Monday, December 29, 2014

The Fun is in the Finding

That's a line from one of my very favourite children's books, The Finding Princess, by Sue-Ann Alderson. The princess makes increasingly impossible demands of her parents and grandparents until, in a fit of frustration, she tromps off into the wilderness to find for herself what she needs. She finds joy. She finds a life full of adventure and discovery, and certainly more intrinsic value than the life she had in the castle. It's a simplistic children's book with a very important life-learning message.

When I was a kid, my parents had the whole Encyclopedia Britannica as well as at least a decade's-worth of National Geographic magazines upon our bookshelf, which I referred to for many of my perplexing questions. I have great memories of researching ear-shapes by examining the ears in various portraits I found in those many books. I don't expect that the person who chose the portraits had any idea how useful they would be to my grade eight ear research, but I have never forgotten that particular exploration. Sometime during high school it was impressed upon me by a teacher that the reason for the work we were doing was to transfer the information from those books and others into my mind, so that I wouldn't have to look it up anymore. What?! And that was the end? No way. The books - I knew for certain - existed to preclude the need for memorization! Now we have the Internet, and it's more evident than ever how pointless it would be to begin memorizing. The task, clearly, is to learn to explore, to learn to navigate, and to learn to process information critically, with an astute awareness that there is no one correct outcome. The joy and the value is in the journey.

If I present my kids with a desired outcome, they generally balk, unless they perceive the outcome to be of immediate use. If I present my kids with a question, they usually get intrigued. If I present them with a question that is designed to lead them to a particular outcome, they usually follow along for a bit, until we all get side-tracked and end up somewhere else entirely. Interestingly, though, when I work with a group of mixed schoolers and unschoolers, I see some very obvious distinctions: The kids who have no intentional unschooling experiences (usually those who have always attended full-time school programs) look for the hidden lesson or goal in everything I present. Instead of exploring the question, they wait to find out the answer. Many also grow uncomfortable when it becomes clear that there is no predetermined answer or outcome. After a day or two with the group, they learn to navigate, usually by trying out some hitherto 'unacceptable' behaviours, until they realize that they truly are in control of their own experiences, and adjust to the group. It's an amazing transformation to see, and I consider it one of the greatest personal gains from teaching: watching kids discover their own innate value. One of the most difficult things for me, as an unschooling parent and teacher, is to always answer questions in a way that inspires investigation instead of in a way that points to an answer. Needless to say, I read The Finding Princess often.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Watching the Choir

The moon isn't out, the Christmas tree hasn't been put up yet in this hall, but decorations are hung around the walls of the church and risers stand empty at one end. The rest of the hall is filled with those uncomfortable hard plastic chairs that our whole community is accustomed to sitting in and stacking. Today coats are draped over numerous chairs for the many people who will arrive at the last minute; cups of tea nestle close by the steel legs, and a few children hop around the room. It's just before the annual community choir Christmas concert, and the hall bustles with - well - bustle.

Finally Graeme, our humble joke-cracking MC, gently intones from the front of the hall that the choir is ready, and a portion of the room quiets. The choir of nearly forty parades in, dressed in black, with wonky-looking piano-printed sashes swinging this way and that about their necks. Some of them look nervous, and many smile and wave at family as they make their way through the clapping audience to the risers at the front. More bustling, especially on stage. Announcements are made, and the choir begins to sing.

After a few songs it occurs to me that I'm not listening. I'm watching. Oh my mother would be so disappointed!! I try to tune into the various layers of sound, but in doing so I see the faces of the various choir sections; the individuals. I only know about two thirds of them, and of those only two I know well. Mostly I watch my mother. I see her flip too many pages in her choir book and giggle with a slight alarm in her eyes as she flips back again, never losing her place in the song, apparently. I see her brow furrow with the intensity of some parts, and see her grow taller with others. Sometimes I see her stage smile, and often I see the joyful smile that means she loves this moment of singing. I see how sometimes she looks so young and in herself, that she appears to be the way I imagine she looked as a girl. The singing does that to her. I see her look for me in the audience and I hope she knows I have always loved to see her sing. She stands beside the mother of a friend of mine, and I realize these things are maybe going through my friend's mind, where he sits on the other side of the hall. I think about my friend's mother, for the wonderful gift she has given to come to Canada to live near her children, and fill their community with song on this night. My mother also stands beside a woman I don't know, and I realize that every person in this choir has a lifetime of memories, emotions, trials and triumphs; that each of them has a different experience of this moment, and that all of these experiences are coming together in this moment of community. Each of them has people in the audience or out in the world who are filled with joy at the sight and sound of them.

The joy isn't because of the specific songs chosen, although in each of the three choir concerts I've seen this week I heard songs that brought me to tears. It is about the pleasure we gain from watching people share their moment of communion with us.

This is the first year my daughter has performed with a choir. As she sang, I watched her emotions flutter up and down, her mouth held stiff sometimes to control a smile, and her eyes searching, sometimes, to make sure we were still there. Afterwards she told me I'm a slow smiler, and she related the stories of the audience she watched as she sang.

I'm not a church-going person, but my daughter's second choir concert was held in a Catholic church, this week. There was a sign at the front that said, 'If you would like to receive communion, please place a host in the...' - and because of the bustle of families arranging themselves I couldn't read the end. And I thought, in sitting all squished together, in sharing this song, in sharing an opportunity to watch and hear our loved ones on both sides of the group, in sharing this moment with my community, I have had communion. And I am grateful.

This is my daughter's first ever choir performance: