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It happened before I even knew it. I was in the middle of it all before I realised I had slipped into the cocoon of “safe and ordinary”. There’s nothing wrong with taking time out, or being in second-gear for a little while. But when I held up the way I was interacting with my beautiful students this week, the way I let small things get under my skin, and the way I was taking my choral rehearsals against my 25-year-old self, I realised I had allowed myself to cross the boundary of “commanding and mature” to “safe and ordinary”.
Call it what you will, I was not pushing boundaries because inch by inch, I had gone into energy conservation mode. This has worked for a while, so let’s keep doing it. The kids won’t respond to that. There will be discomfort, noise, and chaos, so let’s stick with the familiar. And worse still, That formula works, they can’t possibly do more than that right now.
I used to be unashamed in my haphazard ways of pushing up against boundaries. I did it just by existing. When I was making my way as a new teacher and choral director, I would throw ideas around like beads, with the wayward and infinitely optimistic view that some of them would land on the bullseye. It wasn’t that I was fearless, it was that I was so utterly unaware of what conventions were that I had to build them every day. There was no “way that it was done”. There was only “here and now, let’s find a solution!”
And yes, it cost me energy, pride, ego, time, and caused regular discomfort to my choirs, my classes, my colleagues and my students. But I just took it as the norm. I didn’t set out to be a hell-raiser, I was just in a glorious journey of joyful, addictive discovery and creativity.
And I look back and marvel at how brave I was.
Let me look back and take a moment to imbue my current, confident, joyful self with some of that haphazard fearlessness. Rock the boat. Walk the unseen path. Let’s get curious and daringly uncomfortable because there is so much to discover. Don’t choose “safe” just because it’s easy; choose with clarity and consciousness as to what the situation needs.
I am in Sydney for Gondwana Voices National Choral School and with a few days of joyous wanderings to myself, I am in total heaven.
The nostalgia hits hard, making my heart somersault at the most unexpected moments; the dirt and heat of the trains, the impossible hustle of Town Hall Station, the buzz of tourists and sunny ease of Circular Quay, when all you want to do is get from Point A to B, the cocoon which comes from a coffee in a quiet alcove in Glebe, the eclectic assault of Newtown, and the hipster, “single-origin-coffee-smashed-avo” vibe spilling out unapologetically from tiny nooks and crevices of mis-matched, town-housey cafes onto the pavements of Surry Hills.
I am pulled and pushed right back to 2014, to all the struggle, new connections and learning in a year of leaping into the unknown in a manner unprecedented for me, someone who finds pure joy in the ordinary.
Every smell and sound is a reminder and overwhelmingly, I am most reminded of how lucky I am to have taken this opportunity, and how slight a change in mindset can change the momentum around you forever. The thing is this; 5 years ago, despite all, my spirt was unfathomably naive, strong, and buoyant.
Here I am, wandering Sydney as a tourist, and I realise how easy it is to just exist in this exciting yet unforgiving city, where just the commute home can exhaust you, and daily interactions ask more of you than you expect because of the emotional cost of living.
Your brain goes into overdrive for day to day work + survival, and I wonder how young students with not a lot of money figure out how they will make their way when there are hundreds of others, equally as hungry to find their path, doing exactly the same, and doing all the right things.
And yet, some determinedly optimistic part of me thinks that it is still as simplistic as how hard you want to work, how you see things, and how you choose to interact with the world. Sitting on a train going to and from work, you could easily pass 10 years just existing. Just making enough of a living to survive with some semblance of happiness and comfort. But then, sitting with a coffee, dreaming possibilities, or looking out over the harbour on a humid summer morning, and you can wonder what you might do differently. What can you choose for yourself that is a step above just living from one day to the next?
I have everything I need to make whatever leaps of faith I want right now; time, energy, support, love, good health, a wonderful network of friends + family, a beautiful home, food, financial security, and a rewarding place of work. I can literally choose whatever door I’d like; I can take whichever version of sliding doors I dare to reach out for and walk through or pass.
Part of me thinks I was so much braver and grittier in my year in Sydney than I am now, despite being much more sure and confident professionally and personally here and now, five years later. I marvel at how intrinsically the same, yet different, that I am now and how I will awaken the parts of me that have been lying dormant due to a secure way of living.
I was always the girl standing on the edge of the bridge, throwing metaphorical streamers into the wind when I had nothing else to give, and coming into work each day on four or five hours of sleep, and being joyous and playful when that was all I had to offer. To be sure, I worked my arse off. I learned and studied the curriculum I was responsible to teach, I prepped my lessons over and over, I worked at my composition like some sort of obsessive creative habit.
My creative work was as determined as it was impossible, and I never questioned it. I wrote five choral commissions and fulfilled a Composer-in-Residence position that year with limited access to a piano, limited energy and time, and with 3 months of travel and very little money to spare. My God, I was a daring and audacious little biatch! I make myself laugh even now as I reflect, how the hell did I think I had what it would take in time and personal resources to make that year happen when I was so stretched and depleted?
But I did it. Snippets of writing and composing in tiny moments of the day, by the window in the corner of the Conservatorium High School staffroom while everyone else was at lunch, snatches of time in every coffee shop in Surry Hills and Paddington, and sometimes even with a delicious and savoured brunch on the weekends when I could afford it. Something I can afford without thinking now, and that very fact makes me so tender for the me from five years ago. Stolen weekends in practise rooms at the Sydney Conservatorium, where I asked for time on Saturday and Sunday mornings when no other university students were practising, and I would finally be able to hear what I was creating.
Damn, I was courageous.
And in these few delicious days of wanderings, mostly down memory lane with renewed wonder, I am reminded of how to be courageous now that I have everything I need to do so.
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 was an effing badass nomad.
I’m impressed and in awe of my intrepid self!