The Angel’s Last Gift

I would like to share two beautiful stories with you, which speak to our purpose in life.  The first story is from the Jewish tradition but retold with such beauty by Christina Baldwin, in her book The Seven Whispers (2002), that I will quote her rather than paraphrase the story.

There is a legend in the Hasidic tradition that says that when a baby is conceived an angel accompanies the soul into the womb and lives with the fetus for the nine months of gestation.  Here, in the blood-thumping shelter of the mother, angel and soul speak of the life to come and decide together on the purpose of this incarnation:  What is this soul coming to contribute?  Who will help support this purpose?  What challenges will be faced?  Where comes love? …

Just as the birth pangs begin, when the soul must fully enter the baby-self and the angel return to heaven, the angel reaches out and presses its finger against the baby’s lip.  We still have this mark, an indentation that runs sweetly from upper lip to nose.  The philtrum is the angel’s last gift.  “Hush,” it whispers to the stirring child, “now you must forget.”  And all the while the womb bears down around us, pushing us out into the waiting world.  Here we come, imbued with purpose and arriving in amnesia.  Newborn.

The second “story” is an actual account of a conversation I had with my fitness instructor, Tara.*  We were waiting for the rest of the group to show up for our hike and she began telling me about her daughter, Davan,* who has an extremely rare genetic disorder called Pallister-Killian Syndrome.  Davan has the body of a five-year old but developmentally, she is like a newborn.  Her vision and hearing are also impaired.  Davan attends Kindergarten at the local neighbourhood school, which is an inclusive educational setting.  When some other parents were questioning Tara as to whether or not Davan should be at that school or at a “special” school, she replied, “Davan is here to teach, not to learn.”

Everyone has a purpose in this life.  It’s wonderful when both child and parent “remember,” and can share that with others.  Think of that each time you notice the angel’s imprint just above the lips.

** not her real name

Don’t Blame the Lettuce

When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you
don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not
doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or
less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have
problems with our friends or family, we blame the other
person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will
grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive
effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason
and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no
reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you
understand, and you show that you understand, you can
love, and the situation will change.

— Thich Nhat Hanh

I am a reading intervention teacher and work with children with learning disabilities.  As I have gotten to know them, their parents, teachers, and support workers, I have also heard their background stories.  There are many things going on in each child’s life – health challenges, family problems, or social-emotional issues.  Sometimes, I feel overwhelmed but for the most part, I keep trying to think of new ways to help them grow, to discover what it is that each individual child needs in order to grow … not just in their learning but also in their life.  I will try to be the water, the fertilizer, the sunlight or shade.

Eating Crow

Well, be careful what you say.  After writing my last post about active boys in the classroom, I welcomed a new group of LD students to my program the very next day.  One of my classes is a group of boys that wiggle and tap their feet and shred erasers and crumple paper and talk, talk, talk all at the same time.  These are my “Brady’s” for the year.  They will keep me on my toes; they will remind me of the need for frequent activity breaks; they will keep me thinking of ways to keep them engaged, … and they will keep me humble.

Danny a.k.a. Brady

I have a 13 month old Cockapoo named Brady. He is probably the cutest dog ever
(my bias, of course).  I only have to walk half a block before we encounter someone who asks about his name or breed, and they want to pet him.  He is definitely a furry ice-breaker, who is so happy to meet and greet all these new people on the sidewalks or in the park. He brings joy to so many people.

Brady is also a bundle of energy.  He wants to jump and run and play all the time.  He
is also very curious about everything. Our walks are long and slow, as he needs to stop and sniff every pole, fencepost and tree.  On top of that, if he sees another dog anywhere in the vicinity, he will sit and wait till they approach so that he can meet a new buddy.  There is no point in making him hurry up or attempt to pull him away.  It’s not that he is random or unfocused; it’s just that his focus is on something other than my destination.  Of course, this can be frustrating for me when I am in a hurry, like when I’m trying to get back home at 6:30 AM to get ready for work.

Danny*, a former student, is just like Brady. He is also energetic, curious, and can’t
seem to figure out why adults are so frustrated with him!  Not that I’m comparing a child to an animal, but some of their traits are similar.  However, when we share these stories about our pets, people chuckle and nod in recognition of the situation.  All too often though, when we share stories of active and distractible boys with teachers or parents, we sigh and ask about testing, possible labels**, and/ or medication.  Danny’s name has come up several times at School-Based Team meetings. He’s not a bad kid, but he has a hard time sitting still and finishing a task in one shot.

I’ve noticed that Brady is better behaved (in terms of my expectations, not necessarily normal puppy behaviour within a pack of other dogs) when he get more attention and exercise. It’s really quite simple … let him burn off his energy at the park and he is more settled at home.  Does this lesson also translate to children (especially boys) in school?  I believe it often does.  It is next to impossible for some boys to sit still and be quiet for five – six hours in a classroom.  Is it any wonder they go charging out the door at breakneck speed at recess?

In my observations, most elementary schools have mostly female teachers, especially in the primary grades.  Based on my own experience, I was a little girl who could play independently for hours, or happily curl up on a favourite chair and read silently (still do).  It is my guess that many elementary teachers have a similar nature and perhaps have difficulty in relating to boys (or girls) who need to be active in order to learn and work. I have taught for many years and have noticed that it is almost always boys who have been sent out of the classroom or to the office, and they have been sent out by the female teachers. (I have no data to support this; it is just my observations and experience.)  Do we still teach and expect a classroom environment that best reflects our own way of learning, or can we try to step outside of that comfort zone and allow for more action and interaction?

At the end of the day, Brady is not perfect … he still tries to jump up on people, he tugs on the leash, and fakes his little pee-pee dance just so that I will take him outside again.  But he’s my dog and I’m crazy about him!  Danny might drive some teachers crazy, but he’s someone else’s son and they would give their life for him.  Let’s try to see the child
and not just the behaviour.

p.s. Thanks, Brady, for helping me become a better teacher!

*not his real name

**I recognize that ADD/ADHD are real conditions for some people, and needs to be
diagnosed and treated properly.  However, I am unsure as to the scope of this condition and am not in favour of people jumping to that conclusion too quickly.  My point is that being active and curious can be wonderful personality traits, not necessarily indicators of a “disorder.”  I also acknowledge that, thankfully, most teachers nowadays do include frequent activity breaks for their students.

One Step at a Time

At the age of 50, Andy* was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s
disease.  Andy was a member of my mother’s church and was well-known as being active participant in the community.  His body slowly gave up working, bit by bit,
and he died a year later.  At his funeral, a moving story was told about the great sacrifices that friends make for one another.

One night, the young pastor had gone to visit Andy at the hospice.  Two of his best friends were there as well.  Andy communicated that he would like to move.  However, by this point, he no longer had the use of his legs.  So, his two friends got up and went over to Andy.  One lifted him from behind, under his armpits, and the other man knelt down on his hands and knees.  Taking Andy’s feet in his hands and moving in tandem with the other man, the two friends worked together to give Andy the ability to “walk” again, while retaining his dignity.

Obviously, this is a story about the loyalty and love of true friends.  However, after hearing this, I reflected upon it and I believe that could be symbolic of much more.  I began to wonder … Isn’t that what we are meant to do each day, with everyone we meet?  Wouldn’t our schools be a wonderful place to be if we continually helped
each other just to take another step forward?  Isn’t that the definition of collaboration in its finest sense?

* not his real name

Back to School

On the eve of the first day back to school after a  long, lazy summer, I wish to pass on some wisdom and encouragement to teachers (including myself) from the wonderful writer, teacher and speaker, Parker Palmer:

Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness.  They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves … The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts – meaning heart in its ancient sense, as the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self.

As good teachers weave the fabric that joins them with students and subjects, the heart is the loom on which the threads are tied, the tension is held, the shuttle flies, and the fabric is stretched tight.  Small wonder, then that teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart – and the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be.  The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require.

Palmer, Parker J.  The Courage to Teach (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2007), pp. 11-12.


By the way, in reference to my last post, Winston Churchill had dyslexia.  Puts a whole new spin on his famous quote, “Never, never, never give up,” doesn’t it?

Never, Never, Never Give Up

The title of today’s post is actually a quote by the great Winston Churchill (British Prime
Minister – 1940-45, 1951-55).  Of course, he gave this statement to encourage his countrymen during WWII.  However, it is still good advice, no matter the circumstances or times.

Sometimes, we do feel like giving up.  A teacher may feel overwhelmed – her workload may be too heavy and tiring with larger class sizes and an extremely diverse group of needs in her class. Parents feel worn out by all the meetings, appointments, emails, phone calls and forms trying to get help for their child, on top of a job and all the responsibilities of caring for a family.  A student with a learning disability just doesn’t “get it,” no matter how hard he tries, while the other kids around him are able to read and write with ease (or so it seems to him).

It is so important to remember to encourage one another and work together.  After all, we are on the same team and are working together towards the same goals. What a wonderful place schools can be when everyone strives to create a supportive, trusting, welcoming community!  When was the last time you asked a parent how they were doing, meant it, and really took the time to listen with empathy?  When was the last
time you wrote a thank you card to your child’s teacher for “no” reason?  When was the last time you helped another student with something you are good at?   Cooperation is
much more powerful than competition.  With competition, there is only one winner.  When we work together, we all win!

Don’t give up.  Do what you can.  Make small changes … and watch for something
beautiful to emerge over time.