TNQDE: Caring by Curation

It’s been so long since I’ve done an etymology post that I’m sure you all thought I had expended all I had to say on the subject. Not going to happen. Ever. Sorry.  I had a good reason to meditate on a word last week, and I think the etymology is interesting enough to be worthy of  a TNQDE segment.

“curate”

Did you know that this word is both a verb and a noun? It is, in fact, not only the act overseeing and organizing, but also a cleric who assists in the oversight of a parish. Via back-formation, we have another noun form, “curator,” which also refers specifically to the process of managing a museum collection (curiously, the museum-specific sense of “curator” evolved along a different path). All of these words hail from the Latin “curare,” meaning “to care for.” We get another modern word from this verb: “cure,” but the sense is different enough that I won’t add that turn-off to our rabbit trail today.

Curator, in the liturgical sense, as I said, is a back-formation of “curate,” which comes from Middle English curat, which is derived from the Medieval Latin curatus, which in turns comes from the Late Latin cura, meaning “spiritual charge.” Not having an appropriate dictionary for Late Latin on hand, I can’t easily verify this, but my sense of that definition is that it is meant as “having charge of the spiritual well-being of another.” I suspect this, because the original Latin sense of cura is simply “care.”

Curator in the secular, museum-oversight sense, actually comes from the Middle English curatour, meaning “legal guardian.” This term came through the Old French curateur from the Latin curator, meaning “overseer.” Funny how orthography comes full circle, isn’t it?  Curator is a noun derived from the past participle (curatus) of the verb curare, meaning “to take care of,” which is no doubt the same word at the root of cura.

Oversight springs from a tradition of giving care, you see, and the reason this is on my mind is that I’ve been considering my role as an educator. Last week, my kids and I help a bake sale/comic auction/cookbook sale to benefit our local athletic league. The event was born from some of my kids forming a comic club. Their charter: everyone can join and all comics produced will be copied and sold to benefit a charity which will be chosen by active members in turn, beginning with the youngest. They asked for my help to make it happen, and who could possibly say no to that sort of request?

In order to get a more obvious curb appeal and also engage some of my kids who are not inclined to draw comics, I added a bake sale to the event and also a cookbook project: students wrote recipes using two randomly chosen ingredients and I turned the recipes into a cookbook. Given the nature of my program (i.e., utterly insane), I don’t get enough focused attention with kids on individual projects to lead them from draft to finished project. If I can convince them to slap a title and their name on something when they’re done, I consider it a victory. What this translated to for our sale was several hours of tracing over pencil lines too light for the copier to read, typing recipes into a cookbook, scanning and ordering unnumbered pages, and trying to make sense of jumbled directions.

I realized that the work I was doing in those moments was not unlike the work I’ve done with college literary magazines, where my job was to take boatloads of crazy and edit it into art. The only differences are (1) the level of finesse expected in the finished project and (2) the fact that I care about my k-6 authors. (Lit mag authors are, by a disturbingly high percentage, complete tools with ego problems and while this is not a non-existent occurrence among children, children are generally more capable of accepting advice on their work and reproof for rudeness, making them infinitely easier to get along with.) To teach my kids that they are capable of anything they set their minds to, that they matter to me and to their community, all I had to do was polish and organize their work enough for their audience of teachers and parents to be able to make sense of what they had done.  I was curating.

As I pondered the idea of a teacher as curator, I thought back to the original sense of the word and realized that caregiver was a good way of looking at what I was doing. When I pulled out my dictionary and found the spiritual sense of the word, it also struck me as relevant. Sometimes, the best thing I can do for my kids is simply to care about them enough that I am capable of interpreting their work so that a wide audience of their caregivers can appreciate them more fully.

Not to go sappy here, but this feels a little bit like a life-calling to me.

 

To Light a Fire

Friday was my last day of camp for the summer. I’m left with a terrible melancholy. I don’t know if I will ever get to see those kids again, and I already miss them. I’ve missed my school-year kids too, but to be honest with you, this summer was a lesson in how environment impacts relationships. Working in a beautiful place with caring, committed, engaged teachers who love what they do for an organization that made sure we had everything we needed freed me to turn much of my attention to developing relationships with my kids. Now that I’m about to be plunged back into the stifling box of a school cafeteria with one-fourth of the staff (relative to the number of kids) and a corporate funding system that gives me the barest of bare minimums to work with…

But it doesn’t do any good to have the director throw a temper tantrum, does it?

Not that camp was all peaches and cream. I had plenty of moments where the heat and the hiking and the exhaustion were all but overwhelming. Goodness knows I had my moments where I wanted to stick my fingers in my ears and run in circles singing, “I can’t hear you! LALALALA!” One of my kids, for example, had the worst attitude I have ever encountered. He’s a bright kid with a knack for drawing and writing, and he’s a quick wit to boot. If anyone in my group caught on to my habit of sill word play, it was usually him. The moments in which I got to enjoy these wonderful traits, however, were often in the far back of my mind when I was dealing with the fact that he whined about everything and constantly dragged his feet.

“I don’t want to hike.”

“Do we have to fish?”

“I hate those granola bars. Don’t you have anything better?”

“This camp sucks. I hate this place.”

I lost it with him towards the end of camp. I don’t remember where we were going, but I was hanging back trying to cheer him up and get him into the spirit. I was tired myself and struggling against a nasty headache when he announced that he wished he had never been accepted into the camp, and I just lost it.

“You know what?” I said. “I’m sick of hearing about how much you hate this camp. We work our butts off to try to make camp fun for a lot of different kids with a lot of different interests. You say you hate everything, and quite frankly, that hurts my feelings and I’m done listening to it.”

Then I walked away. I caught up with some of the other kids in the group, only glancing over my shoulder often enough to make sure he was still in sight and safe. He walked a little faster when I wasn’t trying to convince him to get his rear in gear, so I just left it at that. He never apologized to me for his attitude and I never apologized to him for getting angry. I didn’t interact with him very much for the rest of the day, which seemed fine by him. The next morning, we were back in our old routine, though he didn’t complain quite as much and I didn’t try quite as hard to persuade him to get engaged.

I’d like to say that I had a miracle moment with him where all of a sudden he saw the light and all of our camp experiences became a wonderland he could enjoy with reckless abandon, but I’d be lying. I struggled with his bad attitude right through the last morning of camp when he moaned that he wanted to go with the other group to do the exact same activity we’d be doing. The whining lasted up to the moment when he realized he might get a chance to build a fire.

What can I say? Fire can burn the grouch out of the worst  of us, myself included. Since you can’t exactly let nine-year-old boys play with matches unsupervised, I worked closely with him and another boy as they tried to work out the best way to build a fire to boil water as some other teams from out group worked out other survival tasks like catching a fish and building a shelter. I love building fires, and the activity turned into a bonding over a common interest that had the three of us laughing and collaborating on a level I hadn’t managed to achieve with this particular student all summer.

We were supposed to build a one-match fire, on the premise that we were surviving a shipwreck with limited supplies. Our kit had more like thirty matches, fortunately, because we were working with damp wood and windy conditions. It took us all the matches save one to get that darned thing going, but get it going we did. When the smoking leaves suddenly caught the twigs, which eventually spread their warmth out to the larger sticks, the three of us could have been mistaken for a laughing pack of hyenas.

The joy did not carry so far into the day as to induce this child to dance at our pizza party or swim during swim time or share during our closing circle. I doubt that it will break through his tightly held shell of pretended coolness anytime soon. This kid is a geek who hasn’t yet learned that being a geek is awesome, and at this point all I can do is hope that some memory of camp will eventually contribute to him learning to love living in his own way. I think much of my frustration with him stemmed from the fact that I have lived most of my life in his tiny, scared shoes and I still didn’t know how to draw him out to dance barefoot in the grass. It takes more than one small pan of fire-boiled water to release a person from that kind of fear. I know that, believe me.

And yet…when we were shooing the kids onto the buses for the final time, this boy hung back from the rest to look up at me with a grin that split his face in two. “I’m definitely coming back to visit, Miss Melissa.”

“You’d better.”

Did I mention that I already miss my kids?

 

 

Six Boys Against a Boat

The big idea around the camp the last few weeks has been “opting in.” As the summer winds to an end, we’re all feeling a bit frayed around the edges. The bug bites and bruises that patchwork our skin are so extensive that we don’t look tan so much as mottled. The fatigue from hiking miles every day is building up in our muscles and our minds. The newness of exciting activities like boating is wearing off and kids are dragging their feet. No matter what the activity is, there are always a half dozen kids whining that they just want to… (insert some non-available activity here). I know how they feel, to be honest, but as a counselor, my job is to trick them into thinking they’re having an awesome time until they actually do start having an awesome time, which means that I have to act like I’m having an awesome time even if my head is about to explode from frustration, exhaustion, dehydration, etc.

This is why I ended up captaining a canoe with six crowded and cranky boys last Wednesday.

I wanted to go out in a canoe because we were boating in the morning and I wasn’t wearing my swimsuit. Going out in the kayaks means you will get soaking wet. Period. In a canoe, at least, the counselor sits on the seat up out of the water pooling in the bottom of the boat, so I had half a chance of staying mostly dry. I meant to take two boys who were excited about being in my boat, but as we were getting ready, I discovered that there were two other boys who didn’t really want to go out. I talked them into coming with me. Four boys wouldn’t be so bad, I figured. It would allow them to sit in the center in their own section of the boat so everyone would have room to paddle and maneuver.

The trouble is that we were so slow getting our act together that we were the last ones to leave the beach, and there were two boys left who didn’t have a boat. The boating staffer (oh, so helpfully) said, “You can fit six in a canoe,” and that was that. I couldn’t possibly tell these two children that they’d have to go out alone with one of the boating staff when I still had room in my boat, so in they came, regardless of my lack of confidence in my ability to handle a very tippy boat bursting with uncomfortable children.

What’s wrong with uncomfortable children, you ask? They fidget. They shift around. In a car, this might result in other children becoming annoyed with the fidgeting child. In a canoe that has two children sitting side-by-side in every compartment, each little fidget sends the boat keeling dangerously close to tipping over. As someone who spent a great deal of time fidgeting in a canoe as a child, I know the canoes are more stable than they feel. I also know, however, exactly how much it takes to send one rolling. (Not all that much.)

Unfortunately, the cranky children who weren’t all that excited about going out in the boats soured the mood of the other kids and our rolling canoe was filled with shouts of “We’re going to tip!” and “I hate boating.” I tried to lighten the mood by offering a song, but the kindest response I got was, “Fine, we’ll listen to your song.” I tried to make a game out of the rolling motion by calling out “Lean left! Lean right” It might have worked…if they actually knew their left from their right. “Lean right! No…your other right!” was not the best game. We stayed afloat primarily because I outweigh your average fourth grader by a wide margin.

In my next attempt to turn the ride into a fun memory, I steered the boat over toward the shore we could look for frogs sunning themselves on lily pads. The ploy might actually have worked, if I hadn’t forgotten an important difference between a kayak with three people and a canoe with seven: minimal water depth. We did not find any frogs, but we found a large formation of rocks lurking right beneath the surface. Sadly, instead of being filled with awe at the wonder of geology, they added another item to their list of cries. “We’re going to tip!” “I hate boating!” “We’re going to be stuck here forever!”

In all reality, it did take me perhaps longer than it should have to figure out that I could push the paddle against the lake bottom to set us free, but you have to give me a break. Gracefully navigating a canoe heavy with unhelpful hands takes practice that I have not had–a fact which came home to me when nature saw my struggles to entertain the kids and lent me a hand. We had been free of the rocks for a few minutes and were lumbering (yes, I wouldn’t have thought it possible either, but canoes can be made to lumber) slowly away from shore to the music of our complaint chorus when the wind stole my hat. It flipped quite gracefully off my head and around a loop-de-loop before landing about six inches out of reach.

What would have been a simple distance to navigate in a kayak became the torment of Tantlus in a loaded canoe. I made the mistake of leaning out to stretch my arm…all of the kids on the hat-side of the boat leaned to and it was only by the scared and frantic leanings of the kids on the hat-free side of the boat that we did not topple. Our next effort was to paddle the boat in a circle to get closer to the hat…if we were actually getting any closer, it was by tiny spiraling increments that could not be observed by our reaching arms. Each turn seemed only to swamp the hat further, sending it sinking beneath the surface.

My last ditch effort was to coordinate our efforts to paddle away from the hat, turn around, and approach it in a straight line. As I  called out “Paddle on the left!” I suddenly realized that I wasn’t hearing the complaints anymore. The boys were laughing and smiling and working as a team. We managed to sail up right next to the hat so the boy in the front could snag it with the handle of his paddle. It traveled from the bow to the stern to shouts and laughter as it dripped profusely on everyone until the boy sitting closest to me deposited it, sopping wet, onto my head, just in time for us to hear the “all in” whistle.

With our new attitudes and spirit of teamwork, we managed to make it into shore without any close calls with swimming. We even had the satisfaction of being the first boat back, by virtue of never having gotten very far of course, but to hear my crew tell it, we won a neck and neck race against the speediest boaters in the camp. I was pleased to see that they were laughing and smiling as they told their friends and the other counselors about the “worst boat trip ever.”

And all it took was an epic struggle against nature and a laugh at my expense.

 

The Stick and the Carrot

I’ve been told by other teachers that once you yell at a kid, you’ve lost. At that point, supposedly, they realize there is nothing else you can do to them. I suspect this is true under two conditions: (1) the child is a repeat offender whose exposure to the words “or else” has been greater than the length of his short-term memory, (2) the person doing the yelling stinks at poker.

Yesterday, in an amazingly bad turn of events, I ended up being in charge of dragging 26 hot, tired, cranky children from the bathrooms to the swimming area (a substantial hike across a very busy trail) with the support of two of our assistant counselors. That ratio would seem like a dream in a classroom, perhaps, but a classroom is not a summer camp. The appropriate ratio of adult to child in order to maintain order at camp, when the group is wandering all over the place, is 1:6. 1:8.66 might not seem like that big a difference, but trust me. It is. It’s the difference between order and chaos.

It was inevitable that someone was going to push me to use my scary voice.

Now that I think of it, there maybe a difference between scary voice and yelling. Hollering at a child from a distance never, ever, ever works. Children are excellent at pretending to not hear you. What is extremely effective, I discovered yesterday, is getting uncomfortably close to their face, looking them in the eyes, and saying in the best “Imma cut you” tone you can muster, “You do not want to mess with me right now.” You might need to follow it up with some plausible explanation of why this usually soft and cuddly counselor is hovering on the brink of insanity, such as, “I have to keep too many children safe right now to put up with this behavior.” If you do that, the child will probably require a reiteration of what you expect them to do. “Start walking,” “Hands to yourself,” etc.

If you don’t get a response, you might want to practice your “Crazy-but-also-deadly-serious” face in the mirror a few times. Ninety-eight percent of all children can be bluffed into action, with perhaps only five percent requiring some follow-up conversation. Fortunately for me, yesterday, the two percent who would have seen the gaping hole behind my bluff (namely, that I’m not exactly allowed to pick them up and throw them over my shoulders or throw them in jail for contempt of counselor) were responsible for the incident that required our director and two other counselors to be away from the group reinventing the Code of Hammurabi and were therefore with the other adults, not with my group.

I think the other factor that makes the scary voice effective is knowing when to use it. Kids want  to have their grievances heard. Scary voice is a tool for shutting them down in circumstances when taking the time to listen compassionately to the issue behind the behavior problem is going to endanger the safety of the rest of the group. If you’ve told the group to start walking and everyone but Child X complies, eager to get to swimming, you can’t take the ten minutes you need to persuade Child X, who is sitting on the ground sulking, to tell you all about it while the group walks. You need Child X to start walking thirty seconds ago, before Child Eager Beaver at the head of the line got out of sight and hearing range without noticing you were stuck at the back.

For scary voice to be effective, I think kids have to understand that you are usually a reasonable person who is more than happy to spend twenty minutes listening to their woes. If the scary voice comes out every time a child is acting up, you will lose the battle, if only because their short memories will start to register that scary voice is rarely followed by consequences. (And don’t even get me started on consequences. How is it that, speaking of Hammurabi, human law has been codified for thousands of years, yet teachers and parents seem to have to reinvent the legal system every time we encounter bullying?) Bluffing doesn’t work if the kids know for sure you don’t have an ace.

I was lucky, yesterday, that in the face of several minor medical emergencies and several large behavioral ones that my poker face scary voice never lost its power. Possibly it helped that I really was on the brink of a nuclear meltdown. Kids can sense that, and they’re smart enough to not want to be at the epicenter of the explosion.

Also, and this is just a hunch, but I think my case might have been helped by the fact that I was carrying all the ukuleles. Buy some. They’re better than sticker charts.

 

The Tick Whisperer

At my first in-person interview for my camp job, my soon-to-be-bosses asked me if I was okay with handling bugs and slimy things and such. “Oh sure,” I said. “No problem.” Cue laugh track.

As my husband and my sister Cho will gladly tell you, if there is a crawly thing of any sort in my personal space, it takes me about one-tenth of a second to be up on the furniture screeching for somebody else to kill it quickly. I am not actually okay with handling bugs and slimy things and such. Not that I meant to lie in the interview, but you know how interviews can be. Sometimes you’re so eager for a job that you start playing the yes-man and don’t realize until it’s too late to backtrack what you just said about yourself.

The blessing about this situation is that I’m discovering a capacity for growth in myself. Also, there’s a reason they invented sticks and kids. There’s not really any reason for me to ever touch anything vile. Kids love picking up frogs and crickets–most other bugs can be persuaded to hang out on a stick while we pass it around. On the first day of camp, we actually found and identified a female dog tick. Ticks of any sort are one of the worst for me to deal with: they fill up like a darn balloon with sucked blood, for pete’s sake, and if you’re not careful about removing them you can end up with a head embedded in your body, spreading infection. If that’s not creepy, I don’t know what is. And yet, I found myself coaxing the tick onto a stick so I could show her off to my fascinated little group.

On Monday, as we were getting our shoes on after swimming, my kids all started pointing at me and exclaiming, “Melissa, there’s a bug on you!” It was on my back–that is definitely in my space–and the kids thought it was a tick. The mark of my growth is that the kids experience this:

instead of this:

The bug (which was a shiny gold beetle, not a tick–the kids think all unfamiliar bugs are ticks) lived to tell the tale, believe it or not, because I’m trying to encourage them to respect nature. We’re are guests in the homes of the spiders, the beetles, and the ticks; it is permissible to pick the bugs up and examine them, but only if we do it gently for short periods of time before returning them to the place we found them. We kill nothing, except perhaps for mosquitoes, primarily because if I let them kill anything, they’d kill everything, up to and possibly including each other. Bugs receive mercy outside.

To all you insects and bugs who may be reading this, let me clarify: this rule holds true only in the great outdoors. If you invade my home and bite me or eat my food, I will take no quarter. You will die a horrible death by crushing, most likely at the hand of someone else while I stand at a safe distance and squeal.

Lessons for a New Teacher

My first year as an educator came to an end last week. In a training I attended on Saturday, one of the facilitators asked us to take a moment to consider how we would name our roles in the world of education. It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? The idea that still resonated most strongly with me is “were-sheep.” I already wrote about that, though, so you’ll have to read the old post to get caught up.

I’ve learned a lot this year that you don’t learn in the process of spinning extended metaphors, however, and I haven’t had the chance yet to look at some of those lessons to see how they compare to this ideal in my mind. Maybe you can all take a look at what I’ve learned and help me name my role. Here are a few thoughts, in no particular order:

Lesson 1: Kids will not hear you over their own ruckus if you don’t raise your voice from time to time.

Lesson 2: Most of the time it might not be a bad thing for their development if you let them run a little crazy, but if they aren’t trained to respond to you quickly under normal circumstances, they won’t respond in an emergency.

Lesson 3: Hand-clap signals are like magic, for the first week of school. Once kids figure out what they’re for, however, they’re a lot less interested in playing along.

Lesson 4: Kids who are hungry or uncomfortable have a hard time following directions and getting along with others.

Lesson 5: Sometimes giving a kid what they need most is the hardest thing to do, especially when what they need is to sit alone and cry.

Lesson 6: Every kid wants to be the hero.

Lesson 7: You have the power to give kids opportunities to be heroes.

Lesson 8: Kids do not believe that life isn’t fair, but they’ll cheat like hardened criminals.

Lesson 9: Kids are not fragile, unless they belong to someone else and you have legal responsibility for their safety.

Lesson 10: If it’s messy, kids will participate.

Lesson 11: Kids are much more likely to read if you bribe them with ice cream.

Lesson 12: The kids who most cause you to spend time banging your head against the wall are the ones that burrow deepest into your heart.

Lesson 13: They are so worth it. All of them are worth all of it.

Lesson 14: Having kids part-time works for me.

Lesson 15: Parachutes are awesome.

Lesson 16: If you don’t tether kids with inappropriate winter footwear to something out of the reach of deep snowbanks, you will spend half an hour digging a ballet shoe out of frozen snow.

Lesson 17: Kids are way more competent than you give them credit for.

Lesson 18: Kids have way less common sense than you give them credit for.

Lesson 19: Kids have much better memories than you do, so if you make them a promise, write it down. If you forget, you will hear about it for the REST OF YOUR LIFE.

Lesson 20: What goes up might not actually come back down until the wind blows it off a roof and a custodian finds it halfway across the school grounds.

Lesson 21: You will never find all the beads or marbles. Never.

Lesson 22: Listening is harder than talking. It’s also more useful.

I know I’ve learned many more things, some probably more important than some of what I’ve put up here. I’m fairly certain that I’ve learned more from the kids than I’ve managed to teach to them, and I hope I’ve taught them at least the beginnings of more than 22 useful lessons. Or not…

So what do you think, friends? Does anyone have a good idea about what I should call my role as an educator? I am all ears.

Excuses, Excuses

Today, I have a headache. When I was a kid, this used to be an excuse for all sorts of things…getting out of P.E., going to school, doing some loud activity that might take me away from a book. It was a valid excuse for me in circumstances I think it wouldn’t be for others because I was content to sit quietly and read while everyone else carried on. As a teacher now, I realize that the teachers in my life probably knew when I was faking, but they let me get away with it because I would use my freedom from activities I deemed stupid to read.

I have a few kids who like to claim headaches during, of all things, reading time. It started at the beginning of the year with one kid who would come in from the gym or the playground with a headache every single day. Initially, I was concerned. I watched him to make sure he was getting enough water to drink to avoid dehydration. I let him rest on another rug while the other kids read. I mentioned the incident to his parents, who validated my concern by taking him to a neurologist, as he’s apparently been complaining of these headaches all the time.

When the tests came back clear, I continued to keep a close eye on him, but I started to notice something when I began to make a habit of letting someone else do the read-aloud for the younger kids. As soon as my back was turned, my headache-stricken kid would belly-crawl over to the Lego bin, secure a few, and start playing with them where he thought I couldn’t see. Curiouser and curiouser, no sooner would I declare the end of reading time than this kid would be up and running as if he’d never felt ill a day in his life.

I put my foot down the next day and told him that if he needed to lie down, he could rest on the reading rug and listen to the read-aloud. I have never met a child who was more adverse to even so much as verbal exposure to the written word. He started kicking up such a horrible ruckus, whining about his headache and protesting that he couldn’t possibly listen to the story that it started a chain reaction. The next thing I knew, I had three more kids tugging at my hand and curling up on the floor, declaring that they too had headaches and couldn’t listen to the story.

I don’t remember quite how I handled it, back at the beginning of the year as it was. I don’t remember if I enforced an extended reading time for the kids who were so disruptive or if reading time that day dissolved into unrecoverable chaos–both things have happened for various reason throughout the year. I’m sure which way it went was largely dependent on whether I myself had much of a headache, because that’s the kick in the stomach, isn’t it? A headache can pretty powerfully detract from your ability to function, but as an adult, it’s not really a valid excuse to get out of, say work or even blogging. In a bit of irony, I never had a headache that got me out of cleaning when I was a kid, but as an adult, cleaning is about the only thing a headache will get me out of.

What I would really like to know, now, is if I promise to sit quietly and read a book and not bother anyone or make anyone go out of their way to make sure I’m not getting into any trouble…can I please not go back to work today? I have a headache.