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I had a colleague walk by today and say, “Smile, Kwokkie! Why so serious? That’s not you!”
And normally I wouldn’t mind, but today it really got under my skin. Probably because there’s a lot buzzing away in the background with overseas tour preparations and I have limited smile-capacity at present. 🤣
And it got me thinking about the cost of not receiving people as they were, especially those who are normally strong, joyful, resilient, positive, and thoughtful, and the expectations we place on ourselves and others to be a certain way.
For me, I was totally fine with whatever resting bitch face I had on; it was honest + authentic. Why so serious? Because at that moment, I WAS + NEEDED to be. Did that comment mean I’m not taken seriously? Because I certainly DO SERIOUS work. I just happen to like doing seriously SERIOUS and EXCELLENT work with JOY + ENTHUSIASM.
It was SUCH a reminder to me to receive my own students, particularly the very exceptional ones who give their very best selves each day, at whatever state they are in without judgement, just care + connection.
I am guilty of giving that very same passing remark when I am not thinking, without any desire to make anyone feel less than.
So that’s why I’ll take my very special, give-it-all-to-the-world super students, at face value. I’ll ask them how they are travelling without asking them why they’re not looking stupendous every moment of they day. That they are allowed to have moments in the day where they can be un-smiley, resting-bitch-and-bastard-faced grumpy sods, and ultimately perfectly normal, healthy, wonderful human beings.
Sometimes you wonder if you’re hitting the mark with the students who give nothing away. But you just keep flying the freak flag, doing the crazy spontaneous things, giving the love and support wholeheartedly, laying down the boundaries over and over, and saying the words that you hope will hit the mark, even if they are met with blank faces and all-out resistance.
But time and time again, I get the unexpected reminders that teenagers, particularly Year 12 teenagers, do have highly evolved crap-detectors on their heads and NOTICE.
From one of my Year 12 Tutor Group Sirs, who gives NOTHING away, and suffers my conversations with mono-syllabic responses, via another staff member:
“Yeah, Kwokkie, she’s a total embarrassment, but she’s cool. You know she cares + she works hard for us. I rate her.”
That’s THREE SENTENCES and massive ones, straight to the heart.
When I was 21, I thought I could make anyone smile. Anyone who was withdrawn, quiet, tired, stressed, angry, annoyed, having an off day, I would make it my personal mission to connect with them and see if I could break their mood, or get a smile from them. I thought it was my business to talk to anyone.
How UTTERLY AUDACIOUS and SIMPLISTIC of me.
And yet, I have been thinking about it a lot this week, and longing for that simplistic, authentic audacity.
Because I realised that I have become safe.
Imperceptibly, and ever-so-surreptitiously, I have become more reasonable, more mature, bounded by rules and frameworks, cautious, and, let’s face it, less happy to give up my energy and time for a possible metaphorical slap in the face if an interaction goes badly. While outwardly I am energised and positive, I have very gradually become safe. I’m on the conveyor belt, and I didn’t even realise it.
Why am I thinking about this?
It’s been an exhausting and challenging few weeks at school, where students are starting to get tired and edgy. Behaviour problems are starting to fully show themselves, assessments are due, encouragement and full support are required where my reservoirs are running low, and I am trying to fit more and more in. And while I get everything competently done, I thought about what total a whack-job I was in my early 20s as a teacher, where a behaviour management or teaching issues were just situations requiring a creative solution. I all but rubbed my hands in glee, ready to embark on a round of solution-mongering.
I was so damn creative, audacious, and fearless.
Why? Because I had no track record. I had absolutely nothing to lose, no history of success or failure, no existing street-cred, and I had classes to teach. And my God, I found ways to connect with those students + staff out of sheer desperation + innovation, keeping up by the day, and sometimes by the minute. And because I had zero behaviour management skills, I behaviour managed like Martina Hingis played tennis: SMART.
I am a featherweight, literally. I am just under 5-foot and about 45-50 kgs, depending upon how may Tim Tams I eat. My voice back then did not carry a metre, let alone a rehearsal room with 70 over-excited students. In my formative teaching days, I had no “older-male-student” presence whatsoever when I behaviour managed; some of those 6-foot-plus boys could have sneezed and I would’ve been annihilated. I had zero ability + knowledge in navigating bitchiness, drugs, alcohol, underhand remarks, social media bullying, in short, no street-cred whatsoever.
And I had classes to teach, and curriculum to get through, and boundaries to set.
So I built connection. I had the audacity to think that if I could make every interaction with each student + staff member as real, authentic, joyful, and positive as possible, I would at least have money in the bank.
It became a game to me; I wonder how I can make that staff member smile? How could I POSSIBLY start a conversation with a kid who has zero interests which overlap with mine? How can I deliver soul-sucking information to students about their grades, their actions, or their poor behaviour in a way that values them?
I spent hours driving home thinking through words and conversations, learning the power of changing one word, or how I chose to deliver something, what order I would say things, where I would say a kid’s name to show value + care, and how I chose to build hope and worthiness where there was such decimation in their self-esteems without taking away from poor work + behaviour.
That was then, when I was “young and scrappy”, and full of energy and front.
Now, I have things in place. I am mid-career, and I have frameworks down, confidence in my abilities, and structures and staff who will support me.
And I realised this week, whilst trudging through a challenging, emotionally draining week, that I have recently forgotten to be audacious. I have been taking the slightly safer option, the path of least resistance. I haven’t started the random conversations, I haven’t given the extra compliment to the kid who is trouble, I have allowed systems to work their systematic magic, and in truth, I have been sapped of energy. I haven’t got what it takes to be full of audacity, engaging with conversations that half the time might elicit a weird or slightly off-centre reaction. I have no time for the quirky, no energy for the playful just to be playful.
And that what I LIVED for in my beginning years.
But, my God, I should. I should, because that is the connection that is missing.
Because some of that unreasonable audacity is what will shake me out of my routine, and back into the fresh and unpredictable present that is teaching, and life.
What if I said hello the the person who perpetually was withdrawn in the morning and made it a challenge to see if I could learn something new about them? Do I need to be mesmerised + completely interested? Well, highly likely I won’t be to that extent. But I can still make a connection. I am not learning anything or connecting with anyone if I have walked past this person for half a year and know nothing about them and continue talking to the same people. How both big-headed and fearful am I that I think someone else is not worth my time, or that my time is THAT limited. There are people in much more demanding jobs and lives who find time. So can I.
What if I did those things for my students + classes which elicit the raised eyebrows, embarrassed yet half-game laughs, and shook them up a little? I’ve been comfortable, with my ensembles, with my thinking, with my support, with my teaching. I wonder what it would be like to do something which is just slightly outside of my current comfort zone, knowing that it will cost me a more courage, time, and energy?
What if I sat still enough that I could find the words to speak to the kid who is being a little shit, and continues to be a little shit in my classes because they are so broken by life? Rather than just letting the behaviour system do its thing, how could I change the script so that the consequences happen, but my WORD resonate with value and worthiness? My instinct right now? I want to kick a few of the kids I teach. That’s how much they are pissing me off. But I wonder, audaciously, how willing I am to think about this creatively. I’m not pinning myself as the next teaching Messiah, God no. I will still want to slap several kids for being completely remorseless, unaffected, Teflon-coated turds, even if my conversations and words are well-received. But let’s play this creativity game a little.
How can I do things differently when I am uncomfortable?
How can I connect with kids who don’t want to be connected with, who refuse everything, and who are going through the motions of a behaviour management plan already? What can I say or do that will actually carry momentum and resonate?
Why the hell would I want to do this?
Because my greatest joys in life have come from the accidental, audacious interactions. When I was 21, I thought I could talk to anyone and affect change. I thought that all my words carried some life and momentum, and I naively and audaciously believed that my setting out to make peoples days a little brighter served a higher purpose.
And the reflection back was threefold; when a risk paid off, I was catapulted out of my comfort zone into new connections, understandings, unexpected moments of joy, learning, and hope. I learned so much from being so naively confident and interested. I was absolutely engrossed in life.
And I would hate to look back and realise that I had become reasonable and normal, colouring within the lines like a good little girl, when I had the imagination, capacity, and ability to be creative, human, and audaciously unreasonable.
Today was one of those days which never got off the ground. From the moment I walked into Concert Choir at 7:15am, I proceeded to stagger my way through double-bookings, clashes, missing pages of accompaniment, flat batteries, sick choral kiddies, dropping a jar of ashes (yes, it was Ash Wednesday, just to add to the fun), and other assorted mild to epic fails.
While sitting in the corner of the classroom, throwing down my lunch in record time in stony-faced silence + generally hating all forms of life, my Year 12 Prefects appeared with a cup of tea + a Freddo.
“Okay, Ms Kwok. We need to talk.”
Instantly, the alarm bells went off and the braincells went into overdrive, “What NOW?! Have I forgotten something? Have I let these guys down?!”
Miss Year 12 Head Prefect put her arm comfortingly around me and said, calmly and soothingly, “Look, Ms Kwok, you have to LET IT GO. You can’t do it all. You can’t nail every moment of every day. It can’t all be AMAZING.”
Sir Year 12 Deputy Prefect: “We made a cup of tea + stole a Freddo for you. Chill out. Stop saving the world for the next 20 minutes.”
Miss Year 12 Deputy Prefect: “Plus we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to quote you back to you.”
Damn it, you three. I just got schooled, and in the most caring way possible. 😭
I have recently returned from our Year 12 Retreat; two days of connective activities, reflection, team-building, and most importantly, time away from the intensity of study for our Year 12s. And for some, believe me, even two days felt like an eternity away from their books!
On our first night on retreat, we had a candle-lighting ceremony. The purpose of the ceremony was to offer a candle to anyone in the Year 12 cohort, staff and students included, as a message of hope, love, apology, forgiveness, or any other unspoken message that needed to be given silent voice. And that was exactly the challenge of the ceremony; that there be no words spoken. That whoever you were giving your candle to, or receiving your candle from, could trust that you knew what the message was. It was safe, poignant, and incredibly powerful.
I remember sitting in the beautiful, wide glass-walled chapel at Nunyara in Belair and taking in the beauty of all the lit candles flickering against the evening darkness. I could see the Adelaide lights in the background, and the sounds of magpies singing their final songs. The chapel lights were off, and the candles cast illuminating glows over the faces of our Year 12s.
There was a pause of uncertainty and fear at the very start of the ceremony; nobody wanted to be the first, to be the one watched as they traversed across the room, all just a little unsure and afraid. I also remember knowing exactly who my candle would go to, and that I would absolutely be one of the few staff members who would stand up and walk over to the student I was delivering my candle to, rather than waiting only to receive them.
My candle was always meant for a student by the name of Anthony. A giant, strapping young man who struggled with family life as much as he did school, whose every interaction with me involved either shaving, uniform, smoking, being late, dodging teachers, backtalk, and assessment dates. I love this young man, but I also knew, deep down, out of all my 23 tutor group students, he was the one that I wasn’t a perfect fit for. And no matter how I framed my words, he needed someone different to me to care for him.
But he got me, and in the 3 years we have been together as a tutor group, we have inched towards a grudging understanding, an uneasy and slightly volatile truce. My young man Anthony, I wish that you could have had the tutor teacher you needed, someone you could talk soccer with, and who would have that easy authority and humour that would inspire you into action. I want you to know how much you are loved and valued, despite the clashes we have had.
I stood and began walking, and felt the eyes of a whole Year 12 cohort of students and staff following me, across the falling dusk, tracking toward Anthony. I could see him react: Sure she’s not coming over to ME with her candle? I stood deliberately, humbly, and gently in front of him for a moment, looking him squarely in the eye, before I held out my candle. He looked at it curiously, and for a moment, I wondered if he was going to accept it, or swat it out of my hand in retaliation.
Slowly, gently, he wrapped his fingers around it and took it from me. And then he offered me his own. We shook hands. And then I walked back to where I had originally come from, my solo flight done, tears beginning to rise up spontaneously.
The incredible thing was this; I was thinking only of myself at that moment in time: This is something I need to do, this is something that’s between myself and Anthony. I had no idea the ripples it would cause, and the effect it would have on the rest of my tutor group, and the rest of the Year 12 cohort.
A number of my Year 12s said that the moment Anthony took my candle was the moment they began crying, and didn’t stop for the rest of the ceremony. Others said that the fact that I, a staff member, was the second person walking across the chapel in full view gave them courage to do the same. Many more in my tutor group said that they weren’t going to do the “risky handover”, looking for safer options, but my example gave them hope and a sense of responsibility to take the risk.
One of my Year 12, when giving me her candle, said to me: “This one’s for you, Ms Kwok. For the courage it took to give your own candle away, not just to Anthony, but for to all of us on a daily basis.”
I didn’t anticipate crying, but I did, steadily, through that ceremony. And through the silent tears, I remember looking at all these beautiful young men and women, the Year 12 Class of 2019, traversing that chapel like fireflies, carrying messages of hope, courage, forgiveness and light to their rightful destinations.
I wasn’t going to head out today. I haven’t been sleeping properly in the heat, I am tired + feeling very introverted, and I thought I’d just have a very low-key day before NYE celebrations, which are boardgames, pizza, and wine until we all fall asleep, long before midnight.
But I got up and went for a run and picked up some extra groceries. Ran into a friend who needed to connect and it was a warm, playful, and tender conversation. I could see how much she appreciated the time and connection in her face and eyes. And the connection lifted me up and made me less tired and more open.
I thought I’d stop into my local coffee shop, where there is a lovely guy who brings me the paper and always remembers my coffee order and I, in turn, make him smile and cause his heart to flip just a little. Isn’t it extraordinary that when you feel so tender and tired, that you might still light up someone else’s world? I think that of so many people who are special to me, yet I never apply that thinking to myself. I never consider the effect I might have on others when I am tired…and it’s more than I realise.
Then over to see my Grandmamma, who is 98 years young. Walked in to hear yelling and swearing at the nurses for making her wait an hour for her assisted shower, and the nurses laughing and nudging me that she is the most feisty, spirited, entertaining and determinedly uplifting resident they have. She knows them all by name, and has given them nicknames. In the 3 months that she has been there, she rules the roost and can abuse them all soundly, as well as remembering details of their husbands, wives, children, and families. Her marbles are all there. She is unbelievable.
Home, and I realise how differently my day could have gone. Home, and ready to write, be creative, and interact with the world. Ready to engage with the day, and all the people I love.
My god-daughters will arrive soon with all the additional supplies to make dumplings and peanut-butter cookies that I don’t already have in my pantry + fridge. I’ve received a text that they are so excited to see me and cannot wait for Twister + Monopoly tonight.
My cousins just sent me a picture pavlova that will make it over, as well as my favourite Bird in Hand bubbles.
How absolutely amazing that we underestimate our place in the world, and how very vital we are.
Happy New Year to you all, much love, and take your place in the world. Even at your most tired and quiet, you are so very important. Your light may be small and tender some days, and dazzlingly bright others. That’s absolutely okay, you don’t have to be “on” all the time. But don’t wait for the perfect conditions to interact with the world. Just step forward, at your most authentic, in whatever form that you are in, love and care for your tender vulnerabilities, and allow yourself to be fully seen, appreciated, and loved.
See you in 2019.
Darling Girl, who aches with hope, here is what I say to you:
Fill the room with all of you. Not pretentiously, but with fullness, authenticity, and the very resonance of you. Stand still and sacred, without aggression, but without apology. Just simply being.
Speak with every ounce of who you are. All of your words in your own simple breath, not just the ones that are curated, consciously or unconsciously.
Be haphazardly joyful, silly, and playful, because your soul needs to breathe.
Fill every space of every moment.
Live, without excess, but fully.
Don’t make space for something that is not there; your heart and soul will stretch when it becomes part of your life, when you need it, or indeed, when there is loss. You will stretch for both joy and pain. You will be okay.
Travel. My God, travel if you can and fill your mind and heart with new understandings which stretch you and embed you with life’s breath and fresh wisdom.
Travel, that you may experience a new angle of gratitude.
Travel, because this learning is embedded in the human spirit. The rushing need to be free, to live, to feel, to embrace.
With every ounce of your heart, your flesh, your body. Do not hold back because you don’t feel you have earned the right, you beautiful, beautiful dear girl. Life will keep moving and you need to be a part of that. You can laugh and cry, shriek and run, without any fear that you will need to be a little more refined and quiet because you haven’t earned the right. You have.
Being human IS your birthright. Not selfish. Human.
Don’t let that gloriously beating heart harden.
Work hard to undo, unfurl, simplify, let go, de-clutter, and set free.
The emotional knots may be many and tightly done-up, but have faith and patience. With time and love, care and unfailing gentleness, deep compassion and courage, you will undo them all.
And your beautiful heart will keep beating freely.
Cry your tears. Feel you grief. Feed your soul. Walk, and keep walking, each step, knowing every crevice of your heart with authenticity and ownership. The shadows of your grief will never leave you. But nor will the absolute, unquenchable desire to live.
Make new meaning every day.
Change as a part of life is like pennies to the dollar, and possible every minute you breathe.
There is no other way.
There is only love.
And my Darling Girl, I love you more than you know.
I am exhausted, but grateful.
This entire week, but today especially, has been a lesson in connection. I am so grateful for my Year 11 tutor group + my gorgeous Music kiddies who continue to challenge me to think, love, care and connect more deeply. Surprising, perceptive, full of fight, scrappy, big-hearted, generous, genuine, courageously raw + absolutely alive young adults who love and challenge me, and whom I love and wholeheartedly challenge right back. I used to be gentle about this, but lately, I find I’m absolutely all in. In on the hard conversations, in on the grittiness, in on the tough love, in on the massive belly laughs, in on the beautiful poignant moments.
I think I’m doing great, then I realise how much more I can do, or how much I don’t see until the moment I do see. I realise I need to look + listen MORE, catch the moments of connection, and be courageous in my words + actions. That each day presents tiny moments for me to be aware of, often out of my comfort zone, which I can choose to engage with.
I am exhausted, but so very grateful.
The conversations have been gritty, consuming, and revealing. But the connections have been powerful + very real.
I have been thinking a lot about nuances in language as a starting point for connection, as I’ve been reflecting on my role in caring for and mentoring my Year 11 Tutor Group.
Listening to a conversation between the incredible Brené Brown + Marie Forleo, and Brené said something to effect of:
Don’t ask someone who is in suffering to ‘call if they need anything’. They won’t call. It’s an empty sentiment designed to make us, the helper + supporter, feel better. Ask them instead: ‘What does support for you look like right now?’
And my heart did a backflip.
I realised that I had been asking my students to “call if they needed anything”. I had missed the opportunity for connection every time I said that. I needed to change my words, and therefore my intent, as the beginning point for connection.
The sheer power of language is unmistakeable.