Middle Aging

No one told me that aging amounts to a steadily escalating confrontation between us and our vanity.

Aging = facing myself

When I was in 8th grade and Tammy Fish was in 7th she said, “Sherri, you are so vain!” My feelings were hurt, not so much because of the insult but due to my ignorance. I didn’t actually know what vain meant. I was ashamed that Tammy had shown, once again, that she was smarter, more bookish and more mature than I. We two Black girls in a small Lutheran middle school and she had one up on me. Again. I did go home and look up vain that evening. “How could she know that word?” I asked myself.

Growing up, people used to tell me how much I looked like my daddy. As a girl I hated hearing that. I did not want to hear that I looked like a man. More specifically, folks often pointed to my thick eyebrows and long eyelashes. And when I say folks, I really mean heavily perfumed and powdered church ladies whose eyebrows were painted on. That said, it was long before I could appreciate my father’s legacy in my own face.

I really only knew my mother from middle age on. She had me at 42 and by the time I was paying any real attention to her example of womanhood, she was already in her 50s. She wore girdles and control-top panty hose. She went easy on the make up and I don’t remember that she had any skin problems to speak of. She mostly wore her hair short and practically dared anyone to say something about it. “People have asked me for a lot of things, but hair was never one of them,” she claimed. I do remember her stepping on a scale somewhere, in a store maybe, and being outdone that she was over 145lbs. I didn’t really know what that meant besides the fact that 145 was too much.

My dad was also middle aged when I came along, 4 years farther in than my mother. He didn’t talk much, it seemed to me, but later I understood that he chose his moments. He could be animated at family gatherings, Christmas, New Year’s and Easter, after a few drinks. He could tell a story and get folks to laugh but he used center stage sparingly. It felt like I almost had to catch him in the act to believe it. I guess he was handsome in a way. He was slender and muscular, wore glasses and was clean shaven. He was my dad, so I thought he was alright looking, nothing special. Only once I was an adult with my own child could I appreciate that back in the day, he had been quite a hunk.


My eyebrows are thinning. And why wouldn’t they be? I’m mid 50s for crying out loud. It’s a gradual process. I wanted to say ‘slow’ process but that’s not entirely accurate. The process has begun and I don’t see a way to stall it. (Nor have I looked into it.) Those beautiful eyebrows I had as a child and never touched as an adult are changing; slowly fading, one hair at a time. Today I bought my first eyebrow pencil. I’m not ready to say goodbye just like that.

The messages I got from home about body size and taking care of oneself were clear. Don’t get “big” and cosmetics are mostly not worth the trouble. It’s astounding how deeply anchored these are in me. In old age both of my parents were shrunken. But my father, even at his weakest, had nicely defined forearms. Decades of carpentry work still visible in isolated parts of his physique. My mother grew thin, both her body and her memory. Her skin sagged but the complexion stayed surprisingly even and clear. Make-up was always optional for her. When I observed her in old age it was apparent to me that she had never really needed it. Who among us should be so lucky?

I believe that I own a nice lipstick. I cannot, however, tell you where it is located.

When I was a teen and curious about make-up, my mother confided in me, “If you want to look like your sister when you’re her age, then don’t start with all that stuff now.” My sister, Carol, is 19 years my senior and a poster child for “Black don’t crack.” She has always had a full round face that defies recognizing her actual age. I like to imagine myself following in her footsteps.

Most of my wardrobe consists of sportswear. Sweat pants, t-shirts, tights, hoodies. I have dresses, too, but rarely wear them. My career as a physical educator affords me good reason to stay outfitted in stretchy, comfortable clothing. For the most part I have stayed roughly the same size since undergrad. I have savored all the years that I was able to shop for myself and my sons in the same section of H & M. Slowly, sadly, that door is beginning to close. My middle aged hips and softening tummy are no match for teen boy cargo pants. The realization is as baffling as it is sobering. I am not the same as I once was.

I so often thought: “I don’t care about how I look.” But that of course was a lie. It usually is. The older I get, the more I understand about deception and trickery. The things we do to deceive ourselves, in order to better deceive others. We are not who we once were; instead we become so much more of who we are. And that’s a lot, a load, to manage. We grow tired of holding up the series of masks that keep us from disappearing. Our vanity turns out to be remarkably more enduring than we ever knew.

I don’t expect old age to be kind. I hope it will be gentle. My parents lived to be 83 (dad) and 90 (mom). Heredity suggests that I will have some time. For now while I’m middling, I’m grasping for clarity. There are ways that I want to be; ways that I want to show up; ways that I hope to be seen. Today’s clarity is a new eyebrow pencil and a confession: I am vain. Tammy was right.

Aging means becoming more of who we are.

Photos: ©Alexandra Thompson 2019

Audio Version can be heard here.

On summer reading

A summer’s worth of reading

It’s summer and I’m finding more time and space to read. But more than that, I am experiencing my reading as immersive, as feelings-laden. I’m reading for more than pleasure. I’m reading to participate in life from a variety of vantage points while also testing some theories within. I am reading myself back to life. Over and over again. It’s wild.

Perhaps now you’re curious about the what. What is she reading that has got her waxing philosophical? I could offer you a list: title after title with succinct summaries to entice you to do the same. But I’m not feeling that. I recently stumbled upon an insight about writing: mostly I’m writing for my edification, not yours necessarily. I write to scribble myself clear from one end of my thinking to another. Putting words and thoughts on the page are relics of me moving (literally) through my processing. Reading, as I’m experiencing it now, falls along similar lines: I’m reading to take myself someplace else; traveling with varied levels of attending baggage. For fiction where the characters seem farthest removed from my contexts, I carry barely anything. I’m a curious spectator stepping lightly with few sensitivities of possible calamity. In stories closer to what I have known and seen, I can feel my backpack of anxieties bearing down. For whatever I’m reading these days I have a rare openness and vulnerability. I have enough bandwidth.

Meanwhile, I’m undertaking a side project of perusing my journals of the last decades, culling particular insights and events. These are not particularly easy reads. A lot of it feels redundant, whiny, tiresome. Reading my way through these pages I am easily impatient with my minor and major sufferings. It’s no fun being reminded of my naiveté; of difficult feelings in difficult relationships. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable archive of writing energy and stamina. It offers some fairly strong case studies in adult development. For better or worse these hundreds of entries have provided both urgent and not-so-urgent self-sustaining spaces for me to flop, writhe, celebrate and sigh over time. I’m grateful they exist.

#YALit has really boosted my enthusiasm for fiction.

Against this backdrop I’ve been able to dive into others’ books with astounding abandon. Young adult literature has featured strongly: Darius The Great Is Not Okay, When You Were Everything and Sanctuary have all proven very rich in their character development and plot lines. My teen’s middle school summer read, Look Both Ways, was a charming diversion I enjoyed. A friend sent me Theory by Dionne Brand which I devoured in the space of a few days. Pew by Catherine Lacey was nearly as unsettling as Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam. Of course, I dropped whatever I was doing to read How The Word Is Passed as soon as it arrived in my mailbox. At the beginning of the summer I read Claudia Rankine’s Just Us which prompted me to purchase Don’t Let Me Be Lonely which is up soon. Taken together, these books have consistently brought identity to the fore. While several characters are sorting out their particular responses to “who am I? Who are you? and/or What are we?” in most of these reads “What is society telling me/you/us to be?” turns out to be more pressing in several ways. Negotiating between who we want to be and who else has a say in what we may or may not get to choose about our identities and positions is an ever present struggle.

Which brings me back to my journals. Which brings me back to myself and all the inadequacies that implies. My joy in summer reading is the opportunities I have to wander away from myself, to leave some of my baggage unattended with the knowledge that these excursions also act as stepping stones towards perhaps new and unexpected insights. The point is that I leave and return. I go away and come back. I observe others, I observe myself. In the process I learn, I parse, I reason, I feel. I read, I keep writing.

Several years’ worth of journals.

All photos: © S. Spelic

Sitting in quiet

It may not be easy to recognize but sitting in quiet is a kind of dare. It’s personal but deeply connected to our social understandings. When I sit in quiet – maybe stare out the window, or leaf through some printed thing – I am challenging my own impulse to ‘look busy.’ For what?! For whom?! I am at home on vacation with my teen and we are literally chilling out. And it’s not natural. Inside I’m holding onto all these ideas about time, productivity, domestic responsibility, and being an adult. It’s almost as if I’ve told myself that I am not built for rest, recovery and full relaxation.

In my late 30s and early 40s I invested a great deal of time, energy and money in developing my understanding of self and others. I attended a series of courses that usually extended over periods of 4-6 months at a time. Usually it involved 3 day weekend seminars with intensely interactive sessions which for me tended to be highly emotional and revelatory. These courses formed the basis of my later practice as a life coach. Above all, these experiences trained me to ask better questions of myself and others – questions that brought us closer to the core of a topic rather than dancing around the fringes. That training has served me well.

In a short post I wrote yesterday, some unusual questions emerged. Here are two:

Whose budgeted affections will we overextend to then regret our hasty indulgence?

Which personal histories are you writing today?

SOL Tuesday A Gentle Reckoning

When words show up like this I know that they have emerged out of my feelings, not my rational mind. Quiet time invites my feelings to show themselves. What I think of those feelings is rarely as pressing as what it is they are asking me to do: Back up? Slow down? Guess again? Let go? Hold on? Breathe? Quiet time is like visiting hours for all the disparate parts of who I think I am and who I might actually be to show up and mingle. If I’m lucky I’ll have a chance to write down a few things once the party is over.

Teaching Outdoors and Incomplete Pictures

So many leaves! (image via Pixabay.com)

Late October/ early November of a (N. Hemisphere) school year – by this time we know some things: about our students, our schedules. We may have a sense of the way things might go for the year. Or, we know that so much is up in the air it would be absolute folly to try and predict where things may end up. I’m at that stage in the school year where I’m beginning to hit my stride; where my routines with students are familiar; we may even have a rhythm.

Here we are (in Austria, mind you) holding regular school in the middle of a pandemic. As a learning community we’ve been blessed with very few cases, all of which could all be traced to contacts outside school and turned out to be asymptomatic. Every week without a significant change in the building’s population has felt like a victory. We seem to be getting things mostly right.

Among the adaptations my PE colleagues and I have had to make is shifting to majority outdoor teaching. Particularly for me and my team colleague, this has meant truly changing our ‘regularly scheduled programming.’ There’s a lot to appreciate with getting kids outside and taking advantage of different parts of the campus. We’ve gotten both creative and clever in developing plans that get us close to what we have planned in the pacing guide. That said, it has also been hard.

Not hard as in gut wrenching or emotionally draining but mistifyingly frustrating. Yes, my colleague and I have been conducting our PE classes – differently, yes, but still. I even did a kind of question mind-map at the beginning of October to try to help me understand.

Questions to help me think through my challenges with teaching outdoors.

It took me literally until this past week to figure out why.

My colleague commented on teaching indoors due to wet weather and how much easier he found it. “We’re by ourselves, there’s nobody else kicking a ball around … there’s not a leaf, or wind…” Oh my gosh! Exactly when he mentioned the leaf, I laughed out loud in recognition. And then it dawned on me: for at least 2 classes I am outside during middle and then high school recess! I’ve been trying to “teach” my classes next to big kids playing soccer on the field, basketball on the redtop, strolling, laughing, chilling. When I march my 1st graders and Pre-K out to the field and back, it’s a given that someone will be collecting something along the way. Of course! They’re children, they’re curious and all kinds of things can be fascinating: bugs and leaves and big siblings; jackets in the wind and water bottles along the fence.

What’s striking for me is that I couldn’t put my finger on what the real differences were until now. Over 9 weeks in. Instead I focused on what I was doing wrong or that the kids were distracted while functionally excluding the impact of the context we’re suddenly trying to operate in. How could I behave as if teaching next to recess should proceed normally? What on earth would lead me to believe that my students would find having PE outdoors instead of indoors an easy transition?

Here’s my theory: As educators we spend years building (or attempting to build) a positive track record. We develop a sense of what works, what we do well, how we maneuver towards success. When the success doesn’t happen when and where we expect, many of us will attribute that to ourselves. We look first to see what we’re doing wrong. Or, we locate the trouble in our students’ behaviors or histories. The point is, on our own, the picture we’re most likely to create will be incomplete. We will focus on what occurs to us with remarkably little awareness of what we may be missing.

Even under these extenuating circumstances many of us are still very wedded to our sense of “normal” in how we operate. Yes, we’ve changed modalities (multiple times even) and adapted to new schedules, dramatically shifted our approaches to any number of routines and habits – and still, when things go south, go off or don’t go at all – how many of us are quick to blame ourselves? To ask what we did wrong? Our self-constructed picture can easily leave out some little (or big) things that may, in fact, be having a sizable impact on our capacity to do even the least of what we intend with our students.

All this to say, it’s not just us. It’s not just the kids. It is literally EVERYTHING. We are doing the best we can with what we’ve got. The more we talk to each other, the greater our chances of expanding our field of vision for what’s going on both in front of us and behind the scenes. And as I learned, this may take a minute. (9 weeks, y’all, just sayin’.)

Let’s be both gentle and generous with ourselves and each other; with our families and students; with colleagues and neighbors. We don’t need to be superheroes especially when it’s already asking a lot to just be.

Facilitate This

To facilitate – to make an action or process easier.

In some ways this feels, has long felt like my calling. The thing I am meant to do.

My teaching is a case study in active facilitation. I set the stage for practice. Offer a few instructions and a brief demonstration and the remaining time-space is for doing the thing. Over and over again.

Make it easier. I make it easier to try. To give it a go. Perhaps to keep at it for a bit.

I facilitate groups. Of adults. I set the stage for practice. Participant interactions with each other are usually at the core of my workshops. They should do more talking than me. Everyone should practice lots of listening. I create the conditions for fruitful conversation and exchange to take place. Then I get out of the way.

Getting out of the way is a habit. Especially when working with adults, it feels important to leave them space to engage each other without an audience. Their conversations are their own. When we come together as a whole group we typically reflect on the process, not the content. In some ways I want to stimulate an internal process for each individual. The conversations with others animate and stretch our own thinking.

I get out of the way and participants don’t owe me their enlightenment.

I will continue to wonder if and when I have taken myself too far out of the way. My faith is tested here and will continue to be.

I facilitate. I want to make it easier for each of us to try, to listen, to bear witness, to reflect, to take action. I practice getting out of the way.

And still I am learning.

It’s a process.

Photos via edifiedlistener

Boxes of Thought

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Photo by furkanvari on Unsplash

Reading is so often about searching, whether we realize it or not. An excitement, a secret revealed, a worry, a fulfillment – we don’t always know what it is we’ll get, but when it comes, we know it and recognize it as ours. This is for me. We feel seen, realize we’re not the only ones. Sometimes it’s a comfort. But horror is also a possibility, I suppose.

To read is to be on the lookout. To have your eyes peeled. Reading lets us pretend that we’re ready. At least that. The truth of our inner state is not the point. Words on page after page that mysteriously hold us – in suspense, in awe, in shock. Reading is a magic trick we keep learning and relearning. The same trick that keeps changing and changing every time we perform it. I do it but I don’t always understand exactly how.

To write feels less like a trick, more like a bodily function, sometimes voluntary but not always.

I regret that this format is so boxy. My blog posts show you boxes of thought (paragraphs), neatly stacked which is a very poor and inaccurate semblance of what I would rather express. What I would rather show you today is the chaos of my thinking, the conundrum of too many threads which resist being woven alongside each other.

The platform itself wants to steer me towards greater boxiness with its “block editor” which I continue to reject as long as I can. I want less standardization, not more. And yet, I keep writing here, where whatever I type begins Black against white but once published, lands Black against cornflower blue – a design choice of questionable merit. The typeface is always Black like me, though.

I will now plunge this post into the chaos I intended.

  • Never have I felt a need for a king. But now that the greatest of fictions has left us, I mourn. Wakanda forever.

 

  • Identity has become my latest soapbox, the one folks ask me to speak from of late. I have mixed feelings about this.

 

  • Sometimes I feel a little guilty about how well our school reopening is going so far.

 

  • In a conversation about the link between acknowledging the multiple aspects of one’s own identity and seeing the need for anti-racist action, for a brief shining moment it felt like I had an answer that made sense.

 

  • I hope that folks do not make me out to be wiser than I am. I try to remind myself that I am more parts ignorance than knowledge. I keep reading. I listen.

 

Reading can be such a delightfully private affair, especially offline. No one is tracking my tastes, habits or timing while I read a bound book. I wonder how relevant this will be in the long run.

I am grateful for a lifestyle which affords an incredible access to the printed word in myriad formats. This is my parents’ most enduring legacy. They raised me a reader.

Here’s what I’m reading right now: Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, In The Country We Love by Diane Guerrero, Überseezungen by Yoko Tawanda, and How To Destroy Surveillance Capitalism by Cory Doctorow.

My thoughts are scattered, fragmented. I am used to this state. My young students call me back to attention in a heartbeat. I need them to keep me upright and on task. While I’m away from them I read and write with abandon. It’s a form of balance; the very nature of my both/and.

Weekends are for remembering. I forget so much as I go. I fall apart as the week goes on. I pull myself back together  – re – member – in these few days of rest.*

Yesterday I had no words but lots of feelings. Today I have the morning and an almost clear conscience.

I wish I could make this post into an assortment of baskets for you to rummage through at your leisure. Instead, I and wordpress give you these boxes of thought. Packaged, contained, labeled.

Even our freedoms are full of constraints.

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Photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

*The idea of re-membering was introduced to me by Gregg Levoy in his book, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life.

 

 

Post-Conference Reflection: Wishes and Realities

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What I would love to have happen:

I write a succinct and witty recap of the leadership conference I just attended in which I describe the excellent session my Director, Steve Razidlo and I delivered on the second day.

I tell you in short form about the positive feedback we received both on the process and the content. I refer you to the Right Question Institute for details on the Question Formulation Technique we applied to Diversity and Inclusion, a protocol which is nothing short of brilliant.

I also describe all the wonderful people connections I was able to make over the two-day conference that began in small-talk and became much more real after the gala dinner, dance floor escapades and final hugs goodbye.

Cleverly and cheerfully I wrap up my summary of events with a few more happy shout-outs and acknowledgements of people, places and particulars that made my stay on the Portuguese coast memorable and recommendable.

The reality is:

All of the above is true. Meaning that all the positives I would have tried to describe and convey were significant parts of my experience. We rocked our interactive session for real. Folks learned something new and we take full responsibility.

It is also true that I experienced frustration at various points:

  • Three male keynote speakers each with an hour of stage time but only 45 minutes for a panel of 7 women at the conference’s conclusion.
  • In the choice of individual keynote speakers I noted a preference for education-adjacent men with strong entrepreneurial tendencies who mostly failed to cite women in their presentations.
  • Given that the banner theme was exponential learning, it was interesting but not surprising to me that the sessions I attended were steeped in deeply traditional sit-and-get models of delivery. There was a lot of talk about learning by doing with remarkably few instances of actually learning by doing. But maybe I attended the wrong sessions. That’s possible.

I struggled with an internal need to defend my right to be present as a real live teacher without a leadership title. And yet I persisted.

It’s a challenge to balance praise and criticism of an event when both are necessary.

I had to recognize that I was fairly close in age to the post-middle-aged crowd of school administrators but my dance-floor-self felt kinship with the young women who ran the conference.

One highlight of my total experience was talking with former administrators of mine who shared their learning and growth in a couple of key areas since we worked together. That made me hopeful.

The mix of messages about the future of education rarely sat well with me, even if plenty resonated. My relevance as an educator has less to do with technology than it does with my capacity to reinforce humanity at every turn.

After attending such a conference, I wish:

I had a time and dedicated conversation space to share my thoughts and work through my feelings in the aftermath.

I could find less wordy ways to say the nice things, while also pointing out the problematics. (I just made that up. I think that should be not just a word but the name of an urban contemporary boy band: The Problematics.)

That I could really rest well before I have unloaded my cocktail of mixed emotions and experiences.

That now this is done, I can look forward to real sleep I hope. (Fingers crossed.)

 

Notes:

The conference I attended was the Educational Collaborative of International Schools (ECIS) Leadership Conference outside Lisbon, Portugal. On Twitter: #ECISLisbon19

From our session proposal: Diversity and Inclusion: Which Questions Are The Right Ones?

When a school community attempts to engage in meaningful discussion of diversity and inclusion, how do we start? What are the right questions to ask? Using the Question Formulation Technique, participants will gain insights about approaches to D & I work in an empowering, replicable process.

And yes, it was a big deal that I got to do this session with my head of school. Just sayin’.

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Mosaics are everywhere in Lisbon and environs!

 

Yes, and

2019 arrived and I didn’t much care. On New Year’s Eve my stomach hurt. I cut out at 11:30pm with no regrets.

We’re on the tail end of a family vacation which has gone remarkably smoothly. Everybody has gotten to do most of the things they wanted to do: speedskate, ski, run, play video and/or board games, sleep in, stay up late, read a lot, watch TV, go for a walk, eat out, eat in, eat chips, drink beer, drink wine, not drink at all, leave a mess, clean it up, snack, snack, snack, and write.

Released from a lot of my regular duties, I experience a bunch of emotions that I’m not all the way prepared for. I find some leftover guilt in my pockets, a curtain of despair in the wind that stalls me on the lake, a crusty strip of resentment I almost trip over while strolling on a wooded path. I take comfort in reading about other people’s sorrows. I’m able to read with a bit more empathy than usual perhaps.

My capacity for easy conversation strikes me as limited. I can say some things that seem to fit and then I hit a wall. I listen and nod but let others carry on from there. At some point I may check out, gently excuse myself to another corner of the room. It’s the holidays so it feels like even that’s okay.

Internally, however, my word machine keeps blowing at full speed. My head swells with waves of words. Sentences on the page before me spawn another set of thoughts that require their own peculiar expression. To an outsider it looks like I’m maybe spaced out or deep in thought. I don’t know. I’ve never asked anyone. It occurs to me that once I’m gone, I will have left a trail of words behind me.

I check into my social media saloon and it feels like a ‘Cheers’ re-run – that place “where everybody knows your name.” Which is of course not true at all, but there are plenty of people I find and can huddle up with. This, too, is a surprising comfort. I stumble into some conversations and get caught up in the richness of the exchange. I feel part of community. I have some things to say and discover much I want to listen to – I do not hit a conversational wall. Word squalls form in my head and the relief is great when I can release some of them into a little blue box of 280 characters or less.

I’m learning to make peace with exercising early and staying inside for a greater part of the day. I am no longer the endurance addict that I once was. I’m still getting over that fact. Part of maintaining a vacation tradition involves noticing changes over time: the steadiness I feel on my skates after a decade of tentative practice, the way my outdoor equipment fits, the way my eyes never tire of the lake + mountain view when I cross the bridge. Yes, and it’s no secret that I am getting older.

Adult development can be a bit of conundrum. We gain experience as we age and may learn from our successes and mistakes but that’s not a given. Wisdom is not free or guaranteed. In middle age I may be enjoying the height of my financial resources and benefit from all sorts of amassed social capital. Yes, and I struggle with keeping myself upright and on task.

Writing assignments I have placed on my docket both intrigue and daunt me. I have reservations about what and how much I can actually achieve. I keep writing nevertheless. Spending time in this somewhat vulnerable and questioning space, feels oddly helpful, neither pressure raising nor reducing. There is fresh air in abundance. Yes, and I am breathing.

2019 one breath at a time.

image © edifiedlistener

 

Words Fall Short (Reflections on PoCC17 in Progress)

Words can do a lot. Or, I should say we can do a lot with words. And still they fall short.

Which words would I choose to tell you about my day?

I would start with beauty. Human beauty in so many hues, tones and shades. An unyielding variety on which to feast the eyes that didn’t realized they were starved.

I might continue with brilliance – the kind that comes in a warm smile of greeting, the kind you hear in a voice that is both clear and rich and needs no mic.

But also a brilliance of presence – to hold sway with an audience of thousands through song and movement, in chorus and in the spirit of freedom.

And of wit…to tell the familiar truths in the charm of Disney’s favorite fairy tales and allow us to laugh when our response under different circumstances could just as well be to weep.

I might use bravery – some of my own and really that of others – especially those who invite us to learn with them; who stand at the podium encouraging us to turn and talk, connect and commit.

I’d have to say ready. Ready in the sense of prepared, hungry and waiting for this moment to finally, yes finally, say what needs saying without sugarcoating, or toning it down and be heard, heard, heard. So very ready for exactly that again and again.

Fierce in our love for one another, for this particular space and time together. Fierce in our understanding that even if we do not see eye to eye, we see and acknowledge each other and the sacrifices we have each made to be here.

Responsive. Oh these snaps and praise hands and nods and shout outs – that kind of real responsiveness. Call and response responsiveness like in church. A hug, a touch, a moment, a shared silence – ways of responding we find for each other.

I cannot report well what was said and how it was received. I have just these impressions of

colleagues and kin, folks and friends

some people I’ve never met and may never know

but I saw them and they moved me

each magnificent in the singular, breathtaking as a body.

This is PoCC for me. People of Color Conference. Where I can be

Black (with a capital B), Woman in all the ways I choose; teacher, learner, listener, facilitator, space maker, collaborator, blogger, tweeter, note taker, observer, participant, ally, accomplice, friend, sister, colleague, dancer…

Me.

Field Day Lessons

At my school we have a field day tradition in the elementary. For the space of almost two hours the whole population, PK-5th grade is in motion, rotating through 16 activity stations and 2 rest stops. Students are grouped into multi-aged teams of about 15-17 children, led by 5th graders. This year and last year we also offered 5th graders the opportunity to pair up to lead the activity stations. That meant, explaining the game, helping teams break into smaller groups and supervising play. Adults at each of the stations provided support where needed but generally it was up to the 5th graders to run the events and manage their younger charges.

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Field Day favorite: Freight Truck! ©ais_elementary

All in all, this year’s field day was, in the eyes of most, a great success. Teachers praised the 5th grade leaders for their fortitude and patience and perseverance in their roles of responsibility. The giggles, smiles and shrieks of joy from the PK-4th grade students were testament to the fun they were having throughout the morning. And the 5th graders, once they were officially done and able to enjoy their ice cream treat in peace, seemed satisfied and pleased with their work.

All good, right?

Well…Actually…

When I walked around the 4 spaces where the games were in progress, I noticed that the 5th graders after about 30 minutes often looked like wilted sunflowers. The group leaders seemed to be more upbeat but after an hour, many of them appeared a bit harried and pensive, rather than wilted. Some of them were having a really good time some of the time, but the impression I gained was one of overwhelm, exhaustion and a bit of boredom; which, given their assignments, was fully understandable.

On the following morning I went to their respective classrooms and asked them for feedback on field day – what they thought went well and what they felt could be improved.

This turned out to be one of the best professional moves I ever made: I got schooled in the danger of placing faith in my adult assumptions over the genuine desires of kids. While lots of kids expressed pride in their achievement, their enthusiasm for the event was audibly muted. And listening to their specific feedback I understood why:

In response to the question “What would make field day better?” Here is what they said:

“The 5th graders should get a chance to go to all the stations and play afterwards.”

“The teachers should help us control the groups at the stations.”

“You should tell the younger kids to listen to the 5th graders.”

“The 4th graders should know that they have responsibilities, too.”

“We got kind of bored. It would be good if we could switch stations after a while.”

Of course! It dawned on me. We gave them heaps of responsibility, let them lead throughout, and they got tired, bored and felt a bit shortchanged in the fun department. As I was wrapping up my reflections with the kids, one of the 5th grader teachers added the fact that as the tasks came from us, the adults, and not from them, the 5th graders lacked the same level of investment.

All along, my colleagues and I had been working on the assumption that this is what our 5th graders wanted and needed – an authentic opportunity to lead and manage. While that my have been true for some, and of significant interest to many, what they also wanted and needed was the chance to have fun like the other kids; to enjoy responsibility mixed in with distinct phases of carefree play.

Lesson learned. Next year we’ll aim for a field day which incorporates more of what students tell us that they want and work to design an experience that remains big on fun and responsive to student leadership needs.

It feels strange to make this huge event seem like such a downer. It wasn’t. Truly, much fun was had on multiple fronts. Being mindful and aware that not all students experienced the day in the ways we adults anticipated they would strikes me as precisely the work that distinguishes us as the reflective practitioners we strive to be.