Tuesday, May 14, 2019

lent 2019

Each year I find a weird way to observe the season of Lent.  If you’re new to the blog, I think there’s still a search bar over there somewhere on the web version.  Type “lent” in there and feast on the ridiculous Lent-y things I’ve done in the past.  If you’re too busy to be bothered by such labor intensive tasks, just know that I’m relatively new to Lent and while I understand it is a sacred and respected thing for many, I have decided to take my own approach to giving up or taking on things for the 40+ days in the hopes that I’ll come out a slightly better version of myself on the other end.

This year I failed a bit.  I mean, maybe I’m a slightly better version of myself, but I will admit to taking the easy way out this year.  Let me explain that.

Through Instagram this year, I started to notice posts from “morning.gratitude” featuring daily lists regular people would post about things they were thankful for.  Or things for which they were thankful, depending on how you feel about grammar.  I was intrigued by the idea of being challenged to list 10 things you were grateful for every day.  I should say, I consider myself a pretty thankful person.  My parents taught me the importance of saying “thank you” to people and as a spiritual person, I get to express my thanks for the things in my life daily.  This is something I tend to do when I run early in the morning when it’s just me, the deer, rabbits, skunks and God awake.  But going to the trouble to write it down seemed like it could be a good idea.  So I decided just before Ash Wednesday I would accept the challenge and even go one step more…I would list 11 things each day instead of 10 because there are a lot of great things and this would help me be even more mindful.

So each morning when I sat down with my coffee at the table I would look out the front window and be quiet.  Zeke would circle the table, alternating between looking out the window and waiting for me to give him a chunk of banana.  I would eat a granola bar or a waffle and then pick up my cool little gratitude book.  As serendipity would have it, Violet gave me a small hardback journal type book for Valentine’s Day (pictured above).  It’s a Taylor Swift journal with a young T-Swift slinging a guitar on the front cover.  There are flowers and lines on each page, so you know, it’s perfect.  And each morning with only two exceptions, I sat there in my coffee ritual and started my day by listing 11 things I felt very grateful for at that moment.  The word “coffee” made a ton of appearances, naturally.  “Family”, “friends” and “running” also got a lot of pen time.  But there were also less frequent but awesome visitors.  “Wagging tails” was a good one.  “Finding out my license expired before the end of the grace period” was another good one.  “Goo Goo Cluster Lattes” and “glitter” were additions I never saw coming but I’m so grateful that they did.  So many things to be grateful for.

I mentioned two exceptions.  One morning I totally blanked on the routine and forgot to make my list.  I kept my book on the table every day so when I came in to eat dinner that night I remembered and made my list late.  Another day I was rushed by a changed morning schedule and had to come back to the gratitude list at lunch.  But I did make the list every day of Lent.  And I actually haven’t stopped doing it yet. 

I’ve noticed a change in how I think during each day since making the daily lists.  I’ll make that list in the morning and I’ll return to those thoughts throughout the day.  Somehow it keeps the ideas and the gratitude circulating.  I’ll be honest and tell you that this is no magic potion that makes all your days merry and light.  I’ll still get fed up and impatient and go off on someone in my head (and sometimes in person), but there, mixed in with the sudden burst of negativity is all that good stuff and I believe it helps to return me to a happy mental place quickly.  Even in traffic.  So I’m calling the gratitude list a success and I’m planning to continue it…at least until my cool book fills up.

But I mentioned I failed a bit.  I should tell you about that part too. 

See, making the list each day was most of my Lent commitment, but not all of it.  I also planned to do something kind for someone each day.  Any act of kindness would be fine.  It could be large or small, free or expensive, it just had to be kind.  I loosely defined “act of kindness” for this experiment as something intentional I do for someone.  Intentional and kind.  I figured keeping the definition loose would be helpful, not to make it easy, but to help me keep an open mind about different ways to be kind.  I felt that these acts needed to be out of the ordinary for me.  Something I don’t do every day.  I didn’t want to wave or smile at someone and feel like I was off the hook for the day.  So that was the plan and each morning I would reflect on the kind thing and write a name or action under the gratitude list. 

I started strong.  I sat down and typed out an email to a good friend after a busy day.  I mailed grits to Canada.  I gave meter money to a mom scrambling for change.  And I kept going for about 10 days.  But I started to feel weird about it.  I just felt like these were things I should be doing anyway.  Ok, maybe mailing grits to Canada was strange, but I had a friend who had never experienced grits and I just couldn’t let that go.  But one day a thing happened and I went away from it thinking, “Alright, that’s your kind thing for the day” and that just felt wrong.  It also felt wrong to record the kind things.  After writing a few of them down I couldn’t see the good in recording it.  It felt good to be observant and to find an opportunity to do something kind.  It felt good to do the kind thing.  But that felt like a natural end to it.  So I stopped recording them.  I stopped writing them down and I even stopped thinking about it.  I’m not sure if I did an intentional kind thing every single day…at least not one that was out of the normal range of behavior for me. 

My job provides many opportunities to interact with people and I feel a personal responsibility to show love and kindness to those people.  Basically, I mean I try not to be a butthole on a daily basis.  I try to be kind whenever possible, I just couldn’t get behind tracking a kind thing every day.  So I failed that part of my Lent exercise. 

There’s an expression I used to hear old, southern people say when I was younger.  It was “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.  The gist of the phrase is that if you walk around looking for a particular thing, you’ll figure out a way to see it everywhere.  You find what you’re looking for.  This is part of the power of the human mind.  When your head is filled with negative or anxious thoughts, you’ll spend your entire day focusing on the negative, anxious things around you.  If you’re focused on the positive things, those are the things you’ll see.  Since Ash Wednesday I’ve spent my days walking around looking for the good things in my life.  That has kept my mind on the good things.  I also have to point out that several great things have happened to me and around me during this time.  Coincidence?  Serendipity?  I guess it really doesn’t matter does it?  I’d just like to keep the positive things happening so I’m going to keep focusing on those things. 

It looks like my little book is about halfway full now.  I think I’ll fill it up. 

Thursday, May 9, 2019

the one where i learn something

One of the cool things about being a teacher is getting a fresh start on a regular basis.  You get amped up about the coming school year and you dive into it with a revised plan.  The weeks and months of student interactions unfold and you find yourself approaching May with a bag full of bitter losses, plans that fell apart and students wishing you were dead.  If this sounds like hyperbole to you, then you are obviously not a teacher.

Of course, there are the plans that work out great and the students who you helped and heck, some of them even tell you so.  It's not all bad, but we humans do tend to focus on the negative parts, don't we?  So you find yourself nearing May, having a lot of conversations with yourself in the car on the commute home.  What worked this year?  What didn't?  What will you do different next year?  The cool thing is that you can kind of cut your losses at graduation and start fresh in August.  

As this time of reflection has rolled up on me this semester, it's had me looking back and really considering the social aspect of being a teacher.  This is something teachers don't talk about very often but perhaps they should, as it appears to be a weakness for many of us.  What is the social aspect of being a teacher?  It's pretty much everything beyond the dry delivery of information in your class.  And no one wants to be the dry deliverer of information.  We all have personalities and teaching approaches that inform that delivery.  In 3 hour studio classes, there's also a lot of personal interaction that goes on which makes who you are almost as important as what you know.  What I mean by that is that if you are a cold, personality-void-of-a-human and you know a lot of stuff, you may be able to pass that information along to a couple of the self starters in your class.  But if you are engaging and passionate and you show a personal interest in the lives of your students, you will certainly reach a much larger group of students.  This separates the ineffective "teachers" from the best teachers you've ever had.  

I teach those 3 hour studio art classes.  Those classes meet twice each week for 3 hours each.  That's 6 hours of contact time with each student each week.  6 hours in the same room with them.  6 hours of working on tedious projects.  If you wanted to be the dry deliverer of information, your classes would seem unbearable.  I had classes like that in college.  Dreadful.  But I also had classes with engaging and fun professors who yelled and waxed philosophical in class while their students worked.  Those were the preferred studio environments.  

Seasame Street and the Magic School Bus taught us that education can be entertaining.  Taking notes from Kermit the Frog, I've learned that my classes can be rigorous, my projects can be challenging and my subject matter feared as long as I make it fun.  I know there are teachers who would scoff at this, and I'd quietly tell you to spend 6 hours a week in those teachers' classes and get back to me on who was correct.  Because my subject is Sculpture, I basically live in a toy box every day at school.  When I get bored watching students work without needing any help, I can grab a couple of things and make some sort of ridiculous thing to make everyone laugh.  We can take a couple of hammers to a project gone astray and pulverize it into oblivion.  We'll do something absurd for a couple of minutes and then everyone can get back to work with a renewed sense of focus.  My method is proven.  It holds up.  

But the social aspect of being a teacher goes beyond this surface classroom entertainment.  A good teacher asks questions and gets to know their students.  I'm lucky enough to be a part of a department that acts more like a family.  Our extra curricular activities allow us to get to know students outside of class and identify with them on different levels.  The ways this can link students and professors are many and varied.  It's probably just best to give a few real life examples.  

We talked about Nick recently.  Oh, I guess I shouldn't use real names.  So we'll call this student "Snick" to protect his identity.  When Snick started out that first year, he wasn't really all that open to my nonsense.  When students resist the goofing around and keep their walls high and strong, my tendency is to try harder.  Snick wasn't having it.  I would have told you at that time that he hated me.  So I shifted my time and attention to places I felt it was better received.  That part is really difficult and that could probably be a whole series of blog posts, but I'll leave that for another day.  Then, 3 years later, I wear Snick down when he's forced to take my class again.  I did my usual thing of being silly, asking questions and getting to know him and it worked.  He opened up and really came into his own as a sculptor in my classes, making some of the strongest work he made as a student here.

Then there was "Smolly".  Smolly showed interest in the nonsense right out of the gate and even participated in it.  During less ridiculous conversations she engaged in more thoughtful questions and discussions, even stretching over into some semi-spiritual aspects of art.  She continued to be engaged as a student the whole time she was with us and this allowed us to really grow into each other.  She's headed off to grad school now and this year she mailed me the most meaningful letter of appreciation.  

Oh and what about "Sassy-squatch", "Swhisk", "D'Sean", "D'Danielle" and "D'Katertot"?  (This code name thing is hilariously fun for me.  I hope Sean reads this and laughs hard at that one....I mean "D'Sean!)  They responded well to my nonsense and we all became racquetball buddies and 5K buddies and eat out at every opportunity buddies.  They also all excelled in my classes and won awards with their work.  And maybe the most significant fact about this group who graduated, what, 5 years ago now, is that I've talked to every single one of them in the last few months.  Several in the last week.  "Sassy-squatch" is talking to me right this second through Instagram, reliving the memory of that time we ran a 5K together on campus and took ridiculous photos at the finish line and we both accidentally won awards.

There are more serious connections too.  I won't lower those moments with silliness but it is pretty meaningful when students feel connected enough to me to find me in hard times to talk it out.  Or to seek serious advice about their next steps.  Or to talk about relationships.  Or to cry in my little orange chair.  I can be serious when I need to be.  And the most important interactions may only take a second.  One of the most memorable of these interactions was a quick but meaningful fist bump to a student who really needed it several years ago.  

Full disclosure:  These are extreme examples.  There are many, many more examples of smaller connections on different scales.  There are also plenty of students who have always thought I was the Devil in flesh and have avoided every mention of my name.  
Fuller disclosure:  Every student who enters my studio gets the same offer.  It's the student who chooses their level of engagement by their actions and reactions.  A smile instead of a scoff.  Following instructions instead of disrespect.  Saying yes to an opportunity instead of saying no.

The thing is, none of those examples above would have been possible if I had not stepped out of the "passing along the academic information" mode and been a real person.  None of it would have happened if I had not made an effort to make a human connection.  We will likely never fully know the extent to which we touch and affect the lives of the people we bump up against each day.  Maybe something I did made someone's day better.  Maybe it changed their path in a more meaningful way.  

So was it worth the extra time spent at school?  Was it worth the trouble of having a handful of students pissy at me because they didn't get invited?  Was it worth the passive aggressive comments about having "favorites"?  Was it worth the pain of saying goodbye to graduates you care about?  Those are just a few of the questions swirling in the head on the late April commutes home.

I suppose the answer is obvious.  Of course it was worth it.  Just in the last few weeks I've received a handwritten thank you note from one of those people mentioned above.  Another one listed up there took the time to write out a really touching letter that explains how meaningful our interactions were to them.  Look, there's nothing about this that's easy.  Teaching like this is not the path of least resistance.  But when you're living and working beside people who need a connection and who become better students and humans when such a connection is provided, don't you have a responsibility to provide it?  

The internet teaches you to feel nothing.  Just stay distant and use sarcasm and cynicism to protect your heart from pain.  Text your questions instead of looking someone in the eye.  Ask shallow, surface questions and self-deprecate to keep anyone from looking deeper.  Live your life off of likes and follows and interpret your online popularity to determine your validity in life.  But this year has taught me a contrary set of lessons that reach far beyond teaching.  Connect.  Feel.  Meet.  Discuss.  Be honest.  Sit down and eat with someone.  Sit across from them with a coffee in your hand and look them in the eye.  Tell people you like them when you like them.  Tell people you want to be their friend when you want to be their friend.  Celebrate with people.  Be proud of people.  Hurt with people.  Eat more ice cream with people.  Ok, that last one may be more about me than y'all, but you get the point.  

During winter break last year I had one of those mid year crises and decided that when January rolled around what every single one of my students needed most in life was a hug.  I talked myself into a frenzy and I had every intention of walking into my studio on the first day of classes and greeting everyone with a hug.  Those of you who know how vigilant I am at avoiding hugs should really appreciate the gravity of this decision.  I was convinced this is what my people needed.  I'm still pretty convinced.  But I let winter break talk me down from the ledge and when I walked in on that first day, I smiled but hugged no one.  In hindsight, maybe the hug would have been over the top.  Today though, I feel even more strongly that students need a better connection.  They need to know they have someone who gives a crap.  Someone they can go to.  

Of course it's worth it.  For me and for you.