The layover

Today was my daughter’s last day of first grade.  Yesterday, when we were walking past the first grade hall toward the second grade hall for her “meet the teacher” night, Emma Grace said to me “Mom.  I don’t want to leave first grade” and then she slowly reached over and grabbed my hand, gave it a squeeze, and took a deep breath.  I had to smile—remembering that our car ride to the school had featured several Beatles songs, including “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”  At that moment, those lyrics had such a different meaning.

Following the “meet the teacher,” we went out to ice cream.  While we were ordering, the girl behind the counter was making conversation with us.  She looked at Emma Grace and said:  “What grade are you in?”  Emma Grace started to answer, stopped, looked at me and said, “I’m in between.”

I know a number of people “in between” right now.  I just returned from a trip to Seattle where I attended my brother’s engagement party. I was able to celebrate that inherently “in between” space of engagement with my brother Drew and his fiancé, Heather. Yet so many other people I know are “in between.”  Heather’s family is in between homes. I have a good friend from high school who is in between jobs.  My daughter is in between grades.  I have another friend who just got into a relationship and is in between the status of single and committed. I have another friend who is in between relationships. I am in between academic years.

In between… kind of like a layover in an airport. Coming home from Seattle, I had a layover in Washington DC (after a red eye flight during which I got very little sleep).  Perhaps it was the sleeplessness, lack of coffee, or the process of traveling 3000 miles.  Regardless, I was feeling like I had lost my balance.  It was almost as if I had stepped into space and was standing there waiting to see if gravity would appear.  To cope, I planted myself right next to a large cement pole, hoping it would find a way to hold me up.  Layovers are difficult.  You have to try to figure out how to get from one place to another while in a space that is completely foreign (usually).  They can be exciting.  But the transition is often difficult. And having the time to find a cement pole is not always possible.

What if we considered the classroom (essentially) a transitional place?  It is a layover between where students were and where they are going. They’ve left somewhere and are headed somewhere else and stop, for a brief intermission, with us.  But here is the question—where are they headed?  Where is their final destination?  For some students, they would probably say a job is the final destination.  Perhaps other students have a more narrowly defined view and would say “passing” is their arrival point.  I like to think I lead them to a different intellectual space.  Arrival is not a grade, but a state of mind.  But I’m not sure they always get that.  Still, they come to me, momentarily, transitioning.

Given this, how can we–as teachers– capture them and stop them so that they actually learn something within this transitional space?

I grew up selling fireworks. This is the reason I love the 4th of July.  Every week before the 4th of July from my earliest memories as a child I camped out (either with my family when I was younger or on my own as I got older) in a fireworks stand and sold fireworks.  I literally focused solely and completely on selling people items that go up in flames.  Talk about an ephemeral, transitional experience.  I lived in a parking lot (an inherently transitional space) and watched people move from one part of their life to another.  I caught people “in between”—in between grocery shopping and home, in between work and happy hour, in between their house and a friend’s house for a party.  And I tried to capture them for a moment, to persuade them to buy something they would ultimately burn.

Yet for the kids who came to buy fireworks, the hope for a momentary flash of light was enough to widen their eyes and capture their attention.  The hope for “12-15 feet high, lots of colors, and a really cool sound at the end” (which is what we told them) was enough to make them forget about where they were headed or where they had been.  The brilliance captured them and often left them, literally, speechless.

What if I tried to do that as a teacher?  What if I spent my time trying to stop the students –momentarily—so that they could see something brilliant and forget about being “in between” freshman and sophomore year, “in between” high school and a “real job?” When I’ve tried to do this, in the past, students have sometimes struggled with it.  They have sometimes resisted it.  Yet every once in a while, something profound happens and students can do nothing else but pay attention.  Those are the wonderful times.  And those are the times that require my fullest attention.  I can think of nothing else when I am in those moments.  My challenge during those tender transitional spaces is significant.  I have to instinctively know when to light the fuse and when to stand as the cement pole.

As I walk through my summer “in between” 2009/2010 and 2010/2011, I am mindful that perhaps “arriving” is a facade.  Perhaps transition is the norm. I am struck by the excitement of transitional spaces and, at the same time, touched by the tenderness of those spaces.  I need to remember this duality when I walk into the classroom in August.

I cleaned out my daughter’s 1st grade backpack tonight and found her writing journal.  The entry dated today, June 30th, read:  “Dear mom and dad:  I love you more than Creepy [a stuffed animal she prizes—it is bigger than her, she got it for $2.00 at a garage sale, and it continuously makes her laugh because it really does look ‘creepy’—hence the name] because you are always here for me when I need you.  Like last night, mom, when I woke up in the middle of the night and had growth pains in my legs and you put a wet towel on them and made me feel better.”

Nicely put, Emma Grace. We all need teachers to metaphorically gently squeeze our hands and give us exactly what we need during that layover when we are waiting for gravity to appear.  Transitional spaces are difficult.  There are growth pains.  Yet amidst the angst, uncertainty, and (at times) pain that comes with transitional spaces, I have to believe that if I am willing to take the risk of stopping and looking, there is potential for all to see and feel the brilliance of the lights.

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