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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 Anyone who was withdrawn, quiet, tired, stressed, angry, annoyed, having an off day, I would make it my personal mission to connect with them and see if I could break their mood, or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.
I love this.
Mine’s coming a little earlier because truthfully, I will be probably curled up on the couch fast asleep after dinner out at Henley tonight. 😂
T H A N K Y O U to you all for being part of my life and 2017. Thank you so much for loving me, encouraging me, laughing at/near/with me, reminding me to be the best version of me, swearing at/with me, bringing me wine, feeding me, letting me bawl my eyes out, and keeping me human. I hope I do the same for you all!
Thank you for your examples of courage which you don’t even know you do…those moments where each of you are being completely yourselves, engrossed in your work, raising families, creating, teaching, making, caring, loving, laughing…your examples of living life well encourage me to live my own life well. Especially when I feel like throwing the towel in. You inspire me so much, from my old students to current students, colleagues, friends, family, and my wonderful kindred spirits who pick me up, dust me off, and push me right back into the the craziness. I hate you for it at the time, but thank you. 😊
I wish you hope, peace, laughter, love, and joy for 2018.
Much love…Kwokkie X
Acknowledging the rushing time and space of a year is impossible; there’s so much that’s happened and so little that’s changed all at once. But here I am, again, wanting with all my heart to write some words to do this journey justice.
So, with all my heart, T H A N K Y O U to everyone more than you will ever know, for loving me. For loving me through the challenges and setbacks, the moments of sadness and of intense grief, and most of all, through my joyful moments and successes where my light was aligned with all I was doing. That you could bear my complaining and my struggles as I fought to find solutions showed me your infinite patience; that you could celebrate with me meant that you really loved me + wanted the best for me. Every single time I think I have nothing left and I want to quit because it would be safer, I find arms wide and hearts open, compassion flowing freely. And those of you who could do the pure, unrefined compassion, did the compassion of the red vino liquid kind. Both were gratefully received. 😉
And this year? I have been so lucky. I have been SO lucky with my health, my love of music, my work, my friends, my family. The freedom to speak. The glorious haphazard openness of creating. I haven’t achieved half of what I have set out to achieve, but I feel richer threefold. Everything has resonance, meaning, and value. I have had MORE challenges, felt the ache grief even MORE acutely, but the deep joy I feel each day is unmistakable. I’ve not always known this steadiness of self and joy; it’s been hard-won. And this year feels more rewarding for it.
Thank you for more meaningful relationships, more tender and truthful moments, more raucous laughter, playful moments, more REALNESS. More sharing, more love, more support. My inner circle is smaller, but warmer and surer. My outer circles give me so much light and joy.
Thank you for the opportunity to affect change, and to realise how much power my words and actions have in the classroom. This year has be come so much more REAL in the classroom as well, where my actions have been reflected back to me, and my example has been taken onboard to the most humbling degree. I am so proud, and so lit up with grace, by what I have accomplished here. Let me keep striving to learn.
A particular project of mine in 2017 has been to listen hard to the voice that lines up with my integrity and moral compass in times of intense stress + discord…and SPEAK. This is not shooting off at the mouth, this is considered, loving, compassionate, strong communication. These are words I have combed through with heart and love, before offering them articulately, often with hammering heart and quiet resolve. I’ve stood my ground and carved out my boundaries, simply, quietly, graciously, courageously – outrageously colourfully – and refused to just go along with things. And my heart feels like it has doubled in size. I feel more “me” than ever, and I also feel like it’s just the tip of the iceberg as to what is possible. That I have a responsibility to speak, for myself and for the people I love.
But here’s the paradox:
In becoming more fearless, I have become infinitely more tender and joyful, and find myself more often exquisitely balanced between joy and anguish. Painful things rush through me with an intensity that takes my breath away, and joy makes me reverberate with warmth, and my eyes fill with tears. So freely, so easily!
My brand of courage doesn’t exist without the infinite and absolute expanse of love around me, from the inner circle of people who really matter. The light reflected all around me from everyone I know is a joy, but the strength I draw from that inner circle of love gives me the courage to stand my ground, open my heart, and lean into everything that scares me. Who knew that was possible? Standing in a shit-storm or a hurricane?
Now I do.
I have been so moved this year by simple acts of love and kindness, been so much more open, and cried so much more. I’ve been unafraid of solitude, and can find the grace to lean in, rather than run away. I can put words to my thoughts, rather than hoping for the best. I am telling my story. It is extraordinary when it all lines up. I’ve laughed at the ridiculous, I’ve laughed when the tears of anguish are still wet on my face, I’ve laughed at nothing at all! This freedom of living and my spirit is unheard of.
Thank you so much, to all of you, for leaving that whisper of magic and infinite hope etched into the fabric of my life, my days, my minutes. This is what makes me being me possible. Grounded in something that smells very much like unrelenting feistiness + a moral compass that is so fucking moral that even I can’t pull it off due north, well, I think I’m ready to walk into 2018 with you all.
Who knows what this next chapter will hold? A whole new canvas for creation, and I feel a shiver of excitement and anticipation that I cannot wait to manifest.
I wish the same courage, foundation, magic, love, gritty determination, intensity of feeling, and pure humanness for you all in 2018.
Much love. X
“Confess your hidden faults
Approach what you find repulsive
Help those you think you cannot help
Anything you are attached to, let it go
Go to the places that scare you.”
(Advice to Pema Chödrön from her teacher, the Tibetan yogini Machik Labdrön)
My goodness, this unbelievably articulate card from a Sir Year 10 music renegade, with the bit that totally affects me:
“You are quirky but serious, strong but fair, and truthful yet compassionate and understanding. You have been a rock for me over the last semester particularly, and so supportive and nurturing. You are truly one of a kind. Also, you pull off outfits no one else could!”
What Year 10 sir writes like that, so authentically + articulately?!
I thanked him last night at Lessons + Carols for his beautifully written words and he said, “Well, they’re FAR more articulate on the page!” And then I remembered that he has a stutter. I’ve taught him for 3 years. He just has such good stuff to say that I don’t notice it until I think about it. Amazing.
I gave a keynote earlier this year on the power of language and intent in the classroom; the extraordinary thing is that I went completely off script. The essence of the presentation was the same, but I didn’t look at my notes. I was completely in my element and spoke fluently. This is amazing for me as English is my 2nd language, I have a lisp due to a permanent underbite, and a tendency to trip over my words or lapse into Hakga when I’m nervous.
I totally marvel at how my language keeps improving, how I am still learning, and how I can actually FEEL my written and speaking abilities continue to get better each year. I thank the teachers who encouraged me to read, to journal, to write, and to converse, even though I couldn’t practise in the conventional way with Mum + Dad at home. I thank the teachers who painstakingly checked my essays in place of my parents, and put up with the weirdest idiosyncrasies in my writing, and my totally misjudged phrases. I thank the teachers who encouraged me to public speak and debate, knowing that I might totally lose the thread in moment of nerves.
I marvel at how much I can actually say now, how articulately I can express myself. I love it! I love the melody of language; the nuances and the power of words. It really is true that words can cut or heal, that a slight change in wording and intent can change the momentum of an interaction.
One of the greatest joys and gifts of life HAS to be the freedom of thought, and to have the opportunity and words to express emotions, understandings, and ideas. It’s the essence of being human!
I have decided, unequivocally, that I want to be a nerd. Actually, I decided that ages ago academically, but I mean nerdy in the emotional sense.
I mean this. I don’t want to be clever with other peoples’ emotions. I don’t want to have to be clever with mine. I just want to be, exactly as I am.
I don’t want to be particularly witty, or savvy, or on the cutting edge of irony. Heck, I don’t even want to be on the cornerstone of Sarcasm and Streetwise. I just want to be authentic. If I happen to accidentally be witty, or savvy, or on the cutting edge of irony, or my internal GPS takes me to the paved crossroads of Sarcasm and Streetwise Roads, well and good. I highly doubt it though, given that I can walk headlong into a pun, and then keep going for a good 30 seconds before I realise that the world around me is laughing at me, not near and with me.
What I mean to say is this; I am done playing emotive games. I don’t want to speak cleverly to one person to gain their good opinion, or exert extra energy trying to be anything that I’m not. I don’t want to be loud, or the one cracking every joke, or laughing raucously, or the one that nails those sophisticated one-liners.
I want to talk to connect.
I want to string words together like ribbons building connections, not cut with them. I want my words to have weight and worth, not be thrown about like confetti. And so help me, if I cannot speak kind words, then let me not speak at all. Let the silence spell out my authenticity and compassion, even if it is hard with boundaried protectiveness.
I want to speak with warmth.
I want to allow pictures to come forth from my words, and to enjoy the shared thread of communication. I don’t want to do a toe-tapping number, emotionally or linguistically.
I want to speak because I am human, and I have something to share.
I want to tell my story.
I want to create meaning.
I want to be lit up with integrity, and I want to spell every one of those beams of light.
I want my words to resonate with love.
Today, I re-read a book I read in my early 20s. It was supposed to be a lightweight, warm fuzzy read, like pulling on an old jumper and smelling the neckline as I pulled it over my head. And yet, I found myself inside-out with emotion, seeing and feeling things with the sketchings and experiences of a decade further of life.
Every WORD seemed to shiver with colour; every thought and idea seemed to hold me by the shoulders and ask more of me. It was extraordinary to me that re-reading a book could uncover so many unseen puzzle pieces of sheer feeling and wisdom that I had no capacity to understand when I first read it, and hit me with full force navigating them now.
Like that there MUST be push and pull for love to blossom. And that you absolutely MUST be tender and vulnerable to live life fully, or you miss a moment, a day, a year. And that conventional, “perfect” beauty is nothing on raw beauty, and resonance of a lively spirit from within. That love does not know its own strength, stupidity, or stretch.
And that truly, really truly, the difference between what we want and where we are is “a width of an eyelash”, to quote the marvellous Judy Dench talking to the equally marvellous Maggie Smith. I loved that moment when I first saw it, but I didn’t know how to understand it, now I do. With all my being.
What if I were to ask the questions MORE, rather than waiting to be asked? However courageously I have lived my life yesterday, today brings new opportunities for learning and courage, being and loving. How is it that we think we know ourselves so well, and then in an instant, everything is changed, and we feel like we are seeing for the first time?
The wonder. The fear. The scariness and the joy of it all. I did not realise my own beauty, even though I have lived always striving to walk my own sacred ground. Comfortably, happily, and authentically. Yet STILL, I can shift and grow. I feel like I could dance and resonate five feet either way more than I did before.
Isn’t it amazing how keenly we cling to what gives us history and meaning, how much we need to understand, and want to know ourselves? And isn’t it amazing that we are born with a desire to create, to imagine, to adventure and discover, and to love. And the difference between a life lived to the full, with ragged pages worn from exploring everything, to pristine and safely read pages…is intent.
It’s the will to begin.
The dare to try.
The wonder to what if.
The width of an eyelash.
My goodness, if I have been blessed with a heart + mind, a life and imagination, I am not going to waste a moment more.