Friday, June 3, 2016

The Apple and the Tree

“What I do is me, for that I came…”    - Gerard Manley Hopkins

I’ve said it before and it’s worth saying again. The purpose of school is to reveal character, to discover destiny, to help children find out what they’re here for by passing through the disciplines of human achievement and promise. They will read to see themselves in stories, to understand that they’re not alone and that others have thought similar thoughts and struggled similar struggles. And that others who have lived such different lives are strangers that soon can become friends. They sing and dance and act and play music and make art to find out what they have to say and how they can say it in ways that no one else can and to fly freely into the borderless imagination with each act of creation. They wrestle with numbers and scientific systems to reveal and strengthen the elegance of the thinking mind, to partner the flights of fancy with down-to-earth facts and figures. They train their animal body through sport and exercise, tuning it as an instrument of intelligence that sings in harmony with head and heart. They come into history to find out the full measure of human foible and ignorance, triumph and courage, so they might emerge with determination to move the moral arc of the universe one step closer to justice.

Amidst all the mechanics of learning, all the challenges, all the details of moving from Dick and Jane to King Lear and Cordelia, from spelling cat and bat to Yeats and Mary Oliver, from counting to 10 to differential calculus, from Twinkle Little Star to Bach’s Mass in B Minor and Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, is the fragile, wondrous, curious child searching for their genius as it comes face to face with the full measure of knowledge to be passed on. But never a faceless, generic child. Always Julian or Jessica or Kamaila or Felipe, each with their own rendezvous with their destiny, their own blueprint to be the person that no one else has ever been.

And the key player in the search for how and why each is here is a teacher who cares. A teacher who arrived at teaching through that same process of search, was called to it, not as a job or a profession, but as a quest. And that is my daughter Talia.

How I admire her! I’ve done a reasonable job at the community aspect of tying the threads of individual character into a vibrant school culture, rich with rituals that help reveal and celebrate, abounding with joyful music and dance to sing and move those praises and blessings that words alone cannot reach. That is my “for that I came.”

But being a forest person more than a tree person, I suffer slightly from failing to have that intimate knowledge of each tree, the kind where particular kids and I hang out and wink at each other knowing that we know each other so well and enjoy each other so much. I can praise children publicly and will at graduation tomorrow, but it’s always at a distance, like an admiring fan in the background.

But Talia is a different story. The fact that she designed a new 5th grade graduation ceremony is the apple that fell close to this tree, but the fact that she knows so intimately each of the 20 kids she’s worked with for two years straight is something I have never known. Partly it’s the difference between a music teacher and a classroom teacher and partly it’s her particular genius as a teacher.

Near the end of her gathering today, she read a piece (excerpts below):

I have had the great privilege and honor of teaching the majority of you for two years, which is a really long time. I know you all so, so well.

When I was going through some lost and found items on the camping trip, I could just smell the sweatshirt and know whose it was. I know your pet’s names and where your grandparents live, I know who your friends are outside of school, what belt level you are in tae kwon do, and what book your dad is reading to you..

I am confident that I will have a long career of teaching various amazing groups of children, but I will never know a class as well as I know you guys. Having two years in a row has been a transformative experience for me as a teacher and allowed me to go places in my teaching that I don’t think I would’ve been able to do with any other class. Thank-you for trusting me.

Thank-you for inspiring me to be the best version of myself.  Thank-you for letting me teach what I love. For letting me share my passions with you. For caring. ‘I will never forget you” can be a cliché, but trust me, it’s the truest truth for me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

And then proceeded to talk for a minute about each kid (with their parents there) and give them a gift related to their particular slice of character. That’s a lot of love realized in hard, relentless work, not only two years of observing and noticing and remembering, but the time to write and shop and wrap and hold each in her heart while doing all that. Being a memorable teacher is not a casual thing based on mere charm— you gotta put in the hours far beyond your job description and that Talia did.

The apple may not fall far from the tree, but it came from a grafting and watering and care that created something new that the old tree never could have produced in quite the same way. And that’s how the beauty grows and is passed on. And I can testify that it’s crisp, juicy and delicious.

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