Keeping the stories going remembering a dear friend

Bird Droppings June 3, 2021
Keeping the stories going remembering a dear friend

In years gone by I would visit, take photos and offer my two cents at the Foxfire Approach to Teaching Course put on by Piedmont College for graduate students and teachers already in the classroom in Mountain City Georgia. This course had been an elective graduate class of Piedmont College’s Education Department. The experience with Foxfire for me is almost addicting. One Monday afternoon a few years back as I made my way home in the pouring rain from Black Rock mountain I had been invigorated by the discussion and interactions of teachers and teachers to be. Within the course we talk about the positive aspects and negative pieces as well as we look at the Foxfire Core Practices. As always I would come away excited about teaching and education. About eight years ago as the students finished their final assessment of the program and turned them in, Dr. Hilton Smith handed each a piece of paper. My first thought was they are getting a Foxfire course completion certificate. Later as we were leaving Sara, Hilton’s wife and often co-teacher handed the sheet to me and said I might enjoy the thought. Today as I remember a dear friend it is so poignant.

Musings from the Mountain by Kaoru Yamamoto,
The Educational Forum, Vol. 53, No. 3, 1989
“I am told that everyone needs to feel the exhilaration of being the cause of things, of making a difference. No doubt such experience boosts one’s self esteem and confirms personal significance. To grow up healthy, children should certainly taste the nectar of the sense of control, power and accomplishment. However among most grownups engaged in ministering or teaching activities, the caring and guiding take on a far less direct form, given the fact they are interacting with other human beings who have their own minds and live their respective, intimate contexts. Teachers’ function is often likened to that of a catalyst and for many purposes the metaphor seems apt. Nevertheless certain aspects of the analogy need to be kept in mind lest these helpers should become much too self-important and or frustrated. Good catalysts are seldom precious metals or stones that call attention to themselves. Theirs is a not a life of acclaim, even as their presence at the critical time and place is making a difference. They will not be a visible part of the resultant changes they are left behind, unaltered and typically forgotten. It takes a person secure in one’s self to continue to serve in such an unsung capacity. The essence of this unique contribution was beautifully captured by the late Chief Dan George in yet another analogy. ‘The sunlight dies not leaving its marks on the grass. So we too should pass silently’”

I have read through this paragraph many times over the years and each time found a bit more. Today I am pondering nearly forty years plus of knowing a person. We never truly know each other as we always tend to withhold pieces of our own puzzle even from friends.

“It takes a person secure in one’s self to continue to serve in such an unsung capacity.” Kaoru Yamamoto

While we would disagree often on some topics we agreed on many more. As I think about my friend and how many times we shared stories of family, current and past students, politics, religion, art and always sheep shows a tear comes to my eye. So many times she would stop by my room and “borrow” stuff, an ugly face jug, a animal skull, my huge eland mount, sometimes a live animal and occasionally she would ask could I print this seemingly impossible jpeg out for her. I read her note to me from my retirement several times yesterday as I thought and wondered what do I say or think.

I was glancing through several books this morning one the autobiography of the founder of the Foxfire program, who came into this idea purely by chance. Over the past several years I have talked to many of his former students and all consider him one of the best and or the best teachers they have ever had. For nearly forty years I have watched as enthusiastic young teachers start out and within six months are doing as so many others do printing out worksheets and going page by page through the text book. Looking at these words I thought of my friend.

“As always there is a high ground in the middle. On this knoll gather those teachers who are determined to preserve their spirit and their love for the field. Most of these individuals like myself have a credo that goes something like this: The profession of teaching is exactly that – a profession, not an avocation or a hobby or a marriage of convenience. Because of its goals and its potential; to achieve those goals, I selected it. It did not come knocking on my door. I was searching for a way to be of real service, and I found and choose this field; I believed then as I do now, that this is a profession of honor and true merit, and though I may not remain in it for all of my working days, it will continue to deserve and receive my best.” Elliot Wigginton, Sometimes a shining moment, 1986

I could envision my friend saying something very similar. She loved teaching and loved her students. Some might have argued no way she was concerned about them but I always knew better and as an advisor I sent her some winners for art class. As I thought about my research and readings and having also had this teacher work for me outside of the teaching profession in graphic arts for a year or two I could see her repeating Elliot Wigginton’s words as her mantra.

“I was searching for a way to be of real service, and I found and choose this field”

I have shared with her that almost immediately you can pick the teachers out who are simply along for the ride. They do what is necessary because they feel this will never impact their teaching. Then there are a few who see beyond the forced upon mandates from county, state and federal standards, regulations and testing parameters and can see that there is a “fire in the bathroom” borrowing from Kathleen Cushman’s book. This is my friend.

“Wanted: One teacher. Must be able to listen even when mad; Must have a sense of humor; must not make students feel bad about themselves; must be fair and not treat some students better than others; must know how to make schoolwork interesting; must keep some students from picking on others; must take a break sometimes; must not jump to conclusions; must let students know them; must get to know students; must encourage students when they have a hard time; must tell students if they do a good job or try real hard; must not scream; must not call home unless it is real important; must smile; must help students with their problems if they ask; must not talk about students to other people; if it’s a lady must be good looking.” Eighth and ninth grade students, from the introduction to Kathleen Cushman’s, Fire in the bathroom, by Lisa Delpit

As I read the paragraph above it hit me seldom do we ask students what they think? It is usually an administrator and only one administrator who will see a teacher in the classroom for twenty minutes and leaves checking off the required boxes in the State mandated checklist. I have been following posts from students who shared my friends obituary notice and reading each post can see how students would have graded her. We teachers seldom get to hear from former students and how we influenced and or impacted their lives. Sometimes it takes finality to bring us to voice our thoughts. My friend and I often shared and we both enjoyed what we were doing even though we came at teaching from differing philosophies. It has been years since my oldest son left a quote for me on my computer. A line from an Aerosmith song.

“Life is about the journey not the destination.” Steven Tyler

On more than one occasion my friend and I discussed this idea. We both struggled with how do we engage and inspire students to choose to learn and achieve. Each day as my summer progresses I find myself seeking this question of how do we engage and most of all how do we inspire students to desire to learn? As would happen I have been thinking a lot lately of storytelling and my friend was an avid story teller relating pieces of her own life and offering out to make a point in her classes. Stories are what students remember and hold on to and it is those pieces I will remember as I go forward from today. Forty years of stories I cherish and hold in my heart. So tomorrow we remember my dear friend officially but for today Helen I will miss you dearly. I have wandered around today but as I do each day please keep all in harm’s way on your mind and in your hearts and to always give thanks namaste.

My family and friends I do not say this lightly,

Mitakuye Oyasin

(We are all related)


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