Tattoos and Souvenirs*

I have never felt compelled to get a tattoo.  I’m not against them.  I’ve just never felt the need.

First, I don’t really like pain.  I can deal with it.  But why, if I don’t have to?  Second, there has never really been anything so significant to me that I’d be willing to have a drill-like contraption insert a needle thousands of times into my skin in order to dispense ink. Finally, tattoos are permanent! Why make a design or word or picture permanent when tomorrow or next week or next year I might move beyond it?

Nope, tattoos have never been much of an interest.

That is. . . until recently.

Last year I participated as a faculty member in the Gonzaga in Cagli Program.  I spent 6 weeks in Italy, most of the time in the town of Cagli (a small town in the Le Marche region) and was fortunate enough to have my daughter with me for the full time.  The experience was nothing short of life changing (see Towers, Tunnels and Ridges; Threshholds and Affogato, per favore).  At the end of the program, a student came up with an idea.  Get a tattoo of the latitude and longitude coordinates of Cagli, Italy, placed on your hip so that your legs will always know to take you back.

Now that is compelling.

“Got another one, mom!”

“Another what, buggie?”

“A souvenir!”

“Is it a good one?”

“Yeah, this one will be around for a while….”

“Need a band aid?”

“Nope, gotta go.  I’m gonna make this skateboard FLY!”

Ever since Emma Grace could walk, we’ve called bruises, scrapes or cuts “souvenirs.”  As a way to help get over the causal event (e.g., a fall or bump), the souvenir helps remind us of the fun we were having when it happened.  It is a paradox a child can and will beautifully accept:  pain and joy coexist.  Some souvenirs last a very long time, and we are reminded in evolving colorful ways of the fun and happiness that inspired them.  Others go away quickly and we lament that we have to remember our experience in other ways.

At first, Emma Grace didn’t quite buy the idea of the souvenir—all she could see or feel was the pain of the scrape or bruise or cut.  But over time, she came around and through those big elephant tears that would roll down her face, she’d manage a choked up “souvenir” as we looked at the mark.  For a while I could tell she was just going through the motions, but over time, she would take the reigns after the incident.  She would start to talk about the fun, even through tears.  She would wonder, aloud, how many different colors this souvenir would produce for us to watch.  She would show me souvenirs instead of me reminding her.

Emma Grace is old enough now that the souvenirs are less dramatic and tear producing; rather, they evidence a sort of inside agreement established over time about how we will walk through pain.  The concept has sunk in.  She gets it– fully.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to learn something.  Recently, I’ve been thinking about what it means to really learn something.  To finally “get it” in a way that is beyond going through the motions.  To learn something so fully that it becomes part of who you are, burned into your mind so clearly that it cannot be easily forgotten.  To learn deeply.

What does it mean to learn deeply?

This is the time of year for final projects, theses, dissertations, and graduation—the time when teachers render judgment on how well students have learned content and, in fact, if those students are competent enough to move forward to the next step in their path—whether that be the next course, the next degree, or the next job.  But how do I, as a teacher, know those students have learned –really learned—beyond going through the motions of memorizing for the test or following the guidelines for writing the paper or completing the project?  How do I know that they have learned deeply in a way that is lasting?

In some cases I have no idea whether the students learn beyond the motions.  And in other cases, I actually do know.

So I decided to do a bit of detective work.  I thought through those cases where it became absolutely clear to me that students “got it”—that they learned fully and deeply in a way that would last.  I also thought through my own learning processes and the times I have learned deeply.  What I found was this: in the cases where it is absolutely clear to me that a student has learned deeply and fully, there was some form of disruption in the learning process.  And indeed, the same is true of my own learning.  In the cases where I have learned deeply, disruption was a guest at the party (admittedly, not a guest who RSVP’d ahead of time, but a guest nonetheless).

What counts as disruption? Perhaps it is a class activity that brings about unexpected outcomes or emotions.  Or it could be an interaction that is particularly difficult, an assignment that causes great stress, or some feedback that leaves you feeling a bit broken.  Perhaps it is a life situation that brings you to your knees, a current event that rattles you, or a relationship that causes pain.  As I think through these potential moments of disruption, it strikes me that not all of them are fun.  In fact, many of them are the antithesis of fun.

According to the dictionary, disruption means: “to break apart,” “to throw into disorder,” and to “interrupt the normal course or unity.”  So I guess it makes sense that disruptions are not fun.  Chaos is not fun.  Interruptions make you pause.  Breaking apart typically results in some form of difficulty.

Yes, disruptions are not always fun.  They can cause you to lose your balance.  And sometimes fall.  They can be painful.

There was an earthquake in Raleigh a couple of years ago.  I was in my office meeting with a student.  All of a sudden the building was moving.  Now, my office is in an old brick textiles building.  It has its problems with heat and air and leaking water, but it is nothing short of sturdy.  So when the building started moving, I was left speechless—the building was moving.  The building was moving?  Yes, the building was moving. It was indeed a disruption.  For that brief moment, nothing seemed stable.  The assumptions I operated on every day were called into question.  The building was moving.   I could do nothing.  For a moment, I was paralyzed.

If moments of disruption are accompanied by moments of paralysis, how can they create a fertile ground for deep learning?  And how is it that you can learn deeply during times when the world is moving and you are off balanced, spinning, and perhaps even falling?  It would seem that in these moments, learning would be impossible.  Or if not impossible, learning would not be natural.  Stopping would be natural.  Paralysis seems predictable.

I run for may reasons.  But when I strip away all the standard reasons (to stay healthy, to achieve a goal, to have a quiet space, etc.) and ask myself what it is about running that draws me, I land here:  running, by definition, is about moving forward.  Unless you are on a treadmill (which most runners would suggest probably isn’t “real” running), running is about moving one foot in front of the other.  Motion.  Forward motion.  You can’t be running and not moving.

Perhaps disruption is about acknowledging and attending to motion.  When you are driving in a car at the exact same speed as another car next to you, if you look at the person in the other car it can seem as if that person is not moving.  That is, unless you see something that is not moving (like a house you are passing) or something that is moving faster or slower than you (another car).  Perhaps disruption is the house or car that makes you realize the motion you are in; providing the opportunity to understand that motion in relationship to the world around you.  Disruption—in breaking apart, throwing into disorder and interrupting normal—shows you when and where you are, why and where you move; begging the question: how are you moving through this world?

So perhaps the disruptions bring to us the possibility of previously unrecognized motion—seeing the bird’s eye view of how and where you are moving.  The teaching activity that brings up unpredictable outcomes and emotions could allow you to recognize where you are as a teacher or learner:  the assumptions you bring to the classroom, the presumptions you make about education. The life situation that brings you to your knees and makes learning difficult could make you recognize where you want to put your energy. The difficult interaction has the possibility of showing you what matters to you and probably more importantly, what does not matter.  The pressure of finals or a thesis or a dissertation could show you where and when you are vulnerable.

Yet I’m not sure deep learning happens automatically when disruption arrives at the party.  Pausing and recognizing the disruption and its aftermath; answering the question about the you that is in motion, well that—I think—is what learning deeply is about.

Disruptions happen.  When they do, we can dismiss them or we can take notice, attending to motion and asking:  who am I and how am I moving through this world?

Answering that question is sometimes not easy.  Sometimes, at least for me, it is painful and often it is humbling.  Sometimes I realize that there are parts of me in motion that I do not really care for.  Other times I see joy and energy I didn’t realize existed.  When I do the work, taking a look closely at the souvenirs that I am left with, I see things I hadn’t seen before:

  • I like control and have no problem wielding it when feeling lost.
  • Laughter can immediately change the game.
  • I am incredibly unsettled when I feel like I have to defend myself.
  • I am not afraid to speak my truth.
  • I crave resolution.
  • Kindness, gentleness, and grace are gifts I want to give freely and often.
  • I am less tolerant of policies when someone is experiencing pain.
  • Taking a risk can open up amazing possibilities.
  • I can and want to share light and energy.
  • Doubt does not mean failure.
  • Bitterness and judgment are hardening; forgiveness is life giving
  • Love wins.

These are but a few.  And yes, these souvenirs will be around for a while.  I’m sure of it.

In the next couple of weekends, countless students will be walking through ritual that is graduation:  walking across stages, processing to “Pomp and Circumstance,” shaking the hands of deans or department heads, and celebrating the codified ending of a learning experience.  For those of you graduating, you each have different stories and varied experiences.  Some of you might have run a difficult path, filled with all kinds of challenges and obstacles.  Others might have sailed smoothly through this phase of education.  Still others might have had a bit of a roller coaster ride—some high highs filled with joy and some low lows filled with pain and frustration.

After you walk across that stage you officially end this point in your life.  Before you leave the party, though, spend some time sitting with, talking to, engaging, and being curious about the disruptions in your learning and in your life.  This does not mean reframing those disruptions or making them better by glossing over them.  They are what they are.  What it means is acknowledging the moments when something caused chaos, broke apart, or interrupted normal; being willing to sit with those moments and hear what they tell you about who you are and how you move through the world.  You might just have souvenirs from some of them.  Take a look.  If you do, I hope you can see into all that is there.

Each of these moments of disruption can be moments of deep learning. The moments of deep learning have coordinates– in the form of a token or picture or memory or phrase or person or place or a song or a smell or gift.  The moments of deep learning do not simply disappear.  They leave a mark.  You know where they are.

Learning deeply is not easy.

But it is worth it.

43° 33′ 0″ / 12° 39′ 0″

What are the coordinates of deep learning for you? Notice.  Mark them. Remember them. Inscribe them and keep them safely in a place that will allow you—as you move forward and fly—to always come back.

Tattoos of the heart.

Now that is compelling.

*dedicated to all those graduating Spring 2013

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