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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 Anyone who was withdrawn, quiet, tired, stressed, angry, annoyed, having an off day, I would make it my personal mission to connect with them and see if I could break their mood, or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. 😭
Sir Year 12 explains muso life to Sir Year 10:
Sir Year 10: “Is Concert Choir on this week?”
Sir Year 12: “So basically there could be flash flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes, erupting volcanos, snowstorms, and tsunamis, and Concert Choir will still be on.”
Listen + learn, my little grasshopper. 😎
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.
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?
I am writing the commissioned work for the inaugural Flame Tree Project for 2019. I am incredibly lucky that I can choose to accept this commission based entirely on the creative aspect of the work without worrying about payment, due to being a full-time secondary music teacher.
I would like to see this project continue in 2020, and to give the opportunity for a young, up-and-coming composer to engage with this wonderful school community, and to compose a work for them. Through this campaign, I would also like to acknowledge the optimism, bravery, and dedication of music teacher, Kate Whitworth, and the students of Minnamurra Primary School in New South Wales, Australia…who have no idea about this yet, so SHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!
This fundraising campaign is to raise the honorarium for the 2020 composer, preferable a young composer establishing their creative voice and keen to work with children’s choirs, and to allow this project to go ahead for a second year.
The link for the Flame Tree GoFundMe campaign can be found below. Thank you to all of you for your curiosity and interest in the project, and in taking the time to read about it. And to those of you who decide to donate, my sincere thanks to you on behalf of the the 2020 Flame Tree Project young composer.
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.
I am chameleon. 😎