Expected death

Imagine if you got pregnant, and you weren’t told anything about what was going to happen to you. Or imagine if you were the friend of someone who got pregnant, and knew nothing. Neither of you had been through it or known anybody who had been through it. You’d not read about it even. When the contractions start to happen and the water breaks, it is going to be pretty scary. When the baby is born, you’ll both be freaked out.

But if you know what to expect – if you know that it is normal – then you’ll know what to do. You’ll stay calm and handle it.

Death is like that too. There are certain identifiable things that happen, and they are only scary if they aren’t known. They are different from how things are otherwise, and because they are different they can be unsettling. But they don’t have to be.

We’ve medicalized birth and death in Western society, and it is to our loss. We’ve forgotten what it is to go through these natural human experiences. We used to see birth and death in our homes, because we would all live together as a family, several generations together. We didn’t go to the hospital to give birth or die, with strangers or alone.

There are plenty of fine articles online where you can read up on the signs of death, so I’m not going to repeat their information. I will tell you that the more you learn, the more you’ll make a difficult situation easier.

Not learning about it won’t make it not happen. It will just make it harder when it does happen.

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Poem – thanks for the hard teachers

I am thankful for all my hard teachers.

All the mean people
all the hard times
all the disappointments
all the loss
all the grief.

I’m thankful for all that I did not get
and when I got something
unexpected,
unwanted.

I am thankful,
for these are trials,
tests,
especially tailored
to teach me,
to strengthen me.

I know that I am being called
to learn how to

hear
what cannot be heard

see
what cannot be seen.

Know what cannot be known.

I am thankful.

Bike brakes

When I got a bike as an adult I didn’t know how to use the brakes. The problem was that I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

Within three minutes after getting on the bike I was in trouble. I was headed down the hill and I suddenly realized things were not going well. I was going way too fast and the backpedaling-as-a-brake that I had learned when I was a child didn’t work on this bike.

This bike had handbrakes and my husband the bicyclist had not taught me about them. Suddenly I realized I couldn’t ask for help because he was too far away. Suddenly I realized I had to figure it out on my own right there, right then. Thankfully I did otherwise I would’ve ended up in my neighbor’s front yard. And possibly after that in the hospital.

Isn’t that like life? All the time people don’t tell us what is going on and how to get out of trouble. We’re in the middle of the problem and suddenly we have to figure it out. He could’ve told me “Here is the handbrake and here’s how to slow down”. He didn’t. He thought I knew. He was wrong.

I’ll never forget that terror, that sudden realization that I was in a whole lot of trouble really fast, and I had nobody to help me but myself. But I’ll also never forget the calm that came over me along with the terror. I figured it out. I didn’t get hurt. I was fine.

Sometimes you have to sink a little to learn how to swim.

Knitting, sewing, and the relay race of knowledge

My Mom tried to teach me how to knit. In a way, she did. She taught me how to knit insofar as she taught me how to move the needles so that I added to the piece.

But she only taught me the fun part of knitting. She didn’t teach me how to cast on (to get started) and she didn’t teach me how to fix the problem when I dropped a stitch or picked up another one. Most of the time I didn’t even know I had a problem. I certainly didn’t learn how to prevent it.

Part of being a good teacher is making sure your student can do everything on her own. If she still needs you around then she hasn’t really learned anything at all. The goal is independence.

I had the same problem with her and sewing. We had an old Singer sewing machine that was in a standalone cabinet. It was a huge piece of furniture. While it was cool how the machine folded up inside this thing that served as a sideboard when it wasn’t in use, it wasn’t cool how it worked as a sewing machine.

Of course, I didn’t know that the problems I was having were the machine’s fault and not mine. I thought that when it would jam up it was because I did something wrong, and not because it had a faulty design.

The problems were that my Mom didn’t tell me this, and that every time there was a problem she would fix it for me, rather than teaching me how to do it myself.

After she died, the sewing machine became my nemesis. A friend had taught me a little bit more about how to sew but I still was having a problem loading the bobbin or with having the top thread get stuck and jammed up with the bottom thread. It seemed like I spent more time fixing problems than sewing.

Somehow I came up with the idea of buying a used, portable sewing machine rather than getting that one fixed. It think it was cheaper to get a used one that works than fix the one I had. The new (-ish) one came with a manual. With pictures. I read it and understood how a sewing machine worked for a change. Somehow in time I learned that the Singer sewing machines were known for bobbin and thread problems. If you have bobbin and thread problems, you don’t really have a sewing machine.

I learned that my problems with that machine were not because of me. I learned how to work my new machine. I learned how to sew, for real.

To be a good teacher, you have to teach the good and the bad. You have to show the student the fun parts of the subject to get her interest, sure, but you also have to show her everything else. She has to be able to do it all on her own. Ideally, you’ll teach her everything you know, all your tricks and tips, all your hard earned knowledge, so that she will then be able to learn even more and pass that on.

It is the only form of immortality we have.

We can’t live forever. Our lives are far shorter than we realize. But our knowledge can last far beyond our bodies. If we pass it on well, then we have improved the lives of everyone who lives past us.

It is like a relay race. Every person does her best so that the next person can do her best. The team gets further along with each person who pushes herself. But if we are stingy with our knowledge or are just inept, we might as well not have been in the race at all.

Kindergarten 9-25-13

I was able to get to work with three children today, all of which I had before. It is amazing and delightful to see progress and disheartening to see them still stuck in some areas. Sometimes it isn’t school that is the problem. Sometimes there are home problems and school is the last thing on their minds.

V was much more focused today, which is encouraging. She likes to draw and make up stories. I’m totally for creativity, but when it is time to work we have to get cracking. She stayed working with me a lot longer this time and did great on her numbers. She still is a little wonky on her letters, but she is getting better.

At the end of my tutoring session today I found out from her teacher that yesterday was an entirely different story. Numbers were impossible. 5 fingers resulted in an answer as varied as 5, 2, and 8. But yesterday she also heard from V that her Mom was in the hospital. Mom is in the hospital because she is an alcoholic. This changes everything. Of course she is distracted. Of course she wants to make up stories. Who would want to focus when that is happening? When you are five your whole world revolves around your mom. If she isn’t well, then everything else falls apart. I will give her extra attention next week.

Sometimes what we give them isn’t learning, it is love. Sometimes the greatest thing is just to spend time with them, one on one, and let them shine. Sometimes the teacher will assign a new child to me just because something bad is going on at home. We work together on them, to help them get over the humps of life. Sometimes healing can come in the form of something as simple as reading a book together.

Today I also had S. He is a delightful Mexican boy, all smiles and sunshine. He worked hard and is doing well. I’m curious how long he will need me.

I only get the kids who are at the bottom. When they are doing better they go to the next tutor. I like the challenge of trying to figure out new ways to get the information into them. Fortunately the kids haven’t realized that there is a pattern to who I work with, so there isn’t a stigma. In fact, when I come on Wednesdays they all clamor to work with me. It is kind of cute. I try to make learning fun, so they just see it as a game. Sometimes when I “pick” a student (I don’t pick, the teacher provides a list for me) he or she will say “Yes!” and think this is great. This makes my job so much easier.

One of the students who gets excited when I “pick” him is J. I worked with him today as well. I think he might be dyslexic. I can tell learning is hard for him. I gave him easy things to work on to build up his confidence. We have a blue letter board that is really cool to work with. Letters are really hard for him, and he was mixing up h and n and u. I can understand that. They look at lot alike if they are flipped around.

Letters are hard. They are just symbols after all. We take for granted how easy it is to read, but really it hard because it isn’t a native intelligence. It is all symbols. This shape doesn’t “mean” this sound at all. There is nothing logical about it. It is rather arbitrary. Nothing drives this home more than teaching a five year old his letters.

At the end I wrote up my impressions. This helps the teacher know what are their strengths and weaknesses. Interestingly they will work differently with me than with her. She and I see different faces. When one is obstinate on one area with her, he will be perfect with me.

When I came in to return my impressions and pick up my keys, J hugged me. Hugs from kindergartners are so sweet. When I first got hugged three years ago I wasn’t sure what to do. I was caught off guard.

We have rules that we learn. Don’t touch strangers. Hold your emotions in.

Kindergartners don’t know these rules yet. Sure, they know me, a little. They know my name, and I work with them a little every Wednesday. But adults who know me better don’t hug me. It is just a social rule. We are a very hands-off kind of society.

But hugs from kindergartners are the best. They are so loving and open. I think the world would be a better place if we all had that kind of love and were able to show it. I think this may be the answer to everything.

Hug more. Cry when you are sad. Go play outside for an hour every day. Color. Take a nap with a teddy bear. Make up stories.

Maybe being a kindergartner is the secret to happiness.

Kindergarten 9-4-13. Today’s post is brought to you by the letters H and S.

Today I only had time for two of the children on my list. I’ve had them every Wednesday since the beginning of school, and I have a feeling I’ll have them until the end of school. Every year there is at least one that needs a little help getting over that wall.

Both kids are sweet, but they just don’t yet get the work that is required yet. Kindergarten is a lot of fun. There are a lot of kids to play with. There are a lot of bright colors. Everything looks like a game. But it is deadly serious work. If you can’t understand your letters, then you can’t read. Then you are stuck in low paying jobs. It is a terrible hole to be in. A lot of your life depends on kindergarten. But, it is still the first month. There is time.

The girl, V, is a native English speaker. Her sister was in this same classroom last year but I rarely worked with her. She could have taught me some things. Right now I’m tempted to tell V she needs to ask her sister for help. She is glad to be in school, and that alone is a good thing. Just learning how to be in school is an important lesson.

Today she seemed obsessed with the letter H and why the human body does what it does. We were working with a board of wooden letters, cut out and colorful. Under each letter was a picture of a word that had that letter as the first letter. Under the letter H was a picture of a heart. She looked at me with her big brown eyes and asked me “why do our hearts beat?” Sometimes the sheer randomness of kindergartners knocks me off guard. When we came across the letter P she screwed up her face and said “Pee? Why do we have to pee? My Mommy pees.”

I swear, I can’t make this stuff up.

The boy, S, is from Mexico. He too is sweet but very distracted. Today his favorite letter was S. Everything was S. H was S. W was S. I think he likes S so much because it is the first letter of his name. He can write his name, sort of, with a lot of prompting, but the other letters are beyond him. Perhaps he doesn’t see the relevance of them. They don’t apply to him, so why learn them?

This is a hurdle all teachers have to face – making the lesson meaningful. The students often think, “Why learn anything just for the sake of learning?” This is a fast-paced world. If it doesn’t have any application to my life, what is the point? The sad part it all is applicable, but it is impossible to explain that in a way that they will believe. You have to live it to understand it.

Today it was reinforced that if someone wants to learn, they will. If they don’t, they won’t. When I first started showing up to tutor, I felt that it was really important that the kids really work hard and get this material. I was really eager for them to learn how to read. But over the years I’ve realized that it is up to them to do the work. I have to be there. They have to meet me in the middle. I present the material in an engaging way and cheer them on when they get it right. But it is up to them to pay attention and do their homework so there is improvement from week to week. I can’t do it for them. If they can’t read by the end of kindergarten, it isn’t my fault.

This is applicable all over life. People have choices. They can choose to learn or not. They can choose to be ready and awake and alert, or they can choose to be asleep. Perhaps it isn’t a choice. Perhaps it is part of their character or their upbringing. Perhaps their parents don’t value education, so they don’t work with them. Perhaps their parents have no education, so they can’t work with them.

Not all baby birds fly. This is a hard lesson. I want them all to do well, but I can’t do the work for them. Again, this is still just the first month. I’ll keep going every Wednesday, and keep trying. I’ll try every trick I have to get them to engage with the material. There is still time, but the longer it takes for them to understand the alphabet, the further behind they are.