Evidence of Chocolate & Cherries
Life is interesting. Isn’t it always that way?
This year, and I must say the last few really, have been an extraordinary mix of devilish challenges and gleefully, exuberant joys. I’ve shared some of both with you over time on my feed in my “Evidence of…” posts.
Today’s will be a mixed bag, a bittersweet story, a chocolate covered cherry kind of thing if you will. For those of you who know me well, this serves an apt description for a story with an up and down side and for those of who are in the dark, I guess a quick side story is needed:
So here goes… I hate cherries! They hate me. It’s really that simple. Am I allergic? Who’s to say. I’ve never been tested. Few have believed I have an aversion to these red nasty berries over my 55 years of life, not even my own family for goodness sake. But how many times must one be tortured by cherries being hidden in tarts or other confectionery delights only to have them returned violently, “Witches of Eastwick” style, to prove that there’s a real issue? Really!!!
Suffice it to say the story ahead is pointedly poignant, at least to me. A real chocolate covered cherry story.
Many of you may know that I have been troubled with a degenerative and decidedly painful, but not deadly, condition that has slowly been sapping my strength and abilities to sustain a decent quality of work/life balance. And this has played havoc with two sides of my being:
On the one side is the calling that chose me back in sixth grade – that of educating.
I have know since as far back as I can remember that the art of educating learners is what I wanted to do. Why? It was partly due to my educational experiences, which if I must be honest, has been abysmal in many ways. I could recount details of having my left hand whipped simply because I used it to hold a pencil; or how I perfectly tied my shoelaces and cut circles left-handed and had to relearn both in a humiliating fashion; or how when my nose was crushed bloody by a kid on a swing in grade one, I was pulled in front of the entire school body by the Principal and ridiculed; or how I was told in grade five good spellers were born and not made; or how I had to go to summer school for two summers because teachers thought I was stupid. The list of assaults went on and I won’t bore you with more… but sadly there were more!
I knew they were wrong. I knew I was better than they were saying and I managed to prove that decades later when I graduated at nearly the top of my class and became a teacher.
Point being, I didn’t want ANY other learners to experience those set backs, those traumas, those teachers that thought they knew what they were doing and clearly did not, at least from my perspective.
The educator side of me , did not want to stop helping learners. I had more to give. More learners to support.
On the other side, was the family man. He had his own passions outside of work to follow. On this side too resided an incredible wife, fabulously interesting children beginning to branch out into the world and create lives of their own, and grandchildren. Ah, the grandchildren. These marvels can breathe life blood into dead bodies with no trouble at all. And they did with regularity. This side was equally important, probably even more so.
But as time wore on and as I became less able, there was not enough of me to go around. I began to fail… on both sides.
It started with cutting my work load and going halftime every other day. 3 years of that, then in the last year, I began coming home at the end of my working days and going straight to bed at 4:30 only to wake in pain at about 10 pm and not sleeping the remainder of the night. Misery of the most devilish sort.
My recovery days weren’t much better. Mostly sleeping. Definitely pain filled. Not much quality of life anywhere. And my mobility was tanking as well.
I wanted to work! I wanted quality of life and it seemed I couldn’t have both. And so I had a most difficult decision to make between my two passions: my calling and my family life. Seem a no brainer to you? It’s not I can assure you. Clearly, family comes out on top. Clearly. But letting go of a calling is beastly. You try it sometime. It’s like pulling teeth from your best friend or a baby perhaps. That’s the “cherry” in my story!!!
But then came the chocolate. And the chocolate was the best kind you can imagine and from two unexpected sources.
Firstly, was my farewell from work. To bastardize a phrase, I have alway said that I would “go gentle into that good night”. No fuss and no muss. I find farewell speeches nearly intolerable (platitudes, platitudes, platitudes). And I hate being the centre of attention. It’s the introvert in me (yes, you heard me correctly! Introvert! Ask my spouse). But after some heart-to-heart talks with my wife on the subject of closure, we decided to have a come-and-go farewell gig at our place on my 55th birthday entitled, “It’s My Birthday and I’ll Leave If I Want To”. You’ll hopefully recognize the reference to the Leslie Gore hit of the late 60s. At any rate, the idea was to invite people who had made a difference in my career, supported me in some significant way, in order to thank them personally. It was suppose to be a no gift affair and we’d cater the thing so we didn’t have to work too hard either.
The day turned out perfectly: it was sunny, rather warm, slight breeze and no bugs to speak of. We hosted upwards of 50 guests, some of whom ignored the no gifts clause. But the gifts/cards were incredibly thoughtful:
One teacher whom I mentored had her class make cards. These cards were hilarious because I had nicknames for a lot of the students and these students used those nicknames on the cards. One in particular was a constant talker that I playfully dubbed “Sir Chats A Lot”. His whole card took that theme and that’s how he signed it. Another added a bar code to the card because, don’t all cards have those? One student in the class who was rather special (she had ADHD inattentive type) and we connected rather well, made me an incredibly complex 3D card – An artistic masterpiece truly. These tokens of respect and caring are treasures. They all referred to me as Keith and I loved each and every one!
Another amazing friend in a school that I worked heavily with, polled all the teachers in that school and had them express in quotes how I had supported them over the years. She then assembled these into a picture frame keepsake. The quotes ranged from “helped me with seeing things more creatively, more clearly, more positively both professionally and personally” to “helped me see the joy in teaching”. From “helped me see how a truly passionate educator works within a system that doesn’t always support what needs to be supported” to “his work with staff was filled with enthusiasm and provided accessible and valuable information for educators of all experience levels!” What a keepsake and so unexpected that I was completely taken off guard.
There were others as well… cards with like-minded, and exquisitely expressed sentiments, bottles of bubbly, scotch, wine, bird watching paraphernalia, all things that told me that I was appreciated, known and going to be missed. Something I was not altogether convinced of…. Perhaps some of you will understand this point of view. Perhaps not.
I believe it’s completely impossible to assess one’s self-worth or impact accurately. Regardless, I am lousy at it. I am constantly reassessing what went wrong, how I could have done better, what I should have done differently. I beat myself up liberally after most classes, meetings, gatherings, presentations, workshops and inservices. I over think and reflect WAY too much I am told. I figure better this than not at all (as some people seem comfortable doing in the field in which I work). Be that as it may, the sentiments I received were well appreciated and, of course, overwhelming to say the least.
The second bit of chocolate came from likely my last visit to a classroom that I will have, at least in the short term and as a professional teacher. Just a wee bit of background before moving on with this tale:
My favourite level to teach was primary. In fact, the happiest teaching in my entire career was when I looped from grade 1 to grade 2 and back again. It was amazingly satisfying mostly because the second year tends to launch like an educational rocket to the stars! These grades are loaded with unstoppable wonderment and eye-popping amazement. Students are completely honest in their uncontrollable reactions, emotions often confusing you with their grandmother or mom or hugging your leg just because, or shouting in awe, “THAT WORD IS HOUSE!” for the whole world to hear. They’re simply the most precious people you’ll ever meet!
And so it was on the last Wednesday of the this school year, the last Wednesday of my career for all intents and purposes, I arrived to clean out my office. One needs to understand this process, for a classroom teacher, would be a daunting one, potentially taking hours and literally multiple dozens of boxes culled form local liquor stores – possibly frequented and collected over the year, but more likely collected in the panicked frenzy that occurs at this time of year when teachers get their marching orders (I’ve often thought it might be highly amusing for some clever News outlet to post cameras outside such stores to catch these frenzied fetchings as they unfold in the wild – but I’ve digressed again! ). But for me, the process would literally take minutes. I took my professional books to the staffroom, organized them into groups by topic, created a fancy label that essentially read in big bold letters “FREE” (If you know teachers this word also causes a frenzy. Teachers simply cannot resist free stuff of any kind! You could put out free petrified buffalo droppings and they’d disappear! No shit!), erased my hard drive, called to have my technology equipment picked up, put my personal stuff in one small box and took that to the car. All done! It was 9:05 AM. So now what? I had the rest of the day to fill.
I decided I would find a classroom and park myself in it and see if I could be helpful. Why not? I started looking around. Rockwood school, where I am housed, is a lovely K-6 school and coincidentally where I happened to start my Support Career in the Winnipeg School Division working as the South District Educational Learning Support Teacher (you try fitting that on a businesses card in anything bigger than 9 pt text!!!). It’s a lovely, familiar place. But on this day, late in the June, the entire elementary wing, that would be all grade 3-6, were at Fun Mountain! How dare they! I sauntered, as best I could with my ailing legs, over to the primary wing where I found a split grade 2-3 classroom available.
You have to imagine how this looked to the teacher for a moment. She’s working with her students planning their day. She has given each student a time table with half blocks spanning the entire day. Some blocks are already filled: the first block is filled with educational planning time, recesses are labeled as is lunch hour and the last half hour of the day is labelled clean up. The students are charged with filling each empty block with a different “educational” activity, something that they have done over the course of the year, in order to fill their day. Each student will have a different plan and each student can have free choice about how their day will progress. Rather a brilliant activity for a last days of school I thought. At any rate, this is what they were were up to, when a short, sad, grey haired, aged looking fellow dressed in casual summer wear, that the students didn’t know pressed his nose up against the window of the door to their room. Can you guess what happened next?
Distracted “mayhem” in a primary classroom can take many forms: complete off-task behaviours like squealing giggles, young ones running willy-nilly hither and yon, kids screaming AND flying about the room as if possessed (it happens usually after Halloween and you have to see it to believe it. It’s like watching San Andreas, the penultimate disaster movie staring Dwayne Johnson, in fast forward), but in this particular case, the class slowly raised their heads as they became aware of the strange visitor encroaching on the outer realm of their space. They lowered their pencils on their planners, then began flipping their gaze in a rather confused fashion towards the glass and back to their teacher as if to say, “who’s that creepy dude with sad basset eyes, grey bearded frowny mouth and saggy ol’ cheeks pressed earnestly against our door?” Giggles ensued, work ceased, and the teacher realizing that something was amiss, came to investigate!
After securing permission to enter (such a lovely teacher) and accessing the inner workings of the class, students again settled back into the task of planning their days, and I was put to work!
Almost immediately I was swiftly approached by a small, peppy, young lad who brought me back to his table to help him out, where incidentally two other fellows were perched engrossed. He was quite chatty and didn’t seem to need much in the way of assistance (a quick check in with the teacher confirmed my hunch he was fatherless), but there was still plenty of scaffolded support needed at the table.
Over the next few minutes, I noticed two things: first, lovely melodic music was playing. This is something the teacher frequently does in the class. Not an uncommon practice and it provides for an interesting environment at times. Secondly, was that more boys were gathering to this particular table for help.
This is when something magical happened. Something I will likely never forget! It stuck off cords deep inside me and tied up my career in the classroom in a way so appropriate, so perfectly, it seemed a divine gift I suppose, or at least one made just to remind me why I got into this business 33 years ago and why it’s the most important business to be in today. So what was it that happened?…
Lost Boy by Ruth B. began to play and the boys at my table began to sing.
I’m not sure if you’re familiar with this ballad or not, but I find it to be an incredibly beautiful and melodic account of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys of Never-Never Land! Add to that the image of a table of boys focussed on various educational tasks, I’m assisting some of them, singing the exact tune, the exact words right along with Ruth B. in spring warbler-like voices, clear, crystal, shiny and new!
I was stunned into my seat, blown there by the sheer magnitude of the innocent voices of these singing students. And I started crying; that and reliving significant moments of my career, much like rewinding a life before the long sleep I would imagine. It was… overwhelming and much too incredible to describe in more accurate details – it was all muddled and vibrant emotions.
About halfway through the piece, my fatherless little buddy noticed that I had tears running down my face and announces to the class, “He’s crying! Yay!”
Yay? Why “yay” I wonder briefly? But the song continues and I had no time for further rumination on the organic nature of the occurrence of this song in the playlist. Soon the rest of the class joined in the song, and I keep remembering highlights in fast emotional flashes; happiness mostly, but some sadness thrown in too.
Finally the the last part of the song is playing…
“Neverland is home to lost boys like me
And lost boys like me are free
Neverland is home to lost boys like me
And lost boys like me are free”
… and my fatherless buddy had the last words that were rather prophetic, although I am sure he wouldn’t have thought them so. When the song ended, he simply said, “it’s over.” And so it was.
I can think of no finer way of competing 33 years in the classroom than this. I thanked the students, thanked the teacher, bid them farewell and left classroom life behind, chocolate in hand.