Saturday, June 9, 2007

Summer's Nearly Here, But The Learning Never Stops

The kids are so cute, the kids are so cute, the kids are so cute. I wonder if it is getting to be a boring refrain? But I can’t help it, because the kids are so cute.

Actually, even though in many ways they are less cute, because the summer countdown is here and it really can be measured in so many days and hours--so they are absolutely off their gourd with excitement, frustration, inability to sit still and focus, and rabid rambunctousness--but I think this makes them more cute. This is being a genuine human and who can’t relate? After all, we aren’t really much better, just more heavily socialized. I mean, I feel that summer energy, and we aren’t even off for the summer! But we do have certain summer privileges and the atmosphere is infinite looser and anyway, it’s SUMMER!

We have a teacher here at school (who therefore does get the summer off) named “Jayne” and she has this thing that goes, “This will be the Summer of Jayne.” I don't know what it is supposed to mean exactly, and yet I really like it and I always feel that it is going to be the Summer of Jayne, too. So I figure out ways to honor it or celebrate it, because if it is a good summer for Jayne, then it is good summer for everybody. Maybe Jayne is the Goddess of Summer?

Anyway, two years ago, in support of the Summer of Jayne, I gave her a listing of all the beaches in this southern third of the state complete with evaluations on quality, cleanliness, beauty, and so on, and for those hidden gems, directions for finding them. This I had taken from a book written by a couple of middle-aged surfers who from their pre-pubescent years on up had swum, surfed, camped, ate, slept, beach-combed, hiked, and done every conceivable thing that you can do on a beach, so they really know their way around. Jayne, of course loved it, but I think she ended up spending most of her summer on a lounge chair by a swimming pool.

Well, last year, when people asked me where I went for the summer, I said “to my air mattress on my apartment building’s swimming pool”, and that, literally was the truth. Whereas several years prior I had gone on a wonderful cruise to as far south as the islands off the coast of Honduras, this past summer, I never went any further than two stories down and twenty feet horizontal to the swimming pool. I made my own heaven out there. There’s really no more patio space than three feet around the edges of our pool and it used to be that apartment residents filled up every inch of that space in the summer, but eventually all the lounge chairs were stolen or damaged, so now nobody goes out there any more.

But I wanted to, and just prior to the beginning of the summer I had gotten a book on the healing nature of the sun (people nowadays, who are afraid of everything because corporations or government or media want them to be afraid of everything, even if it is as natural as things like sunshine, air, and meat, think they will get skin cancer if they venture outside without sunblock slathered all over themselves), which explained that many more people suffered from diseases caused by Vitamin D deficiency than they did skin cancer, and besides, the chemicals in sunblock are cancerous, and I was eager to put this healing of the sun into practice. A gradual, careful build-up of exposure to the sun and avoiding burning was what was prescribed, but it was ridiculous to fight traffic for an hour, pay $7.00 to park, to only stay on a beach for ten minutes. So my own building’s swimming pool was the only reasonable answer, yet how to lay out there without a lounge chair or any room?

Brilliant mind that I have, I came up with the idea of using an air mattress floating ON the swimming pool. And that’s what I did every day I had off all summer, building up that exposure to the sun and meanwhile, getting a lot of swimming in, too. And while I soon enough became “the god of the swimming pool”, nobody else ever came out there except to walk by to the parking lot or to dump garbage in the dumpster. I know almost all of them were thinking, “Look at the fool, getting himself a good case of skin cancer.” Which was fine with me, because I didn’t want them out there, anyway. So it was MY pool all to myself!

So this year, my offering to the Goddess of the Summer, “the Summer of Jayne,” will be a copy of that book and an air mattress, just like mine. There’s nothing more wonderful than that, much, much more comfortable than a lounge chair. If you get too hot, you simply roll off into the cooling water, and then climb back on.

With the school year coming to an end, the lower school presented an appreciation luncheon for all the teachers in the lower school. In order for all of them to partake of the luncheon, volunteers were sought among other employees who wouldn’t ordinarily have lunch duty to do lunch duty for those lower school teachers whose day it was to be out there. I volunteered, so this put me out there with all the lower school kids. A couple of the kindergarten kids came up to me and said they remembered me from having been a mystery guest reader in their classroom at the beginning of the school year, and wished that I would come to read them again. Well, how can I refuse, especially since I really like to do it?

So I told this to their teacher, who invited me to come read the next week. I looked through the few children’s books that I have at home (which I buy for myself because I like them) and selected two different ones, Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch, and Look At Me, Grandma. "Mr. Hatch" is about a dull loner of a man who sticks to simple, boring routine and has no friends. However on Valentine’s Day, he receives a huge heart-shaped box filled with candy and a card that says “Somebody loves you.” Amazed to think that he has a secret admirer, Mr. Hatch comes out of his shell and becomes a joyful, generous, well-loved man at work and in the neighborhood where he hosts barbecues and parties and helps everybody. Then it is discovered that the box had been delivered to him by mistake, that he had no secret admirer after all. He immediately crawls back into his shell. But it’s too late, the true wonderful personality that was really Mr. Hatch had already been let out of the bag, so the neighbors throw him a special celebration, letting him know that EVERYBODY loves Mr. Hatch, so the story ends with everybody happy and Mr. Hatch playing the harmonica while everybody dances and parties.

"Grandma", on the other hand, is a sparsely-written, somewhat difficult to understand book that nevertheless was based on an idea that really appealed to me. It’s about a boy who now questions his place in the world because his mother will soon give birth to a sibling. She has gone off to the hospital and the boy is left alone with his grandmother who has come to take care of him in the absence of the boy’s parents. Wisely, the grandmother understands what the boy is going through, but rather than discuss the issue directly, she brings her photo album that shows her as a little girl the same age as the boy. What the boy discovers in the photo album is that his grandma had an older brother that he hadn’t known about, because this boy had died when he was still a child.

That night, the spirit of the grandmother’s older brother comes to the boy in a dream and takes him on an adventure floating in the sky, and acting like a big brother, teaches the boy how to ride a bicycle, something the boy had been having trouble learning, because he was afraid. But in the dream with this “big brother”, he loses his fear and rides the bicycle.

The next day, the boy asks his grandmother to take him to the park and he wants to bring his bicycle, which he finally masters in real life, thanks to the courage he received in his dream. As he successfully rides, he says, “Look at me, Grandma!”

That night he dreams of his grandmother’s big brother again, who this time takes him to the beach and teaches him to swim in the waves, something else the boy had wanted to do but, while he had had swimming lessons, was too afraid of the waves. But with his “big brother,” with him, he loses his fear.

The next day, he asks his grandmother to take him to the beach, and he says he wanted to swim in the waves. When he manages to do so, he calls out to his grandmother who is swimming next to him, “Look at me, Grandma!”

Again, that night he dreams of his grandmother’s brother once more, who this time takes him to the amusement park and together they ride in the bumper cars. (I remember, myself, being afraid of the bumper cars at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, but an older boy gave me the confidence and soon enough, it was something I came to really love.) So the next day, the boy asks his grandmother to take him the amusement park and he says he wants to ride the bumper cars. She lets him steer, and when he masters it, he says, “Look at me, Grandma!”

Later that day, the parents come back home with the new baby, a little girl. The boy wants to hold her and when he does, he loves her so much and swells with generosity and pride over being her "big brother”. Of course, without saying it, it is understood that he has now successfully repositioned himself from being “the baby” of the household to being the big brother, and he now knows how he can be in a position to help his sister with the challenging things in life. As he holds her, his final words in the book are, “Look at US, Grandma!” It is now no longer all about him, and yet he has gained something marvelous, instead.

I figured the best way to “read” this story was to basically semi-”tell” it, filling in the gaps with fuller explanations and using my voice to animate the magic and the thrill of it. So now I felt ready to give the kids some great enjoyment.

However, then the teacher e-mailed me and said that I would have only fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes--that’s hardly any time at all! Well, I didn’t really believe it...of course, once I got going, the kids would love it and the teacher would let me continue. I had no idea how long (or short) these two stories would be, but surely the two of them would be the right length.


I got to the classroom a little early, so waited outside while the kids gathered after their lunch. Some of the more assertive ones told me they remembered me from before and said they were glad that I came. One boy reminded me that he had asked for me to come, and I said, “You asked, and here I am!”

Then the more aggressive ones wanted to see what I had brought to read, so I showed them and asked if they had already heard (or read) those books. It seemed that the majority of them already knew “Mr. Hatch.” Well, this disappointed me, but I said, “Well, I have another book, do you all know this one, too?” They didn’t know “Grandma,” but they all wanted me to read “Mr. Hatch” to them anyway. Several kids said, “We love that story and want to hear it again,” and one boy said, “It is my FAVORITE book.”

Frankly, I was less enthusiastic about reading a story they already knew really well (I was much more interested in presenting something more obscure), but that’s life. I said to the teacher hopefully, “Well maybe there’s time for me to do both...?” and she said, “Well, we will have to see, we really expect to allow only fifteen minutes.” I said, “Well, I’m not trying to interfere with whatever you’ve got set up,” but she said, “it’s not what we have set up, it has to do with their attention span.”

Oh, their attention span, well now I wasn’t worried...surely they would have enough of an attention span to want to hear both stories.

So then I read “Mr. Hatch” and they all listened with intense attention, as if they had never heard the story before. Maybe I did it differently enough (with different-sounding voices or inflections for the various characters) that it was almost as if it were brand new.

Since they already knew the story, I was less interested in showing the pictures and more interested in animating the story. However, the kids insisted on seeing the pictures, too, and the teacher explained to me how I had to do it. “We do what we call ‘the Fan’,” which consisted of holding the open book up and slowly panning across the width of the crowd of children sitting on the floor. If I moved too fast, one of them would say “the Fan,” which meant that I had passed them too quickly. It seemed to me that doing “the Fan” doubled or tripled the length of the story; however, I wanted to make the best of it and pointed out certain details that I liked, such as “There’s his prune that he brought for dessert,” or “see how the neighbor who was painting the shutters green fell off the ladder, drawing a green line down the wall.” When I did that, I had to fan twice, once for the kids to see the picture as a whole, and then again so that they could pick out the little detail that I thought to point out.

I believe the kids enjoyed my performance of this story. When I read about Mr. Hatch sharing his candy with the people at work, the kids looked at me with wide eyes, as if they could imagine somebody sharing candy with them. And when Mr. Hatch was so sad to learn that the package had been delivered to him by mistake, and he gave the heart-shaped box back to the mailman (minus the candy, of course, that had already been eaten), and then when Mr. Hatch says, “Oh, you better take this, too, it goes with it,” and handed the mailman the card that said “Somebody loves you,” the kids looked like they were going to cry. Even though they knew the story would turn out alright, they felt the poignance of this moment.

What the kids seemed to like the best, though, was when I decided to expand the part of Mr. Hatch playing the harmonica. Instead of simply reading the line, “Mr. Hatch played his harmonica,” I, too, “played a harmonica” using my fingers with a note-changing “bwooop” as if each finger was a different note. The kids seemed joyfully taken aback by that. So I said, “what kind of music do you think Mr. Hatch played? You think maybe it was like this,” and I began to wail a kind of bluesy “wah wah wawawaa” on my fingers (my favorite kind of harmonica music) and the kids all began “wah wah waw”ing on their hands, too, until the teacher finally had to settle them down again. (My bad! Except that I loved it.)

Then the story was over and one boy shocked me by saying, “That was a really long story. A REALLY long story.” I glanced at my watch and saw twenty minutes had gone by. Was that long by their estimation?

Well, I wasn’t through yet, I felt, and said, glancing at the teaching assistant, “So, do you now want to hear the other story?”

Several kids shouted, “Yeah!”, but many others said, “No!” Again, that took me aback (what do you mean No?), so the teaching assistant took a vote: “How many want to hear another story, raise your hands.” And it looked like a LOT of kids raised their hands. “How many want to go do something else?” And that was obviously the clear majority. So she said to me, “Well maybe we can save it for another time,” even though I knew there was going to be no other time, at least, not for these kids, as school ends next week.

I left the classroom feeling somewhat sad. I remembered the time I ran for class president in high school and in a field of three candidates, came in last with 32 votes. (Me, high school class president? What a joke.) My parents and friends all said, “Just think of those 32 who WANTED you.” And I thought that there were a heck of a lot of kids in the class who had wanted me to read the other story, even though the majority wanted to do something else--so let’s concentrate on those who had wanted it. However, what really made me feel better was my realization about how when I go to a movie, I don’t then want to see another one for a few days. I kind of want to live in or “veg” in that one movie for a while. Two movies in a row is just too much. So why would it be any different with the kids and the stories? See, I am still learning from kindergarten!

Then the next day, I was invited back into my beloved class of first graders, the ones who enjoyed the Australia lectures. The teacher had a gift for me, and all the kids had signed a card. Prior to receiving the gift, I thought of what might be the perfect gift that they would give me, and thought a coffee mug decorated in Aboriginal art, except I thought you could NEVER find such a thing. Well guess what, that is exactly what they gave me, a beautiful coffee mug painted with not only Aboriginal art, but with examples of ALL the styles of Aboriginal art. It was perfect!

And then something else that I thought was amazing happened. I should explain that there was an idea I had come up with several years ago after substituting in several of the middle school classrooms. It seems that whenever I went into those classrooms, the teachers hadn’t organized any particular lessons for me to teach (although sometimes they had), mainly because they had been called away suddenly and I was mostly being used as a baby-sitter, or maybe as some kind of adult resource to generally help the kids with whatever projects they were working on. But what I experienced was that many of the kids mostly just wanted to talk with me. It seemed that what was valuable to them at the time was not a “teacher” so much, but an adult who could explain things or answer things in an unrestrained way, and by unrestrained I mean an adult who doesn’t have a mandate to impart a particular lesson or curriculum point. Instead, this adult could be a freeflowing knowledgeable person who was completely off the track and yet willing to discuss whatever was on the kids’ minds.

This never actually happened in a formal, organized way, but more haphazardly (but no less valuable for that), yet I figured that what would really be cool would be if I would be able to say to them that while I was there, it was a time for “questions and answers" about whatever was on their minds. It is hoped that such a thing would have no limitations at all (although I guess that would be impossible), but my idea would be that if they were mature enough to ask, they were also mature enough to get a real answer. I think kids learn that they are NOT always going to get a real answer from an adult (and thus are separated from the very resource that they need), so how wonderful it must be to actually get reliably honest information for a change. At least ever since the beatnik 50s, youth have become members of what Robert Bly called “the Sibling Society,” which means that they are closed off from learning anything significant from older generations, but are left figuring everything out from only themselves. The semi-blind leading the semi-blind.

In first grade, receiving that gift, I was placed in a seat of honor at the front of the classroom and I did not simply sit there silently and receive the gift, but talked freely about various things, and my talking led to several children raising their hands and asking me various philosophical questions that they had been wondering about ever since my talks (and anyone who has experienced young children way more than I have certainly knows that children think philosophically and have an infinite number of esoteric questions!) and I gave answers, which led to more questions. While these questions were all logical stepping stones stemming off from the original subject, we did quickly get out into new territory and the children were quite delighted, as was I. We could have gone on until the children were quite exhausted, but schools are organized around periods and apparently this teacher had wisely allowed for one whole class period to be devoted to this “gift-giving” and the ultimate question-and-answer session that was bound to follow (this teacher knows both her students and me very well), but this period did have to come to an end, with snack time and a recess.

I later told this teacher about the difference between her class and the kindergarten class, just one year younger, and she said that there was a WORLD of difference between the two grades and the attention spans of each. For the kindergarten class that I read to, the maximum seemed to be 20 minutes, whereas for this first grade class, it seemed to be 75 minutes.

After having the pleasure of being in that class, I went back to my office to find several parents working on a project that involved double-sided copying color pages on our upstairs copying machine. They were having quite a lot of frustrating trouble getting the machine to produce the final product that they wanted. Well, I have produced several brochures or manuals that have involved various copying and formatting tricks, so I volunteered to help them figure out this very frustrating problem, and anything we could figure out would help me with later projects. What you put in is not what you get out, because the pages somehow get all turned around upside down and backwards when you do double-sided copying, and stapled in the wrong place. A quick statistical calculation revealed to me that with this particular project, there were something like 2,048 possible combinations of paper placement so that trial and error was basically not going to get you the result you want, and when several minds and voices are all throwing out their suggestions, the most certain result is that you will simply give up on the project--either that, or you will want to hurt somebody, or damage the machine. The parents had nearly gotten to that point when I got there, and pretty soon, I nearly got there, too.

Well, all this effort used up all the time that the parent in charge had allotted to the project and she had an appointment elsewhere and said that she would have to leave and come back later this afternoon. So I said that with everybody gone and everything all quiet, I would FIGURE THIS OUT and have it all ready for her when she came back. She seemed doubtful, but I said that I would have to do it with pen and ink and written notes and observations of what happened to each sheet, but ultimately I would end up with a pattern or template that she could follow in her duplicating.

It actually took me almost a whole hour, and the result (disappointingly) was that it was IMPOSSIBLE to do it exactly the way they wanted it, because the automatic stapling happened in only one place on the machine, stapling up from underneath into whatever corner was southeast (looking down on it) on the landscape pages presented to the machine’s staple. If your cover sheet was facing down, so the staple would be right-side up, when you took the finished product out and looked at it, the staple would be on the northeast corner, which is not where you want it. But if you disc-spun the pages around 180 degrees, the staple would then be on the southwest corner, which was again wrong. If you arranged it so that the cover sheet came out on top, you could have either the staple in the southeast (wrong again), or the northwest, which was the right SPOT, but the staple was upside down. That final position ended up being the best choice, if the parents could stand having the staple in the right place, but upside down. It was either that, or else staple them by hand, but as they were producing several hundred copies, hand-stapling was not a good option.

It was so frustrating, because I kept thinking that it absolutely HAD to work if only I could figure out how to make it do what I wanted, but it was only after careful observation that I saw that it was impossible. It’s like trying to find something that you think is lost, but is actually NOT there. How long do you keep looking. What I had to do was figure out a way to prove to the parent that it was impossible, not that I had given up--without spending another hour on the project.

I’m not sure if this mother ever completely got that it really was impossible, or did I settle on only a pretty-good measure and then call it a day. She had, however, appreciated my efforts (or what she expected to be my perfect result) that she arrived with a gift for me, a Starbucks bag filled with a large cup of coffee, another cup of milk, and two packets each of all three sweetening choices: Sugar in the Raw, Sweet ‘N Low, and Equal, plus stirring sticks and a package of chocolate-covered graham crackers. Certainly this isn't something she needed to do, but I thought that this was nice beyond belief and, of course, I noticed how thoughtful she had been to bring whatever I needed in the way of creamer and sweetener to match my choice regardless of whatever it was. I feel that very often this level of thoughtfullness matched with extreme detail orientation characterizes so much of what our school’s parents do for us and continually demonstrate in their actions.

It's fascinating how what seems a routine or simple human transaction can turn into a universal lesson. On a global scale, people who “do not have,” whether that is someone from an impoverished third world country or someone of “entitlement” mentality here in our own country, excuse their situation by blaming “the exploitative rapacity of the capitalistic west” or the "unfair advantage” that others have and therefore demand charity, reparations, or “equalization.” But it has been demonstrated time and time again concerning third worlders and the entitlement people in our country that these people have various attitudes, perceptions, or orientations that point the finger of failure directly at them. Basically, they are more concerned about the advantage of the moment and do not look forward or plan for the future. Examples in backward countries such as “localized corruption,” minor government functionaries demanding bribes for every task (and therefore never organizing their economy into a safe and protective rule of commercial law), or price-gouging whenever possible (such as it is a good idea for a westener to establish the price of a ride before getting into a taxi) and therefore killing trust and destroying repeat business, or operating via the inefficiency of bargaining or negotiating in every market transaction where the interest is more in cheating the buyer with a bad bargain than it is in providing the best product at a fair price, or being casual about appointments or deadlines and promises and therefore taking a very long time to accomplish very little, or being exploitative themselves of their OWN environmental resources by eating up every single bird egg that gets laid in a season or every seed instead of culling out some for the next generation of resources, or never planning an education or saving a portion of one’s money, but instead spending all the time and money now and therefore never having any means for advancement.

The people who are parents at our school are at the utter opposite of third world "never got theres" or American "I'm entitled to every kind of assistance because I am disadvantaged", but are extremely successful people who cannot be blamed for rapacity or unfair advantage; instead, they look beyond the moment toward a future they want to create for themselves, nurture their own talents, give generously, plant seeds, and think of every detail even in tiny, what might seem as insignificant tasks. We’re supposed to be the school, but so often the parents can be the teachers of the employees. Sure, a lot of what they understand are things we all already know, but they put these things into practice and to have their example is like having the textbook and the helps to have it all enhanced with actualized external models and the solidification of repetition via human interaction. Helping them helps us.

I so much love being “a teacher”, who can continually learn, so school, for an employee, is still a school. Besides, the kids are so darn cute.

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