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As a teacher, you go into each day trying to do all you can to lift those students up. But every now and then, you have a day where you wonder if you’ve done enough. If you’ve made the right call, if you’ve hit the balance between perception, compassion, and hard-arse that affects them.
I’m not talking about beating the life out of them, as effective as that might be for immediate results. I’m talking about deeply affecting young people and modelling the behaviours I live my life by.
The compass I followed today was that you cannot shame someone into changing their actions and behaviours. Shame is an unbelievably effective way of getting the results you want, as a teacher. But is it a lifelong and willingly learned lesson? No. I really don’t think so.
Either way, that’s where my compass led me today.
I hope with all my heart that I’ve made the right call.
I have loved this quote forever. But this week, I had the extraordinary and unsettling experience of really living this quote. I thought I understood it, I’ve shared it with my students, I have it written in my journal. But when you actually walk through the very essence of this quote, my goodness, you cannot help but feel full and lifted up to overflowing.
I was preparing a special medley of pieces for the Class of 2017 Valedictory Dinner. My Year 12 Music class and I shared a lesson of laughter sorting through songs that best represented their cohort last term, where they each threw their suggestions into the ring. The most cringe-worthy, memory-stirring, funny, and meme-riddled top 10 numbers were chosen. Over the holidays, I crudely “frankensteined” them together on Sibelius and the Year 12 Valedictory Medley, in all its cringe-worthy glory, was born!
In recent weeks, my poor Year 12 Music class have been madly scrambling to get themselves ready for their final performance moderations. And I have been unrelenting as a teacher. Gone is the Mama Kwokkie, and in place, is “The Smiling Gestapo Kwokkie”; as one of my students fondly describes, “Ms Kwok in this state is like a Disney princess who can ninja kick your ass to the curb.”
Yet despite the intensity of preparation and the lack of time, every single one of my gorgeous Year 12s was invested in this medley. So we made rehearsal time. We scrimped and scrounged 15-minute and 30-minute time-slots when we could miraculously get the crew together to practise, and my 12s came in over weekends, during the holidays, and before and after school to make up the time they missed in lesson with me. To see them come together like this just made my heart double in size.
Putting this score together cost me 15-20 hours of my time over the holidays, but I love arranging, and was glad to take on this special project for this very special crew.
Our challenges started when we weren’t offered a spot to play. Now granted, just because last year’s Year 12 Music class performed as a band, didn’t guarantee us a spot. No worries, go speak with my Head of Performing Arts, ready for it to fall either way, yes or no, take it on the chin. The support was basic at best; go and negotiate with the organiser of the Valedictory Dinner of Head of Senior School and if it’s a yes from them, you’re on. No worries, go do that, and done, done, done! We are on the program.
But somewhere along the line, communications broke down not once, but several times, and there were problems and roadblocks to our musical performance, over and over, through no fault of anyone. So I kept making noise and negotiating, restating, recalibrating. How much could a musical item take from me, and one that I wasn’t even sure was going to be a hit with the Year 12 cohort?
On the day of the Valedictory Dinner, I felt as if I had carried this musical item and my Year 12 Music class one by one through the whole preparation process. I had never wanted so much to throw the towel in and quit on this performance, and I have never quit on any performance. I felt like I had had to fight every step of the way to get this on the program, without actually wanting to fight at all. I am not someone who does things at the last-minute, I’m super-organised and love being that way, I always endeavour to be inclusive in my decision making, and I’m transparent in my teaching. For some reason, this preparation run for this performance felt like a battle the whole way.
But as I sat in on the final Year 12 assembly that morning and looked at the faces of that cohort, I could feel my heart brimming all over again, and the motivation rise up. Specifically, I looked at and for the faces of my beautiful Year 12 Music kiddies, the crazy and hilarious personalities, the big hearts and amazing souls I was working with.
Damn it, I was going to go through with this no matter what.
That evening, when I announced the Valedictory Medley to the Class of 2017 cohort + attending staff, I was shitting myself. My words were clear and witty, but my knees were shaking and I wondered if I’d get over to the keyboard in my heels without tripping over.
And you know what?
WE PLAYED THE ARSE OFF THAT PIECE.
It just went OFF.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen such a unified expression of connection, enthusiasm, and rowdy joyful singing within group of Year 12s, most of whom are not musos. I couldn’t help it. I was grinning like an idiot all the way through.
Come to the end of the piece, and the room erupted into applause, the joy and appreciation was palpable. My 12s also forgot themselves and were hugging each other, and hugging me, in pure joy and elation, while we were still on stage.
My moment – The Moment – came when I was called forward to collect the gift on behalf of the Music Department. Now, this job is NEVER meant for me, it’s always Head of Performing Arts, but I had done the work this time, so it fell on my shoulders.
So I walked up, with this incredible envelope of love and achievement around me, buoyant from the Year 12s around me, knowing I had gone against the tide and STILL we had performed and given such joy…and I felt a shiver of uncertainty shoot through me. I couldn’t smile. I wasn’t embarrassed or feeling small; it was the sheer amount of battle and adversity I had gone through that made me too exhausted to step into the light, my light. I walked up so serious and totally unlike myself. Why couldn’t I fully lean into this extraordinary moment?
And then I realised. I was at that moment afraid of my own light. It had become so bright through this moment, borne from adversity, that even I didn’t know how to handle such a brilliance.
I took a breath and kept walking, and when I turned around to look at the hundreds of faces in the room, I burst out laughing! I couldn’t contain the relief, the joy, the exuberance, myself, and all that blinding light.
That amazing light that was shining from me. That’s what it feels like to step into it and own it.
Own it like a boss lady.
So this was my office today, courtesy of my Year 12 kiddies! The helium tank apparently made it onto school grounds at 7:00am, and they were done + dusted and hiding in the upstairs music room by 7:30am, ready to capture my reaction. 😝
On first impressions, balloons were SENSATIONAL. 😎
But it was only when I looked closer that I realised with horror that they had suspended the contents of my office…highlighters, pens, scissors, USBs, Kwokkie doll, my mandarin and muesli bar for recess, sticky tape, everything. If I needed anything, I had to harvest it from the ceiling. 😂
Note my very classy monochrome outfit, as promised! I felt totally different all day! 😆
“Come here, sweet mandarin!”
Have mandarin. Happy.
After some deliberation, I’ve decided to leave this original post on my timeline as a celebration of an extraordinary and very much loved person, my wonderful piano teacher, Clemens Leske Snr.
When two well-loved friends and colleagues rang me out of the blue to tell me that he had passed because they knew how much he meant to me, I was honestly just overwhelmed with memories and thoughts, and much love.
We’ve since found out that it was ANOTHER Clemens Leske who sadly passed this week, who was ALSO living in Sydney having hailed from Adelaide. “Our” Clemens Leske Snr is very much still with us, as his students are fondly saying at present!
So what I wrote today, and what I mean with full heart, and that I was so glad to be able to reflect upon today:
“A teacher of such gentle compassion and musical excellence who had a profound effect upon me, and the teacher and person I would become. A mentor I loved with all my heart, trusted, and respected, because I knew that my skills and self were safe under his care, and that he would ask the absolute best from me without damaging my love of music + learning. When I saw him at the Gala Concert at Elder Hall in 2015, I was overwhelmed but unsurprised at the sheer number of friends, past students, and colleagues who came to celebrate himself and his wife, Beryl Kimber. So utterly different! She was bursting with exuberance, colour, and WORDS!, and he the very quiet and reserved one. But such a special love between them.
I had him as a Single Studies scholarship student during high school between the ages of 15 to 17; the ages where you are the MOST annoyingly smart-arse, impressionable, fragile, and skeptical. He quietly and simply loved + taught me, exactly as I needed, and I flourished musically and as a person. I fell in love with sounds, performance, rigour, and excellence. I practised as easily and as naturally as if I were just breathing. I loved playing completely and won the Don Maynard Music Prize for Year 12 Music under his tutelage.
To sit in the same room as him was to share space with someone who taught without pride or ego, just pure gentleness, fierce and unrelenting excellence, and overwhelming love. It is a light that I carry with me daily when I teach. My heart overflows today.”
…and still does, with joy.
We all are so unbelievably rich and blessed, but we so rarely see it all the time. How many of you have longed for that extra sweater, or that new book or lipstick, or that pair of shoes, notwithstanding all the beautiful clothes, books, and belongings you already have?
I am so guilty of this. Particularly at the end of a long week of teacher, and especially so when it’s been a challenging one where I have felt less than awesome. That tiny little extra trinket might make me feel a little better, no matter if I’m saving or on a budget!
But something amazing happens when you’re saving, or you’re consciously making decisions about how you spend your money, time, and energies. How many times have we any of us worn a beautiful sweater until it is ragged around the sleeves and smells of safety and home?
How many of us have used every beautiful piece of fruit or vegetable in our kitchens in ingenious ways, and savoured every mouthful? Brewed a fragrant cup of coffee with cream, rather than throwing one down, tasteless, from a takeaway cup? How many of us have re-read books with the same safety as walking down a known lane, but actually seen and felt the different nuances, and fallen in love with the words, the story, and found new understandings?
There is so much richness and beauty around us if we only look. We all have so much. So, so much. In possessions, in time, in love, and in life. Why should we want so much more only to dispose of it? What if we were to look deeply at what we have and create time for discovering new delight?
And achingly and poignantly, how many of us have loved and cared for a relationship or friendship like that raggedy worn sweater that smells like home? Or how many of us are guilty of skimming over the surface with superficial conversation and connection, in search of something shinier to catch our attention, rather than really, truely listening and loving?
When you really treasure something and give it time, care, or attention, extraordinary richness and joy can be found. We are all so extraordinarily rich and blessed, if we only could see it. There is so much value in simplicity, and seeing the value in the things we have, loving them with tenderness and new eyes.
Listening to Muniba Mazari speak is like being lifted up into the air and held aloft in hope. How amazingly articulate she is for all her grief and struggle, how extraordinary her vision and courage for all she had to face. Hearing her say the line, “And I would overcome my fears, one by one,” made me wonder if I had even begun scratching the surface of overcoming my fears. Do we even know what our fears are? Can we articulate them in the way that she has? And more importantly, do we know the steps we need to take to face them? She did, over and over, with more clarity and courage than some of us could experience in a lifetime. She’s done it with her life ahead of her.
I’ve had my Year 12s performing their Solo Performance + Performance Special Study programs to my Year 6s + 8s, and then hang around for a Q+A to mentor my junior kiddies.
Miss Year 8: “Do you have any advice for people who know they are going to go on and do Year 12 Music?”
Sir Year 12: “Whatever Ms Kwok asks you to do in terms of your performance preparation or assignments, just do it. Seriously. And do it BY THE DEADLINE that she asks for. Your quality of life will be SO MUCH BETTER if you do.”
Spoken like a survivor of war!
Email from Sir Year 12 Composing + Arranging kiddie with the final version of his Major Work attached:
“Dear Ms Kwokkie,
Here’s my left lung to go with the kidney I gave you this week.
Enjoy, because I’m literally dying a painful death right now.
Sir Year 12.”