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I always do a blessing on my house each morning. Being a first generation Chinese-Vietnamese Australian, there are things you do partly out of love, partly out of tradition, and partly out of warding off the first-generation karma.
Lately, I have asked for courage. Sometimes, it’s a conscious request with a specific scenario in mind. Like, “Please grant me the courage to have that god-awful and awkward conversation I’ve got to have with one of my students who’s failing. Help me speak with compassion and directness, help me hit the right mark, help me go there and hold space for the discomfort.”
Other days, it’s just what pops up into my heard + heart, unbidden, “One order of courage today, please!”
In asking for courage, here is what I have received in my last term of teaching:
I asked for courage, in order that I might have the self-compassion and patience to be out of action for 7 days to soothe my spirit and recover from the sickness of intensive travel with the ANZAC Music Tour. The tenderness with which I have to speak to myself, that I might understand and fully embrace the fact that I am not super-human, that I must rest, and that the exhaustive pull of this sickness will pass, and I will recover, and my spirit will rise up again.
I asked for courage, that I might catch the newly-awakened love of leadership that came from leading the tour. You always get what you absolutely don’t want, and I cannot tell you how MUCH I DID NOT WANT to lead this tour. I didn’t know the crevices of it, I hadn’t planned it, my heart wasn’t embedded in it. And yet, I found myself holding the reins, in charge of the emotional, musical, and physical safety and joy of the students under my direction. I got on that plane, leaned in, and led like a MF. All the while, knowing that I would have been just as happy with a holidays curled up reading, or cooking, or fresh-faced from a morning run along Henley Beach, and I was on the other side of the world, discovering, experiencing, leading, learning, feeling; wholehearted, courageous, and completely present. I gave my heart to that tour, those kids, and my supporting staff. The fire in the belly has been awakened, and I find that I like being in the driver’s seat. That I like considering the dynamics and well-being of a team, and that I like pin-pointing potential and helping others to grow.
I asked for courage, that I might take a bigger, more audacious bite of life. I am always on the conservative side of the average. But lately, by design or by default, I have found myself pushing limits. Reaching in, asking for more clarification, talking, engaging in discussion, and leaning hard into discomfort. So much so that I come home completely wrecked and exhausted, sometimes wondering if I’ve done right by everyone – and knowing, instinctively, that I have.
I asked for courage, that I might let go more easily, learn how to forgive more completely and honestly, learn the process of forgiveness more intimately, that I might take bigger, more audacious bites of life. The more that I protect myself and tell myself and the world that everything is okay, the more that I don’t embrace the gritty reality of forgiveness. Forgiveness is what allows each of us to fully embrace life, and allow us that “lean-hard” into joy. Because unfortunately, there cannot be a filter for embracing life completely; if you want the joys, you need to run headlong into the shitty moments. Forgiveness is the navigation tool of the bold and brave-hearted.
I asked for courage, that I might love more fully. Loving is such a unfurling, tender, human act.
I asked for courage, that I might not embrace fears before they actually become fears. I see the audaciousness of those much older, much less educated, much more courageous that I am, and I see that they are living life with balls-out, audacious, vibrant wholeheartedness. And I cry, because I realise how many times I have played small from fear. I have the complete Derwent set of pencils in language, emotion, connection, life, stability, family, love, friendship, finance; the ONLY thing stopping me is fear. And perhaps a well-made flat white. I have everything I need to live life audaciously + fiercely.
I asked for courage, that I might learn how to navigate the unforgivable. When fear or circumstance make people act in ways that are less-than, when there is no rhyme or reason to a decision, an act, or a situation. I am afraid of becoming closed-off and bitter when I have to navigate these situations. Conversely, I don’t want to treat them superficially. So therefore, I ask for courage that I might engage with every part of life, even the situations which challenge me deeply and I do not easily understand, those which are seemingly unforgivable, incomprehensible, and driven by fear. I ask that I do not respond in fear, but I respond with courage and compassion, that I might retain and even build my understanding of myself, the world around me, and my understanding of humanity, and continue to live fully. One of my greatest fears is becoming bitter and not knowing myself.
I asked for courage, that I might be perceptive. That just because someone is embedded in a place of leadership or power, that does not make them a person of integrity and worth, and those qualities need to be demonstrated and trust earned over time. I ask that I learn to see things authentically, that I process things thoroughly, and that I anger + react slowly.
I asked for courage, that I might have the courage to be different. Lately, assimilating has been strangely seductive for me. Perhaps it’s been a long term, perhaps I feel like I am up against it, but I ask for courage that I continue to think differently to others, see my different points of view, and bring fresh new insights to the table, even if they seem – different. I am put here to be creative and compassionate, playful and insightful, and no one else will see from my point of view. And just because a decision is not made in my favour, doesn’t mean my viewpoint isn’t valid. The validity is not the question. It’s whether I have the courage to embrace seeing things from my point of view, and whether or not they make sense and are done from a place of generosity and egoless-ness.
I asked for courage, that I might live. When it gets too tiring or overwhelming, I want to fucking dance.
In asking for courage, I got a shitload of challenge, problem-solving, closed doors, fear and unfairness.
I’d say The Universe delivered very nicely, don’t you think?
I got comprehensively “couraged”, and I walk with battle scars, head-up, and a whole new sass.
I have been giving this Miss Year 10 choral hell. Basically, I want her in my Senior Concert Choir. She toured with me earlier this year, totally needs to audition, but absolutely refuses to.
I’ve forbidden her to quit choir, so for the past term and a half she’s been idling in 2nd gear in Grammarphones as a section leader, continuing to refuse to audition. Every time she has missed a rehearsal, even the legit ones, I’ve pinged home an email to her parents within the hour.
She hates me for that, but grudgingly goes along with it.
She is the most fabulous “jam with the radio” singer you can get, she finds harmonies where others flail aimlessly, and she’s sass on legs. She is FUN to have around, and quietly yet sassily lifts the morale of the people around her with her hilarious one-liners.
Imagine my surprise when I received this email from her. It came yesterday, but I refused to read it for fear that it was the official “I Am Allowed To Quit With Parental Support”, which would have totally pissed me off.
I cried. Then I read it again, and cried some more. 😭
It’s easy to live safely. The recipe is simple: Put your heart someplace safe. Protect it from harm. Hold it, swaddle it, put it gently into a cocoon with multiple layers of padding + intensive wrapping.
But if you want anything from life, you must be stretched.
And if you want any part of connection, you must set your heart free.
If you want to connect, you must figure out a way to forgive.
Imperfectly, messily. With a hunger for life and reaching out again for the next, “What’s next?”
It’s a funny, tender tightrope, this whole “being human” thing. A heart is also a curious entity, designed to be so utterly tender, yet courageous and able to stretch with the happenings of life. Strong, yet surprisingly supple. Sensitive. Yet limitless in its ability to accommodate the stretching of life, of grief, of ache, of disarray.
Let it, oh! Let it, please.
Otherwise, the edges will curl and go brittle.
You won’t know what it’s like to take too many breaths before going underwater, or. be wondering if the pulse in your ears is from fear, or being so alive you feel electric.
Stretch with all the joy and grief that life offers, and every colour in between.
You are supposed to be a little un-nerved, a little too alive, a little off-centre, and a little buzzing from the business of living.
Forgive. You need this to connect, to love, and to live.
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.