Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

teachers & bodhisattva vows ~

A comment on an earlier post, from Dasha, reminds me why teaching is so much more than test scores. Why the teacher may be, next to immediate family, the most important person in a child’s life. And why teachers are so often the nicest people I know.

Dasha notes that her students can be annoying. For those of you who don’t teach, think about this: as a teacher you can’t have favourites. An you can’t just ignore the annoying kid. You don’t have that option. I want you to imagine a student who tries every bit of your patience. And you have them all year. And, if you’re a good teacher — as far more are than aren’t — you have to try to help him or her.

Think that the whiney person in the next office, who won’t shut up, shares waaaay too much personal info, and is a walking pig pen, is a pain? Try teaching math, or history, or Spanish to that person. Try reaching out, over & over again, to become friends. It’s not easy.

And it doesn’t always work. But as Dasha notes, it’s so necessary. Parents are so busy. This isn’t new, although certainly two-career families, hard financial times, and just life make it seem even worse these days. A teacher who affirms a child (of any age), helps that child ‘find’ his or her voice? Such teachers are saints.

Or, as Buddhists would say, bodhisattvas. To become a teacher, and stay one — in the face of so much of today’s horrible PR — is to take the professional equivalent of the bodhisattva vow, saying you’ll be there always. And today’s teachers — as you can see from Dasha shares with us — do just that. They’re in for the duration.

I miss teaching. I miss talking about writing, and hearing from students, and loving them. But the part that I really miss? The hard lessons I learn from what it takes out of me. The part you hear loud & clear in Dasha’s story ~

revisiting microagressions and social justice (and what white people get out of both) ~

 I spent most of June this summe, in a graduate Institute with teachers of all grade levels (k-university), in several content areas, and from varied backgrounds. The seminar lasts for three weeks. During week 2 we discuss cultures: what each of us — teacher & student alike — bring to a classroom.

Of this year’s 15+ participants, we brought many demographics to the table: male, female, young teacher, older teacher, black, white, Native American,  Asian American, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, atheist. We’ve spent time discussing gay rights, the Holocaust, the Tulsa Race Riot, and many other touchy, culture-based topics. We’ve even had presentations on how to best engage in these hard talks. But despite the very clear challenges for women, men, gays, Muslims, Native Americans, Jews, & others in today’s U.S., we kept coming back to race.

In this country, race has always been the subtext. Sometimes, not even the ‘sub’ text — perhaps race is  the Ur text of American culture. Written so deeply into who and what we are, the result of assuming a highly populated area is ‘empty’ because the inhabitants don’t look like us — how convenient, when what we want is their land — that we never escape it. We are born into this text. It is imprinted indelibly on us, encultured from birth. We have to fight HARD to resist its insidious poison.

From the very beginning of European conquest of the Americas, race has been a trump card. Religion, class, gender — race trumps most of them. In the early days of slavery, the Papal bull Dum Diversas made  it just fine to ‘subjugate’ and make slaves of anyone felt to be a pagan, a heretic or an ‘enemy of Christ.’ Again, how very convenient for Europe, just beginning to feel the stirrings of social justice as the Renaissance danced. Let’s call it ‘religion’ to define everyone who looks different, disagrees with us, or has something we want as ‘soul-less infidels’ and either kill them or enslave them. And let’s say God — however we (white Christians) define ‘him’ — is on our side, when we do so.

We (white folks) like to point to Obama with pride, and pat ourselves on the back about  how far we’ve come from ‘those’ days. Never mind the ‘achievement gap’ (and yes, I hate the term too, but I don’t have another term for the way the US educational system fails so many students of colour). Never mind the inequities of the so-called justice system, which incarcerates more black males than attend college. And never mind our own unconscious participation in this biased, skewed system.

This past June, the 15+ teachers in  Institute talked for hours  about what teachers can do — what each of us, individually as well as together — can do to change the stats. To change the world :). Help students learn, obviously, so that they can join the conversation. Be part of the system, should they choose. But over & over, what I heard when I listened (which is far harder than it should be!) to dear friends & colleagues was this:

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a garden, a scholar, a couple of hours ~

Something there is about a garden… Particularly a Chinese garden. With a Chinese scholar’s room overlooking the quiet courtyard, a row of clean brushes awaiting the writer’s hand. Each turn is another perfect vista, an image to be sketched, framed with words and translated to a blank page. In Portland, the Lan Su Chinese Garden hides in the city’s busy downtown area like a geo-cached treasure.

Its high walls surround an island of carefully pruned trees, moving water, and the song of happy birds. In the teahouse, you can order Snow Dragon tea, served in a lidded gaiwan. You can buy a small plate of candied mango slices, and sit in a carved chair, feeling the stress & pressure of ordinary American life fall like petals to the raked gravel beneath the open windows.

As Richard Louv argues so convincingly, our brains are hardwired for the greens & blues of outside spaces, the places of growth we build around ourselves. Humans need trees. We need the music of moving water, the whisper of leaves, the tissued fragility of a white blossom on a stone path. And at the end of the path, an open pavilion, where a black desk sits in silhouette.

As a child, the scholar’s desks at the VAA library fascinated me. And perhaps — as many things from childhood — I remember them in spite of their possible non-existence :). Memory is a trickster — not always loyal to reality.

Still, what I remember is space for thought. A desk w/ only writing implements, laid out in an aesthetic order that invited even a young girl to write. Brushes hanging from a stand, an ink stone awaiting water. My own desk is nothing like this, of course. There’s a screen — ubiquitous writer’s tool; a keyboard, a glass of tea, a pen holder, too many small pieces of paper needing attention. The Zen-like calm space of the Chinese scholar’s desk…? Not so much. :)

But in a Chinese garden, where the rocks create miniature windows into another world, and even the birds seem to sing more lyrically, everything seems slower. More possible. And I find myself remembering what ‘this moment’ is all about.

I’m not good at just being. Are you? Does anyone have a secret they’d like to share, beyond the hard time of sitting and following the breath, or moving one foot beyond another, w/ attention fixed to the quiet swoosh of air & movement? Perhaps that’s the allure, for me, of a scholar’s garden: the idea that once there was time enough and space enough and that beauty was the thread connecting it all.

Inspired by my respite, I’m trying to simplify my desk. I figure: start there. One small victory, right? Then who knows? I may even create my own garden haven…

fresh starts, sharing stories, and the view from here ~

While I was awaiting news these past few days, I thought a lot about beginnings. About the new school year, about fresh starts. And I thought how lucky I am that this has turned out be a ‘reboot’ and not a system crash…:)

With the idea of fresh starts in mind, I have some  for you. I first began blogging — more than two years ago — to explore what it’s like to try to nurture a beginner’s heart. Like beginner’s mind, not realising what you’re asking, just jumping in.

In the past couple of years, this blog has followed my own process of learning. But what I know from the best teachers is that sharing stories is also learning. So I’d like to invite people to write in to the comments section w/ their stories. Stories that define what beginner’s heart means to you. Stories of getting better at it. Whatever you will think further the knowledge of the rest of us.

I’d also like to know what role it plays in your life, if you think about it all the time like I do. In other words? I’m thinking this might be fun to make more of a conversation & less of a monologue ~ :)

In the meantime, I’m not going to stop prattling on about the usual. But I do think it would be nice to hear more from the other side of the screen…

Previous Posts

form, poetry, and the empty cup
I spent the day researching obscure poetic forms.  And it was enormous fun -- thinking about what to pour into those elegant white cups of structure. Along the way, I wrote this poem for my sisters (the least structured of women). But we'll get to the poem in a moment. Because what's important i

posted 3:41:38pm Apr. 18, 2014 | read full post »

poetry, structure, and creative beginner's heart
Last night, discussing structure and writing with my elder son, I said I couldn't write w/ too much structure. That writing is -- for me -- a discovery process. Structure, I told him, can actually kill my ide

posted 3:03:47pm Apr. 16, 2014 | read full post »

what a difference a day makes (and other ways I wish I was like my grandson)
My grandson burnt his hands Sunday. Not horribly, but badly enough that he cried inconsolably for hours. Today? He's his usual sunny self: slapping the Cheerios on the highchair

posted 3:01:12pm Apr. 15, 2014 | read full post »

in the flash of a moment
My grandson hurt himself today. Not horribly, but bad enough that he's been crying for two+ hours. On a lovely spring day -- temps in the lower 70s -- he was on the deck w/ his folks, crawling happily around

posted 4:45:55pm Apr. 13, 2014 | read full post »

the poetry of every day
It's easy to forget that every day holds poetry. Especially if you're hectic: packing, moving, cleaning a new house, unpacking... Soothing a disolocated dog, holding a curious baby. Eating out of cartons while you locate the dishes and pans. All of this can make you forget the whole point of the

posted 2:46:45pm Apr. 12, 2014 | read full post »


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