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things I’d forgotten

I used to be a teacher. I stopped being one for many reasons. I have never regretted the decision. But there are aspects about teaching that I used to love and that I forgot.

When I look back on my time in school, I tend to focus on the bad stuff – the pressure, the time constraints, the pupils that needed more discipline or never learned to respect others, the colleagues that were set in their ways and not open for new approaches or ideas, the parents that hovered over their kids and the parents who ignored their children. Every time one of my teaching friends or a family member that is a teacher (quite a few of those in my family…) talks about school, I’m happy I’m not involved anymore.

So far, so good.

This week, from Tuesday night to Friday noon, I was invited to sit in at a youth seminar, with the end in mind of possibly working as a mentor in future seminars. Two days before I was due to go there, I only wanted to crawl under a blanket and bawl my eyes out. I was in total panic mode. I had no idea why I’d agreed to do this. I was scared of not being able to cope, scared of the kids, scared of going out of my little box. Probably that’s what eighteen months of social inactivity and lack of structure do to one. It was totally irrational, but very, very real.

Because I have a wonderful sister and awesome friends, I finally had the courage to leave my comfort zone (and realize how very small that zone has become!) and drive down to the seminar. When I arrived, I heard from the two mentors that the group was not easy to work with, that they were difficult to motivate, that they behaved like teenagers instead of the young adults that they were. That was what I took into the group – a small dose of second-hand wariness and a big helping of fear from myself.

Tuesday night was alright, but I still felt raw. Wednesday was slightly better, but my impression of the young people was still that they kept me at distance and I didn’t feel the inclination to overcome that distance. Thursday brought an external trainer who did some fabulous work with us on body language, voice, self presentation and so on – and suddenly I started to consciously see individual faces. I’d already learned most of the names, but now I started to see individuality as well. I started to ask questions and to listen. I started to joke. I became relaxed. I stopped behaving like a wary teacher and instead saw them equals. I realized that I had myself fallen into the trap that I most hate and always most wish to avoid: I’d taken them as a homogeneous group, not as individual people. And I hadn’t seen past the us-them divide.

Tonight, the last evening, they organized a party. We played games, danced, sang. Some things worked, some things could have been better organized, some people tried to take everyone into the group dynamic, some put themselves apart… the typical group behaviour. And I enjoyed every single moment of it. It was fantastic talking music with some of the guys and exchanging opinions on songs, on sound, on dancing that were often very different from mine, but just as well thought-out and communicated. I loved dancing silly dances with the girls. I loved listening to these young people’s dreams, ideas, thoughts, opinions and I was touched when they listened to me and were interested in what I told them.

I had forgotten how much energy teenagers (and young adults) have. I had forgotten how straightforward and powerful their ideas about their future and about life often are. I had forgotten how strong they are and also how fragile and that there are so many things they still need to learn. I had forgotten that you need to show them respect and interest, and when you do, how easily they open up and how much they share about themselves.

And I had forgotten how much I love, love, LOVE working with young people. I’m not going back to being a teacher, but I won’t forget again how good it feels to be of use to these interesting, lovely, intriguing young plants that are just unfurling their leaves and starting to explore the world. I want to go back to being a mentor and help them grow.

And I want to leave my comfort zone more often. Good things happen when I do.

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I never learned to love poetry

I never learned to love poetry. On the contrary – every time poetry came up at school, all it did was bore us and later on, faintly embarrass us (all that soppy stuff on love and passion! A poem on flowers – yawn! Poetry on dead people! How bizarre. Poetry on wars?! wtf?!?). And always the same questions. ‘What did the poet mean?’ – ‘What rhyming scheme was used?’ – ‘What literary devices can you make out?’ – ‘What is the historical context of this poem?’ – … ENOUGH ALREADY! While I generally read at the same pace as I was able to eat chocolate ice-cream (= very fast) and in amounts that sometimes seemed equally unhealthy to my family, I never touched poetry. I didn’t see what the fuss was about. I didn’t see it until I read Leonard Cohen.

I’d listened to Cohen’s songs since my early teens, and they were some of the first reasons that I really went through the struggle of applying my school-taught English to a specific task (understanding the lyrics; ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ in particular). I’d never considered the lyrics as poetry though. So one day, as I looked through the books in my Dad’s study, I came across a collection of Cohen’s poems. The ones he transformed into song, and even more that were just poems. I sat down on the floor and started reading. By then my English was good enough to get at least the gist of most of them.

And what a gist it was! It blew my brain. There were images that I could see without ever having seen them, sensory explosions in my mind as the written words travelled through my eyes into my brain! And the rhythms… and none of it rhymed or was forced or dealt with any high-brow topic – just a guy talking about the women he had loved, who had left him and who he missed and hated at the same time… just talking about this personal stuff, so very vulnerable and in such simple words, and yet every single thing he said was universal and I could understand it – no, not just understand it, feel it – even though I couldn’t be more of an opposite to him – female, two generations removed, grown up in a different culture and time, not even having really been in love before… And yet, I GOT what he said with every fibre of my bone.

It was a revelation.

I’ve stayed true to the master, and I will defend to the end my opinion that he is one of the greatest poets that ever lived, but he also helped me to appreciate other poets. I’ve bought books full of poetry; anthologies and books by individual poets. I read poetry online. I listen to the poetry of songs. A new poem finds its way into my mailbox every morning and reading it has become a treasured part of my morning routine. Hell, I even write poetry myself! And since that time, the only criterion that I use when approaching a poem is this: does it resonate with me?

That is the only thing you really need to teach about poetry in school: to read a great deal and a great variety and to pay attention to what each poem does with you. All the rest will follow by itself. I wish they’d taught me that. I might not have missed out on years and years of enjoying beauty.

I’d like to read
one of the poems
that drove me into poetry
I can’t remember one line
or where to look

The same thing
happened with money
girls and late evenings of talk

Where are the poems
that led me away
from everything I loved

to stand here
naked with the thought of finding thee

(Leonard Cohen – I’d like to read )