Thursday, February 16, 2012

Plum Blossoms, Musical Men, Canaries and More Bent Sticks


I’m loving teaching at school, but let’s face it, it really cuts into my day. Started four different blogs, but can’t seem to finish them— these kids keep showing up in my class and demanding attention. Imagine! So this entry will be potpourri of ideas worthy of development—or not.

• The Dearest Freshness
The plums came early this year. Everywhere the city is sprinkled with bursts of pink blossom announcing the first stirrings of Spring. Because Winter is never exactly harsh in San Francisco, the contrast is not as palpable as say, Maine. But still our eyes are refreshed by the beauty and our ancient connections with nature’s renewal are stirred afresh. If we’re low in our emotional temperature, feeling despondent or isolated or less than we wished to be, each plum tree is an invitation to rekindle our sense of wonder and participation in rebirth. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins and after lamenting how the earth is “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil,” reminds us that “nature is never spent; there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” He must have been walking under the plum blossoms in San Francisco when he wrote that.

• Your Life in Music
After meeting twice a month for 21 years, the men’s group I’m part of discussed something new—their musical autobiography. Okay, it was my idea, but it turned out to be a good one, as I asked people about their earliest memories of music, what they had in school or in the way of formal lessons, what musics they “discovered” that touched them, how did their tastes change over time, what music means to them now (we’re all 60 plus). Next time you’re with a group of friends, try having this discussion— it’s fun and revealing! In our group, some interesting patterns emerged. 

• Listening to music in childhood was a doorway into the imagination, a taste of transcendence and magic. Peter and the Wolf was a first memory for several.
• Taking music lessons was a deadly dull chore pitted against baseball and running around outdoors and most bailed the moment they could.
• Music in adolescent was a soundtrack for the hormones and a centerpiece of developing an emerging identity.
• Music in adulthood faded into the background as work, marriage and children took center stage.
• Music in retirement (or close to retirement) was an old friend welcomed back.
• All agreed with Nietzsche: “Without music, life would be an error.”

• The Canary in the Coal Mine
We had a staff meeting recently where our wonderful learning specialist, in partnership with the classroom teachers, identified kids in each grade who need extra attention and support. I felt alarmed to hear that 50% or more of the kids were on the list! What does this mean? A few possibilities:
1.     Our expectations are too high.
2.     We’re aware of issues and taking on issues that used to be swept under the rug and left entirely on the kids’ shoulders.
3.     Kids are in trouble. They’re the canaries in the coal mine of culture announcing that we better pay attention before things collapse.

And let’s add, “All of the above.”

Still thinking about this one.


• Fix My Kid
Montaigne’s bent stick keeps re-appearing for me (see Dead White Guys blog). I grew up believing as a kid that anything that I did wrong was my fault. Now kids are being told they’re victims and it’s always someone else’s fault. As many teachers can testify, there are a growing number of parents who think that every problem their kid faces is fixable by social engineering and that the burden of fixing it lies with the school and the teachers.

The old way had its flaws. From my point of view, bullying was too casually accepted under the shoulder-shrug of “that’s the way of the world” and that caused great harm. So we try to institute policy as a useful guideline and protective safeguard. But once policies are in place, we tend to stop thinking and lose the distinction between casual teasing or testing power relationships within the normal range of child-development. As every jail film will tell you, preying on the weak is the bully’s way of teaching the victim to stand up and the moment they do, the dynamic changes.

So between leaving it all in the kids’ world without adult support (remember Lord of the Flies?) and imagining we can fix everything for our children lies the ground of loving our children, listening to our children, offering support and clear expectations, creating social structures that lean toward justice, peace and harmony and at the same time realizing that our children have a lot to work out about how to negotiate the dynamics of power and relationship. Beyond examples of clear harm and habitual abuse, we need to leave them alone to do so, painful as it may be.

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