"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Monday, June 11, 2007

Mother Daughter

Walt and I go to our local Starbucks nearly every Friday morning before work. We started these dates as a way to set aside a chunk of time to talk and reconnect during a particularly busy time several years ago. Our Starbucks is small and has always seemed sort of seedy, even when it was new. The service is maddeningly inconsistent as are the lattes we order every week. It is, however, the only comfortable coffee place open at 6:00 AM in our small town. Because of that it offers the comfort of familiarity and the small town family feel of the regulars and neighbors we greet as punctuation to our conversations.

I'm not exactly sure when this particular little girl came into focus for me. Looking back, it seems as though she and her mother have always been a part of our Friday morning ritual. She was a tiny thing, staying close to her mom like a new colt exploring the world for the first time. She had the long thin legs and spirit of a colt as well.

Two things drew my eyes back to her again and again.

The first was the clear fact that this child was allowed to dress herself. Every Friday she would appear like a tropical bird - bright colors that declared confidence and courage. The colors did not necessarily agree with one another, but this little girl wore them with such flair, it didn't matter. Her tights were often Pippi Longstocking stripes. She would wear pink cowboy boots and lacy dresses and a green rabbit fur jacket.

Her hair was as creatively done as her clothes, but done neatly enough her mom had to have put it into the styles that this child asked for. Multiple ponytails with a confused rainbow of scrunchies or ties. Parts in unusual places with the resulting curtain pulled back by funky barrettes. Occasionally loose and wild, suggesting a getting-ready that didn't go smoothly.

The second thing about this child and her mother that tugged at me was their relationship. They were always in deep conversation with each other. They would sit together with what appeared to be regular orders, continuing their companionable talk while they ate. The mom spoke directly to her daughter and the daughter spoke just as directly back. They would laugh easily together. While there didn't seem to be a lot of physical contact, the connection between this mother and daughter was palpable. It made me want to weep for my own inner girls who would never know that maternal love.

At some point I started to look forward to their appearance as part of our Friday morning date. Wondering what the girl would wear this week. Wanting to be in the presence of that connection. Wishing she would look at me and smile. Even though they were regulars, neither mother nor daughter ever made eye contact with me. The energy of my gaze, as intense as it was, could not break through the bubble of their relationship.

Our coffee dates went on hiatus for the summers, following the rhythm of a teacher's life. When we resumed our routine in the fall, mother and daughter were there as though no time had passed. The girl grew noticeably taller from September to September, but little else changed. I continued my quiet inner love affair with the power emanating from this pair.

Last September everything changed.

As I was settling into my new school this fall, teachers would stop by and ask to see my class list. We are always curious to know about our former students and what their fate will be for the next year. There are certain students who stand out in a school for one reason or another, and whose placement is always of particular interest. Without exception, I heard about one special girl from every person who looked at my list. She is a pistol. Very creative. Very artistic. A performer. You'll need to win her over or your year will be a tough one. You'll need to win her mom over or your life in this district will be miserable. Mom is a teacher at the middle school and a force to be reckoned with.

I'm sitting with my new colleagues at cafeteria tables in the high school for the annual back to school breakfast. This is a first for me - to be eating breakfast with every employee of the district in one room. The air is filled with the buzz of people greeting each other after the summer, sharing vacation stories and getting filled in on the surprise staff changes that happen every year. Someone says there's K and her mom, referring to the infamous pistol who is about to become one of my students. My eyes search the area that has been pointed out to me. They stop at a familiar face: the mom from Starbucks. For a moment I'm excited at her familiarity in this room of strangers, then my eyes continue scanning for K and her mom. There is only one girl in the vicinity who could be the notorious K. She's walking toward her mom. My eyes follow her path to the Starbucks mom and the realization stuns me.

This child that I've been admiring from afar for so many years is about to become my student. I get to experience first-hand the energy and love of this mother/daughter partnership. Any lingering doubt about whether I made the right move or not evaporates completely in that moment of recognition.


In five days, K will no longer be my student. I love the reality of her even more than I loved the idea of her. I didn't actually win her until January. She was polite and went along, but she already had one strong woman in her life. She didn't need me. She was not an easy student. The work of school interfered with her social life and she barely tolerated the inconvenience. Her desk was a disaster area, full of the sticky notes she spent all of her time folding, writing on, decorating with. She blatantly passed notes while I was teaching. She would come in from recess filthy, leaving clots of mud across my carpet in her wake. She usually stopped just short of behavior that would require an e-mail to her teacher mom. If I did need to call in reinforcements, K went back to her polite going-along demeanor without rancor.

I've watched her all year in a state of awe. Her unwavering confidence, unfettered spirit, unshakable certainty in her rightness take my breath away. Nothing I said or did, positive or not, had any impact on her sense of herself. In a lifetime of searching for role models, I'm amazed to find such a powerful one in the being of an eight-year-old child. She is enough and more.

I don't know what shifted, but one day after the Winter Break during morning check-in she made a joke about my appearance. I laughed and joked back. She told me I was weird. I said thank you. And just like that I was in. She didn't become an easier student. Her behavior didn't change at all in that regard. What changed was the air between us, and that truly changed everything.

She invited me to her birthday party last weekend. It was a tea party at Myrtle's, the local teashop, complete with finger sandwiches, fine china, and pots of interesting teas. I wore my best hat, a bright pink velvet affair with netting in the front. K wore a lighter pink brimmed hat that matched the cake they had made for her. The adults present seemed surprised that a teacher would take time out of a Saturday to go to a birthday party. K accepted my presence as her due - she expected nothing less.

So a relationship which began in a coffee shop reaches its conclusion in a tea shop. A lovely bit of synchronicity.

Regardless of what might be next for K, her mom, and I, a part of us will always be set in the amber of this third grade year. It's a jewel that will warm and brighten my heart forever, and that helps me to bear the ache of ending that fills my days right now.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

White-winged Crow

After nineteen years of teaching in a large suburban district of twenty elementary schools, I moved to a small rural district with two elementary schools last August. I had spent most of my previous teaching life with ten to twelve year-olds. During the three years just prior to my move I completed the course work for an administrative credential - the paper that would allow me to become a principal. I wanted to go to this new district to work with the principal of my new school, and to prepare to do an internship next year - the final step in completing my credential.

I spent last summer waiting for an opening to occur, and it did. Two weeks before the new year was to start. In third grade. If I hadn't been so sure that God had led me to this place, I might have hesitated at teaching children so young. I've always been a teacher who expected a lot of her kids, who ran a tight ship, who worked best with the high kids. Third graders are very tender and I was worried I might be too tough for them.

I said yes. And the tornado kicked in. In the amount of time I usually take to set up my room and plan for a year that is not too different from the year before, I applied for my job, waited, interviewed, waited, accepted my job, resigned from my old district, said goodbye, packed, moved, was oriented to my new district, set up my new room, attended inservice, smiled through open house and started school the week before Labor Day.

During one of those setting up days I found myself alone in my new room. The school is over 70 years old, so my room is huge by today's standards. From my battered old wooden desk with sticky drawers (which I love) I look across the room through a bank of windows that opens up the top half of one whole wall. My view is a sloping field that's part of our playground, and maple trees beyond that. As I reveled in the energy of this funky, spacious old room with its generous gift of light, I noticed a flock of crows flying by. For just an instant I thought I'd seen a flash of white on the wings of one of the crows. It could just as easily have been a trick of light, but I was intrigued. I accepted this bird as a sign - of what I wasn't sure yet. But it gave me a zing of energy and hope, and that was enough.

Throughout the year, I would see my crow occasionally. Always flying by my window quickly, so I would get no more than a glance. But more and more I believed he was special and truly white-winged.

The first part of the year was much more difficult than I anticipated. I was determined to be gentle and kind and serene with my new babies. Most days I managed that, but I was not prepared for how much energy it took to train them and to keep up with them and to stay calm. I missed my old school, my old friends, my old status with a homesickness similar to that of kids at camp for the first time. Everyone was pleasant enough at my new school, but I was the new kid and had to earn my place. My grade level team had a bad experience the year before so they left me to my own devices. My principal and I had been friends years before, but hadn't seen each other for almost a decade. And now she was my boss. I felt more alone than I had in years.

My white-winged crow, as it became more clear that the white was more than reflection, was a small comfort every time I saw him. He reminded me that miracles occur in the midst of day to day. He was evidence to me that it's possible to find magic in the most ordinary (or in my case difficult) of circumstances.

I started asking around about my crow. I was careful to ask people who had been identified as birders, but none of them had noticed such a bird.

So I asked my kids. They all, every one of them, swore they had seen my white-winged crow at one time or another. One of the most delightful (and most maddening) things I've discovered about third graders is their willingness to join a story wholeheartedly, whether they have actual experience in it or not. They want to have had the experience, and that's good enough for them. Their desire becomes reality instantly.

As the year progressed, I settled into the rhythm of my new life. I fell in love with third graders, and learned to let go of more control than I thought I still possessed. I began to make friends and to find kindred spirits on the staff and in my parents. I made some kids cry, but hugged them out of it, and made sure I got more sleep the next night. I learned how to make them laugh, and found myself belly-laughing with (sometimes at) them every day. I learned to trust their innocence and in the process began to rediscover my own. I discovered that just being was enough - I didn't have to prove myself.

I got glimpses of my crow frequently this spring. Enough to be certain that his wings do in fact contain white feathers. The wings look like the fancy dancing shoes certain men wear to make a statement of style.

Just a week ago I was standing in my doorway, calling my kids in from an extra recess. I was starting to miss them already - a gnawing ache that visits me every year at this time. Tears tickled the backs of my eyes as 25 bundles of pure life and energy bounded toward me like a pack of golden retriever puppies. I feel proud of participating in the tremendous growth they've accomplished in the last nine months. I feel sad for the kids I've missed the point of or not reached as deeply as they needed. I celebrate the connections we've made together and the fact that they really know they're the Best Third Grade. I wish I had their energy. I am so grateful to be their teacher.

Just as the last child went into the room (they always say best for last and hang back for the position), my white-winged crow swooped right across my line of sight up to the roof. I got a full look at both the top and under side of his wings. The white is real. He is real. The miracles of this year are real. I am real.