When the Boy, who sometimes expresses such a frustration with his inability to read that he resigns himself to never knowing how to read, takes a book and tries reading on his own, you go along with it, no matter where it happens. This was last night.
There are two trees in the back corner of our lot that worry me. One worries me as a cause of a potential problem; the other is the potential problem. They’re both tulip poplars, with one having a diameter of at least five feet. The smaller of the two has succumbed to some kind of disease or infestation or both. It’s been dying for a couple of years. The bark has just about completely fallen off, and the base of it is beginning to rot. It will fall of its own accord within another year or so, but I’m worried that the enormous tulip poplar next to it — the biggest tree by far that we have in our hard — will develop the same problem. If the sick tree falls, it won’t be a big problem, especially now that the top third of it fell this week, leading to a change of Saturday plans and extensive use of the chain saw. Falling of its own accord is not always an option, though: the large tree if it were to fall, would cause some major damage. It might take out a power line that runs behind the house, and it’s tall enough that it could even damage a house behind us.
Besides the fact that I’m not really what the financial ramifications might be for a tree falling on someone else’s property (from my rough research, we might be held responsible if it was a question of negligence, which would be more of what we’re doing about it now: nothing), there’s the simple fact that I love that tree. It must be at least two hundred years old, possible older, and so it’s a history lesson right in our own backyard. It was around when Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Court House. It was a large tree when Somme Offensive became the largest killing field in history to that point. In a country of new things, I value the old.
But falling down is a part of life.
As a Catholic, falling down has a spiritual, metaphysical sense to it: it requires a visit to the confessional. Like with the tree, there can be collateral damage when I fall down. A lie might tell someone could have far-reaching repercussions. The angry word spoken in spite might damage more than the moment. That’s what this Lenten season is all about — thinking about that collateral damage that accompanies sin no matter how we try to compartmentalize it. Our parish priest began a Lenten homily series on the nature of sin, and the communal nature of sin is a key Catholic teaching. We are responsible for our own actions, of course, but we always seem to rise and fall together.
As a parent, falling down is something my kids just have to do. They have to learn how to fall, how to absorb the impact without breaking bones or, later, hearts. More importantly, they have to learn how to get back up. That’s a lesson many of us never learn, I’m afraid. L has learned how to take a tumble and hop back up, or perhaps even laugh about it.
The Boy is slowly learning the same. Sometimes he’ll fall with a thump and hesitate for a moment before hopping up and proclaiming, “I’m okay!”
With L finishing up fourth grade, though, K and I have begun thinking about the simple fact that we’ll soon have to start thinking about considering middle school. (We’re masters of procrastinating at times.) That will begin a whole new cycle of learning: the broken heart. I don’t necessarily mean crushes that turn sour, though that too is in the back of the mind. I simply mean the cruelty with which teenagers can treat each other: the cutting comments, the fair-weather friends, the peer pressure, and all the sundry stresses of teen life.
But for now, sometimes it’s probably best not to fall down but just let yourself down, gently, and enjoy a lazy Sunday afternoon. Those worries will wait. For a while.
The Boy was playing CandyLand with K, and after he’d won the first game, he was eager to play another.
“I’m going to win again!” he proclaimed, and for a moment, it looked as if he were going to do just that. He shot ahead with double color after double color. Then K drew the gum drop and zoomed ahead.
“Oh, I’ll never win!” he proclaimed, frustrated.
“Yes, but you might draw another candy piece and move ahead, or Mama might draw the candy cane when you’re way past it and have to go back many, many spaces,” I reasoned. But as I often remind The Girl, there’s no reasoning with a four-year-old. He continued playing a bit halfheartedly. He drew a candy piece eventually, but K had shot so far ahead by then that his chances of winning really and truly were gone.
And with that loss, his desire to play was gone as well.
I remembered the whole time they played the new buzzword in education: grit. It’s really nothing more than perseverance in the face of difficulty and setback, but educators and researchers in education like new jargon. (I suspect it’s mainly from the latter.) And so “grit” is thrown around in education blogs and educator gatherings quite often these days. It was rewarding to see The Boy showing some of this perseverance. It took a good bit of encouragement, but he finished the game, learned the lesson (?), and we had a nice close to the afternoon.
The next night, The Boy and I are working with Legos. I was building a jail for him, and he was building a mystery. Not having a plan, he found the process a little slow-going and frustrating.
“I just can’t get it,” he fussed as he couldn’t get two pieces joined. He threw them down, and for just a moment, I thought the chances of a relaxing evening of Lego-ing were gone. But just for a moment. Seeing everything as a teaching opportunity — or at least trying to — I showed him how to get the pieces together, then pulled them apart and had him try again.
“I got it!”
Two opportunities to teach that could have disappeared but didn’t. The trick for me, though, is to transfer that to my students. Everything can be a moment to teach, a learning opportunity, for the at-risk kids in my charge. They lack social skills, patience, anger management methods, volume control, grit (there it is again), a growth mindset (another edu-speak jargon term that’s hot now). Every teaching moment can’t bloom — I’d never get to the curriculum some days. The balance must be there, but there’s so much they need before they’re gone off to high school…
Inspired by the Daily Post’s prompt of the day: Gone.
Candyland is a good first game for the Boy. It’s as boring as can be for the adult playing with him, but that’s often what parenting is all about: getting over the selfishness of boredom and relishing the interaction with the child. At the same time, I remember stacking the deck when playing with L, rationalizing it to myself by saying that I was teaching her to lose gracefully or win humbly. Perhaps I was just not savoring the moment and rushing to get to the end.
Candyland teaches turn-taking and acceptance of the luck. And while I’d like not to be one to suggest that luck has much to do with one’s fate because I’m a tough-minded, right-leaning moderate, I know that’s just bullocks. It’s luck where you’re born; it’s luck what your parents are like; it’s luck whether or not you have a handicap, physical or otherwise. Still, we right-leaning types like to think of bootstraps and such in the land of the free and home of the brave.
The Boy, though, had to add his little touch: the use of cars. If it’s not cars, he’s really not all that interested. Colors are difficult to remember because, well, colors, but vehicles — he can recognize Lamborghinis and campers, excavators and hot rods. But other things — not so much.
K the other night was working with him on Polish prayers, and she recited the traditional guardian angel prayer. After listening to it, he looked at K and said, “You must be kidding! I can’t remember that!”
Perhaps K needs to update it, include a Bugatti or something similar.
The Boy has become aware of money and all the things it can bring. While he’s not quite dreaming of cameras, he has his own toys he thinks about.
“Daddy, I’m going to save some money and buy that set,” he might say when we discovers some new car set that he simply must have. So he’s set about finding ways to get money. It turns out, our neighbor will give him some spare change when E comes over hand helps him wash his truck.
“He scrubs the tires a bit,” the neighbor explains, “and I help him out in his savings.” Last week, he came back with thirty-five cents.
“Now I can buy my car!”
“Not so fast,” we all want to explain, but it’s difficult to explain to an almost-four-year-old what money really is, what value actually consists of.
Value is something, I guess, you have to learn yourself. Like when you drop some of your coins into the recycling bin that’s half again as tall as you, when you realize that there’s no way at all you can get that money back out without someone’s dedicated assistance.
So many things started for me in Poland. Of course the most obvious is my family. I met K soon after my arrival, and now close to twenty years later, I can’t imagine life without her. I also fell in love with cycling while in Poland, eventually buying a road bike that I rode many, many kilometers. I sold that a few years ago to raise money for my other Polish-born love: photography.
In between the time I first decided I needed a better camera — which was about two or three weeks after arriving in Lipnica — and the images I made today, I’ve amassed a small collection of various cameras, including several Russian models I bought in Poland or K brought to the marriage.
Today, the Boy discovered them and absolutely had to look at them all. The Russian range finders were a favorite as they were small and fit his hands. The twin-lens reflex camera was a mystery: I couldn’t explain to him that you hold it waist level and look down into the view finder.
But he was a quick learner: it was only the second camera that the questions from the first experience appeared: “Daddy, how do you take the picture?” which is to say, “Where is the shutter release?” “Daddy, how do you move the picture?” which is to ask, “Where is the film advance?”
The irony of the situation was on the other side of the lens. I spent so much time lusting after bigger and “better” cameras over the years. The Nikon D2X captivated me until the release of the D3. The D4 of course replaced that, and then came the D5. And it would be pointless to mention that, at around $6,000 for the body alone, these professional cameras are and always will be out of our price range. So I contented myself with the so-called prosummer D300, which is now of course ancient history.
And then there are the lenses. The real magic of the camera is the glass, and my dream lens to go with my dream camera is about $2,000. Again, out of my price range.
The irony? My favorite camera now is our little Fuji digital range finder.
No zoom. No bells. About as plain a camera as one could wish for.
So now I’m dreaming of a $6,000 Leica M9 digital range finder…
Silly boys and their toys.
My job is about learning. It’s about teaching, too, but the more I stand on this side of the desk, the more I realize that teaching is learning. It’s not just the simple process — as if it were so simple in truth — of learning how to teach. There’s that, certainly. I’m better this year than I was last year, I hope. I’m better this year than I was five years ago, I’m sure. I’m better this year than I was fifteen years ago, I know.
It’s not pedagogy and method that I have in mind, though. I’ve learned that learning is so much more than simply figuring out how to write a good paragraph, understanding how to do geometric proofs, seeing the logic of the scientific method. These things are all well and good — and important. But they all serve as simple means to ends. We learn to write a good paragraph to be able to communicate better. We work on proofs to be able to construct a scaffold of surety around our knowledge — to prove to ourselves what is is. (And to move on to higher and more challenging math.) We study the scientific method because it’s the best way to find out things about the physical world.
All this knowledge helps us in our day to day functioning, but it does very little to help with our living. I’m not more at peace with myself because I can write a paragraph. I can’t show compassion better because I can manage geometric proofs. I’m not more mature because I know the scientific process. My life can bump along just fine without this knowledge, and having this understanding is in now way insulation or protection against anything. I’m not a better person for this.
I’m a better person when I connect with other people. I’m a better person when I understand that the most precious and instructive moments in life are those flashes when a couple of people connect in a real and meaningful way.
I teach my students how to make sense of Shakespeare (and, by proxy, many other challenging texts), and I show them how to organize a paragraph coherently, then how to string several paragraphs together in a logical order. Useful skills, but not life changing. Yet sometimes I get so wrapped up in the importance of those minutia (relatively speaking) that I miss the real teaching and learning opportunities. I forget that just because they’re not learning just what I want in just the way I planned it than my students aren’t learning. I forget that just because what they’re doing for a particular session has nothing to do with English than they’re not become better people. I forget that, at it’s base, that’s what all good teaching is about. There’s the subject matter, true, but all the teachers we really remember taught us more than just their subject matter. In some rare cases, we can sometimes barely even remember what exactly they taught us about English or math or Spanish, but we remember what they taught us about life.
Today, I had the privilege of taking about twenty of my students down the street to a community center than has a trice-weekly seniors program. The plan was simple. The plan didn’t work as planned due to technical issues. And so from a certain point of view, it was a complete waste of time. It didn’t do what I wanted it to do. The plan didn’t behave properly. And in that mini-disaster, I learned once again — my students taught me once again — that there’s more to teaching and learning than nouns and rays and Erlenmeyer flasks.
Sometimes lessons just come along than can’t be planned because the lessons themselves come simply from the messiness and unpredictability of life. Sometimes a room full of teens and seniors offers such individualized lessons that could never be planned, never be executed because life can often never really be planned. And that in itself is part of the lesson.
In the afternoon, another lesson about learning: not all learning has any adults at all involved. The kids headed out for their quarterly (or is it more often? I can never remember) reward day, which consists basically of forty-five minutes of freedom outside. Some kids play basketball; some kids play soccer. Some kids walk around and gossip orally; some kids walk around and gossip electronically.
And some kids just do a little bit of everything. The lessons there? Countless, and completely unplanned.
Back at home, L asked K to help her with a traditional Polish dance that she’d like to use to try out for the school talent show later this year. Tryouts are coming soon, and the Girl is not quite sure what she’s going to do. This is the first year she’s eligible, so she’s feeling a bit stressed about making a good impression. She’d noticed that all the Indian students in the past who’d done traditional dances made it to the show itself, so she reasoned that a Polish Highlander dance might stand a good chance.
So K began working on it with her. I’m not quite sure how this is supposed to work because Polish Highlander dances are really not solos — unless you’re dancing a male part. This bit of information prompted a bit of begging from the Girl, so K showed a few male moves. And E decided he wanted to learn them all, male moves and female moves.
Another unplanned lesson.
They’re really all around us. The opportunities are endless. And the miracle of it all is that we really don’t even have to be aware of it.
The Boy woke up this morning already discussing the obstacle course we could create that day. “First I’ll go to school. Then I’ll come home. And when you come home from school, we’ll build the obstacle course!” It was the highlight of his morning, this little future utopia that was only hours away.
When I arrived home, though, he was asleep. It happens some times — he’s about to outgrow that nap, but every now and then, he falls asleep. Perhaps it’s when he and K are in the car line to pick up L. Maybe it’s watching a little TV with L after she’s done her homework. Perhaps it just a random “Mommy, I’m tired” situation. Whatever the cause today, he was asleep.
“Good,” I thought. “Just enough time to have a bit of coffee and relax for a few moments.” Just as the Boy looked forward to his afternoon obstacle course, I always look forward to that afternoon coffee. I put some water on and chatted with K about the day when suddenly from upstairs came an excited call: “Daddy!” That in itself was surprising: it’s always K whom he calls for. Not today. “Daddy, we can build the obstacle course!”
I went up to his room and started negotiating. “Well, first we have to do a little cooking.”
“Yeah, sure, sure!” he said. The Boy loves cooking, and I knew this wouldn’t be a problem. The next item, though, might be a little troublesome.
“Also, I have a little school work to do. How about you watch a Might Machines episode while I drink my coffee and finish up my work?” I suggested.
“Okay. I love Might Machines.” And who wouldn’t?
After coffee and Machines, it was time for kiełbasa. We had to cut up a link of sausage (read: I had to cut it up) and fry it. The Boy helped with the latter. He’s our professional stirrer. If anything needs stirring, providing it’s not spitting and bubbling too violently, he’s the man for the job.
It’s sometimes more trouble than help: he hasn’t mastered the gentle stir, and he tends to get a little excited and send various foods flying onto the cook top. Such was the case tonight.
“Daddy, some fell out.” I’d pick up the sausage piece, toss it back in, and wait for the next one. “Daddy, some more fell out.” One piece, two pieces. He tried putting it back in himself, but by the time he got the nerve up to try it, the sausage was quite hot.
Finally, we were all done.
Up the stairs we went, discussing our options.
“I want one just like the one yesterday.”
“I’m not sure I can make it like that again.” I didn’t mention the picture I had taken of it, nor the fact that I could in theory use the picture to recreate it almost perfectly. I wanted to try something else.
“It’s more of a maze than an obstacle course,” L observed when she got home from dance classes.
It got me to thinking about two different metaphors for life: mazes and obstacle courses. Which would be a more optimistic view? And how much more optimistic? A maze seems almost hopelessly impossible when it’s life-size and you’re stuck in it, I would imagine. At least with an obstacle course, one can theoretically see the end. But in the end, they both seem just a touch too negative. For most of us, life isn’t a game. Indeed, games and play in general, most child psychologists would argue, I think, are really only dress rehearsals for “real” life. Life is like a maze — at times. It’s like an obstacle course — at times. And sometimes it’s a couple of pieces of sausage tumbling from the frying pan.