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A new teacher of my beloved acquaintance asked me recently, how do you bring your sense of social justice to a classroom in the culture of your school? He put it really well and I didn’t, but I know what he means. There is the school, and there are the principals and parents and community members with all their expectations and beliefs about what we ought and ought not to teach (everybody has an opinion)—and yet we have ideas about that, too. How do you reconcile all that and not lose your soul?

That, my dears, is a good question.

To answer it, I will tell you a story. But first, let me say that parents do get to trust that teachers aren’t lobbying kids out from under them. They send their kids to school with faith that their teachers are partners in their weighty job of rearing good humans to take up the mantle.  They must not fear that you’re dissuading the kids from all the lessons parents have labored to impart.

Also, kids get to expect that their teacher is there for each of them, not just the ones you love or agree with politically. You’re everybody’s teacher. Period. You may not say or do anything that imperils their trust that you see each student’s noblest potential and aim to teach them toward it.

Okay, here’s the story. I try to remember to tell this to every class. One day, when I was 21 years old, I was walking along with my toddler son under the beech trees of William and Mary. My head was full of all the things I needed to think and he lagged a bit behind, so I turned to wait for him to catch up, and saw him crouching, reaching for something with his hand. Another cigarette butt, I wondered? Toddlers will put anything into their mouths. No, it was something far more interesting.

beech-nuts

“Beech nuts! Christopher, you found beech nuts!” And I looked up and noticed those regal trees for the first time. “They are the seeds of these big trees. Imagine! If you planted one of these, in time, one of these beautiful trees would grow from it. But these aren’t fertilized. You can tell because they are skinny on their sides. See how they cave in? Let’s look for fat ones. Then we could plant it and make a beech tree!” I was giddy. Looking up, looking down, looking at my son’s fat little hand with the beech nuts in it.

beech-nuts-2

Then, I suddenly wondered: how do I know this?

Flashback: I am maybe 8 years old. We’re at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on East Avenue in Rochester, New York.

stpaul400x473

It’s after the Sunday service and we’re out under the beech trees. My father is walking along, his hands clasped behind his back, looking down. He was always finding 4-leaf clovers and Indian arrowheads—yes! They’d rattle around in the silverware drawer in the kitchen.

“Daddy, what are you looking for?”

“Beech nuts, fertilized ones.”

And he explained to me about the fat ones and thin ones. And he added, “If you could plant a beech tree, you would not have lived in vain.”

Flash forward: my baby’s face, my hands full of beech nuts, my father gone, never to meet this child, a memory recovered, and teaching, in its fullness, revealed. I didn’t even know I knew it, but it lived inside me, waiting for that man’s grandson to spark the memory of love and stewardship.

Teaching, it’s often been said, is like planting a seed. Like planting a beech tree. Like giving your soul in its purest form to a child, for love and no other reason. Because beech trees are sublime and children should walk along beneath them and ponder planting one themselves.

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So that’s how you bring yourself to work. You give them the best you have, at all moments, out of pure love of the world, a love that surpasses your love of yourself or the kids themselves. You do it for the beech trees.

 

I am going to start asking people that question.

I suspect that everyone would describe the same school:

  • a beautiful, safe, sunny building in good repair
  • caring, experienced, knowledgeable teachers
  • a big, welcoming library with a trained and enthusiastic librarian
  • a green, tree-intensive campus with lots of playing fields
  • a widely varied curriculum with plenty of arts, athletics, and electives
  • help for kids at all levels:  those who struggle, those in the middle, those who excel.
  • small class sizes to allow for individual attention for all students
  • a vibrant and supportive community that values what happens at the school.

Funny how absolutely none of this is supported by current “reform” initiatives.  None of it would be improved by the Common Core, which presumes that teachers have been unclear on what to teach.

I went to a school like this.  Except for some details (like class size), I teach at a school like this.

 

A beautiful building and a beautiful campus.

A beautiful building and a beautiful campus.

I’d like to see us start pursuing this goal for every kid in the U.S.  If we stopped the runaway testing, we might even have enough money for it.

It would do more than merit pay to attract and retain gifted teachers– and it’s our best shot for the next generation who constitute our future.

New Hope November 2013:  Near Fred's Breakfast

New Hope November 2013: Near Fred’s Breakfast. Looking across the river to Lambertville.

This is the Frick Collection: not very photogenic.

This is the Frick Collection: not very photogenic.

On a rainy summer day, we went to see this somewhat forbidding building and the treasures it contained.  Renoirs, Vermeers, Gainsboroughs, Turners, Rembrandts.  .  .  it was very impressive, and it was meant to be.

We wondered where Frick had obtained all this money.  Ay yi yi.  “The most hated man in America” took the fall for some of Andrew Carnegie’s cruelest actions.  Who decided to call the Pinktertons, to fire on the Homestead strikers?  Frick or Carnegie?  They were called and fourteen people died.  Someone hated Frick so much he tried to assassinate him.  He failed and this generated enough sympathy for Frick that he could fire more than a thousand workers and hire the rest of the strikers back at half pay.

So Vermeer et al were paid for by the lives and wages of workers.  You have to really want that kind of wealth to be willing to do what you have to do to get it, and Frick succeeded brilliantly.  He built the house so as to make Carnegie’s house look like a miner’s shack.  That’s a competitive heart.

According to History.com:

Later in life, he (Andrew Carnegie) reportedly sent Frick a note suggesting that the two men put aside their differences. Frick gave a cutting response to Carnegie’s personal secretary, who had delivered the letter: “Tell him I’ll see him in hell, where we are both going.”

Did I mention that both Frick and Carnegie helped to cause the Johnstown Flood?  Yes.  It was their club’s private lake with its unsafe dam that broke and flooded the town.  That killed 2,209 people.

The collection is priceless and you can go to see it, too.

And there, on the table, in the middle of the room, regarded by all the great ladies painted by the great painters, was a vase of lilies.  It looked something like this:

Wow.

Wow.

They grew in the dirt.  They smelled wonderful!  You could grow them, too.  And no matter how you look at it, they are as beautiful in their way as the paintings and rare furnishings are in theirs.

They reminded me of a farmer I heard interviewed on NPR years ago.  A neighbor asked him why, when there was no profit in it, he planted an entire field of sunflowers.  He replied, “Because I’m too poor to afford a Van Gogh.”

I share Frick’s desire to collect and curate beauty.  Good thing there are cheaper and easier ways to do it.

Gently down the stream in the Canal du Midi.

Messing about in boats on the Canal du Midi.

It was all Susie’s idea.  We rented a boat for an hour, and it went only about as fast as leisurely stroll, which suited the mood perfectly.

Captain Peter at the helm.

Captain Peter at the helm.

Clever, happy girl!

Clever, happy first mate!

mark and me in boat

Happy crew.

A perfect summer day that we’ve laid away in memory for whenever we need it.

Summer is like this, for me– all about these exquisite moments which I try to absorb into my bones, so as to have them for comfort and faith when the cold, dark weather comes.  One day, several years ago now, I stood on the bridge over the Delaware between Centerville and Stockton with my sister on a perfect summer day late in August.  School was to start very soon, and there was the water beneath us, and the green trees around us, and we willed ourselves to take it in so we would have it:  vitamins of summer, a moment out of time. I still have that day inside.

And now this one.

And perhaps today another one.

Maybe life is but a dream– but with awareness, we can perhaps choose to dream lovelier.

(It helps to have a special person to share it with.  That day with Jeanie has Jeanie in it.  This day with Susie has Susie in it.  So recalling the day recalls the love, too)

ENGAGED!  In the Placa Reial, Barcelona, July 12, 2013.  While we sat at a cafe and sipped sangria, watching the world go by (the Placa Reial is better than T.V.), along came a couple and before we could realize what was happening, he was down on one knee holding a little box in his hand.  We got out the camera in time to take this snap:

You can see the box in his hand.

You can see the box in his hand.

And then this one:

They will be so happy together.

They will be so happy together.

If you know them, let them know I have these photos and two more.  I  would love to send them to this sweet couple, who looked so happy, and made our day with their joy.

Behold the Pont Du Gard.

Beautiful, functional, and fun to boot.

Beautiful, functional, and fun to boot.

What other ancient monument is also a park, a place for a picnic and a swim, as well as a wonderful museum?

The museum not only shows how they built the thing, but also why:  the role of water in the Romans' lives.

The museum not only shows how they built the thing, but also why: the role of water in the Romans’ lives.

It’s big, it’s Roman, it’s breathtaking, and we’re glad we went.

From the other side.

See those tiny people walking across it?

The water was cold and shallow.

The water was cold and shallow.

And the shade was a good place to read a good book.

And the shade was a good place to read a good book.

It makes me wish we lived nearby and could see it in all weather, all seasons.  Good place.  Thanks, Romans.

Roman arena at Arles, France:  the corridor.

Roman arena at Arles, France: the corridor.

You’ve got to hand it to the Romans.  They knew how to build things to last, and that would hold up to scrutiny in all that time.  I love the color palette:  blonde, white, caramel, honey, and every shade of pale.  The thing is that much of what the Romans built is still used for its original purpose.  The roads, built for chariots and foot traffic (including the feet of animals), now ably handle vehicles undreamt of by the roads’ designers.  And so it is in Arles that when we visited, the arena was covered with modern seats and stands for an upcoming concert.

I was much taken by this fossilized shell:

"Once I lived in the water, but for centuries now I've had the most amazing view."

“Once I lived in the water, but for centuries now I’ve had the most amazing view.”

And by the eons of graffiti.

Marks of naughty people through the ages.

Marks of naughty people through the ages.

Somehow the Romans had a knack for the big mix of it all, the big and the small, the great and the lowly, the formal and the rowdy– as my Auntie Betty used to say, “life’s rich pattern.”

 

Everything here looks like it was painted by Van Gogh.

Across the fields to Capestang, with the church proudly marking the village.

Across the fields to Capestang, with the church proudly marking the village.

We do a lot of standing and staring.

And taking photos.

Standing and looking is all you can do.

At work in Capestang.

At work in Capestang.

Sometimes you just need a new view, a different take on it all.  Here’s what I see out the window in Capestang:

Some countryside.

Some countryside.

Everything looks a little different when you see it from a different angle.

 

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

Free teacher ramblings.

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