Envirothon: A Mom’s-eye view

My kid knows her fish. She can tell a walleye from a goldeye, and a lake trout from a brook trout. My kid can use the word “riparian” correctly in a sentence. Whereas some families have collections of signed baseballs and hockey pucks, we have a corner of our kitchen freezer dedicated to specimen jars containing a meticulously preserved array of aquatic insects. At seventeen, my kid has a wealth of knowledge about topics as diverse as rangeland management, urban forestry, local food production, and wetland preservation. My kid has a windbreaker that says “Aquatics” on the sleeve and a drawer full of t-shirts festooned with the logo for Manitoba Envirothon. And now she has a new item to add to her collection.

I wrote last year about the incredible learning opportunity that the whole Envirothon experience had been for my daughter and her friends. The team are in their graduating year now, and they have just returned home from Provincials for the last time.

enviro trophyWith the trophy.

“Mom, were you crying?” asked my daughter after the hooting and celebrating had died down. Well, yes… maybe a little. Having watched this team work as hard as they have the past four years, and knowing how very much my daughter wanted this achievement, I can be excused for getting a bit choked up over their victory.

Placing first means that for my daughter’s team, the Envirothon journey is not over. They will now go on to represent Manitoba in the National competition, to be held this summer in Springfield, Missouri.

For my daughter in particular the journey continues even beyond Nationals, as she heads off to university to study the very discipline she fell in love with while combing through her big binder of Envirothon readings, trouping through the field tests, and speaking with confidence and passion before an audience of peers and judges.

I’ve watched my daughter and her teammates learn so much, but the learning that thrills me most as a parent was not found in that big binder and it has little to do with aquatic ecology. Here’s what I think this big wooden trophy on my dining room table really means for my daughter’s education:

You can accomplish anything if you have a clear vision

The first time my daughter’s team competed they were in grade 9, and they were completely blown away by the fact that they advanced to the provincial competition. They made a pact that they were going to make it to Nationals by the time they graduated, and they held fast to that vision until they achieved it.

enviro prov 2015 hIf something matters to you, step up and lead

The teacher who had provided supervision and support to the team in grade 9 was no longer at the school when they started grade 10. In order to register as a school activity, the team needed a teacher supervisor. Not about to let a bureaucratic barrier stand in the way of the goal, my daughter took it upon herself to hike from one end of the school to the other, knocking on every teacher’s door until she found one who would agree to put her name down on the form as supervisor. I watched my daughter assume more and more leadership for the team—even when she didn’t think she had it in her. Today, as they cheered their win, I heard more than one voice acknowledge the role she had played in driving the team forward.

enviro prov 2015 cTeamwork is everything

Envirothon is brilliantly structured so that each team member specializes in one area of knowledge, but in order to put the oral presentation together the team must draw from everyone’s strengths and integrate the pieces into a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts. There have been some changes in team membership over the past four years, and as we drove home the girls were messaging past teammates—a touching acknowledgement that their contribution still mattered even though they had moved on.

enviro prov 2015 aLose with grace; Win with humility

Last year the team came within inches of reaching their goal, but ended up walking away with third place. It was a hard loss—harder in some ways than if they hadn’t made it to the final round of presentations. But it didn’t defeat them. Instead, I think it made them even more resolute. My daughter confessed that they were far more nervous this year than they had been last year, perhaps because it was their last chance so there was more at stake.

Big decisions show us who we are

My daughter gave up two trips to the Rocky Mountain Music Festival in Banff because the travel itineraries conflicted with Envirothon Regionals. The first year she had to face this conflict, she found the decision agonizing. Both activities were important to her, but in the end her choice came down to the insight that there were several alto saxophone players in the band, but only one of her in Envirothon. The process of making that decision was a learning moment for both of us, as I deliberately stepped back and put the choice entirely in her hands. She learned she could navigate her own way through an impossible dilemma, and I learned that she was ready to make sound, mature choices based on careful consideration of the alternatives.

enviro prov 2015 fHard work pays off

If you haven’t seen Envirothon up close, you may not appreciate that what these young people have opted to do is take on extra academic study as an extracurricular activity. I think there are some schools that have made a credit course out of the competition prep, but for my daughter’s team this all happened on their own time—at lunch hour, after school, and on weekends. They did it because they wanted to do it, not because they had to do it. They did it because they believed it was worth doing. And I’d like to think they did it because they appreciated that good things happen when you work hard on something together with other people who share your passion.

If you had just one question?

In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, a specially constructed computer called Deep Thought is asked: “What is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything?” The answer given is “42.” The answer is useless to the askers, because nobody thought to ask what was the question. Deep Thought then predicts that there will be an even more powerful computer constructed to come up with the ultimate question. This computer, it turns out, is the Earth.

As delightfully silly as Adams’ Hitchhiker’s series is, there’s an important lesson here. The more important the answer is to you, the more important it is to start out by asking the right question. My nephew understood this concept at a very early age. When his parents told him he could only ask Santa for one thing, he wisely reasoned that the best course of action would be to ask Santa for a fairy godmother who could subsequently grant him endless wishes!

Science fiction and fairy godmothers aside, I do think that when it comes to the things that matter, it is important, and not all that easy, to ask the right question. If my sense of purpose is about finding an answer, there’s a limiting quality to my quest. Because what happens when I find the answer? Achieve the goal? Get the dream job? Does life suddenly cease to have meaning?

But if my purpose is about asking the right question, that opens up endless possibilities. Because if it’s the right kind of question you can ask it over and over again and, like my nephew’s fairy godmother, it will keep giving you answers.

Douglas Adams isn’t the first, and certainly not the last, writer to ask the question about the question. Joan Osborne sings, “What would you ask if you had just one question?”

I don’t even think it matters to whom you are directing the question. Whether you are asking God, the universe, or yourself, if you only had one question, it strikes me that you would want it to be the one that offered up the biggest answer. Or the most answers. Or the answer that opened up the opportunity for asking more questions.

What would I ask if I had just one question? My question has evolved over the years. The progression looks roughly like this:

  • What should I be when I grow up? I like to joke that I’m still working on this one. In truth, I sort of am. Each time I have changed careers it has felt like I finally had my “dream job.” And then time passed and the dream, and eventually the job, changed again. But I have come to recognize that there are several words and phrases that make this question problematic. One is “when I grow up.” Because this question is all about living in the future, which, as I’ve explored elsewhere, is not a terribly hospitable place to inhabit. So over time I began to focus in a little more.
  • What should I be? I have invested a great deal of time and energy on “should” and nowhere near enough on “could” and “will.” Whether you are conscious of it or not,  “should” is almost always rooted in someone else’s expectations, and therefore it has a tendency to breed guilt and feelings of inadequacy.
  • What will I be? Better, but I have come to realize that this whole notion of “be-ing” is kind of fuzzy. I can say I “am” all sorts of lofty things, but it is my words and actions that are going to tell you what I truly am.
  • What will I do? At this point in my life, I have come to the conclusion that the best question is the one that results in action. Asking “What will I do?” always steers me in the direction of realizing what it is that I can do–reminds me, in fact, that there is always something I can do. “What will I do?” is about taking action in the here and now.

Like my nephew, I am going for the loophole. Having just one question doesn’t have to mean you only get to ask it once. If I had just one question, I would want it to be a question that, when asked over and over, would continually generate new and significant answers. The real question would therefore be a little more complicated:

What will I do here and now that will move me authentically in the direction of my purpose.

Poet Mary Oliver asked a slightly different question, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” But I don’t want to spend my whole life planning my life. If I do the right thing today, the rest will take care of itself.

 What would YOU ask if you had just one question?

 

Imposter syndrome

I wrote in an earlier post that I don’t often remember my dreams. When I do remember them, it’s generally because they are particularly memorable. Or, in the case of my most frequently recurring dream, particularly familiar.

During the 20ish years when I taught school, the back-to-school dream was an annual fixture. It generally happened in late August, just as I was starting to gear up my prep for the new school year. The dream took on different variations from year to year, but there were always predictable elements.

Typically the dream begins with me arriving at a new and unfamiliar school. I don’t know my way around, I’m late, and I can’t find my classroom. When I do eventually make my way to my assigned room, the students are already there and in a state of near riot. By the time I have restored order, I have also discovered that I have been assigned to teach a subject for which I singularly unqualified and thoroughly unprepared. Physics, typically, or some form of highly advanced mathematics.  Either that or it is a language course in a language about which I know absolutely nothing. Greek, perhaps. Or Mandarin Chinese.

Regardless of the specifics, the common element is that I am always inadequately prepared to take command of my class.

It’s a long time since my teaching activities have corresponded with the traditional school year, but I still engage in activities that can trigger the back-to-school dream. I’m coming to the end of a week of teaching an intensive summer course at my neighbourhood university  and, sure enough, the dream resurfaced last week as I was gearing up to start this course.

In this recent incarnation of my back-to-school dream I am team-teaching with a former English professor of mine—a fellow who I remember as being very intelligent, but verbosely full of himself. Although we are supposed to be jointly teaching this class, it appears that we have actually been assigned to teach two different courses simultaneously to the same unfortunate group of students. This time I arrive in good time, ahead of most of the students, and seat myself at one end of a large seminar table. I think to myself that he can sit at the other end, so we will be positioned as equals. When he arrives, however, the room rearranges itself in a manner that only happen in dreams and Harry Potter stories, and I find myself seated with the students in what has morphed into the upper tiers of a vast lecture theatre. My colleague finally arrives. Or rather, he makes an entrance. Dressed like Elvis at the height of the satin and sequins, he launches into a bizarre blend of lecture and concert that goes on forever. One of the students seated near me whispers a question to me about my course outline. Before I can respond, the other professor interrupts his performance just long enough to chastise us for not paying attention. I become acutely aware that we are nearing the end of the scheduled lesson time, and I have still not had an opportunity to even introduce myself. Suddenly, a door bursts open and in rolls a long buffet table decked out in vast quantities of expensive cheese.

That’s where the dream ends, with me feeling flabbergasted and frustrated.

None of this has anything remotely to do with my actual experience in a real-world classroom. I love teaching, and I particularly love teaching the course I am engaged with this week. It fascinates me, therefore, that the anxiety and feelings of impostership that are clearly at the root of such dreams are so deep-seated that they still send up shoots at a point in my teaching career when, at a conscious level, I am really quite confident about what I am doing.

What I find especially interesting about the latest incarnation of the dream is the “Elvis” figure hogging the stage and preventing me from doing my thing. Teaching is, in many ways a form of performance. In the dream, I know I am prepared to teach my course, but I am prevented from “stepping on stage.”

No matter how confident and competent I am as a teacher, it seems there will always be that small voice whispering in my ear, “What if I bomb this time? What if they hate me? What if I can’t command their attention?”

And seriously, how come no one ever arrives spontaneously in my classroom with a cheese buffet?

Aunt Molly’s School of Sensible Housekeeping

When I was in my twenties, new to a busy teaching career and newly married, I remember having a conversation about housework with an older colleague. The conversation went something like this:

Me:      How do you ever manage to get everything done? By  the time I am finished my marking and course prep I can’t imagine coping with all the laundry and the dishes and the housecleaning…

Her:     Well now, I just don’t go to bed until everything is done.

That was the last time I asked her for advice.

Instead, I opted to adopt the philosophy of housekeeping espoused by my great-aunt Molly.

My grandmother’s sister Molly was a creative woman who spent much of her adult life applying her creativity to managing a farm household with limited resources. Molly’s resourcefulness was of the variety that could turn a scoop of leftover chicken fat into melt-in-your mouth sugar cookies. While her culinary creativity may not translate well into the 21st century, I did learn from her other very important lessons that have stood the test of time.

Aunt Molly’s School of Sensible Housekeeping consisted of one fundamental principle, which she explained with this scenario:

You are sitting relaxing and you look up and notice a dirt spot on the wall. You have two options.

  1. You can obsess about the fact that you are now going to have to find a pail and fill it with soapy water and thoroughly wash all the walls, which of course will involve moving all the furniture, which will mean that you are going to end up washing the floor as well— and that sounds like way more work than you have the energy for today. Or tomorrow. So you leave the spot on the wall for days (weeks? months even!) during which you will become increasingly oppressed by the knowledge that you are a failure at housekeeping and probably by extension a failure at just about everything else.
  2. OR, you can stand up, grab the damp cloth that is probably already hanging by your kitchen sink, and wipe off the spot. Then you can go back to sitting and relaxing.

Aunt Molly advocated option #2.

Now, don’t assume that to mean that Molly was a lazy housekeeper. I am certain her walls, floors, and everything in between got a thorough scouring on a regular basis.  But there is wisdom in Molly’s spot-cleaning approach to housekeeping that has translated itself into a wealth of life lessons as I have contemplated her words over the years. Here are a few of those lessons:

  1. You are your own worst critic. When you look at the wall, do you see a small and insignificant spot, or do you see the whole world judging you because your entire house is a massive expanse of filth? Chances are someone else doesn’t even see the spot!
  2. There is always something you can do now. When life gets overwhelming, sometimes just exercising control over one tiny piece of it helps me regain a sense of perspective. If you can’t afford that big purchase you desire, can you put aside the first five dollars? If you can’t run the marathon, can you walk around the block?
  3. Solve the immediate problem. Sometimes I get stuck because I am trying to solve the wrong problem. Or too many problems. When that happens, I have learned to reframe the problem into something I do have the resources to address. Is the problem really that my whole house needs cleaning from top to bottom right this minute? Or is the problem that at this particular moment this particular spot is bugging me?
  4. It’s important to know what constitutes “enough.” Having been inclined, in my youth, to an unhealthy degree of perfectionism, I have spent a long time learning that you don’t need to do everything to have done something worthwhile. Don’t load unrealistic expectations on yourself when you should really be patting yourself on the back for what you have accomplished.
  5. Planning makes the big things more manageable. Eventually you will have to wash the whole wall, but in the meantime a little spot-cleaning can make it bearable. And then you can plan to wash the wall when you have more time. Or energy. Or helpers!
  6. A lot of little things together make a big thing. Does washing a wall mean you need to wash all the walls? Can you do one room today and another one tomorrow?
  7. And perhaps most importantly, it’s better to do the simple thing that’s right in front of you than to just think about doing something grand. Getting out of your chair and going for a walk is more productive than thinking about running a marathon. Writing a two or three blog posts a week may not be writing a best-selling novel, but it is several steps ahead of just thinking about writing a novel.

Of course it’s good to do the grand things too. But you’ll never get to the grand things if you spend too much time worrying about how clean the walls are.

Miss Miller draws a tree

Another of my earliest posts– inspired by one of my many walks along the riverbank.

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I looked at a tree today and was reminded of my fourth grade teacher. Miss Miller was pretty memorable on a number of counts, not the least of which was her purple pantsuit.  The year I was in grade four was the year that the school board relaxed the staff dress code, and for the first time female teachers were allowed to wear pants instead of skirts and dresses. But they had to be pant SUITs. And Miss Miller, clearly happy to embrace this brave new skirt-less world, frequently sported  the purplest of purple pant suits you could possibly imagine.

Miss Miller seemed ancient to me, but looking back now I think she must have been in her 40’s. She was a little exotic because she was most adamantly Miss Miller—whereas all my other teachers to date had been Mrs. so and so. (This was before anybody I knew was called Ms!) She was tall and lanky, and she taught very difficult fourth-grade things like long division. To tell the truth I was a bit scared of her at the start.

But what I remember most about Miss Miller was the day she taught us how to draw a tree.

I knew this lesson was especially important to her, because she cancelled Math to do it.

A small forest of lollipop trees
A small forest of lollipop trees

“All right class, today I’m going to teach you how to draw a tree that actually looks like a tree. I’ve been seeing a lot of you drawing trees that look like lollipops sticking up out of the ground.” And she drew some examples on the chalkboard.

“Hands up if you’ve ever seen a tree that looks like a straight stick with a perfectly round ball perched on the top? I thought not.” She vigorously erased the offending drawing.  “ When you draw a tree you need to think about how it grows…”

And then she proceeded to draw a real tree, all the while talking through how she was doing it—how the trunk forked out into large branches which in turn diverged into smaller branches, and so on. How you would never have a large branch growing out of a smaller branch. How the tree branched out to reach the light.

“Every part of the tree has to be connected back to the trunk—you can’t have branches just sticking out at random. And if you could see under the ground, you would find that the roots of the tree branch out in just the same way.” At which point she drew an elaborate root structure for her chalkboard tree.

It was beautiful. I wanted nothing more than to be able to draw a tree like that. She handed out art paper and instructed us to draw a tree. I laboured over that assignment with greater sense of purpose than I ever had for long division. I drew a passable tree, and I have conjured Miss Miller every time I have ever had occasion to draw a tree since.

My latest attempt at a Miss Miller tree
My latest attempt at a Miss Miller tree

But what I realized only recently is that the best part of Miss Miller’s lesson was that she taught me how to SEE a tree. She taught me to pay attention to how things grow. She taught me that things in nature are shaped the way they are for a reason. She taught me that creating art was a way of learning about the world.

The long division was useful too, but I think the lessons I learned from drawing that tree had a deeper impact.

Buzz

A perfect summer “re-run” — this post was originally written in response to a WordPress  Daily prompt  about anxiety.

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No way was I going outside.

I’d been actively avoiding “outside” all summer. My mother must have been at her wits’ end. It’s pretty hard to avoid the outside world at the summer cottage. It must have been exhausting having to battle with me every time the family wanted to go out somewhere that summer. I don’t recall how old I was, but I recall the anxiety like it was yesterday. At first it was triggered by the faintest buzzing sound. As time went by it reached the point where I assumed that the danger was present even if I couldn’t see or hear it.

“It” being bees and wasps. ESPECIALLY wasps. I was terrified of being stung.

So I stayed inside, depriving myself of summer fun in the name of protecting my hide from what I imagined to be a fate worse than death.

One warm September evening my dad set about barbequing supper in the back yard. My younger sister played outside, while I huddled on the safe side of the screen door. My mom made one more attempt to coax me outside.

“Come on out, Anna. It’s so nice out. We’re going to have a picnic supper!”

Don't be fooled by the pretty butterfly. If there was a flower there was bound to be a bee somewhere!
Don’t be fooled by the pretty butterfly. If there was a flower there was bound to be a bee somewhere!

“Well…”

Please come out.”

“Are there bees?”

“I don’t see any.”

I screwed up my courage, stepped outside, and started down the wooden steps. The same wooden steps from which hung, unbeknownst to all of us, a massive wasp nest that had been expanding undisturbed while we were away at the cottage.

The wasps, always more aggressive in the fall, were already getting riled by the increased human activity and the smell of grilling meat. My footstep on their roof was the last straw.  They swarmed me.

Surrounded by a cloud of buzzing fury, I froze in panic and screamed. And screamed. And screamed.  My mother, realizing I was too terrified to move, waded into the fray and pulled me down off the steps. I was stung in three places– once on each leg, and once on a forearm. My mother’s rescue effort was rewarded with one sting on the arm that grabbed me.

For half an hour I was a sobbing, hysterical mess. Having ascertained that I was not having any sort of allergic reaction, my mom calmly tweezed out all the stingers and applied antiseptic and Band-Aids.

And then something amazing happened. I was able to go outside. The worst had happened and I had survived. It turned out that my imaginings were far more painful than the real experience.

I have never again felt the kind of anxiety about stinging insects that plagued me all that summer. In my household, I have become the one who swats the wasp that comes in through the hole in the screen. I am the one who takes down the nests under the deck at the cottage before they get too big.

That was the first time in my life that I understood that worrying about something could be worse than the thing itself. It is a lesson I have returned to over and over again. When the familiar buzz of anxiety starts up in my head I remind myself that the sting of reality is seldom as horrible as anything I can conjure in my imagination.

Actually very beautiful --once the tenants have moved on.
Actually very beautiful –once the tenants have moved on.

Freefall

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” I’ve always felt that was a good principle to live by. Which is why, on my outing to the amusement park yesterday with my sister’s family, I decided it was time to try this ride for the first time:

tinkertown3

Did I say the first time? I also should have said the last.

OK I guess it wasn’t that bad. I understand the physics of it enough to know why one should be able to expect NOT to become airborne at any point. And I figured if my small niece and smaller nephew were managing not to be flung into orbit around the sun, the odds were good that I too would live to see another day.

There was, however, the added factor that said niece and nephew had decided we needed to sit in the very end. That would be the part that swings up the highest. Now I’m truly not scared of heights. What I am scared of is falling, and the sensation that one might fall. And, as I discovered when it was far too late to change my mind about the whole affair, when this particular ride is in full swing there is a moment when the centrifugal force that is holding one in place flirts with the competing gravitational force that is seducing you earthward, and you do actually rise ever so briefly from your seat and hover Wile-E-Coyote-style in mid air for a split second before swinging back down.

tinkertown2
Happy screaming people

I have long been mindful that my anxiety about falling has a lot to do with a much more generalized anxiety about relinquishing control. Lately I am consciously looking for opportunities to live by Eleanor Roosevelt’s words. Fortunately (unfortunately?) life affords no shortage of opportunities to do just that. Many of those opportunities are considerably less flamboyant than a ride on the Tinkertown Sea-Ray, but at the same time considerably more meaningful.

In my effort to do the thing that scares me, I have engaged in all manner of difficult conversations that had the same effect on my stomach as that moment when the Sea-Ray hovers at the top of its swing. I suspect that those risky conversations are actually more along the lines of what Roosevelt was really contemplating than the pendulum-pirate-ship-of-doom.

Which suits me fine, because it means that I need not feel obligated to get back on the Sea-Ray or any of its ilk!

Rainbows: Turns out Mom was right

rainbowThe funny thing is, I can’t even remember what the crisis was, but I do remember clearly how upset I felt. I even remember where the conversation took place. I was in my early teens, and we were standing in the front hallway of my childhood home. I was in tears of rage and distress about I don’t know what, when my mother turned to me with the quiet advice that when she was going through an upsetting experience, she followed her mother’s advice to focus on the thought: “This too shall pass.”

I remember that in the moment I did not find this wisdom especially helpful.

Actually, I remember that I was sufficiently angry with her that it temporarily took my mind off the original upset. I was insulted. It seemed to me that she was dismissing my distress as something irrelevant– that I shouldn’t be feeling upset about the thing that was upsetting me. It took me a long time to understand what she was really telling me. Decades, in fact.

When I was young, the end of the world was always just around the corner. Every setback and disappointment was a catastrophe of epic proportions, even though at that point in my life the setbacks were pretty minor compared with what I would eventually encounter.

I have had my share of crisis and catastrophe over the four decades since receiving my mom’s advice. And it turns out Mom was right. It all passes. Even when there have been lasting repercussions of the crisis at hand, the actual crisis state always passes into some new sort of equilibrium.

It took me well into my 40’s to comprehend the wisdom of This too shall pass. And it’s only now, in my mid-50’s, that I am able to say with any conviction that I am learning to actually live it. Learning. I may never master it.

But I can say that each time I have made it safely through to another rainbow, it becomes a tiny bit less daunting to walk into the next storm.

“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”  –Haruki Murakami

 

 

 

Seeing the whole picture

Albert* was one of the old-timers who sat at the back of the room, moseying their way through high school on the extended plan. To be honest, I suspect that the unspoken consensus among my teacher colleagues was that Albert’s chances of graduating were pretty slim.

In a small Manitoba town in the mid 1980’s Albert’s outward appearance was guaranteed to evoke judgement.  He wore threadbare t-shirts with rock band logos, torn never-washed jeans, and long greasy black hair, perpetually falling in front of his eyes and draped across a complexion ravaged by adolescence and poor nutrition. I never knew whether he lived in town or commuted from the Reserve up the highway. I suspect that there was some degree of undiagnosed Fetal Alcohol Effect in Albert’s story. The teachers who attempted to teach him Math and English despaired over his erratic attendance. But I was the Art teacher, and Albert, I discovered, was an artist.

Albert’s attendance in art, while far from perfect, was somewhat more regular than his attendance in his academic courses. He sat in the back corner of the art room, head down, eyes hidden by his heavy black hair, deeply entranced by whatever project I had conjured up for the week.  Whatever the assignment, Albert produced something beyond my expectations.

In a big city school Albert might have had the option to rack up all manner of high school credits in a comprehensive arts program. But all I had to offer him was one credit per year of his high school career. And at the rate he was going he was going to run out of art options before he ran out of years.

The more I got to know Albert, the more I ached over the disconnect between his artistic talent and the way that everything else about school conspired to beat him down. I wished there was something more I could do provide him with some validation.

One day I had a brainwave. Remembering that there was a process to create a special project for credit, I proposed to Albert the idea of creating a mural. To my delight, he agreed.

And then the bureaucracy began. First the principal hemmed and hawed. He was not a man given to making decisions if he could possibly help it. I suspected that, had Albert been a more conventionally studious student, the answer might have come quicker. Eventually consent was given, on the condition that I consult with the School Division office regarding the acceptable kind of paint to use on the school walls. After another lengthy runaround, I was informed by a bemused Director of Facilities that ordinary latex paint would be just fine. For a location, we agreed on a boring segment of hallway that joined the two wings of the school.

All that was left was the matter of the mural composition. Fearing that I was going to have to go to battle to defend Albert’s artistic freedom, I asked him to draft a prototype on paper before starting. I waited nervously to see what Albert would come back with, scarcely able to imagine what he would propose. Given that his overall school experience had been less than uplifting, I envisioned something dark and angrily abstract.

Albert sought me out late one afternoon. “I’ve got my picture for the wall.” He unrolled a sheet of poster paper, and revealed, to my astonishment, an exquisite sketch of a unicorn, rearing up on its hind legs in front of a backdrop of lush green forest. I said all the right approving things, but all I could think was “where did that come from?!”

Albert toiled for weeks, painstakingly recreating his work as a mural that spanned roughly 8 feet of hallway. The result was stunning. The other teachers didn’t say much, but once in a while I would catch them looking with veiled astonishment and grudging respect at Albert’s creation. Whatever else they might have thought about Albert, we all saw a part of him we had never imagined was there whenever we passed through that hallway.

I only spent two years at that school, leaving for a position in the city before Albert graduated. I don’t know if he ever did. I have always wondered what became of him. I hope that he found something worthwhile to take him far away from that town. I went back myself a few years ago, and had occasion to walk through the halls of the school.

Albert’s mural had been painted over.

It broke my heart.

When I knew I wanted to write this story, I combed through my albums in search of the one photo I remember taking of the mural. I couldn’t find it.

And it broke my heart all over again.

paint-wall-lg_A2

 

*name has been changed.

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Daily Prompt: Does it ever make sense to judge a book by its cover — literally or metaphorically? Tell us about a time you did, and whether that was a good decision or not.

Are you busy?

My dad was fond of the expression “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it” (which, according to the almighty Google, can be attributed either to Lucille Ball or Ben Franklin. But then hasn’t every famous quote been at some point in time attributed to Ben Franklin?)

Regardless of who originally coined the phrase, I was unquestionably raised to perceive busy-ness as a virtue. The expression, as I always understood it, implied that the busy person was busy because they could be counted on to get things done, and therefore were entrusted with the doing of many things. My parents were always busy people. My dad served on a variety of boards and committees related to his busy engineering careers. My mom was always helping out the elderly and infirm members of the extended family. Both were involved with endless church committees and other forms of volunteer work. Even now, late in her seventies, my mother’s infamous “book”– the daybook she carries everywhere to keep track of which grandchild she is picking up and which friend she is ferrying to an appointment– rivals my Outlook calendar for fullness.

photo source: diamonddreambuilders.com
photo source: diamonddreambuilders.com

My work is busy. And then I come home to more busy, doing all the things I want to do that I am too busy being busy at work to do during the day. Judging from my family history, I may as well accept that I am always going to be that proverbial “busy person.”  But lately, I have come to a couple of realizations about the nature of “busy” that have caused me to rethink my assumptions about the relative virtue of being busy.

Perhaps the reason you should ask a busy person if you want to get something done is that the busy person won’t say no. Perhaps they are busy because they won’t say no. Can’t say no. I know there have been times in my life when I was busy with things that weren’t all that important to me, but to which I had made a commitment from which I didn’t know how to extricate myself. I would like to think I’ve broken that habit, but once in a while I will catch myself signing on for some activity that, deep down, I really don’t think is how I want to spend my time.

I have also observed that there is a big difference between doing things and getting things done. And so I have started working a little harder at distinguishing between motion and momentum.

Motion, to me, does not have a direction. I can be in constant motion and be careening unproductively in a million directions. Motion is what my cat is doing when she randomly breaks into a sprint, tearing back and forth through the house with no visible pursuer or apparent destination. Motion looks very busy. And it can go on looking very busy for a long time.

Momentum, on the other hand, suggests to me that my actions are propelling me in a purposeful direction. That no matter how distant my ultimate destination, I do have one, and I can see the distance I have travelled. Even if I have to measure it in millimeters.

I’m always going to be busy. But I am learning how to watch my busy-ness more closely to ensure that it is not simply frenzied motion for the sake of motion, but rather a steady momentum that propels me step by step towards the things that matter.

Because travelling fast is only a virtue if you like where you’re going.