Reflections: on life, learning, and finding a metric for meaning

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As I was packing up my office — the flotsam and jetsam of 13 years as superintendent and 43 years total in school work — someone walked in and commented, “can’t you throw most of this stuff out?” In that moment I held this framed drawing in my hands, a personal going away gift to the principal from an artist as he was rising up to middle school.

I could see as if yesterday the face of the artist, a honey-blonde fifth grader named Ned with strong hands for his age, already a sculptor. I quickly slid the frame into a box and turned away. I couldn’t throw it into the industrial trash barrel that I was neatly filling with my life. I’d already culled remaining boxes of books and wrapped up plaques and my grandfather’s table, shoehorning the office remains into a pickup truck- the last stage in their final journey home.

My son’s already been clear that the artifacts of his family’s life won’t survive his purge one day. It’s the way of millennials- rather than be paid for their family’s china and furniture and paintings, they pay companies to haul it all away.

I haven’t unpacked anything yet. I can’t get motivated to do so with the same excitement I’ve held in every new learning space I’ve inhabited since I became a teacher. My new home office is a tiny corner of a room filled with WWII memorabilia — artifacts of a time when my son’s “greatest generation” grandparents built tanks, B-24 bombers, and yes, the atomic bomb to make the world a safer place for the minorities among us. I’m comfortable in there because I grew up on the stories of America’s goodness and its willing to sacrifice so much for people who lived on another continent. Photos on the wall, fighter plane replicas, and books pay homage to men and women in the family and to those whose lives remained because of the loss of so many Americans on foreign soil.

However, this room is not school and schools have been my garden for a very long time. Being isolated from learners and educators doesn’t feel normal to me and I doubt it ever will. To see school communities grow and thrive affirms my life’s work.

But back to Ned’s picture. The other night, while watching a show about Albert Einstein on NOVA, I was reminded of a sculpture by this fifth grade artist. It was fired clay, glazed brown, and held an uncanny resemblance to the violin-playing philosopher-physicist. I hadn’t thought about it in years but Ned could bring feeling to clay and that was very special. When I reached out to an intervention teacher (also an artist, reading not his forte — nothing new there) and the art teacher they both remembered him well and the gifts he brought to our school community. “Remember he had that Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist doll? Remember when he graduated from high school he went to one of the best arts schools in the country?”

I wondered what he was doing now and turned of course to Facebook where I found his dad and an album of his first show of sculptures which then led me to Ned’s blog.

I once asked my friend and global educator John Hunter how he knew what children were learning from playing his World Peace Game. He paused and then replied, “Pam, I likely won’t know that for 20 more years.”

It was an insight into what really matters as a measure of success for those of us who are educators. Our life’s work to educate well isn’t measured in a weekly spelling quiz, a 5-paragraph essay, a 60 item state math test, or a final exam performance assessment.

Kids remember little from most of what we measure. What they do remember gets embedded in emotional memories, sensory remembrances, stories that stick, the concepts they use to make sense of knowledge, and… even the feel of clay in their hands.

When our children move past us and remain simply as a remembrance of a picture in a frame, we know their success, and ours vicariously, can only be measured in the realization of their hopes and dreams, their talents seen, their potential made possible. I keep artifacts from children to hold on to that- to the timeless learning that represents who we are as educators and who our learners become across their lifetime.

Ned is an adult artist today and he has important thoughts to share about his frame on life and art. Maybe a good measure of our own success is that we knew he had the soul of an artist and we did everything we could to support that in him.