, wrote to me regularly throughout grad school, and sent flowers on the day I defended my Master's Thesis. And so I have learned that student-teacher relationships exceed the bounds of time and distance.)

I wanted to get up on my soapbox about how woefully little I learned in those 4 years that actually prepared me to teach.

And then I realised: I learned an awful lot about how to think about teaching, and how to become a person who could become a good teacher.

And maybe that is, and was, enough.

*FYI, that philosophy: "Love the child, and the rest will follow." has now carried me through 15+ years of a career working with children in a broad range of settings. It has proven to be not only practical, but permanent; not only realistic, but required.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

when the wind's blowin in your face

Ok, here I am, the one who STARTED the kinderchat summer blog challenge (info here), and yet somehow, I am the last one to actually POST my first answer. I will tell you, however, that I have been mentally composing this since before I came up with the question. As I am washing dishes, showering, driving across town, folding laundry, I am pondering, remembering, reminiscing... It has been good, making all those little trips down memory lane. I know that, by many scales, I am still early in my career, and yet there are still, tucked away into the corners of my brain and heart, so many children, so many stories...

Before I tell the story I am going to tell, I suppose it would be nice to share the question. As per the kinderchat blog, this week's question was:

Tell us the story of the first group of children for whom you were "Teacher." Maybe it was at a school, but maybe it wasn't. Maybe it was a childcare centre, or a daycamp, or a swimming pool or a dance studio or a hockey rink.  Maybe it was in your own home, or their home. Who were they? Who were you? What did it FEEL like? Maybe it was amazing. Maybe it was terrible. Either way, there is a story there. Tell it.

So, Internet, here it is: The Kids Who Made Me Teacher

When I finished my education degree, I proceeded, quickly and urgently, to NOT hunt for a teaching job. The reasons for this were both logistical -- a summer position in California, followed by a month of travel around the state, capped off by a dear friend's wedding. (If Crecky and Baig had not said their vows on a beautiful late September day in the Wine Country, this whole story might be very different) -- and emotional. The last few months of my degree were draining, and aside from one very inspiring professor, had left me sour on the whole idea of school board bureaucracy. Now, nearly 15 years after the fact, I will admit, too: the entire prospect of Applying To Work For a Big School Board, and then Being Responsible For Delivering the Program of Studies terrified me. What's more, a few summers working at sleepaway camp had shown me that there were all kinds of ways to build relationships with kids OUTSIDE of a classroom, and Relationships With Kids had always been my priority.

So, I returned from California in early October, and started the the hunt for A Job With Kids. Within a week, the local YMCA had snatched me and my over-qualifications right up, and I was a YMCA Child Development Worker. This meant I spent all day every day in a room with 12 toddlers. That's right. Me, another staff member, and ONE. DOZEN. TWO-YEAR-OLDS.

I was immediately exhausted. The childcare field being what it is (underpaid and therefore generally understaffed, with crazy high staff turnover), those kids had been through 8 teachers in 6 months. There was no routine. There was no consistency. There were no systems. There was no schedule. There was me, another adult (more on her in a second), and twelve little people with limited verbal skills, limited social skills, limited... everything. And they were ALL in diapers. My memory of the first few weeks in that room looks like a cartoon: me, sitting on a tiny chair in the middle of the floor, while the kids chased each other in circles around me, shrieking. In my mental image of that scene, there are clouds of dust rising around small, pounding feet, and the children's race around the room leads them up and over any furniture or obstacle in their path. Including, at times, me. Now, in retrospect, my rational brain knows: the children were not, IN FACT, running over the tops of all the furniture... were they? 

I knew nothing. The teacher preparation program I had attended had many wonderful qualities, but it sure didn't teach me very much about CHILDREN. Who knew that it was developmentally normal for 2 year-olds to bite each other? Who knew that they could have diaper blowouts that rival a newborn's? That their method of choice to get what they want is to disable the competition? That stressed out working parents will scream at you about a lost sippy cup? That potty-training could burn through 8 complete outfits in one day for the child, and nearly as many for me? That 12 of them can cry at the same time for 12 different, but equally mysterious reasons? That the sound of 12 simultaneously crying toddlers will make most adults cry, too? WHO KNEW? On more than one occasion, I excused myself to the adult bathroom, rested my head against the toilet paper dispenser,  listening to the blessed quiet, feeling tears leak down my face. I was so tired.

And then, my co-teacher was fired (for turning her back on the entire group while I was changing diapers, resulting in scary incident involving a small child and adult-sized scissors), and along came Noelle. Noelle was as young as I was, and our combined knowledge about managing groups of 2 year-olds should have barely filled a teacup. And yet, somehow, together, we figured it out. Routines replaced chaos. Rituals replaced anarchy. Because we knew nothing, we were open to anything. We tried things: outdoor play first thing in the morning? Nope, too cold. Singing songs while we wait for lunch to arrive? Yes, brilliant. Walking to the park? Nope. Watching the swimming pool? Yes. We sat on the floor and played with those kids, showing them WHAT TO DO with all those buckets of toys. We helped them wrestle in and out of dress-up clothes. We read hundreds of stories. We sang thousands of songs. 

As the room settled down, we got braver. We started baking with the kids (blue cupcakes, anyone?). We filled the water table with leaves, then with snow, then with feathers. We didn't know this was called a sensory tub. We thought we invented it. We made rules, more for ourselves than for the children: When a child asks for a story, we must read to them. If you smell the dirty diaper, you change it. The person who deals with lunch dishes doesn't have to disinfect nap mats. Noelle kept the toys clean, and I did the laundry. 

And the children. Oh my sweet Baby Jesus, how we loved those children. Somehow, without ever saying it, Noelle and I shared a clear understanding: our first and most important obligation to those children was to love them. With those children, I learned to love caregiving -- the giving of care to teeny tiny people. As faces were washed and diapers were changed and sippy cups filled and washed and re-filled, I discovered the power in those tiny moments of interaction. At nap time, Noelle and I worked our way around the room. Starting in opposite corners, we would each sit between 2 small cots, and hold a third child on our laps. Did you know you can rock a child to sleep while sitting on the floor? As Garth Brooks crooned soft love songs through the CD player, we each rocked one kiddo while rubbing two other little backs in slow circles. (The side effect of this routine was the best abs I have ever had in my life.)

Those children changed me. I had spent the end of my degree program frustrated that my belief in the power of loving children was dismissed, by professors and peers alike, as being "not enough" to make a teacher. Those children taught me that, when love is understood, not as a feeling or as an object, but as an action, it is not only enough. It is everything. 

It's a little and a lot to ask
An endless and a welcome task
Love isn't something that we have
It's something that we do.

(Clint Black)