Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak with a visual arts class about the reconstructive nature of memory. This came at a time when I was reeling from two nights of nightmares, the sort in which the dreamer is screaming, screaming, and no one hears or even looks up. I did not remember the content of the dreams when I awoke.
The mind is a powerful place.
I thought about this on my run later in the afternoon, a run that I didn’t want to go on but I know my mind and body well. Not wanting to go due to mental fatigue meant that the right thing to do, without question, was to go.
As it was, the gathering clouds beckoned. The wind blew in a way that hinted at a gift of cool afternoon rain but that could, in the tropics, blow over and leave us with nothing at all.
I watched my mind as if from a perch high above the treetops as I ran along the canal. I watched it growing negative, judgemental, downright nasty in its commentary of the strangers passing by. And I laughed because I understood – because I knew.
What I criticized in others was precisely what I feared in myself.
The sequence of thoughts did not come as a surprise – after all, I know my mind and body well. It was easy to draw a line from a book I’d read to the dreams I’d had to the venom my mind conjured. Easy because I’d been there before.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve lived a very long time.
And I laughed when the sky darkened further and the wind danced through the trees. A child again, I danced with it.
At the end of my run, I spent a few minutes stretching in the park. And that was when it began to rain.
With four weeks of school already gone, I’m taking a moment to reflect on the passage of time. It has been five months since Singapore’s circuit breaker and just over eight months since a new virus came into our world. I am in my fourth consecutive year in Singapore and my tenth year as an educator.
Time goes. It just goes.
This is why it is important to be aware that every single day makes a difference. Every day is a chance to be in the world, to breathe fresh air, to taste our food, to feel our bodies move, to smile at a stranger, to make a new friend. We have so many opportunities to ask questions, have conversations, learn something new, help those in need and those around us, and make choices that make the world a better place.
I recently learned the question, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”. This was a pivotal moment for me and I can already see its impact on the way I make decisions. Simply knowing this is both powerful and frightening. Framed like this, the answers to some difficult questions become so obvious that they are impossible to ignore. And yet accepting those answers is as scary as asking the question in the first place.
What would my world be had I learned this question half a lifetime ago? How would those years have shifted, woven, and been shaped into a life I’ll never know? What worlds might have been built within that time?
Even more to the point: What’s next? For that matter, what is now?
Times goes, but first it is ours.
We have all recognized at this point that the luxury of normal is indeed a luxury. Predictability is a luxury, a thing of the past in some very stark ways. I wonder which habits of mind we will return to when normal returns – because it will. History tells us that it always has. And I wonder which former habits of mind we will discard in favor of new ones that we’ve learned and adopted.
We have just completed the fourth week of this school year. It is unprecedented, but so is the last. These are four weeks that we never envisioned existing as they are, four weeks that very easily might not have looked like this, and might change still. We are all asking questions and getting used to a reality of few answers.
But if I have learned anything, it is that the unknown will always be unknown. We can never know what it holds or looks like, and this is not unique to the present snapshot in time. I have learned that we won’t even know we’re there until that’s what there is. And I have learned what truly is constant. The trees still stand tall. When the world seems to be spinning out of control, I now know what I can cling to and what will not let me go.
Just over a year ago, I hesitated to buy a couch because I didn’t want to be anchored anywhere. I didn’t want to own an object that might hold me down. And now I realize it is not the couch holding me down but my own fears of what might be out there in the unknown.
The grade 12 students at my school had their last required day of classes last week. Historically, this week would have been their reading week, their time to revise for exams in whatever ways best suited them.
In the present world, however, this week is different.
And we all know this. We also know by now that there is little purpose in dwelling on what might have been or could have been or should be. We know, as a guided meditation reminded me this morning, “This is the way things are right now”.
With this awareness, I have tried to uphold what I have always done when the time comes to say goodbye to my grade 12 students. In lieu of speaking with them in class, I recorded a video in which I told them what I wanted them to know. In the email with the video link, I added that there might be a blog post to follow.
Here is that blog post to follow.
The dates on the faded newspaper clippings tell me that I started my scrapbook when I was 13. In truth, that scrapbook was more of a phase than anything else. Its activity waxed and waned at various points but keeping it up was by no means a practice. The scrapbook probably looks like many scrapbooks by teenage girls: There are articles or comic strips pasted on pages decorated with stickers, attempts at calligraphy, and my commentary in the margins. There are pages of quotes culled from magazines and newspapers, as well as a page cut out of cardboard that may have come from the back of a cereal box. The middle of the scrapbook is devoted to quotes that I remember typing on my dad’s computer, each with a different font. I grouped them by category and wrote a few words of advice to myself on each page.
The change in my handwriting (unfortunately very little of this scrapbook is dated) indicates that time passed. What did not change through the years, however, is what mattered to me and how I understood the world. The comments in the margins of articles still make sense and the comic strips still make me smile. The quotations continue to move me in some way, though I have a more recent list elsewhere.
There is a quote by John Holt on a page that I titled “Character”. It’s typed in a font that I haven’t used in years and the smiley-faced stick figure at the bottom of the page suggests middle school. I just looked up John Holt for the first time and I think it fits.
The true test of character is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don’t know what to do. – John Holt
As we learn to walk in the world, there are times when we know what is expected of us. There are times when we know who we are and where we are. We are confident and comfortable when we feel safe and at home and among friends.
Now, this confidence is not always a good thing. It might stop us from seeing another perspective or asking a challenging question. It might prevent a difficult conversation that could lead to a better understanding of who we are and the world around us.
Holt suggests that character, the way we are made, is best seen in the situations that make us pause. These situations might be uncomfortable or scary, or perhaps just new. We might be facing an unknown time in our lives or a person who is unfamiliar to us. This is when we do not know how to behave. And this is when we see not only who we are, but who others are, as well.
My grade 12 students are about to walk into a new and unfamiliar world full of new and unfamiliar people. This is true for students pursuing higher education, taking a gap year, going to work, or joining the military. This is true for all of us who step outside of what we know and welcome what we do not know. And this is true for everyone right now in this world that we could not have imagined.
This is a good opportunity to watch ourselves closely, carefully, and critically and learn who we are. It is a good opportunity to better understand those around us. Significantly, this is a time where we can look closely, carefully, and critically at the world around us and ask the questions that we might not have asked before when we allowed systems to flow unquestioned.
And once we have watched ourselves, once we understand how to act in the different environments that life presents and around the people we encounter and engage with, we can make a choice. We can choose to remain unchanged by what we see and to continue doing what we have always done. This is easy. This is what we know how to do.
Or we can do the difficult thing, the unknown thing. We can do the hard thing, the right thing, the good thing. We can look at ourselves, the people we know, and the world around us. And as we look, we can make choices about how to act, who to be with, and how to create the world we want to live in.
It is never too late to be what you might have been. – George Eliot
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place