Staying to Leave to Learn
In light of our current state of wild funkiness, I’ve been thinking about how we canceled a trip to the Big Island after our oldest daughter, Lily, stepped on a dead branch and fell out of a tree. I heard a snap, a scream, and looked up from my gardening to watch my daughter bounce off the ground, something I dearly hope to never see again. She knocked out a tooth and broke her arm but somehow managed to tell us in the hospital she wanted to host a tree climbing party when she recovered (she’s a badass). This all happened the day before we were set to leave.
I can’t remember exactly how we decided to do this but we responded to the change in plans by following Lily and her two year old sister’s lead as they turned our backyard into paradise. We took out the tiki torches, played Hawaiin music, learned new recipes, set up a beach tent, and discovered ways to appreciate our backyard. We made hammocks, ran through the sprinkler, and some of us drank our fair share of Pina Coladas and Mai Tais. For a week we danced, cuddled next to our homemade fire-pit, turned off our screens, and vacationed. At times, we really were on a tropical island and I don’t think I wore shoes the entire week.
Of course, we failed to represent or appropriately honor the rich cultural traditions and complex history of Hawaiin people but we weren’t trying to do that. We weren’t trying to replicate Hawaii, we were trying to experience a set of feelings: togetherness, exploration, relaxation, presence, and fun. The purpose of our vacation wasn’t to travel to Hawaii, it was to relax, explore, and be together as a family. When the trip changed unexpectedly, our preparations and reservations didn’t matter anymore, but we could still serve the bigger purpose. And serve that purpose we did.
This reminds me of something one of my mentors, Charlie Plant, shared about Primo Levi who spent some time as an industrial chemist with a paint company, “where problems arose because the rationales, the why's, for certain formulas were forgotten, and adherence to the formulas became the goal, instead of the function they were supposed to fulfill.”
I’ve seen this in schools where folks lose touch with the purpose behind things like internships or learning plans. Internships and learning plans are both potential outcomes and/or ways to serve a greater purpose of empowering young people to explore, connect, and meaningfully pursue their interests in the world outside of school. They are only as good as they serve that purpose. Sometimes, like the story about Primo Levi, the outcome or the strategy become the purpose and that’s when you might see folks coercing, bribing, or shaming students into doing things they don’t find relevant enough to do on their own. I know I’ve done it. Likewise, if we had tried to replicate Hawaii, or focused on all the things we were no longer able to do, I don’t think we would’ve enjoyed the time. We let go of the outcome but held tight to purpose. And I think this applies to today.
We now have three daughters, all badasses, and we’re applying some of the lessons we’ve learned about leaving to learn without leaving. In light of this wild and funky time, we’re not trying to replicate school, instead creating experiences in which we feel creative, accomplished, curious, together, and liberated. As I write this, Lily and Megan are trying to grow roots from some of the vegetable and fruit scraps in the kitchen. They’ve also been co-illustrating “Top 10” lists and Lily has been searching for the best substance to make pennies shiny. Apparently mustard is not so great.
In his recent blog post, Chris Jackson invited us to consider this time as a “once in a lifetime opportunity to double down on our philosophy of teaching, learning and activism.” I think it’s also time to double down on values and purpose and refer folks to the 10 Expectations young people should have of their schools. Perhaps more than ever these expectations apply to how we serve our communities. Rather than trying to replicate how we have known school, or internships, or community, let’s consider learning and sharing how we and the families we serve are creating new ways to move us closer to our values and deeper purpose. In the meantime, perhaps I’ll ask Lily where we should go next.