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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.
One of the greatest moments of humility and grace is realising when you are not the perfect fit for a student.
As I continue grow into myself and my teaching, I see more examples of this within the classes I teach. The students that are angular and pokey around me, that value and respect my teaching, and me as a person, but I will never be their best champion, or their perfect mentor.
The younger version of me would have worked with pig-headed determination to flex and contort myself into the perfect fit. What did I need to be? Harder, warmer, softer? More dictatorial? Colder? I tried to bend in ways that I never should have. And in doing so, was being dishonest to myself and doing my students a disservice.
Now, in simple grace and confidence, I can identify students for whom I’m not a perfect fit, and I can joyfully and wholeheartedly direct them to other staff members and mentors who might inspire them more fully than I am able. I encourage them to listen and look closely around them for kindred spirits, people who are older and wiser than them who have the unique combination of experiences and talents which resonate with them.
I ask them to be open and engaged with me, and that I will always love and teach them with my greatest self, and to the best of my ability. But in my heart of hearts, I say silently to them:
I am not so vain as to think I can be everything to everyone. I am not the perfect fit for you. I will teach you, care for you, encourage you, guide you, and support you, but you need to find that adult or mentor who IS someone you completely aspire to be like, even in part, and connect with them. You need to have a champion, and a North Star, and it’s not me.
So, look hard, and look well. Find someone who resonates with you, who makes your spirit catch alight, and learn.
This is such a gift of courage, humility, grace, and love.
To know that I have the courage and grace to set certain students free, so that I can love them more.
Our hearts are with New Zealand.
YOUR choice. What will you choose?
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 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.
As I continue to step into myself, I realise increasingly how adaptable I am. And while I carry my own vibrancy and momentum, when I am confronted with a force or personality greater than mine, more selfish and unpredictable, less sensitive and thoughtful, I either fold into myself or adapt to that person. I move toward and I please. That is my MO.
It’s so subtle that I don’t even realise I am doing it sometimes; I am so able to mold myself to a situation that I convince myself this was the correct option, even if it means working harder or differently. And I also tell myself that it is good to learn, think of the greater good, I shouldn’t be so set in my ways, and that I need to stretch myself.
And it’s certainly not because I am not comfortable and confident in myself. I feel that I am confident in standing my ground authentically and simply, without fanfare. I am playful, joyful, energised, vibrant, interested, and I continually evolve in courage, perception, and strength.
And yet, there it is. Only when I draw back far enough do I realise that I am adapting imperceptibly, even to myself, to a situation “for the greater good”. Or, if I am being brutally honest, because I am afraid of confrontation and am used to being “the one who thinks differently”. Being the one on the outer with some sense of optimism and personal momentum, when you are surrounded by strong, bull-dozer of a character with a whole cast of minion sicko-fans is a real litmus test to feeling your DIFFERENT-NESS.
So I’ve noticed something unique about this week: So far, every day back at school has been a gift. I have loved being back in the frontline, and some of the stresses I had last year have been removed just by having time away. The gift has come from the deep recalibration that a holiday offers. All the things that you assumed were okay are realigned to have merit and worth, and you find your equilibrium, not that of the workplace. And until things are pulled away from this centreline, I intend to listen hard to this equilibrium and honour it in my favour, for my own well-being.
During the holidays, I have spent time with people who see me completely, and love me playfully, honestly, and warmly. And now, at this unique time of getting back on the treadmill and running fast, I want to catch all the times that I am feeling discomfort as a warning sign, an indication that I need to pay attention and be alert and NOT automatically adapt.
I’d like to stand at that crossroad fully, and decide if I will choose to adapt and ask more of myself, or if I will stand in my own truth and rock the boat a little. Or a lot.
I am doing things differently this year.
I will no longer allow myself to do the following:
Dim my light to make others around me feel more comfortable. I come back from my lessons excited, or wrecked, and everything in between. I am unfailingly honest and excited by my work, and I know that I do connection with my students exceptionally well. I will not make myself small just in case people around me feel small from my success, or have the pettiness to feel triumphant from my failures. I will step into my own, because it suits and celebrates me. I will walk into a room and my cup will overflow, and that sass will ooze from my being. And that is all there is to it, my friends. No debate.
But what I will also do is make sure I choose “my people” well. I will give the bare facts of what happens in my classes to connect with my department to be an effective colleague. But I will make sure my most special + unique successes are shared with the people who matter to me, and very likely outside of my department. These are people who are in my inner circle, who will cheer me on because I succeeded.
Allow others to make off-hand comments that are designed to cut me down. You know the ones; the comments which take the shine off something wonderful, or something I am excited by, or something that is unique to me, like my love of colour. Let me remind myself that:
The conversation with myself will be different, though. Rather than huddling into myself and seething, I am going to remind myself of these two points, work through the anger + frustration, and when I am ready, lay it down. Because I have so much more that I want to be filling my life with. It is also worth mentioning that no matter what the stress level or situation, someone who has my back will NEVER make me feel less than my full worth. I might have to press pause on a conversation, but I will NEVER be made to feel small for trying. Let me remember those wonderful, strong leaders I have worked with who treated me with that sort of boldness + integrity combined. Hell, let me become a leader! There’s another conversation for later…!
I don’t want to be ANYONE’S “Girl Friday”, unless it’s someone I love. This is an uncomfortable conversation, but I’m laying it down. Those females who absolutely thrive off a quasi-flirtatious relationship with their seniors, who gobble up slightly demoralising banter like its manna from the sky. Those females who love that they can have that intensive one-on-one banter and forget that that there are other people around them, because they are relishing the adoration of being the first wife, the alpha female. I just want to throw up, my goodness. That intelligent, beautiful women simper and crumble at this sort of attention and destroy not only their sense of self-worth, but any self-worth their female colleagues had for them. For me, let me always remember to try and expand the circle. I will not buy into that intensity of friendship in the workplace, because I’d like to care for the well-being of the team. And if I catch myself doing that, as a colleague, or as a teacher looking after my own classes and supporting the class dynamics, I hope that I will have the grace to pull back and readjust.
Plus it’s just so damn 1960s and pre-feminist in values! How utterly demoralising that you can be won over by a flirtatious compliment and strung along? While I want to enjoy all of my woman-ness and femininity, I am not going to swoon over a compliment over my looks, my new white blouse, how I’ve done my make-up, my legs, or anything else of that nature. That beautiful and delicious part of me? Absolutely reserved for the very special people in my life who have permission to find me sexy, gorgeous, alluring, and breathtaking.
That shit in a place of work, even the bare whiff of it, is deeply uncomfortable-making for those of us who want to shine our own authentic, truly beautiful light and work hard.
Please, girls + women, do not take the easy compliment and alienate all those around you in the strong sisterhood. Please have more self-respect than that.
p.s. For me? I’ll take the compliments on my work, the joy in my appearance (non-flirtatious, just in the colours, thank you!), the quality of my teaching, the integrity with which I work, and the connections I have with my students.
My compass + quality of work. I forget that just because someone is in a position of leadership, that they may not have my best interests at heart. I am an incredibly effective employee, but that does not mean that every bit of feedback a person in leadership gives me is necessarily with good intentions towards me. And while you would hope that people in leadership work with integrity, and most do, unfailingly so, I am going to take a moment in between to judge for myself. I am not going to allow the seniority of a position dictate the merit of a comment or piece of feedback. I will put it in light of my own performance and the judgement of the personal providing the feedback, and then decide if it is something I would like to act upon.
Emotional strength + health. The conversations I have with myself are extraordinary sometimes, and not in a good way. I looked back at some of my reflections from last year, and the words that I began an overwhelming number of them with were, “I’m so tired.” I was emotionally tired from hold back, adapting, and not acknowledging my true worth. And the thing is this; if I allow this to happen, there is no way that I will fully step into my worth further, or continue to have weight and merit. Let me hold myself in high esteem that I may resonate authenticity and merit, and let those people I have allowed to take way too much + mental energy play catch up with me. The conversations I am having with myself this year are going to put ME at the heart of them, and continue to build my courage and emotional resiliency. They will not all be optimistic or easy. But they will be focused on me, not the situation, not the unfair slight, not the interaction that made my blood boil, but what I can do about it.
Numbing + time. I am embarrassed at how much time I have wasted numbing on Youtube + Facebook, again, almost imperceptibly. Just another 10 or 15 minutes, and I have lost 1 to 2 hours of glorious creative time. And do you know what it was which made me do this? FEAR. Always FEAR. I was afraid that if I truly looked inside myself, I would find that I had no idea what to do, no solution, and that it would all cost too much to sort through my thoughts and emotions. But we have to start. And anything of value takes time, including the hard solutions. So rather than unhealthy, extended scrolling and numbing, I am going to embark on those hard sit-down-and-dissect sessions with myself. Because the time I am saving right now is significant, the connections I am fostering with people I love are amazing, and the clarity I am gaining, just mind-blowing. I feel like I am walking a straight path, head high, even if the weather is inclement, where as last year I was climbing over branches and dodging potholes in a changing climate.
Life is interesting, girl! Life is really interesting! Spare time wasted without agency or choice is a block of time that you’ll never get back. When you are creating + engaging, in a relationship, friendship, creative project, or practising a skills, personal or professional, life is truly engaging. And as I realise how much I love being creative as a means to unwind, rather than just lying on the couch scrolling Facebook, I think sadly and wistfully back to 12-year-old me who just raced through her piano practise at breakneck speed so it was “done” enough to allow me to be inert. What is the point of done, when all the interest lies in the journey?
Nothing is permanent. In Pema Chödrön’s book, When Things Fall Apart, she explores the concept of impermanence and how disappointing and frustrating people find this, when it is a fact of life. For example, I get so hung up about a flowerbed that I have freshly weeded sprouting brand new weeds that it almost outdoes the satisfaction of the week of weed-free garden that I have enjoyed. The same applies to the house getting dusty when only two weeks ago, it was pristine. Why do we get so frustrated? Why do we expect things to just be perfect and in a state of unmoving, clinical “safety” all the time? Life isn’t written like that, and to clean or weed is to have a beautiful place to live. Let me rethink my unreasonable petty frustrations, and my aversion to cleaning, knowing that life is an every changing beast, continuous and surprising.
So yes…I am doing things differently this year…! 😉
From Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic. This paragraph makes me “smile out loud” every time I read it.
Her word resonate with surprising urgency for us to embrace our creativity. So powerful for me to read now as I am in a period of intense writing + composing.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” you darkest interior voices will demand.
“It’s funny you should ask,” you can reply. “I’ll tell you who I am: I am a child of God, just like anyone else. I am I constituent of this universe. I have invisible spirit benefactors who believe in me, and who labour alongside me. The fact that I am here at all is evidence that I have the right to be here. I have a right to my own voice and a right to my own vision. I have a right to collaborate with creativity, because I myself am a product and a consequence of Creation. I’m on a mission of artistic liberation, so let the girl go.”
Now you’re the one doing the talking.
Each day, we do our best. And each day, we need to look for ways to strive to be more, to push our boundaries, to be inspired by others, and to be humbled.
This is today’s dose of all that for me. Beautiful, inspiring, and humbling. A reminder of how strong and supple we all are, how innately beautiful, courageous, and creative.
Don’t live within the boundaries. Nobody knows they can be pushed up against and broken unless someone does it. You can’t live life always looking for an example of “someone who’s done it”.
Why don’t you be in the front line, and go and do the impossible?