You Try It 100 Times

by Shelley Welch

     Remember this question from the first post: Would the road between Pestalozzi and Robinson have twisted so violently had each individual attended mindfully to the children in her presence in each moment? Of course you remember. So, let’s explore the answer.

     Let me start with Simon (not his real name). Simon is a normally developing, vibrant three-year old with a wonderful family, including a brother I taught several years ago. Simon also happens to be a born artist. I use that term with caution: I don’t normally believe in born anything. Hard work, dedication and consistent practice is what creates artists, musicians, doctors, etc. But sometimes, children show up knowing intuitively a perspective that takes some of us many years of practice to achieve. Simon is such a child. He sees like an artist and his drive to draw is incessant, passionate and magnetic.

     Last week, Simon prompted my co-teacher to search the web for a photo of Thomas the Train Engine for him. He was determined to draw it. With laptop poised, paper and Sharpie at the ready, he began to “art”, as we call it in our classroom sometimes. Twenty minutes into the endeavor, Simon called to me with edgy nervousness in his voice and the hint of tears brimming.

     “I can’t do it, Teacher Shelley. I can’t draw it. It’s not coming out on the paper.”

     “I see that you have drawn most of the train, though. What’s happening? Where are you having the trouble?”

     “I can’t get it to look like that!” He points to the smokebox on the front of the engine. He’s right. The way the train is positioned (at an angle) on the screen makes drawing it more challenging.

     “Have you drawn Thomas before now?”

     “No!” He’s getting more intense.

     I get his brewing panic. I am an artist, too. I know that feeling – the dread and panic – of thinking that I may have finally met my edge. Perhaps this is all I have as an artist and I never will be able to create anything better than this. I take a deep breath and speak slowly.

     “So, Simon, you know I am an artist, right?” He nods.

     “Sometimes, when I am trying something new, I have to paint it a hundred times or more before my eyes can see how to paint it and how it really looks. All you must do right now is keep looking at the engine and continue to practice drawing it as your eyes see it. You will figure out exactly where to put your pen so that your paper shows what your eyes see. That’s all you have to do. Just draw.”

     The relief spread across his face.

     “Oh! That’s all?” And he went back to drawing the smokebox.

     Now, you probably want to know whether he eventually figured it out, right? (He did.) But, that’s not really the point. It never is because life is fun and rich only when exploration is a consistent offering. Life is fantastic because things are complex, tasks are challenging, people require more of us than we think we have, dreams are too delicious to abandon even though seemingly impossible. The lure of “what if” is irresistible. We all feel this way. We all want the job that challenges, stretches and makes us greater than we imagined.
Life Is Fanstastic Quote
     So why, why, why do we so often offer our children that which we would never willingly embrace: monotonous work that does not inspire, freedom that is more frightening than nurturing, activities that encourage a separation between mind and body, and relationships that lack presence and genuine warmth? Honestly, I don’t know the real answer to my own question. I have an opinion, for what that’s worth. I think it’s fear: fear of intimacy, of our own power, of being “too big for our britches”, of the intensity of living a mindful life and all the vulnerability such a life necessitates (and creates).

     Maybe knowing the answer is important in order to change our behavior; maybe not. Let’s just talk about changing the behavior. How?

     Step 1. Stop talking. I am sorry to be so blunt and those who now me well are probably thinking, “Hello pot, this is kettle!” But really that is the first step. Close your mouth and open your eyes and ears (and heart) the next time a small child is speaking to you (it’s easier to practice this stuff with children because they tend to be very truthful and that is easy on the ears).

     Step 2. Look at him. I mean, really look at his eyes, his mouth, his forehead, his arms gesticulating wildly trying to get you to understand what he wants you to know about him, his world and possibly his current dilemma. You will see a sparkle, a mouth wide open and probably too loud, a forehead filled with eyebrow hair raised nearly to the scalp as he explains how the pile of sand in front of you is your birthday cake and he is going to sing you Happy Birthday, in soprano and off-key. If you really look at him, he will notice. You will see him become aware that he is being seen and, honestly, it might make you cry the first time. The pure joy of a child listened to is the closest thing to God I have ever known. Hands down, these oft-occurring moments are the number one reason I teach.

     Step 3. With all the integrity you have, absorb this child’s words and thoughts. Listen with presence and mindfulness. Don’t think about what you need to do next or after work or next week. Just listen and absorb. This requires great effort at first, but it is a skill that improves with practice. As you listen, your goal is to know this child in this moment. He is showing you who he is, and you must listen without judgment, opinion or self-focus.

Listening Means Quote
     Step 4. When you must respond, respond s-l-o-w-l-y. Adults process language at about 170 words per minute. The average 5- to 7-year old processes only 120 words per minute. (When children aren’t “listening”, try slowing down the pace instead of ramping up the volume.) The child wants to please you and know you. Let him know he has been heard and seen by speaking at a pace he can understand and absorb. Only then, when you can both communicate effectively, can you have a real relationship. I don’t know if research supports me, but my experience has taught me that only in such a relationship can real learning occur.

     When you have experienced a child in this way – with this level of intimacy and relational commitment -, you simply cannot hand him a worksheet to practice his numbers. You can’t do it. You know too much now. You’ve heard the old saying: once you have seen the city from the 30th floor, you never forget that image, even if you must live on the 1st floor ever after. Once you know the fabulously rich and vibrant thinking that happens in the mind and spirit of a young child, worksheets and empty learning are no longer an option. Only now can you call yourself an educator. And only on this platform can an education that empowers occur.

     So, my answer would be no. No, the road would not have twisted so violently. It would have twisted responsively and with authenticity and purpose. I strive to walk that road each day.

© 2015 Shelley Welch