Post #70: Spectacles

FullSizeRenderThe world was a watercolor wash of cerulean, sapphire and emerald, the blurred edges soft, entrancing, embracing. Ever shifting in the light there was so much to look at, so much to see! The tops of trees blended into sky, houses undulated into lawns, sidewalks dreamily rolled and buckled and puckered under my regal gaze. Were things near or far? Hard or soft? I didn’t know. I didn’t mind. I moved slowly. Why rush? The world was a kaleidoscope of softness, the lines beautifully and comfortably blurred.

When I was seven my father the optometrist gently curled the arms of a pair of spectacles around my ears and took a step back. A blink. A sharp intake of breath. And my world jumped sharply into jangly focus. I could see.

But that other world was still there and I knew it. If I took off my glasses I could still see it.
***
Unquestionably it was one of my oddest assignments. And yet, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

At last we had reached my long longed for moment: the tour jete leap, high, higher, highest from the heart stopping canvasses of Cezanne, and his explosively condensed blots of color that led to the rocket launch into twentieth century painting and beyond. How could I explain the brilliance of one who did not impose his vision on the world so much as unmask the visual world itself?

I had only a few heartbeats left of class time. So there was only one thing to do.

The assignment: I sent them all outside.

Walk and walk alone. No earbuds or other electronic distractions. Just look closely at the world around you. See the familiar in an unfamiliar way. See whatever it is that there is to see.

Give one one photograph seeing something in a way you’ve never seen it before. Give me one paragraph describing your experience.

Fifteen minutes to relearn a lifetime of visual experience? See the world anew? Absurd. Impossible. Ridiculous.

And yet…

The assignments trickled in, slowly at first and then tumbling over each other like school children finally released from the classroom on a hot May afternoon.

—“The grass seemed to get greener the longer I looked at it.”

—“The sky glowed with streaks of pink!”

— “I looked and suddenly my street was a mass of angles and curves.”

Is the world as it is or is it remade anew viewed through our own individual lenses? What do each of see when we really see? Go and look. Outside, through the window the world is waiting for us, to be discovered and rediscovered again and again.

***

PS For a fascinating look at vision through the eyes of a child, find Ellen Raskin’s marvelous  and beautifully illustrated Spectacles.  And if you like puzzles and mysteries, you might like her Newbery winning The Westing Game as well.

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MAKING YOUR NAME A BLESSING

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As far as I can tell, there are no angels in religious school but there are many actual children. But that’s the thing that keeps me going. That and at any given moment one or more of these very real, very lively, very sneaker-shod little humans can spout something truly memorable out of the general chaos. Here is my view from the front of the room.

They begin by rolling in and trying to sit at the adult-sized desk/chairs that circle my classroom but we all know it won’t last. At least half of them will be on the floor shortly. And that’s okay with me. We’ve made a deal. Or if I’m extending the learning, a “Brit” or a covenant. Check my lesson plans. I’m a barely 5 foot tall adult. In the first class I purposely sat at one of the desks and showed them that my feet dangled awkwardly, just like theirs, not fully touching the floor. I could never sit comfortably at any of those desks. So my choice is to stand when I teach. Let’s play fair. They have the option of sitting on the floor. Best we can do.

The room, which stands alone down a narrow walkway is a strange, almost octagonal shape created not through any brilliant overarching design but as part of the reconfigured religious school banged out of the old sanctuary space.   I tell the kids that fact makes this room extra holy but the truth is that they always give me a squinty look when I say that. I don’t blame them. I’m pushing it. The overhead lighting is harsh and garish. There is one tiny window. The decorations are heartfelt but homely, bravely crafted by a left-handed teacher who always smears marker when she writes and never really mastered how to handle scissors. It’s 4:45 in the afternoon. Everyone is hungry. Everyone is tired. It’s time to start class. But stay with me don’t leave yet. Like a meal that begins with a pickle but ends with a slice of strudel, this story begins a bit sour but the finish is sweet.

The lesson was about Naming. In the Jewish tradition, probably in others too, we teach that each of us has three names:

*The name you are born with or the name your parents gave you

*The name people call you, nicknames and such

*The name you make for yourself.

I love talking to them about their names. Their job is to go home and find out the often complicated story behind how and why they were named. Sometimes they’re named for a beloved relative who has passed away. Sometimes they’re given a name because it’s simply a beautiful word that means something special to their parents.   I always go a little further and look up the meanings of their names, “Michael (from the Hebrew, meaning “Who is like God?) Or Zachary (again from Hebrew, “Remembered by God”). The meanings of their names are always interesting. I love seeing them see themselves through a different lens.

But really it’s the last part of naming that’s the kicker.  The name you make for yourself. How can anyone make people think good things when they simply hear your name? How can anyone make his or her very name a blessing?

It’s a complicated idea. They talked about giving charity and about recycling. They talked about buying an extra bag of groceries for the food shelters when they went to the market. All good. They were on the right track.

The name you make for yourself is so difficult because there are no lists to check off. There is no applause or gold stars. There is no finish line. What there is perhaps, after a whole life, is a memory of the goodness you’ve left to the world that can be conjured with your very name.

Making your name a blessing is so very difficult because it actually isn’t about you alone. It’s about you and how you relate to everyone throughout your life. It’s about everyone, about making the whole world a better place.

Jewish tradition speaks of the Lamed Vavniks, the 36 hidden tzadiks or truly righteous souls, who are hidden in each generation. No one ever knows who they are. But according to legend, their goodness is such that they quietly combat all evils, keeping the world whole and moving forward. They are always there, even in the darkest times. The Lamed Vavniks are never identified, even to themselves.  They don’t judge people; instead they always look to be kind.

So the kids wanted to know, where are the Lamed Vavniks? Everywhere and anywhere. A true Lamed Vavnik could be someone powerful and famous or someone you’d pass by on the street without a second look. Someone very old or someone very young. A Nobel Prize winner or a kid just struggling to read.   Someone Jewish or perhaps not.

It’s possible, in fact, that one or more of the Lamed Vavniks were even sitting in my classroom that afternoon. I didn’t know. None of us will ever know. We’re not meant to know.

So I asked, how do you make people think good things when they simply hear your name, when all that’s left is memory? How do you make your name a blessing?

It was dark now and almost time to go home. They raised their hands. “Be kind. Try hard every day to live a good life.” Exactly.

THE RIGHT THING AT THE RIGHT TIME

College applications, rife with their convoluded secret codes of “EA” “ED” “Restricted EA” and so on have nothing on the real tension and drama of high school senior year: coming up with a cogent yearbook quote. After all, this mouthful of words is supposed to be not just the summation of who you are but a glimpse who you hope to be.

Here is mine:

“Men in history lose their centering in eternity when they grow anxious for the outcome of their deeds.” Huston Smith

Mmmm. But “anxious for the outcome” was exactly what I was. And so after a very interesting zig-zag through a number of years I became the very thing I never thought I’d be. I am a teacher. This was not a plan. Nor was it a calling, at least one I was aware of. But sometimes a path zigs in just the right direction, even if that isn’t the direction one was expecting. For someone who habitually kept eyes on the outcome, teaching anchors me firmly in the moment at hand.

I am witness to some remarkable things as the accidental teacher. Come with me and see some of what I see.

***

The kids are all together, waiting for the signal to send them shuffling off to class. They mostly roam as tiny, laughing packs, bouncing off each other like pinballs in an arcade game. But there are always one or two kids who stand apart and on their own, glued to the wall.

Finished with snacks and with nothing to do but circle the room, a group of cool boys lights upon one of these solitary kids. To grown up eyes they’re including him, how nice it is that they’re talking to him. But that’s not what’s happening at all. If you look closely you’ll see they’re not smiling but smirking. They’re not talking but taunting. You’ve got to admire their technique: it’s not what they’re saying but how they are saying it.  It’s a lot of “heeeeyyyy great shirt with all those stripes” or “Have you ever actually counted the freckles on your face?” Or “What is that thing that you’re reading?” It’s clear too that the solitary kid doesn’t want to talk to them. He looks uncomfortable. Panicky. Almost desperate. He tries to move away but they keep moving with him. Then they are all called to class and it’s over. But it happens the next day. And the next. It’s a game without an ending.

Until one day it’s different. The solitary kid comes into the room and finds the pack of boys before they find him. He doesn’t look for a safe corner—he actually walks right up to them. They are not expecting that. But there’s no drama. He says hi and offers some of his bag of gummy sharks. They take a few and then he just walks away. Completely off guard, the pack leaves him alone that day.

The kid makes a point of saying hello to that group of boys every day before going off by himself. Sometimes he offers candy, sometimes not. But now they leave him alone. Game over.

***

They were a great class and they had a great plan. Annie, one of the quietest girls in our room was having a birthday. The others decided they would surprise her by shouting “Happy Birthday” when she came through the classroom door, sing to her, ask her what she was going to do after school, make her the star for the day. Just before class started one of the girls ran into the room in a near panic. “We can’t do this,” she said. “I just saw Annie in the hallway and said ‘Happy Birthday’ to her. She looked really terrified. She’s so shy that if we  a big deal it will be too much for her.” Class went on as normal. Annie looked relieved.

***

He’s the kind of kid who walks into walls because he’s always so preoccupied about whatever it is he is thinking about. Even so he looks up and makes a point of saying hello to the same red-headed kid whenever he passes him in the hallway or sees him in the library. Never misses. One day, a guy grabs the kid and asks him why he bothers saying hello to this boy with the red hair. “You’re an idiot,” the guy says, “That red-headed kid won’t ever answer you. Don’t you know he’s autistic?” The kid responds, “Yeah, I know that. And I also know he’s a person.”

***

The classroom is not a fairyland and there are times when it’s hard for moments like these to rise above the chaos. But things like this do  happen all the time. The other kids are watching. They’re learning.

People wonder how teachers can bear to teach the same lessons for so many years. The answer, of course, is that we never do. Lessons are like paintings.   Paintings aren’t ever complete, are never static—they are always shifting with the responses of different people, creating and recreating something fascinating each time.

Teaching brings me right to the moment at hand. The kids I teach are not focusing on encapsulating their lives in a yearbook quote or contemplating their centering in eternity. They are just living and like so many of us,trying to do the right thing at the right time.