Near the part of Seven Thousand Ways to Listen where Mark Nepo develops the powerful image of Moses and Hamlet that inspired my blog post yesterday, he also talks about dilation and constriction … not just as essential biological processes, but as metaphors for essential, complementary elements of life. Sometimes you open yourself up to new experiences, new wisdom, new forms of joyful community … but sometimes you need to close yourself down for a bit, to process what you’ve taken in, to expel what you can’t use and make room for the next right thing.
That’s a lot easier to do when you’re not in the midst of the hustle and bustle of factory-model structures. Neither dilation nor constriction, opening up nor closing down, acting nor waiting is really welcome there.
Ms. X and Mr. Y used to complain, and most likely still do, about students they disparagingly described as “wide open.” That usually meant something like “won’t sit down, be quiet, copy My Notes, and do my Cute Little Activity I downloaded from the Internet.” But they were equally frustrated, if not more so, when their students would “just shut down.” With the Thanksgiving holidays rapidly approaching, poor Ms. X and Mr. Y may well be moaning about how “those bad, lazy kids have shut down already” … even as Ms. X and Mr. Y themselves desperately search the Internet, as they tend to do at this time of year, for turkey-themed crossword puzzles and word searches “to make the time pass more smoothly.”
Since I stopped fully participating in that world, I’ve found that acting and waiting, opening up and closing down, dilating and constricting have all somehow become easier. I can enjoy the rhythm of the busy-busy days like yesterday, when I met with the District Q Latin Family in the morning, two of three District Y groups in the afternoon, and the Gifted Homeschoolers after that … and I can still have time and energy to do essential errands in the evening. But I can also enjoy the rhythm of less-busy days like today, when I just meet with two District Y groups in the afternoon.
At Former School and the School Before That, even though there were actually a few more “clock hours” with students, the feeling of “not enough time and too much to cover” was always there. Could we take a few moments to process things, to constrict ourselves before we re-opened to new experiences? At times the Latin Family did, but it felt subversive and counter-cultural. What if Some Powers That Be came in? Would They understand and appreciate the need to slow down and let things settle? Or would They “say something,” as One Ms. X feared, or possibly “get upset?”
So there we were, neither open nor closed, neither acting nor waiting, most of the time. No wonder I frequently felt so tired and ineffective! For a time, I was neither well nor sick, too; I’ve been amazed at how much better I’ve felt this fall than I “normally” would, and I attribute that to a different, healthier pattern of work and rest. When I left Former School, I had accumulated a ridiculous number of sick leave days … partly because of the ways that schools in These Parts handle such things, but partly because, in the culture of Former School, it was “easier to go ahead and come to work sick than to make Those Sub Plans.” And besides, as Ms. X and Mr. Y firmly believed, “those bad, lazy kids won’t do Their Work if I’m not there, and then we’ll Get Behind, and there’s too much to cover and not enough time anyway.”
I don’t get that feeling from my (admittedly limited) interactions with teachers and administrators at District Q and District Y, and I certainly don’t get that feeling from the Latin Family. They seem to have a healthier rhythm of work and rest, and both schools seem to focus more on individuals and less on what The Average Student “should” or “shouldn’t” be doing.
Maybe it’s just that I’m partly in, but not of both contexts, but I don’t think so. The frantic feeling (that I could never quite name or describe) that filled so many people’s days at Former School and the School Before That seems to be absent. “We hope you can join us,” said an email from Someone Important, “at the informal gathering this Friday.” I won’t be driving several hours to that gathering, of course, but I’m still amazed by the difference in tone between that email and the equivalent ones at Former School, where the “holiday gathering” before Winter Break was a required meeting … though you could leave after the food and before the gift swap if you wanted to.
Several friends of mine “just happened” to share this piece by Blake Boles over the past few days, and I recently read the book in which he explains the idea more fully. The essence of a joyful learning community, I realize, is that it’s a voluntary association. Yes, my students at District Q and District Y “have to” go to school, but they chose to join (and remain in) the Latin Family. Their counterparts at Former School often felt more constrained: they “had to” take a larger number of language courses, and sometimes they “had to” take Latin because “They told me I had to.” It’s odd that Former School, officially designated as a “school of choice,” felt less free and more constrained; I’m still not sure why that was or what the implications are. But as we move forward, strengthening our joyful learning community and building meaningful things together, I’ll hold on to the importance of acting and waiting … and of allowing time and space for both. I wonder what other insights and discoveries await in the days to come!