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“Let it flow! Let if flow! Can’t hold it back anymore!”
I have the most amazing kiddie in one of my Year 7 Music classes. Unruly hair, arms flying, brain the same, he is the epitome of a teenage boy. But he absolutely loves to learn and is totally, blissfully unaware of his hunger for knowledge, asks questions like he breathes, and is universally loved by all, even the grudging admirers. He is the kid that achieves a merit or top of the class without even realising that it’s a thing.
“Oh, I did THAT?!” Pause. “Oh, that’s kind of cool, isn’t it?” Pause. “I’m so hungry! Can we go now?!”
That’s his brain trajectory. He is defined by nothing, except that exact moment in time.
The thing about this kid is that he is so absolutely HIMSELF and AUTHENTIC that there is simply no room to BE anything else. He loves learning, so he does it. He has an idea, so he shares it. He is utterly, completely imperfect and downright annoying sometimes. His current project with me is realising he’s one of MANY in my class, and realising that he’s got limited one-on-one time with me. But his awareness is simply astounding as well; this is how one of our recent conversations went:
Me: “Sir Year 7! S E R I OU S L Y! You are one of MANY! Are you this noisy at home?! What happens when you need to share the air time?”
Sir Year 7: “I’m so sorry Ms Kwok. I honestly forget. See, there’s only one of me at home, so I suppose being in a class is something I need to learn. I’ll let Mum + Dad know that I need to practise it. I just get so excited by what we’re doing.”
OH MY GOODNESS, WHAT YEAR 7 SAYS THAT?!
So in our final week of school, we had International Languages + Cultures Day, where we had a casual day on the last day of school where we were encouraged to wear our national cultural dress. This kid is Greek, and his full cultural dress is ABSOLUTELY SENSATIONAL. The white flowing robes, the tasselled shoes, the hat, all FAB-U-LOUS. He proudly showed me a picture of what he was planning on wearing on the final day, and I told him how MUCH I was looking forward to seeing him in his national dress.
And then he said: “Ms Kwok, I’m a little nervous about it. I mean, I’m so proud of my heritage, but our national dress is over-the-top. We Greeks don’t do anything by halves. My parents are totally up for me wearing my gear on Friday, but even though I’m proud, I’m nervous about what the rest of my class + the rest of the school might think. I might get laughed at. I’m prepared for that, but I’m also sort of not looking forward to it as well.”
Me, internally: Kid, you are amazing. No one would DARE laugh at you because you would just totally OWN IT. You could wear a potato sack and people would think that you were just rocking your heritage. You have this authenticity and realness, this humanness, imperfectness, and silliness, that makes you undeniably YOU. You NEED to do this to help give permission to other kids to be them as well.
But my favourite bit? That he was poignantly, sensitively nervous about it. He was SENSIBLE to the world around him, and AWARE of the challenges, even though he was so committed to being totally himself.
Me, in words: “You will totally rock it. It might feel weird and nerve-wracking to do it, but you should be proud of our heritage. You’re going to give many other kids permission to be themselves as well, through you being a little bit courageous.”
Sir Year 7: “A bit like you do each day, hey Ms Kwok? We always look forward to you rocking the colours.”
OH. MY. GOODNESS.
And I realised something amazing: We each of us are looking for the “similar” around us, even if we think we’re not. We can’t help it if we have any measure of humanity and vulnerability. We are looking for other people who look exactly like us in the frontline. Those who are being the forerunners, so that we have permission to be the forerunners behind them. Isn’t it amazing that we are constantly look for the like, even though we think we are committed to being brave?
And I realised also how much my students notice about the playful example I am setting with my colourful outfits each day. It gives them permission to also rock their individuality.
The most poignant realisation? Sir Year 7 had just put into words what I instinctively think on a daily basis. Sure, I can step into the arena and be different. I THINK I’m good with that. But REALLY truly, I am looking out of my peripheral vision for another “like”, someone who is just like me.
Yet if I flipped that, what if who I was and the example I was setting became one BIG-GIANT-FLASHING-NEON-LIVE-WALKING-PERMISSION-SLIP for others to do the same? How much JOY do I get from those like Sir Year 7 who are so honestly themselves, yet so humbly nervous about sharing themselves, that I just WANT them to ROCK their personalities?
You can’t be in the frontline looking sideways.
You need to be in the frontline looking forward. Front and centre. Because you might be someone else’s permission slip on life while you are walking around being a little bit nervous, but a whole lot more courageous.
I have recently become interested in money. I am in my 30s, and I have FINALLY decided to delve into the adulting that is required to actually be interested in investing, credit cards, long-term goals, and generally making my money work harder and smarter. Making it sweat a little on my behalf.
Now, let me preface this by saying that I’ve ALWAYS been good with money. As a first generation Chinese-Vietnamese Australian, we could live off a shoe-string. We could stretch rice and mung beans for days, and make damn tasty meals at that. And I have ALWAYS been a prodigious saver. The first thing I ever bought was my beautiful grand piano, which was $9000.00, at age 20. The next was my home, at age 24. Every dollar had value. I saw how hard both of my parents worked, and how careful they were with money, but also how much they appreciated it, and that has inspired my own money savviness.
However, I’ve never been remotely INTERESTED in money. It was just the thing that bought you things. If I wanted something, no matter how big or pricey, I saved my arse off and then bought it. I have NEVER been in debt. I have never had bad credit. I have no idea what it feels like to not have a small amount squirrelled away for a rainy day. I always have “padding”. And most days, “padding” for the “padding”. Laugh all you like, it’s genetic, just like my inability not to get drunk off smelling a glass of wine.
To put that all into perspective, I got my first credit card at age 33. And you know what for?! So that I could get the bonus on Qantas points. I had to figure out how to spend more in order to get the bonus. I remember my rather comical foray into point accumulation when I had cycled all regular bills through the card, bought all the necessary groceries and items I needed, then stood there and thought, “Okay, now what? I have to spend another $500 before the end of the month!”
The thing is, I have always WANTED to be curious and interested about money. I bought financial magazines when I was in my teens + early 20s thinking that if I bought the books, I’d magically be inspired to BE money savvy. Part of all of that was the fact that I was lucky to be first generation and living in Australia, and as a young female, had access to all the education in the world. I should be good at money. And moreover, I should be fascinated by and interested in money simply because of my good fortune to be able to interact with it so positively.
NUP. NADDA. ZERO INTEREST.
Somehow, over the past few months, I have become incredibly, healthily, utterly interested. Not in the “I-Will-Become-A-Millionaire-By-Selling-A-Red-Paperclip” sort of interested, but in a way that has allowed me to make interested, informed, healthy money choices to make my dollar go further. Part of this has been inspired by my planning of my big overseas trip to the US + Canada later this year, where I have challenged myself on numerous counts not to take the first offer on anything; flights, hotels, accommodation, transport…all of it.
It’s been enticingly, weirdly satisfying and informative.
Now, here’s where the inspiration behind the inspiration comes into play:
It took me UNTIL NOW to even begin to be interested. I didn’t suck, in fact I was rather excellent at my money handling right up until this point. Requirement, logic and necessity did NOT provide ANY of the necessary incentive to MAKE me interested in the way that I am now.
Pure curiosity and self-motivation. A healthy appreciation of my skills and a sense of positive learning and discovery.
Now how many times have you thought about that in terms of TEACHING?!
There are a hundred and one ways to get a student to jump through the educational hoops. Coercing, bribery, templates, roadmaps, fear of exams, shaming, all in various volumes and degrees, all nicely put into a learning plan and emailed to students and parents. All rubric-ed up, bento-boxed, and delivered with an institutional stamp. And a school logo.
But the ONLY way to get really healthy, authentic learning that is self-motivated is through inspiring that self-motivation through healthy modelling.
You never know when it’s going to “catch”. Mine “caught” in delayed reaction TWENTY-ONE YEARS AFTER THE FACT! That’s so utterly delayed it’s laughable.
But it’s healthy, inspired, and self-motivated.
And shouldn’t that be the ONLY type of learning that we pedal as teachers?
The gala piece that became the Olympic free skate for Adam Rippon.
And the story behind it which I never knew until now; a strong capable leader of the flock injured and in recovery, creating a new strength + redefining themselves.
A reflection of Adam’s own personal journey and his confidence in defining his own artistry, which in my opinion stands him apart from the crowd despite not having the technical merit of the top contenders.
Amazing, the light that shines when we each of us commit to being authentic.
I have been operating from a place of “can’t” for a year. My goodness, what a realisation!
2017 was a wonderful year. It’s was warm-hearted and successful, I got plenty of rest, all my Year 12s did as well as they should, all my ensembles made significant musical and social growth, and I was happy.
But I look back with a sort of wonder at how many times I unwittingly said “can’t”, even though I didn’t know it.
When I said that “no” to a project or an idea, did I really mean that I couldn’t do it, or was I saying, “I CAN’T do it…I don’t think I have the energy or talent to do it.”
“No, I cannot do it,” is absolutely fine and a complete sentence. And I like the sound and quiet resonance to it. But if I am living from a place of “CAN’T”, an unknown wall built around my heart to protect me from adversity, struggle, and hurt, then I had better re-examine things.
So this year, when I am presented with a new opportunity, a potentially challenging situation, a conversation I do not like, or a decision I have to make that will cost me time and energy, I want to stand in that moment and have a good hard look. Am I really responding to the situation, or am I operating from a place of “CAN’T”?
“I don’t have time to catch up for coffee.” I am being a scarcity-monger with my time and energy. How much time do I really need – or WANT – to spend prepping my schoolwork? I do not need that much to get things done.
“I don’t want to have a conversation.” That conversation is not worth my time, therefore, my energy + consideration. What would I miss out on if I waited for only the right conversations to be had? And on a greater level, I cannot distill the moments I want from life, I can only live life and choose how I will respond.
“I want to watch the perfect movie on Sunday afternoon.” I don’t have time for rubbish. I don’t want to leave my comfort zone. I can’t deal with anything that won’t intellectually stimulate me or make me laugh in exactly the right way. I’m not wasting a moment of my energy and time. Sure, but again, I can’t distill the grief from the joy. I can make considered choices, but if I have a vice-like clamp on everything, what sort of living will I do?
“I’m too tired.” Actually, if I’m too tired, I need to get my 8 hours sleep. My tired is that I CAN’T deal with problem-solving, or I think I don’t have the capacity to navigate problem-solving, and moving around the puzzle pieces. Yes, it takes time and energy, but I have tremendous ability to engage and solve anything I want. I can’t cocoon myself comfortably away from everything, I need to be right there.
“I can’t compose/read/write during the school term.” Okay, this one has legs. The emotional exhaustion of teaching is great. But what about all those times I’ve happily numbed out the rest of the world by mindlessly scrolling through Facebook? I have achieved nothing in half and hour, when it would have taken some persistence and determination to go to my piano and find a tune, or go to my laptop and write. Nothing, except my energy levels, has been affected. Am I saying “CAN’T” to creativity, the most basic of ways for me to debrief a day and get my thoughts on the page, score, or through music?
So I’m staying open. I’m not going to like it, but I’m breaking the “CAN’T” in favour of “CAN + BOUNDARIES”, which is far more tiring and time-consuming, but also more authentic.
I have been watching outstanding educators and choral directors from all over Australia this week, inspiring hundreds of young people to a level of musical and personal excellence that has made my heart burst. These young people come from such different backgrounds, unified through a shared passion for singing. These young people have produced affecting, heartfelt, magnificent, perfectly detailed, truly outstanding performances. They have stepped on stage with a sense of self-worth, and a message to share. They have stood their sacred ground and affected time and space around them and in doing so, affected us, the listeners, in ways magical and unexpected. It’s been a weekend of defining, over and over, what it’s like to be human and joyfully alive!
And I have come to realise, unequivocally, all over again, that LOVE is what produces this excellence.
And ONLY love.
That this most positive source of momentum and motivation of young minds MUST come from a place of love, and that ONLY love can distill such pure passion and this particular brand excellence. A healthy striving. A healthy excellence.
This LOVE is disciplined and hard-arse. It can be quietly contained, and brief, depending on the mentor.
But it is NEVER, EVER derogatory, rude, or disrespectful.
Every chorister, whatever their unique set of strengths and weaknesses, personal or musical, is DEEPLY SEEN, HEARD, and VALUED, that their potential is maximised through persistent and tenacious growth, from a secure and safe foundation. THIS NEVER WAVERS OR CHANGES.
This LOVE can be playful, with the unique spark and joy between choristers, and their director. These playful moments are built through experience, a shared story, and TRUST. Only time and a sense of humour can produce this delightful connection.
This LOVE can be boring and monotonous. Choristers will not find each other eternally interesting, and the choral directors certainly won’t! But this love is founded through tolerance and care, and a quiet patience that walks, one step at a time, through the development and growing process. There are no cheap thrills, and a total guarantee for monotonous and very ordinary days of hard work.
This LOVE is shared through choral excellence. Each crystalline detail is refined and polished to that magical place of excellence not through fear, but through a high-held mutual respect for the music. And that respect for the composers’ words can only be embedded THAT DEEPLY by love. And that commitment to telling the story on stage, and the heat that comes off a performance which is unprecedented can ONLY be produced by this brand of love.
Why do I say this?
I have been forced out of my comfort zone this year.
I have been asked to consider the role of overt, un-earned discipline and flippancy, power, and shame. And you know what? I asked myself to be open-minded. And sure, I see that these all produce immediate results.
But they are not HEALTHY, LASTING, or EFFECTIVE. These are quick-fixes, and unbelievably damaging ones at that. Ones that take away years of confidence, joy, and motivation, and create an atmosphere of doubt and instability. Reversing that? Infinitely harder.
To create life-long, self-motivated, embedded results is truly a labour of love. Any educator and mentor who doesn’t want to be in it for the long haul, or have the tolerance to care for the needs of different young people should examine why they are here, entrusted with so much potential.
So I am going to stand against the tide for this one, backed so strongly by what I have experienced this week. Inspired by more people and wisdom than I can number, pulled to this point by the sheer force of what I have seen over and over these last few days.
Learning must be motivated by a unique respect and love.
There is NO QUESTION for me.
Today, I re-read a book I read in my early 20s. It was supposed to be a lightweight, warm fuzzy read, like pulling on an old jumper and smelling the neckline as I pulled it over my head. And yet, I found myself inside-out with emotion, seeing and feeling things with the sketchings and experiences of a decade further of life.
Every WORD seemed to shiver with colour; every thought and idea seemed to hold me by the shoulders and ask more of me. It was extraordinary to me that re-reading a book could uncover so many unseen puzzle pieces of sheer feeling and wisdom that I had no capacity to understand when I first read it, and hit me with full force navigating them now.
Like that there MUST be push and pull for love to blossom. And that you absolutely MUST be tender and vulnerable to live life fully, or you miss a moment, a day, a year. And that conventional, “perfect” beauty is nothing on raw beauty, and resonance of a lively spirit from within. That love does not know its own strength, stupidity, or stretch.
And that truly, really truly, the difference between what we want and where we are is “a width of an eyelash”, to quote the marvellous Judy Dench talking to the equally marvellous Maggie Smith. I loved that moment when I first saw it, but I didn’t know how to understand it, now I do. With all my being.
What if I were to ask the questions MORE, rather than waiting to be asked? However courageously I have lived my life yesterday, today brings new opportunities for learning and courage, being and loving. How is it that we think we know ourselves so well, and then in an instant, everything is changed, and we feel like we are seeing for the first time?
The wonder. The fear. The scariness and the joy of it all. I did not realise my own beauty, even though I have lived always striving to walk my own sacred ground. Comfortably, happily, and authentically. Yet STILL, I can shift and grow. I feel like I could dance and resonate five feet either way more than I did before.
Isn’t it amazing how keenly we cling to what gives us history and meaning, how much we need to understand, and want to know ourselves? And isn’t it amazing that we are born with a desire to create, to imagine, to adventure and discover, and to love. And the difference between a life lived to the full, with ragged pages worn from exploring everything, to pristine and safely read pages…is intent.
It’s the will to begin.
The dare to try.
The wonder to what if.
The width of an eyelash.
My goodness, if I have been blessed with a heart + mind, a life and imagination, I am not going to waste a moment more.
One of the greatest joys + griefs of life is to really live, and really feel. To have a heart is to be human; to ache with grief, or sadness, or heartbreak is like wrenching spirit out of a soul, but it also means that we are alive, really, truly alive.
Because what is a heart + life, if not for loving + connection?
In those moments of great sadness, or pure joy, however cracked-open and breathless you feel, know that there is no doubt that you are absolutely, positively, exquisitely alive.
I’d like that version of life any day!
Those with the greatest capacity for heartbreak have the greatest capacity to love. [Brené Brown]
I have been playing the piano a lot recently, and it feels totally new even though I’ve been playing since I was 4 years old. I sat down and started playing on the first day of my school holidays, just because I could, and have found myself drawn back each day, just because there was no expectation.
The old discipline is there, the technique, the mathematical precision. That old rigour is something I stretch into so easily and willingly.
But there is a new, tiny breath of life…something that resonates within my very self. In my words, the unspoken, that arrives right through my fingertips through the keys…
I’m playing like it’s a conversation, listening and responding, hearing new nuances, creating new understanding.
I can feel myself navigating the corners of each piece, wanting to find the right colour, having an absolute sound in my ears that I want to create.
I am shaping phrases the way I look for words, like a language that I am practising, like allowing each note to be held and then slip through my fingers like cool beads, like water, translucent and free.
I can feel the smooth solidness of the keys underneath my fingertips, and there is no anxiety, shame, fear, sadness, or grief…just pure communication. A thread of consciousness.
In all the exploring and discovery, the messiness is beautiful to me. Because I have an intimate understanding of it. Like me, I know exactly where I am heading, and if not, that I will get there through navigating exactly this moment.
In the last few weeks, I have travelled through more beautiful sounds and perfect silences than in all my university years. I didn’t have the maturity or the courage to ask for the boundaries to allow this love to flourish. And now, as I sit with this conversation between myself + the piano, my mind and my creation, everything seems so new. With this new conversation, there is a “small shy truth” that arrives, to nestle in my heart. A new flower in the middle of the concrete desert. How did it take this long for me to have this conversation?
I’ve been working toward this for so many years…I have delighted, I have skinned my knees, I have played and rehearsed for countless hours, but why do I feel such freedom now?
It’s because this conversation is through the momentum generated purely by me. Time flows, and time also paradoxically stands still. I am not afraid of the challenges, I am not afraid of the imperfections…I can see what they will become with great insight and practise.
This is my conversation now.
I am joyful.