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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.
A tremendous + significant step in care for my Grandmamma; after several years of home care, she has agreed to make the move to assisted care. The last 5 years have been a measure of courage and creativity for my whole family, Mum, Dad, rellies far + wide, Robs, Em, and myself, where we have leaned on each other to figure out each challenge.
I had just over 2 weeks looking after my Grandmamma in January this year to allow Mum + Dad to travel and have a break. And whilst it was a blessed two weeks where every good luck angel was looking over me and absolutely everything went right, I felt like I was walking a tightrope every day and mentally on-call for every one of those 17 days.
And that’s what my Mum + Dad have been doing for close to 5 years.
This “yes” has been the work of struggle, compassion, grace, and love. My Grandmamma will be the first in our entire family to enter into assisted care, and she HAD to be the one to say “yes”. In doing so, she has totally blazed a trail for future generations, but will also be grieving the cultural aspect and love of family members looking after her for her final years.
For me, I’m crying tears of compassion for her “yes”, but also tears of joy for my Mum and Dad. I cannot even BEGIN to describe how light I feel, and the incredible flood of possibilities that keep popping up in my mind. That Mum and Dad can now grab a coffee anytime they want. They can go walking together over the weekend. They can wake up whenever they want. They’ll still wake up at the crack of dawn and have done 3 loads of washing before 6:30am, but whatever, the point is, they still CAN. I can watch my beautiful Mum actually – POSSIBLY – learn to spend some time on herself, and my skinny, quiet, generous-hearted Dad take a cup of tea and read without being interrupted, or wondering challenge he’ll have to solve next. I can spend time with my parents without them being mentally elsewhere from fatigue + worry.
They have booked their first impulsive interstate trip to Melbourne in…forever.
They’ll be able to visit my brother and sister-in-law in Canada.
I am so HAPPY and LIGHT right now.
The other total crack-up is that Calvary have NO-EFFING-IDEA what they have signed up for with my tough + feisty Grandmamma. Oh, she will have them ON THEIR FEET. She will demand chopsticks and tell them off for under-seasoning the food. She can still give me a sound yelling-at when I am not coming up to scratch and being “too Western for my own good, with my teaching job, and car, and…!”
She yells good. I want to grow up to be like her.
My wish for all of you.
This is an article I wrote for the Pulteney Weekly Review, the first article I have written for the school.
“From The New Music Teacher…”
And silently in my head; And I hope you know what you guys have signed up for!
From The New Music Teacher: The Article [Text]
You know the opening credits of Mr Bean, where he lands in a new environment and then runs around trying to find his bearings, arms flailing, look of wide-eyed terror? That’s how I felt, and probably looked, in my first few weeks at Pulteney. Starting in Week 8 of Term 1 is a privilege that I would not wish on anyone, yet I could not have been more supported, welcomed, and whole-heartedly embraced by a community. With no time for opening credits or staff inductions, it was straight to business with music classes and ensembles from Year 6 to 12, a Year 11 pastoral care group, and all the concerts and events that came with these groups.
With each day came new discoveries, new faces, new understandings…and many, many failures in the name of learning. For example, in my second official week of teaching, I released my Year 8 Music class 20 minutes early, and then had to chase them through the school and finish the lesson in the middle of the quadrangle…as a parent tour group calmly walked passed…”Yes, I’m the new, OTHER, Music teacher…”
Now, in the middle of Term 3, on a pontoon after an epic few weeks of concerts and competitions, I take time to express my thanks and gratitude to the Pulteney community for welcoming me and supporting me through this year. The community spirit at Pulteney is so strong and secure that the moment I walked into my teaching role, I noticed it immediately…in the parent support groups, in the school events, and in the way other staff and students relate to one another. It’s a healthy and affirming environment to be.
I thank Kym Wilson and Ali O’Connell for their unwavering support of me, and constantly getting me up to speed; and the team of instrumental teachers for their limitless work and care that they pour into the music students, which allows them to flourish in the ensembles I direct. I thank the Pulteney staff for their whole-hearted support of me, with some even making the effort to visit me in the Music Centre to welcome me in those first few frantic weeks. I thank the leadership teams across the whole school, in Prep, Middle and Senior Schools, as I have the very unique responsibility of teaching across almost the entire cohort of students. With their compassion and deep understanding of their students, I have been able to build an understanding of my classes to be able to teach effectively, as I developed my own rapport with my classes.
Most of all, I thank the students I teach. I am overwhelmed with gratitude at how you have handled an unusual and sudden change of teacher. Here, I particularly acknowledge my Year 11 and 12 students, who have embraced me as a teacher and trusted me enough to lean into my teaching in their very important senior years of study, without question, just a genuine desire for excellence in learning.
The joy I have experienced working with you each day, getting to know your personalities, and making new musical discoveries has been truly wonderful for me. There is a genuine curiosity and desire to learn in our students, and I am privileged to be able to work with classes who are willing to take a risk, be innovative, and embrace new challenges.
I look forward to continuing to help you grow, musically, academically, and personally, in whatever way I am able.
With spots, stripes, and ridiculous amounts of colour!
Ms Annie Kwok